In this essay I shall attempt to discuss, very briefly, the life of the poet George Gordon Byron, sixth Lord Byron (b. 1788–d. 1824), and his two seminal works: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan along with Hours of Idleness and English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.
In the year 1809 Lord Byron, along with his close friend John Cam Hobhouse, left Falmouth in a ship bound for Portugal and for the next two years travelled through Portugal, Spain and the Eastern Mediterranean to Albania. During his time abroad, Byron began to work on a long narrative poem about a nobleman known as Harold who, like himself, escapes his wretched woes by doing what many of his aristocratic contemporaries were doing at that time, and embarking on a Grand Tour. Harold was, quite notably, the first ‘Byronic Hero’; a protagonist characterised as a melancholy young man, brooding on some mysterious and unforgivable past event. He is depicted in the opening stanzas of the poem as “a shameless wight, Sore given to revel and ungodly glee.” The first canto of this poem was published in 1812 by John Murray and it was sold out almost immediately. It was said by Byron that upon its publication “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”
Byron was born into an aristocratic family but at no point did he ever expect to become a lord; by which it is meant that his grandfather, who was an admiral known as Foul-Weather Jack (because of his frequent encounters with bad weather at sea) was the son of an old aristocratic family known as the Byrons; a family whose lineage is traced back to a man named John Byron, a Royalist who was ennobled and thus given lands by Charles I for his support during the English Civil War of 1642. Byron’s father, Captain Byron, was a British Army officer who served with the Coldstream Guards and was best known as John “Mad Jack” Byron.
He lived a very profligate and debauched lifestyle, spending much of his time in the local brothels, pubs and gambling dens. He left the Guards and shortly thereafter met an heiress named Amelia Osborne, married her and had a daughter named Augusta (Byron’s half sister, whose future becomes very much entangled with his). Amelia died one year later, in 1784, and so “Mad Jack,” drowning in debt, was then forced to find another wealthy heiress to turn into a wife. He soon met a Scottish girl named Catherine whom, despite having a rather plain and ungainly appearance, he married for money. In 1788 Catherine produced a son named George Gordon Byron. He then ended the relationship (after spending all of her fortune) and in 1891 died of consumption, thus leaving the young Byron to be brought up in near poverty by his bankrupt and widowed mother.
Byron was born with a club foot, a deformity that troubled him greatly both physically and mentally. He was always acutely conscious of his foot and this played into his feelings of being an outsider, thus making him somewhat vulnerable and unsure of his place in the world. Many painful operations were undertaken in his early years to straighten out his foot, however despite assistance from the leading physicians of the day (such as Matthew Baillie), no permanent solution was ever found.
To somewhat shorten the story: Byron attended, until the age of ten, the local Aberdeen Grammar School; received his title after the death of his uncle (the “Wicked Lord Byron”) and was sent to Harrow to complete his schooling under the tutelage of Henry Drury, during which he wrote his first collection of poems published in 1807 entitled Hours of Idleness.
It can be said that Hours of Idleness is Byron’s first widely published work. It was originally printed and published by S. and J. Ridge of Newark, and is the collective title for a great number of Byron’s earlier poems. Hours of Idleness is partly based on two of his earlier, privately published works, namely Fugitive Pieces and Poems on Various Occasions. The preface to the book somewhat angered reviewers, as it was written in a way in which it simultaneously appeared overly humble and yet conceited. He mentions many times, in a vain attempt to appear modest, his youthfulness and lack of worldly experience.
Although the work was initially published anonymously, he later had it published, rather pretentiously, as ‘George Gordon, Lord Byron, a Minor.’ The Edinburgh Review gave a particularly savage review of the book, deemed by them to be largely derivative, which not only crushed Byron’s spirits but—due to the sheer hostility on their part—also caused him to become enraged. Henry Brougham, the man responsible for the review, concluded: “We must take these poems as we find them, and be content, for they are the last we shall ever have from him.” Upon the publication of the review, Byron wrote to Hobhouse (his Cambridge compatriot), “As an author, I am cut to atoms by the E[dinburgh] Review. It is just that it has completely demolished my little fabric of fame.” Byron, at this point, honestly believed that the review had ended all of his literary hopes; a notion which drove him to considerable despair.
In response to the scathing review of his book Hours of Idleness, Byron wrote English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (originally entitled British Bards, a Satire) in which he vents his resentment by attacking the editor, along with the other writers of The Edinburgh Review. He did not simply, however, pour scorn over his critics; he also decimated many of the major and minor poets of the day along with his guardian the Earl of Carlisle, with whom he had fallen out due to Carlisle’s refusal to introduce him in the House of Lords.
