Byron, George Gordon Noel, sixth Baron Byron
Byron, George Gordon Noel, sixth Baron Byron
- Jerome McGann
George Gordon Noel Byron, sixth Baron Byron (1788–1824)
Byron, George Gordon Noel, sixth Baron Byron (1788–1824), poet, was born on 22 January 1788 at 16 (later 24) Holles Street, London, the son of Captain John Byron (1756–1791) and his second wife, Catherine, née Gordon (1765–1811). In the visitations of Nottingham of 1569 and 1615 the family pedigree begins with Sir Richard Byron, of Byron and Clayton in Lancashire, whose son Sir John Byron was rewarded for his services to Henry VIII with the possession of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. His descendant Sir John Byron was created Baron Byron of Rochdale by Charles I in 1643. The fourth Lord Byron, William (1669–1736), had three children, the second of whom was John, later Admiral Byron (Foulweather Jack) (1723–1786), the poet's grandfather, whose adventures by land and sea were legendary. The admiral had three children, the eldest being Captain Byron (Mad Jack), the poet's father, whose profligacy was so great that he was eventually disinherited by his father. Resigning his commission in the guards by 1778, the handsome captain plunged into the fast world of London fashionable life. He seduced and in 1779 eventually married after her divorce Amelia D'Arcy, marchioness of Carmarthen, later suo jure Baroness Conyers, with whom he had a daughter, Augusta Mary (1783–1851), Byron's half-sister, who later played a central part in his life.
Deprived of his wife's income of £4000 a year by her death in January 1784, Captain Byron went to Bath in search of another rich wife, and settled on Catherine Gordon. She was one of the three surviving daughters of George Gordon, twelfth laird of Gight, Aberdeenshire, and his wife and second cousin, Catherine, daughter of Alexander Innes, sheriff-clerk and provost of Banff. Both her parents died during her infancy and Catherine was brought up near Banff by her grandmother Margaret Gordon, née Duff (1720–1801), known by the courtesy title of Lady Gight. From her grandmother Catherine inherited a love of books but she remained unsophisticated, emotional, and naïve. Also plump and plain, the twenty-year-old Catherine was quickly charmed by the dashing captain and they were married at St Michael's Church, Bath, on 13 May 1785.
By July the newly-weds had settled at Gight where, in no time at all, Captain Byron ran through most of the £23,000 Catherine had brought to their marriage. (Much would have been swallowed up by pre-existing debts.) In March 1786 they went through a second marriage ceremony and Captain Byron took on the family name of Gordon, both events relating to the need to sell the estate of Gight. In July 1787 Captain Byron fled from the Isle of Wight where, to avoid creditors, the couple had been living, to Paris. He was joined there the following September by Mrs Byron who was pregnant. In December she returned to London and rented rooms at 16 Holles Street, off Oxford Street, where Byron was born with a deformed right foot. Harassed by creditors, Byron's father was constantly on the move to remain one step ahead of the bailiffs. He was in Edinburgh on 26 January 1788, when he wrote to Mrs Byron's agent informing him that she had given birth to a son. Byron was baptized George Gordon Byron at the parish church of St Marylebone, St Marylebone Road, on 29 February and his godfathers were named as George Gordon, fifth duke of Gordon, and Colonel Robert Duff of Fetteresso, Aberdeenshire. Byron's forebears on each side were, as he later observed, 'all meridian', and as time passed he constructed an increasingly imaginative relationship to his ancestry. He developed a pride in his lineage which on his father's side can be traced back to the time of William the Conqueror, and on his mother's side descends from James I of Scotland. The motto Crede Byron that appears over the family's arms was one to which Byron adhered throughout his life; it later adorned the ceremonial helmets that helped to define his role as a figurehead in the Greek War of Independence.
In March 1788 Mrs Byron received a settlement securing £4222 of her estate against creditors, and in summer 1789 settled with her son and his nurse Agnes Gray, a religious woman with strict Calvinist views, in a furnished apartment in Queen Street, Aberdeen. By August she had been joined by her husband who stayed with her intermittently until September 1790 when Captain Byron abandoned his wife and child and went to live with his sister Fanny (Frances) Leigh in Valenciennes where he died, possibly of consumption, on 2 August 1791 at thirty-five. He appointed his son 'Mr. George Gordon, heir of my real and personal estate, and charge[d] him to pay my debts, legacies, and funeral expenses' ( Marchand, Biography, 1.32). As a small boy Byron was known as George Byron Gordon. Byron preserved a fond memory of his feckless and disgraceful father. He was not yet four when his father died, but according to Medwin he remembered him well, and traced his 'horror of matrimony' to the 'domestic broils' of his parents . Despite everything, Mrs Byron was desolate when her husband died.
For his mother, who was doting, volatile, and capricious, Byron's feelings were deeper and more ambivalent. She was fiercely loyal, proud, and devoted to her son, who was as fiery as she. He grew up in an emotional world that swung between extremes of violence and tenderness. Fond of his nurse and doted on by his mother, Byron spent his formative years in a closed and intense emotional world, its effect heightened by his mother's straitened circumstances and the emotional and physical pain arising from his deformed foot. For this Mrs Byron sought advice from John Hunter, a London surgeon, but her finances prevented her from taking the boy south for treatment. Borrowing money, Mrs Byron moved to 64 Broad Street, a respectable address in Aberdeen new town, where she occupied the whole of the first floor which she furnished herself. At the age of five Byron was sent to the nearby school 'kept by a Mr Bowers—who was called “Bodsy Bowers” by reason of his dapperness.—It was a school for both sexes' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 8.107). After about a year he left ('I learned little there') and was instructed by a clergyman called Ross who taught him to read, and then by a young man called Paterson, 'the son of my Shoemaker—but a good Scholar … [and] a rigid Presbyterian also', who taught him Latin . News reached Mrs Byron that William, grandson of the fifth Lord Byron, had been killed at the battle of Calvi in Corsica on 31 July 1794 and that her son, then aged six and a half, was heir presumptive to the Byron title and estates. Byron entered Aberdeen grammar school, where over the next four years he continued to study Latin, and in the afternoons attended Mr Duncan's writing school across the road. His passion for reading, which began with listening to his nurse's readings from the Old Testament and the Psalms and was fostered by his mother, took in 'Knolles, Cantemir, De Tod, Lady M. W. Montague, Hawkins's Translation from Mignot's History of the Turk, the Arabian Nights, all travels or histories, or books upon the East I could meet with … before I was ten years old' ( Marchand, Biography, 1.38). 'When a boy I could never bear to read any Poetry whatever without disgust and reluctance'. Visits during the school holidays to his great-grandmother Lady Gight at Banff, and to the Dee valley where he was taken to convalesce after an attack of scarlet fever in 1795 or 1796, introduced Byron to the splendours of highland scenery to which he formed a lifelong attachment, and which formed a sublime ideal in the landscape of his imagination. At Banff, or at her home near Aberdeen, he met his cousin, Mary Duff, 'my first of flames' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 3.210). Years later Byron recalled that 'my love for her was so violent, that I sometimes doubt if I have been really attached since … [she] still lives in my imagination' ( ibid., 222). The intensity of his early reaction to Scottish scenery and of his attachment to Mary Duff fused with his imagination to create ideals that were seldom fully realized in later years. This set a pattern that established a vital creative source for the expression of melancholy to which Byron's letters and journals refer and that famously pervades much of his poetry. These boyhood visits to the country also provided opportunities to learn to swim, ride, and shoot, activities in which he later excelled.
On 21 May 1798 the old Lord Byron died and, at the age of ten, Byron inherited the title of sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale. Through her Aberdeen attorney, Alexander Crombie, Mrs Byron heard that John Hanson, a chancery solicitor in London, had agreed to act for the young heir. Hanson was to remain a lifelong friend and adviser to Byron. His first tasks were to make his charge a ward in chancery and to arrange the appointment of Frederick Howard, fifth earl of Carlisle, son of Admiral Byron's sister Isabella and first cousin of Byron's father, as Byron's legal guardian. Meanwhile, Mrs Byron applied to the chancellor for an allowance, sold her furniture, and at the end of August set forth, with Byron and his nurse May Gray (who had replaced her sister Agnes), for Newstead Abbey. Both abbey and house were in a ruinous condition and the estate was heavily encumbered with debts. Other valuable properties in Rochdale had also been neglected by the old Lord Byron and would need to be recovered at law. After a brief stay at Newstead, when both mother and son were enchanted by its romantic aspect and by the family history it represented, Byron, accompanied by his nurse, went to stay in Nottingham with his great-aunt the Hon. Frances Byron, and afterwards lodged with a Mr Gill. His mother engaged a tutor and arranged for him to receive treatment for his foot; the last, however, caused Byron only pain and distress. In July 1799 he was taken to London where he met John Hanson who introduced him to his guardian and arranged for him to receive long-term treatment for his foot. At this time he also met his cousin the beautiful Margaret Parker ('she looked as if she had been made out of a rainbow'), and his passion for the thirteen-year-old gave rise to his 'first dash into poetry' in 1800. ( For Byron's account of this see his Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 9.40.) Hanson engaged the boy's confidence sufficiently for Byron to unburden to him the sexual abuse to which he had been subjected by his nurse May Gray. She was dismissed but her treatment of the boy, combined with her Calvinist religious beliefs, gave him a permanent loathing of religious cant and hypocrisy and contributed to the complex range of attitudes he held towards women in adult life.
In August 1799 Byron entered the school of a Dr Glennie, an Aberdonian, in Dulwich. During the holidays his time was divided between stays with the Hanson family at their home in Earl's Court and visits to his mother who took lodgings with a Mrs Massingberd at 16 Piccadilly. Hanson secured from the court of chancery £500 a year for Byron's education and his mother's annual pension of £300 was thereby reduced to £200. Medical treatment for Byron's foot amounted to £150 a year with 2 guineas per school visit by the physician. Byron refused to let his lameness prevent him from participating in any of the usual physical activities that schoolboys engage in, and on one occasion threw his leg brace into a pond. In April 1801 he entered Harrow School, where for the first time he mixed with boys of his own social rank. At first, however, the headmaster, Dr Joseph Drury, whose strategy with Byron was to lead this 'wild mountain colt' with a 'silken string', placed him under the individual tutorial guidance of his own son Henry Drury, an assistant master ( Marchand, Biography, 1.66). B. W. Procter recalled that 'There were during his schooltime no symptoms of such a destiny. He was loud, even coarse, and very capable of a boy's vulgar enjoyments. He was then a rough, curly headed boy, and apparently nothing more' ( Procter, 22). At Harrow 'P. Hunter, Curzon, Long and Tattersall were my principal friends. Clare, Dorset, Cs. Gordon, De Bath[e], Claridge and Jno. Wingfield, were my juniors and favourites, whom I spoilt by indulgence' ( Moore, Letters, 21). Others included George John West, fifth Earl De La Warr (who, like Byron, succeeded to his title as a boy), and William Harness. 'My School friendships were with me passions' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 9.44). Though not homosexual, these friendships were intense and intimate, and Byron's patronizing of younger boys, a role he maintained in adult life, often led to small jealousies among his favourites.
