Biography of George Gordon Byron
Biography of George Gordon Byron
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron (1788-1824), English poet, was born in London at 16 Holles Street, Cavendish Square, on the 22nd of January 1788. The Byrons were of Norman stock, but the founder of the family was Sir John Byron, succeeded by his great-nephew, the poet. Admiral the Hon. John Byron (q.v.) was the poet's grandfather. His eldest son, Captain John Byron, the poet's father, was a libertine by choice and in an eminent degree. He caused to be divorced, and married (1779) as his first wife, the marchioness of Carmarthen (born Amelia D'Arcy), Baroness Conyers in her own right. One child of the marriage survived, the Hon. Augusta Byron (1783-1851), the poet's half-sister, who, in 1807, married her first cousin, Colonel George Leigh. His second marriage to Catherine Gordon (b. 1765) of Gight in Aberdeenshire took place at Bath on the 13th of May 1785. He is said to have squandered the fortunes of both wives. It is certain that Gight was sold to pay his debts (1786), and that the sole provision for his wife was a settlement of 3,000 pounds. It was an unhappy marriage. There was an attempt at living together in France, and, when this failed, Mrs Byron returned to Scotland. On her way thither she gave birth to a son, christened George Gordon after his maternal grandfather, who was descended from Sir William Gordon of Gight, grandson of James I. of Scotland. After a while her husband rejoined her, but went back to France and died at Valenciennes on the 2nd of August 1791. His wife was not a bad woman, but she was not a good mother. Vain and capricious, passionate and self-indulgent, she mismanaged her son from his infancy, now provoking him by her foolish fondness, and now exciting his contempt by her paroxysms of impotent rage. She neither looked nor spoke like a gentlewoman; but in the conduct of her affairs, she was praiseworthy. She hated and avoided debt, and when relief came (a civil list pension of 300 pounds a year) she spent most of it on her son. Fairly well educated, she was not without a taste for books, and her letters are sensible and to the point. But the violence of her temper was abnormal. Her father committed suicide, and it is possible that she inherited a tendency to mental derangement. If Byron owed anything to his parents it was a plea for pardon.
The poet's first years were spent in lodgings at Aberdeen. From 1794 to 1798 he attended grammar school, "threading all classes" till he reached the fourth. It was a good beginning, a solid foundation, enabling him from the first to keep a hand over his talents and to turn them to a set purpose. He was lame from his birth. His right leg and foot, possibly both feet, were contracted by infantile paralysis, and, to strengthen his muscles, his mother sent him in the summers of 1796, 1797, to a farm house of Deeside. He walked with difficulty, but he wandered at will, soothed and inspired by the grandeur of the scenery. To his Scottish upbringing he owed his love of mountains, his love and knowledge of the Bible, and too much Calvinism for faith or unfaith in Christianity. The death of his great-uncle (May 19, 1798) placed him in possession of the title and estates. Early in the autumn Mrs Byron travelled south with her son and his nurse, and for a time made her home at Newstead Abbey. Byron was old enough to know what had befallen him. "It was a change from a shabby Scotch flat to a palace," a half-ruined palace, indeed, but his very own. It was a proud moment, but in a few weeks he was once more in lodgings. The shrunken leg did not improve, and acting on bad advice his mother entrusted him to the care of a quack named Lavender, truss-maker to the general hospital at Nottingham. His nurse who was in charge of him maltreated him, and the quack tortured him to no purpose. At his own request he read Virgil and Cicero with a tutor.
