(1788 - 1824)
George Gordon Byron was born with a lame foot, and his sensitivity to it haunted his life and his works. Overhearing a girl he was infatuated with refer to him as "that lame boy" certainly must have deepened his disappointment at being born with this deformity. A fragile self-esteem made Byron extremely sensitive to criticism, of himself or of his poetry, and he tended to make enemies rather quickly. His poetry, along with his lifestyle, was considered controversial in his time and often deemed "perverted" or even "satanic,". The fact that he was often discontent and unhappy, combined with a constant desire for change meant that he created an unstable world for himself, though he never gave up his individual freedom to choose his own path and his own destiny.
He inherited the title of Lord Byron at the age of ten, giving him a rank in society, and a bit of wealth to go along with it. But by the time he was in college, Byron began to build up large debts due to an extravagant lifestyle. It is said that, at one point, he kept a pet bear in his rooms at Trinity College in Cambridge. Also while at Cambridge, he developed a great fondness for a choirboy named John Edleston.
Throughout his life, Byron fought a battle with obesity. He seemed obsessed with food, as well as being a picky eater. His letters to others, as well as his journals, indicate that he practiced starvation, often eating only one meal a day. Occasionally he would slide to the other extreme, drinking large amounts of soda-water or consuming great quantities of magnesia and Epsom salts in an effort to keep his weight down.
“ Wild, audacious, rebellious, ... half mad by nature; a creature made to tempt and to be tempted, to seduce and to fall, about whom there was but one certainty, that he was irreclaimable. ” ~ John Murray on Byron ~
After college, he resided at various places, including the family home at Newstead Abbey. It was here that the alleged "wild parties" took place at which Byron would supposedly make toasts with and drink from a skull cup. Legend has it that the skull, which Byron had discovered at Newstead, was that of a monk. He polished it up and added silver plates. The cup was "secretly buried" by a later owner of the property.
In 1811 Byron embarked on a Grand Tour through the Mediterranean, and the experience was to influence him greatly. One attitude that he adopted from his travels was that he disliked sharing a meal with or watching a woman eat. After his return to England, his mother (with whom he had always had a tempestuous relationship) and several close friends died, throwing him into a state of deep grief.
Although he had published several books of poetry before, nothing produced quite the overnight success as the epic poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812), which allegedly caused Byron to remark later that "I awoke and found myself famous." The long poems that followed Childe Harold sold well and enhanced his reputation for being daring and dashing. But fame, as always, carried with it rewards as well as a price.
The young bachelor had romances and liaisons with several women, many of them married. One of the women aptly remarked that Byron was "mad, bad and dangerous to know." It is rumored that in 1813 he had an incestuous affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. This idea is furthered by themes of incest and forbidden love that appear in several of Byron's poems. In the dramatic poem Manfred, he writes of the hero's love for a woman who is "like me in lineaments; her eyes / Her hair, her features, all, to the very tone / Even of her voice . . . were like to mine."
Byron married Annabella Milbanke in early 1815, and they had a daughter named Ada. But within a year the marriage had dissolved and they were separated. Byron felt hounded by the press, who covered every gossip about his personal and financial affairs. In 1816 he left England in a voluntary exile, never to return. His bitter outlook on life at this time is reflected in the poem Darkness, which he wrote in that same year.
“ His madness was not of the head, but heart. ” ~ Byron in 'Lara' ~
In Geneva he met and began a lifelong relationship with the poet Shelley. Each had an admiration of and great respect for the other. Also with the Shelleys was Mary Godwin's stepsister Claire Clairmont, who was infatuated with Byron. In England she had written him letters, and had met with him. In Geneva she became pregnant by Byron, and had the baby, Allegra, in 1817.
Byron, meanwhile, had moved to Venice, reveling in its excesses. Friends have described his life at this time as somewhat licentious and depraved; nonetheless, the flow of his poetical genius only increased. Shelley, who had informed Byron of his daughter's birth by letter, persuaded him to assume the care of Allegra's education and upbringing. A nurse brought the child to Byron in 1818, because he refused to have anything to do with Clare, and he sent her to a convent school.
Byron fell in love with the young Countess Teresa Guiccioli in Italy. He became involved in the Italian nationalism movement through her father and brother. Eventually Teresa's husband, who had allowed her affairs with Byron, applied for a separation. Shelley visited the couple in 1821 and commented on Byron's unusual lifestyle in a letter to a friend:
Lord Byron gets up at two. I get up, quite contrary to my usual custom . . . at 12. After breakfast we sit talking till six. From six to eight we gallop through the pine forest which divide Ravenna from the sea; we then come home and dine, and sit up gossiping till six in the morning. I don't suppose this will kill me in a week or fortnight, but I shall not try it longer. Lord B.'s establishment consists, besides servants, of ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon; and all these, except the horses, walk about the house, which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were the masters of it. . . . [P.S.] I find that my enumeration of the animals in this Circean Palace was defective . . . . I have just met on the grand staircase five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian crane. I wonder who all these animals were before they were changed into these shapes.
“ The boy was sprung to manhood: in the wilds
Of fiery climes he made himself a home,
And his Soul drank their sunbeams; he was girt
With strange and dusky aspects; he was not
Himself like what he had been; on the sea
And on the shore he was a wanderer. ” ~ Byron in 'The Dream' ~
Shelley died in 1822, shortly after another visit to Byron. In 1823, Byron's daughter Allegra died of a fever in the convent school at the age of five. Facing the death of loved ones, and almost foreshadowing his own death, Byron wrote the following lines in On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year (Jan 22, 1824):
'Tis time this heart should be unmoved,
Since others hath it ceased to move:
Yet, though I cannot be beloved,
Still let me love!
My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of love are gone;
The worm, the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone!
He soon sailed for Greece to take part in the rebellion against the Turks. In February of 1824, he suffered a small stroke, probably brought on by a combination of drinking and stress. On April 9 he was caught in the rain while out riding and became ill. George Noel Gordon, Lord Byron, died of fever on April 19, 1824 at the age of thirty-six. While he was revered as a hero to the Greeks, his reputation was still tarnished in England, even eight years after he had left. Both St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey refused him funeral services. He was eventually buried in the family tomb at Hucknall Torkard.
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