At Christmas 1802 Henry Edward, nineteenth Baron Grey of Ruthin, a young man of twenty-three, had taken on the lease of Newstead at £50 a year for the remainder of Byron's minority. Mrs Byron took a house in the nearby town of Southwell, Burgage Manor, and in the following summer holidays Byron rode over to Newstead at the invitation of his tenant and lodged with the steward, Owen Mealey. From there he visited, at Annesley Hall, Mary Chaworth whose father was descended from the William Chaworth killed by the ‘Wicked’ Lord Byron in a duel in 1765. In response to his passionate attachment to her, Mary flirted with Byron, but at seventeen (two years his senior) she was already engaged to marry John Musters, a neighbour. Regardless of this, Byron refused to return to school and instead rode over to Annesley where he moodily practised pistol shooting on the terrace. Agonized by a sharp rebuff from Mary, he went hunting and shooting on the Newstead estate with his tenant, but his stay ended abruptly in January 1804, probably following a sexual advance from Grey. Henceforth, Byron, deeply shocked, intended to 'ever consider [him] my most inveterate enemy', but later stated he would be happy 'to meet as friends' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 1.49–50, 168).
Byron returned to Harrow and by Easter 1804 he had begun to correspond with his half-sister, Augusta. His early letters to her illustrate his earnest desire to establish an affectionate friendship with 'a Friend to whom I can confide' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 1.45). At school, meanwhile, he was 'remarked for the extent and readiness of my general information' and capable of 'great sudden exertions—(such as thirty Greek Hexameters or forty Greek Hexameters) … but of few continuous drudgeries' and later acknowledged that 'my qualities were much more oratorical and martial than poetical' ( ibid., 9.42). Following 'two or three scrapes' he was reprimanded by Henry Drury and stung by some comments from his brother Mark Drury into the ambitious realization that 'the way to riches to Greatness lies before me, I can, I will cut myself a path through the world or perish in the attempt' ( ibid., 1.49). He enjoyed declaiming at speech-days and delighted in the headmaster's notice of his performance, but remained at odds with the established order and led a rebellion among the boys against the new headmaster, the Revd Dr George Butler (the 'Pomposus' of his satire 'On a Change of Masters at a Great Public School'). Though, during the holidays, his relationship with Mrs Byron became increasingly quarrelsome, he found a release in new friendships in Southwell, particularly with Elizabeth Pigot and her brother John, who lived across the green from Burgage Manor. Five years older than he, Elizabeth formed a lively friendship with Byron that was sustained by a shared sense of satirical humour and a mutual interest in writing verse. Her first impression of Byron, as she later described him to Thomas Moore, was of 'a fat bashful boy, with his hair combed straight over his forehead' ( Moore, 1.75). Friendship helped to make Byron's last year at Harrow enjoyable: he later recalled that 'I always hated Harrow till my last year and a half—but then I liked it' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 9.37).
'A college life'
Recollecting his university education Byron wrote that:
when I went up to Trinity, in 1805, at the age of seventeen and a half, I was miserable and untoward to a degree. I was wretched at leaving Harrow … wretched at going to Cambridge instead of Oxford (there were no rooms vacant at Christchurch); wretched from some private domestic circumstances of different kinds, and consequently about as unsocial as a wolf taken from the troop.Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 7.230, 19 November 1820, to John Murray
He nevertheless liked his 'Superexcellent Rooms' in the south-east corner of the great court at Trinity (known as Merton-hall corner), and soon wrote to Hargreaves Hanson (the son of his solicitor, who had been with him at Harrow) that 'college improves in everything but Learning, nobody here seems to look into an author ancient or modern if they can avoid it' ( ibid., 1.80). To Hanson he had written with requests for '4 dozen of Wine, Port—Sherry—Claret, & Madeira, one Dozen of Each', and told him that he 'beg[an] to admire a College Life' ( ibid., 78). His comment that 'my appearance in the Hall in my State Robes [on formal university occasions undergraduate noblemen wore an elaborately decorated gown] was Superb, but uncomfortable to my Diffidence' records the beginning of Byron's acute awareness of the impact of his public appearance, which later took on an importance far beyond the immediate social context, but at the same time reveals the self-consciousness of a newly matriculated freshman. During his first term Byron strengthened his friendship with Edward Noel Long who had come up with him from Harrow, and developed a 'violent, though pure passion' for a young chorister, John Edleston, the Thyrza of some of his early poems, who gave him a cornelian heart ( ibid., 8.24). Though (as was usual among undergraduate noblemen) he rarely attended lectures, Byron widened his reading and pursued his enjoyment of swimming and riding. College dissipations, the refurbishment of his rooms, and the expense of keeping horses soon disposed of his allowance and, still a minor, in December he asked Augusta to stand guarantor to the first of the huge debts he contracted with moneylenders. These were arranged by his landlady in Piccadilly, Mrs Massingberd. To the alarm of his mother, Byron wrote to say that, having paid off his debts and with 'a few hundreds in ready Cash lying about me', he had decided not to return to college but to pass a couple of years abroad ( ibid., 1.89). Instead, however, he lingered in London where he took lessons from the fashionable fencing master Henry Angelo, learned to box with ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson, went to the theatre, and sought sexual entertainment from a 'famous French entremetteuse' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Prothero, 5.575). In April he returned to Cambridge, where at the end of term he was detained by the painting of a carriage he had recently acquired. His mounting debts deeply worried his mother and her anxiety further increased the tension in their volatile relationship. To escape from her scolding Byron sought refuge that summer in the home of Elizabeth Pigot where he began to compile a volume of his early poems. With Elizabeth's assistance he gathered together some of his sentimental verses with various school exercises and literary imitations and had them privately printed by John Ridge at Newark in a volume he called Fugitive Pieces. Many of the Southwell inhabitants were shocked by its inclusion of some stanzas 'To Mary'; according to the Revd John Becher, these were 'too warmly drawn' ( Marchand, Biography, 1.97). Byron asked for the return of all copies of the work and, except for four, all were destroyed. Almost immediately he began preparing a revised collection of his poems for a new edition.
In August 1806, following a spectacular quarrel with 'Mrs. Byron furiosa' ( Marchand, Biography, 1.92–3), Byron left Southwell in his carriage in the middle of the night, driving first to London and then on to visit Edward Long who was staying with his family in Littlehampton on the Sussex coast. He put up at a local inn and impressed Long's younger brother Henry, who left an account of Byron and Long's swimming feats which included diving off the high jetty into the river as the tide was racing out and being thus carried at speed far out to sea from where they swam back in a large semi-circle to the shore. Back at Southwell in September he went with John Pigot to visit Harrogate. There he was busy writing verse, and on the return journey dashed off a prologue to The Wheel of Fortune. Lack of funds prevented Byron from returning to Cambridge for the start of the new term and so he agreed to join in some private theatricals in Southwell, taking the part of Penruddock in Richard Cumberland's Wheel of Fortune and Tristram Fickle in J. T. Allingham's The Weathercock. Rehearsals for these brought him into contact with the ‘Southwell Belles’, with one of whom, Julia Leacroft, in a bid by the girl's family to entrap the young lord into marriage, he became briefly entangled.
Poems on Various Occasions, the revised collection of Byron's early poems, appeared in a private edition of about 100 copies in January 1807. For this he received many 'insipid Compliments' and for this reason appreciated the 'Critique' of William Bankes, a Trinity College friend, whom Byron later referred to as his 'collegiate pastor, and master and patron' who was also 'the father of all mischiefs' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 1.110 and n. 9). In April he wrote to Hanson that:
I am grown very thin … so much so that people here think I am going, I have lost 18 LB in my weight, that is one Stone & 4 pounds since January … I shall continue my Exertions, having no other amusement, I wear seven waistcoats, & a great Coat, run & play at Cricket in this Dress, till quite exhausted by excessive perspiration, use the hot Bath daily.ibid., 113–14
A series of ten watercolour drawings by Elizabeth Pigot in her 'The Wonderful History of Lord Byron and his Dog' (dated 26 March 1807, Ransom HRC), a lively pastiche of The Wonderful Adventure of Old Mother Hubbard and her Dog (illustrated 2nd edn, 1805), provides a delightful illustration of Byron's Southwell activities. They show him playing cricket, listening to his dog Boatswain preaching from a pulpit the words 'Repent ye wicked, resist temptation', immersed up to his neck in a hot bath, seated at a table writing, and finally, being driven away in his carriage and four ( some repr., Peach, figs. 6–9).
Following the publication of Hours of Idleness, his first published volume of poetry, Byron returned to Cambridge at the end of June 1807. From there he wrote several amusing letters to Elizabeth Pigot and informed her of his decision to 'reside another year at Granta as my Rooms &c. &c. are finished in great Style, several old friends come up again, & many new acquaintances made' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 1.124). These included John Cam Hobhouse and Charles Skinner Matthews, young men with serious intellectual interests. Hobhouse became a lifelong and completely devoted friend. Matthews, who had occupied Byron's rooms in his absence, was mischievous, one of a 'band of profane scoffers' led by Bankes. It was to Matthews that Byron wrote from Falmouth with veiled allusion to intended homosexual encounters, both there and with 'exotics we expect to meet in Asia' ( ibid., 1.206–7). From Gordon's Hotel, London, Byron wrote to Elizabeth Pigot that the copies of Hours of Idleness Ridge had sent to London had all sold and more were in demand. Though he wrote on 20 August from Cambridge to his old schoolfriend the earl of Clare that he was 'now setting off for the Highlands of Scotland' nothing further is known of his movements until he wrote again to Elizabeth from Cambridge on 26 October. Through Matthews and Hobhouse Byron met Scrope Berdmore Davies, a fellow of King's College, and the slightly older Francis Hodgson, former master of Eton College and resident tutor at King's. Davies was a dandy, a friend of Beau Brummell, and renowned for his play for high stakes at the London gaming tables.
With Hodgson, a noted classical scholar, Byron shared an interest in the poetry of Dryden and Pope. The intellectual and political interests and urbane, witty, and often facetious conversation of this sophisticated circle stimulated Byron to expand the range of his poetry and he began to develop his work in satire. He reviewed Wordsworth's Poems (2 vols., 1807) in Monthly Literary Recreations, began to write the satirical poem English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), and joined the Cambridge Whig Club. Prevented by the rules from keeping his new bulldog, Smut, in college he bought a tame bear which, according to J. M. F. Wright, who was admitted to Trinity in 1813, he kept in the tower above his rooms ( J. M. F. Wright, Alma Mater, or, Seven Years at the University of Cambridge, by a Trinity Man, 2 vols., 1827). When asked what he meant to do with him he replied that 'he should sit for a Fellowship … this answer delighted them not' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 1.136–7). The bear's fame long outlasted his residence at Trinity. Though praised in the Critical Review, Hours of Idleness was ridiculed by Hewson Clarke in The Satirist (October 1807), and Byron instructed Ridge to omit the preface in the second edition. But this agreeable life in college was short-lived. He left for the Christmas holidays in 1807 and did not return, except to visit his friends, until he went up for his MA in July 1808.
Life in London
Early in 1808 Byron settled at Dorant's Hotel, London. Late in January he met his distant kinsman Robert Charles Dallas, a dull author who had written to Byron praising his poetry. Over thirty years older and lacking the liveliness of his other friends, Dallas assisted Byron in the publication of some of his poetry. Byron resumed friendships with several of his Harrow schoolfellows and, being reconciled with Henry Drury, paid several visits to Harrow. With Scrope Davies he dined, played at hazard, and, as he confessed to Hobhouse, was otherwise 'buried in an abyss of Sensuality' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 1.158). This did not prevent him from being devastated by an ad hominem attack in the Edinburgh Review which ridiculed the vanities of the author of the preface to Hours of Idleness. Appalled by this criticism from a whig journal, Byron believed that the review was written by its editor, Francis Jeffrey, though it was actually from the hand of the reformist lawyer and politician Henry Brougham, who incurred Byron's implacable hatred during his marital separation in 1816. Though he later affected nonchalance about the review, Hobhouse, to whom he wrote of it at the time, noted that 'he was very near destroying himself' ( Marchand, Biography, 1.148).