In August 1799 he was sent to a preparatory school at Dulwich. The master, Dr Glennie, perceived that the boy like reading for its own sake and gave him the free run of his library. He read a set of the British Poets from beginning to end more than once. This, too, was an initiation and a preparation. He remained at Dulwich till April 1801, when, on his mother's intervention, he was sent to Harrow. His school days, 1801-1805, were fruitful in two respects. He learned enough Latin and Greek to make him a classic, if not a classical scholar, and he made friends with his equals and superiors. He learned something of his own worth and of the worth of others. "My school-friendships," he says, "were with me passions." Two of his closest friends died young, and from Lord Clare, whom he loved best of all, he was separated by chance and circumstance. He was an odd mixture, now lying dreaming on his favourite tombstone in the churchyard, now the ring-leader in whatever mischief was afoot. He was a "record" swimmer, and, in spite of his lameness, enough of a cricketer to play for his school at Lord's, and yet he found time to read and master standard works of history and biography, and to acquire more general knowledge than boys and masters put together.
In the midsummer of 1803, when he was in his sixteenth year, he fell in love, once for all, with his distant relative, Mary Anne Chaworth, a "minor heiress" of the hall and park of Annesley which marches with Newstead. Two years his senior, she was already engaged to a neighboring squire. There were meetings half-way between Newstead and Annesley, of which she thought little and he only too much. What was sport to the girl was death to the boy, and when at length he realized the "hopelessness of his attachment," he was "thrown out," as he said, "alone, on a wide, wide sea." She is the subject of at least five of his early poems, including the pathetic stanzas, "Hills of Annesley," and there are allusions to his love story in Childe Harold and in "The Dream" (1816).
Byron went into residence at Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1805. Cambridge did him no good. "The place is the devil," he said, and according to his own showing he did homage to the genius loci. But whatever he did or failed to do, he made friends who were worthy of his choice. Among them were the scholar-dandy Scrope Berdmore Davies, Francis Hodgson, who died provost of Eton, and, best friend of all, John Cam Hobhouse (afterwards Lord Broughton). And there was another friend, a chorister named Edleston, a "humble youth" for whom he formed a romantic attachment. He died whilst Byron was still abroad (May 1811), but not unwept nor unsung, if, as there is little doubt, the mysterious Thyrza poems of 1811, 1812 refer to his death. During the vacation of 1806, and in 1807 which was one "long vacation," he took his pen, and wrote, printed and published most of his "Juvenile Poems." His first venture was a thin quarto of sixty-six pages, dated the 23rd of December 1806, but before that date he had begun to prepare a second collection for the press. One poem ("To Mary") contained at least one stanza which was frankly indecent, and yielding to advice he gave orders that the entire issue should be thrown into the fire. Early in January 1807 an expurgated collection entitled Poems on Various Occasions was ready for private distribution. Encouraged by two critics, Henry Makenzie and Lord Woodhouselee, he determined to recast this second issue and publish it under his own name. Hours of Idleness, "by George Gordon Lord Byron, a minor," was published in June 1807. The fourth and last issue of Juvenilia, entitled Poems, Original and Translated, was published in March 1808.
Hours of Idleness enjoyed a brief triumph. The Critical and other reviews were "very indulgent," but the Edinburgh Review for January 1808 contained an article, not, as Byron believed, by Jeffrey, but by Brougham, which put, or tried to put the author and "his poesy" to open shame. The sole result was that it supplied fresh material and a new title for some rhyming couplets on "British Bards" which he had begun to write. A satire on Jeffrey, the editor, and Lord Holland, the patron of the Edinburgh Review, was slipped into the middle of "British Bards," and the poem rechristened English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (published the 1st of March 1809).
In April 1808, whilst he was still "a minor," Byron entered upon his inheritance. Hitherto the less ruinous portions of the abbey had been occupied by a tenant, Lord Grey de Ruthven. The banqueting hall, the grand drawing-room, and other parts of the monastic building were uninhabitable, but by incurring fresh debts, two sets of apartments were refurnished for Byron and for his mother. Dismantled and ruinous, it was still a splendid inheritance. In line with the front of the abbey is the west front of the priory church, with its hollow arch, once a "mighty window," its vacant niches, its delicate Gothic mouldings. The abbey buildings enclose a grassy quadrangle overlooked by two-storeyed cloisters. On the eastern side are the state apartments occupied by kings and queens not as guests, but by feudal right. In the park, which is part of Sherwood Forest, there is a chain of lakes -- the largest, the north-west, Byron's "lucid lake." A waterfall or "cascade" issues from the lake, in full view of the room where Byron slept. The possession of this lordly and historic domain was an inspiration in itself. It was an ideal home for one who was to be hailed as the spirit of genius of romance.
