BORN: 1788, London, England
DIED: 1824, Missolonghi, Greece
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Canto the Third (1812–1818)
Don Juan (1819–1824)
The English poet George Gordon Noel Byron, 6th Baron Byron (1788–1824), was one of the most important figures of the Romantic movement. Because of his impressive literary works, active and controversial personal life, and renowned physical beauty he came to be considered the personification of the Romantic poethero.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
George Gordon Noel Byron was born, with a clubbed right foot, in London on January 22, 1788, the son of Catherine Gordon of Gight, an impoverished Scots heiress, and Captain John (“Mad Jack”) Byron, a fortunehunting widower with a daughter named Augusta. The wasteful captain squandered his wife's inheritance, was absent for the birth of his only son, and eventually left for France as an exile from English creditors.
An Unstable Upbringing for a Nobleman In the summer of 1789 Byron moved with his mother to Aberdeen. Emotionally unstable, Catherine Byron raised her son in an atmosphere variously colored by her excessive tenderness, fierce temper, insensitivity, and pride. She was as likely to mock his lameness as to consult doctors about its correction. From his Presbyterian nurse Byron developed a lifelong love for the Bible and an abiding fascination with the ideas of inborn evil and predestined salvation. Early schooling instilled a devotion to reading and especially a passion for history that informed much of his later writing.
On the death of his granduncle in 1798, Byron inherited his title and estate. He enjoyed the role of nobleman, proud of his coat of arms. Byron then spent four years at Harrow, one of Britain's finest independent schools, where he excelled in oratory, wrote verse, and played cricket.
Byron then attended Trinity College, Cambridge, intermittently from October 1805 until July 1808, when he received an M.A. degree.
Instant Success Born of Mediterranean Travels In 1807 Byron's early works were collected under the title Hours of Idleness; it was harshly criticized by the Edinburgh Review. The irate author counterattacked in his next book, English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers (1809). In this volume, Byron showed the first signs of his satiric wit and aristocratic education.
In 1809 a two-year trip to the Mediterranean countries provided material for the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Their publication in 1812 earned Byron instant glory, as they combined the more popular features of the late-eighteenth-century romanticism: colorful descriptions of exotic nature, disillusioned meditations on the vanity of earthly things, a lyrical exaltation of freedom, and above all, the new hero, handsome and lonely, somberly mysterious, yet strongly impassioned despite his weariness with life.
Scandalous Social Life While his fame was spreading, Byron was busy shocking London high society. After his affairs with Lady Caroline Lamb and Lady Oxford, his incestuous and adulterous love for his half sister Augusta not only made him a scandal, but also reinforced the sense of guilt and doom to which he had always been prone. From then on, the theme of incest was to figure prominently in his writings, starting with the epic tales that he published between 1812 and 1816: The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, Lara, The Siege of Corinth, and Parisina. Byron's marriage to Anna Isabella Milbanke in 1815 soon proved a complete failure, and she left him after a year. On April 25, 1816, Byron left his native country, never to return.
An Extravagant Expatriate with an Interest in Politics In Switzerland, Byron spent several months in the company of the Romantic poet Percy Shelley, resuming an old affair with Shelley's sister-in-law, Clare Clairmont. Under Shelley's influence he read works by poet William Wordsworth.
In October 1816 Byron left for Italy and settled in Venice, where he spent many days and nights living extravagantly. His compositions of 1817, however, show signs of a new outlook. Instead of Byron's previous pessimism and world-weariness, the fourth canto of Childe Harold includes sizable sections devoted to the theme of political freedom and national independence—a cause to which he later devoted himself personally. Byron, it seems, was swept up in the revolutionary fervor that typified the decades that followed the American and French revolutions in the late eighteenth century. In addition, the witty, good-humored satire of Beppo was a turn toward a more satirical and comic mode and was a preparation for Byron's masterpiece, Don Juan, begun in September 1818.
Hero in the Greek War of Independence After serving as an organizer in the Carbornari, and Italian revolutionary group that opposed Austria, Byron became an active participant in the Greek War of Independence (1821–1829) against the Ottoman Empire. He used part of his considerable personal fortune to refit the Greek fleet and helped organize an attack on the Ottomans at Lepanto. In April 1824, before the attack could take
place, Byron fell seriously ill. He died on April 19, 1824, during a violent electrical storm.
In memorial services throughout the country, he was proclaimed a national hero of Greece. His death proved effective in uniting Greece against the enemy and in eliciting support for its struggle from all parts of the civilized world. In October 1827 British, French, and Russian forces destroyed the Turkish and Egyptian fleets at Navarino, assuring Greek independence.
Byron's body arrived in England in June 1824, and for two days lay in state in a house in Great George Street, London. On Friday, July 16, 1824, Lord Byron was buried in the family vault beneath the chancel of Hucknall Torkard Church near Newstead Abbey.
Works in Literary Context
Although Byron is commonly accepted as part of the British Romantic movement in literature (which encompasses the years 1798 through 1826 and includes such authors as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, Percy Shelley, and John Keats), he departed from that tradition in a few significant ways.
