George Gordon Noel Byron was born, with a clubbed right foot, in London on 22 January 1788, the son of Catherine Gordon of Gight, an impoverished Scots heiress, and Captain John ("Mad Jack") Byron, a fortune-hunting widower with a daughter, Augusta. The profligate captain squandered his wife's inheritance, was absent for the birth of his only son, and eventually decamped for France, an exile from English creditors, where he died in 1791 at thirty-six, the mortal age for both the poet and his daughter Ada.
In the summer of 1789 Byron moved with his mother to Aberdeen. (His half sister had earlier been sent to her maternal grandmother.) Emotionally unstable, Catherine Byron raised her son in an atmosphere variously colored by her excessive tenderness, fierce temper, insensitivity, and pride. She was as likely to mock his lameness as to consult doctors about its correction. From his Presbyterian nurse Byron developed a lifelong love for the Bible and an abiding fascination with the Calvinist doctrines of innate evil and predestined salvation. Early schooling instilled a devotion to reading and especially a "grand passion" for history that informed much of his later writing.
With the death in 1798 of his great-uncle, the "Wicked" fifth Lord Byron, George became the sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale, heir to Newstead Abbey, the family seat in Nottinghamshire. He enjoyed the role of landed nobleman, proud of his coat of arms with its mermaid and chestnut horses surmounting the motto "Crede Byron" ("Trust Byron").
An "ebullition of passion" for his cousin Margaret Parker in 1800 inspired his "first dash into poetry." When she died two years later, he composed "On the Death of a Young Lady"; throughout his life poetic expression would serve him as a catharsis of strong emotion.
At Harrow (1801-1805), he excelled in oratory, wrote verse, and played sports, even cricket. (After a quack doctor subjected him to painful, futile treatments for his foot, London specialists prescribed a corrective boot, later fitted with a brace, which the patient often refused to wear.) He also formed the first of those passionate attachments with other, chiefly younger, boys that he would enjoy throughout his life; before reaching his teen years he had been sexually initiated by his maid. There can be little doubt that 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" (written 1805), "The Adieu" (written 1807), "Stanzas to a Lady on Leaving England" (written 1809), and "The Dream" (written 1816). Years later he told Thomas Medwin that all his "fables about the celestial nature of women" originated from "the perfection" his imagination created in Mary Chaworth.
Early in 1804 he began an intimate correspondence with his half sister, Augusta, five years his senior. He asked that she consider him "not only as a Brother" but as her "warmest and most affectionate Friend." As he grew apart from his coarse, often violent, mother, he drew closer to Augusta.
Byron attended Trinity College, Cambridge, intermittently from October 1805 until July 1808, when he received an M.A. degree. During "the most romantic period of [his] life," he experienced a "violent, though pure, love and passion" for John Edleston, a choirboy at Trinity two years younger than he. Intellectual pursuits interested him less than such London diversions as fencing and boxing lessons, the theater, demimondes, and gambling. Living extravagantly, he began to amass the debts that would bedevil him for years. In Southwell, where his mother had moved in 1803, he prepared his verses for publication.
In November 1806 he distributed around Southwell his first book of poetry. Fugitive Pieces, printed at his expense and anonymously, collects the poems inspired by his early infatuations, friendships, and experiences at Harrow, Cambridge, and elsewhere. When his literary adviser, the Reverend John Thomas Becher, a local minister, objected to the frank eroticism of certain lines, Byron suppressed the volume. A revised and expurgated selection of verses appeared in January 1807 as Poems on Various Occasions, in an edition of one hundred copies, also printed privately and anonymously. An augmented collection, Hours of Idleness, "By George Gordon, Lord Byron, A Minor," was published in June. The new poems in this first public volume of his poetry are little more than schoolboy translations from the classics and imitations of such pre-Romantics as Thomas Gray, Thomas Chatterton, Robert Burns, and James Macpherson's Ossian, and of contemporaries including Walter Scott and Thomas Moore. Missing were the original flashes of eroticism and satire that had enlivened poems in the private editions that were omitted from Hours of Idleness. The work has value for what it reveals about the youthful poet's influences, interests, talent, and direction. In "On a Change of Masters at a Great Public School," he employs heroic couplets for satiric effect in the manner--if without the polish--of Alexander Pope, a model for Byron throughout his career. In obviously autobiographical poems Byron experiments with personae, compounded of his true self and of fictive elements, which both disclose and disguise him. Groups of verses on a single subject show his understanding of the effectiveness of multiple points of view. He continued to refine these techniques in works from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and the Oriental tales through the dramas to Don Juan .
The imitativeness and sentimentality in Hours of Idleness were not excused by a preface that, with pompous mock modesty, pleaded the poet's youth and inexperience, while disclaiming any intention of his undertaking a poetic career. A second edition, on Byron's instructions retitled Poems Original and Translated, appeared in 1808; the contents had been altered slightly and the preface omitted.
It was as a published poet that Byron returned to Cambridge in June 1807. 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 February 1808 the influential Whig journal the Edinburgh Review, published anonymously (in an issue dated January 1808) Henry Brougham's notice of Hours of Idleness, which combined justifiable criticism of the book with unwarranted personal assaults on the author. The scornfully worded review had a beneficial effect. Stung and infuriated, Byron set aside mawkish, derivative, occasional verse and began avenging himself through satire, expanding his poetic commentary on present-day "British Bards," started the previous year, to include a counterblast against "Scotch Reviewers."
In March 1809, two months after attaining his majority, he took his seat in the House of Lords; seven times that spring he attended sessions of Parliament.
Shortly thereafter, Byron's first major poetic work, English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers. A Satire , was published anonymously in an edition of one thousand copies. Inspired by the Dunciad (1728, 1742) of his idol, Pope, and modeled largely on William Gifford's Baviad (1791) and Maeviad (1795), the poem, in heroic couplets, takes indiscriminate aim at most of the poets and playwrights of the moment, notably Walter Scott, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, sparing only Gifford, Samuel Rogers, and Thomas Campbell, who deferred to Pope, along with dramatists George Colman the Younger, Richard Cumberland, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. His main target is the critics. From these "harpies that must be fed" he singles out for condemnation "immortal" Francis Jeffrey, whom he mistakenly assumed had written the offending comments on Hours of Idleness in the Edinburgh Review.
The satire created a stir and found general favor with the reviewers. The Gentleman's Magazine (March 1809) praised the poem as "unquestionably an original work," replete with a "mingled genius, good sense, and spirited animadversion" unseen in many years. By May English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers had gone into a second, revised and enlarged edition in which Byron abandoned his anonymity. Third and fourth editions followed in 1810. He suppressed a fifth edition in 1812, as he had come to know and respect some of his victims and to regret many of his critical and personal jabs.
The overall aim, as stated in the preface, is "to make others write better." Of the major Romantic poets, Byron most sympathized with neoclassicism, with its order, discipline, and clarity. The importance of English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers lies not only in its vigor and vitality but in Byron's lively advocacy of the neoclassical virtues found in such seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poets as Dryden and Pope, and, from his own day, in Gifford. His admiration for Pope never wavered, nor did he ever totally abandon the heroic couplet and Augustan role of censor and moralist, as seen in Hints from Horace (written 1811), The Curse of Minerva (written 1811), and The Age of Bronze (written 1822-1823).