On the 13th of March 1809, he took his seat in the House of Lords. He had determined, as soon as he was of age, to travel in the East, but before he sought "another zone" he invited Hobhouse and three others to a house-warming. One of the party, C. S. Matthews, describes a day at Newstead. Host and guests lay in bed till one. "The afternoon was passed in various diversions, fencing, single-stick: . . . riding, cricket, sailing on the lake." They dined at eight, and after the cloth was removed they handed round "a human skull filled with Burgundy." After dinner they "buffooned about the house" in a set of monkish dresses. They went to bed some time between one and three in the morning. Moore thinks that the picture of these festivities is "pregnant in character," and argues that there were limits to the misbehaviour of the "wassailers." The story, as told in Childe Harold [canto 1, stanzas v-ix], need not be taken too seriously. Byron was angry because Lord De La Warr did not wish him good-bye, and visited his displeasure on friends and "lemans" alike. May and June were devoted to the preparation of an enlarged edition of his satire. At length, accompanied by Hobhouse and a small staff of retainers, he set out on his travels. He sailed from Falmouth on the 2nd of July and reached Lisbon on the 7th of July 1809. The first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage contain a record of the principal events of his first year of absence.
The first canto describes Lisbon, Cintra, the ride through Portugal and Spain to Seville and thence to Cadiz. He is moved by the grandeur of the scenery, but laments the helplessness of the people and their impending fate. Talavera was fought and won whilst he was in Spain, but he is convinced that the "Scourge of the World" will prevail, and that Britain, "the fond ally," will display her blundering heroism in vain. Being against the government, he is against the war. History has falsified his politics, but his descriptions of places and scenes, of "Morena's dusky height," of Cadiz and the bull-fight, retain their freshness and their warmth.
Byron sailed from Gibraltar on the 16th of August, and spent a month at Malta making love to Mrs Spencer Smith (the "Fair Florence" [of Childe Harold, canto II, stanzas xxix-xxxiii]). He anchored off Prevesa on the 28th of September. The second canto records a journey on horseback through Albania, then almost a terra incognita, as far as Tepeleni, where he was entertained by Ali Pacha (October 20th), a yachting tour along the shores of the Ambracian Gulf (November 8-23), a journey by land from Larnaki to Athens (December 15-25), and excursions in Attica, Sunium and Marathon (January 13-25, 1810).
Of the tour in Asia Minor, a visit to Ephesus (March 15, 1810), an excursion in the Torad (April 13), and the famous swim across the Hellespont (May 3), the record is to be sought elsewhere. The stanzas on Constantinople (lxxvii.-lxxxii.), where Byron and Hobhouse stayed for two months, though written at the time and on the spot, were not included in the poem till 1814. They are, probably, part of a projected third canto. On the 14th of July Hobhouse set sail for England and Byron returned to Athens.
Of Byron's second year of residence in the East little is known beyond the bare facts that he was travelling in the Morea during August and September, that early in October he was at Patras, having just recovered from a severe attack of malarial fever, and that by the 14th of November he had returned to Athens and taken up his quarters at the Franciscan convent. Of his movements during the next five months there is no record, but of his studies and pursuits there is substantial evidence. He learnt Romaic, he compiled the notes to the second canto of Childe Harold. He wrote (March 12) Hints from Horace (published 1831), an imitation or loose translation of the Epistola ad Pisones (Art of Poetry), and (March 17) The Curse of Minerva (published 1815), a skit on Lord Elgin's deportation of the metopes and frieze of the Parthenon.