This infamous review is important in the development of Byron's writing for two reasons. First, it led directly to the publication of his first major poem, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, in 1809. Second, it exposed a number of contradictions which Byron experienced and registered in himself and in contemporary society. Towards the end of March 1808 he received copies of the new edition of Hours of Idleness entitled Poems Original and Translated, but was less sanguine in distributing them to friends. After visiting Cambridge to take his degree, he made a summer visit to Brighton accompanied by a young girl in male attire whom he introduced in society as his younger brother. He was joined there by Davies and Hobhouse, and the latter noticed a despondency in his friend that he attributed to exhausting involvements with women. Tiring of the solace offered by various 'nymphs' and 'cursedly dipped' for cash, Byron returned in September to Newstead following the departure of Lord Grey on the expiration of his lease in June.
Again enchanted by the Romantic, ruinous, appearance of the abbey, Byron resolved not to sell but to restore it. He made preparations to welcome his friends, the first of whom to arrive was Hobhouse. Together they rode and swam in the lake, as refurbishment of a few rooms went ahead. Byron worked on his satirical poem, but was thrown into despondency by the effect on his emotions of a meeting with Mary Chaworth, now Mrs Musters, and the death of his beloved Newfoundland dog Boatswain. He wrote a commemorative poem that was inscribed on an elaborate monument to Boatswain he had erected at Newstead. A plan he had formed earlier in the year to go abroad began to take hold of his imagination. Though he would not invite Mrs Byron to stay while he was in residence at Newstead, he wrote to inform her of his plans and to invite her to be chatelaine during his absence abroad. Lonely and bored after Hobhouse's departure, and with the approach of his twenty-first birthday, Byron left Newstead after the Christmas holidays for London. Before doing so he made provision for a young servant girl, Lucy, who was pregnant with his child.
On his arrival Byron contacted Dallas for assistance in finding a publisher for his satire, and wrote to his guardian for advice on taking his seat in the House of Lords. Lord Carlisle's cool reply, which informed him of procedural details but did not include an offer of a personal introduction, was a slight that wounded Byron deeply. It placed him in the unusual and humiliating position of having to prove his legitimacy to the chancellor before he could take his seat. Dallas settled with James Cawthorn to publish English Bards, which came out in mid-March, a few days after Byron took his seat to 'the left of the throne, on one of the benches usually occupied by the Lords in opposition' ( Marchand, Biography, 1.170).
The production of English Bards was an act of enormous pretension for one who had barely reached his majority. Nevertheless, it forms the all but inevitable conclusion of the process which Byron had set in motion when he first issued Fugitive Pieces. The coy self-consciousness of this work led to the even more personal and self-conscious Hours of Idleness; this in turn produced Brougham's ridiculing notice, the impetus behind Byron's broad-ranging critique of English letters and culture. Byron's intention to attack on all fronts the contemporary literary scene (as signalled in his poem's title) is replicated in the poem's unsparing pursuit of Jacobins, and anti-Jacobins, the lake school (Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey), the Della Cruscans, sentimentalists and Gothic writers, romancers (for example, Scott), lyricists, and balladeers. The poem is quintessential Byron in that he includes himself in his charges of cultural degeneracy. 'I was born for opposition' Byron famously declared years later in Don Juan, a truth fully realized in this early work. The poem gained a measure of notoriety—it went through several editions between 1809 and 1811—but Byron did not stay to enjoy its success. Shortly after its publication he went abroad.
Byron's satire served to extend the social context in which he insisted on asserting and defining himself. In so doing, however, he was forced to confront British society in a much larger frame of reference, and to deal with several contradictions of which he had scarcely been aware. When he wrote his early poetry his closest circles and sympathies were reformist and whig. It was therefore a shock to find himself ridiculed in the Edinburgh Review. When he struck back he found his readiest weapons were often supplied by the Anti-Jacobin and by conservative literary voices like William Gifford. As a consequence, the most notable quality of the early satire is the peculiar and idiosyncratic nature of its social critique. Byron singles out a few individuals for praise and honour, but his attack is launched at British culture as a whole, where he is able to see no party, no class, no institution with which to identify. British culture is represented in a state of crisis, and Byron's is a voice crying in the wilderness.
With the publication of his satire Byron completed his preparations for leaving England. He entertained his friends Matthews, Hobhouse, James Wedderburn Webster, and probably Davies at Newstead where, dressed in monks' habits, they 'used to sit up late … drinking burgundy, claret, champagne and what not, out of the skull-cup [and] buffoon[ed] around the house, in our conventual garments' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 8.231). Hobhouse agreed to accompany Byron on his travels, and when Hanson's attempt to raise a loan of £6000 to pay for the journey failed to materialize in total, Davies loaned Byron £4800, recently won at the gaming tables. On board the Lisbon packet as it lay in Falmouth Roads on 30 June Byron fired off an exuberant farewell letter in verse:
Huzza! Hodgson, we are going,Our embargo's off at lastFavourable Breezes blowingBend the canvass oer the mast,From aloft the signal's streamingHark! The farewell gun is fired,Women screeching, Tars blaspheming,Tells us that our time's expired …
This famous tour of the Iberian peninsula and the Turkish dominions in the Levant produced Byron's equally famous account of that journey: the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, published after his return in July 1811. Here for the first time Byron projected his sense of social and cultural crisis to include the whole of Europe. The focus of his analysis is, of course, an English one, but his is an English view that transcended chauvinist, patriotic interpretations of European affairs which were current in England at the time. With this poem all the fundamental lines of Byron's thinking, if not his conclusions, are set in place. Byron often imagined for himself a reformist, if not a revolutionary political career, but his ironical, not to say cynical, view of society, its institutions, and its representatives made such an idea an impossible dream. An epigram he wrote in 1814 conveys Byron's social view with devastating clarity:
'Tis said Indifference marks the present time,Then hear the reason—though 'tis told in rhyme—A King who can't—a Prince of Wales who don't—Patriots who shan't, and Ministers who won't—What matters who are in or out of placeThe Mad—the Bad—the Useless—or the Base?
Complete Poetical Works, 3.91
Byron's grand tour was full of incident and adventure. On 2 July 1809 he sailed from Falmouth with Hobhouse and three servants—his valet, William Fletcher (who stayed with him throughout), ‘Old’ Joe Murray, and the young Robert Rushton, of whom Byron was very fond. (Rushton is the second figure in the double portrait of Byron by George Sanders, 1807–8, in the Royal Collection. The image of Byron in this portrait, suggestive of his grand tour by its inclusion of a yacht moored at anchor before a background of wild, mountainous scenery, has since become a figurehead of Romanticism.) From Lisbon they rode across a peninsula still in the throes of political and military conflict. They went to Cintra, Seville, and Cadiz and thence sailed to Malta on the frigate Hyperion. At that point Murray and Rushton were sent home ('I would have taken him [Rushton] on but you know boys are not safe amongst the Turks'), and on 19 August 1809 Byron, Hobhouse, and Fletcher sailed in the packet for Sardinia, Sicily, and Malta, in the company of the traveller John Galt ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 1.221–2). At Malta Byron had a brief affair with the celebrated Mrs Constance Spencer Smith, to whom he addressed several poems. He left Malta on the brig of war Spider and arrived in Prevesa, Albania, on 29 September. He went immediately to visit Ali Pasha at his court at Tepelene and was graciously received by the pasha: 'To me he was indeed a father, giving me letters, guards, & every possible accommodation'; 'he said he was certain I was a man of birth because I had small ears, curling hair, & little white hands, and expressed himself pleased with my appearance & garb' ( ibid., 1.228). His travels through Albania were full of adventure, inimitably described in his letters, among the best in the English language, especially those to his mother, which are fully equal to the scenes and events he witnessed:
I shall never forget the singular scene on entering Tepaleen at five in the afternoon as the Sun was going down, it brought to my recollection (with some change of dress however) Scott's description of Branksome Castle in his lay, & the feudal system.—The Albanians in their dresses (the most magnificent in the world, consisting of a long white kilt, gold worked cloak, crimson velvet gold laced jacket & waistcoat, silver mounted pistols & daggers,) the Tartars with their high caps, the Turks in their vast pelises & turbans, the soldiers & black slaves with the horses, the former stretched in groupes in an immense open gallery in front of the palace, the latter placed in a kind of cloister below it, two hundred steeds ready caparisoned to move in a moment, couriers entering or passing out with dispatches, the kettle drums beating, boys calling the hour from the minaret of the mosque, altogether with the singular appearance of the building itself, formed a new & delightful spectacle to a stranger.ibid.,
Accompanied by a guard of Albanians, Byron went on to visit various sites in Arcanania and western Greece, including, in late November, the fateful Missolonghi. After a fortnight's sojourn in Patras he journeyed to Athens, where he arrived on Christmas day. There he was the guest of Tarsia Macri, widow of the English vice-consul, whose three daughters provided Byron with much entertainment throughout his stay. The eldest, Teresa, was celebrated by Byron in his famous lines on the 'Maid of Athens'. His principal passion, however, was for Greece herself and her antiquities. On 5 March 1810 he left Athens for Smyrna, Ephesus, Constantinople, and the Troad. On 3 May he repeated Leander's legendary feat of swimming the Hellespont from Sestos to Abydos, and commemorated the event in some amusing verses. After visiting Constantinople he and Hobhouse separated, the latter sailing back to England and Byron proceeding on to Zea and thence back to Athens. It was at Athens that Byron was said to have met with the adventure, referred to in The Giaour (1813) and its notes, of saving a girl from being drowned in a sack. There is no doubt that some such event took place, but the part Byron played in her rescue remains unclear. His tour of Greece then took him to the Morea (the Peloponnese) where he contracted a dangerous fever at Patras. Returning to Athens he spent the winter of 1810–11 in a Capuchin convent. During his last months in Greece he met the traveller Lady Hester Stanhope, who later wrote that he 'had a great deal of vice in his looks' ( Memoirs, 3.219).
When he left Piraeus for England in April 1811 on the transport ship Hydra, Byron took Nicolo with him and placed him in a school at Malta. Throughout his life Byron formed attachments to young boys. Though most perhaps were not homosexual, allusions in his letters indicate that he was bisexual. Hotly refuting Hobhouse's cryptic allegation, in a letter he wrote from Cadiz, of an 'unnatural', or homosexual, relationship with his servant Rushton, Byron nevertheless added to his reply from Malta: 'My fantastical adventures I reserve for you and Matthieu [Matthews] and a bottle of champagne' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 2.46; see also Peach, 30 and n. 23). Then a capital offence in England, homosexuality was not a subject to be discussed openly in correspondence. Also on board the Hydra was the last large shipment of marbles Lord Elgin was transporting to England, and, by an ironic coincidence, among Byron's numerous poetical manuscripts, his scathing satire on Elgin's work The Curse of Minerva. After spending a month in Malta to renew his liaison with Mrs Spencer Smith, Byron sailed for England on the frigate Volage and arrived in Portsmouth on 14 July 1811.
