Noel Gordon Byron was
born at Holles Street, London, Jan. 22, 1788, and he died serving
Greek independence, at Missolonghi, April 19, 1824.
was Captain John Byron of the Guards, a profligate officer, who
eloped to France with a divorcée, and then married again in order
to get the money to pay his debts. His great-uncle, whose title
the poet succeeded to, killed a neighbor in a drunken brawl, was
tried before the House of Lords, and acquitted. He then conducted
himself so badly as to gain the sobriquet of "wicked Lord Byron."
The poet's grandfather was Admiral Byron, known as "Foul-weather
Jack," who had as little rest on sea as the poet on land, and
who had the virtues without the vices of the race. The family
of Byrons distinguished themselves in the field; seven brothers
fought in the English Civil War battle of Edgehill.
branches of any note grew from the family tree of the Byrons untill
the birth of our author, excepting that in the reign of Charles
II there was a Lord Byron who wrote some good verses. One writer
has tried to find a poetic ancestry for our author by connecting
the Byrons of the 17th century with the family of Sidney. Byron's
mother was Catherine Gordon, heiress of Gight in Aberdeenshire
in Scotland. "The lady's fortune was soon squandered by her profligate
husband, and she retired to the city of Aberdeen, to bring up
her son on a reduced income. The little lame boy, endeared to
all in spite of his mischief, succeeded his great-uncle, William,
and became Lord Byron, in his eleventh year." The happy mother
sold off her effects and went with her son to Newstead Abbey.
This estate had been conferred on Sir John Byron by Henry VIII
following the seizure and destruction of the monasteries, and
Charles I had ennobled the family as a reward for high and honorable
service in the Royalist cause during the Civil War.
came from an honored and noble ancestry, he was unfortunate in
his parentage. Deserted by his father, he was left to the uncertain
training of a mother who was moved by the extremes of indulgent
fondness and vindictive disfavor. In her fits of anger, he was
her "lame brat," and her discipline consisted in throwing things
at him; while in her pleasant moods he was her "darling boy,"
and the recipient of her kisses. Between these extremes she lost
all control over him. He became self-willed and resisted all efforts
to control him by sullen resistance or defiant mockery. This characteristic
followed him through life, and, without doubt, may be traced to
his parental training.
to the earldom, the youth was sent to Dulwich School (South London),
and thence to Harrow. In 1805 he was removed to Trinity College,
Cambridge, where he studied for about two years. His school life
was not particularly brilliant. He gained large stores of general
information, but made little progress in his classical studies.
The head master of the school at Harrow received him as a "wild
northern colt," very much behind his age in Greek and Latin. According
to his own account, he was always rebelling and getting into mischief;
yet he managed to keep up his reputation for general information
by reading every history he could get hold of, and by studying
the English classics. Perhaps the most profitable time of his
life was the year's vacation spent at Southwell with the Pigotts.
The genial encouragement which they gave him expanded his poetic
impulses and marked the dawn of his genius. While at Harrow he
had been busy scribbling verses, and the admiration expressed
by the Pigotts led him to publish a collection entitled "Hours
of Idleness." Upon his return to Cambridge, he found his volume
well received. The applause which it gained
encouraged him to make literature a profession. He accordingly
made a careful examination of himself, including his acquirements.
The rest of his college life was spent in collecting his powers
to make a grand struggle for fame.
a savage attack was made upon him in the Edinburgh Review.
It is said that Byron never acted except under the influence of
love or defiance. The attack in the Review stirred the poet to
action, and the scorching satire "English Bards and Scotch
Reviewers" was the result. It is understood that Lord Brougham
wrote the criticism, but Byron's reply was a complete punishment
of the objects of his wrath. This was Byron's first literary battle,
and he could have said, as did the hero of Lake Erie, "We have
met the enemy, and they are ours." With the wreath of triumph
still fresh on his brow, the young lord started, in 1809, for
a tour of the continent. For two years he wandered over Spain,
Albania, Greece, Turkey and Asia Minor.
time after his return, he lived at Newstead very unhappily, but
he busied himself correcting the proof sheets of "Childe Harold."
