George Gordon, Lord Byron

Portrait of Lord Byron, lithograph by Josef Eduard Teltscher c. 1825
Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

George Gordon, Lord Byron was the descendant of English naval officers and barons on his father’s side, Scottish lords and kings on his mother’s, and he was himself both a nobleman and a revolutionary. He lived a flamboyant and scandalous life—so much so that he was famously dubbed “mad, bad and dangerous to know” by Lady Caroline Lamb—and his celebrity far outshone his poetry during his lifetime, but many of his works have stood the test of time and are still read and remembered now, two centuries later.

Byron’s Early Life:

George Gordon Byron was the son of Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron and his second wife, Aberdeenshire heiress Lady Catherine Gordon of Gight, whom he married for her fortune after the death of his first wife. The Gordon estate was soon squandered on the Captain’s debts, and the couple moved to France in 1786 to get away from his creditors, but Catherine returned to London at the end of 1787 so that her son could be born in England, which he was, on January 22, 1788. The next year, mother and son moved back to Aberdeenshire, where Byron spent his childhood, under the varying influences of his mother’s mood swings—she was alternately indulgent and scornful, prideful and melancholy, often drunk and often under pressure from the husband who kept coming back, asking to borrow money from her, until he died in France in 1791. George was born with a club foot, which was a lifelong source of suffering, both physical—as when he was subjected to painful quack treatments to correct his persistent limp—and psychological—as when his mother dismissed him as “that lame brat,” and he later self-consciously nicknamed himself le diable boiteux, French for “the limping devil” (referring to the 1707 novel by Alain-René Lesage).

When he was 10, George became Lord Byron after his great-uncle, known as the “wicked” fifth Baron Byron, died and passed to him the title and its run-down family seat, Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. He went to grammar school in Aberdeen, then attended schools in Dulwich and Harrow (both on the outskirts of London), and studied at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Despite, or perhaps in compensation for his deformity, Byron was an athlete—he boxed, rode horses, played cricket (though evidently not well) and was a good swimmer, famously the first to complete the dangerous open-water swim across the Hellespont or Dardanelles between Europe and Asia. (He considered the achievement in his 1810 poem “Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos.”)

Passions and Poems:

Byron was famed for his physical beauty, although contemporary historian Lucy Worsley has pointed out in the BBC series on Regency Britain that his dark and handsome mystery was a carefully cultivated image. His “first dash into poetry” (a quote from his own diary) was inspired in 1800 by his 12-year-old infatuation with a cousin, Margaret Parker, who died several years later and for whom he wrote “On the Death of a Young Lady.” In 1803, he became so passionately enamored of another cousin, Mary Chaworth, that he left school for a term to be near her, ignoring the fact that she was already engaged to another. Byron was bisexual; after he returned to school at Harrow and during his years at Cambridge, he formed passionate friendships, some of them sexual liaisons, with several young men.

His first volume of poems, Fugitive Pieces, was privately printed in 1806 when he was 18, but after the Reverend John Thomas Becher, to whom he had given the first copy, objected to the erotic heat of several of its poems, most particularly “To Mary,” Byron suppressed the publication and burned almost all the books—only four copies are known to have survived today. He published an expurgated version of the collection as Poems on Various Occasions in January 1807, and a further expanded collection as Hours of Idleness in June of the same year.

Satire and Travel:

Byron’s move into poetic satire was prompted by a scathing review of Hours of Idleness, written by Henry Peter Brougham and published anonymously in the January 1808 issue of Edinburgh Review. Stung by the review’s scornful tone and personal insults, he wrote English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, which skewered many prominent British poets, playwrights and most importantly critics, in the manner of Alexander Pope, his much admired predecessor in satirical verse.

Shortly after this work appeared (it was also published anonymously, but evidently everyone knew it had come from the pen of Lord Byron), he left England to go on the Grand European Tour. This was during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, however—Byron’s journey might better be called the Grand Mediterranean Tour. He sailed to Lisbon, traveled overland across Spain to Gibraltar, then spent time in Malta, Greece and Turkey, before sailing home to England in July 1811, carrying the completed manuscript of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II. This long poem is essentially a poetic journal of Byron’s travels in the form of a medieval romance, narrative but also digressive. Publication of the first two cantos in 1812 made him famous overnight.