'Famous in my time'
During his two years abroad Byron's financial problems had grown increasingly acute, as letters from Hanson and his mother had made him aware. Mrs Byron fought off creditors and bailiffs on her son's behalf, though he could hardly have been aware of the extent of her efforts and privations. In this her strong character was a formidable and effective defence. Worried about his affairs and weighed down by debt, shortly after his return Byron heard of the deaths of four of his close friends: Matthews, Edleston, Wingfield, and Hargreaves Hanson. In London he received news that his mother was seriously ill. She died at Newstead on 1 August before he arrived home. He diverted his grief by a new series of dissipations with servant girls at the abbey. Dallas attempted to revive him by urging him to publish the verse he had written on his tour abroad, especially the two cantos of Childe Harold. Byron showed little interest, as did the publishers to whom Dallas showed the manuscript. Cawthorn, who had published English Bards, which had gone through four editions, urged him to a fifth, but Byron held back and eventually suppressed the poem which had attacked some of his new friends, especially the poet Thomas Moore. Byron wanted to publish not the highly original Childe Harold but his imitation of Horace, Hints from Horace, which was set in type but not (then) published. Dallas persisted despite Byron's reluctance and the refusals of two publishers. He eventually prevailed and the first two cantos of Childe Harold were taken by John Murray (1778–1843) [see under Murray family], who had an interest in travel literature. Attempts to persuade Byron to moderate the poem's misanthropy were unsuccessful. It appeared in March 1812 in a handsome quarto, sold out in three days, and overnight he became famous. As important a work in the history of Romanticism as Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads (1798), Childe Harold marks the special character of Byron's poetry: it deliberately and completely transforms the Spenserian stanza just as English Bards began the process of death and rebirth that Byron forced on the English heroic couplet. Byron consumed an extraordinary range of European verse forms and forced them to bear his signature, to live again only, as it were, under his name and at his insistence.
Byron rapidly became the most brilliant star in the dazzling world of regency London. He was sought after at every society venue, elected to several exclusive clubs including the Alfred, the Cocoa Tree, and Watiers, and frequented the most fashionable London drawing-rooms, especially at Holland, Devonshire, and Melbourne houses. The dandies 'were always very civil' to Byron even 'though in general they disliked literary people' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 9.22). Literary friendships and acquaintances were soon formed, first with Moore, and then with Samuel Rogers, Sir Walter Scott, Coleridge, and Madame de Staël. Fascinated by the theatre, he attended often and became friends with the tragedian Edmund Kean and many other actors and actresses, eventually becoming a member of the committee of the Drury Lane Theatre in 1815. He visited Leigh Hunt in prison, and twice spoke in the House of Lords on the side of reform, once in February 1812 to oppose the repressive legislation against the frame-breakers in Nottingham, and once in April that year in support of Catholic emancipation. He was a member of the whig opposition, and his views grew increasingly radical until in 1814 he came under attack in the government papers. This hostility came to a head in 1815–16 in the campaign of vilification that surrounded the ‘separation controversy’ which drove Byron out of England forever.
Loves … and marriage
In 1812, however, the duchess of Devonshire recorded that 'Childe Harold … is on every table, and himself courted, visited, flattered and praised wherever he appears' ( Foster, 375–6). She also noted Byron's 'handsome countenance … animated and amusing conversation … in short, he is really the only topic almost of every conversation—the men jealous of him, the women of each other'. Over the next few years he formed a number of more or less intense and sometimes reckless liaisons, the most famous being with Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of William Lamb (later second Viscount Melbourne). Shortly after meeting Byron in spring 1812 Caroline wrote in her diary 'That beautiful pale face is my fate' ( Marchand, 1.331). With her fashionably short blond hair and slim, boyish figure she did not immediately appeal to Byron, but what she lacked in 'roundness' she made up for in vitality and startling conversation. At the height of their affair he wrote to her describing her as 'a little volcano … the cleverest most agreeable, absurd, amiable, perplexing, dangerous, fascinating little being that lives' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 2.170–71). But the boldness of her behaviour and reckless disregard for social conventions eventually alarmed and then bored Byron who turned instead to the more soothing 'autumnal charms' of Lady Oxford. Lady Caroline's famous diary description of Byron as 'Mad, bad and dangerous to know' is one that has been applied by several later commentators to herself. In autumn 1813 Lady Oxford, wife of Edward Harley, fifth earl of Oxford, whose children's varied paternity led to their being sometimes referred to after the famous collection of manuscripts in her husband's library as 'the Harleian miscellany', provided Byron with a calm refuge at Eywood, Herefordshire, away from Caroline's increasingly frantic attempts to see him. She encouraged his whig interests and Byron formed a plan to go abroad with the Oxfords the following summer.
In 1813 Annabella Milbanke (1792–1860) [see Noel, Anne Isabella, Lady Byron] opened a correspondence with Byron that was to culminate in their marriage in January 1815. In the same year Byron and his half-sister, Augusta, rediscovered each other. Since her marriage to Colonel George Leigh in 1807 Augusta had had little contact with Byron, but on meeting again they quickly became intimate friends. Although, as Leslie Marchand stated, 'the extant evidence that Byron had sexual relations with Augusta does not amount to legal proof', their relationship 'cannot be explained sensibly in any other terms' ( Marchand, Portrait, 148n.) That Byron was the father of Augusta's daughter Medora, who was born in 1814, is a recurrent theme of speculation. With no other woman did Byron feel more at ease, more able to get on, as he put it in his 'Epistle to Augusta' (1816) 'without a mask'.
During this time Byron's poetry poured forth—in satire, in various lyric forms, but mostly in the sequence of remarkable narratives that began with The Giaour and The Bride of Abydos (1813) and culminated with Parisina and The Siege of Corinth (1815). These were the works that defined and perfected the Byronic hero, whose initial incarnation was Childe Harold. Brooding throughout nineteenth-century European literature, the Byronic figure—usually an aristocrat—embodied a culturally alienated anti-hero, bearing within a dark secret that seemed as threatening to others as to himself. The popularity of Byron's oriental tales, which were coded with political allegory and personal references, was unprecedented. Ten thousand copies of The Corsair (1814)—the complete edition—sold out on the day of publication. All were written 'con amore and too much from existence' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 3.243). Murray, Byron's publisher and later friend, was growing rich from these successes and pressed Byron to accept payment for his poems. Despite his extreme financial difficulties Byron nobly refused. By 1814, however, he was so troubled by the severity of his debts that he accepted Murray's offer of £700 for the copyright of Lara which had just been published anonymously with Rogers's Jacqueline. Henceforth Byron drove increasingly hard bargains for the copyright of his work.
The climax of these tumultuous years came with Byron's marriage, separation, and departure from England. In the midst of his affair with Lady Caroline Lamb he had told Lady Melbourne, who was his epistolary confidante, of his interest in her niece Annabella Milbanke: 'I never saw a woman I esteemed so much' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 2.195). Keen to put an end to the affair between Byron and her daughter-in-law, Lady Melbourne made discreet enquiries to Annabella about the qualities she would look for in a husband. Her cool, analytical reply was unpromising but Byron was not put off and sent her a proposal of marriage. Taken by surprise, but doubtless flattered, for Byron had piqued her interest, she sent him a refusal. This he regarded as a 'mutual escape.—That would have been but a cold collation, & I prefer hot suppers' ( ibid., 2.246). She none the less encouraged Byron to maintain 'an acquaintance that does me honour and is capable of imparting so much rational pleasure' ( Marchand, Biography, 1.370). In view of her interest in mathematics, but in retrospect, prophetically, Byron referred to her as the 'Princess of Parallelograms': 'her proceedings are quite rectangular, or rather we are two parallel lines prolonged to infinity side by side but never to meet' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 2.231).
Their correspondence continued into 1814 when Annabella let Byron know that she would be willing to consider another proposal of marriage. Just at this time his financial situation improved as a result of a legal settlement in his favour. In 1812 Thomas Claughton had reneged on his offer to purchase Newstead and then refused to pay the £25,000 penalty he incurred for so doing. When the matter was settled in 1814 Byron's interest in marriage cooled somewhat. Hesitating between a visit to Italy and a renewal of his offer of marriage he finally proposed again—and was accepted. A marriage settlement of about £60,000 was arranged with the addition of handsome prospects from Annabella's uncle Thomas Noel, second Viscount Wentworth. Byron went to Seaham, co. Durham, in November to stay with Annabella and her parents, Sir Ralph and Judith, Lady Milbanke, who were uneasy about the match. Byron and Annabella were married on 2 January 1815 and spent their 'treaclemoon' (as Byron later referred to their wedding holiday) at Sir Ralph's property, Halnaby Hall, in Yorkshire.
The next thirteen months brought home the realization on both sides that for all their good intentions and fondness for each other (in his letters Byron addressed her as Pip and she called him 'dearest Duck') they had each made an appalling error of judgement. On their return journey to London Byron took his bride to meet his half-sister, Augusta, at her home in Six Mile Bottom, near Newmarket. In conversation he made several innuendoes that alarmed both women. At their London home at 13 Piccadilly Terrace, leased from the duchess of Devonshire, Byron became moody and behaved erratically, sometimes wildly, and Annabella became fearful and apprehensive. He taunted her cruelly with tales of his profligate past, and formed a liaison with the actress Susan Boyce. Still heavily encumbered with debt, Byron found no refuge from creditors and bailiffs in his marital home. Lady Byron, who had become pregnant in March, gave birth to a baby daughter, (Augusta) Ada [see Byron, (Augusta) Ada, countess of Lovelace] on 10 December 1815. The baby brought no respite to their domestic tension, and even Augusta Leigh, to whose appeals Byron was usually susceptible, was unable to relieve the black moods which nightly drove him out to the theatre and its green-room distractions. In early January 1816 Annabella decided that her husband was insane. She went through his private papers looking for evidence and began to plan a separation. Maintaining an appearance of affection, on 15 January she left with her child to visit her parents at Kirkby Mallory in Leicestershire. Byron never saw either of them again.
At the beginning of February Byron received a letter from Annabella's father (who had taken the name Noel on the death of Lord Wentworth the previous April) proposing that he agree to an amicable separation from his wife. Separation proceedings were undertaken, and afraid that Byron would claim custody of their child, Annabella determined to threaten Byron with infamous crimes. Her charge was inexplicit but rumours abounded. Byron was riven with tension and Augusta's fears of some terrible exposure were carefully nurtured by Annabella. Eventually his public and political enemies turned to the press to increase pressure on Byron and he was pilloried, much to Lady Byron's satisfaction. A deed of separation was signed on 15 April and Byron immediately left England, bitterly believing henceforward that he had been driven from his homeland.
Byron sailed from Dover to Ostend on 24 April 1816 seen off by his friends Hobhouse and Scrope Davies. He was accompanied by the physician Dr John Polidori, a Swiss named Berger, and two servants, Fletcher and Rushton. His equipage was elaborate and included a large Napoleonic coach with bed, library, and kitchen. He visited Waterloo and then travelled up the Rhine to Geneva where he settled in mid-June at the Villa Diodati on the south side of the lake. As he was travelling he had begun writing the third canto of Childe Harold on scraps of paper, and finished it during that summer. At Lake Geneva he met Shelley, Mary Shelley, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. Earlier in the spring Claire had besieged Byron in London and the association between the two poets that summer gave her the opportunity to come 'prancing to [him] at all hours', as the Shelleys had taken the Villa Montalègre just along the lake shore from the Villa Diodati ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 5.162). Byron grew tired of her before she returned at the end of August with the Shelleys to England. There she gave birth to a daughter, (Clara) Allegra Biron ('to distinguish her from little Legitimacy'), in January 1817 ( ibid., 6.7).
The summer had been 'tempest-tost'. Shelley and Byron had become good friends, to the annoyance of Byron's more conservative circle of friends at home. They toured the lake visiting places associated with Rousseau in La nouvelle Héloïse, and spent much time together writing and talking. One evening in June the party gathered in Byron's villa to tell each other ghost stories, a famous occasion that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein and Byron to begin writing a vampire novel. When he abandoned it, Polidori took up the idea and wrote The Vampyre. Byron finished the third canto of Childe Harold and wrote The Prisoner of Chillon and many shorter poems, including 'Darkness' and 'Prometheus'. A visit from the Gothic novelist M. G. ‘Monk’ Lewis spurred his interest in the story of Faust and he began Manfred (finished the following spring), in which the character of the Byronic hero is exposed to a deeper level than is manifest in Childe Harold.
