Lord George Gordon|
sixth baron Byron of Rochdale
(January 22, 1788 - April 19, 1824) U.K.
George Gordon (Noel) Byron, Lord Byron, Sixth Baron of Rochdale
Byron was the leading poet of the romantic period. His epic satire Don Juan is considered his masterpiece; but he is also known for his Childe Harold and Manfred. Byron's life was filled with lovers of both sexes. As a seventeen year old student at Trinity College, he fell in love with John Eddleston, a choir boy of the same age. Byron wrote that "I certainly love him more than any human being".
Some biographers have dismissed this as a platonic infacuation, but there is less uncertainty surrounding Byron's 1811 relationship with Nikolo Giraud, a youth of mixed French-Greek blood whom Byron described as "the most beautiful being I have ever beheld". They were inseparable for a time, and Byron consulted a doctor about a relaxation of the sphincter muscle that was giving Giraud trouble.
Byron's many other liasons included with Lord Clare, and one of his half-sister Augusta; when this relationship was criticised as incestuous, he explained, "I could love anything on earth that appeared to wish it".
He married in 1815 but separated a year later; relationships with a beatiful italian noblewoman, and with another handsome greek youth, followed. Parts of Byron's life will remain unknown; although he wrote his memoirs and entrusted them to his friend John Cam Hobhouse, they were considered too scandalous for publication after his death and were burned. Byron's first biographer, Thomas Moore, carefully avoided the specific question of Byron's homosexuality and portrayed his relationships with male friends as chaste romantic attachments of a platonic kind.
Born in London, Byron was the son of the handsome and profligate Captain John "Mad Jack" Byron and his second wife, Catherine (Kitty) Gordon, Laird of Ghigt (a Scottish title), who was considered coarse and frivolous by those who knew her, including her son. He was christened George Gordon Byron. After her husband had squandered most of her fortune, Mrs. Byron took her infant son to Aberdeen, Scotland, where they lived in lodgings on a meagre income. but by then his mother was no longer Laird of Ghigt, as she had sold her land and title to pay his father's debts.
The captain left them and died in France in 1791. His son, George Gordon Byron, had been born with a clubfoot and early developed an extreme sensitivity to his lameness. He was registered at school as George Byron Gordon. Neighbours called him "wee Geordie Byron" and "the leetle deevil". On May 21, 1798, at age 10, he unexpectedly inherited the title of his great-uncle William, the 5th Baron Byron, with the estate of Newstead Abbey in Nottingham and Baron Byron of Rochdale in Lancashire. A confusion arises because his title and surname are the same.
His mother proudly took him to England, where the boy fell in love with the ghostly halls and spacious ruins of Newstead Abbey, which had been presented to the Byrons by Henry VIII. After living at Newstead for a while, Byron was sent to school in London, and in 1801 he went to Harrow, one of England's most prestigious schools, where taunts from the older boys about his club foot, which he later attributed to her tight corsets, kept him miserable. This did not, however, prevent him from falling in love with his younger classmates. As he recorded of Harrow, "My school friendships were with me -- passions. That with Lord Clare began one of the earliest and lasted longest... I never hear the word "Clare" without a beating of the heart even now, and I write it with the feelings of 1803-4-5 ad infinitum." Some fifty years later Harrow would become infamous when stories of wild, homosexual rituals were revealed.
In 1803 he fell in love with his distant cousin, Mary Chaworth, who was older and already engaged, and when she rejected him she became the symbol for Byron of idealized and unattainable love. He probably met Augusta Byron, his half sister from his father's first marriage, that same year.
In 1805 Byron entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he piled up debts at an alarming rate and indulged in the conventional vices of undergraduates there. One of Byron's college friends, Charles Matthews, along with all things liberal and fashionable, advocated "paederasty" in the classic Greek tradition. There he conceived what in his words was "A violent, though pure, love and passion" for John Edleston, a choirboy whom he first heard sing in Trinity Chapel. "His voice," Byron wrote, "first attracted my attention, his countenance fixed it, and his manners attach me to him forever.... I certainly love him more than any human being, and neither time or distance have had the least effect on my (in general) changeable disposition."
Some of Byron's earliest poems are to Edleston, including To E___, Stanzas to Jessy, and The Cornelian, which records Edleston's gift to Byron of a Cornelian, which Byron kept with him the rest of his life. These appeared in Hours of Idleness (1807), Byron's first collection of poems. Byron wrote several poems that scholars believe were written to and about John, calling him "Thyrza". One of the Thyrza poems, written after John had died, indicates in the words: "The pressure of the thrilling hand, the kiss, so guiltless and refined, that Love each warmer wish forbore", that their physical contact had been restricted to hand-holding and kissing. Even much later in life, after the Thyrza poems had become very famous and popular, Byron refused to say who they were addressed to and changed the pronouns from masculine to feminine to conceal that this doomed but lifelong passion was for a man.