Feeling revenged on the reviewers, Byron was anxious to realize a long-held dream of traveling abroad. Though in debt, he gathered together sufficient resources to allow him to begin a tour of the eastern Mediterranean. On 2 July 1809 he sailed from England on the Lisbon packet, 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. Their route took them from Lisbon on horseback across Spain, the scene of Wellington's Peninsular Campaign and of Spanish partisans' resistance to the French. Once in Greece, Byron and Hobhouse pushed by boat and horseback into virtually unvisited Albania; in Jannina, Byron bought several magnificent native costumes (in one of which Thomas Phillips painted him in 1814). In Tepelene they were entertained by Ali Pasha, effective ruler, with his son Veli, of Albania and western Greece as far south as the Peloponnesus. 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 myriad experiences the trip afforded him, Byron began an autobiographical poem in Jannina on 31 October 1809, wherein he recorded the adventures and reflections 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. The Spenserian stanza in which he cast his impressions no doubt derived from his readings in Edmund Spencer's Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) reprinted in an anthology he had carried to Albania. Byron completed the first canto in Athens at the end of the year.
Turning southward, he and Hobhouse journeyed through fateful Missolonghi and rode into Athens on 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, all under the age of fifteen, but especially with Theresa, only twelve, his "Maid of Athens."
Near the end of English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers, Byron had scoffed at Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin's waste of money on the "Phidian freaks, / Mis-shapen monuments and maimed antiques" he was removing from the Acropolis and shipping to England. Now, the Parthenon and other ruins of Greece's golden age, everywhere to be seen, increasingly filled Byron with sorrow, while the despoilation of the country's treasures and its people's enslavement by the Turks fueled his indignation. His anger at the ignoble Elgin would flash forth in Childe Harold (Canto II) and in The Curse of Minerva. Excursions in January 1810 to Cape Sounion, overlooking the green islands of the Cyclades, and to Marathon, where the Athenians defeated the invading Persians in 490 B.C., reinforced for him the appalling contrast between the glory and might of ancient Greece and its contemporary disgrace under Turkish domination. He movingly evoked these scenes and sentiments a decade later in the often-quoted stanzas on "The Isles of Greece" and on Marathon in Don Juan (Canto III).
In March 1810 Byron and Hobhouse extended their tour into Turkey. On 28 March, in Smyrna, he completed the second canto of Childe Harold, incorporating his adventures in Albania and his thoughts on Greece. He visited the plain of Troy and on 3 May, 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 parted with Hobhouse, who was bound for England, and traveled back to Athens, where he settled in the Capuchin monastery below the Acropolis. Here, he studied Italian and modern Greek, just as he would learn Armenian from monks in Venice six years later. He also moved easily in the cosmopolitan society of Athens.
Stirred to literary composition, he first produced explanatory notes for Childe Harold; then, in February and March 1811, he wrote two poems in heroic couplets. Hints from Horace, an inferior sequel to English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers, satirizes contemporary poetry and drama, while praising Dryden, Pope, Swift, and Butler. The Curse of Minerva, in its attack on Lord Elgin for pillaging Greece's heritage, records for the first time the full extent of Byron's sympathy for classical Greek culture as well as for modern Greece and her people.
When he sailed for England in April 1811, he traveled for a time aboard the transport ship Hydra, which also carried the last large shipments of Lord Elgin's marbles. He arrived at Sheerness, Kent, on 14 July, two years and twelve days after his departure. To Augusta he wrote on 9 September that he had probably acquired nothing by his travels but "a smattering of two languages & a habit of chewing Tobacco," but this claim was disingenuous. "If I am a poet," he mused, "... the air of Greece has made me one." He had accumulated source material for any number of works. More, exposure to all manner of persons, behavior, government, and thought had transformed him into a citizen of the world, with broadened political opinions and a clear-sighted view of prejudice and hypocrisy in the "tight little island" of England. Significantly, he would select as the epigraph for Childe Harold a passage from Le Cosmopolite, ou, le Citoyen du Monde (1753), by Louis Charles Fougeret de Monbron, that, in part, compares the universe to a book of which one has read but the first page if he has seen only his own country.
Within three weeks of his return, Byron was plunged into a period of prolonged mourning. His mother died on 2 August, before he set out for Newstead. Whatever her failings, she had loved her son, taken pride in his accomplishments, and managed Newstead economically in his absence. "I had but one friend in the world," he exclaimed, "and she is gone." News of the deaths of two classmates followed hard upon this sorrow. Then, in October, he learned of the death from consumption that May 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, among them, "Away, Away, Ye Notes of Woe" (written 1811), "One Struggle More, and I Am Free" (written 1812), and "And Thou Art Dead, As Young and Fair" (written 1812). He also commemorated Edleston in additions to Childe Harold (Canto II).
In January 1812 Byron resumed his seat in the House of Lords, allying himself with the Liberal Whigs represented by Henry Richard Vassall Fox, Lord Holland. During his political career he spoke but three times in the House of Lords, taking unpopular sides. In his maiden speech on 27 February he defended stocking weavers in his home area of Nottinghamshire who had broken the improved weaving machinery, or frames, that deprived them of work and reduced them to nearstarvation; he opposed as cruel and unjust a government-sponsored bill that made frame breaking a capital offense. On 21 April he made a plea for Catholic emancipation, the most controversial issue of the day. On 1 June he stood to present the petition of Major John Cartwright for the right to petition for the reform of Parliament.
Upon his return to England in July 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 enthusiastically showed the poem to John Murray II, the respected publisher of Scott and Southey, who agreed to publish Byron, beginning a rich association between publisher and poet.
On 10 March 1812 Murray published Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II. Five-hundred quarto copies, priced at thirty shillings each, sold out in three days. An octavo edition of three thousand copies at twelve shillings 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 (February 1812), Francis Jeffrey commented that Byron had "improved marvellously since his last appearance at our tribunal." While noting Byron's statements of unorthodox political and religious opinions and the poem's "considerable marks of haste and carelessness," Jeffrey cited as the "chief excellence" of Childe Harold "a singular freedom and boldness, both of thought and expression, and a great occasional force and felicity of diction." Byron promptly apologized for his unfair attack on Jeffrey in English Bards, and Scotch Reviewers. In the Quarterly Review (March 1812), George Ellis concluded that the poem exhibited "some marks of carelessness, many of caprice, but many also of sterling genius."
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II, can with profit 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 (represented in the nineteenth century by partial and complete translations into no fewer than ten languages) 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 Napoléonic 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. The route for many was through sensation and emotional experience.
In Canto I Harold, "sore sick at heart" with his life of "revel and ungodly glee," leaves his native Albion on pilgrimage to find peace and spiritual rebirth. As befits a quest poem, Childe Harold is subtitled A Romaunt, recalling the medieval romances whose knighted heroes go in search of holy objects, and is cast in the stanza and archaic language of Spenser's Faerie Queene. Byron soon abandoned the linguistic pretense for a more modern, if highly literary, style, but he continued to use the Spenserian stanza effectively throughout the poem's four cantos of observation, description, sentiment, and meditation.
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 Napoléonic campaign, such as Cintra, Talavera, and Albuera, 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). Byron's sic transit gloria mundi theme--from the Latin maxim translated "Thus passes away the glory of the world"--figures prominently in the remaining cantos of Childe Harold and in Don Juan. 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: "Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not / Who would be free themselves must strike the blow? / ... / Greece! change thy lords, thy state is still the same; / Thy glorious day is o'er, but not thine years of shame" (Canto II).
