Lord Byron (1788-1824)
A Tribute to the Great Grekophile Romantic Poet
"If I am a poet, ... the air of Greece has made me one."
The most flamboyant and notorious among the Romantics, George Gordon, Lord Byron, was the most fashionable poet of his day. He created an immensely popular hero -defiant, melancholy, haunted by secret guilt- for which, to many, he seemed the model. He is also a Romantic paradox: a leader of the era’s poetic revolution, he named Alexander Pope as his master; a worshiper of the ideal, he never lost touch with reality; a deist and freethinker, he retained from his youth a Calvinist sense of original sin; a peer of the realm, he championed liberty in his works and deeds, giving money, time, energy, and finally his life to the Greek War of Independence from the over 400-year-long Turkish occupation. Byron captivated the Western mind and heart, stamping upon 19th-century letters, arts, politics, even clothing styles, his image and name as the embodiment of Romanticism.
In 1789 Byron moved with his mother to Aberdeen. Emotionally unstable, Catherine Byron raised him with excessive tenderness, fierce temper, insensitivity, and pride. From his Presbyterian nurse Byron developed a lifelong love for the Bible and the Calvinist doctrines of innate evil and predestined salvation. Schooling instilled a devotion to reading and a passion for history that informed much of his writing.
Throughout his life, poetic expression would serve him as a catharsis of strong emotion. At Harrow, he excelled in oratory, wrote verse, and played sports, even cricket. He also formed the first of those passionate attachments with boys that he would enjoy throughout his life; before reaching his teen years he had been sexually initiated by his maid. He had strong bisexual tendencies, though relationships with women seem generally, but not always, to have satisfied his emotional needs more fully. In the summer of 1803 he fell so deeply in love with his distant cousin, the beautiful -and engaged- Mary Chaworth of Annesley Hall, that he interrupted his education for a term to be near her. His unrequited passion found expression in such poems as "Hills of Annesley" (1805), "The Adieu" (1807), "Stanzas to a Lady on Leaving England" (1809), and "The Dream" (1816). As he grew apart from his mother, he drew closer to his half-sister Augusta, five years his senior.
Living extravagantly, he began to amass the debts that would bedevil him for years. In 1806 he distributed locally his first book of poetry, Fugitive Pieces, printed at his expense and anonymously, with poems inspired by his early experiences. An augmented collection, Hours of Idleness, was published in June. Byron returned to Cambridge as a published poet. Besides renewing acquaintances, he 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, two months after attaining his majority, he took his seat in the House of Lords.
Byron was anxious to realize a long-held dream of traveling abroad. On July 1809 he sailed from England, accompanied by Hobhouse and three servants, including William Fletcher, who remained as valet until Byron’s death, and Robert Rushton, the "little page" of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto I.
Once in Greece, Byron and Hobhouse pushed by boat and horseback into virtually unknown Albania. In the area of Tepelene they were entertained by Ali Pasha, effective ruler of Albania and western Greece. Ruthless, sophisticated, and sensuous, the "Lion of Ioannina" represented the type of romantic villain Byron later drew in his Oriental tales and in the character of Lambro, Haidée’s "piratical papa" in Don Juan (Canto III).
Anxious to set down the experiences the trip afforded him, Byron began an autobiographical poem wherein he recorded the adventures of Childe Burun (a combination of the archaic title for a youth of noble birth and an ancient form of his own surname); he subsequently renamed the hero Harold. Byron completed the first canto in Athens at the end of the year.
Turning southward, he and Hobhouse journeyed through Messolonghi and rode into Athens Christmas night 1809. They lodged at the foot of the Acropolis with Mrs. Tarsia Macri, widow of a Greek who had been British vice consul. Byron soon fell in love with her three daughters, but especially with Theresa (Θηρεσία), only twelve, his "Maid of Athens."
Maid of Athens
Maid of Athens, ere we part,
Give, oh give me back my heart !
Or, since that has left my breast,
Keep it now, and take the rest !
Hear my vow before I go,
Ζωή μου σας αγαπώ!