After two years of being Byron's "almost constant associate since October 1805", John had to move away from Cambridge to London and Byron wrote to a woman friend, Elizabeth Pigot, about his heartbreak, saying that he was planning to live with his "protégé" after he had completed his studies, which would "put Lady E. Butler & Miss Ponsonby to the Blush, Pylades & Orestes out of countenance, & want nothing but a Catastrophe like Nisus and Euryalus, to give Johnathon & David the 'go by' ". These are all same-sex passionate relationships.
In 1806 Byron had his early poems privately printed in a volume entitled Fugitive Pieces, and that same year he formed at Trinity what was to be a close, lifelong friendship with John Cam Hobhouse, who stirred his interest in liberal Whiggism.
Byron's first published volume of poetry, Hours of Idleness, appeared in 1807. A sarcastic critique of the book in The Edinburgh Review provoked his retaliation in 1809 with a couplet satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, in which he attacked the contemporary literary scene. This work gained him his first recognition. In a letter to a friend in 1809, Byron wrote (probably facetiously) that he was going to Turkey to do research for a treatise "Sodomy simplified or Paederasty proved to be praiseworthy from ancient authors and modern practice". Like all jokes, this must have had an edge of truth to be funny.
On reaching his majority in 1809, Byron took his seat in the House of Lords, and then embarked with Hobhouse on a grand tour. They sailed to Lisbon, crossed Spain, and proceeded by Gibraltar and Malta to Greece, where they ventured inland to Ionnina and to Tepelene in Albania. In Greece Byron began Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage, which he continued in Athens. In March 1810 he sailed with Hobhouse for Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), visited the site of Troy, and swam the Hellespont (present-day Dardanelles) in imitation of Leander. Byron's sojourn in Greece made a lasting impression on him. The Greeks' free and open frankness contrasted strongly with English reserve and hypocrisy and served to broaden his views of men and manners. He delighted in the sunshine and the moral tolerance of the people.
While Byron was on his travels in Turkey, Albania, and Greece he wrote to Matthews frequently about his sexual conquests of boys using a coded term based on Latin "plen. et optabil. -Coit." (frequent and desired intercourse). He reported that he was amusing himself with "a Sopha to tumble upon" with Greek boys, who especially charmed him, and he had liaisons with several, including Eustathius Georgiou and Nicolo Giraud, whom he named his heir upon his return to London. Eustathius had "ambrosial curls hanging down his amiable back".
Nicolo Giraud was a youth of mixed French-Greek blood whom Byron described as "the most beautiful being I have ever beheld". They were inseparable for a time, and Byron consulted a doctor about a relaxation of the sphincter muscle that was giving Giraud trouble. It has also been argued that while in the East, Byron was a lover of Ali Pasha or his son, Veli Pasha, rulers of Albania and the Peloponessus. They were very friendly and hospitable to Byron and Veli Pasha did give him a beautiful white horse.
Byron arrived back in London in July 1811, and his mother died before he could reach her at Newstead. In 1811 the sad news reached Byron of John Edleston's premature death. Byron wrote: "I have heard of a death the other day that shocked me more than any, of one whom I loved more than any, of one whom I loved more than I ever loved a living thing, and one who, I believe, loved me to the last." In Edleston's memory Byron composed Thyrza, a series of elegies, though for publication he changed the pronouns to make the sentiments appear more acceptable.
In February 1812 he made his first speech in the House of Lords, a humanitarian plea opposing harsh Tory measures against riotous Nottingham weavers. At the beginning of March, the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage were published by John Murray, and Byron "woke to find himself famous." The poem describes the travels and reflections of a young man who, disillusioned with a life of pleasure and revelry, looks for distraction in foreign lands. Besides furnishing a travelogue of Byron's own wanderings through the Mediterranean, the first two cantos express the melancholy and disillusionment felt by a generation weary of the wars of the post-Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras.
In the poem Byron reflects upon the vanity of ambition, the transitory nature of pleasure, and the futility of the search for perfection in the course of a "pilgrimage" through Portugal, Spain, Albania, and Greece. In the wake of Childe Harold's enormous popularity, Byron was lionized in Whig society. The handsome poet was swept into a liaison with the passionate and eccentric Lady Caroline Lamb, and the scandal of an elopement was barely prevented by his friend Hobhouse. She was succeeded as his lover by Lady Oxford, who encouraged Byron's radicalism.
