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George Gordon Noel Byron

1788-1824

George Gordon Noel Byron

George Gordon Byron, Sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale, was born on January 22, 1788 in London; he adopted the third name of 'Noel' in 1822 in order to be granted an inheritance from his mother-in-law. One of the leading figures of the romantic movement, Byron was known for his exploits as much as for his romantic poetry, the most well known of which was his Don Juan (1819-1824). The son of the handsome Captain John Byron and Scottish heiress Catherine Gordon, Byron was raised by his mother after his father squandered much of her fortune and died when the boy was only three years old. Catherine moved with her son to Aberdeen where they lived meagerly in a lodging house. At the age of 10, Byron unexpectedly inherited the spacious and reputedly haunted Newstead Abbey and the fortune and title that went with it, and his mother happily moved them to Nottinghamshire.

Byron was educated at Harrow, one of England's most prestigious schools, and while there in 1803, he fell in love with his distant and betrothed cousin, Mary Chaworth, who it is believed gave Byron the idealization of unattainable love of which he wrote so well. It is suspected that he met his half-sister Augusta that same year. In 1805, Byron entered Trinity College at Cambridge where he quickly began to amass debts, and here he showed his sexual ambivalence through an infatuation with a young chorister named John Edelston. In 1806, Byron had some of his early poems privately published in a volume titled Fugitive Pieces. He also met John Cam Hobhouse at Trinity, who initiated Byron's interest in the Whigs. The following year saw Byron's Hours of Idleness published, and a harsh review of it in The Edinburgh Review prompted him to defend himself and to attack most of the prominent literary figures of the day in a piece he called English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. It was this scathing work that earned Byron his first real recognition.

At the age of eighteen, Byron took his seat in the House of Lords and then promptly set off on an extended tour of Europe with his friend Hobhouse. While on this trip, he began work on Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, an autobiographical poem. He found his favorite spot to be Greece, where the open and tolerant culture strongly contrasted with that of the reserved English society he had been surrounded by previously. Byron returned to England in the summer of 1811, but not before his mother died at Newstead Abbey. The next winter, he made his first speech at Parliament in an appeal opposing the Tories' policy against the Luddites. The next month, March 1812, Byron 'woke to find himself famous' after the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage were published. This fame brought him great esteem in Whig society. As a result, the handsome young Byron was swept into the first of many public affairs with ladies of stature, Lady Caroline Lamb being a prime example. When a scandal threatened, Hobhouse rescued both his friend and the lady from it, only for Byron to take up with Lady Oxford, who encouraged Byron's political involvements. Shortly after this affair, Byron entered into an intimate relationship with his half-sister Augusta; to distract himself from that and the ensuing scandal, Byron began courting Lady Frances Webster. These two entanglements led to a depression of sorts for Byron, upon which he composed such verses at The Giaour, The Bridge of Abydos and The Corsair, the latter selling over 10,000 copies on its first day of publication. In an attempt to leave the affairs behind, Byron decided to marry, and in September 1814, he proposed to Anne Isabella Milbanke. The two married the following January, and by the following Christmas their daughter, Augusta Ada, was born. The marriage was not a happy one, though, and Annabella (as his wife was called) left him in 1816 to return to her parents' home after rumors of Byron's affair with his sister and questions of his sexuality arose. She obtained legal separation, and Byron was so bothered by the backlash from the gossip that he left England in April 1816 never to return.

Byron settled near Geneva, where he met Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Mary Shelley. There Byron continued an affair he had begun in England with Claire Clairmont and did further work on Childe Harold. Much of the poetry he wrote during this time reflected his sense of guilt and frustration at the life he had left behind in England. At the end of that summer, the Shelleys left for England, and Claire gave birth to Byron's second daughter, Allegra, in January 1817. That autumn, Byron and Hobhouse left for a tour of Italy, where Byron worked on the fourth canto of Childe Harold and wrote Beppo, a poem which contrasted Italian and English manners. While in Italy, Byron had affairs with Marianna Segati, a landlord's wife, and Margarita Cogni, a baker's wife. Margarita was immortalized in his letters as the 'gentle tigress' who helped him to pass his time. In 1818, Byron sold Newstead Abby for £94,500, which cleared his debts of £34,000 and left him with a sizeable balance off which to live.

In the same light, comedic style of Beppo, Bryon began to tell the satirical tale of Don Juan, of which the first two cantos were published in July 1819. However, Byron did not finish this piece; he had completed the sixteenth and begun on the seventeenth canto of the poem before the illness which was to end his life. When friends, including the Shelleys, visited Byron in 1818, they found him overweight, longhaired, graying and far older in appearance than his actual age. But soon he met the nineteen-year-old Teresa Gamba, who was married to a man nearly three times her age. The two began an affair that saw Byron become her cavalier servente, or gentleman-in-waiting. Byron easily won the friendship of her father and brother, the Counts Gamba, who gained him initiation into the secret society of the Carbonari, a political group with the goal of gaining Italy's independence from Austria. Byron's writing flourished, and he produced such works as Cain and The Vision of Judgement, a parody of Southey's eulogy of King George III, during this time.

Bryon moved to Pisa in late 1821 after Teresa and her family were driven from their home for participating in a political uprising. Here he again found his friends the Shelleys and began work on a radical journal, The Liberal, with Shelley and Leigh Hunt, an English poet and essayist. Despite Shelley's untimely death that next summer, the publication continued, and while Byron gradually lost interest in the periodical after an argument with the publisher, he still contributed writing to it, including what were to be the final cantos (VI to XVI) of Don Juan. In September 1822, Byron moved to Genoa with Teresa's family. However, Byron grew bored of his life with Teresa, and in April 1823, he became an agent of the London Committee that was formed to help the Greeks gain independence from Turkey; he also gave nearly £4,000 to this cause to help furnish and prepare the Greek navy for this battle. Byron tried to unite the Greek forces into one solid front, but an illness in February 1824 weakened him and made him susceptible to the fever which killed him on April 19, 1824 in Missolonghi.

Byron's body was returned to England, and although he was deeply mourned, his reputation and exploits meant that he was refused burial in Westminster Abbey. Instead, he was placed in a family vault near Newstead. Byron was finally given a memorial on the floor of Westminster 145 years after his death.

Byron's poetry and plays reflected his awareness of reality, its imperfections and his dual character, which alternated between sadness and satire, both of which can be seen in every day life. His letters, not published until the 20th century, show a sharply intelligent man who could look at any situation and cut to the heart of the matter. No matter what the vehicle for his message, the theme which ran through his work never changed: people should be free to choose their own courses in life as he did in his.



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