Monday, 24 September 2012

The Poetical Philanderings of the Aristocratic Anti-Hero

                           When John Byron distinguished himself at the First Battle of Newbury (1643), during the English Civil War, King Charles I created him Baron Byron of Rochdale in the county Palatine of Lancashire. His son, Sir Richard, succeeded to the title after the death of his father, who was succeeded in turn by his son, William. After his death, his son, also called William, became the fourth Baron Byron, and the title passed to another William, his fourteen year old son, in 1736. This William, the fifth Baron Byron, was known as the ‘Wicked Lord’ or ‘the Devil Byron’, who ran his cousin, William Chaworth, through with his sword in a tavern brawl about who had the most game on his estate. He was charged with manslaughter and paid a small fine, but soon descended in the madness that the English aristocracy prefer to call eccentricity. 

Admiral John 'Foul Weather' Byron

His son, another William, eloped with his first cousin, Juliana Byron (daughter of the 5th Baron’s brother, John ‘Foul Weather’ Byron, a naval Admiral), an act the 'Wicked Lord' believed would result in the madness of any resulting children, but when the son defied him, he set about deliberately ruining the estate, intending to leave his son nothing but ruins and debt, allowing the house to fall into disrepair, cutting down the forests and killing over 2,000 deer. His malicious plan was foiled when his son died in 1776, and his grandson died in 1794, during a battle on Corsica, so when William died in 1798, the title passed to his ten year old great-nephew, George Gordon Byron. 

John 'Mad Jack' Byron

George’s father, John ‘Mad Jack’ Byron, was the son of ‘Foul Weather’ Byron; ‘Mad Jack’ had seduced and eloped with Amelia Osborne, Marchioness of Caermarthen, whom he married a month after she divorced her husband. They had two daughters, one of whom, Augusta, survived into adulthood. His treatment of his wife was ‘brutal and vicious’ and when she died, in 1784, he married another heiress, Catherine Gordon, whom he abandoned after spending her fortune. 

Lord George Gordon Byron

Their son, Lord George Gordon Byron, the Sixth Baron Byron, was born with a deformed foot which caused him to limp; he was self-consciously aware of the disability throughout his life, and took to sports to compensate for it – he was a very good boxer and horseman, and an exceptional swimmer (in 1810, he swam the Hellespont (now called the Dardanelles), a strait that separates Europe from Asia Minor, famous for the legendary swim of Leander in his tryst with the priestess Hero). 

The Hellespont

The young Byron attended Harrow school and then Trinity College, Cambridge where, in response to college regulations banning students from keeping dogs, he kept a pet bear, (an animal not included in the statutes). In 1809, he began the customary Grand Tour, although much of Europe was out of bounds due to the Napoleonic Wars, so he was limited largely to the Mediterranean. 

Lord George Gordon Byron

His Tour began in Portugal, followed by Spain, Gibraltar, Malta and Greece, during which he wrote poetry – in 1812, the first two cantos of his narrative epic Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage were published, and as Byron wrote, “I awoke to find myself famous.” He was the first European ‘celebrity’ and the adjective ‘Byronic’ began to be applied to any aristocratic, troubled, Romantic, jaded, cynical anti-hero of the sort found in Childe Harold

Lady Caroline Lamb

In March 1812, he began an affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, who described him as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’ She was married to William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne (later to be mentor to the young Queen Victoria and Prime Minister, and after whom the Australian city is named). The affair scandalised Georgian society, not least when it ended in the following August, after which Lady Caroline started to obsessively ‘stalk’ Byron in increasingly public attempts to be with him, causing even more scandal. Lamb took her to Ireland but she would not relent and continuously bombarded Byron with letters, but he spurned her attentions, and she started to drink and use laudanum. The severely damaged Lady Caroline died in 1828. 

Augusta Leigh

It seems likely that Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half-sister, bore his child, Elizabeth Medora, in 1813, and the accusations of incest were probably at least one reason he left England for the Continent. In January 1815, he married Anna Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke (a cousin of Lady Caroline Lamb) and their daughter, Augusta Ada, was born in December, but Byron treated his wife very badly and in January 1816, she left him – they were legally separated in the April. Byron left England for good and in June 1816 he was at the Villa Diodoti, Switzerland, with Shelley, Mary Godwin, John Polidori and Claire Clairmont. 

Claire Clairmont

Byron had an affair with Clairmont, and in 1817, their child Clara Allegra was born, although she died from a fever aged five; Byron had countless other affairs, and very probably with men as well as women. In 1816-17, whilst living in Italy, he became interested in the Armenian language and culture and participated in the writing of an English-Armenian dictionary (1821). 

Byron in Greek National Dress

This interest led him to espouse Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, and in 1823, he left Italy for Greece, landing at Kefalonia in August. He paid £4,000 to refit the Greek fleet, and in December he sailed for Missolonghi, where he joined the Greek politician Alexandros Mavrokordatos. They planned an assault on the Turkish-held port of Lepanto, on the Gulf of Corinth, but in February 1824, Byron fell ill with a fever. He was bled, as was the medical custom at the time, and this weakened him further. In April the fever became much worse, and doctors prescribed more blood-letting, which again weakened him, and the unsterilised instruments gave him blood-poisoning. The sepsis weakened him even further, and on April 19th 1824, Lord Byron died at Missolonghi. 

Greek memorial stamp

His loss was mourned in England and Greece, where he remains a national hero (Βύρων, the Greek rendering of ‘Byron’ is still a popular boy’s name), but the authorities in England refused to inter his embalmed body at Westminster Abbey for reasons of his ‘morality’. The Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, the British Museum and the National Gallery all refused a memorial statue; it was eventually placed in the library at Trinity, his old college in Cambridge. A memorial was finally placed in the Abbey in 1969. 

Byron statue at Trinity College, Cambridge

His reputation as a poet remains high, and there are world-wide Byron societies; his works can still shock with their insight and venom, and are extremely easy (and entertaining) to read (I highly recommend Don Juan). One of my favourites in the Epitaph he wrote for the politician Castlereagh : -  
Posterity will ne'er survey
A nobler grave than this;
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop traveller, and pi**.
And, of course, the marvellous Warren Zevon wrote Lord Byron’s Luggage. It doesn’t get any better.

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