No muse will cheer with renovating smile,
The paralytic puling of Carlisle.
The puny schoolboy, and his early lay.
Men pardon, if his follies pass away;
But who forgives the senior’s ceaseless verse,
Whose hairs grow hoary as his rhymes grow worse?
What heterogeneous honours deck the peer!
Lord, rhymester, petit-maître, pamphleteer!
Although the poems were published anonymously, everybody was well aware that they were written by Byron. He savages Erasmus Darwin, a man he thought ridiculous: “But not in flimsy Darwin’s pompous chime, that mighty master of unmeaning rhyme.” Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge were, likewise, denigrated among other members of the British literary establishment. This publication was undeniably responsible for capturing the attention of the establishment, not least because it was written so brilliantly and with a great deal of passion.
After finishing up at Trinity College, Cambridge (in 1809), Byron decided to travel to Europe on a Grand Tour (a tradition upheld by many of his young aristocratic contemporaries at that time). The reason for his departure, however, appears somewhat puzzling. One of the main theories is that he felt shackled by England’s strict laws regarding homosexuality and wanted to experience the sort of sexual freedom that was not yet available in that “tight little island”. Another reason was that he perhaps wanted to explore the classical world of Greece, then a core part in every gentleman’s schooling. It would not be difficult to believe that he would have enjoyed visiting the sites with which he would have felt a certain fondness for; the places vividly described in books written by Homer and Plato, which he doubtlessly would have read as a young scholar.
Sometime during this journey, Byron began to write Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. It was said Byron wrote it as a response to Hobhouse asking him to burn his journal which contained intimate details of the acts he had indulged whilst abroad. The poem is written in Spenserian stanza (eight lines of iambic pentameter followed by a twelve-syllable iambic line) presumably because he had read a huge amount of Edmund Spenser’s work whilst he was at Cambridge. In the early drafts of the poem, Childe Harold was called Childe Burun; a name he changed half way through canto one because it resembled too closely his own. The “Childe” in Childe Harold is a standard title for the son of a nobleman who has not yet attained knighthood, or has not yet won his spurs. By entitling his poem as such, Byron was undertaking a quest to prove himself to the world.
Although Byron resolutely claimed the poem to be fictitious, it was very much based on his own experiences. Harold (the protagonist) is somewhat heavily influenced by Byron and possesses many of his own personal traits: he is highly intelligent, well-educated, sophisticated, but also dissolute, capricious, melancholy and promiscuous. It is said that Harold is one of the three Byronic doubles, along with Manfred and Don Juan; two major characters he would later create. Byron was able to set himself aside from his contemporaries both past and present by offering what was, at the time, an unconventional travelogue.
Whereas Spenser’s patriotic and nationalistic pilgrimages played into the whole antiquarian ideal of fashioning a gentleman, Childe Harold turned out to be rather different. It was initially published by John Murray as a travelogue; a misunderstanding that wrong-footed both the reviewers and the public alike. It quickly became clear, however, that the book was very much a narrative romaunt blended into a travelogue with satirical and Wordsworthian descriptive elements. The preface describes Harold as “a fictitious character, introduced for the sake of giving some connection to the piece” in which a series of incidents are recounted, namely love affairs and battles. Byron begins with a poem entitled “To Ianthe,” an acknowledgement to his muse; a very young girl by the name of Lady Charlotte Harley (Lady Oxford’s daughter) with whom Byron had fallen in love. The thought of her would likely have given him the inspiration he needed to beautifully describe the landscape in which Harold travelled.
As the narrator, the principle character and the author appear to meld together; it becomes difficult to identify with any precision what is based on Byron’s real life exploits and what is the work of his imagination. Byron writes “whence his name and lineage long, it suits me not to say.” This is a casual dismissal of any discussion regarding his protagonist’s background and a likely response to the comments he received from The Edinburgh Review in which he was ridiculed for making such a big deal of his noble background. The opening stanzas describe Harold as a “shameless wight” who is evading justice after committing “a thousand nameless crimes”.
But there is, of course, another explanation for Harold’s self-imposed exile from England: the misery of unrequited love, “Had sigh’d to many though he lov’d but one, and that loved one, alas! could ne’er be his.” This sentence presents the idea that Byron is going through a transformation. He no longer wishes to continue down his current dissolute path; he is ready for a change. Harold, like Byron, leaves behind “His house, his home, his heritage, his lands” and all the things that, in the past, delighted him so thoroughly, and moves on. This is not a story of redemption, however. His aim is not for us to see Harold gradually move, in the moral spectrum, from dark to light. It is, rather simply, a description of Harold’s journey, during which he witnesses the bloodshed and waste of the Peninsular War; savage sights, such as the bullfight in Cadiz and the tragedy of Greece’s decline from ancient glory.