By those tresses unconfined,
Woo'd by each Ægean wind;
By those lids whose jetty fringe
Kiss thy soft cheeks' blooming tinge;
By those wild eyes like the roe,
Ζωή μου σας αγαπώ!
By that lip I long to taste;
By that zone-encircled waist;
By all the token-flowers that tell
What words can never speak so well;
By love's alternate joy and woe,
Ζωή μου σας αγαπώ!
Maid of Athens ! I am gone:
Think of me, sweet ! when alone.
Though I fly to Istambol,
Athens holds my heart and soul:
Can I cease to love thee? No !
Ζωή μου σας αγαπώ!
In March 1810 Byron and Hobhouse extended their tour into Turkey. In Smyrna, he completed the second canto of Childe Harold, incorporating his adventures in Albania and his thoughts on Greece. He visited Troy and while Hobhouse read Ovid’s Hero and Leander, imitated Leander’s feat of swimming the Hellespont; within a week, lines "Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos" commemorated his pride in this exploit. During the two months he spent in Constantinople amid Oriental splendor, filth, and cruelty, his distaste for the Turks grew.
In July he traveled back to Athens, where he settled in the Capuchin monastery by the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, below the Acropolis. He studied Italian and modern Greek and moved easily in the cosmopolitan society of Athens.
Within weeks of his return, Byron was plunged into a period of prolonged mourning. His mother died on 2 August. News of the deaths of two classmates followed. Then, in October, he learned of the death from consumption of John Edleston, the former choirboy at Trinity College. Deeply affected, he lamented his loss in the lines "To Thyrza" (1811), a woman’s name concealing the subject’s true identity and gender. This was the first of several "Thyrza" poems. In January 1812 Byron resumed his seat in the House of Lords, allying himself with the Liberal Whigs. During his political career he spoke but three times in the House of Lords.
Upon his return to England in 1811, Byron had given the manuscript of Childe Harold to R.C. Dallas, his adviser in the publication of English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers. Dallas showed the poem to John Murray II, the publisher of Scott and Southey, who agreed to publish it, beginning a rich association between publisher and poet. On 10 March 1812 Murray published Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II. Five hundred copies sold out in three days. An octavo edition of three thousand copies was on the market within two days. Shortly after Childe Harold appeared, Byron remarked, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous." Murray brought out five editions of the poem in 1812 alone, and published the tenth, and last, separate edition in 1815. In less than six months sales had reached forty-five hundred copies. In the Edinburgh Review), Francis Jeffrey commented that Byron had "improved marvelously since his last appearance at our tribunal." Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II, can be read as Byron’s poetic journal of his Mediterranean and Eastern tour in 1809-1811. Color and energy animate descriptions of the familiar (Spain and Portugal), the exotic (Albania and Greece), and the violent (a Spanish bullfight and feuding Albanians). But the international popularity of the work’s eventual four cantos derived less from its appeal as a travelogue than from its powerful articulation of the Weltschmerz, or "World-weariness," born of the chaos of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars that disrupted all of European society. The poem is the record of the contemporary quest for moral and intellectual certainty and positive self-assertion. In Childe Harold Byron began to blend narration and digression to produce a type of descriptive-meditative poetry which he would use to greater advantage in Don Juan. Scenes Harold and the narrator describe often spur them to moral reflections. Sites associated with the Napoleonic campaign, elicit comments on the follies of war (Canto I); the ruins of Greece evoke thoughts on the evils of tyranny and on the transience of powerful civilizations and "men of might" (Canto II). The work repeatedly stresses the rich heritage of poetry and liberty which contemporary Europe has received from classical Greece. The country’s ancient greatness serves as a standard by which modern Greeks are measured. Harold was introduced, Byron wrote in the preface, "for the sake of giving some connection to the piece." By labeling Harold "a fictitious character" Byron sought to dissociate himself from his protagonist, but his readers, noting many and striking similarities, persisted in equating the artist with his hero.
