Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Lord Byron

By Meg Wise-Lawrence on Sunday, September 29, 1996 06:08 pm
Born: 22 January 1788
Place of Birth: London, England
Died: 19 April 1824
Place of Death: Missolonghi, Greece

George Gordon Byron, better known as Lord Byron (the sixth Baron Byron, if you're counting), was nothing if not the prototype of the conflicted Romantic hero. His persona has influenced artists, from Beat writers to rock stars (think of dark dandies like Jim Morrison and Trent Reznor), possibly more than his art itself.

Byron's mother was considered coarse and frivolous by those who knew her, including her son. When the Scotswoman fell in love with Byron's father, everyone advised against marrying the penniless but titled widower. Stubbornly she held her ground and married him. Heavily in debt, he abandoned her. She gave birth to her son in London, naming him after her father. He was born with a club foot which he later attributed to her tight corsets.

Byron was educated at Harrow School and the University of Cambridge. Some fifty years later Harrow would become infamous when stories of wild, homosexual rituals were revealed.

Byron's work was a synthesis of medieval and classical inspiration with a modern sensibility. A fascination with Europe's tempestous, mysterious medieval roots was current at the time, as it still was when the Pre-Raphaelites became popular. Like Sir Walter Scott (who was equally enamored of the medieval times), Byron found the romantic notions of Napoleon very appealing. (Byron was Napoleonic to the end, even having his carriage made as a replica of Bonaparte's.)

But it wasn't just his politics that made him appealing-- Byron was titled. When he read his poetry, people listened. Since Byron was so like a rock star, I find it appropriate to quote a rocker (Joe Strummer when he was with the Clash), "I wasn't born so much as I fell out." That was Lord Byron. Falling into things, seeing where the wind carried him. Poetry, the Greeks, Napoleonic politics-- they all fell into step easily with his life.

An adverse review to his poems Hours of Idleness in the Edinburgh Review sent him into a vengeful tizzy producing the satirical English Bards and Scotch Reviewers in 1809. In that same year, in the midst of one of his first controversies, he took his seat in the House of Lords. His liberal politics weren't exactly welcomed. Suddenly, a trip abroad seemed quite desirable. And so began his two year of tour of Portugal, Spain, and Greece. These settings were to permeate many of his subsequent poems-- like Childe Harold, which featured the proverbial "Byronic hero," a tormented Don Juan.

In 1815, partly to escape an incestuous relationship with his married half-sister, Byron married the prim Annabella Milbanke Noel (1792-1860), whom he'd known primarily through letters. (I wrote a Byron inspired poem here.) After giving birth to a daughter, the remarkable Augusta Ada who in collaboration with Charles Babbage became the first person ever to write a computer program. Ada was Byron's only legitimate child; Annabella left Byron before Ada was born. Her departure was bitter, and amid more controversy Byron fled England once again.

In exile, Byron wrote the third canto of Childe Harold. His fame grew and for a brief time in Britain, he was the sensation. In 1834 (the year Pre-Raphaelite designer William Morris was born) the celebrated composer Berlioz wrote a symphony inspired by Childe Harold.

In Geneva, Byron was visited by Percy and Mary Shelley and her half sister Claire Clairmont, who had obsessively written Byron letters. When he found out how she was related to the Shelley's-- he also knew that Mary's parents were anarchist William Godwin and the feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft-- Byron's interest was piqued.

At one time the Shelley's and Claire came to visit Byron in Geneva (this encounter would be depicted in Ken Russell's movie "Gothic"). Percy Shelley described the house as a menagerie Michael Jackson would envy with "eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon: and all these, except the horses, walk about the house, which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were masters of it." They told ghost stories at night. Mary Shelley went on to write the unmatched "Frankenstein." Dr. Polidori, Byron's doctor/companion who was present at the time, went on to write "The Vampyre," a story directly inspired by Byron's tales. (Dr. Polidori was artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti's great uncle on his mother's side.)

With Claire, Byron had a daughter, Allegra. Missing Ada and fearing his angry and estranged wife would keep him from her life, he convinced Claire to give Allegra over to him. She was devoted to her father and his Italian mistress, whom she called mama. Allegra died in early childhood, as did many children in those days. She wasn't given the headstone Byron had requested because the rector at their church back in England was afraid that the Mrs. Lord Byron wouldn't like it.

In Venice, Byron produced some of his best work, including Don Juan. He continued in his liasons: mercurial infatuations with both women and men. A Dionysian in theory and in fact, he embodied Kierkegaard's tortured Aesthetic man. When Percy Shelley and his party tragically drowned sailing during a squall off the coast of Italy, Byron and their friends created a pagan pyre on the beach to say farewell.

Once a great swimmer who had done marathon swims, he was now a hypochondriac who suffered the side effects of old diseases as well as poor eating habits (he had the tendency to plumpness and would do radical diets worthy of modern times in order to lose weight fast). So despite his weakened state, when he heard of the revolt of the Greeks against the Turks, the idea of participating in a war on the hallowed battlegrounds of classical myth and legend thrilled him, and he joined the Greek insurgents at Missolonghi. He donated much of his money, despite the fact that he owed creditors, and the Greeks made him commander in chief. Three months later, after various attempts at bleeding and so forth, Byron died at 36 (curiously his mathematician/metaphysician daughter, known as Ada, also died at 36). Despite his wishes otherwise, he was buried in England.
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