The first two cantos of the poem closely mirror Byron’s own journey, for instance: in Lisbon, Harold mentions that the “dingy denizens are reared in dirt,” something that was often complained about in Portugal by British travelers at that time. He also complains about The Convention of Sintra, an agreement in which Britain allowed the French to retreat with their weapons out of Portugal. At the end of canto one, Byron describes two battles (merged into one), namely Talavera and Albuera. Canto two presents Harold’s journey through Greece and Albania, during which he laments the state of the crumbling Athenian buildings along with the tyranny of the Ottoman Empire. In the third canto, the journey takes Harold to Waterloo, and then into Switzerland. There he talks about the sublimity of the landscape—in quasi Wordsworthian fashion—as well as the unpleasantness of all the fighting that had occurred during the Peninsular War. Harold continues to trudge on “proud though in desolation” to his final destination in canto four: Italy. He begins it by saying: “I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs.” This rather telling observation is an admission that Harold’s journey is actually Byron’s journey. Here Harold visits several notable cities, such as Florence and Rome; and is disillusioned once more by the fall of another mighty civilization. The narrative poem ends with no definitive conclusion. There is the idea, however, that Harold is a better person having experienced the journey, and that it has inspired him to contemplate his own existence.
Byron’s return to Britain was immediately marked with tragedy as two weeks after his arrival, he was given word that his mother was dying. This news may not have shocked Byron, as during his trip abroad he had received several letters from his mother in which she wrote that she was very ill. A day later, she was dead. On the date of her death, Byron had received an optimistic prognosis from his mother’s doctor stating that she was not in any imminent danger. Knowing that such a letter would result in much consternation, Mr. Marsden (her doctor) immediately instructed a servant to notify Byron of his mother’s passing. In a letter sent to one of Byron’s correspondents, he wrote with dismay: “My poor mother died yesterday! I heard one day of her illness, the next of her death!” Catherine Byron’s affliction, to this day, remains a mystery as there is no record of the cause. Rumors made by the townspeople, however, characterised her as a drunk who was oftentimes reduced to the point of stupor.
There was also a hilariously farcical claim in which it was maintained that she died from “a fit of rage, brought on by reading over the upholsterer’s bills.” Upon glimpsing into his mother’s room and observing her lifeless body, Byron broke down. He sat by her bedside and gave way to grief, “Oh Mrs. By, I had but one friend in the world, and she is gone!” In his stricken state, Byron found it impossible to accompany his mother’s remains to her final resting place in the family vault at Hucknall Torkard. He instead ordered a young servant by the name of Robert Rushton to a boxing match, and pummeled him senselessly. This was perhaps, at that time, Byron’s only way of expressing grief.
The following year began quiet and inauspiciously for Byron. He was to make his maiden speech in the House of Lords, an event for which he had spent much time preparing. The speech itself was both long and splendid; it was, however, not terribly well received. His speech, not lacking in any grandeur, was in opposition of The Framework Bill of 1812; an act which was designed to make the destruction of mechanised farming equipment a crime worthy of capital punishment. Despite his worthy aim to aid the Luddites in their noble cause, his impassioned speech failed to the sway to opinions of those already in support of it. The bill was unsurprisingly passed later that day. Although several of Byron’s allies endorsed the speech, Lord Holland (a friend of Byron’s and a distinguished Whig) described it as being full of “fancy, wit, and invective, but not exempt from affection nor well reasoned, nor at all suited to our common notions of parliamentary eloquence.” Two further speeches (on Catholic emancipation & Major Cartwright’s Petition) would mark the end of Byron’s surprisingly brief foray into politics.
At the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron, for the first time, was completely besieged by fame. The unrelenting popularity of the poem called for numerous revisions, all designed to quench the public’s thirst for all things pertaining to Lord Byron. Unlike the ghastly reception he received for Hours of Idleness, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was received with much praise; even to the delight of John Wilson of The Edinburgh Review who said: “there is an unobserved beauty that smiles on us alone; and the more beautiful to us, because we feel as if chosen out of a crowd of lovers.” To begin with, the poem was published with the educated elite in mind, however affordable versions were later released for the delectation of the ordinary reader. Byron’s scandalous reputation as a regency rake was soon secured as women from all across the country pined for his affection. With the rise of his popularity, Byron became a permanent fixture at society banquets, balls and parties; this enabled him to brush shoulders with the elite women whom he would later become involved.