Harold was introduced, Byron wrote in the preface, "for the sake of giving some connexion 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. Though he, too, speculated on such a relationship, Walter Scott, reviewing the third canto of Childe Harold and The Prisoner of Chillon, and Other Poems in the Quarterly Review (October 1816), recognized that in Harold Byron had created a new and significant Romantic character type which reappeared in almost all his heroes.
Harold is the first "Byronic Hero." Of complicated ancestry (admirably traced by Peter L. Thorslev, Jr.), he descends, with inherited traits, from Prometheus, Milton's Satan, the sentimental heroes found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, hero-villains in Gothic novels by Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe, Friedrich von Schiller's Karl Moor, and Sir Walter Scott's Marmion. Thorslev insists that, as befits their complex genealogy, Byron's various heroes exhibit not uniformity, but considerable diversity. To stress their distinctions he classifies Byron's protagonists under such rubrics as "Gothic Hero-Villains," "Heroes of Sensibility," and "Noble Outlaws." Among their possible traits are romantic melancholy, guilt for secret sin, pride, defiance, restlessness, alienation, revenge, remorse, moodiness, and such noble virtues as honor, altruism, courage, and pure love for a gentle woman. Their later Byronic incarnations include the heroes of the Eastern tales--the Giaour, Selim, Conrad, Lara, Alp, and Hugo--as well as Manfred and Cain.
According to Thorslev, Harold in Cantos I and II evidences characteristics of such hero types as the Gloomy Egoist, meditating on ruins, death, and the vanity of life; the Man of Feeling, concerned with the suffering caused by war or oppression; and the Gothic Villain, unregenerate or remorseful. Harold likewise reflects Byron's occasional melancholy and loneliness. The narrator embodies Byron's more usual attractive personality. In Cantos III and IV, the Gothic traits are diminished, and those of the Gloomy Egoist and the Man of Feeling combine to form the Hero of Sensibility. He, in turn, is absorbed into the narrator, to produce a sensitive, meditative, melancholy observer-narrator of his pilgrimage.
The drawing rooms and salons of Whig society vied for Byron's presence and lionized him. At Holland House, 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; she continued the pursuit, burned "effigies" of his picture, and transformed their relationship into a Gothic romance in her novel Glenarvon (1816).
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. Through her, in September, 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." With good humor and perhaps relief Byron accepted the refusal; in a letter of 18 October 1812 he thanked Lady Melbourne for her efforts with his "Princess of Parallelograms." 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 extremely popular verse tales, five of them influenced by his travels in Greece and Turkey: The Giaour (June 1813), The Bride of Abydos (December 1813), The Corsair (February 1814), Lara (August 1814), and The Siege of Corinth and Parisina (February 1816). Walter Scott had created the market for Romantic narratives in verse, but Byron outrivaled him with his erotic fare set in exotic climes, to the extent that Scott gave up the genre in favor of novel writing; Waverley appeared in 1814.
Byron's Eastern tales received mixed, even contradictory, notices. Critics commended their structure, phrasing, and versification (Monthly Review, June 1813, January and February 1814; Edinburgh Review , July 1813, April 1814) and faulted them in these technical areas (Eclectic Review , February 1814; Monthly Review, February 1816); found their characters well delineated (Eclectic Review, April 1814) and too vague, melodramatic, and incredible (Examiner, July 1821); censured their plots as immoral (Eclectic Review, November 1813, March 1816; British Critic, April 1816) and praised them as virtuous (Eclectic Review, April and October 1814); judged them inferior to, and ranked them higher than, Childe Harold (Monthly Review, February 1814; Quarterly Review, July 1814, respectively); and encouraged Byron to continue the series of narratives (Edinburgh Review, July 1813), only to complain, when he did so, of their monotony (British Critic, March 1814; Eclectic Review, March 1816).
The Giaour, written in the spring of 1813, rapidly went through eight editions before the end of the year, and through twelve editions in eighteen months. During July and August Byron made additions to his "snake of a poem" which lengthened "its rattles every month," from a 407-line sketch to 685 lines in the first edition to the final 1,334 lines of the seventh edition. In this tale, the Turkish lord Hassan punishes the infidelity of his wife Leila by drowning her in a sack (Byron had prevented a similar death at Piraeus in 1810). In revenge, her lover, the Giaour (or non-Moslem), slays Hassan.
The story's fascination as well as its occasional confusion lies in its sudden shifts in time, place, and speaker. Many events are presented out of sequence in a series of what Byron termed "disjointed fragments" ("Advertisement"). Especially striking is his narration of the story from multiple points of view--those of the poet-traveler, of a Moslem fisherman, of a monk, and of the Giaour himself. Thorslev identifies the hero as a remorseful and sympathetic Gothic Villain, who experiences no guilt for killing Hassan but suffers deep anguish for causing Leila's death.
In June 1813 Byron began an affair with his twenty-nine-year-old half sister, Augusta. Married since 1807 to her spendthrift cousin, Colonel George Leigh, she had three daughters and lived at Six Mile Bottom, near Cambridge. With his mother's death in 1811, Augusta became Byron's sole remaining close relative, a situation which doubtless increased his sense of identity with her. While no legal proof exists, the circumstantial evidence in Byron's letters dating from August 1813 to his horrified confidante Lady Melbourne strongly suggests an incestuous connection with Augusta.
In the midst of this relationship, Byron received a letter from Annabella Milbanke, who confessed her mistake in rejecting his proposal and cautiously sought to renew their friendship. Correspondence ensued. He later wrote Lady Melbourne that Augusta wished him "much to marry--because it was the only chance of redemption for two persons."
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 November he wrote Thomas Moore, "All convulsions end with me in rhyme; and to solace my midnights, I have scribbled another Turkish Tale." The Bride of Abydos, published by Murray on 2 December, sold six thousand copies in one month. Zuleika, engaged daughter of the Pasha Giaffir, is also loved by Selim, her supposed half brother (actually, her cousin), the leader of a pirate band. When they are discovered together, Selim is shot by Giaffir's men, and Zuleika dies of a broken heart. For the first time Byron dealt with the theme of incest, his "perverse passion," as he told Lady Melbourne, to which he would return in such poems as Parisina, Manfred, and Cain.
To Thorslev, Selim represents another variation on the Byronic hero--the Hero of Sensibility. Like the Giaour, he is associated with illicit love, violence, and death. But he also enjoys stories and songs, responds to the beauty in nature, and, out of consideration for Zuleika, refrains from avenging his father, murdered by Giaffir.
Another burst of poetic creativity overlapped the success of The Bride of Abydos. Between 18 and 31 December Byron produced a third Oriental tale, The Corsair. For the first time 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." Driven by love, the harem queen Gulnare saves Conrad the Corsair from impalement by killing her master the Pasha. Fleeing to the pirate's stronghold, they discover Conrad's beloved Medora dead of heartbreak. United by guilt, Conrad and Gulnare disappear.
Conrad's personality is that of the Gothic Villain. He is "The man of loneliness and mystery" (Canto I), whose name is "Linked with one virtue, and a thousand crimes" (Canto III). Conrad also embodies traits of the Noble Outlaw and the Hero of Sensibility. He displays true chivalry in his rescue of the women in the Pasha's harem, a deed which causes his defeat and capture (Canto II); in his recoil from "Gulnare, the homicide" (Canto III); and in his "love--unchangeable--unchanged" for Medora (Canto I).
