George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron

For a list of others who have held the title Lord Byron see Baron Byron
For Virgil Thomson's opera, see Lord Byron.
For the famous golfer with the nickname "Lord Byron", see Byron Nelson.
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Lord Byron, English poet

George Gordon (Noel) Byron, 6th Baron Byron (January 22, 1788April 19, 1824), English Romantic poet, was the most renowned English-language poet of his day. His best-known works are the narrative poems Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan. The latter remained incomplete on his death.

Byron's fame rests not only on his writings, but also on his life, which featured extravagant living, numerous love affairs, debts, separation, allegations of incest and bisexuality and an eventual death from fever after he travelled to fight on the Greek side in the Greek War of Independence.



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Lord Byron (1803), as painted by Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun

Lord Byron wrote prolifically.[1] ( In 1833 his publisher, John Murray, released the complete works in 17 octavo volumes, including a life by Thomas Moore. His 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. Don Juan, Byron's 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.

Notable Poems:

The Byronic hero pervades much of Byron's work. He presents an idealised but flawed character whose attributes include:

  • rebelling
  • having a distaste for society and social institutions
  • suffering exile
  • expressing a lack of respect for rank and privilege
  • having great talent
  • hiding an unsavoury past
  • exhibiting great passion
  • ultimately, acting in a self-destructive manner

Scholars have traced the literary history of the Byronic hero from Milton, and many authors and artists of the Romantic movement show Byron's influence -- during the 19th century and beyond.


Catherine Gordon, Byron's mother
Catherine Gordon, Byron's mother

Byron was born in London, the son of Captain John "Mad Jack" Byron and of John's second wife Lady Catherine Gordon, heiress of Gight, Aberdeenshire. He was also the grand-nephew of William Byron, 5th Baron Byron, known as "the Wicked Lord". From his birth he suffered from a malformation of the feet, causing a slight lameness, which was a cause of lifelong misery to him, aggravated by the knowledge that with proper care it might have been cured.

He was christened George Gordon after his maternal grandfather, George Gordon, 12th Laird of Gight, a descendant of James I. This grandfather committed suicide in 1779. Byron's mother Catherine had to sell her land and title to pay her father's debts. John Byron had married Catherine for her money and, after squandering it, deserted her. She was a capricious woman of violent temper, with no fitness for guiding her volcanic son, and biographers think her father's suicide, and the forced sale of her legacy and the loss of her fortune (thanks to Byron's father) may altogether explain, if they do not excuse, the spirit of revolt which was his lifelong characteristic.

Byron's parents had separated before his birth. Lady Catherine moved back to Scotland shortly afterwards, where she lived on a small salvage from her fortune, and raised her son in Aberdeen in strained circumstances until May 21, 1798, when he had reached the age of ten and the death of his great-uncle made him the sixth Baron Byron. He received his formal education at the Grammar School in Aberdeen. In 1801 he was sent to Harrow, where he remained until 1805, when he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read much history and fiction, lived extravagantly, and got into debt.

Some early verses which he had published in 1806 were suppressed. They were followed in 1807 by Hours of Idleness, which was savagely attacked in the Edinburgh Review. In reply he sent forth English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), which created considerable stir and shortly went through 5 editions. Meanwhile, he had settled at Newstead Abbey, the family seat, where with some of his cronies he was believed to have indulged in wild and extravagant orgies, the accounts of which, however, were probably greatly exaggerated. In 1809 he left England, and passing through Spain, went to Greece. During his absence, which extended over two years, he wrote the first two cantos of Childe Harold, which were published after his return in 1812, and were received with acclamation. In his own words, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous." He followed up his success with some short poems, The Corsair, Lara, etc. About the same time began his intimacy with his future biographer, Thomas Moore.

He eventually took his seat at the House of Lords, and made his first speech there on February 27, 1812.

