xxxxxIn 1812 the English poet George Gordon Byron (Lord Byron) gained overnight success with the first part of his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Tracing the journey of a moody, disillusioned young man as he travelled across distant, exotic places, it caught the public’s imagination. A string of similar verse tales, made attractive by their foreign landscapes and historical settings, also proved popular, but by 1816 his life of debauchery - and notably his affair with his own half-sister Augusta - had broken up his marriage and brought widespread condemnation. As a result he left England, never to return. He settled in Italy for much of his time, and it was here that he wrote his masterpiece, Don Juan, a work very different in tone, in which he used the life and loves of this legendary Spanish figure to launch a satirical attack upon human wickedness and weakness. The folly of war and the pressures for social conformity were his main targets. And it was this rebellion against the “expected”, this love of the exotic, and this enthusiasm for personal and political freedom, seen in his work and within his own personality, which were the very hallmarks of Romanticism and Liberalism. When, in 1824, he journeyed to Greece to take part in the country’s fight for independence, his death from a fever made him a Greek national hero, and it captured the imagination of the whole of Europe. At its best, his verse is noted for its beauty, its powerful imagery and its satirical and cynical humour, and his letters have thrown light on both the man and the myth.

GEORGE GORDON BYRON (LORD BYRON) 1788 - 1824  (G3b, G3c, G4)


Byron: by the English portrait painter Richard Westall (1765-1836), 1813 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Lamb: detail, by the English portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), 1805 – Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, England. Shelley: by the English artist Alfred Clint (1807-1883), 1819 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Hunt: by the English painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846), c1811 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Missolonghi: steel coloured engraving, drawn by the British artist William Purser (1789-1852), and engraved by the English artist Edward Finden (1791-1857), 1834. Chillon: by the French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), 1875 – Musée Municipal, Lons-le-Saunier, Franche-Comté, France. Moore: 1800/05, artist unknown – National Portrait Gallery, London.

xxxxxThe English poet George Gordon Byron was born in London, and at the age of ten unexpectedly inherited the title and estates of his great uncle William, the 5th Baron Byron. He and his mother went to live at Newstead Abbey, the dilapidated ancestral home in Nottinghamshire, and after attending Harrow School, near London, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge. Here he enjoyed a life of leisure and debauchery, accumulated substantial debts and, being bisexual by nature, fell in love with a young choirboy. His first work, Hours of Idleness, published in 1807, was not particularly well received in the columns of the Edinburgh Review and, characteristically, he took his critics to task two years later in a highly satirical poem entitled English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.

xxxxxIn that same year, 1809, he embarked on a grand continental tour with John Cam Hobhouse, a friend he had made at Cambridge. They sailed to Lisbon, travelled across Spain, and reached Greece by way of Gibraltar and Malta. Here he found the warm weather and the moral tolerance of the Greeks much to his liking. They then journeyed to Constantinople before returning to England, arriving there in July 1811. This tour gave him the backcloth for his romantic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, started during his travels. The first two cantos of this verse tale, published in 1812, were a huge overnight success. Describing the journey of a disillusioned, broody young man as he travelled to faraway places and became embroiled in dramatic events, it caught the imagination of the public. “I woke up one morning”, Byron later wrote, “and found myself famous!”

xxxxxOver the next four years he followed up this phenomenal success with a string of equally gloomy, self-analysing tales in verse, again made romantically attractive by their foreign landscapes, their historical settings and the troubled minds of their moody but attractive heroes. These included The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Siege of Corinth, and The Corsair - a work which sold 10,000 copies on its day of publication. These narrative poems, together with Childe Harold, gave birth to the “Byronic hero”, a perplexed, passionate young man who shuns the company of others and is weighed down by an inexplicable sense of guilt - as indeed Byron sometimes was.

xxxxxBut his literary success, immense though it was, was soon overshadowed by the excesses of his private life. Indeed much of his writing at this time reflected his own mixed feelings, ranging through a gamut of sensations from guilt to euphoria. Young and handsome, of noble birth, and a rebel against society, he was never short of admirers. His many love affairs and conquests in these years included Lady Oxford and the eccentric Lady Caroline Lamb (illustrated), who regarded her lover as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. In January 1815 he married the somewhat plain and serious-minded Annabella Milbanke - mainly, it would seem, for her money - but the marriage was doomed from the start. She gave birth to a daughter, Augusta Ada, at the end of the year, but she then left him in January 1816 amid accusations that he was having intimate relations with his married half sister Augusta (from his father’s first marriage). This alleged affair evoked an unprecedented public scandal within a society already shocked by his bisexual activities. Openly shunned on account of what was seen as unacceptable behaviour (even for those times), he agreed to a legal separation from his wife and, hurt by this public show of moral indignation, left for France in April 1816. He never returned.