Satire After his first attempts at poetry were criticized by the Edinburgh Review, Byron struck back in his English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers, a longer satirical poem taking jabs at both some of the better-known English poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge as well as the critics. The volume was well received and displayed Byron's gifts for comedic satire that would eventually find fuller expression in Beppo and Don Juan.
Neoclassical Virtues Neoclassicism is the return to literary forms and styles used in previous times; for Byron, it meant the use of traditional styles and structures used by earlier English authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer. While many of the Romantic poets turned from the neoclassical structures and abstract themes of the Augustan movement of Jonathan Swift, John Dryden, and Alexander Pope, Byron advocated the virtues of neoclassicism early in his career and never completely abandoned his admiration of Pope or his use of the heroic couplet—pairs of rhyming lines with stress on the final syllable of each line.
Works in Critical Context
Although his first book of poems was panned by some reviewers, Byron found widespread popularity with the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Since then, he has been considered one of the finest satirical and poetic voices of the nineteenth century.
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage Taken together, the four cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage helped establish Harold as the archetype of the “Byronic Hero,” a world-weary but intelligent and attractive hero traveling the world. Sir Walter Scott declared in 1816 that Byron had created a new and significant Romantic character type, and others praised the poem for its seriousness and passion
Don Juan After writing the lighter parody of Beppo, Byron turned toward the mock heroic quest of Don Juan. However, Byron's treatment of this Romantic hero and libertine legend did not garner the same type of admiration, and both the poem and the poet were vilified in the reviews. Critics called the poem “filthy and impious,” and the poet “a cool, unconcerned fiend.” Fortunately, the criticism has abated and now scholars view the sixteen cantos of Don Juan to be an excellent example of the lengthy narrative poem, some claiming that Byron's narrative skill in poetry is only matched by Chaucer's.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Byron's famous contemporaries include:
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822): British Romantic poet and friend of Byron.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797–1851): Author of Frankenstein (1818) and wife of Percy Shelley.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832): German poet, playwright, and philosopher.
Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington (1769–1852): British hero of the Napoleonic Wars.
William Wordsworth (1770–1850): British Romantic poet and Poet Laureate of England from 1843 to 1850.
Responses to Literature
- Byron's childhood was defined by his access to privilege: a good education, a title, money to live and travel. In what ways is this upper-class upbringing apparent in his poetry? Look for specific references to nobility and privilege.
- Much of Byron's most successful work is satire and parody. Research the conventions and forms of eighteenth-century satire. Do you think these works were effective at prompting change in the societies in which they were written? Why or why not? What are some particularly successful forms of satire and parody today?
- Critics and scholars have made much of Byron's relationship with his older half sister Augusta and the pervasive themes of incest and adultery in Byron's poetry. Find examples of these themes in his poetry. Do you think critics of Byron reacted appropriately to these elements of his work? Why or why not?
- What are the characteristics of the “Byronic Hero,” and are there any heroes in modern literature that display those characteristics?
- Similar to many poets, Byron spent much of his adult life away from his native England. Do you think traveling and experiencing foreign cultures is a necessary part of a poet's career? Can you think of examples of successful poets who did not travel from their native region or country?
- Compare Byron's treatment of the Don Juan legend with any of the previous incarnations. In what ways is Byron's hero more sympathetic or less offensive than earlier versions?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Many of Byron's works were inspired by or describe travels. Here are some other works inspired by journeys:
The Odyssey (eighth or ninth century bce), an epic by Homer. This epic poem exerted a marked influence on all of Western literature. It tells the tale of the Greek hero Odysseus as he tries to return home to Ithaca after fighting in the Trojan War.
The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955), a trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. These three novels follow the effort by Frodo Baggins, a mythical humanlike being called a hobbit, to destroy a magical ring and, with it, an evil lord.
On the Road (1957), a novel by Jack Kerouac. Kerouac's famous novel about his road trips across the country (and to Mexico) helped inspire a generation of travelers, poets, and hipsters.
Beaty, Frederick L. Byron the Satririst. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1985.
Boyd, Elizabeth F. Byron's Don Juan: A Critical Study. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1945.
Chew, Samuel. Byron in England: His Fame and After-Fame. London: John Murray, 1924.
Galt, John. The Life of Lord Byron. London: Colburn & Bentley, 1830.
Marchand, Leslie A. Byron: A Biography. 3 volumes. New York: Knopf, 1957.
Thorslev, Peter L., Jr. The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962.
West, Paul. Byron and the Spoiler's Art. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1960.
Bostetter, Edward E. “Byron and the Politics of Paradise.” PMLA (December 1960): vol. 75.
Clubbe, John, “Byron as Autobiographer.” South Atlantic Quarterly (Summer 1983): vol. 82.
Johnson, E.D.H., “Don Juan in England.” ELH (June 1944): vol. 11.
Perloff, Marjorie, “Seamus Heaney: Peat, Politics and Poetry.” Washington Post Book World (January 1981).
Hoeper, Jeffrey, ed. George Gordon, Lord Byron. Accessed February 26, 2008 from http://engphil.astate.edu/gallery/byron.html. Last updated December 7, 2003.
Mott, Anne Risdale, ed. Byronmania. Accessed February 26, 2008, from http://www.byronmania.com/index.html. Last updated July 1998.