On 10 April 1814, amid rumors of the abdication and exile of the emperor Napoléon (which in fact occurred the next day), Byron wrote and copied Ode to Napoléon Buonaparte. On the sixteenth it was published anonymously, though the inscription to Hobhouse revealed its parentage. Since Harrow Byron had had mixed feelings about Napoléon. 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. That ambivalence colors the poem. Recalling Napoléon's military triumphs, Byron admits "It is enough to grieve the heart, / To see thine own unstrung," but he also denounces his fallen hero as "a nameless thing," "All Evil Spirit," and "Timor." In the final stanza, Byron celebrates George Washington as "the first--the last--the best--/ The Cincinnatus of the West, / Whom envy dared not hate."
On 15 April 1814 Augusta gave birth to a little girl, Elizabeth Medora. When Medora Leigh grew up, she believed herself to be Byron's daughter, although Byron never acknowledged the paternity, as he did for his other illegitimate off-spring, either because of uncertainty or concern for his and Augusta's reputations. There is no extant proof on either side of the question.
On 14 May Byron began a sequel to The Corsair entitled Lara, the new name of Conrad the pirate. Murray published the work anonymously in August in a volume with Samuel Rogers's sentimental tale Jacqueline , but Byron's authorship was soon known, and the book sold six thousand copies in three editions. The fourth edition of Lara was a separate printing. Forsaking the name of Corsair, Lara returned to the feudal castle of his youth, followed by his page Kaled (Gulnare in disguise). When Lara is suspected of murdering a man who would reveal his past crimes, he joins a serf uprising and is killed in battle. Kaled, her true identity discovered, goes mad and dies.
In this melodramatic piece, containing much tortured Byronic self-analysis and self-defense, the action is shifted away from the Mediterranean locales of the earlier Oriental tales apparently to an inland region of Spain. A less sympathetic outlaw than Conrad, Lara is proud, scornful, brooding, alienated; his leadership of the peasants' revolt makes him a representative of Byron's liberalism.
Byron spent much of the summer of 1814 with Augusta, while continuing to correspond with Annabella. In a letter dated 9 September, he made a tentative proposal of marriage; she promptly accepted it. In marriage Byron hoped to find a rational pattern of living and to reconcile the conflicts that plagued him. After inauspicious hesitations and postponements, many of his own making, Byron married Annabella on 2 January 1815 in the parlor of her parents' home in Seaham; there was no reception. Halnaby Hall, the Milbankes' Yorkshire seat forty miles distant, was the site of Lord and Lady Byron's three-week "treaclemoon," as the poet called it. Toward his bride the groom was by turns tender and abusive.
At Halnaby Hall 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. To the "nine or ten" short poems he had already written he now added several more. He also began Parisina, based on an account in Edward Gibbon of a fifteenth-century tragedy of incest. 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 of one guinea 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. Despite the title of the volume, some of Byron's contributions are not at all Hebrew (or even religious) in theme. Along with verses inspired by the Old Testament are love songs and reflective pieces, some written before the book's conception, though in their expressions of sadness, longing, and desolation, they voice sentiments found in the biblical poems bewailing the lost Jewish homeland. The work opens with the now-famous lyric, "She Walks in Beauty," written in 1814 after Byron saw a cousin at a party wearing a dress of mourning with spangles on it. The themes dear to Byron recur in the lyrics based on scripture. A lament for a homeless race can be heard in such poems as "The Wild Gazelle" and "Oh! Weep for Those." The battle cry for Jewish nationalism sounds in "On Jordan's Banks," "On the Day of the Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus," "By the Rivers of Babylon," and, especially, in "The Destruction of Sennacherib" (with its memorable opening simile, "The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold").
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 10 December 1815, she gave birth to Augusta Ada Byron (the first name was later dropped). Early in the new year, increased money worries forced Byron to suggest that they move from their expensive Piccadilly Terrace address. Lady Byron and Augusta Ada would precede him to her family's estate in Leicestershire, Kirkby Mallory, while he attempted to placate the creditors. Because of his anger and violent utterances, Lady Byron had concluded that her husband was mentally deranged; she drew up a list of his symptoms, which she submitted to two doctors. In Don Juan, Donna Inez, based in part on Annabella, "called some druggists and physicians / And tried to prove her loving lord was mad" (Canto I). Early in the morning of 15 January 1816, Lady Byron and Augusta Ada left London by carriage for Kirkby Mallory before Byron had risen. He never saw them again.
In February Murray published The Siege of Corinth and Parisina in a single volume. The anonymous first edition comprised six thousand copies. The Siege of Corinth, the last of the Eastern tales, recounts, in often slovenly octosyllabic couplets, the Turks' bloody attack in 1715 on the Venetianheld citadel. Alp, the poem's hero, is a renegade from Christian Venice, who, as the proud leader of the besiegers, seeks revenge on the countrymen who wronged him.
In the companion piece, Azo, Marquis of Este, discovers an incestuous affair between his wife, Parisina, and his illegitimate son, Hugo, the Byronic hero. Hugo is beheaded, and Parisina is condemned to an unrevealed fate. In construction, situation, and characterization, the poem is arguably superior to Byron's earlier narrative tales. The psychological drama advances without the usual digressive descriptions and intense self-analysis; passions are realized with poetic eloquence. Especially compelling in the triangular relationship which gives the work its strength is the tension between father and son.
From Kirkby Mallory Lady Byron wrote affectionately to her husband in London, urging him to join her. Her subsequent revelations to her parents about Byron's threatening speech and cruel behavior turned them against him. On 2 February her father wrote Byron to propose a quiet separation. Byron was shocked. Unavailing was his protest, in a letter to his wife on the fifteenth, that he loved his "dearest Bell ... to the dregs of [his] memory & existence." 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. On 17 March the terms for the legal separation were agreed upon.
During the separation crisis, Byron had a casual liaison with Claire (Jane) Clairmont. That she was the stepdaughter of the philosopher William Godwin and the stepsister of Mary Godwin, with whom Percy Bysshe Shelley had eloped in 1814, may have induced him to tolerate her determined advances, which he had no intention of encouraging.
Byron signed the final deed of separation on 21 April, having decided to go abroad with the completion of this formality. He had bid farewell to Augusta on the fourteenth, Easter Sunday. On his trip he was accompanied by Fletcher the valet, his personal physician, Dr. John Polidori ("Pollydolly"), Robert Rushton, and a Swiss servant. He also traveled with a huge coach, copied from one Napoléon captured at Genappe. On the twenty-fifth they sailed from Dover bound for Ostend. Byron would never see England again.
The party reached Geneva on 25 May 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. In this environment Mary wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818.
In June Byron and Shelley sailed to the fortified Château de Chillon. The story of François Bonivard, a sixteenth-century Swiss patriot and political prisoner in the château's dungeon, inspired Byron to compose one of his most popular poems, The Prisoner of Chillon. The work represents Byron's finest verse tale. For the first time he recounts a dramatic story, adapted from fact, about a historical person (as he would do in such later works as Mazeppa and his historical tragedies). The simplicity and directness of Bonivard's dramatic monologue throw into relief the powerful theme of political tyranny. Bonivard, shackled to a pillar by civil authorities for his religious beliefs, reminds the reader of the mythological Prometheus, chained to a rock by Zeus for his gift of fire to mortals, both figures resolutely suffering for their principles and ennobled by their courageous defiance of tyrannical authority. Bonivard's incarceration is effectively contrasted with Nature's liberty as glimpsed through his barred window. Given his engrossing story, his closing confession startles:
My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are:--even I
Regain'd my freedom with a sigh.