The drawing rooms and salons of Whig society vied for Byron’s presence and lionized him. He met the spirited, impulsive Lady Caroline Lamb, who initially judged him "mad—bad—and dangerous to know." Their tempestuous affair lasted through the summer, until Byron rejected her. Despite its outcome, his connection with Lady Caroline left him on friendly terms with her mother-in-law, the witty Elizabeth Milbanke Lamb, Lady Melbourne. He proposed marriage to her niece, Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke, as a possible means of escaping the insistent Caroline. A twenty-year-old bluestocking, Annabella was widely read in literature and philosophy and showed a talent for mathematics. She declined the proposal in the belief that Byron would never be "the object of that strong affection" which would make her "happy in domestic life." By November he was conducting an affair with the mature Jane Elizabeth Scott, Lady Oxford, a patroness of the Reform Movement.
Between June 1813 and February 1816, Byron completed and had published six very popular verse tales, five of them influenced by his travels in Greece and Turkey: The Giaour (1813), The Bride of Abydos (1813), The Corsair (1814), Lara (1814), and The Siege of Corinth and Parisina (1816).
In June 1813 Byron began an affair with his 29-year-old half sister, Augusta. Married since 1807 to her spendthrift cousin, Colonel George Leigh, she had three daughters. While no legal proof exists, evidence in Byron’s letters to his confidante Lady Melbourne strongly suggests an incestuous connection. Through poetry he found relief from his involvement with Augusta and from an inconclusive flirtation in the autumn of 1813 with Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster. In December Byron produced a third Oriental tale, The Corsair. He used heroic couplets for extended romantic narrative rather than for Popean satire. On the day of publication in February 1814 ten thousand copies were sold, "a thing," Murray excitedly assured him, "perfectly unprecedented." On 10 April 1814, amid rumors of the abdication and exile of the emperor Napoleon, Byron wrote and copied Ode to Napoléon Buonaparte. On the 16th it was published anonymously, though the inscription to Hobhouse revealed its parentage. Since Harrow, Byron had had mixed feelings about Napoleon. He admired the titanic qualities of the brilliant strategist, dynamic soldier, and statesman, but he was repelled by his brutal conquest of Iberia and his perversion of liberal ideals.
On 15 April 1814 Augusta gave birth to a girl, Elizabeth Medora. When Medora Leigh grew up, she believed herself to be Byron’s daughter, though Byron never acknowledged the paternity, as he did for his other illegitimate off-spring. Byron spent much of the summer of 1814 with Augusta, while continuing to correspond with Annabella. In a letter dated September 9th, he made a tentative proposal of marriage and she accepted it. After inauspicious hesitations and postponements, many of his own making, Byron married Annabella on 2 January 1815. Halnaby Hall, the Milbankes’ Yorkshire seat forty miles distant, was the site of Lord and Lady Byron’s three-week "treaclemoon". Byron resumed work on the Hebrew Melodies, lyrics for airs Jewish composer Isaac Nathan was adapting from the music of the synagogue. The project held much personal appeal for the poet. Throughout his life he was a fervent reader of the Bible and a lover of traditional songs and legends. As a champion of freedom, he may also have responded instinctively to the oppression long suffered by the Jewish people. In April, after a tempestuous visit with Augusta, Lord and Lady Byron settled in the Duchess of Devonshire’s London house, at 13 Piccadilly Terrace. That same month, Isaac Nathan published A Selection of Hebrew Melodies, with Byron’s verses and Nathan and John Braham’s music. Despite the high price for a thin folio, the work sold ten thousand copies in two editions. In the summer, Murray brought out the poetry separately as Hebrew Melodies.
Throughout 1815 financial problems and heavy drinking drove Byron into rages and fits of irrational behavior. When Annabella was in an advanced stage of pregnancy, he made her the scapegoat for his troubles. On December 10, 1815, she gave birth to Augusta Ada Byron. Because of his anger and violent utterances, Lady Byron concluded that her husband was mentally deranged, so on January 15 1816, she and Augusta Ada left London. He never saw them again. On February 2 her father wrote Byron to propose a quiet separation. Byron was shocked. A week later, Lady Byron probably confessed to her lawyer her suspicion of incest between Byron and Augusta, adding it to the prior charges of adultery and cruelty; by the end of the month, the rumors about brother and sister were widespread. In February Murray published The Siege of Corinth and Parisina in a single volume. The anonymous first edition sold six thousand copies. On March 17 the terms for the legal separation were agreed upon. During this crisis, Byron had a casual liaison with Claire (Jane) Clairmont, the stepdaughter of philosopher William Godwin and the stepsister of Mary Godwin, with whom Percy Bysshe Shelley had eloped in 1814. Byron signed the final deed of separation on April 21, having decided to go abroad with the completion of this formality. On his trip he was accompanied by Fletcher the valet, his personal physician, Dr. John Polidori ("Pollydolly"), Robert Rushton, and a Swiss servant. He traveled with a huge coach, copied from one Napoléon captured at Genappe. They sailed from Dover bound for Ostend. Byron would never see England again.
