Lord Gordon Byron, Portrait by Thomas Phillips, c. 1813 – BBC Your Paintings
Lord Byron, full name George Gordon Byron (1788 – 1824), 6th Baron Byron, was a British Romantic poet and satirist whose poetry and personality captivated Europe. In the nineteenth century, he was known as the “gloomy egoist” of his autobiographical poetry Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-18), although he is today more generally esteemed for the satiric realism of Don Juan (1819-24).
The most flamboyant and notorious of the major English Romantic poets, Lord Gordon Byron, was also the most fashionable poet of the early 1800s. He created a Romantic hero – defiant, melancholy, haunted by secret guilt… He is a Romantic paradox: a leader of the era’s poetic revolution; a worshiper of the ideal, he never lost touch with reality; a deist and freethinker… He championed liberty in his works and deeds, giving money, time, energy, and his life to the Greek war of independence. His personality found expression in verse narrative, satire, ode, lyric, drama, historical tragedy, confessional poetry, voluminous correspondence, dramatic monologue…
In his dynamism, sexuality, self-revelation, and demands for freedom for oppressed people everywhere, Byron captivated the Western mind and heart as few writers have, stamping upon 19th-century letters, arts, politics, even clothing styles, his image and name as the embodiment of Romanticism. (The Athens Key)
Early education instilled a love of reading and, in particular, a “grand passion” for history, which influenced much of Byron’s later writing.
Lord Byron was active in many different fields of life, including politics – he took his hereditary seat in the House of Lords in 1812. As well as poetry, Byron took an interest in social issues in Parliament – he often stood up for disadvantaged groups and was one of the few to support the Luddites (members of a 19th-century movement of English textile workers which opposed the use of certain types of cost-saving machinery). The personal life of Byron was a tumultuous affair, attracting a good degree of speculation.
According to Britannica, Byron was the son of the profligate Captain John (“Mad Jack”) Byron and his second wife, Catherine Gordon, a Scots heiress. After her husband had squandered most of her fortune, Mrs. Byron took her infant son to Aberdeen, Scotland, where they lived in lodgings on a meagre income.
In 1798, at age 10, George Gordon Byron unexpectedly inherited the title and estates of his great-uncle William, the 5th Baron Byron. His mother proudly took him to England, where the boy fell in love with the ghostly halls and spacious ruins of Newstead Abbey, which had been presented to the Byrons by Henry VIII.
After living at Newstead for a while, Byron was sent to school in London, and in 1801, he went to Harrow, one of England’s most prestigious schools, where he excelled in oratory, wrote verse, and played sports, claims the Poetry Foundation.
Love & Poetry
An “ebullition of passion” for Margaret Parker in 1800, inspired his “first dash into poetry”. (Poetry Foundation)
In 1803 he fell so deeply in love with the beautiful-and engaged-Mary Chaworth of Annesley Hall, that he interrupted his education for a term to be near her. She became the symbol for Byron of idealized and unattainable love.
Years later, he told Thomas Medwin (19th-century English writer, poet and translator), that all his “fables about the celestial nature of women” originated from “the perfection” his imagination created in Mary Chaworth.
Byron attended Trinity College, Cambridge, intermittently from October 1805 until July 1808, when he received a MA degree. In Southwell, he prepared his verses for publication.
According to Poetry Foundation, in November 1806, Byron distributed his first book of poetry. Fugitive Pieces, printed at his expense and anonymously, collects the poems inspired by his early infatuations, friendships, and experiences at Harrow, Cambridge, and elsewhere. When his literary adviser, the Reverend John Thomas Becher, a local minister, objected to the frank eroticism of certain lines, Byron suppressed the volume.
Poems on Various Occasions appeared in January 1807, in an edition of 100 copies, also printed privately and anonymously. Hours of Idleness, was published in June…
She Walks in Beauty
On 11 June 1814, Byron attended a party in London. Among the guests was Mrs. Anne Beatrix Wilmot, wife of Byron’s first cousin, Sir Robert Wilmot. He was struck by her unusual beauty, and the next morning the poem was written. (Cummings, Michael J. (2008) “Byron’s She Walks in Beauty” at Cummings Study Guides. Retrieved 10 July 2014)
It is thought that she was the first inspiration for his unfinished epic poem about Goethe, a personal hero of his. “She Walks in Beauty” is a short lyrical poem and one of Lord Byron’s most famous works.