A testament to Byron's abilities within the narrow compass of a form he disliked, "The Sonnet on Chillon," preceding the poem proper and treating the same theme, celebrates the "Eternal spirit of the chainless mind! / Brightest in dungeons, Liberty! thou art."
In Bonivard, Byron created a protagonist free from the traits of the typical "Byronic hero," one who possessed greater credibility and maturity than his predecessors. The poem, in turn, expresses deeper human understanding and advances more positive values than earlier works.
On 4 July, three days after returning from his boat tour of Lake Leman, Byron completed the third canto of Childe Harold, which he had begun in early May in Brussels after a visit to Waterloo. 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. The new protagonist, a Hero of Sensibility, expresses the melancholy, passion, and alienation of the original Harold, as well as Byronic liberalism, sensitivity, and meditation. If, occasionally, he irritatingly hints at sins and sorrows or descends to bathos, Byron also infuses the canto with titanic power and an elevated style. Because of their many references to lightning, flame, and Prometheus, Cantos III and IV are called the "fire cantos." In a letter to Moore on 28 January 1817, Byron judged this work "a fine indistinct piece of poetical desolation, and my favourite."
Four major themes inform the third canto. The invocation in the opening stanza--made not to the Muse or another classical figure but to Ada, "sole daughter of my house and heart"--sounds the theme of personal sorrow. The poet-hero is alone, in voluntary exile, "grown aged in this world of woe." "Still round him clung invisibly a chain / Which gall'd for ever, fettering though unseen, / And heavy though it clank'd not ...." He remains "Proud though in desolation."
The sight of the field of Waterloo, "this place of skulls, / The grave of France," prompts the second theme, an analysis of the strengths and flaws of genius in Napoléon and Rousseau. Byron recognized himself in the characters of both men. Like Napoléon he was "antithetically mixt," "Extreme in all things," and possessed of "a fire / And motion of the soul" that "Preys upon high adventure." Like "the self-torturing sophist, wild Rousseau, / The apostle of affliction," he "threw / Enchantment over passion, and from woe / Wrung overwhelming eloquence."
Rousseau, whose writings helped to kindle the French Revolution, and Napoléon, 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. Bravura rhetoric animates the stanzas on Waterloo, from the memorable recreation of the Duchess of Richmond's ball in Brussels on the night before the battle, to Byron's grim evocation of war--a contemplation of the futility of bravery and of the blood shed in purposeless slaughter.
Inspired by Rousseau's Lake Leman, the Alpine scenery, and by Shelley's presentation of Wordsworthian pantheism, the pilgrim-poet temporarily experiences the thrill of a transcendental concept of nature, the fourth theme of the canto:
I live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me; and to me,
High mountains are a feeling....
And thus I am absorb'd, and this is life [.]
But Byron's affinity with reality prevented him from "Spurning the clay-cold bonds which round our being cling." Nature would provide him with no permanent escape from himself, no remedy for his suffering.
Near the end he returns to his first theme, of personal sorrow defiantly borne by a Promethean rebel:
I have not loved the world, nor the world me;
I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bow'd
To its idolatries a patient knee [.]
He closes the canto as he began it, with an apostrophe to his daughter, "The child of love."
July 1816 represents a remarkably creative month for Byron. Among other pieces written at this time appear three notable short poems. "The Dream" concisely 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, The Prisoner of Chillon, and the shorter poems; at Bath on 12 January 1817, Claire gave birth to a daughter Byron named Clara Allegra, and called by her second name. When a tour of the Bernese Alps with Hobhouse failed to "lighten the weight" on his heart or enable him to lose his "own wretched identity," Byron turned, as usual, to poetry to purge his broodings and guilt over the separation, Augusta, and his exile. The catharsis assumed a form new to him--blank-verse drama. He would write, "not a drama properly--but a dialogue," set in the high Alps he had recently visited. He rewrote the third act during a trip to Rome the following May. Manfred, the eponymous protagonist, is essentially Byron, the drama's conflict a fusion of the personal and the cosmic, its goal relief.
Count Manfred, tortured by "the strong curse" on his soul for some unutterable, inexpiable, "half-maddening sin" (II.i), seeks "Forgetfulness--/ ... / Of that which is within me" (I.i). In the first scene, proud and defiant, he revels in the supremacy of his will over the spirits he raises who are powerless over the inner self:
The mind, the spirit, the Promethean spark,
The lightning of my being, is as bright,
Pervading, and far-darting as your own,
And shall not yield to yours, though coop'd in clay!
The poetic drama signals Byron's rejection of the Wordsworthian belief in the benevolence of Nature. In act I, scene 2, Manfred on the Jungfrau finds no solace among the crags, torrents, and pines. Beautiful and glorious, Nature is also destructive, sending avalanches crashing down "on things which still would live; / On the young flourishing forest, or the hut / And hamlet of the harmless villager."
A passing eagle underscores the Romantic quandary--that the putative "sovereigns" of Nature are "Half dust, half deity, alike unfit / To sink or soar." Frustrated by the limitations mortality imposes on his soaring aspirations, Manfred starts to leap from the cliff, only to be saved by a chamois hunter.
In the underworld of Arimanes, spirit of evil, to whom he will not kneel, Manfred seeks out the phantom Astarte, object of his tragic, seemingly incestuous, love, but for him she has no words of endearment or forgiveness, only the prophecy of his death the next day (II.iv).
As a "metaphysical" poem, in Byron's term, Manfred has as its theme defiant humanism, represented by the hero's refusal to bow to supernatural authority, and by his insistence on the independence and self-sufficiency of the human mind. Unable to find consolation for his guilt in this world or in the supernatural, Manfred does not know what to do at first. With its Miltonic echoes, his great speech to the fiends near the end of the play contains the answer he has discovered:
What I have done is done; I bear within
A torture which could nothing gain from thine:
The mind which is immortal makes itself
Requital for its good or evil thoughts--
Is its own origin of ill and end--
And its own place and time ... [.]
As an abbot witnesses his stoic demise, Manfred explains: "Old man! 'tis not so difficult to die." The unconquerable individual to the end, Manfred gives his soul to neither heaven nor hell, only to death.
As Thorslev notes, Manfred conceals behind a Gothic exterior the tender heart of the Hero of Sensibility; but as a rebel, like Satan, Cain, and Prometheus, he embodies Romantic self-assertion. In Manfred Byron voiced his most profound opinions to date on the aspirations and fate of the human creature. His title character recognizes the mind's boundaries but also its Promethean invincibility and integrity.
After four months in Switzerland, Byron, accompanied by Hobhouse, lumbered in the Napoléonic coach toward Italy in October 1816. Following a sojourn in Milan, they reached Venice the next month. The watery city enchanted Byron with its canals, gondolas, and palaces, becoming "the greenest island of my imagination." For now, he felt that he had written himself out. 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 near the Lido.