The Byronic Hero:

The archetype of the Byronic hero is drawn both from Byron’s life and from his work. He is a dark Romantic figure, exquisitely sensitive and moody, but also arrogant and even swashbuckling, charismatic and sexy, but also cynical and jaded, socially sophisticated, but also deeply troubled by some secret or sin in his past and disdainful of social norms, an outcast or outlaw who is at the magnetic center of whatever story he is in. The Byronic hero’s first appearance as a literary character was as the narrator in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a debauched and sorely disillusioned young man who travels abroad in search of meaning, an antidote to or perhaps just a distraction from his world-weariness and melancholy. As literary audiences still do today, Byron’s readers conflated the poet’s life and the poem’s story, identified George Gordon as his own Byronic hero, and made him the focus of a cult of celebrity. Byron continued to explore this character in his later works, such as The Corsair (1814) and Manfred (1817), and the archetype’s influence extends through the 19th and 20th centuries in characters like Eugene Onegin (Alexander Pushkin, 1833), Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë, 1847), Rochester in Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë, 1847), and even Bruce Wayne in modern-day Batman comics and movies.

Scandals and Affairs:

In the months after he returned from his European travels in 1811, Byron suffered two great losses—his mother died in August and in October he received a letter reporting the death of his schoolboy friend and lover from Cambridge, John Edleston, for whom he wrote elegiac poems like “To Thyrza” and “And Thou Art Dead, As Young and Fair.” But after his first speech as a member of the House of Lords and the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold in early 1912, he rode the wave of his new-found fame into scandalous adventures in London society. He carried on a number of love affairs with noble English ladies, most notoriously with the married Lady Caroline Lamb, who stalked him after he threw her over and wrote a Gothic novel, Glenarvon, whose main character was both an extremely unflattering portrayal of Byron and the first literary appearance of a Byronic hero outside of his works. More scandalous yet was his rumored liaison with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh (the daughter of Captain Jack Byron and his first wife), for whom he wrote “Epistle to Augusta.” They did not grow up together, but met when Byron was at school and became close friends, carrying on a long correspondence and an affair which many historians believe resulted in the April 1814 birth of Byron’s daughter, Elizabeth Medora Leigh (although Augusta’s husband never challenged her paternity and she was raised in the Leigh household). The next year, Byron married Lady Caroline’s cousin, Anne Isabella Milbanke, by whom he fathered another daughter, Augusta Ada Byron, born in December 1815—many months after both parents had realized their marriage was a bad mistake.

European Exile:

After the break-up of his marriage and under the social cloud of scandal, Lord Byron left England for what turned out to be the last time in April 1816. Housebound by daily rains in a villa on Lake Geneva, he and his friends Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Godwin (later Shelley) spent the summer writing supernatural tales—that summer saw the beginnings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and was the subject of Ken Russell’s 1986 film Gothic. Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, with whom he had had a fling in London, was also at the villa that summer, and in January 1817 she gave birth to Byron’s third daughter, Allegra. Byron spent the next few years in Venice, Rome, Ravenna and Pisa, carrying on affairs with several Italian women, spending his money nearly as profligately as his father had done, sending Allegra to be raised in a convent (where she died of a fever before she was 5 years old)—generally living the life of a melancholy ne’er-do-well, the model of a Byronic hero. But he was also poetically productive in these years: he published the 3rd canto of Childe Harold and “The Prisoner of Chillon” in 1816, Manfred in 1817, Beppo and more of Childe Harold in 1818, and the first two cantos of his masterpiece Don Juan in 1819.

Death and Reverence in Greece:

Years after his first visit to Greece, Byron remarked to his friend Edward John Trelawny, “If I am a poet... the air of Greece has made me one.” But it was not poetry that took him back to Greece in the end. World-weary and a little bored, he was asked in 1823 to support the Greek movement seeking independence from the Ottoman Empire, and he decided to make his support personal. He published Cantos VI - XVI of Don Juan and sailed for Greece at the end of the year to take part in the insurgency. He brought funds and medical supplies to the Greek navy in Cephalonia and went on to Missolonghi, where he intended to take command of a part of the Greek army that was planning to take their homeland back from the Turks. But he died of a fever, made much worse by bloodletting, on April 19, 1824, before the fighting started, at the age of only 36. Byron became a national hero to the Greeks, who made the date of his death a national “day of celebration” in 2008.