Childhood, Education, and Early Works (1788-1809)
George Gordon Noel Byron was born on January 22, 1788 in London to Catherine Gordon of Gight and Captain “Mad Jack” Byron. His mother Catherine was a Scottish Heiress who had her fortune stolen by his father Jack; also Jack was the father to Byron’s half-sister Augusta. Lord Byron’s father was absent for his birth as well as most of Byron’s life because he was exiled from England by creditors. His father lived in France until his death in 1791 at the age of thirty-six. Byron was also born with a clubbed right foot which would impact him for his entire life and he would do extravagant, adventurous and daring actions to compensate for him being born lame.
During the summer of 1789 Byron and his mother moved to Aberdeen. Lord Byron’s mother Catherine had a short-temper, could be insensitive which resulted in a difficult domestic life for Lord Byron. Nonetheless, Byron was able to be instilled with a love for reading (with the help of his Presbyterian nurse) and had a passion for history which influenced much of his writings. In 1798 Byron’s great-uncle died resulting in him becoming the heir to Newstead Abbey with the title “Baron Byron of Rochdale.”
Byron attended Harrow School from 1801-1805 which is an independent boarding school for boys located in Harrow, London. At this school Byron was superb in oratory, wrote poem verses, and even played sports such as cricket regardless of his disability. Lord Byron had strong bisexual tendencies and here at Harrow was where Byron formed the first of intimate relationship with chiefly younger boys he would have throughout his life. Regardless of these tendencies Byron often in relationships with women had his emotional need satisfied more fully in comparison to men. During the summer of 1803 Byron fell in love with one of his distant cousins: Mary Chaworth of Annesley Hall; halting his education to be as close as possible to her. Byron later expressed his love for Mary in poems such as “The Dream” (written 1816) and “Stanzas to a Lady on Leaving England” (written 1809).
Byron also had many other intimate occurrences with women such as when in 1804 he began correspondence with his half-sister Augusta asking her to consider him “not only as a brother” but as her “warmest and most affectionate friend.” Many of these relationships he formed in his younger years with women he would continue to form with many other women throughout his life.
For college, Lord Byron attended Trinity College, which is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge, sporadically from October of 1805 until July of 1808. During his time at Trinity Byron had an intimate relationship with John Edleston who was two years younger than Byron and was described as the “most romantic period of his life.” At the completion of his schooling Lord Byron received an M.A. degree. Also, during his schooling Byron lived with extravagance and due to this expensive lifestyle Byron would accumulate debts that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Lord Byron began to experiment with poetry at a young age and throughout the rest of his life would use poetry as a way to express his emotions. Byron’s first works were inspired by his cousin Margaret Parker and when she died he wrote “On the Death of a Young Lady.” Another one of Byron’s, who he fell in love with, is his cousin Mary Chaworth of Annesley Hall. She was the inspiration for works such as “Hills of Annesley” (1805) and “The Adieu” (1807). Both of these women show that at the beginning of Byron’s writings his feelings towards women were sources of inspiration for him.
During 1806 Byron began to promulgate his first book of poetry called Fugitive Pieces around his mother’s home in Southwell. Many of the works contained with in this first book of poems were based off experiences he had while attending Harrow and Cambridge as well as the relationships he formed there. However Byron’s literary advisor, Reverend John Thomas Becher, had issues with the clear eroticism in some of the lines that Byron had written. Due to this advice, Byron suppressed this work and created a revised edition published in January 1807 with the name Poems on Various Occasions. This work as well as Fugitive Pieces was printed anonymously and funded by Byron himself.
Then Byron further revised and edited this work and published Hours of Idleness in June of 1807 under his actual name. This was Byron’s first publication that was published under his actual name and not printed anonymously. The poems contained within Hours of Idleness Byron was published during the infancy of his literary career. Regardless we can still see the beginning stages of Byron experimenting with techniques such multiple personae and well as using multiple points of view effectively. Byron would continue to refine these techniques until he mastered it and this mastery is showed in some of his better know pieces such as his brilliant Don Juan.