When Hobhouse and Davies arrived in August the three made a tour of the Bernese Oberland which Byron recorded in his stunning 'Alpine journal' written for Augusta. Elegant, intimate, precise, and with an uncanny tonal flexibility, the journal is typical of Byron's prose writing:
Arrived at the Grindelwald—dined—mounted again & rode to the higher Glacier—twilight—but distinct—very fine Glacier—like a frozen hurricane—starlight—beautiful—but a devil of a path—never mind—got safe in—a little lightning—but the whole of the day as fine in point of weather—as the day on which Paradise was made.—Passed whole woods of withered pines—all withered—trunks stripped & barkless—branches lifeless—done by a single winter—their appearance reminded me of me & my family.Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 5.102
Byron was making plans for Italy. Davies returned to England with Rushton, and Byron and Hobhouse set off together on 5 October and visited Milan before arriving in Venice. Captivated by the city which 'has always been (next to the East) the greenest island of my imagination … I like the gloomy gaiety of their gondolas—and the silence of their canals' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 5.129, 132), Byron took lodgings with the Segatis. He fell in love with Marianna Segati, writing to Augusta that 'we are one of the happiest—unlawful couples this side of the Alps' ( ibid., 5.141). At about the same time Murray published the third canto of Childe Harold which Shelley had taken to him (together with other poems Byron had written in Switzerland) in manuscript. Byron improved his Italian (the 'soft bastard Latin' of which he wrote in Beppo) with Marianna and studied Armenian with Father Aucher at the monastery on the island of San Lazzaro. December saw the publication of The Prisoner of Chillon and Other Poems, and Hobhouse's departure for a tour of Italy with his brother and sister—he planned to meet Byron in Rome. Byron attended the conversazioni of the Countess Albrizzi, and feeling contented with his way of life he remained in Venice through the carnival, finally leaving for Rome via Arqua, Ferrara, Bologna, and Florence the following April. During the journey he began writing the autobiographical Lament of Tasso. At Rome he sat, at Hobhouse's request, to the Dane Bertel Thorvaldsen for a bust. The city 'delighted [him] beyond everything since Athens—& Constantinople' but he did not intend to remain long on this first visit, and by the end of May was back with Marianna in Venice ( ibid., 5.219). He had begun to sketch the fourth canto of Childe Harold.
Now that he was selling his poetry—Murray had paid £2000 for the works that Shelley brought back from Lake Geneva—Byron's finances began to improve. When Newstead was sold to Major Thomas Wildman for £94,500 in November 1818 he was able to clear his debts and begin to live well in Italy. His financial situation continued to improve for he was able to reach very favourable terms with Murray for all his writings. On the death of his mother-in-law, Lady Judith Noel, in 1822 he received an additional £2500 per annum from the Wentworth estate, so that by the end of 1822 his total income came to about £6000 a year. On returning to Venice he took a six-month lease on the Villa Foscarini at La Mira where he settled down to write for the summer. He finished the draft of canto 4 of Childe Harold in late June, just before Hobhouse and Monk Lewis came to stay. During August the tranquillity of his affair with Marianna Segati (who was staying with him at the Villa Foscarini) ruptured when she heard of Byron's infatuation with the beautiful Margarita Cogni (‘La Fornarina’), the wife of a baker. The complications of these amorous adventures form the source of much amusement in his letters home, but more importantly, they initiated a sequence of events that culminated in the writing of Beppo ('in two nights') early in October. Byron had read John Hookham Frere's Whistlecraft and, following Beppo, went on to study the Italian tradition of ottava rima serio-comic narrative medley poetry. This led him to translate the first canto of Pulci's Morgante Maggiore and, crucially, to begin his masterpiece Don Juan, the first canto of which was completed in September 1818.
Hobhouse left for England early in January 1818. Alone again, Byron plunged more deeply into the voluptuous life of Venice. From the conversazioni of the Countess Albrizzi he migrated to the more informal and literary parties of the Countess Marina Benzoni. In May he took on a three-year lease of the Palazzo Mocenigo on the Grand Canal in Venice, and shortly afterwards his natural daughter Allegra and her nurse Elise came to stay with him. (Desperately unhappy at giving up her daughter to Byron's care, Claire Clairmont was nevertheless bitterly aware that this would provide the child with a more socially secure future than to remain with her mother.) In August that year Byron placed Allegra in the care of his new friends, Richard Belgrave Hoppner, British consul at Venice, and his wife—his life at the Palazzo Mocenigo provided an unsuitable environment in which to care for a child. His household included fourteen servants, including Fletcher, his ferocious-looking gondolier, ‘Tita’ Falcieri, and Margarita Cogni, who acted as his housekeeper, as well as a menagerie of animals. Byron spent the summer indulging himself in food, conversation, and lovemaking. In August Claire and Shelley arrived in Venice. Allegra was sent to visit her mother at Este, and Byron and Shelley rode out on the Lido (an experience that was to form the basis of Shelley's poem 'Julian and Maddalo'). Though he gained in weight—Newton Hanson who brought out papers relating to the sale of Newstead for Byron to sign recorded that 'Lord Byron could not have been more than 30, but he looked 40. His face had become pale, bloated and sallow' ( Peach, 14)—Shelley thought he had 'changed into the liveliest, & happiest looking man I ever met' ( letter to T. L. Peacock, 8 October 1818, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. F. L. Jones, 1964, 2.483).
By November Byron had sent off the first canto of Don Juan to Murray. He was well aware that the work was as provocative as it was brilliant and he wanted to test the reactions of his publisher and his friends. To Moore he wrote 'It is called 'Don Juan', and is meant to be a little quietly facetious upon every thing' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 6.67). The response from every quarter, including Hobhouse and his banker and urbane friend Douglas Kinnaird, was the same: unpublishable. Byron protested 'Don Juan shall be an entire horse or none … I will not give way to all the Cant of Christendom', but to no avail, and early in 1819 seemed to acquiesce ( ibid., 6.91). With the return of the carnival, however, Byron flared up against the timidity of Murray and his London circle. When his publisher wrote to beg him to continue with Childe Harold or some other similar 'work and subject worthy of you' Byron retorted 'you have so many “divine” poems, is it nothing to have written a Human one?' ( ibid., 6.105). Threatening to find another publisher, Byron forced Murray's hand, and the first two cantos finally appeared, anonymously, and with some late and unauthorized expurgations, in July 1819. Murray also kept his name, as publisher, from the title-page of the handsome (and expensive) quarto volume, but this attempt to protect himself backfired badly for it left the work open to the maraudings of pirate printers who soon deluged the market with cheap reprints. Byron was more saleable than ever, in circumstances that promised scandal. Virginia Woolf described Don Juan as the most readable poem in the language, a view that few would gainsay. It is an opinion that can, however, obscure the poem's greatness. In English only The Canterbury Tales can compare in terms of stylistic brilliance, and no English poem—perhaps no novel—has aspired to, or achieved, such a comprehensive interpretative grasp of a period and a world. It is also the funniest poem in the language. To Kinnaird Byron wrote:
As to 'Don Juan'—confess—confess—you dog—and be candid—that it is the sublime of that there sort of writing—it may be bawdy—but is it not good English?—it may be profligate—but is it not life, is it not the thing?—Could any man have written it—who has not lived in the world?—and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney-coach? in a Gondola? Against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis a vis?—on a table?—and under it?ibid., 6.252
And he reassured Murray:
D[on] Juan will be known by and bye for what it is intended a satire on abuses of the present states of Society—and not a eulogy of vice;—it may be now and then voluptuous—I can't help that.ibid., 10.68
Byron used Don Juan as a vehicle to survey and explain the historical import and meaning, as he saw it, of the years 1788–1824: that is to say, the meaning of one of the defining moments in English and European history.
While the struggle over Don Juan continued in the spring of 1819, Byron met the young and beautiful Countess Teresa Guiccioli (1798–1873) one early April evening at the Countess Benzoni's. They were immediately attracted to each other and discussed Dante, Petrarch, and Italian literature with equal enthusiasm. Byron was taken with her lack of ‘bluestocking’ seriousness and wrote of his passion for this 'Romagnuola Countess from Ravenna—who is nineteen years old & has a Count of fifty … What shall I do! I am in love, and tired of promiscuous concubinage' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 6.107–8). They met privately and plunged quickly into an intense, if highly sentimental, affair. After ten days or so Count Guiccioli left with his young wife for his palazzo in Ravenna. Following their departure on 18 April they travelled slowly, stopping at several of the count's houses on the way. Under the cover of her maid, Fanny Silvestrini, Teresa and Byron exchanged passionate love letters, though they were unable to make arrangements to see one another. Byron chafed under the uncertainties, which became more troubling when Teresa fell ill in May. She had been pregnant for several months and her illness precipitated a miscarriage. Unable to tolerate these strained circumstances Byron left Venice for Ravenna at the beginning of June and arrived on 10 June.
Though Teresa had been seriously ill her health improved and soon she and Byron renewed their affair, cuckolding her husband even in his own house. Despite gossip about the lovers, Count Guiccioli maintained friendly relations with Byron. For his part, Byron became transfixed by contradictory feelings. His letters to England narrated his relations with Teresa in his inimitable prose, at once elegant and coarse: 'She is fair as Sunrise—and warm as Noon—we had but ten days—to manage all our little matters in beginning middle and end. & we managed them;—and I have done my duty—with the proper consummation' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 5.114). But he was deeply attached to his young amorosa. When the count left with his wife for Bologna early in August, Teresa commanded Byron to follow them. He obeyed and spent the next month fulfilling the role of cavaliere servente.
When Teresa suffered a relapse Byron offered to accompany her back to Venice and arrange medical attention. Count Guiccioli agreed and the lovers set off together, eventually settling into his house at La Mira. They spent the next two months more or less completely together, appearing little as Venetian society was scandalized by the openness of their affair. Teresa's father was concerned about her conduct and urged her to return to her husband. When Count Guiccioli arrived in Venice in October he demanded that his wife choose between himself and her lover, and when she chose Byron the affair reached a crisis. Byron persuaded Teresa to return with her husband to Ravenna, and she agreed only if he would follow. He did, late in December, as a consequence of a letter from Teresa's father whose opposition to the affair collapsed in the face of his daughter's unhappiness. Byron's decision to follow his mistress, however, might easily not have happened. Having grown restless and unsure of the stability of his own feelings, that autumn he began making plans to leave Italy. He toyed with various ideas—going to South America, buying a Greek island, or returning to England to join a revolution after the Peterloo massacre. But he hesitated, stopped by love, by inertia, and by circumstances including the sudden illness of his daughter Allegra. He completed the first instalment of his memoirs, begun the year before in Venice, and when Moore came on a short visit in October gave him the manuscript stipulating that it was only for posthumous publication. Notoriously, after his death the memoirs were burnt by a group of friends in a disastrous act of good intentions.