Murray published Childe Harold , Canto III, on 18 November, 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. Reviewing these works in the December 1816 number of the Edinburgh Review , Jeffrey proclaimed that "in force of diction, and inextinguishable energy of sentiment," Byron took "precedence of all his distinguished contemporaries," Scott, Campbell, Crabbe, and Moore.
Byron set out in mid April 1817 to join Hobhouse in Rome. In Ferrara, his visit to the cell where the sixteenth-century 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, which he reached at the end of the month.
On 16 June Murray published Manfred , fearful of public reaction to its unorthodox speculations and overtones of unnatural love. To Jeffrey (Edinburgh Review, August 1817), the work suffered from "the uniformity of its terror and solemnity" as well as from its "painful and offensive" theme of incest. Despite these flaws, he said, Manfred remained "undoubtedly a work of genius and originality," its "obscurity" and "darkness" serving only "to increase its majesty, to stimulate our curiosity, and to impress us with deeper awe." Writing in 1817, Goethe considered the poem "a wonderful phenomenon" (London Magazine, May 1820).
Byron 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.
In the prefatory letter to Hobhouse, who provided historical annotations and to whom the poem is dedicated, Byron addressed directly the matter of the hero-narrator. In this canto would be found "less of the pilgrim than in any of the preceding, and that little slightly, if at all, separated from the author speaking in his own person." 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. An elegiac tone evoked by "Fall'n states and buried greatness" suffuses the verses. "A ruin amidst ruins," 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, not for any Wordsworthian pantheism, but for its intrinsic beauty.
The principal theme is immediately established. The days of Venice's glory are no more, "but Beauty still is here. / ... Nature doth not die." Literature, too, is permanent and beneficial:
The beings of the mind are not of clay;
Essentially immortal, they create
And multiply in us a brighter ray
And more beloved existence...[.]
The "mighty shadows" of William Shakespeare's Shylock and Othello and of Thomas Otway's Pierre repeople the Rialto and, unlike the bridge, "can not be swept or worn away." Transcendent also is sculpture--"poetic marble ... array'd / With an eternal glory"--as shown by the Venus de' Medici, the Laocoön, and the Apollo Belvedere. Architecture particularly demonstrates this transcendence. There is "A spirit's feeling," "a power / And magic" in such structures as the Colosseum seen by moonlight (also described in Manfred, III. iv); the "sublime" Pantheon, and St. Peter's Basilica.
The sic transit gloria mundi theme in Childe Harold finds its finest Byronic expression in this canto, which traces through their history and ruins the "dying Glory" of Venice and, especially, the fall of Rome. Inviting the reader to plod with him "O'er steps of broken thrones and temples," the pilgrim-narrator is careful to point out that "A world is at our feet as fragile as our clay," leading to the inevitable ending: "'tis thus the mighty falls."
His delineation of the dictators of ancient Rome prompts him to consider anew tyranny and liberty in his own time. He brands Napoléon as "The fool of false dominion--and a kind / Of bastard Caesar," praises George Washington and the "undefiled" origins of the United States, and blames "vile Ambition" for the failure of the French Revolution. Yet Freedom's banner still flies, and in Freedom's tree the sap still flows--"So shall a better spring less bitter fruit bring forth."
The fourth canto, begun with a view of a prison, ends at the edge of a free ocean. The poet is heartened:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more [.]
"To mingle with the Universe" becomes a substitute for the Wordsworthian transcendental leap. In his famous apostrophe to the ocean, beginning "Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean--roll!," Byron contrasts its permanence, power, and freedom with vanished civilizations: "Thy shores are empires, changed in all save thee--/ Assyria, Greece, Rome, Carthage, what are they?" The ocean remains, "Dark-heaving;--boundless, endless, and sublime--/ The image of Eternity...."
Melancholy colors the farewell; Byron knew that the Childe Harold theme had "died into an echo." As William J. Calvert writes, "The fourth canto is Byron's final, complete break with the past.... He is from now on committed to truth and reason." Life in Venice had lifted his spirits. Before he finished this canto, he had begun the spritely Beppo, with which he returned to satire and prepared the way for Don Juan.
Late summer 1817 marks a significant development in Byron's literary career. On 29 August he heard about the return of a supposedly deceased husband to his Venetian wife; she had meanwhile taken an amoroso, and then had to choose her husband, her lover, or solitary life on a pension. At this time, serendipitously, 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 demanding rhyme scheme of ottava rima--a b a b a c c--encourages comic rhymes. Its couplet allows the stanza to end with a witty punch line, with a reversal in tone from high to low, or with a clever rhyme to surprise the reader. 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 25 March 1818, would show the public that he could "write cheerfully, & repel the charge of monotony & mannerism."
The story Byron tells is slight. Beppo, a Venetian merchant, returns home during Carnival after years of Turkish captivity, to discover that his wife, Laura, has taken a count for her lover. After the three pleasantly discuss the amatory triangle, the husband and wife reunite, and Beppo befriends the count. Filling out the slender narrative are the poet's digressions and pointed commentaries. In his asides he particularly contrasts climate, language, attitudes, and customs in Italy and England, to the detriment of the latter; his homeland receives ironic praise. He especially prefers the relaxed moral code of Italy, as illustrated by his heroine Laura who, having "waited long, and wept a little, / And thought of wearing weeds, as well she might" for her missing Beppo, finally "thought it prudent to connect her / With a vice-husband, chiefly to protect her."
In its gaiety, verve, and absence of rhetoric, Beppo signaled a break with Byron's earlier, darker works. Banished is the soul-ravaged hero with his pride and pessimism, replaced by the poet-narrator--conversational, digressive, witty, observant, cynical. The poem's seriocomic manner and idiom reflect with greater clarity and honesty the facets of Byron's mind and emotions as well as his view of the world: satiric, urbane, cosmopolitan, self-deprecating. Though inconsequential, Byron's first attempt at the Italian "medley poem" allowed him to experiment with the style most congenial to his spirit and best suited to his talents. In this fresh, realistic voice he would create his comic masterpiece Don Juan.
Murray published Beppo, A Venetian Story, without Byron's name on the title page, on 28 February 1818, to immediate success. The Monthly Review (March 1818) found Byron's "satire, though at times a little tinged with vulgarity, ... usually good-humoured 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 28 April 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 (whose length he swam), 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.
In a letter to Murray dated 10 July 1818, he mentioned that he had completed an ode on Venice, and that he had "two stories--one serious & one ludicrous (a la Beppo) not yet finished--& in no hurry to be so." The "serious" poem was Mazeppa, a Cossack verse tale of illicit love and a wild horseback ride. The "ludicrous" work was the lengthy first canto of his comic epic Don Juan, pronounced, for the sake of the humor, to rhyme with "new one" and "true one." In this opening canto, the sixteen-year-old Juan has a first love affair with a married woman and then is sent by his mother on an extended European tour. Over the next five years Byron added fifteen more cantos to the poem, leaving a seventeenth unfinished at his death. In November he sent Murray the canto along with Mazeppa (published in June 1819 with "Ode on Venice"), and soon was at work on Canto II, an account of Juan's sea voyage, shipwreck, and rescue by Haidée. Hobhouse and other friends in England praised the poetry and satire in Don Juan, Canto I, but voiced alarm at its indecencies and attacks on religion, writers, and Lady Byron (in the character of Donna Inez, Juan's "mathematical" mother). They urged that the manuscript be suppressed. Murray was willing, and eager, to publish the piece, especially if some of the "indelicacies" were omitted. But Byron would have none of his "damned cutting and slashing"; the poem would succeed or fail on its own merits.