The party reached Geneva on May 25 1816. Byron was unaware that waiting for him were Claire Clairmont, pregnant with his child, Shelley, and Mary Godwin. A genuine friendship and mutual high regard flourished between the two poets. They passed the time agreeably by boating on Lake Leman and conversing at the Villa Diodati, which Byron had rented, with its commanding view of the lake and the Juras beyond.
Byron completed the third canto of Childe Harold. Its framework is a poetic travelogue based on his journey from Dover to Waterloo, then along the Rhine and into Switzerland. Having failed to maintain a convincing distinction between himself and his hero in the previous cantos, Byron drops the pretense and speaks in his own right. Harold becomes a shadowy presence who disappears in the middle of the canto, absorbed into the narrator. Rousseau, whose writings helped to kindle the French Revolution, and Napoleon, whose campaigns doomed the hopes born of that struggle, relate directly to the canto’s theme of war. Byron despised wars of aggression waged for personal gain while championing as honorable those conflicts that defended freedom, such as the battles of Marathon and Morat and the French Revolution. July 1816 represents a remarkably creative month for Byron. Among other pieces written at this time appear three notable short poems. "The Dream" traces his emotional development from idealism to despair in his love for Mary Chaworth; "Darkness" imagines the last days of the disintegrating universe; "Prometheus" celebrates the triumph of the defiant spirit over torture. The arrival of Hobhouse at the end of August coincided with the departure of Shelley, Mary, and Claire, who returned to England with the manuscripts of the third canto of Childe Harold. On January 12 1817, Claire gave birth to a daughter Byron named Clara Allegra, and called by her second name. After four months in Switzerland, Byron, accompanied by Hobhouse, lumbered toward Italy in October 1816. Following a sojourn in Milan, they reached Venice the next month. He began an affair with Marianna Segati, his landlord’s wife, attended the conversazione of Countess Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi, the center of Venetian literary-social life, and studied Armenian at the Armenian monastery on the island of San Lazzaro.
Murray published Childe Harold, Canto III, on November 18, and The Prisoner of Chillon, and Other Poems on 5 December. Within a week of publication, seven thousand copies of each volume had been sold.
Byron set out in mid April 1817 to join Hobhouse in Rome. In Ferrara, his visit to the cell where the 16th-c. poet Torquato Tasso had been confined for madness inspired an impassioned dramatic monologue, The Lament of Tasso. Byron identified with this "eagle-spirit of a Child of Song" who, through "Long years of outrage, calumny, and wrong," "found resource" in "the innate force" of his own spirit. Byron was "delighted" with the Eternal City. He settled in mid June at the Villa Foscarini at La Mira on the Brenta, seven miles from Venice. Here, he began to distill his memories of Rome into poetry. Composing rapidly, he had completed the first draft for 126 stanzas of Childe Harold, Canto IV, by mid July, but he revised and expanded the manuscript for the rest of the year.
Continuing the pilgrimage format of the earlier cantos, the framework for this longest of the sections is a spirited Italian journey from Venice through Arqua (where Byron had seen the house and tomb of Petrarch) and Ferrara (city of Tasso and Ludovico Ariosto) to Florence and on to Rome, the setting for half of the canto. Byron had "become weary of drawing a line which every one seemed determined not to perceive." A Hero of Sensibility, the pilgrim-narrator of Canto IV focuses sharply on the contrast between the transience of mighty empires, exemplified by Venice and Rome, and the transcendence of great art over human limitations, change, and death. The pilgrim-narrator digresses easily from scenes of shattered columns and broken arches to considerations of his own sufferings and of war and liberty. Throughout, Nature is valued, but for its intrinsic beauty.
