George Gordon, later to become the sixth Lord Byron, was born January 22, 1788, in London, England, the son of Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron and Catherine Gordon of Gight, Scotland. Catherine was heiress to a small fortune, which her husband soon squandered. After the couple fled from creditors to France, Catherine left her philandering husband and moved to London. George Gordon was born with a clubbed right foot, an ailment that caused him much humiliation throughout his life but for which he attempted to compensate through athletic endeavors. The Byrons soon moved to Aberdeen, where Catherine could better afford to live on her modest allowance. Captain Byron died in France in 1791 at the age of thirty-six. His son would die at the same age.
After years of attending grammar schools in Aberdeen, George Gordon became the sixth Lord Byron upon the death of his granduncle in 1798. He moved to Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, the Byron family seat, and the Byrons’ lifestyle changed considerably. From 1801 to 1805, young Byron attended Harrow School, spending his vacations with his mother, who was alternately abusive and tender. In 1804, he began a correspondence with his half sister, Augusta Leigh, from whom he had been living separately since his infancy, thus forming a close and complicated relationship that outlasted many others and that became the source of considerable scandal, in part accounting for the failure of his marriage and in part prompting Byron’s self-exile to Europe. Entering Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1805, Byron formed other lasting alliances, most notably those of his dear friends John Cam Hobhouse and John Edleston. It was during this time that Byron began to form his ideals of the sanctity of political and personal liberty. In 1807, he published a volume of poems, Hours of Idleness, which was attacked in the Edinburgh Review An undistinguished student, Byron left Cambridge in 1808 with a master’s degree.
In 1809, Byron took his seat in the House of Lords, often supporting liberal, unpopular causes. In this year, he also discovered and exploited his unrivaled knack for satire, publishing English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, in which he lashed out at the Edinburgh Review and criticized contemporaries Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, and others of the “Lake School” of poetry. Later in 1809, Byron left with his friend Hobhouse on a tour, not the customary Grand Tour of Western Europe, but a tour of Portugal, Spain, Albania, and Greece. This trip inspired him to begin Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818; 1819), and he finished the first canto in Athens. In 1810, Byron finished the second canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, traveling further in Turkey and Greece. Inspired by the Ovidian story of Hero and Leander, he swam the Hellespont on May 3, 1810, an accomplishment of which he boasted in a poem “Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos.” He returned to England in 1811, shortly before his mother’s death. Despite her unstable and often cruel treatment of him, the son mourned her loss, which was closely followed by the loss of two school friends.
In 1812, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was published. “I awoke one morning and found myself famous,” Byron wrote. Byron’s fame, his extraordinary personal beauty, and the intriguing, dangerous image created by the public’s insistence upon confusing the character of Harold with Byron himself attracted the attention of many women, and he engaged in numerous indiscreet affairs, notably with Lady Caroline Lamb, whose obsession with him would provoke him to escape into an ill-suited marriage with Annabella Milbanke in 1815. Meanwhile, in 1813, Byron also began an affair...
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with Augusta Leigh, his half sister; he also published the first of his Oriental tales,The Giaour and The Bride of Abydos, and in the following year he published The Corsair and Lara. Annabella, who was intellectual but priggish, was frightened and appalled by Byron’s cruelty, his sexual and behavioral eccentricities, and his excessive attention to Augusta. Seriously doubting his sanity, Lady Byron left her husband after only a year of marriage, taking their only daughter, Augusta Ada. In April of 1816, Byron again left England, this time never to return.
Byron spent the summer of 1816 in Switzerland with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic poet, Mary Godwin (later known as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, 1818), and her stepsister, Jane “Claire” Clairmont, with whom Byron had had a brief affair in England. He traveled some more through Italy and Switzerland with Hobhouse and published canto 3 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and The Prisoner of Chillon, and Other Poems (1816). The trip through the Alps inspired him to begin his verse play Manfred (pb. 1817, pr. 1834), the darkest treatment of his “Byronic hero.” In 1817, Claire Clairmont and Byron had a daughter, Allegra. Byron spent most of 1817 traveling and living in Venice and other parts of Italy, completing Manfred and working on the fourth and final cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. It was also during this time that Byron luckily discovered the Italian poetic form of ottava rima, with which he experimented in writing Beppo: A Venetian Story (1818), a comic tale set in Venice.
In 1818, Byron began Don Juan (1819-1824; 1826). In 1819, he began his last major love affair, with Teresa, Countess of Guiccioli. The first two cantos of Don Juan were published in July, 1819. Public reception was one of outrage and cries of indecency and slander. In 1820, Byron lived in the Guiccioli palace in Ravenna, Italy, and wrote Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice (pr., pb. 1821), the first of his political dramas based on the five-part classical models. After the pope permitted Teresa’s legal separation from her husband, Byron became more closely involved with her family’s political activities, most significantly with the radical society known as the Carbonari, who conspired to revolt against Austrian dominance in Italy. This struggle was unsuccessful, and in 1821 the family was exiled to Pisa. Byron then turned his attention to the Greek cause of independence from Turkey.
In 1821, Byron also published Cain: A Mystery (pb. 1821) and cantos 3 through 5 of Don Juan, which, amid continued public disapproval, enjoyed tremendous sales. Joining Teresa and her family in Pisa, Byron was the source of extensive scandal back in England, and his friends, though admiring his genius, became increasingly concerned and admonishing about the license of his work. Disgusted with his publisher’s reluctance to publish Cain, Byron changed publishers, allowing John Hunt to include The Vision of Judgment (1822) in the first issue of the literary journal The Liberal. In 1822, Byron mourned the death of both his daughter, Allegra, and his close friend Percy Bysshe Shelley. In 1823, Byron left for Greece with Teresa’s brother, Pietro Gamba. He soon became severely ill, but left for Missolonghi, Greece, convinced of its strategic importance in the revolution. John Hunt published Don Juan, cantos 6 through 16. On his thirty-sixth birthday, Byron wrote “On This Day I Complete My Thirty-sixth Year.” In Missolonghi, on April 19, 1824, Byron died, to this day a national hero in Greece. Denied burial with fellow great poets in Westminster Abbey because of his profligate lifestyle, Byron’s body is buried in the family vault at Hucknall Torkard Church in Nottinghamshire, near Newstead.