Travels Abroad, First Major Works, and Scandals and Debts in England (1808-1816)
In 1808, Lord Byron’s first volume of poetry was heavily criticized, so he responded by writing the satirical poem, English Bards and Scottish Reviewers. On July 2,1809, Byron sets sail with his good friend John Cam Hobhouse. Together they tour through Portugal, Spain, Malta, and Albania (see map for specific cities). Toward the end of 1809 they finally reach Greece, and continue through to Turkey in 1810. It was during this two-year long journey that Byron wrote the cantos of his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The following year, Byron returns to England. His mother and friend John Edleston die in 1811 as well. This drove him into a deep state of mourning, despite his mother’s failings.
In 1812, Byron publishes the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. During this time he has an affair with three noble women– Lady Caroline Lamb, the countess of Oxford, and Lady Webster. Lady Caroline was so furious when he stopped seeing her that she burned his effigy in public, similarly to the pagan rituals of the time and continued to hate him for the rest of her life. In July of 1813, The Giaour is published and in December of the same year, The Bride of Abydos is also published. In January of 1814, The Corsair is published and Lara is also published in August. That isn’t all that comes into the world in 1814. Augusta’s daughter is born this year, Elizabeth Medora, who would eventually claim to be Lord Byron’s daughter as well.
Without knowing this, Lord Byron engages Annabella Milbanke and marries her the following year on the 2nd of January. Right after the wedding, Byron takes Annabella to see Augusta while her husband is away. Needless to say, Annabelle was not happy with this arrangement… especially since she slept alone in a guest bedroom while Byron and Augusta shared the master. The marriage fell apart afterward, as Byron continued accumulating debt, having affairs in which he made no attempt to hide, and becoming more abusive toward Annabella during their time together.
|Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke|
In 1815 he publishes Hebrew Melodies and has a daughter with his new wife, whom they name Augusta Ada on December 10th. A few weeks later, Annabella takes her child and leaves him in January of 1816. Lord Byron decides that England is not the place for him.
European Exile, Friendship with the Shelleys, and Later Works (1816-1823)
In April of 1816, Byron left England, never to return, making him now the most famous exile in Europe. Shortly after his exile, he visited the Villa Diodati near Geneva, Switzerland. There, he befriended the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley, daughter to Mary Wallstonecraft and author of Frankenstein. During his visit, he also befriended the English journalist, political philosopher, and novelist, William Godwin. Also in Geneva was Godwin’s step-daughter, Claire Clairmont, a woman that Byron had begun an affair with before his departure from England. During his stay in Geneva, he took a boat trip up the Rhine with Shelley, inspiring his third canto to Childe Harold at Diodati. During his stay in Geneva, Claire became pregnant with Byron’s illegitimate daughter. When the summer of 1816 ended, the Shelley party left for England with Claire, where she gave birth to his daughter, born with the name Alba in January of 1817. Following their departure, in September of 1816, Byron and Hobhouse took a tour of Bernese Oberland, where Byron completed his Faustian poem, Manfred.
Then, in October of 1816, Byron and Hobhouse sailed for Italy. In Italy, they stayed with a Venetian draper and his wife Marianna Segati, with whom Byron fell in love. In May, he and Hobhouse traveled through the ruins of Rome, which inspired Byron’s fourth canto of Childe Harold.
Then, when Alba was eighteen months old, Claire begged Byron to take the baby out of hope that he may be able to offer her a better financial future. Byron agreed on the condition that Claire have limited contact with the baby. After his daughter’s arrival, Byron renamed her to Allegra and wrote to a friend: “My bastard came three days ago—very like—healthy—noisy & capricious.” He sent her off to live with a family nearby. The Shelley’s came often to visit Allegra while, for the first four years of her life, she moved from family to family. When Allegra was four, Claire found out about Allegra’s living situation and begged Byron to send her to live permanently with the Shelley’s for her own wellbeing. However, Byron refused and sent Allegra to a convent in Italy instead. A year later, she died of a fever.
Over the next few years in Italy, Byron had several affairs, including Margarita Cogni, the wife of a baker, and, later, Teresa Guiccioli, the wife of an Italian nobleman. It was during this time, that Byron completed his first canto of Don Juan.
