George Gordon Byron

George Gordon Byron books and biography


George Byron, 6th Baron Byron


Lord Byron, Anglo-Scottish poet
Lord Byron, Anglo-Scottish poet

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron (22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824) was an English poet and a leading figure in Romanticism. Among Lord Byron's best-known works are the narrative poems Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan. The latter remained incomplete on his death. He was regarded as one of the greatest European poets, and is still widely read.

Lord Byron's fame rests not only on his writings, but also on his life, which featured extravagant living, numerous love affairs, debts, separation, and allegations of incest and sodomy; he was famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know". Byron served as a regional leader of Italy's revolutionary organization the Carbonari in its struggle against Austria, and later travelled to fight against the Turks in the Greek War of Independence, for which the Greeks consider him a national hero. He died from fever in Missolonghi.

His daughter Ada Lovelace, notable in her own right, collaborated with Charles Babbage on the analytical engine, a predecessor to modern computers.



Byron had two last names (in addition to his title), but only one at any given time. He was born George Gordon Byron; at age ten, he inherited the family title, becoming George Gordon (Byron), Baron Byron. When his mother-in-law died, her will required that he change his surname to Noel in order to inherit half her estate. (It would have been more usual to hyphenate to Byron-Noel, as his grandsons changed from King to King-Noel, but his in-laws had come to hate the name of Byron.) He was thereafter George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron. He then signed himself "Noel Byron", boasting of having the same initials as Napoleon Bonaparte. Gordon was a baptismal name, not a surname (his mother had been a Gordon); Wentworth was Lady Byron's eventual title, not a surname (the Noels had inherited it from the Wentworths in 1745).

Early life

Catherine Gordon, Byron's mother
Catherine Gordon, Byron's mother

Byron was born in London, the son of Captain John "Mad Jack" Byron and his second wife, the former Catherine Gordon, heiress of Gight in Aberdeenshire. His paternal grandfather was Vice-Admiral John "Foulweather Jack" Byron, who had circumnavigated the globe, who was the younger brother of the 5th Baron Byron, known as "the Wicked Lord". He is one of the descendents of King Edward III of England. [2]

From Byron's birth he suffered from a malformation of the right foot (clubfoot), causing a slight lameness, which resulted in lifelong misery for him, aggravated by the suspicion that with proper care it might have been cured. He was christened George Gordon after his maternal grandfather, George Gordon of Gight, a descendant of King James I. This grandfather committed suicide in 1779. Byron's mother Catherine had to sell her land and title to pay her father's debts. John Byron may have married Catherine for her money and, after squandering it, deserted her. Byron's parents separated before his birth. Catherine moved back to Scotland shortly afterwards, where she raised her son in Aberdeen until 21 May 1798, when the death of his great-uncle made him the 6th Baron Byron, inheriting Newstead Abbey, rented to Lord Grey de Ruthyn during Byron's adolescence.

He received his formal education at Aberdeen Grammar School. In 1801 he was sent to Harrow, where he remained until 1805, when he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge. There he met and shortly fell deeply in love with a fifteen year old choirboy by the name of John Edleston. About his "protégé" he wrote, "He has been my almost constant associate since October, 1805, when I entered Trinity College. His voice first attracted my attention, his countenance fixed it, and his manners attached me to him for ever." Later, upon learning of his friend's death, he wrote, "I have heard of a death the other day that shocked me more than any, of one whom I loved more than any, of one whom I loved more than I ever loved a living thing, and one who, I believe, loved me to the last." In his memory Byron composed Thyrza, a series of elegies, in which he changed the pronouns from masculine to feminine so as not to offend sensibilities.

Travels to the East

From 1809 to 1811, Byron went on the Grand Tour then customary for a young nobleman. The Napoleonic Wars forced him to avoid most of Europe, and he instead turned to the Orient, which had fascinated him from a young age anyway. Correspondence among his circle of Cambridge friends also makes clear that a key motive was the hope of homosexual experience. He travelled from England over Spain to Albania and spent a lot of time there and in Athens. While in Athens he had a torrid love affair with Nicolò Giraud, a boy of fifteen or sixteen who taught him Italian. In gratitude for the boy's love Byron sent him to school at a monastery in Malta and bequeathed him seven thousand pounds sterling – almost double what he was later to spend refitting the Greek fleet. For most of the trip, he had a travelling companion in his friend John Cam Hobhouse. On this tour, the first two cantos of his epic poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage were written, though some of the more risqué passages, such as those touching on pederasty, were suppressed before publication.[1]

Beginning of poetic career

Some early verses which he had published in 1806 were suppressed. He followed those in 1807 with Hours of Idleness, which the Edinburgh Review, a Whig periodical, savagely attacked. In reply, Byron sent forth English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), which created considerable stir and shortly went through five editions. While some authors resented being satirized in its first edition, over time in subsequent editions it became a mark of prestige to be the target of Byron's pen.