An early captivation of Byron’s was a Lady named Caroline Lamb. Though their affair did not last long, it was perhaps the most publically scandalised of all his relationships. Lady Caroline Lamb was one of the surest aristocratic ladies Byron would ever meet as she had a powerful status in society enabling her to behave any which way she wished with near impunity; a luxury Byron would never quite have. If taken from a purely social perspective, she was an excellent match. Her wealth and reputation would certainly have elevated Byron through the social ranks. One problem, however, was that she was already married to a young Tory (who would later become Prime Minister) named William Lamb. It was from the pen of Caroline Lamb that the popular phrase describing Byron as “mad, bad and dangerous to know” came. Such a phrase also summed her up as she too was unruly, defiant and highly mischievous.
Her relationship with William Lamb was viewed as a fragile one, and both of them would regularly commit adultery; each aware the other was also guilty of the act. Caroline also had a reckless disdain for convention and was never shy of public disgrace; quite the contrary, gaining notoriety was one such thing that pleased her. Byron was likely interested in her because, although she was undoubtedly fun to be with, she also encouraged the wickedness innate within his own personality. Their relationship, however, would soon end as Byron grew tired of her boundless energy, her obsession for taboo and, of course, her possessiveness of him. He was also weary of a scandal braking out, as newspapers had already acquired details of their sordid affair, and did not want to further threaten his chances of attracting a respectable future wife.
His relationship with Lady Caroline Lamb turned out, in the long run, to be not nearly as controversial as his affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. It is important to note that as children, they did not grow up together; this meant that when they began corresponding, they did so almost as if they were strangers. Nevertheless, after a number of years, they did arrange to meet face-to-face. After meeting and spending a great amount of time together, Byron detected many delightful qualities present in his sister that were absent in his other women: tolerance, temperance, patience, family affection, discretion, reticence, purity; all of which were unattainable to him. And he gradually, day after day, began to fall in love with her. Augusta was tall and slim, she had a cleft chin and was not considered to be naturally attractive, but her shyness and lack of fashion sense appealed to his sense of imperfect beauty. Together they acted much like children in a make-believe fantasy, perhaps in an attempt to recapture the lost innocence they both desperately craved. Her propensity for baby talk made her approachable and appear simple minded, a trait which, at times, annoyed Lord Byron. Nonetheless, his relationship with her would have been the most genuine he ever had since his ill-fated romance with Cambridge chorister John Edleston. Byron again, fearful of scandal, went in search for a more suitable bride and soon after made the acquaintance of Lady Anabella Milbanke. Although he and Augusta were never caught in fragrante delicto, their relationship did later become common knowledge.
Annabella Milbanke was the daughter of a prominent Tory politician. She was a clever girl who delighted in mathematics so much so that she was referred to as “the princess of parallelograms.” Her sharp-mindedness and wit was quite well known, and it was she who conjured up the popular phrase “Byromania,” used back then to describe the heady period at which women threw themselves at Byron’s feet. She was known for being shrewd, and turned down Byron’s first proposal, thinking that, at the time, they were not at all compatible. A second proposal would secure her hand in marriage. Byron felt a certain comfort that, as this was a conventional relationship, there was no need to be clandestine nor discreet. The marriage would ultimately prove to be an unmitigated disaster from the very beginning as their dreary honeymoon in Halnaby was described by Byron as “the treacle moon.” Relations in the Byron household, although not in the least congenial, were not fraught until he invited his sister Augusta to stay alongside them in London. In doing so, he played both women against each other in an exceedingly cruel manner, even going so far as to have them squabble for his attention.
This, however, took its toll on Byron’s mental state as he felt more wretched then than at any other point in his life. Suffering from boredom and penury, he spent what little money he could scrape together on whores, and gambled the rest away. Due to his intolerable behavior, Lady Byron attempted to seek refuge elsewhere. She quitted London and went, with the intention of taking a brief break, to her parents’ house in Leicestershire. Upon hearing the horrendous details of her marriage her father informed Byron that “she would return to him no more!” This shocked Byron to the core, as he noted that she had parted from him in kindness; he had now to come terms with the unpleasant realisation that he and his wife had parted forever. He wrote despairingly to his friend Moore: “I do not believe—and I must say it in the very dregs of all this bitter business—that there ever was a better, brighter, kinder, or a more amiable and agreeable being than Lady Byron. I never had, nor can have, any reproach to make her while with me. Where there is blame it belongs to myself; and if I cannot redeem I must bear it.” Lady Byron, seeking to divorce Byron without personal scandal, ensured that there would be a public outcry against his name by willfully exposing some of his rather disagreeable sexual habits to the press (including sodomy, which he allegedly forced upon her). Her father was able to recruit another ally to her cause—Lady Caroline Lamb. It was her testimony that brought to light Byron’s deplorable interest in young boys, and his incestuous relationship with his half-sister. Because of this, Byron would never set eyes on Anabella or their daughter Ada ever again.