Finally he went to London to enter politics. He took his seat
in the House of Lords, and spoke two or three times on important
measures. In the spring of 1812 the first two cantos of Childe
Harold appeared in print. It gained instantaneous and
widespread popularity. "I awoke one morning," he said, "and found
was not confined to England; Byron at once had all Europe as his
audience, because he spoke to them on a theme in which they were
all deeply concerned. He spoke to them, too, in language which
was not merely a naked expression of their most intense feeling;
the spell by which he held them was all the stronger that he lifted
them with the irresistible power of song above the passing anxieties
of the moment." A moment's call upon our historic memories will
show why Childe Harold pleased all Europe. It appeared
about the time Napoleon set out for Moscow. It was with difficulty
that an English army could defend itself in Portugal, and the
English nation was trembling for its safety. The movements of
the dreaded Bonaparte were being watched by all eyes, and every
state in Europe was shaking to its foundation. At such a time
as this, Childe Harold "entered the absorbing tumult of
a hot and feverish struggle, and opened a way in the dark clouds
gathering over the contestants through which they could see the
blue vault and the shining stars."
In his second
canto, Byron turned from the battlefields of Spain,
blood-red tresses deepening in the sun,
And death-shot glowing in his fiery hands -
Athena," "ancient of days," and the "vanished hero's lofty
mound," thus placing before the world the departed greatness
Byron became the lion of the hour, and the center of London society.
In 1813 he produced Giaour,and The Bride of Abydos;
1814, The Corsair, and Lara; 1816, The Siege
of Corinth and Parisina. Omitting the rest of his social
life till the close of this sketch, well will now finish, in brief,
the record of his principal literary work. Leaving England, he
spent the remainder of his life at Geneva, Venice, Ravenna, and
in other parts of the continent.
appeared the third canto of Childe Harold and The Prisoner
of Chillon; in 1817: Manfred, The Lament of Tasso,
and Beppo. In 1818 he wrote the Ode to Venice, Mazeppa,
and he completed the epic Childe Harold.
he translated the first canto of Morgante Maggiore, The
Prophesy of Dante, Francesca de Rimini, Marino Faliero,
and The Blues (a regiment not a mood). From 1821 to 1823
he finished the epic and influential Don Juan, and
wrote Sardanapalus, Letters on Bowles, The Two
Foscari, Cain, Heaven and Earth, Werner, Deformed Transformed,The
Age of Bronze," and The Island.
will recognise many of these titles, for they inspired works by
Tchaikovsky, Berlioz and Richard Strauss - and perhaps the amazing
painting by Delacroix of The Death of Sardanapalus, king
appointed by the Greeks (who were not the ethnically-cleansed
people then that they are now) Commander-in-chief of their expedition
to Lepanto, he was about to embark upon his duties when he was
taken sick. All efforts to save him failed, and he died in 1824.
"Greece" was not so much a territory as an idea. He would have
considered Albania to be "Greece" at a time when the largest Albanian
city was Ianinna (then an important Ottoman center of administration
and now the regional capital of Epirus) and Albanian was spoken
as far south as the then-small town of Athens. The Greece that
achieved independence was only a fraction of the size that it
is now, after a century of expansion and attempted land-grabbing
(the two Macedonian Wars of 1912 and 1913), and the forced "assimilation"
of Slavs and Albanians, whose languages are still suppressed in
the "Hellenic Democracy" that is part of the European Union.
love affairs were numerous, but in 1815 he married Miss Milbanke,
a northern heiress, and daughter of Sir Ralph Milbanke. Ida, an
only daughter, was born in the following December. Lady Byron
left him in about one year, and refused to return. Their union
seems to have been unfortunate, as they were ill-suited to each
other. His Farewell to Lady Byron is a poem of much tenderness,
sincerity and regret. The social disapproval ("mad, bad
and dangerous to know" as Lady Caroline Lamb famously
declared) depression and financial misfortunes that settled upon
Lord Byron caused him to leave his native land forever, to seek
quiescence through adventure on the Continent of Europe.
respects Byron's life echoes that of Burns - the one a lord, the
other a landless laborer - but both singularly brilliant and unfortunate;
loved and despised, and both dying from venereal disease in the
very prime of life.
Though little-read now,
because of the heroic style and length of his works, "his genius
will be a source of wonder and delight to all who love to contemplate
the workings of human passion in solitude and society, and the
rich effects of taste and imagination.
see his uncontrolled passions lifted into great surging billows,
like the wild unrest of the ocean, and then see him penning his
farewell to his wife and child, while the tears are falling like
rain upon the paper as he writes, we cannot find it in our heart
to write unkindly of him. We simply repeat what Joaquin Miller
BURNS AND BYRON.
In men whom men condemn
I find so much of goodness still,
In men whom men pronounce divine
I find so much of sin and blot,
I hesitate to draw a line
Between the two, where God has not."