George Gordon (Noel) Byron, Lord Byron 1788–1824
English poet, dramatist, and satirist.
Both celebrated and vilified during his lifetime, Byron was one of the most flamboyant of the English Romantic poets. He is now perhaps best known as the creator of the figure of the "Byronic hero," a melancholy man, often with a dark past, who rejects social and religious strictures to search for truth and happiness in an apparently meaningless universe.
Byron was born in London to John "Mad Jack" Byron and Catherine Gordon, a descendent of a Scottish noble family. He was born with a clubbed foot, with which he suffered throughout his life. Byron's father had married his wife for her money, which he soon squandered and fled to France where he died in 1791. When Byron was a year old, he and his mother moved to Aberdeen, Scotland, and Byron spent his childhood there. Upon the death of his great-uncle in 1798, Byron became the sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale and inherited the ancestral home, Newstead Abbey in Nottingham. He attended Harrow School from 1801 to 1805 and then Trinity College at Cambridge University until 1808, when he received a master's degree. Byron's first publication was a collection of poems, Fugitive Pieces, which he himself paid to have printed in 1807, and which he revised and expanded twice within a year. When he turned twenty-one in 1809, Byron was entitled to a seat in the House of Lords, and he attended several sessions of Parliament that year. In July, however, he left England on a journey through Greece and Turkey. He recorded his experiences in poetic form in several works, most importantly in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. He returned to England in 1811 and once again took his seat in Parliament. The publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold in 1812 met with great acclaim, and Byron was hailed in literary circles. Around this time he engaged in a tempestuous affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, who characterized Byron as "mad—bad—and dangerous to know." Throughout his life Byron conducted numerous affairs and fathered several illegitimate children. One of his most notorious liaisons was with his half-sister Augusta. Byron married Annabella Millbank in 1815, with whom he had a daughter, Augusta Ada. He was periodically abusive toward Annabella, and she left him in 1816. He never saw his wife and daughter again. Following his separation, which had caused something of a scandal, Byron left England for Europe. In Geneva, Switzerland, he met Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Godwin Shelley,
with whom he became close friends. The three stayed in a villa rented by Byron. During this time Mary Shelley wrote her famous novel Frankenstein, and Byron worked on Canto III of Childe Harold, which was published in 1816. In 1817 Byron moved on to Italy, where he worked on Canto IV, which was published the next year. For several years Byron lived in a variety of Italian cities, engaging in a series of affairs and composing large portions of his masterpiece Don Juan as well as other poems. In 1823 he left Italy for Greece to join a group of insurgents fighting for independence from the Turks. On April 9, 1824, after being soaked in the rain, Byron contracted a fever from which he died ten days later.
Byron is difficult to place within the Romantic movement. He spurned poetic theory and ridiculed the critical work of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Although he was a friend of Shelley, Byron was not, as his friend was, part of the mystic tradition of Romanticism. Byron's first successful work, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, is a satire in the neoclassical tradition of Alexander Pope. His Eastern verse tales—including The Bride of Abydos. A Turkish Tale and The Giaour, A Fragment of a Turkish Tale—and, especially, such poems as Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Manfred are more typically Romantic, with their portraits of outlaws and brooding heroes. Beppo, A Venetian Story dispenses with the Byronic hero and turns again to satire, as does Don Juan, a mock epic which casts a critical eye on society, presenting its title character not as the notorious womanizer of legend but as a naive victim. This complex, digressive satire, influenced by Italian burlesque poetry, was condemned on its publication as obscene and has been described by some as careless and meandering; however, most critics now regard Don Juan as Byron's masterpiece, citing its skillful rendering of a variety of narrative perspectives and its treatment of an array of topics, including politics, society, and metaphysics.
Byron's poetry was extremely popular during his lifetime, although some reviewers regarded both his personal life and his writing as immoral. He was nearly forgotten by critics in the second half of the nineteenth century, and during the first half of the twentieth century, he was often ranked as a minor Romantic poet. Since then, however, his poetry has met with increasing critical interest—in particular for its employment of satire and verbal digression, for its presentation of the individual versus society, and for its treatment of guilt and innocence. Finally, Byron's place within the Romantic movement and his debt to the eighteenth-century neoclassical writers before him are a source of ongoing interpretation and reassessment.