Don Juan Publication Dates
- Cantos I-II — July 15, 1819
- Cantos III-V — August 8, 1821
- Cantos VI-VIII — July 15, 1823
- Cantos IX-XI — August 29, 1823
- Cantos XII-XIV — December 17, 1823
- Cantos XV-XVI — March 26, 1824
The character Don Juan originated from Tirso de Molina’s play The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest, first premiered 200 years earlier between 1616 and 1630. Don Juan is the villain and not above murder to complete his seductions. He is a negative depiction of a libertine, one who lives for pleasure, and espouses the belief that he might as well enjoy life while young and repent at the end to get into Heaven. This goes poorly for him, and he winds up damned for it. Various authors since have used the character to explore the intersection of morality and sexuality. Lord Byron’s version of the character is far more passive and sensitive and the overall tone is more comic. He refuses to overtly condemn the character, who reflected Byron’s own libertine lifestyle. Ironically, the early end to Byron’s own life would reflect the original conception of the character. While it was regarded by many of Byron’s contemporaries, particularly Percy Shelley, as Byron’s masterpiece, it was received by scandalized readers in England with charges of immorality.
The first five Cantos were published in two installments by publisher John Murray. Their business relationship extended back to 1811, when Murray published the first part of Byron’s Childe Roland. This relationship soured during publication of Don Juan, especially regarding Murray’s reticence concerning the work’s subject matter and Byron’s refusal to censor the work. This lead to a lengthy gap, almost two years, between the publications of Cantos III-V and Cantos VI-VIII, during which which Byron continued to write Don Juan. The rest were published by John Hunt, who was more willing to scandalize readers and allowed Byron to get away with more than Murray could apparently stomach. Canto XVI was finished before Canto VI saw publication, but after that Byron never completed Canto XVII, which cuts off without resolution and was published posthumously.
During the time Byron was composing Don Juan he also wrote several historically-set, highly political plays, including Marino Faliero (1820), Sardanapalus (1821), The Two Foscari (1821), and the Biblical-themed Cain (1821). Byron wrote these largely as closet dramas, meant to be read aloud or performed with a small group at most. Only Marino Faliero was performed on stage during Byron’s lifetime, and this was against his express wishes. He later emphasized to John Murray, who published these in England, that he under no circumstances wanted these plays performed theatrically.
Hereis a collection of letters between Byron and John Murray, edited by Peter Cochran, dated between 1820 and 1824. Together, they show the collapse of their partnership, in no small part thanks to Murray’s concerns over the scandalized reception of Don Juan, as well as Byron’s forceful and mercurial nature.
Greece, Death, and National Hero (1823-1824)
|Η Ελλάς (ευγνωμονούσα) τον Βύρωνα — Greece (Expressing her Gratitude) to Byron Located in Athens, Greece|
The Greek War for Independence began in 1821, and two years later Byron found himself drafted into aiding the rebellion and left Italy and Teresa Guiccioli behind. He sailed for Greece on July 16, 1823 and arrived on the Greek island of Kephalonia on August 3, despite not having any serious military background or much of a plan for what to do once he got there. His career as a war hero lasted less than a year, and did not begin in earnest until 1824. The Greek rebels were divided among several squabbling factions, and Byron did not commit himself to any specific cause until the following January, when he arrived on the mainland and joined Alexander Mavrokordatos, who commissioned him to lead an attack on an Ottoman fortress. The attack never took place, as Byron could never gather enough troops, and those he did kept demanding more and more money. Money became Byron’s major contribution to the Greek cause, including giving 4,000 pounds to the Greek navy in November 1823 and later liquidating an estate in Scotland worth 11,500 pounds to keep making contributions. He also spent money on his page, the teenage Loukas Chalandritsanos, who became the subject of Byron’s unrequited love and one of his last poems, “Love and Death.” Factionalism and the need for funds prevented Byron from experiencing any battlefield glory.
Byron’s health began failing him in February, which quickly worsened on April 9 after being caught in a rain shower and growing feverish. Poor medical intervention only made his condition worse, and he died on April 19, 1824. Unlike other celebrated British writers, his scandalous reputation prevented him from being buried at Westminster Abbey. Instead he was laid to rest next to his daughter at Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Nottinghamshire.