He left Athens in April, passed some weeks at Malta, and landed at Portsmouth (c. July 20). Arrived in London, his first step was to consult his literary adviser, R. C. Dallas, with regard to the publication of Hints from Horace. Of Childe Harold he said nothing, but after some hesitation produced the MS. from a "small trunk," and presenting him with the copyright, commissioned Dallas to offer it to a publisher. Rejected by Miller of Albemarle Street, who published for Lord Elgin, it was finally accepted by Murray of Fleet Street, who undertook to share the profits of an edition with Dallas.
Meanwhile Mrs Byron died suddenly from a stroke of apoplexy. Byron set off at once for Newstead, but did not find his mother alive. He had but little affection for her while she lived, but her death touched him to the quick. "I had but one friend," he exclaimed, "and she is gone." Another loss awaited him. Whilst his mother lay dead in his house, he heard that his friend Matthews had been drowned in the Cam. Edleston and Wingfield had died in May, but the news had reached him on landing. There were troubles on every side. On the 11th of October he wrote the "Epistle to a Friend" ("Oh, banish care," &c.) and the lines "To Thyrza," which, with other elegies, were appended to the second edition of Childe Harold (April 17, 1812). It was this cry of desolation, this open profession of melancholy, which at first excited the interest of contemporaries, and has since been decried as morbid and unreal. No one who has read his letters can doubt the sincerity of his grief, but it is no less true that he measured and appraised its literary significance. He could and did turn it to account.
Towards the close of the year he made friends with Moore. Some lines in English Bards, &c. (ii. 466-467), taunting Moore with fighting a duel with Jeffrey with "leadless pistol" had led to a challenge, and it was not till Byron returned to England that explanations ensued, and that the challenge was withdrawn. As a poet Byron outgrew Moore, giving back more than he had received, but the friendship which sprang up between them still serves Byron in good stead. Moore's Life of Byron (1830) is no doubt a picture of the man at his best, but it is a genuine likeness. At the end of October Byron moved to London and took up his quarters at 8 St. James's Street. On the 27th of February 1812 he made his first speech in the House of Lords on a bill which made the wilful destruction of certain newly invented stocking-frames a capital offence, speaking in defence of the riotous "hands" who feared that their numbers would be diminished by improved machinery. It was a brilliant speech and won the praise of Burdett and Lord Holland. He made two other speeches during the same session, but thenceforth pride or laziness kept him silent. Childe Harold (4to) was published on Tuesday, the 10th of March 1812. "The effect," says Moore, "was . . . electric, his fame . . . seemed to spring, like the palace of a fairy king, in a night." A fifth edition (8vo) was issued on the 5th of December 1812. Just turned twenty-four he "found himself famous," a great poet, a rising statesman. Society, which in spite of his rank had neglected him, was now at his feet. But he could not keep what he had won. It was not only "villainous company," as he put it, which was to prove his "spoil," but the opportunity for intrigue. The excitement and absorption of one reigning passion after another destroyed his peace of mind and put him out of conceit with himself. His first affair of any moment was with Lady Caroline Lamb, the wife of William Lamb, better known as Lord Melbourne, a delicate, golden-haired sprite, who threw herself in his way, and afterwards, when she was shaken off, involved him in her own disgrace. To her succeeded Lady Oxford, who was double his own age, and Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, the "Ginevra" of his sonnets, the "Medora" of The Corsair.
Jane Elizabeth Scott, Countess of Oxford
His "way of life" was inconsistent with an official career, but there was no slakening of his poetical energies. In February 1813 he published The Waltz (anonymously), he wrote and published The Giaour (pulished June 5, 1813) and The Bride of Abydos (published November 29, 1813), and he wrote The Corsair (published February 1, 1814). The Turkish Tales were even more popular than Childe Harold. Murray sold 10,000 copies of The Corsair on the day of publication. Byron was at pains to make his accessories correct. He prided himself on the acccuracy of his "costume." He was under no delusion as to the ethical or artistic value of these experiments on "public patience."