The most popular person in Regency London, he wrote poetry and carried on illicit affairs, most notably with Lady Caroline Lamb, the wife of William Lamb, the future Prime Minister. She inspired the epigram that ends Byron's Versicles: "Caro Lamb, Goddamn." Rumours suggest he also fell in love with a choir boy, though scholars dispute the veracity and relevance of this. But his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, occupied the central place in his heart -- he wrote many passionate poems in her honour. She had been separated from her husband since 1811 when she gave birth on April 15, 1814 to a daughter, and Byron's joy over the birth seems to substantiate the rumours of an incestuous relationship.

Augusta herself encouraged Byron to marry to avoid scandal. He reluctantly chose Anne Isabella Milbanke ("Annabella"), a cousin of the Lady Caroline, who had refused him in the previous year. They married at Seaham Hall, County Durham on January 2, 1815. (Later, when Annabella's mother died, her will stipulated that her beneficiaries must take her family name in order to inherit. Lord Byron added it and became George Gordon Noel Byron in 1822.)

The marriage proved unhappy, owing to the total incompatibility of the parties, and serious provocations on the part of Byron: he treated her terribly and showed great disappointment at the birth of a daughter (Augusta Ada) rather than a son. On January 16, 1816, Lady Byron left George, taking Ada with her. On April 21, Byron signed the Deed of Separation. After this break-up of his domestic life, followed as it was by the severe censure of society, and by pressure on the part of his creditors, which led to the sale of his library, Byron again left England, as it turned out, for ever.

(Ada later on worked with Charles Babbage on a memoir on the Analytical Engine and became known as the writer of the world's first computer program.)

Byron passed through Belgium and up the Rhine; in the summer of 1816 Lord Byron and his personal physician, John William Polidori settled in Switzerland, at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva. There he became friends with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Shelley's wife-to-be Mary Godwin. He was also joined by Mary's step-sister, Claire Clairmont, with whom he had had an affair in London. Byron initially refused to have anything to do with Claire, and would only agree to remain in her presence with the Shelleys, who eventually persuaded Byron to accept and provide for Allegra, the child she bore him in January 1817.

At the Villa Diodati, kept indoors by the "incessant rain" of that "wet, ungenial summer", over three days in June the five turned to reading fantastical stories, including "Fantasmagoriana" (in the French edition), 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, where he formed a connection with Jane Clairmont, the daughter of William Godwin's second wife. In 1817 he was in Rome, whence returning to Venice he wrote the fourth canto of Childe Harold. In the same year he sold his ancestral seat of Newstead, and about the same time 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 Countess Guiccioli, whom he persuaded to leave her husband. It was about this time that he received a visit from Moore, to whom he confided his MS. autobiography, which Moore, in the exercise of the discretion left to him, burned in 1824. His next move was to Ravenna, where he wrote much, chiefly dramas, including Marino Faliero. In 1821-22 he finished Don Juan at Pisa, and in the same year he joined with Leigh Hunt 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, and where he lived until 1823, when he offered himself as an ally to the Greek insurgents.

Byron in Greece

Portrait of a Nobleman in the dress of an Albanian, painted by  in
Portrait of a Nobleman in the dress of an Albanian, painted by Thomas Phillips in 1813

By 1823 Byron had grown bored with his life in Genoa with his mistress, the Contessa Guiccioli. When the representatives of the movement for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire contacted him to ask for his support, he immediately accepted, placing his fortune, enthusiasm, energy, and imagination at the service of the Greek cause.

On July 16, Byron left Genoa on the Hercules, arriving at Kefalonia in the Ionian Islands on August 2. He spent £4000 of his own money to refit the Greek fleet, then sailed for Messolonghi in western Greece, arriving on December 29 to join Prince Alexandros Mavrokordatos, leader of the Greek rebel forces. In Kefalonia he met a Greek boy, Loukas Khalandritsanos, whom he employed as a page and with whom he developed an emotional, and possibly a sexual, relationship.

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 February 15 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 April 19.