xxxxxHe sailed up the Rhine and settled for a while in Geneva in a villa overlooking the lake. Here he met up with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Godwin (the future Mary Shelley), and began writing his poetic drama Manfred, a pessimistic reflection upon man’s earthly stay which doubtless mirrored his own frame of mind at this time. And to this period belongs the third canto of Childe Harold and the narrative poem The Prisoner of Chillon. From Geneva he moved to Venice, and it was here at the Plazzo Mocenigo on the Grand Canal that he began work on his masterpiece Don Juan. In this long serious-cum-comic epic - doubtless influenced by the easy-going Italian life-style he was then enjoying - he broke free from the melancholia and soul-searching which had dominated much of his work (notably Childe Harold and Manfred) and showed in commendable measure the satire, the wit and the humour which had marked his very early pieces. Don Juan, a verse-romance written in a smooth, elegant style and based very loosely on the life and loves of the legendary Spanish adventurer, provided a convenient platform from which to launch a scornful, satirical attack upon human wickedness and weakness. Especially in his sights were the current rulers of Europe, the folly and futility of war, and the hypocritical social conventions of the day - including those “governing” sexual behaviour. It was a work which was to engage him for the rest of his life and still remain unfinished.

xxxxxMeanwhile, however, his private life had again become the subject of much gossip in Venetian society, despite its more tolerant attitude towards amorous pursuits. Perhaps because of this, in 1819 he took off once more, travelling around northern Italy. In Pisa he again met Shelley (illustrated left), and in early 1822 they went to Leghorn (now Livorno) to meet up with the poet Leigh Hunt (illustrated right). Together they produced a radical journal The Liberal, and, despite the tragic death of Shelley, drowned off the coast of Italy in the July, a number of issues were published. The first one contained The Vision of Judgment, a brilliant satirical parody in response to criticism made of him by the poet Robert Southey. Also produced at this time was his narrative poem Mazeppa, based on a Cossack leader’s fight for the independence of the Ukraine. And by then, too, he had started an affair with the Countess Teresa Gambia Guiccioli, a young married woman. Through her family he became a member of the Carbonari, and gave money in support of this revolutionary movement to free Italy from Austrian rule.

xxxxxBy 1823 Byron had moved to Genoa to live with Teresa, but domestic life did not fit in with his temperament. Inspired by the efforts then being made by the Greeks to overthrow their Turkish masters, he raised a small rebel band and in the July set out for the island of Cephalonia off the west coast of Greece. There he helped to prepare the Greek fleet for action, contributing to the cost, and then made for the port of Missolonghi to join the rebel forces.

xxxxxOn arrival at Missolonghi he was made a brigade commander and, so we are told, did much to rally the troops for their task ahead, but at the beginning of April 1824 he was taken ill with a fever and died later that month. “It is proper that I should remain in Greece,” he is alleged to have said during his illness, “and it is better to die doing something rather than nothing”.

xxxxxHe died a Greek national hero, and his death and the manner of it, “came upon London like an earthquake”, as one newspaper put it. The English writer Thomas Carlyle spoke for many when he said that Byron was the noblest spirit in Europe. Regardless of his earlier indiscretions, there was much to be admired in a man of noble birth and literary talent who was prepared to fight and die for the weak and oppressed - especially in the colourful, ancient land of democracy. Nevertheless, when his body was brought back to England, it was refused burial in Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and was laid to rest in the family vault near Newstead. It was not until 145 years later, that a memorial plaque to his memory was placed on the Abbey’s floor.

xxxxxAs a writer and, indeed, as a person, Byron exemplified the wayward spirit of the romantic movement, with its bitter rejection of social conformity, its love of the exotic, and its bounding enthusiasm for political as well as personal freedom. Indeed, so popular did his works become, and so well known his private life, that he himself came to personify Romanticism and Liberalism throughout Europe. The moody, melancholy aloofness of Childe Harold - the creator of the disillusioned “Byronic hero” - and the biting satire and ready wit of Don Juan, pouring scorn as it did on the stupidity and absurdities of humanity, were two strands of romanticism which had a profound effect upon the Sturm und Drang movement and European literature in general. Particularly influenced were French writers like Victor Hugo, Alphonse de Lamartine, Alfred de Vigny and Alfred de Musset, but his impact was felt as far away as Russia, where the writer Alekandre Pushkin particularly admired his verse.