During the summer of 1813, Byron apparently entered into intimate relations with his half sister Augusta, now married to Colonel George Leigh. He then carried on a flirtation with Lady Frances Webster as a diversion from this dangerous liaison. The agitations of these two love affairs and the sense of mingled guilt and exultation they aroused in Byron are reflected in the series of gloomy and remorseful Oriental verse tales he wrote at this time: The Giaour (1813); The Bride of Abydos (1813); The Corsair (1814), which sold 10,000 copies on the day of publication; and Lara (1814).
Seeking to escape his love affairs in marriage, Byron proposed in September 1814 to Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke. The marriage took place in Seaham Hall, County Durham, January 2, 1815, and Lady Byron gave birth to a daughter, Augusta Ada, in London, December 10, 1815. From the start the marriage was doomed by the gulf between Byron and his unimaginative and humorless wife; and in January 1816 Annabella left Byron to live with her parents, amid swirling rumours centring on his relations with Augusta Leigh and his bisexuality. The couple obtained a legal separation. Wounded by the general moral indignation directed at him, and to escape the scandal Byron was forced to flee England in April, 1816, never to return (the penalty for homosexuality in England at that time was death).
Byron sailed up the Rhine River into Switzerland and settled at Geneva, near Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Godwin, who had eloped, and Godwin's stepdaughter by a second marriage, Claire Clairmont, with whom Byron had begun an affair in England. In Geneva he wrote the third canto of Childe Harold (1816), which follows Harold from Belgium up the Rhine River to Switzerland. It memorably evokes the historical associations of each place Harold visits, giving pictures of the Battle of Waterloo (whose site Byron visited), of Napoleon and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and of the Swiss mountains and lakes, in verse that expresses both the most aspiring and most melancholy moods. A visit to the Bernese Oberland provided the scenery for the Faustian poetic drama Manfred (1817), whose protagonist reflects Byron's own brooding sense of guilt and the wider frustrations of the Romantic spirit doomed by the reflection that man is "half dust, half deity, alike unfit to sink or soar."
At the end of the summer the Shelley party left for England, where Claire gave birth to Byron's illegitimate daughter Allegra in January 1817. In October Byron and Hobhouse departed for Italy. They stopped in Venice, where Byron enjoyed the relaxed customs and morals of the Italians and carried on a love affair with Marianna Segati, his landlord's wife. In May he joined Hobhouse in Rome, gathering impressions that he recorded in a fourth canto of Childe Harold (1818). He also wrote Beppo, a poem in ottava rima that satirically contrasts Italian with English manners in the story of a Venetian menage-*-trois. Back in Venice, Margarita Cogni, a baker's wife, replaced Segati as his mistress, and his descriptions of the vagaries of this "gentle tigress" are among the most entertaining passages in his letters describing life in Italy. The sale of Newstead Abbey in the autumn of 1818 for £94,500 cleared Byron of his debts, which had risen to £34,000, and left him with a generous income.
In the light, mock-heroic style of Beppo Byron found the form in which he would write his greatest poem, Don Juan, a satire in the form of a picaresque verse tale. The first two cantos of Don Juan were begun in 1818 and published in July 1819. Byron transformed the legendary libertine Don Juan into an unsophisticated, innocent young man who, though he delightedly succumbs to the beautiful women who pursue him, remains a rational norm against which to view the absurdities and irrationalities of the world.
Upon being sent abroad by his mother from his native Seville, Juan survives a shipwreck en route and is cast up on a Greek island, whence he is sold into slavery in Constantinople. He escapes to the Russian army, participates gallantly in the Russians' siege of Ismail, and is sent to St. Petersburg, where he wins the favour of the empress Catherine the Great and is sent by her on a diplomatic mission to England. The poem's story, however, remains merely a peg on which Byron could hang a witty and satirical social commentary.
His most consistent targets are, first, the hypocrisy and cant underlying various social and sexual conventions, and, second, the vain ambitions and pretenses of poets, lovers, generals, rulers, and humanity in general. Don Juan remains unfinished; Byron completed 16 cantos and had begun the 17th before his own illness and death. In Don Juan he was able to free himself from the excessive melancholy of Childe Harold and reveal other sides of his character and personality--his satiric wit and his unique view of the comic rather than the tragic discrepancy between reality and appearance.