When Byron arrived in Ravenna he arranged to rent the upper floor of the Palazzo Guiccioli, and for several months this unusual arrangement superficially alleviated tension. Settling into a routine, Byron was writing at a remarkable rate. Two new cantos of Don Juan were completed as well as various other works, including his translation of the first canto of Pulci's Morgante Maggiore and The Prophecy of Dante. He also began the first of his plays at this time, Marino Faliero (Manfred is not a play but what Byron himself called a 'dramatic poem'). He completed Marino Faliero in July, and by the end of the year had finished a fifth canto of his masterpiece. Count Guiccioli's acquiescence in the domestic arrangements came to an end in the spring, when he seems to have become threatening towards Byron. He had a reputation for ruthlessness and cruelty, and although Byron had never experienced this facet of the count's behaviour, he grew cautious. With the aid of Teresa's father, Count Ruggiero Gamba, and her brother Pietro, he moved to bring to an end the volatile situation. He was prepared to give up Teresa, but she would not give up Byron. When the Guicciolis' separation decree arrived in July, Teresa returned to her father's country house in Filetto. Byron placed Allegra in a villa nearby, an arrangement that allowed him easily to visit both his lover and his daughter. The Gamba household was relaxed and happy. Their staunch liberal politics and Pietro's passionate and active involvement in the secret revolutionary society, which had recently spread to the Romagna, the Carbonari, reinvigorated Byron's political interests and drew him into a new set of less personal intensities. He began to spend more time at the Gamba house in Ravenna and reduced his visits to Teresa at Filetto. Unhappy in her country retreat, she moved back to her father's house in Ravenna in November. The end of the year 1820 saw Byron a nightly visitor to the Gamba household, deeply involved in love and politics.
The clashes between the Carbonari and the authorities brought severe counter-revolutionary measures, and the consequence was a series of set-backs for the insurgents. The Neapolitan revolution failed and the resistance movement in the Romagna collapsed, partly from internal problems. Byron became cynical with disappointment and began to think of pursuing his political ideals elsewhere, perhaps in Greece, where the struggle for independence had broken out in March 1821. His poetry at this time became a vehicle for interrogating and developing his ideas about love, society, politics, and culture. He wrote Sardanapalus, The Two Foscari, and Cain successively between January and July and published all three together in December 1821. Cain caused an immense furore and was vehemently attacked by religious and conservative writers. Between August and October he continued to produce important work, including 'The Vision of Judgement' and 'Heaven and Earth'. The last of his programmatic efforts to revive what he called a 'mental theatre' came in December 1821 and January 1822 when he began writing Werner and The Deformed Transformed.
Two crises precipitated out of this spiral of activity. The first was in July 1821 when Pietro Gamba was arrested while returning from the theatre. Together with about a thousand other families the Gambas were banished from the Romagna for their revolutionary activities. In these circumstances Count Guiccioli moved to recover his wife. Teresa fled to Florence where her father and brother had been given asylum. Byron was active in trying to persuade the government to repeal its order against the Gamba family, but the authorities also wanted to get rid of him and hoped that Byron would follow his friends. When Shelley arrived in August to visit Byron in Ravenna, Byron spoke of moving to Switzerland with the Gambas, but Shelley proposed instead that they all move to Pisa and stay in Italy. An important concern was the future of Allegra, whom Byron had placed in a convent at Bagnacavallo, near Ravenna, the previous spring. Shelley offered to find everyone accommodation in Pisa and Byron agreed. At the end of October he left Ravenna to join the Shelleys and the Gambas in Pisa. The move was exasperatingly ponderous. As Shelley later wrote to T. L. Peacock, Byron's household included comical complexities of transporting 'Besides servants', 'ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon … five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian crane' ( Marchand, Biography, 2.923).
The second crisis was literary. Byron's new writings, especially Cain and 'The Vision of Judgement', signalled his renewed determination to 'throw away the scabbard' as he wrote in his preface to Don Juan, cantos 7–8, and to engage in a serious intellectual war with the forces of reaction in England and Europe. He had stopped writing Don Juan at the request of Teresa, who found it too cynical, but in 1821 was making plans to resume work on the poem, which he did (secretly) in 1822, exactly at the moment the storm broke over Cain in England. His publisher and friend John Murray, cautious and conservative, was being drawn into embarrassing legal conflicts by his famous author. These had begun with the publication of the first two cantos of Don Juan and erupted again with Cain; others threatened with each new work Byron sent him. Murray had received 'The Vision of Judgement' but refused to publish it, and he procrastinated over other works such as 'The Blues'. He was beginning to find Byron's work intolerable and when he received the three new cantos of Don Juan in autumn 1822 he pronounced them 'outrageously shocking' and flatly refused to publish. The break at that point was complete and Murray turned the cantos over to John Hunt, brother of (James Henry) Leigh Hunt, who henceforth served as Byron's publisher.
But 1822 brought other turbulent and even more painful events. In 1821 Southey had published his turgid apotheosis of George III, A Vision of Judgement, which carried a preface attacking Byron as the chief exponent of what Southey called 'the Satanic School' of poetry. Byron had immediately written his own 'Vision' in response. A few months later Byron read Southey's more personal attack printed in The Courier (5 January 1822). This, combined with earlier reports of Southey's malicious gossip about him, caused Byron to issue the poet laureate a challenge through his friend Kinnaird, who wisely did not deliver it. Shortly afterwards, late in March 1822, Byron and the whole ‘Pisan circle’ had a violent altercation with a government soldier, Sergeant-Major Stefani Masi. As other soldiers came to Masi's aid, serious blows were exchanged and several arrests were made, though an uneasy settlement was finally reached. On 22 April came the terrible news that the five-year-old Allegra had died two days previously in the convent at Bagnacavallo. Her death was mourned by the whole circle in Pisa which, besides the Shelleys (with whom Allegra's mother, Claire Clairmont, then lived) and Byron, included an interesting, if also volatile, set of people. Among the residents and visitors were Edward and Jane Williams, E. J. Trelawny, Thomas Medwin, Captain John Hay, and (later) Leigh Hunt and his family.
Byron sought relief in his writing. He leased a house, the Villa Dupuy, in Montenero, near Leghorn, which at first was occupied by Trelawny and Captain Daniel Roberts who were overseeing the construction of two boats, a small sloop for Shelley (the Don Juan, which Shelley called the Ariel) and an elaborate schooner, complete with guns, for Byron (the Bolivar). Byron stayed at the villa from May until July while Leigh Hunt arrived with his family and moved into apartments in the Casa Lanfranchi, Byron's house in Pisa. Hunt was preparing to launch, with Shelley and Byron, a radical journal to be called (at Byron's suggestion) The Liberal. Byron's relations with the Hunts were strained, however, largely because, following his return, he found their children unruly and did not hesitate to complain. He later wrote to Mary Shelley that they were 'dirtier and more mischievous than Yahoos' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 10.11).
With the drowning of Shelley, Williams, and Charles Vivian in the Bay of Spezia on 8 July the ‘Pisan circle’ was broken. The news reached Byron at the Casa Lanfranchi on 11 July, and the bodies of Shelley and Williams were washed ashore on 16 July, near Viareggio. They were buried in the sand by the authorities on 18 July, but were exhumed and cremated on 15 August, at Mary Shelley's request, in a ceremony that has now become one of the legends of Romanticism. Byron was deeply affected and wrote to Moore:
We have been burning the bodies of Shelley and Williams on the sea-shore, to render them fit for removal and regular interment. You can have no idea what an extraordinary effect such a funeral pile has, on a desolate shore, with mountains in the back-ground and the sea before, and the singular appearance the salt and frankincense gave to the flame. All of Shelley was consumed, except his heart, which would not take the flame, and is now preserved in spirits of wine.Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 9.197
Afterwards Byron swam out, in the midday sun, to his yacht the Bolivar and back, a distance of about 3 miles, and was badly sunburnt. 'But it is over,—and I have got a new skin, and am as glossy as a snake in a new suit'. His letters home included eloquent tributes to Shelley whom he defended as 'the best and least selfish man I ever met' ( ibid., 9.189–90). 'Shelley is truth itself—and honour itself—notwithstanding his out-of-the-way notions about religion' ( ibid., 8.132). Byron kept his promise to Hunt and contributed substantially to the four issues of the journal that were published from October 1822 to July 1823. The satirical 'Letter to my Grandmother's Review', 'The Vision of Judgement', 'The Blues', 'Heaven and Earth', and the Morgante Maggiore translation all first appeared in The Liberal. With Byron's agreement the modest profit went entirely to Hunt. Since the death of his mother-in-law, Lady Noel, in January 1822, Byron had taken the name Noel (and used the signature Noel Byron); his share in the Wentworth estate had increased further his by now substantial income.
Though famous for his travels, Byron was reluctant to move when he had found an agreeable place, and the Casa Lanfranchi was certainly to his taste. Events, however, made it impossible for him to stay, and so in September, after a brief visit from his old friend Hobhouse, he set off by boat for Genoa with Teresa, Trelawny, and the Hunts. He moved into the palatial Casa Saluzzo situated on a hill at Albaro, where it overlooked Genoa harbour. There he settled into a comfortable life with Teresa, writing and receiving visits from old friends such as James Wedderburn Webster, and new acquaintances including Lady Blessington. He continued writing Don Juan (cantos 10–16 were written between October 1822 and May 1823) and also wrote his last tale, The Island, and last formal satire, The Age of Bronze, a dark meditation on the post-Napoleonic condition of Europe. The arrival of the Blessington party in April 1823 enlivened his desultory existence with some brief, if trivial, pleasures, later described in Lady Blessington's Conversations of Lord Byron (1834). Events in London, however, were moving towards a point where they would have a decisive impact on the last year of Byron's life and initiate the movement that brought his spectacular career to its famous climax.
In February the London Greek Committee, established to promote the cause of Greek independence, held its first meeting and decided that Edward Blaquiere should go to Greece to see what practical help might be given. Hobhouse, one of the committee's organizers, suggested that Blaquiere should stop off in Genoa to sound out Byron's interest. Byron had been thinking about Greece ever since the war for independence had broken out, and Blaquiere's visit fired his determination to 'go up to the Levant in July, if the Greek provisional Government think that I could be of any use' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 10.142). In April he was formally elected to the committee which enthusiastically endorsed his plan to go to Greece. On hearing from Byron of his plans Teresa was distressed, the more so as her brother Pietro determined to accompany Byron, and feared the worst. Her distress made departure difficult, but Byron was set on his course. He wrote to Kinnaird asking him to consolidate as many of his assets as possible, and Kinnaird put together a sum of about £10,000 for expenses, which included a plan to equip a small fighting force that would serve directly under Byron's command. His knowledge of the campaigns of Napoleon, his own great hero, had given him an understanding of the need of the Greeks for a figurehead. Like Napoleon he understood the value of impressive visual propaganda and ordered several splendid uniforms including a fine Homeric helmet (Newstead Abbey collections). Beneath the display, however, he also recognized the force of will that underpinned the politics of Napoleon.
'That Greece might still be free'
In mid-July Byron sailed for Greece aboard the Hercules. His party included Pietro Gamba, Trelawny, a young physician, Dr Francesco Bruno, Count Constantine Skilitzy (Schilizzi), who had asked for a passage to Greece, and five or six servants (including the faithful Fletcher, Tita, and his steward Lega Zambelli). Four of Byron's horses, two dogs (one of them Byron's Newfoundland Lyon), and other livestock took up the rest of the space. Byron's friend and banker in Genoa Charles Barry stayed behind to take care of his affairs in Italy while he was gone, for despite Teresa's fears, Byron's intention was to return. In the meantime, Teresa went to the house of her old friend and teacher, Paolo Costa, in Bologna.