xxxxxAmong Byron’s other works were the biblical “mystery” Cain, the tragedy Sardanapalus, woven around the legendary king of Assyria, and The Island, based on the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789 - all published in the early 1820s. Other references in his poems include those to Nelson and Trafalgar, Napoleon and Waterloo, Wellington and a host of writers and poets, past and present. And there was too, of course, his mocking attack upon Robert Southey, and his round condemnation of Lord Elgin for what he regarded as his blatant vandalism. The width and of depth of his interests were truly remarkable. It must be said that his poetry was not of a consistently high standard - he was often more concerned with content than quality - but some of his verse, particularly his lyrics, have a beauty all of their own, and many of his lines are notable for their satirical and cynical humour, or the powerful image they create. Important, too, are his letters. Casually but superbly written, they, like Childe Harold and Don Juan, throw much light upon Byron the man, and the myth that came to surround him. Few literary men - personality and talent combined - have captured the imagination of Europe to such an extent.

xxxxxIncidentally, it is not always appreciated that Byron was badly crippled all his life. He was born with a badly deformed right foot and lower leg. He often walked with a limp, but the full extent of his disability was not realised until his friend, Edward John Trelawny, examined Byron’s corpse soon after arriving at Missolonghi. Later, recording his discovery, he wrote: “This was a curse, chaining a proud and soaring spirit like his to the dull earth”. ……

xxxxx…… Byron’s Turkish tale The Bride of Abydos refers to the Greek legend Hero and Leander, a tragic love story in which Leander is drowned one stormy night while swimming across the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles) to visit his loved one. When Byron visited Turkey in 1810 he decided to swim across this narrow strait to prove that it could be done. Despite his physical handicap, he succeeded at the third attempt! ……

xxxxx…… When up at Cambridge, Byron used to keep a tame bear in his rooms. Later in life, when living in Venice, he kept a small zoo in his apartments. ……

xxxxx…… His Prisoner of Chillon was inspired by a visit he once made to the castle of Chillon near Montreux in Switzerland. There he learnt of the plight of Bonivard, the prior of St. Victor’s, Geneva, who, arrested for supporting the city’s independence movement, was chained to a pillar in the dungeon and kept shackled there for four years. He was eventually freed in 1536. During his visit Byron signed his name on one of the pillars. ……

xxxxx…… EdwardxJohn Trelawny (1792-1881) was a friend of both Byron and Shelley. It was he who organised Shelley’s cremation at Viareggio, Italy, in 1822 (after his drowning at sea), and arranged for the return of Byron’s body to England after his death at Missolonghi, Greece in 1824. He retired to England after an adventurous life, and in 1858 published Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron. This, like his autobiography Adventures of a younger son, published earlier in 1831, was regarded by some critics as containing fiction as well as fact. In London he numbered among his friends the writers Algernon Charles Swinburne, Edward Lear and Robert Browning, and the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais.

xxxxxA few of Byron’s more memorable lines are given below:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;

And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,

When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee. ….

And there lay the rider, distorted and pale,

With the dew on his brow and the rust on his mail;

And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,

The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.      (The Destruction of Sennacherib)


The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece!

Where burning Sappho loved and sung,

Where grew the arts of war and peace,

Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!

Eternal summer gilds them yet,

But all, except their sun, is set. ….

The mountains look on Marathon –

And Marathon looks on the sea;

And musing there an hour alone,

I dream’d that Greece might still be free;

For standing on the Persians’ grave,

I could not deem myself a slave.        (Don Juan)


She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes:

Thus mellow’d to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.


And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow,

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent.   (Hebrew Melodies)



All tragedies are finished by a death,

All comedies are ended by a marriage.  (Don Juan)


There is a tide in the affairs of women

Which taken at the flood, leads - God knows where!  (Don Juan)




xxxxxThexIrish poet and satirist Thomas Moore (1779-1852) wrote a biography of Byron. Today, however, he is best remembered for his Irish Melodies, which included the words for The Minstrel Boy and The Last Rose of Summer. His major prose work, The Memoirs of Captain Rock, published in 1824, was a powerful indictment of current British policy in Ireland. His best poetic piece was the narrative poem Lalla Rookh of 1817, an extravagant Oriental fantasy which proved highly popular. At one time, to assist him with his biography, Byron gave him his memoirs, but, following his death in 1824, Byron’s family insisted that they be burned. And, regrettably, they were.