Late summer 1817 marks a significant development in Byron’s literary career. On August 29 he heard about the return of a supposedly deceased husband to his Venetian wife; she had meanwhile taken a lover, and then had to choose her husband, her lover, or solitary life on a pension. At this time, he happened to see John Hookham Frere’s Whistlecraft (1817), a mock-heroic satire in ottava rima modeled on the Italian burlesque manner of Luigi Pulci, Francesco Berni, and Abate Giambattista Casti. The seriocomic mood, colloquial style, and digressions of ottava rima, no less than his fondness for couplets in his Popean satires, attracted Byron to this verse form as the medium for his witty version of the story of Venetian customs and light morals. By 10 October he had finished Beppo. His new poem, he assured Murray on March 25 1818, would show the public that he could "write cheerfully, & repel the charge of monotony & mannerism." Murray published Beppo, A Venetian Story, without Byron’s name on the title page, on February 28 1818, to immediate success. The Monthly Review (March 1818) found Byron’s "satire, though at times a little tinged with vulgarity, ... usually good-humored and often well pointed." In the Edinburgh Review (February 1818), Jeffrey commended "the matchless facility" with which the "unknown writer" "cast into regular, and even difficult versification ... the most light, familiar, and ordinary conversations." The author’s "digressions and dissertations"—the bulk of the poem—formed its "most lively and interesting part." Jeffrey even suggested that the anonymous poet had "caught a spark from the ardent genius of Byron."
On April 28 1818 Murray brought out Childe Harold, Canto IV; the five printings of the first edition comprise ten thousand copies. In the Quarterly Review (April 1818) Scott judged that the last part of "this great poem ... sustained Lord Byron’s high reputation," though it possessed less passion and more "deep thought and sentiment" than the earlier cantos.
Early in June Byron moved into the Palazzo Mocenigo, his spacious residence overlooking the Grand Canal, within sight of the Rialto Bridge. Living with him was his daughter Allegra (brought to Venice by the Shelley party in April), whom he had agreed to support and educate. Here, too, he lodged his fourteen servants, a menagerie, and a veritable harem. His housekeeper was the passionate Margarita Cogni (called "La Fornarina" as she was a baker’s wife), Byron’s latest inamorata.
To Moore, his visitor in October, he presented the manuscript of his memoirs, begun in Venice the previous year and not to be published during Byron’s lifetime. They were intended to be "Memoranda—and not Confessions," containing, among other things, "a detailed account" of his marriage and its "consequences." Moore sold them to Murray three days after news of Byron’s death reached England, Hobhouse and Murray, over Moore’s objections, had the memoirs burned in Murray’s parlor to protect Byron’s reputation from his indiscretions.
Εἰς τὸν θάνατον τοῦ Λόρδου Μπάϋρον
Διονύσιος Σολωμός (1798-1857)
Λευτεριά, γιὰ λίγο πάψε
νὰ χτυπᾶς μὲ τὸ σπαθί.
Τώρα σίμωσε καὶ κλάψε
εἰς τοῦ Μπάιρον τὸ κορμί.
Ode on the Death of Lord Byron
Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857)
For a moment, Liberty,
Let the war, the bloodshed rest;
Hither come and silently
Over Byron's body weep.
His influence was pervasive and prolonged. 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. As Leslie A. Marchand 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." In narrative skill, Byron has no superior in English poetry, save Geoffrey Chaucer; as Ronald Bottrall notes, Byron, like his illustrious predecessor, could "sum up a society and an era." His subjects are fundamental ones: life and death, growth and decay, humankind and nature. His "apotheosis of the commonplace" is, to Edward E. Bostetter, "one of his great contributions to the language of poetry." Lacking the inhibitions of his contemporaries, Byron created verse that is exuberant, spontaneous, expansive, digressive, concrete, lucid, colloquial—in celebration of "unadorned reality."
Lord Byron: Selected Poems
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Author: Lord George Gordon Byron
Narrator: Frederick Davidson
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