The Greeks mourned Lord Byron deeply, and he became a national hero. Viron, the Greek form of "Byron", continues in popularity as a boy's name in Greece, and a suburb of Athens is called Vironas in his honor. His body was embalmed and his heart buried under a tree in Messolonghi. His remains were sent to England for burial in Westminster Abbey, but the Abbey refused. He is buried at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham. At her request, Ada, 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. In 1969, 145 years after Byron's death, a memorial to him was finally placed in Westminster Abbey.

Upon his death, the baronage passed to a cousin, George Anson Byron (1789–1868), a career military officer and Byron's polar opposite in temperament and lifestyle.


Lord Byron, by all accounts, had a particularly attractive personality – one may say astonishingly so. He obtained a reputation as being unconventional, eccentric, flamboyant and controversial. One of the most curious patterns in both his life and his writings involves the conflict between his oft-expressed cynicism about humanity, and his passion for defending the downtrodden. From his early schooldays, he had a reputation as a ferocious enemy of bullies, and in his brief time in Parliament he defended both Catholics and Luddites.

Byron had a great fondness for animals, most famously for a Newfoundland dog named Boatswain; when Boatswain contracted rabies, Byron reportedly nursed him without any fear of becoming bitten and infected. Boatswain lies buried at Newstead Abbey – the family's ancestral home that Byron sold in 1818 for £94,500 to pay his debts – and has a monument larger than his master's. The inscription, Byron's "Epitaph to a dog", has become one of his best-known works:

NEAR this spot
Are deposited the Remains
of one
Who possessed Beauty
Without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
And all the Virtues of Man
Without his Vices.
This Praise, which would be unmeaning flattery
If inscribed over Human Ashes,
Is but a just tribute to the Memory of
"Boatswain," a Dog
Who was born at Newfoundland,
May, 1803,
And died at Newstead Abbey
Nov. 18, 1808.

Lord Byron also kept a bear (reputedly because Cambridge had rules forbidding dogs), a fox, monkeys, a parrot, cats, an eagle, a crow, a falcon, peacocks, guinea hens, an Egyptian crane, a badger, geese, and a heron. Lady Caroline Lamb famously described him as "mad, bad and dangerous to know". Many attribute some of Byron's extraordinary abilities to his affliction with bipolar disorder, commonly known as manic depression.

Byron allegedly had an abnormally large brain, claimed by Carl Sagan in his book The Dragons of Eden as having weighed 2.2 kilograms--far short of the ten pound (4.5 kilogram) estimate generally considered to be apocryphal. In spite of his deformed right leg he rather excelled at athletics and turned out for Harrow in the annual cricket match at Lord's against Eton. Byron was a strong swimmer and, in emulation of Leander, swam the Hellespont. He said the swim exhausted him so much that he feared Leander would not have had much energy left for his love, Hero – the beautiful priestess of Venus – waiting for him on the other side at Sestos! He also swam the mouth of the Tagus River, and from the Lido to the Rialto Bridges in Venice.

Byron Community

Nearly 200 years have gone by since the publication of fourth and final canto of Childe Harold, yet Byron's fame as a Romantic poet has not declined. The re-founding of the Byron Society [16] ( 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.

The final position of Byron in English literature is probably not yet settled. It is at present undoubtedly lower than it was in his own generation. Yet his energy, passion, and power of vivid and richly-coloured description, together with the interest attaching to his wayward and unhappy career, must always make him loom large in the assembly of English writers. He exercised a marked influence on Continental literature, and his reputation as poet is higher in some foreign countries than in his own.

Preceded by:
William Byron
Baron Byron
Succeeded by:
George Anson Byron

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See also

External links

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Electronic texts

Freely available electronic texts from Project Gutenberg:

de:George Gordon Byron, 6. Baron Byron of Rochdale eo:George BYRON es:Lord Byron fr:Lord Byron he:ג'ורג' ביירון hr:Lord Byron it:George Gordon Byron nl:Lord Byron pl:George Gordon Byron pt:Byron sv:George Gordon Byron zh:拜伦


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