A romantic and sulphurous poet, Lord Byron is as famous for his poetic work as he is for his busy life. Defender of oppressed peoples, he is known for his epic and satirical poems, such as “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” or “Don Juan”. We remember him today on the occasion of his death, which took place on April 19, 1824.
From George Gordon Byron to Lord Byron
Georges Gordon Byron was born on January 22, 1788 in London, Great Britain. He was the son of John Byron, a British Army officer who died when Georges was 3, and Catherine Gordon de Gight. Young Georges was born with clubfoot, a malformation that distorted his gait throughout his life. His half-sister, Augusta Leigh, came from a previous marriage between her father and the daughter of a British earl.
Several sources report an incestuous relationship between Georges and his half-sister. The boy becomes “Lord” Byron at the age of 10, inheriting the title of nobility from his great uncle and the estate of Newstead Abbey located near the city of Nottingham.
During his studies he was a bright but undisciplined type. At university he led an extravagant and dissolute lifestyle: he participated in boxing matches, associated with prostitutes, adopted a bear as a pet … It was around this time that he began writing poetry. The elements of inspiration certainly were not lacking!
He entered the English parliament in 1809 at the age of 21. Wishing to leave this life of debauchery and return to the right path, he travels through Europe and stays in countries like Greece or Turkey. He uses his travels to write Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Published shortly after his return to England in 1812, the poem enjoyed considerable and unexpected success. At the same time, Lord Byron dives into political activity in the House of Lords, hoping to promote his ideas. Unfortunately, all his proposals are rejected and he begins to doubt his ability as a speaker.
Lord Byron on the right path
Eager to end years of debauchery and futile love affairs, Lord Byron married Anne Isabella Milbanke in 1815. Their union lasts only a year. During this time, Lord Byron commits numerous infidelities and his behavior begins to change in a drastic and disturbing way. His young wife, convinced that he is suffering from insanity, asks for a divorce.
After their separation, to escape the scandals that concerned him, he definitively left his native country. After several stops he settles in Italy. He departs from the romantic current of his beginnings and writes more satirical and personal works like Don Juan. Although much criticized in England, the work is particularly appreciated in France for its ideas, particularly by poets such as Alphonse de Lamartine and the young Victor Hugo.
He forms a sincere friendship with the couple Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley. She wrote the famous novel Frankenstein at the suggestion of Byron, as we told you in the article on the birth of the gothic novel. The dissipated lifestyle he has led for years weakens him considerably. He contracted “swamp fever” and died in 1824 at the age of 36.
Lord Byron died, as we have said, on April 19, 1824, at the age of 36, in Missolonghi (Greece) of malaria. His death may also have been caused by the bloodletting performed by doctors to reduce the symptoms of the disease.
Lord Byron had gone to Greece to support and lend a hand to the insurgents, in the midst of the war of independence (1821-1829) against the Ottoman Empire. He is welcomed as a hero by the local people of Missolonghi. For his merits, the poet is entitled to a state funeral and his remains are returned to Britain a few months later. His body rests in the church of the town of Hucknall (Nottinghamshire).
As for Lord Byron’s lineage, due to his numerous love affairs, it is difficult to trace it with certainty. His daughter Ada Lovelace, whom he had with Anne Isabella Milbanke, became a recognized mathematician, whose work was a precursor of computer science.
Works of Lord Byron
Don Juan, the main satirical epic
The epic poem Don Juan is considered by his author to be his main work. Unfinished due to Lord Byron’s untimely death in 1824, sixteen songs were written and published between 1819 and 1824.
In this poem, Byron tells the adventures of a young Spanish nobleman who was the victim of his success with the fairer sex. The author is largely inspired by the myth of Don Juan, started by Tirso de Molina in 1630 and then made famous by the duo Mozart and Da Ponte. The character later enjoyed fame with Molière in the 1665 play Dom Juan ou le Festin de Pierre.
Lord Byron was therefore not the first to reuse the Sevillian heartthrob, but he was one of the first to do so in poetic form. The topics covered are also very different. Molière emphasized religious morality and divine punishment, where Lord Byron uses Don Juan as a pretext for the political and social satire of his contemporaries.
Whereas Molière’s Don Juan is an expert seducer and perfectly aware of his acts, Byron’s is more pathetic and suffers the consequences of his beauty through the many women he meets.
From the very beginning of its publication, the poem caused a scandal. But Byron doesn’t care and multiplies references and criticisms in his songs. He faces the foreign policy of his native country and the devastation caused by the war. He defends values dear to him such as the freedom of peoples against oppression. This earned him the praise of the Greek people, then under the control of the Ottoman Empire, in the middle of the war of independence, as we told you a little while ago.
Poems by Lord Byron
Lord Byron, despite his death at a relatively young age, is considered to be one of the most influential British poets of his time.
He wrote a large number of poems and epics, with more or less important successes. At 19 he published his first collection, Hours of Idleness, which got mixed reception. It was with English Bards and Scottish Critics (1809) that he began to make himself known to the general public.
He obtained his consecration with Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage of 1812. The fruit of his travels abroad, he describes the wanderings of a lonely young hero across Europe. Beppo, Venetian History (1818), epic poem, appears to have served as a sketch for Don Juan’s story.
He is linked to the artistic current of romanticism, alongside authors such as his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. They were all very talented writers who met a premature and tragic end.
Byron is also known for his multi-chant narrative poems. The latter are often tinged with satirical elements and references to the author’s travels abroad. Among the most notable are stories inspired by the Ottoman Empire such as Giaour (1813) or The Bride of Abydos (1813), The Corsair and Lara (1814). Sometimes he also draws inspiration from historical facts reported from his travels.
He also ventured into the dramatic genre with works centered on legendary figures, such as Sardanapale (1821), or biblical figures, with Cain (1821).
Finally, many of his speeches in the House of Lords, as well as his diaries, have been preserved, allowing us to better understand the political vision and psychology of the person and character.