Byron, exhausted by debauchery, cut and slashed in his personal life, getting rid of "La Fornarina" and his harem. In early April 1819 at the Benzoni conversazione, he encountered the Countess Teresa Guiccioli, whom he had met casually on his thirtieth birthday at the Countess Albrizzi's. Now nineteen, she had been married for just over a year to a rich count of fifty-eight. A strong mutual attraction quickly developed between Byron and Teresa. Having given up "miscellaneous harlotry," he settled for "strictest adultery" as cavalier servente to Teresa, his "last attachment." For the next four years, until his departure for Greece in July 1823, they lived in several Italian cities and towns--Venice, La Mira, Ravenna, Filetto, Pisa, and Genoa--as dictated by her husband, by her health and desires, and, after her separation from her husband in July 1820, by her father.
In June, in Ravenna, the site of the Palazzo Guiccioli and Dante's tomb, Byron wrote at Teresa's request The Prophecy of Dante, in the terza rima of the Commedia. In Byron's poem the exiled Florentine poet--with whom Byron, for personal and literary reasons, was sympathetic--laments the political factions of his day, champions Italian nationalism, and urges his nineteenth-century countrymen to unite against the oppressor. Since the Congress of Vienna (1815), Austria had been an overlord in part of Italy. Byron had had his first view of Austrian tyranny in Milan, where his associations brought him under the surveillance of the Austrian secret police.
On 15 July 1819, Murray, after some hesitation, cautiously published the first two cantos of Don Juan in an expensive quarto format of fifteen hundred copies. Missing were Byron's savage "Dedication" to the poet laureate Robert Southey (first published in The Works of Lord Byron, 1832) and the names of the author and publisher on the title page; only the printer, Thomas Davison, was identified, as required by English law. By tacitly admitting, through anonymous publication, that Don Juan was disreputable, Murray intensified the outcry against the work. The critics hit back with a fury virtually unprecedented, vilifying both poet and poem. Typical was the review in Blackwood's Magazine (August 1819), which branded Byron as "a cool unconcerned fiend" who derided love, honor, patriotism, and religion in his "filthy and impious poem"; the "coldblooded mockery" of his injured wife was "brutally, fiendishly, inexpiably mean." Not all the notices were negative. In a pseudonymous Letter to the Right Hon. Lord Byron (1821), "John Bull" (John Gibson Lockhart) encouraged him to "Stick to Don Juan: it is the only sincere thing you have ever written; ... it is by far the most spirited, the most straightforward, the most interesting, and the most poetical." In a German review written in 1819 but not published until 1821, Goethe praised Don Juan as "a work of boundless energy."
Byron's serious poems and Childe Harold had given but limited voice to his complex personality; his comic masterpiece Don Juan permitted him full expression. It is at once a satire on his age, a picaresque novel in poetry, and arguably the greatest verse epic in English since Paradise Lost.
The dazzling range of subjects, incidents, and moods in his "versified Aurora Borealis" (Canto VII), and its geographical sweep, no less than its genre, justify his claim that "My poem's epic" (Canto I). the stanzas teem with Byronic observations on liberty, tyranny, war, love, hypocrisy, cant, and much more. The landscape stretches from Juan's native Spain across the Mediterranean to the Greek Cyclades, up to Constantinople and on to Russia, with a digression to Kentucky, before stopping in England. Byron's literary models include the classical epics of Homer and Virgil and the Renaissance Italian epics of Ariosto and Tasso. He drew, too, on satiric prose romances as written by Françis Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, Jonathan Swift, and Laurence Sterne, and on the picaresque novels of Henry Fielding. He humorously claims that his poem will adhere to epic conventions, all arranged "With strict regard to Aristotle's rules" (Canto I), but, in fact, he writes a modern epic, indebted to the older forms but not in thrall to them.
In a "slight difference" from his "epic brethern," Byron does not make Don Juan a "labyrinth of fables" but a story that is "actually true" (Canto I), based, as he told Murray, almost entirely on "real life--either my own--or from people I knew." He told Marguerite, Lady Blessington, that he always wrote best when "truth" inspired him. The Juan-Julia affair is derived from events in an acquaintance's boyhood; the architecture of Norman Abbey owes much to Newstead Abbey; and the narrator's digressive thoughts and opinions are Byron's. For the sake of accuracy he also referred to source books for particulars in such episodes as the shipwreck and the siege of Ismail.
Related to Byron's insistence on truth is his "mobility," which he defined in a note to Canto XVI, stanza 97, as "an excessive susceptibility of immediate impressions--at the same time without losing the past." Byron himself, like his character Lady Adeline Amundeville, was "strongly acted on by what is nearest," for all he saw and experienced seemed to imprint itself on his memory and to reappear later, often little changed, in his writings.
For the discursive, digressive manner of Don Juan, Byron returned to the versatile ottava rima he had first used in Beppo , ideally suited to the conversational style of the "Improvisatore" (Canto XV). The rapidity of the stanza facilitates the poem's myriad changing tones--serious, cynical, sentimental, humorous, satiric, bawdy--as the verse shifts from narrative to commentary, from romance to burlesque, from banter to invective.
"I want a hero," Byron declares in the poem's opening line, but finding that the modern age does not provide a "true one," he will "therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan." The anglicized pronunciation of the name, as dictated by the rhyme, signals the first of several significant Byronic alterations in the figure familiar from works by Tirso de Molina, Molière, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte. Whereas the legendary Juan is a libertine and a heartless despoiler of women, deserving of his eternal perdition, Byron's young don is friendly, innately good, courteous, impulsive, and sensuous--more the seduced than the seducer. He experiences shipwreck, slavery, war, dissipation, and illness in his travels, gaining worldly wisdom and discretion as he goes. Though he gradually becomes gaté and blasé in the process, the Juan of Canto XVI retains his good qualities from Canto I.
In Don Juan Byron successfully dissociates himself from his title character, as he had sought in vain to do in Childe Harold. The poem's structure contributes to the separation of creator and creation. Juan's picaresque adventures occupy one level; on a second occasionally exists Byron the narrator, behind the partial persona of friend of Juan's family; on a third level, superintending all, Byron, in his own voice, digresses at will on favorite subjects.
A dual time scheme lengthens the distance between Juan and Byron. The hero lives in the 1790s, Byron as narrator-digressor in the 1820s. These ages are juxtaposed in the "English Cantos," which place Juan in the aristocratic society of Byron's native land. In the "Ubi sunt" stanzas (Canto XI, stanzas 76-84), Byron looks back over the period of his exile, wondering "Where is the world of eight years past?" In Canto I Byron is concerned that at thirty he has gray hair; in the meditation on middle age that opens Canto XII, he laments that he is thirty-five. If Juan preserves essentially the same nature throughout the poem, the poet obviously changes and ages.