Despondent and alone, Byron felt as though exile was his only available option. He said: “Either I wasn’t fit for England, or England wasn’t fit for me. So I left.” Upon his arrival in Geneva he met with another popular English poet by the name of Percy Bysshe Shelly along with his wife Mary and her step sister Claire Clairmont; the latter of whom Byron had impregnated during an earlier affair. Byron relished his time together with Shelly, as both of them were viewed as outcasts in their homeland; Byron for his homosexual and incestuous affairs, and Shelly for being an outspoken heathen who had been sent down from Oxford in disgrace. In Geneva, Byron produced several notable works including Darkness, The Prisoner of Chillion and Manfred. It was in Manfred he later included a romantic poem declaring his enduring love for his sister which was entitled To Augusta.
And the star of my fate hath declined,
Thy soft heart refused to discover
The faults which so many could find.
Though thy soul with my grief was acquainted,
It shrunk not to share it with me,
And the love which my spirit hath painted
It never hath found but in thee
In the desert a fountain is springing,
In the wide waste there still is a tree,
And a bird in the solitude singing,
Which speaks to my spirit of thee.
The sheer popularity of Geneva as a holiday destination ultimately made Byron’s stay untenable; this was because he himself became a figure on the tourist map as visiting British citizens were all very interested in the mystery of what Byron and Shelly, two despicable godless heathens, were doing in the peaceful tranquillity of Switzerland in the company of their mistresses. At his wit’s end, he packed his bags and moved elsewhere. Byron eventually landed in Venice; a place that captivated his imagination as his true home never did. He described Venice as “the greenest island of my imagination,” and doubtlessly fantasised about all the ways in which he could indulge in his hedonistic desires. Byron truly revelled in the Italian sexual mores by sleeping with, by his approximations, upwards of two hundred women. It was in Venice he began writing his most notable work, Don Juan.
In Don Juan we are told the tale of a wealthy libertine whose life is devoted to the seduction of women. The Don Juan character encapsulates all that it is to be a Byronic Hero: he is a romantic but reprehensible rake with a penchant for drunkenness, violence and gambling. Byron died before he could finish the poem, however the sixteen cantos he did complete are widely viewed as his finest work.
Byron moved to Ravenna where he met the acquaintance of a Contessa named Teresa Guiccioli who selected him to become her cavalieri serventi (a curious Italian tradition in which a wife is permitted to take an admirer with the husband’s full knowledge). Byron’s perfect Italian idyll was not destined to last long, however. The unexplained death of his illegitimate daughter Allegra and the drowning of his close friend Percy Shelly spurred his latent passion to fight for a cause. Byron chose to ally himself to the Greek Cause in their War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. He subsequently and very generously made a £30,000 donation, and himself joined the army of the patriots.
Having arrived at Missolonghi, a swamp ridden and pestilent part of western Greece, Byron was charged with raising an army fit for battle. All did not go to plan, however, as the mercenaries he hired were rowdy, ill-disciplined and poorly trained. He made do with what he had at his disposal but, due to the appalling weather, much of his movements were restricted to the barracks. One evening and very much to the consternation of his lieutenants, Byron ignored local advice and went on a ride during which he caught a violent fever. His doctors, perplexed as to what to do, commenced with the only remedy they knew of: bloodletting. The incessant bloodletting, however, only aggravated his condition. As he became weaker and weaker, he caught a violent cold which, in conjunction with a severe infection caused by unsterilised equipment, resulted in his death. He was thirty-six. Byron was a man viewed by many as a great genius who died in the prime of his life. Although his life was stained with great immorality, it should also be remembered that his upbringing was dreadfully dysfunctional. To most of those who knew him, Byron was a kind, generous and compassionate man who was also genuinely contrite when he had to be; as evidenced in his surviving letters. To the rest of us, he will be remembered for the great legacy left in all the magnificent poetry he, in his short life, produced.
Lord Byron, George Gordon. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage , A Romaunt: And Other Poems. London: John Murray, 1812
Lord Byron, George Gordon. The Letters and Journals of Lord Byron [Selected]. London: Walter Scott, 1886
Lord Byron, George Gordon. Don Juan. London: Walker, Otley, 1849
Lord Byron, George Gordon. The Poetical Words of Lord Byron. London: Warne & Co, 1866
MacCarthy, Fiona. Byron: Life and Legend. London, John Murray, 2002
Eisler, Benita. Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame. England, Penguin Books, 2000