Byron's original plan was to sail to Zante, but he decided instead on Cephalonia during a brief stopover in Leghorn where the party was joined by James Hamilton Browne, a Scot who had served in Ionia and was sympathetic to the revolutionary cause. They arrived at Argostoli, Cephalonia, on 2 August. Byron settled into quarters in Metaxata and sought information about the military and political situation from various English and Greeks. The British resident, Colonel Charles Napier, was especially helpful, as were George Finlay and Colonel Leicester Stanhope (who arrived slightly later). Byron quickly saw how vexed circumstances were because of the conflicts between different revolutionary leaders. As the representative of the London Greek Committee Byron had to proceed with caution, which irked Browne and Trelawny, who set out early in September on their own to join the Greek forces in the Morea. Byron remained in Cephalonia with Pietro Gamba multiplying his Greek contacts and assessing information he was gathering as a prelude to action. When Prince Alexander Mavrocordatos, who eventually became first president of independent Greece, moved to Missolonghi in December he invited Byron to join him and his forces. Byron decided that this was the right move and left shortly after Christmas to join the forces of western Greece. The short journey proved harrowing because their passage was intercepted by a Turkish vessel, and Byron was forced to seek shelter near Dragomestre. Arriving at Missolonghi on 4 January 1824 Byron met with a great reception. As he sailed into the harbour each ship in the Greek squadron fired a salute as his small vessel passed by.
Byron, eager for action and pleased with Mavrocordatos, undertook to support a force of 500 Suliote soldiers for a year. Plans were made for various expeditions including an assault on Lepanto to be led by Byron. But the Greeks were difficult to deal with, particularly the fiercely independent Suliotes, and Byron began to chafe under delays and complications that increased daily. His mood is captured in the memorable lines 'On this day I complete my thirty-sixth year', which he wrote on 22 January, thinking of the conflicting claims of love and war, and particularly of Loukas Chalandritsanos, the Greek boy he brought with him from Cephalonia. When the firemaster William Parry arrived in February with long-awaited and much needed supplies, Byron's enthusiasm for the cause revived, not least because of Parry's own energetic character.
In the midst of these changes of mood came an ominous incident. Conversing with Parry and others on the evening of 15 February, Byron collapsed in a violent convulsion. Though he slowly recovered, his constitution was severely weakened, and his spirits continued to be discouraged by the ineffectual state of the Greek military situation. The Lepanto expedition was abandoned and many of Byron's Suliote troops decided to leave. To Parry and Findlay, Byron despaired of ever being able to give practical help to the Greek cause. The weather was wet and the low-lying area of marshy land around Missolonghi did nothing to improve Byron's precarious state of health.
On the rainy morning of 10 April, after returning from a ride, Byron complained of pain and fever. His physicians attended him closely but he slipped into a decline. On 14 April he suffered bouts of delirium which became increasingly severe. By 16 April it was clear that he was dangerously ill and his room became the focus of a large and various group of worried friends, servants, and physicians. The next day Byron told one of his medical attendants that:
Your efforts to preserve my life will be vain. Die I must: I feel it. Its loss I do not lament; for to terminate my wearisome existence I came to Greece.—My wealth, my abilities I devote to her cause.—Well: there is my life to her.Marchand, Biography, 3.1224
As he slipped in and out of consciousness over the next two days he talked of his sister Augusta and his daughter Ada and made provision for Tita and Loukas and others; and he rambled, as if he were in battle, fighting for Greece. Glimpsing Tita weeping at his bedside he smiled and said 'Oh questa è una bella scena' ( ibid., 1225). It was his old servant, Fletcher, who heard his last words: 'I want to sleep now'. A tremendous storm broke on the night Byron died.
The news of his death on the evening of 19 April was a heavy blow to the Greek forces, but it proved a turning point in their fortunes and helped them unite as they came together to honour a man who gave his life 'that Greece might still be free'. News of his death did not reach England until mid-May, but it shook the nation. Contrary to his wish to be buried in Greece, Byron's body was sent home to England where it arrived in the Thames estuary aboard the Florida on 29 June. Some wanted Byron buried in Westminster Abbey but the dean, Dr Ireland, refused. Augusta, however, had determined that he should be buried in the family vault at Hucknall Torkard church near Newstead; after a lying in state for two days (on 9–10 July) a cortège of forty-seven carriages accompanied Byron's hearse out of London. Many were empty and had been sent out of courtesy to Hobhouse who wrote in his diary (12 July 1824) that 'He was buried like a nobleman—since we could not bury him as a poet' ( Marchand, Biography, 3.1260). In an important sense, however, a new life began for Byron in 1824. No English writer except Shakespeare acquired greater fame or exercised more world influence.
'Pretensions to permanency'
Images of Byron circulated widely during his lifetime and after his death rapidly became more widely distributed in Europe than those of any other individual except perhaps Napoleon. 'Lord Byron's head', wrote Scott's son-in-law J. G. Lockhart, 'is without doubt the finest in our time. It is better on the whole than either Napoleon's, or Goethe's, or Canova's or Wordsworth's' ( Lockhart, 2.338). These images have been of central importance to the cultural transmission of his life and of Byronism more broadly conceived.
The most celebrated portraits are those by George Sanders (mentioned above), whose Romanticized figure of Byron, based on the famous Apollo Belvedere (Vatican Museum, Rome), became widely known in the nineteenth century through its engraving by William Finden for Moore's Life of Byron; Richard Westall (1813; NPG), whose portrait, painted shortly after he completed a series of illustrations for Childe Harold, cantos 1 and 2, depicts a pale, melancholic Byron, clearly identifiable with the narrative hero of the Pilgrimage; Thomas Phillips (half-length, 1813; several versions, including one at Newstead Abbey; and in Albanian dress, 1814; Gov. Art Coll., HM embassy, Athens; half-length copy, NPG). Both Phillips's portraits were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1814 and caused a sensation. The glamorous, exotic portrait in Albanian dress re-emerged via engravings after the original passed to Byron's daughter, Ada, in 1835, but it was not until the second half of the twentieth century when it entered a national collection that it acquired the status of a cultural icon. The American painter William Edward West, who painted Byron at Montenero in 1822 (versions in Scot. NPG and Harrow School), took a version of his portrait back to America and there painted more copies that helped to make this image one that became, through engravings, perhaps more familiar to American readers than those at home.
Of the two well-known busts of Byron that by Lorenzo Bartolini (1822; plaster model, Gipsoteca Bartoliniana, on loan to Pitti Palace, Florence; first marble version, the South African Library, Cape Town) Byron thought made him look like 'a superannuated Jesuit' ( Letters and Journals, ed. Marchand, 9.214). (Byron had sat to Bartolini at the sculptor's request, and probably because he was intrigued to meet an artist who had served in Napoleon's army and to whom the emperor himself had sat for a bust.) The other, by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1817; plaster model, Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen; first marble copy, Royal Collection), forms, in neo-classical terms, an ideal head, and its beauty recalls Scott's description of Byron's head as 'an alabaster vase lit from within' ( Peach, 43). Thorvaldsen later sculpted the fine memorial statue of Byron in the handsome library, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, at Trinity College, Cambridge.
'As for fame and all that': posthumous reputation
'Famous in [his] time', Byron became a legend after his death. His influence on the art, music, and literature of the nineteenth century can scarcely be calculated, eclipsing even that of Sir Walter Scott. This influence is more notable perhaps in Europe and America than in England, however, partly because of the evangelical moralism that was gaining momentum even in Byron's lifetime and which went on to mould the Victorian ethos. Satire itself—Byron's stylistic signature—went out of fashion in the age of Victoria. Byron and his work thus reflect the contradictions within Victorian England—as the ambivalent responses of Carlyle, Tennyson, and Arnold to his work illustrate. The ambivalence is explicit in Carlyle's Sartor Resartus and in Arnold's famous essay on the poet; it is implicit—if unmistakable—in all Tennyson's poetry, perhaps especially in his Maud.
Middle-class Victorian moralism preserved for Byron a twentieth-century afterlife, as one may see in the scandalous event of 1924, the centenary of Byron's glorious death fighting for the freedom of Greece. A petition for a Byron memorial in Westminster Abbey was refused by Herbert Ryle, the dean at the time, despite the strong support of notable figures like Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and three former prime ministers. 'The Abbey is not a mere literary Valhalla', Ryle declared: 'Byron, partly by his openly dissolute life and partly by the influence of licentious verse, earned a world-wide reputation for immorality among English-speaking people' ( M. H. Fitzgerald, Herbert Edward Ryle, 1928, 321–2). Not until 1968 did Eric Abbott as dean at last endorse a petition from the Poetry Society for a memorial, for which a ceremony of dedication was held on 8 May 1969.
In the nineteenth century Byron's fame and influence flourished 'among English-speaking people', quite apart from those who were most responsible for perpetuating the official culture: that is to say, among the working classes, on one hand, and on the other hand among those who struggled against the growing power of the middle-class values of imperial Britain. Byron's uncompromising commitment to liberty of thought, word, and act made him a heroic figure to those who opposed the growth of the power of the state, not least among the Chartists during the 1830s and 1840s. The mid-century defeat of that movement marks a watershed in Byron's English afterlife. Whereas his name, his words, and his image were inspiring presences during the years of the Chartist struggle, afterwards Byron's contempt for the established order shaped him as the figure 'in the wilderness' that Blake had already recognized and addressed in 1822 in his brief prophetic work The Death of Abel. Byron's Romantic, aristocratic, and fiercely independent character thereafter made him an equivocal presence even among those, like the suffragists, who might have enlisted him in their causes. This was at least as true inside as outside the orbit of 'English-speaking people'. In the British labour movement, for example, Michael Foot's steady and passionate adherence to Byronic values has been the exception rather than the rule. From the middle of the twentieth century, however, Byron emerged once again as a figure of real inspiration in a broad social context. This signal change was clearly driven by the emergence of the gay rights movement, where the idea and ideal of heroism itself was finally stripped of its bourgeois trappings. In the domain of ideology the change was forecast in the remarkable work of G. Wilson Knight, whose writings in the 1930s (The Christian Renaissance, 1933, and The Burning Oracle, 1939) must now be seen as prophetic.
But if Victorian unease moulded the contradictions of Byron's fame in England and, in the twentieth century, 'among English-speaking people', a very different story emerges elsewhere. No fastidious moralism infects the majestic and clearly Byronic power of Emily Brontë's work, but in England she represents a band of angels who were following a different drummer—a heterogeneous group of libertarians, atheists, and activists for human and individual rights. That band largely mustered elsewhere: in America, for example, with authors like Poe and Melville, or on the continent among the host of Byron-influenced European writers, musicians, and artists from Goethe and Pushkin and Stendhal, Delacroix and Verdi, through Baudelaire, Berlioz, Wagner, Lautréamont, Nietzsche. In Britain Byron's impact remained strong in all Gothic writing as well as in the fiction of the ‘silver fork’ and dandy tradition, including Disraeli, Bulwer Lytton, and Thackeray (who abused Byron for his lack of ‘sincerity’); within this group, Byronic appearance in dress and hairstyle was important. Disraeli secured Giovanni Falcieri (‘Tita’), Byron's gondolier, as a family servant, and as prime minister in 1875 arranged for his widow to receive a pension. Most of Byron's nineteenth-century English inheritors, however, were marginal figures like Letitia Elizabeth Landon, John Clare, and Arthur Hugh Clough.
Celebrity and influence were always connected to the mythology of Byron's extraordinary life. Whether through admiration or disgust, Byron in propria persona was seen—is still correctly seen—as an essential figure in the written work, so ‘biographical criticism’ has established the framework for the reception and evaluation of his literary works. This begins with the first of the biographies, Thomas Moore's magnificent Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, with Notices of his Life (2 vols., 1830). Fascination with Byron spawned a host of subsequent biographies, many excellent, which show no sign of abatement. The standard life is Leslie Marchand's magisterial Byron: a Biography (3 vols., 1957; rev. in 1 vol. as Byron: a Portrait, 1970).
