Poet: George Gordon Byron
Date of Birth: 22 January 1788, London, UK
Date of Death: 19 April 1824, Missolonghi, Greece
Buried: St Mary Magdalene Church, Hucknall, UK
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, better known as Lord Byron was a poet, peer and politician who became a revolutionary in the Greek War of Independence. A leading figure of the Romantic era, he is recognised as one of the greatest English poets. He travelled extensively across Europe, especially Italy.
Byron was the son of Captain John Byron and his second wife, the former Catherine Gordon, heiress of the Gight estate in Aberdeenshire. He was baptised at St Marylebone Parish Church as George Gordon Byron after his maternal grandfather George Gordon of Gight, a descendant of James I of Scotland. Byron’s father died in 1791 so when Byron’s great-uncle died in 1798 he became the 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale and inherited the ancestral home, Newstead Abbey. He was 10 years old.
Byron attended Aberdeen Grammar School until 1799 when he entered the school of Dr. William Glennie in Dulwich. In 1801 he was sent to Harrow until 1805 when he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge until 1808. When not at school or college Byron lived with his mother in Southwell. During this time, he was encouraged to write his first volumes of poetry. ‘Fugitive Pieces’ printed by Ridge of Newark, contained poems written when Byron was 17. ‘Hours of Idleness’ collected many of Byron’s early poems.
As a young man, Byron accumulated numerous debts due to which his mother lived in fear of her son’s creditors. From 1809 to 1811, as was customary for young noblemen, Byron went on the Grand Tour. The Napoleonic Wars forced him to avoid most of Europe and he travelled the Mediterranean instead. He began his trip in Portugal and particularly enjoyed Sintra. From Lisbon, he travelled via Seville, Cádiz, and Gibraltar before sailing to Malta and Greece. Byron went on to Smyrna, where he cadged a ride to Constantinople on HMS Salsette. He returned to England from Malta in July 1811 aboard HMS Volage.
Byron became a celebrity with the publication the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812. During this period of his life in England he produces a lot of work including: ‘The Bride of Abydos’ in 1813, and the ‘The Siege of Corinth’ in 1815. Involved at first in an affair with Lady Caroline Lamb and with other lovers he was also in debt. He married Annabella Millbanke in 1815. Byron’s continuing sexual escapades with actresses and others made marital life a misery. Annabella left him in 1816, taking their daughter with her and began proceedings for a legal separation. The scandal of separation and ever-increasing debts forced Byron to leave England in 1816.
He never returned. Byron journeyed through Belgium and up the Rhine. In the summer of 1816 he settled at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva, Switzerland, with his personal physician John William Polidori. He befriended the poet Percy Bysshe Shelly and his future wife, Mary Godwin. Mary’s step-sister joined them, Clair Clairmount, with whom Byron had an affair in London. Byron wintered in Venice where he fell in love with Marianna Segati, in whose house he was lodging; she was soon replaced by Margarita Cogni.
Byron visited Venice in 1816, where he became acquainted with Armenian culture through the monks of the Mechitarist Order, even learning the language. He co-authored Grammar English and Armenian in 1817 and later participated in the compilation of Barraran angleren yev hayeren, the English Armenian diction in 1821.
Led by his love for the young and newly married Teresa Guiccioli, Byron lived in the Ravenna from 1819 to 1821. Percy Shelley and Thomas Moore visited him there. Moore and Byron’s publisher, John Murray burned Byron’s autobiography after his death to avoid scandal. However, Shelley documented some of Byron’s lifestyle in the Ravenna. Byron left Ravenna in 1821 to live in Pisa in Tuscany. Unsurprisingly Teresa had also moved there. He joined with Leigh Hunt and Shelley in starting a short-lived newspaper, The Liberal. It is Pisa that Byron firsts started to give dinner parties to such guests as the Shelleys, Thomas Medwin, Edward Ellerker Williams and Edward John Trelawny. Shelley and Williams shared a house on the coast and had a schooner built. Byron engaged Captain Daniel Roberts to design and construct a yacht named the bolivar. It was sold to Charles Gardiner when Byron left for Greece in 1823.
During 1823, whilst he was living in Genoa, Byron accepted overtures for support from the Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire movement. He left Genoa on the brig Hercules on 16 July 1823 arriving in Cephalonia on 4 August. He stayed on the island and was besieged by agents of the rival Greek factions, all wanting to recruit Byron for their own cause. Byron spent £4000 refitting the Greek navy. He travelled to mainland Greece in December 1823, taking a roundabout route to avoid the Ottoman fleet, he arrived in Missolonghi in January 1824.
Byron joined forces with the Greek politician Alexandros Mavrokordatos after he arrived in Missolonghi. He spent much of his time dealing with Souliotes demanding that Byron pay them the monies owed to them by the Greek government. The Souliotes kept demanding more and more money and Byron, tired of their blackmail, sent them all home in 1824. To help raise funds for the revolution Byron sold his estate Rochdale Manor in England. By today’s standards he would have been a millionaire several times over and the news that a fabulously wealthy English aristocrat was generously spending money had arrived in Greece made Byron the object of multiple solicitations.
Byron and Mavrokordatos planned to attack the Turkish-held fortress at Lepanto, at the Gulf of Corinth. Before the expedition could sail Byron fell ill and was weakened further by theraputical blood-letting. After a slight recovery, he contracted a violent cold which was aggravated by further blood-letting. He died in Missolonghi from an aggressive fever.
Darkness by George Gordon Byron
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum'd,
And men were gather'd round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other's face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contain'd;
Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour
They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks
Extinguish'd with a crash—and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smil'd;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and look'd up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnash'd their teeth and howl'd: the wild birds shriek'd
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl'd
And twin'd themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food.
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again: a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought—and that was death
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails—men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devour'd,
Even dogs assail'd their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish'd men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lur'd their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answer'd not with a caress—he died.
The crowd was famish'd by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap'd a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they rak'd up,
And shivering scrap'd with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other's aspects—saw, and shriek'd, and died—
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—
A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirr'd within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp'd
They slept on the abyss without a surge—
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expir'd before;
The winds were wither'd in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them—She was the Universe.
©JG Farmer 2020