painted by Thomas Phillips (1770-1845)
The Regency produced a lot of fascinating, unconventional characters and outstanding among them has to be George Gordon Noel, Lord Byron. “Mad, bad and dangerous to know” is how Lady Caroline Lamb famously described the celebrated poet in her diary after meeting him for the first time at a ball. And it was a pretty apt description of him, especially during the years he was lionized by London society.
When Caroline Lamb met Byron in 1812 he was enjoying his fame as a leading poetic voice of the Romantic Movement. It wasn't just his poems that were deemed romantic; he was also notorious for his many love affairs, especially with married women.
His bad-boy reputation only enhanced his attraction to the opposite sex. In fact, Caroline Lamb’s assessment of Byron’s character didn't stop her from embarking on a passionate affair with him. It was punctuated with violent displays of affection, outrageous behavior and brazen infidelity, all pretty much on her part. She also may well have been the first celebrity stalker, becoming obsessed with him and refusing to leave him alone when he was no longer interested in her.
|Lady Caroline Lamb|
For Byron, life imitated art. He was the original Byronic hero, which is also the name of a literary device he’s credited with creating in his poems. The Byronic hero, as epitomized by Byron himself, is usually a sexy, melancholy non-conformist with great talent and passion, and irresistible flaws. He may be tall, dark and handsome, and exude a cynical, world-weary air.
The Byronic hero has an enduring appeal, and can be seen even today in many books and movies. Edward Cullen of Twilight fame is a modern example.
|Edward Cullen, as played by|
actor Robert Pattinson
But there was more to Byron than angst-ridden heroes, love affairs and poetry. Here are some additional facts about his life:
Birth. He was born George Gordon Byron on January 22, 1788, the son of Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron, a brutal, profligate man who married his two wives for their fortunes. “Mad Jack” died when Byron was three years old, and Byron inherited the title at age 10 when his uncle died childless and passed on the barony to his nephew. Byron’s full title was 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale.
An athlete despite his limp. Born with a club foot, Byron walked with a limp all his life. However, his deformity only enhanced his brooding appeal. And his birth defect didn't prevent him from enjoying outdoor sports. He was an excellent swimmer, and in 1810 he swam across the Hellespont strait (also called the Dardanelles) from Europe to Asia, which is a stretch of about 4 KM, or 2.4 miles. This was the first recorded account of such an open water swim, and Byron’s feat may well have marked the birth of this sport.
Love of animals. Byron may have been a famous lover, but it wasn't just women who excited his ardor. He also loved all animals, especially his dog, a Newfoundland named Boatswain. When Boatswain contracted rabies Byron cared for him tenderly with no fear for his own health or safety. When the dog died Byron had a large monument erected for him, despite the fact that the dog’s tomb was costly and Byron was deep in debt. In fact, for well over a century Bryon’s dog had a bigger memorial in England than Byron had himself.
|A Newfoundland dog, like Byron's |
beloved dog Boatswain
His many loves. Byron achieved great literary success, and the favor of the Prince Regent, in his twenties. He was also catnip to women, and had many affairs to prove it. In addition to Lady Caroline Lamb he also was rumored to have conceived a child with Claire Clairmont, the stepsister of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein and was wife to his friend, another Romantic poet named Percy Bysshe Shelley.
|Boris Karloff as Frankenstein--another |
His famous daughter. Byron got caught in the parson's mousetrap (a Regency euphemism for marriage) in 1815 when he wed Annabella Millbanke. They had a daughter the same year, Augusta Ada. Ada married an earl later in life and became Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, though she went by Ada Lovelace. Ada was an amazing woman in her own right. Despite the era she lived in, which didn't exactly encourage women to become accomplished in the fields of science and mathematics, she became a renowned mathematician. She is best known for her contribution to the Analytical Engine, a prototype mechanical computer developed by Charles Babbage.
|Ada Lovelace in 1840|
by Alfred Edward Chalon
The scandal that brought him down. Scandal finally caught up with Byron in 1816, when his liaison with his half-sister Augusta became public and shocked even jaded London society. His relationship with his sister was described as incestuous by some and innocent by others, but in either case it was enough to earn him widespread censure. Byron and his sister were even rumored to have had a child together. Byron fled England permanently in that year, never to return. He later wrote that he left the country because "I was unfit for England" and "England was unfit for me."
Byron the freedom fighter. But Byron’s life had a second act after he left England – that of an Albanian freedom fighter. This part of his life didn't last long. He died in Greece in 1824 at age 36, due to complications resulting from injuries he sustained fighting the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence.
|"Lord Byron in Albanian Dress" |
by Thomas Phillips
Byron is revered as a hero in Greece, but he didn't get a memorial in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner until 1969, 145 years after his death. Westminster Abbey turned down three previous requests for a Byron memorial within its hallowed walls – two in the 19th century, and one in 1924. The fact that it took 145 years to get the Abbey’s approval is proof that old scandals die hard.
His poetry. Byron achieved lasting fame as a poet for works such as Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, The Corsair and Don Juan. My favorite poem of his, however, is none of these epics but instead a shorter, simpler lyric called "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 mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired 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!
Do you have a favorite Byron poem? Share it in the comments!
Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons