Amongst Byron's best-known works are the brief poems "She walks in beauty," and "So, we'll go no more a-roving," and the narrative poems Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan. He is regarded as one of the greatest European poets and remains widely read and influential, both in the English-speaking world and beyond.
Byron's fame rests not only on his writings but also on his life, which featured extravagant living, numerous love affairs, debts, separation, and marital exploits. He was famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know.
Byron served as a regional leader of Italy's revolutionary organization the Carbonari in its struggle against Austria. He later travelled to fight against the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence, for which Greeks revere him as a national hero. He died from a fever in Messolonghi in Greece.
Byron was born in a house on Hollis Street in London, the son of Captain John "Mad Jack" Byron and his second wife, the former Catherine Gordon, heiress of Gight in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Byron's paternal grandparents were Vice-Admiral John "Foulweather Jack" Byron and Sophia Trevanion. Vice Admiral John Byron had circumnavigated the globe and was the younger brother of the 5th Baron Byron, known as "the Wicked Lord."
He was christened George Gordon at St Marylebone Parish Church, after his maternal grandfather, George Gordon of Gight, a descendant of King James I. This grandfather committed suicide in 1779. Byron's mother Catherine had to sell her land and title to pay her husband's debts. John Byron may have married Catherine for her money and, after squandering it, deserted her. Catherine regularly experienced mood swings and bouts of melancholy.
Catherine moved back to Scotland shortly afterward, where she raised her son in Aberdeen. On 21 May 1798, the death of Byron's great-uncle, the "wicked" Lord Byron, made the 10-year-old the 6th Baron Byron, inheriting the title and estate, Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, England. His mother proudly took him to England. Byron only lived at his estate infrequently as the Abbey was rented to Lord Grey de Ruthyn, among others, during Byron's adolescence.
In August 1799, Byron entered the school of William Glennie, an Aberdonian in Dulwich. Byron would later say that around this time and beginning when he still lived in Scotland, his governess, May Gray, would come to bed with him at night and "play tricks with his person." According to Byron, this "caused the anticipated melancholy of my thoughts--having anticipated life." Gray was dismissed for allegedly beating Byron when he was 11.
Byron received his early formal education at Aberdeen Grammar School. In 1801 he was sent to Harrow, where he remained until July 1805. He represented Harrow during the very first Eton v Harrow cricket match at Lord's in 1805. After school he went on to Trinity College, Cambridge.
From 1809 to 1811, Byron went on the Grand Tour then customary for a young nobleman. The Napoleonic Wars forced him to avoid most of Europe, and he instead turned to the Mediterranean. Correspondence among his circle of Cambridge friends also suggests that a key motive was the hope of homosexual experience, and other theories saying that he was worried about a possible dalliance with the married Mary Chatsworth, his former love (the subject of his poem from this time, "To a Lady: On Being Asked My Reason for Quitting England in the Spring.") He travelled from England over Spain to Albania and spent time at the court of Ali Pasha of Ioannina, and in Athens. For most of the trip, he had a traveling companion in his friend John Cam Hobhouse.
While in Athens, Byron had a torrid love affair with Nicolò Giraud, a boy of 15 or 16 who was teaching him Italian. Byron sent Giraud to school at a monastery in Malta and bequeathed him seven thousand pounds sterling – almost double what he was later to spend refitting the Greek fleet. The will, however, was later cancelled (MacCarthy, p.135).
Kept indoors at the Villa Diodati by the "incessant rain" of "that wet, ungenial summer" over three days in June, the five turned to reading fantastical stories, including "Fantasmagoriana", and then devising their own tales. Mary Shelley produced what would become Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus and Polidori was inspired by a fragmentary story of Byron's to produce The Vampyre, the progenitor of the romantic vampire genre. Byron's story fragment was published as a postscript to Mazeppa; he also wrote the third canto of Childe Harold. Byron wintered in Venice, pausing his travels when he fell in love with Marianna Segati, in whose Venice house he was lodging, and who was soon replaced by 22-year-old Margarita Cogni; both women were married. Cogni could not read or write, and she left her husband to move into Byron's Venice house. Their fighting often caused Byron to spend the night in his gondola; when he asked her to leave the house, she threw herself into the Venetian canal.