Despite his disappointing military career, Byron was and is still lauded as a hero of the Greek War for Independence. He dedicated himself, and his impressive bank account, to the cause of Greek independence. He was one of the most well-known Europeans to advocate on behalf of the rebels, starting before he even set off for Greece when, in March 1823, he joined the London Greek Committee, which solicited further funds on behalf of the Greeks. Even in death he served Greece, as news of his untimely end fighting in a rebellion inspired even more support from the rest of Europe. In Greece, the date of his death is commemorated as Byron Day, and Athens has a street and a neighborhood named in his honor. A statue designed by the Frenchman Henri Michel Antoine Chapu, titled “Greece (Expressing her Gratitude) to Byron” was unveiled near his eponymous neighborhood in 1895.
Biographical information of his travels: Here and Here
Annabella image: Here
Biographical information and statue image: Here
Information on the London Greek Committee: Here
Byron in Greece: Here
Background information on Byron, Don Juan, and John Murray: Here (Mary O’Connell, Byron and John Murray: a Poet and his Publisher, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2014).
Letters of Lord Byron and John Murray: Here
Childhood, Education, and Early Works: Here
The isles of Greece, the Isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.
The Scian and the Teian muse,
The hero’s harp, the lover’s lute,
Have found the fame your shores refuse;
Their place of birth alone is mute
To sounds which echo further west
Than your sires’ ‘Islands of the Blest.’
The mountains look on Marathon—
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians’ grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.
A king sate on the rocky brow
Which looks o’er sea-born Salamis;
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations;—all were his!
He counted them at break of day—
And when the sun set where were they?
And where are they? and where art thou,
My country? On thy voiceless shore
The heroic lay is tuneless now—
The heroic bosom beats no more!
And must thy lyre, so long divine,
Degenerate into hands like mine?
‘T is something, in the dearth of fame,
Though link’d among a fetter’d race,
To feel at least a patriot’s shame,
Even as I sing, suffuse my face;
For what is left the poet here?
For Greeks a blush—for Greece a tear.
Must we but weep o’er days more blest?
Must we but blush?—Our fathers bled.
Earth! render back from out thy breast
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylae!
What, silent still? and silent all?
Ah! no;—the voices of the dead
Sound like a distant torrent’s fall,
And answer, ‘Let one living head,
But one arise,—we come, we come!’
‘T is but the living who are dumb.
In vain—in vain: strike other chords;
Fill high the cup with Samian wine!
Leave battles to the Turkish hordes,
And shed the blood of Scio’s vine!
Hark! rising to the ignoble call—
How answers each bold Bacchanal!
You have the Pyrrhic dance as yet,
Where is the Pyrrhic phalanx gone?
Of two such lessons, why forget
The nobler and the manlier one?
You have the letters Cadmus gave—
Think ye he meant them for a slave?
Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
We will not think of themes like these!
It made Anacreon’s song divine:
He served—but served Polycrates—
A tyrant; but our masters then
Were still, at least, our countrymen.
The tyrant of the Chersonese
Was freedom’s best and bravest friend;
That tyrant was Miltiades!
O! that the present hour would lend
Another despot of the kind!
Such chains as his were sure to bind.
Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
On Suli’s rock, and Parga’s shore,
Exists the remnant of a line
Such as the Doric mothers bore;
And there, perhaps, some seed is sown,
The Heracleidan blood might own.
Trust not for freedom to the Franks—
They have a king who buys and sells;
In native swords, and native ranks,
The only hope of courage dwells;
But Turkish force, and Latin fraud,
Would break your shield, however broad.
Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
Our virgins dance beneath the shade—
I see their glorious black eyes shine;
But gazing on each glowing maid,
My own the burning tear-drop laves,
To think such breasts must suckle slaves
Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swan-like, let me sing and die:
A land of slaves shall ne’er be mine—
Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!
Analysis of The Isles of Greece by a Greek student:
Lord Byron is considered a national hero in my home country of Greece. Byron was captivated by the Greek struggle for independence and eventually moved to Greece and took part in the campaign. Byron battled along side the Greeks and eventually died in Messolongi while still actively participating in the revolution. In ‘The Isles of Greece’ he writes of the culture and of the history of the Greeks, honoring their ancestry and rich heritage. A Greek reading this poem can tell that Byron had lived in Greece and experienced the country first hand, he uses historical and mythological events correctly and captures the passionate voice of the Greek people. Essentially one could say that Byron fiery temperament found its home in the angry mountains and seas of Hellas and he belonged. As a Greek this is my interpretation and thoughts about the poem: more
–Project of student Voutsina.