After his return from his travels, the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage were published in 1812, and were received with acclamation. In his own words, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous." He followed up his success with the poem's last two cantos, as well as four equally celebrated Oriental Tales, The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, and Lara, which established the Byronic hero. About the same time began his intimacy with his future biographer, Thomas Moore.

Political career

Byron eventually took his seat at the House of Lords in 1811, shortly after his return from the Levant, and made his first speech there on 27 February 1812. A strong advocate of social reform, he received particular praise as one of the few Parliamentary defenders of the Luddites. He also spoke in defence of the rights of Roman Catholics. These experiences inspired Byron to write political poems such as "Song for the Luddites" (1816) and "The Landlords' Interest" (1823). Examples of poems where he attacked his political opponents include "Wellington: The Best of the Cut-Throats" (1819) and "The Intellectual Eunuch Castlereagh" (1818).

Affairs and scandals

Byron's house in Southwell, Nottinghamshire
Byron's house in Southwell, Nottinghamshire

Lord Byron cut a sexual swathe that still astonishes by its sheer brazenness and multiplicity - he once bragged that he had sex with 250 women in Venice over the course of a single year. He was all-inclusive - boys, siblings, women of all classes. Ultimately he was to live abroad to escape the censure of British society, where men could be forgiven for sexual misbehaviour only up to a point, one which Byron far surpassed.

In an early scandal, Byron embarked in 1812 on a well-publicised affair with Lady Caroline Lamb. Byron eventually broke off the relationship, and Lamb never entirely recovered.

As a child, Byron had seen little of his half-sister Augusta Leigh; in adulthood, he formed a close relationship with her that has widely been interpreted as incestuous. Augusta had been separated from her husband since 1811 when she gave birth on 15 April 1814 to a daughter, Elizabeth Medora Leigh. The extent of Byron's joy over the birth has been construed as evidence that he was Medora's father, a theory reinforced by the many passionate poems he wrote to Augusta.

Eventually Byron began to court Lady Caroline's cousin Anne Isabella Milbanke ("Annabella"), who refused his first proposal of marriage but later relented. They married at Seaham Hall, County Durham, on 2 January 1815. The marriage proved unhappy. He treated her poorly and showed disappointment at the birth of a daughter (Augusta Ada), rather than a son. On 16 January 1816, Lady Byron left him, taking Ada with her. On 21 April, Byron signed the Deed of Separation. Rumours of marital violence, adultery with actresses, incest with Augusta, and sodomy were circulated, assisted by a jealous Lady Caroline. In a letter, Augusta quoted him as saying: "Even to have such a thing said is utter destruction & ruin to a man from which he can never recover."

After this break-up of his domestic life, Byron again left England, as it turned out, forever. Byron passed through Belgium and up the Rhine; in the summer of 1816 Lord Byron and his personal physician, John William Polidori settled in Switzerland, at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva. There he became friends with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Shelley's wife-to-be Mary Godwin. He was also joined by Mary's step-sister, Claire Clairmont, with whom he had had an affair in London. Byron initially refused to have anything to do with Claire, and would only agree to remain in her presence with the Shelleys, who eventually persuaded Byron to accept and provide for Allegra, the child she bore him in January 1817.

At the Villa Diodati, kept indoors by the "incessant rain" of that "wet, ungenial summer", over three days in June the five turned to reading fantastical stories, including "Fantasmagoriana" (in the French edition), and then devising their own tales. Mary Shelley produced what would become Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus and Polidori was inspired by a fragmentary story of Byron's to produce The Vampyre, the progenitor of the romantic vampire genre. Byron's story fragment was published as a postscript to Mazeppa; he also wrote the third canto of Childe Harold. Byron wintered in Venice, but in 1817 he journeyed to Rome, whence returning to Venice he wrote the fourth canto of Childe Harold. About the same time he sold Newstead and published Manfred, Cain, and The Deformed Transformed. The first five cantos of Don Juan were written between 1818 and 1820, during which period he made the acquaintance of the Countess Guiccioli, who soon separated from her husband. It was about this time that he received a visit from Moore, to whom he confided his autobiography, which Moore, in the exercise of the discretion left to him, burned in 1824.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, painted by Thomas Phillips in 1813
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, painted by Thomas Phillips in 1813

Byron in Italy and Greece

In 1821-22 he finished cantos 6-12 of Don Juan at Pisa, and in the same year he joined with Leigh Hunt and Percy Bysshe Shelley in starting a short-lived newspaper, The Liberal, in the first number of which appeared The Vision of Judgment. His last Italian home was Genoa, where he was still accompanied by the Countess, and where he lived until 1823, when he offered himself as an ally to the Greek insurgents. By 1823 Byron had grown bored with his life in Genoa and with his mistress, the Contessa Guiccioli. When the representatives of the movement for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire contacted him to ask for his support, he accepted. On 16 July, Byron left Genoa on the Hercules, arriving at Kefalonia in the Ionian Islands on 4 August. He spent £4000 of his own money to refit the Greek fleet, then sailed for Messolonghi in western Greece, arriving on 29 December to join Alexandros Mavrokordatos, leader of the Greek rebel forces.