In 1817, he journeyed to Rome. On returning to Venice, he wrote the fourth canto of Childe Harold. About the same time, he sold Newstead and published Manfred, Cain, and The Deformed Transformed. The first five cantos of Don Juan were written between 1818 and 1820, during which period he made the acquaintance of the young Countess Guiccioli, who found her first love in Byron, who in turn asked her to elope with him. It was about this time that he received a visit from Thomas Moore, to whom he confided his autobiography or "life and adventures," which Moore, Hobhouse and Byron's publisher, John Murray, burned in 1824, a month after Byron's death.
Allegra is not entitled to the style "The Hon." as is usually given to the daughter of barons since she was illegitimate. Born in Switzerland in 1817, Allegra lived with Byron for a few months in Venice; he refused to allow an Englishwoman caring for the girl to adopt her, nor for her to be raised in the Shelleys' household. He wished for her to be brought up Catholic and not marry an Englishman. He made arrangements for her to inherit 5,000 lira upon marriage or reaching age 21, provided she did not marry a native of Britain. However, the girl died at five years old of a fever in Bagna Cavallo, Italy while Byron was in Pisa; he was deeply upset by the news. He had Allegra's body sent back to England to be buried at his old school, Harrow, because Protestants could not be buried in consecrated ground in Catholic countries. At one time he himself had wanted to be buried at Harrow. Byron was indifferent towards Allegra's mother, Claire Clairmont.
In 1816, Byron visited Saint Lazarus Island in Venice where he acquainted himself with Armenian culture through the Mekhitarist Order. He learned the Armenian language from Fr. H. Avgerian and attended many seminars about language and history. He wrote "English grammar and the Armenian" in 1817, and "Armenian grammar and the English" (1819) in which he quoted samples from classical and modern Armenian. He participated in the compilation of "English Armenian dictionary" (1821) and wrote the preface where he explained the relationship of the Armenians with and the oppression of the Turkish "pashas" and the Persian satraps, and their struggle of liberation. His two main translations are the "Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians", several chapters of Khorenatsi's "Armenian History" and sections of Lambronatsi's "Orations". When in Polis he discovered discrepancies in the Armenian vs. the English version of the Bible and translated some passages that were either missing or deficient in the English version. His fascination was so great that he even considered a replacement of Cain story of the Bible with that of the legend of Armenian patriarch Haik. He may be credited with the birth of Armenology and its propagation. His profound lyricism and ideological courage has inspired many Armenian poets, the likes of Fr. Ghevond Alishan, Smbat Shahaziz, Hovhannes Tumanyan, Ruben Vorberian and others.
Byron had a bust sculpted of him by Bertel Thorvaldsen at this time.
In 1821 to 1822, he finished Cantos 6–12 of Don Juan at Pisa, and in the same year he joined with Leigh Hunt and Percy Bysshe Shelley in starting a short-lived newspaper, The Liberal, in the first number of which appeared "The Vision of Judgment." His last Italian home was Genoa, where he was still accompanied by the Countess Guiccioli, and where he met Charles John Gardiner, 1st Earl of Blessington and Marguerite, Countess of Blessington and provided the material for her work Conversations with Lord Byron, an important text in the reception of Byron in the period immediately after his death.
Byron lived in Genoa until 1823 when— growing bored with his life there and with the Countess— he accepted overtures for his support from representatives of the movement for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. On 16 July, Byron left Genoa on the Hercules, arriving at Kefalonia in the Ionian Islands on 4 August. He spent £4000 of his own money to refit the Greek fleet, then sailed for Messolonghi in western Greece, arriving on 29 December to join Alexandros Mavrokordatos, a Greek politician with military power. During this time, Byron pursued his Greek page, Lukas Chalandritsanos, but the affections went unrequited. When the famous Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen heard about Byron's heroics in Greece, he voluntarily resculpted his earlier bust of Byron in Greek marble.