She Walks in Beauty
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.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair’d the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
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!
Escapism into Nature
Byron’s mysterious personality, prone to escapism, is related to his love for nature. His adventurous image was especially connected to the sea.
The first recorded notable example of open water swimming took place on 3 May 1810 when Lord Byron swam from Europe to Asia across the Hellespont Strait. This is often seen as the birth of the sport and pastime, and to commemorate it, the event is recreated every year as an open water swimming event.
During his lifetime, in addition to numerous cats, dogs, and horses, Byron kept a fox, monkeys, an eagle, a crow, a falcon, peacocks, guinea hens, an Egyptian crane, a badger, geese, a heron, and a goat.” Except for the horses, they all resided indoors at his homes in England, Switzerland, Italy, and Greece”, Lord Byron, The British Library.
Lord Byron’s Solitude, is a declaration of faith in the beauty of nature which is presented as a peaceful and restorative place.
To sit on rocks, to muse o’er flood and fell,
To slowly trace the forest’s shady scene,
Where things that own not man’s dominion dwell,
And mortal foot hath ne’er or rarely been;
To climb the trackless mountain all unseen,
With the wild flock that never needs a fold;
Alone o’er steeps and foaming falls to lean;
This is not solitude, ’tis but to hold
Converse with Nature’s charms, and view her stores unrolled.
But midst the crowd, the hurry, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel and to possess,
And roam alone, the world’s tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
Minions of splendour shrinking from distress!
None that, with kindred consciousness endued,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less
Of all the flattered, followed, sought and sued;
This is to be alone; this, this is solitude!
Byron Against the World of Hypocrisy
In June 1807, while in Cambridge, Byron formed an enduring friendship with John Cam Hobhouse – his beloved “Hobby.” Inclined to liberalism in politics, Byron joined Hobhouse in the Cambridge Whig Club.
In March 1809, he took his seat in the House of Lords. Shortly thereafter, Byron’s first major poetic work, English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers, was published. A Satire, was published anonymously in an edition of 1,000 copies. Inspired by the Dunciad of his idol, Pope, the poem, in heroic couplets, takes indiscriminate aim at most of the poets and playwrights of the moment. His main target is the critics: “Harpies that must be fed”. (Poetry Foundation)
Philosophically and stylistically, Byron stands apart from the other major Romantics. He was the least insular, the most cosmopolitan of them. Poetic imagination was not for him, as for them, the medium of revelation of ultimate truth. Yet, as Leslie A. Marchand, an American scholar of English literature observes: “The core of his thinking and the basis of his poetry is romantic aspiration,” and he evidences a “romantic zest for life and experience”. Lacking the inhibitions of his contemporaries, Byron created verse that is exuberant, spontaneous, expansive, digressive, concrete, lucid, colloquial – in celebration of “unadorned reality.” (Byron’s Letters and Journals)
Revolution Alone Can Save the Earth
“I was born for opposition,” Byron proclaimed in Don Juan, Canto XV. The outstanding elements of his poetry both support his self-analysis and insure his enduring reputation. As a major political and social satirist, he repeatedly denounces war, tyranny, and hypocrisy. As an untiring champion of liberty, he firmly believed that “Revolution alone, can save the World”, Don Juan, Canto VIII
Stanzas for Music
There be none of Beauty’s daughters
With a magic like thee;
And like music on the waters
Is thy sweet voice to me:
When, as if its sound were causing
The charmed ocean’s pausing,
The waves lie still and gleaming,
And the lull’d winds seem dreaming:
And the midnight moon is weaving
Her bright chain o’er the deep;
Whose breast is gently heaving,
As an infant’s asleep:
So, the spirit bows before thee,
To listen and adore thee;
With a full but soft emotion,
Like the swell of Summer’s ocean.