As Britain consolidated her imperial power Byron's cultural status slowly shed its notoriety. A cultural ideology emerged, not least in the literary world, flowing through Arnold from sources in Wordsworth and Coleridge. Emphasizing formal and moral-thematic concerns and devaluing political, historical, and biographical issues, this tradition peaked in the mid-twentieth century. During that period, significant Byron scholarship was firmly located in textual, historical, and biographical areas. E. H. Coleridge's edition of the Poetry appeared together with R. E. Prothero's edition of Letters and Journals under the uniform title The Works of Lord Byron (12 vols., 1898–1904) and both superseded the great early edition of the prose and poetry edited by Thomas Moore and John Wright (17 vols., 1832–3). The new edition, which dominated Byron studies for more than fifty years, provoked and underwrote a series of key scholarly works.
Despite such scholarship, the early twentieth-century critical and interpretative lines of work left Byron at the margin of cultural and literary studies. This happened because Byron seemed an inappropriate writer for academic and pedagogical purposes. His influence remained strong largely in the genre work he so strongly marked—the Gothic—and in the writing of a few key cultural figures like Wilde and Joyce. The emergence of film as an artistic form—perhaps the major art form of the twentieth century—preserved Byron's influence and presence in some of its key genres: adventure, film noir, and the inexhaustible Gothic. Visual aspects of the Byronic combined with mood and tone to create in the 1950s and 1960s a strongly defined anti-heroic attitude or stance apparent in roles played by actors such as James Dean and Marlon Brando. Byronism made an impact, too, on the images assumed by some of the more outrageous rock stars of the 1960s. The fast rhythm and excesses of his life that became synonymous with Byron are now recognized as part of the pattern of celebrity. The continuing appeal of this glamorous aspect of Byronism reflects the intense cultural interest in the individuality of the self that lies at the heart of Romanticism. Byron's afterlife in popular culture was a crucial factor in his re-emergence after the Second World War in the high-cultural venue of post-modernism where parody, satire, wit, and an ethos of irony regained cultural authority.
Two scholarly events of 1957 mark the year as an epoch in the history of Byron's reception: the publication of Leslie Marchand's biography, and T. G. Steffan and W. W. Pratt's variorum edition of Don Juan (4 vols., 1957; rev. 1971). These two works stimulated and inspired, first, the complete re-editing of the works of Byron, and second, a massive re-evaluation of Byron's significance as a writer and cultural force. Marchand went on to re-edit Byron's Letters and Journals (12 vols., 1973–82; supp. vol., 1994); Jerome McGann edited Lord Byron: the Complete Poetical Works (7 vols., 1980–93); and Andrew Nicholson edited Lord Byron: the Complete Miscellaneous Prose (1991). After 1957 critical and interpretative Byron scholarship gained a new freedom through the emergent post-modern ethos. The studies by Robert Escarpit, Lord Byron: un temperament littéraire (2 vols., 1955–7), Paul West, Byron and the Spoiler's Art (1960), Andrew Rutherford, Byron (1961), and M. K. Joseph, Byron the Poet (1964), inaugurated a fertile period of critical work. The watershed came, however, in 1967–9 when Robert F. Gleckner's Byron and the Ruins of Paradise, McGann's Fiery Dust: Byron's Poetic Development, and Michael Cooke's The Blind Man Traces the Circle appeared in successive years. These three books changed the landscape of Byron literary studies, and in their wake followed a trenchant period of critical exploration of the poetry.
Interest in visual representations of Byron was marked by Sir David Piper's chapter on 'Byron and the Romantic image' in The Image of the Poet (1982), which was followed by an entry for Byron in Richard Walker's catalogue National Portrait Gallery, Regency Portraits (2 vols., 1985). Annette Peach's comprehensive catalogue 'Portraits of Byron' was published in the Walpole Society (2000). Interest in Byron as a cultural phenomenon continues to stimulate interdisciplinary work among, for example, historians of art, fashion, and culture.
Biographical, critical, visual, and cultural approaches to Byron identify his pre-eminent status within English and European Romanticism. On a broader canvas they illuminate the vital energy and self-determination that define Byron's individuality as an iconic figure who gave his life in the cause of liberation.
- Letters and journals of Lord Byron, with notices of his life, ed. T. Moore, 2 vols. (1830)
- Lord Byron: the complete poetical works, ed. J. J. McGann, 7 vols. (1980–93)
- The works of Lord Byron: letters and journals, ed. R. E. Prothero, 6 vols. (1898–1904)
- parish register, Marylebone, St Mary, 1 March 1788, LMA [baptism]
- E. J. Lovell, ed., His very self and voice (1954)
- E. J. Lovell, ed., Medwin's conversations of Lord Byron (1966)
- I. Origo, The last attachment (1949)
- Lord Byron: the complete miscellaneous prose, ed. A. Nicholson (1991)
- Lord Byron: poetry, ed. E. H. Coleridge, 7 vols. (1898–1901)
- E. J. Lovell, ed., Lady Blessington's conversations of Lord Byron (1969)
- D. L. Moore, Lord Byron: accounts rendered (1974)
- M. Elwin, Lord Byron's wife (1962)
- M. Elwin, The Noels and the Milbankes (1967)
- M. Elwin, Lord Byron's family, ed. P. Thompson (1975)
- S. Hyman, ‘Contemporary portraits of Byron’, Lord Byron and his contemporaries, ed. C. E. Robinson (1982), 204–36
- A. Peach, ‘Portraits of Byron’, Walpole Society, 62 (2000), 1–144
- V. Foster, ed., The two duchesses (1898)
- V. Walker, The house of Byron, rev. M. J. Howell (1988)
- B. W. Procter [Barry Cornwall], An autobiographical fragment and biographical notes, ed. C. Patmore (1877)
- Memoirs of Lady Hester Stanhope, ed. C. L. Meryon, 3 vols. (1845), vol. 3, p. 219
- [J. G. Lockhart], Peter's letters to his kinsfolk, 2nd edn, 3 vols. (1819), vol. 2, p. 338
- H. B. Stowe, Lady Byron vindicated (1870)
- E. C. Mayne, Lord Byron's correspondence (1922)
- T. J. Wise, A bibliography of the writings … of Byron (1933)
- P. Quennell, Byron: the years of fame (1935)
- P. Quennell, Byron in Italy (1941)
- P. Quennell, Byron: a self-portrait (1950)
- H. Nicholson, Byron: the last journey (1924)
- D. N. Raymond, The political career of Lord Byron (1924)
- J. Drinkwater, The pilgrim of eternity (1925)
- C. du Bos, Byron et le besoin de la fatalité (1929)
- W. J. Calvert, Byron: Romantic paradox (1925)
- E. Boyd, Don Juan (1945)
- F. L. Randolph, Studies for a Byron bibliography (1979)
- D. L. Moore, Ada, countess of Lovelace (1977)
- P. Gunn, My dearest Augusta (1968)
- W. St Clair, That Greece might still be free (1972)
- R. F. Gleckner, Critical essays on Lord Byron (1991)
- A. Levine and R. N. Keane, eds., Rereading Byron (1993)
- C. E. Robinson, ed., Lord Byron and his contemporaries (1982)
- M. Kelsall, Byron's politics (1987)
- P. Graham, Byron and regency England (1990)
- J. Christensen, Lord Byron's strength (1993)
- J. Soderholm, Fantasy, forgery, and the Byron legend (1996)
- J. McGann, Byron and Romanticism (2001)
- G. Ridenour, The style of ‘Don Juan’ (1960)
- A. Horn, Byron's ‘Don Juan’ and the eighteenth-century English novel (1962)
- E. E. Bostetter, ed., Twentieth-century interpretations of ‘Don Juan’ (1969)
- A. B. England, Byron's ‘Don Juan’ and eighteenth-century literature (1975)
- J. McGann, ‘Don Juan’ in context (1976)
- A. Barton, Byron: Don Juan (1992)
- O. J. Santucho, George Gordon, Lord Byron: a comprehensive bibliography of secondary materials in English, 1807–1974 (1977)
- C. T. Goode, Lord Byron: a comprehensive, annotated research bibliography of secondary materials in English, 1973–1994 (1997)
- BL, accounts relating to Newstead Abbey and Rochdale Manor, Add. MS 62910
- BL, corresp. and papers relating to his separation from his wife
- BL, deeds, Add. Ch 72100–72103
- BL, letters and notebooks, loan 70
- Bodl. Oxf., verse, papers, and corresp.
- Harrow School, Middlesex, letters and memorabilia
- Hunt. L., letters and literary MSS
- King's School, Canterbury, pocket book
- Morgan L., corresp., literary MSS, and papers
- NL Scot., John Murray archive, papers
- Ransom HRC, corresp., literary MSS, and papers
- Yale U., Beinecke L., papers
- BL, letters to John Hanson, Egerton MS 2611
- BL, corresp. with Lord Holland, Add. MS 51639
- BL, letters to John Cam Hobhouse and Douglas Kinnaird, Add. MS 42093
- BL, Ashley library
- BL, corresp. with Lady Melbourne, Add. MS 45547
- BL, letters to John Murray
- Bodl. Oxf., Lytton papers
- Indiana University, Bloomington, Lilly Library, letters, papers, and drawings
- NL Scot., letters to Edward Ellice
- NYPL, Berg collection
- RA, corresp. with Thomas Lawrence
- UCL, letters to Samuel Rogers
- V&A NAL, letters to Leigh Hunt
- E. Pigot, miniature, 1807 (of Byron's right eye), priv. coll.
- E. Pigot, ten watercolour drawings, 1807, Ransom HRC
- G. Sanders, double portrait, oils, 1807–8 (with Robert Rushton), Royal Collection
- G. Sanders, miniature, 1809, priv. coll.
- G. H. Harlow, chalk drawing, 1815, priv. coll.
- J. Holmes, miniature, 1815–16; whereabouts unknown; copies, priv. coll.
- B. Thorvaldsen, bust, first marble copy, 1817, Royal Collection
- B. Thorvaldsen, bust, plaster model, 1817, Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen
- G. H. Harlow, chalk drawing, 1818, priv. coll.
- L. Bartolini, bust, first marble copy, 1822, National Library of South Africa, Cape Town
- L. Bartolini, bust, plaster model, 1822, Palazzo Pitti, Florence
- W. E. West, oils, 1822, Scot. NPG; copy, Harrow School
- T. Phillips, oils, 1835 (version of oils, 1814), NPG
Wealth at Death
approx. £100,000 with two settlements (marriage) of £64,000 and £16,000 reverting to Lady Byron and Ada Byron: Byron's letters and journals, ed. Marchand; Moore, Lord Byron
- Murray family (per. 1768–1967), publishers
- Noel [née Milbanke], Anne Isabella [Annabella], suo jure Baroness Wentworth, and Lady Byron (1792–1860), philanthropist
- Byron, (Augusta) Ada [married name (Augusta) Ada King, countess of Lovelace] (1815–1852), mathematician and computer pioneer
- Hodgson, Francis (1781–1852), college head and poet
- Clairmont, Clara Mary Jane [Claire] (1798–1879), a member of the Shelley–Byron circle
- Pigot, Elizabeth Bridget (1783–1866), friend and correspondent of Lord Byron
- Hobhouse, John Cam, Baron Broughton (1786–1869), politician
- Hunt, (James Henry) Leigh (1784–1859), poet, journalist, and literary critic
- Westall, Richard (1765–1836), painter and illustrator
- Sanders, George (1774–1846), portrait painter
- Byron, John (1723–1786), naval officer
- Marchand, Leslie Alexis (1900–1999), literary scholar