Mavrokordatos and Byron planned to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth. Byron employed a fire-master to prepare artillery and took part of the rebel army under his own command and pay, despite his lack of military experience, but before the expedition could sail, on 15 February 1824, he fell ill, and the usual remedy of bleeding weakened him further. He made a partial recovery, but in early April he caught a violent cold which the bleeding — insisted on by his doctors — aggravated. The cold became a violent fever, and he died on 19 April. It has been said that had Byron lived, he might have been declared King of Greece.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson would later recall the shocked reaction in Britain when word was received of Byron's death. The Greeks mourned Lord Byron deeply, and he became a hero. The national poet of Greece, Dionysios Solomos, wrote a poem about his unexpected loss, named "To the Death of Lord Byron. Βύρων (Vyron), the Greek form of "Byron", continues in popularity as a masculine name in Greece, and a suburb of Athens is called Vyronas in his honour.
Byron's body was embalmed, but the Greeks wanted some part of their hero to stay with them. According to some sources, his heart remained at Messolonghi. According to others, it was his lungs, which were placed in an urn that was later lost when the city was sacked. His other remains were sent to England for burial in Westminster Abbey, but the Abbey refused for reason of "questionable morality. Huge crowds viewed his body as he lay in state for two days in London. He is buried at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham.
At her request, Ada Lovelace, the child he never knew, was buried next to him. In later years, the Abbey allowed a duplicate of a marble slab given by the King of Greece, which is laid directly above Byron's grave. Byron's friends raised the sum of 1,000 pounds to commission a statue of the writer; Thorvaldsen offered to sculpt it for that amount. However, when the statue was completed in 1834, most British institutions it was offered to turned it down for more than 10 years as it remained in storage-- the British Museum, St. Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the National Gallery in turn. Trinity College, Cambridge finally placed the statue of Byron in its library.
In 1969, 145 years after Byron's death, a memorial to him was finally placed in Westminster Abbey.The memorial had been lobbied for since 1907; The New York Times wrote, "People are beginning to ask whether this ignoring of Byron is not a thing of which England should be ashamed... a bust or a tablet might put in the Poets' Corner and England be relieved of ingratitude toward one of her really great sons."
Upon his death, the barony passed to a cousin, George Anson Byron, a career military officer and Byron's polar opposite in temperament and lifestyle.
Byron's magnum opus, Don Juan, a poem spanning 17 cantos, ranks as one of the most important long poems published in England since Milton's Paradise Lost. The masterpiece, often called the epic of its time, has roots deep in literary tradition and, although regarded by early Victorians as somewhat shocking, equally involves itself with its own contemporary world at all levels—social, political, literary and ideological.
Byron published the first two cantos anonymously in 1819 after disputes with his regular publisher over the shocking nature of the poetry; by this time, he had been a famous poet for seven years and when he self-published the beginning cantos, they were well-received in some quarters. It was then released volume by volume through his regular publishing house. By 1822, cautious acceptance by the public had turned to outrage, and Byron's publisher refused to continue to publish the works. In Canto III of "Don Juan," Byron expresses his detestation for poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
He believed his depression was inherited, and he wrote in 1821, "I am not sure that long life is desirable for one of my temper & constitutional depression of Spirits."
Byron was noted even during his time for the extreme loyalty he inspired in his friends. Hobhouse said, "No man lived who had such devoted friends."
From birth, Byron suffered from an unknown deformity of his right foot, causing a limp that resulted in lifelong misery for him, aggravated by the suspicion that with proper care it might have been cured. However, he refused to wear any type of mechanical device that could improve the limp, although he often wore specially made shoes that would hide the deformed foot.