Mavrokordatos and Byron planned to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth. Byron employed a fire-master to prepare artillery and took part of the rebel army under his own command and pay, despite his lack of military experience, but before the expedition could sail, on 15 February 1824, he fell ill, and the usual remedy of bleeding weakened him further. He made a partial recovery, but in early April he caught a violent cold which the bleeding — insisted on by his doctors — aggravated. The cold became a violent fever, and he died on 19 April.

Post mortem

Lord Byron on his deathbed as depicted by Joseph-Denis Odevaere c.1826 Oil on canvas, 166 x 234,5 cm Groeninge Museum, Bruges. Note the sheet covering his misshapen right foot.
Lord Byron on his deathbed as depicted by Joseph-Denis Odevaere c.1826 Oil on canvas, 166 x 234,5 cm Groeninge Museum, Bruges. Note the sheet covering his misshapen right foot.

The Greeks mourned Lord Byron deeply, and he became a national hero. Βύρων (Viron), the Greek form of "Byron", continues in popularity as a masculine name in Greece, and a suburb of Athens is called Vironas in his honour. His body was embalmed and his heart buried under a tree in Messolonghi. His remains were sent to England for burial in Westminster Abbey, but the Abbey refused. He is buried at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham. At her request, Ada, the child he never knew, was buried next to him. In later years, the Abbey allowed a duplicate of a marble slab given by the King of Greece, which is laid directly above Byron's grave. In 1969, 145 years after Byron's death, a memorial to him was finally placed in Westminster Abbey.

Upon his death, the barony passed to a cousin, George Anson Byron (1789–1868), a career military officer and Byron's polar opposite in temperament and lifestyle.

Poetic works

Byron wrote prolifically.[3] In 1833 his publisher, John Murray, released the complete works in 17 octavo volumes, including a life by Thomas Moore. His magnum opus, Don Juan, a poem spanning 17 cantos, ranks as one of the most important long poems published in England since Milton's Paradise Lost. Don Juan, Byron's masterpiece, often called the epic of its time, has roots deep in literary tradition and, although regarded by early Victorians as somewhat shocking, equally involves itself with its own contemporary world at all levels – social, political, literary and ideological.

Lord Byron (1803), as painted by Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.
Lord Byron (1803), as painted by Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

The Byronic hero pervades much of Byron's work. Scholars have traced the literary history of the Byronic hero from Milton, and many authors and artists of the Romantic movement show Byron's influence -- during the 19th century and beyond. The Byronic hero presents an idealised but flawed character whose attributes include:

  • having great talent
  • exhibiting great passion
  • having a distaste for society and social institutions
  • expressing a lack of respect for rank and privilege
  • thwarted in love by social constraint or death
  • rebelling
  • suffering exile
  • hiding an unsavoury past
  • ultimately, acting in a self-destructive manner


Lord Byron, by all accounts, had a particularly magnetic personality – one may say astonishingly so. He obtained a reputation as being unconventional, eccentric, flamboyant and controversial. He was given to extremes of temper. Byron had a great fondness for animals, most famously for a Newfoundland dog named Boatswain; when Boatswain contracted rabies, Byron reportedly nursed him without any fear of becoming bitten and infected. Boatswain lies buried at Newstead Abbey and has a monument larger than his master's. The inscription, Byron's "Epitaph to a dog", has become one of his best-known works, reading in part:

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the Virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803,
and died at Newstead Nov.r 18th, 1808.[4]

Byron also kept a bear while he was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge (reputedly out of resentment of Trinity rules forbidding pet dogs - he later suggested that the bear apply for a college fellowship). At other times in his life, Byron kept a fox, monkeys, a parrot, cats, an eagle, a crow, a falcon, peacocks, guinea hens, an Egyptian crane, a badger, geese, and a heron.

Lasting influence

Lord Byron as portrayed by Jonny Lee Miller in a 2003 BBC drama
Lord Byron as portrayed by Jonny Lee Miller in a 2003 BBC drama

The re-founding of the Byron Society [5] in 1971 reflects the fascination that many people have for Byron and his work. This society has become very active, publishing a learned annual journal. Today some 36 International Byron Societies function throughout the world, and an International Conference takes place annually. Hardly a year passes without a new book about the poet appearing. In the last 20 years two new feature films about him have screened, and a television play has been broadcast.