In the summer of 1813 a new and potent influence came into his life. Mrs Leigh, whose home was at Newmarket, came up to London on a visit. After a long interval the brother and sister met, and whether there is or is not any foundation for the dark story obscurely hinted at in Byron's lifetime, and afterwards made public property by Mrs Beecher Stowe (Macmillan's Magazine, 1869, pp. 377-396), there is no question as to the depth and sincerity of his love for his "one relative," - that her well-being was more to him than his own. Byron passed the "seasons" of 1813, 1814 in London. His manner of life we know from his journals. Socially he was on the crest of the wave. He was a welcome guest at the great Whig houses, at Lady Melbourne's, at Lady Jersey's, at Holland House. Sheridan and Moore, Rogers and Campbell, were his intimates and companions. He was a member of Alfred's, of Watier's, of the Cocoa Tree, and half a dozen clubs besides. After the publication of The Corsair he had promised an interval of silence, but the abdication of Napoleon evoked "An Ode," &c., in his dishonour (April 16); Lara, a Tale, an informal sequel to The Corsair, was published anonymously on August 6, 1814.
Newstead had been put up for sale, but pending completion of the contract was still in his possession. During his last visit but one, whilst his sister was his guest, he became engaged to Miss Anna Isabella Milbanke (b. May 17, 1792; d. May 16, 1860), the only daughter of Sir Ralph Milbanke, Bart., and the Hon. Judith (born Noel), daughter of Lord Wentworth. She was an heiress, and in succession to a peerage in her own right (becoming Baroness Wentworth in 1856). She was a pretty girl of "a perfect figure," highly educated, a mathematician, and, by courtesy, a poetess. She had rejected Byron's first offer, but, believing that her cruelty had broken his heart and that he was an altered man, she was now determined on marriage. High-principled, but self-willed and opinionated, she believed that she held her future in her own hands. On her side there was ambition touched with fancy - on his, a wish to be married and some hope of perhaps finding an escape from himself. The marriage took place at Seaham in Durham on the 2nd of January 1815. Bride and bridegroom spent three months in paying visits, and at the end of March settled at 13 Piccadilly Terrace, London.
Byron was a member of the committee of management of Drury Lane theatre, and devoted much of his time to his professional duties. He wrote but little poetry. Hebrew Melodies (published April 1815), begun at Seaham in October 1814, were finished and given to the musical composer, Isaac Nathan, for publication. The Siege of Corinth and Parasina (published February 7, 1816) were got ready for the press. On the 10th of December Lady Byron gave birth to a daughter christened Augusta Ada. To judge from his letters, for the first weeks or months of his marriage things went smoothly. His wife's impression was that Byron "had avowedly begun his revenge from the first." It is certain that before the child was born his conduct was so harsh, so violent, and so eccentric, that she believed, or tried to persuade herself, that he was mad.
On the 15th of January 1816 Lady Byron left London for her father's house, claimed his protection, and after some hesitation and consultation with her legal advisers demanded a separation from her husband. It is a matter of common knowledge that in 1869 Mrs Beecher Stowe affirmed that Lady Byron expressly told her that Byron was guilty of incest with his half-sister, Mrs Leigh; also that in 1905 the second Lord Lovelace (Lord Byron's grandson) printed a work entitled Astarte which was designed to uphold and prove the truth of this charge. It is a fact that neither Lady Byron nor her advisers supported their demand by this or any other charge of misconduct, but it is also a fact that Lord Byron yielded to the demand reluctantly, under pressure and for large pecuniary considerations. It is a fact that Lady Byron's letters to Mrs Leigh before and after the separation are inconsistent with a knowledge or suspicion of guilt on the part of her sister-in-law, but is also a fact (see Astarte, pp. 142-145) that she signed a document (dated March 14, 1816) to the effect that any renewal of intercourse did not involve and must not be construed as a withdrawal of the charge. It cannot be doubted that Lady Byron's conviction that her husband's relations with his half-sister before his marriage had been of an immoral character was a factor in her demand for a