Byron and other writers such as his friend John Cam Hobhouse left detailed descriptions of his eating habits. From the time that he entered Cambridge he went on a strict diet to control his weight. He also exercised a great deal and at that time wore a great number of clothes to cause himself to perspire. For most of his life he was a vegetarian and often lived for days on dry biscuits and white wine. Occasionally he would eat large helpings of meat and desserts, after which he would purge himself. His friend Hobhouse claimed that when he became overweight, the pain of his deformed foot made it difficult for him to exercise.
While Byron first welcomed fame, he later turned away from it by going into voluntary exile from Britain.
Byron also kept a bear while he was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge (reputedly out of resentment of Trinity rules forbidding pet dogs—he later suggested that the bear apply for a college fellowship). At other times in his life, Byron kept a fox, monkeys, a parrot, cats, an eagle, a crow, a crocodile, a falcon, peacocks, guinea hens, an Egyptian crane, a badger, geese, and a heron.
The re-founding of the Byron Society in 1971 reflects the fascination that many people have for Byron and his work. This society has become very active, publishing a learned annual journal. Today some 36 International Byron Societies function throughout the world, and an International Conference takes place annually. Hardly a year passes without a new book about the poet appearing. In the last 20 years, two new feature films about him have screened, and a television play has been broadcast.
Byron exercised a marked influence on Continental literature and art, and his reputation as a poet is higher in many European countries than in Britain or America, although not as high as in his time, when he was widely thought to be the greatest poet in the world. Byron has inspired the works of Franz Liszt and Giuseppe Verdi.
Byron is the main character of the film Byron by the Greek film maker Nikos Koundouros.
Byron is an immortal still alive in modern times in the hit television show Highlander: The Series in the fifth season episode "The Modern Prometheus," living as a decadent rock star.
Tom Holland, in his 1995 novel The Vampyre, romantically describes how Lord Byron became a vampire during his first visit to Greece— a fictional transformation that explains much of his subsequent behaviour towards family and friends, and finds support in quotes from Byron poems and the diaries of John Cam Hobhouse. It is written as though Byron is retelling part of his life to his great great-great-great-granddaughter. He describes traveling in Greece, Italy, Switzerland, meeting Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley's death and many other events in life around that time. The Byron as vampire character returns in the 1996 sequel Supping with Panthers.
Byron appears as a character in Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard (1989) and Walter Jon Williams' novella Wall, Stone Craft (1994), and also in Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004).
Byron and Percy and Mary Shelley are portrayed in Roger Corman's final film Frankenstein Unbound, where the time traveler Dr. Buchanan (played by John Hurt) meets them as well as Victor von Frankenstein (played by Raul Julia).
The Black Drama by Manly Wade Wellman involves the rediscovery and production of a lost play by Byron (from which Polidori's The Vampyre was plagiarised) by a man who purports to be a descendant of the poet.
Television portrayals include a major 2003 BBC drama on Byron's life, and minor appearances in Highlander: The Series (as well as the Shelleys), Blackadder the Third, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, and episode 60 (Darkling) of Star Trek: Voyager.
He makes an appearance in the alternative history novel The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. In a Britain powered by the massive, steam-driven, mechanical computers invented by Charles Babbage, he is leader of the "Industrial Radical Party," eventually becoming Prime Minister.
The events featuring the Shelleys' and Byron's relationship at the house beside Lake Geneva in 1816 have been fictionalized in film at least three times.
The brief prologue to Bride of Frankenstein includes Gavin Gordon as Byron, begging Mary Shelley to tell the rest of her Frankenstein story.
The writer and novelist, Benjamin Markovits, is in the process of producing a fictional trilogy about the life of Byron. Imposture (2007) looked at the poet via his friend and doctor, John Polidori. A Quiet Adjustment, which came out in January 2008, is an account of Byron's marriage more sympathetic to his wife, Annabella, than many of its predecessors. He is currently writing the third installment.
Byron is portrayed as an immortal in the book, "Divine Fire," by Melanie Jackson.