Byron exercised a marked influence on Continental literature and art, and his reputation as poet is higher in many European countries than in England or America, although not as high as in his time. He has also appeared as a character in popular fiction, a testament to his influence. John Crowley's novel Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land (2005) involves the rediscovery of a lost manuscript by Lord Byron, as does Frederick Prokosch's The Missolonghi Manuscript (1968). Byron appears as a character in Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard (1989) and Walter Jon Williams' novella Wall, Stone Craft (1994), as also in Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004). The Black Drama by Manly Wade Wellman (Weird Tales, 1938; Fearful Rock and Other Precarious Locales, 2001) involves the rediscovery and production of a lost play by Byron (from which Polidori's The Vampyre was plagiarised) by a man who purports to be a descendant of the poet. In the 1995 novel Lord Of The Dead, Tom Holland romantically describes how Lord Byron became a vampire during his first visit to Greece - a fictional transformation that explains a lot of his subsequent behaviour towards family and friends, and finds support in quotes from Byron poems and the diaries of John Cam Hobhouse. The Byron as vampire character returns in the sequel Slave of My Thirst...

Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia revolves around a modern researcher's attempts to find out what made Byron leave the country.

Television portrayals include a major 2003 BBC drama on Byron's life, and minor appearances in Highlander: The Series, Blackadder Series III and The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy.

A complete picture of Byron's character has only been possible in recent years with the freeing up of the archive of Murray, Byron's original publishers, who had formerly withheld compromising letters and instructed at least one major biographer (Leslie Marchard) to censor details of his bisexuality. (The Guardian, November 9, 2002)

Symphonic metal band Bal-Sagoth's vocalist Byron Roberts goes by the moniker Lord Byron. Whether this has relation to Lord Byron himself is unknown, but given Bal-Sagoth's lyrical style, Roberts was probably aware of Lord Byron, and took his moniker from there.

The character of Brian Kinney, in Queer as Folk, is certainly of Byronic extraction.

Musical settings of poems by Byron

  • Germaine Tailleferre "Two Poems of Lord Byron"(1934) 1. Sometimes in moments... 2. 'Tis Done I heard it in my dreams... for Voice and Piano (Tailleferre's only setting of English language texts)
  • Arnold Schoenberg "Ode to Napoleon" (1942) for Voice and String Quartet


Wikisource has original works written by or about:
George Gordon, Lord Byron

Major works

  • Hours of Idleness (1806)
  • English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809) [6]
  • Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818) [7]
  • The Giaour (1813) [8]
  • The Bride of Abydos (1813)
  • The Corsair (1814) [9]
  • Lara (1814)
  • Hebrew Melodies (1815)
  • The Siege of Corinth (1816)
  • Parisina (1816)
  • The Prisoner Of Chillon (1816) (text on Wikisource)
  • The Dream (1816)
  • Prometheus (1816)
  • Darkness (1816)
  • Manfred (1816) (text on Wikisource)
  • The Lament of Tasso (1817)
  • Beppo (1817)
  • Mazeppa (1818)
  • The Prophecy of Dante (1819)
  • Marino Faliero (1820)
  • Sardanapalus (1821)
  • The Two Foscari (1821)
  • Cain (1821)
  • The Vision of Judgement (1821)
  • Heaven and Earth (1821)
  • Werner (1822)
  • The Deformed Transformed (1822)
  • The Age of Bronze (1823)
  • The Island (1823)
  • Don Juan (1819-1824; incomplete on Byron's death in 1824)

Minor works

  • So, we'll go no more a roving (text on Wikisource)
  • The First Kiss of Love (1806) (text on Wikisource)
  • Thoughts Suggested by a College Examination (1806) (text on Wikisource)
  • To a Beautiful Quaker (1807) (text on Wikisource)
  • The Cornelian (1807) (text on Wikisource}
  • Lines Addressed to a Young Lady (1807) (text on Wikisource)
  • Lachin y Garr (1807) (text on Wikisource)
  • Epitaph to a dog (1808) (text on Wikisource)
  • She Walks in Beauty (1814) (text on Wikisource)
  • When We Two Parted (text on Wikisource)

See also

  • Lord Byron (chronology)
  • Bridge of Sighs
  • Asteroid 3306 Byron
  • Henry Edward Yelverton, 19th Baron Grey de Ruthyn


This article incorporates public domain text from: Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London, J.M. Dent & sons; New York, E.P. Dutton.
  1. ^ The International Byron Society - Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Cantos I and II, uncensored[1]

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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