Shelley and other visitors in 1818 found Byron grown fat, with hair long and turning gray, looking older than his years, and sunk in sexual promiscuity. But a chance meeting with Countess Teresa Gamba Guiccioli, who was only 19 years old and married to a man nearly three times her age, reenergized Byron and changed the course of his life. Byron followed her to Ravenna, and she later accompanied him back to Venice.
Byron returned to Ravenna in January 1820 as Teresa's cavalier servente (gentleman-in-waiting) and won the friendship of her father and brother, Counts Ruggero and Pietro Gamba, who initiated him into the secret society of the Carbonari and its revolutionary aims to free Italy from Austrian rule. In Ravenna Byron wrote The Prophecy of Dante; cantos III, IV, and V of Don Juan; the poetic dramas Marino Faliero, Sardanapalus, The Two Foscari, and Cain (all published in 1821); and a satire on the poet Robert Southey, The Vision of Judgment, which contains a devastating parody of that poet laureate's fulsome eulogy of King George III.
Byron arrived in Pisa in November 1821, having followed Teresa and the Counts Gamba there after the latter had been expelled from Ravenna for taking part in an abortive uprising. He left his daughter Allegra, who had been sent to him by her mother, to be educated in a convent near Ravenna, where she died the following April. In Pisa Byron again became associated with Shelley, and in early summer of 1822 Byron went to Leghorn (Livorno), where he rented a villa not far from the sea. There in July the poet and essayist Leigh Hunt arrived from England to help Shelley and Byron edit a radical journal, The Liberal. Byron returned to Pisa and housed Hunt and his family in his villa. Despite the drowning of Shelley on July 8, the periodical went forward, and its first number contained The Vision of Judgment. At the end of September Byron moved to Genoa, where Teresa's family had found asylum.
Byron's interest in the periodical gradually waned, but he continued to support Hunt and to give manuscripts to The Liberal. After a quarrel with his publisher, John Murray, Byron gave all his later work, including cantos VI to XVI of Don Juan (1823-24), to Leigh Hunt's brother John, publisher of The Liberal. By this time Byron was in search of new adventure. In April 1823 he agreed to act as agent of the London Committee, which had been formed to aid the Greeks in their struggle for independence from the Turks. In July 1823 Byron left Genoa for Cephalonia. He sent £4,000 of his own money to prepare the Greek fleet for sea service.
In July, 1823, he made his way to the Ionian island of Cephalonia, where he fell in love with a fifteen years old boy named Loukas Chalandritsanos. Byron gave him money, fancy uniforms and the command of a regiment. By January, 1824, he and Loukas, whom he had taken along as his page, were in Missolonghi to join the forces of Prince Alexandros Mavrocordatos, leader of the forces in western Greece. The last poems Byron wrote were found among his papers after his sudden death - they indicated how much painfully he had fallen in love with Loukas Chalandritsanos - his final three poems - On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year, Last Words on Greece, and Love and Death - were searing declarations of his love for Loukas, who apparently was unwilling to return his affections:
To thee -- to thee -- e'en in the grasp of death
My spirit turned, O, oftener than it ought,
Thus much and more; and yet thou lov'st me not,
And never wilt! Love dwells not in our will.
Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot
To strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still.
Byron made efforts to unite the various Greek factions and took personal command of a brigade of Souliot soldiers, reputedly the bravest of the Greeks. Byron traveled to Greece in 1823 to supervise and distribute the money collected by a committee in England that were supporting the Greek leaders who were in rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. He was in Missolonghi, planning the first raid to be organized with British help, in the spring of 1824.
On April 19, he died of a fever that was probably a relapse of the malaria that he had contracted in 1811. The fever had come on as a complication of a cold after going riding in a rain storm. He is reported to have claimed to his valet that his doctors were assassinating him. He did not approve of bleeding as a treatment for fever, but after several days of illness, he became very weak and permitted the doctors to bleed him. They drew his blood repeatedly, until it ran clear, which pleased them, as they feared permanent brain damage from fever. They had also repeatedly purged him. After he fell into a coma, they were not able to give him water which he had been frequently demanding before he lost consciousness. He died a day later. He was thirty-six.
Deeply mourned, he became a symbol of disinterested patriotism and a Greek national hero. His body was brought back to England and, refused burial in Westminster Abbey, was placed in the family vault near Newstead. Ironically, 145 years after his death, a memorial to Byron was finally placed on the floor of Westminster Abbey.
If you want to read some of Byron's poems, please go at his page in our book Famous Homoerotic Poems.