For many critics, the pervading theme of Don Juan is Nature versus Civilization, which allows Byron to realize his serious purpose for the poem, as explained to Murray in a letter on Christmas Day 1822: to satirize "abuses of the present states of Society." His depictions of contrasting types of love repeatedly reveal the larger theme. In Canto I he presents both the loveless marriage of Donna Julia and Don Alfonso, and Juan's sentimental, comic initiation into love by Julia. Beside these examples drawn from Civilization he sets the idyll of Juan and Haidée in their island Eden (Cantos II-IV), which Lambro, symbolizing Eastern society, destroys, along with his daughter, Haidée, "Nature's bride" (Canto II), and her unborn child by Juan (Canto IV.) He exposes the English commercial marriage, which conceals sexuality behind hypocritical convention, and juxtaposes the frustrated passion of Lady Adeline Amundeville and the amorality of "her frolic Grace," the Duchess of Fitz-Fulke, with the ingenuousness and purity of Aurora Raby.
Byron reserves his most graphic illustration of the grand theme for his denunciation of the brutality and futility of wars of conquest, represented by the Russo-Turkish War, in which Juan participates (Cantos VII-VIII). In Canto VIII, in the midst of the siege of Ismail, Byron digresses for seven stanzas to praise Daniel Boone, "back-woodsman of Kentucky," and his "sylvan tribe of children of the chace": "Simple they were, not savage; and their rifles, / Though very true, were not yet used for trifles." Abruptly Byron ends this scene with an ironic transition:
So much for Nature:--by way of variety,
Now back to thy great joys, Civilization!
And the sweet consequence of large society,
War, Pestilence, the despot's desolation,
The kingly scourge, the Lust of Notoriety,
The millions slain by soldiers for their ration[.]
War, tyranny, and the pretense and corruption in society are the major butts of Byron's satire in Don Juan . Even as he assails political and social constraints on human freedom, he writes an inherently positive poem. As Paul G. Trueblood notes, Don Juan exalts "the indestructibility of the human spirit, the creative power of human love, and the supreme importance of personal and national liberty." As an epic-satire on all obstructions to that liberty, Don Juan represents "the flowering of Byron's essentially satiric genius."
At La Mira with Teresa and Allegra in September 1819 Byron proceeded with the third canto of Don Juan. 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; on 17 May 1824, 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.
In February 1820, while in residence at the Palazzo Guiccioli, Byron sent Murray, along with other works, the third and fourth cantos of Don Juan, depicting the love between Juan and Haidée, her tragic death, and his captivity on a ship bound for the slave market at Constantinople.
Byron's life and writing in 1820-1821 evidenced a shared political theme. Influenced by Teresa's father, Count Ruggero Gamba Ghiselli, and his son, Count Pietro Gamba, both ardent patriots, he began to take a serious interest in the Carbonari, one of the secret revolutionary societies seeking to overthrow Austrian despotism. In time Byron became an honorary Capo (Chief) of a workmen's group of the Carbonari; he supplied them with arms and made his house their arsenal. The Austrian secret police increased their observation of Byron's activities and opened his mail. Uncertain about the future of Don Juan, he expended a portion of his creative energy on a trio of historical tragedies based on political subjects and modeled on neoclassical principles. These blank-verse plays were, he maintained, closet dramas, not designed for the stage. Marino Faliero, which he began in April and finished in July 1820, concerns the doge of Venice beheaded in 1355 for plotting with the oppressed plebeians to overthrow the oligarchical Republic; Faliero--like Byron, an aristocrat--hates tyranny but, in a reflection of Byron's dilemma, must ally himself with the mob and oppose noble friends in the cause of liberty. Sardanapalus (written January-May 1821) recounts the final hours of the quasi-historical last king of Assyria, a benevolent voluptuary who scorns the lust for power and forcefully indicts war; spurred to military action only by a plot to depose him, he avoids capture through self-immolation. In The Two Foscari (written June and July 1821), a sense of duty compels a fifteenth-century doge to sentence his son to torture and perpetual exile for crimes against the state; his daughter-in-law, Marina, is the voice of rebellion that cannot be intimidated into silence.
From his patronage of the theater and his year (1815-1816) on the Subcommittee of Management at Drury Lane, Byron was acutely aware of the rant, Gothic melodramas, child-tragedians, and performing animals that increasingly dominated the English stage and dimmed its luster. To reform the drama, Byron in his history plays observed classical principles, finding his models in works by ancient Greek, neoclassical French, and contemporary Italian playwrights, particularly Vittorio Alfieri. Whenever possible, Byron observed the unities of time, place, and action.
On 28 December 1820 Byron forwarded to England the fifth canto of Don Juan retailing Juan's adventures, en travesti as a harem girl, with the love-starved sultana, Gulbeyez. Moore received additional pages of Byron's memoirs. In mid February he sent a fifty-five page Letter to **** ***** [John Murray] on the Rev. W. L. Bowles' Strictures on the Life and Writings of Pope, refuting Bowles's attack on his idol.
In April 1821 Murray published in a single volume Marino Faliero and The Prophecy of Dante. The critics thought the drama failed as play and poem. To Jeffrey, The Prophecy of Dante suffered from obscurities in diction and undigested subject matter (Edinburgh Review, July 1821). Without Byron's permission, Marino Faliero was given seven performances at Drury Lane in April and May 1821, the only one of his plays acted in his lifetime. Adaptations of Sardanapalus and Werner (1823) enjoyed great success on the nineteenth-century stage.
With the completion of The Two Foscari in July, Byron began work on Cain, A Mystery, its subtitle an allusion to the medieval dramas on biblical themes and, he told Moore, "in honour of what it probably will remain to the reader." Grounding his play in the Old Testament and eighteenth-century rationalism, Byron challenged accepted religious beliefs in good, evil, death, and immortality.
Adam and Eve inhabit a postlapsarian world with their sons, Cain and Abel; daughters, Adah (Cain's twin) and Zillah; and grandchild, Enoch, the son of Cain and Adah. In act 1, scene 1, Cain appears as the first skeptic and a Romantic rebel, a blend of the rational and the Promethean, defiantly, even blasphemously questioning his parents' views of God's goodness and justice.
Lucifer, too, is Promethean, championing humanity against an authoritarian and arbitrary God. The underlying philosophy is Manichaean, based on the belief that two equal and irreconcilable forces divide the rule of the universe: good (light, God, intellect) and evil (darkness, Satan, flesh). In making Lucifer a rival of God, Byron reverses the associations, allying Lucifer with good, and God, the "Omnipotent Tyrant," with all manner of evil--war, death, disease, pangs, and bitterness.
In act 3, scene 1, when God violently rejects his offering of fruit but accepts with gratitude Abel's animal sacrifice, Cain takes a Promethean stand for life, denouncing the death principle behind God's tyrannical "pleasure" in "The fumes of scorching flesh and smoking blood."With tragic irony Cain then sheds his brother's blood in the human world's first death. Remorseful and repentant, he goes into exile accompanied by Adah and Enoch, without railing against an unjust God.
Cain was the product of Byron's contemplation, in January 1821, of a drama on "a metaphysical subject, something in the style of Manfred." Manfred's complaint that man is "half dust, half deity" assumed that escape from the dust into bodiless spirit would result in happiness. But Cain's journey through the "Abyss of Space" (II.i) and Hades (II.ii) in search of knowledge suggests that supernatural beings might not be happy either: "sorrow seems / Half of his [Lucifer's] immortality" (I.i). Cain learns that he anticipates his own immortality by "suffering," and that "torture" is destined to be immortal (II.i). All that remains is a sort of desperate stoicism based on his unconquerable will and his acceptance of the futility of aspiration.
In publishing Don Juan, Cantos III, IV, and V, in August 1821, Murray still refused to attach his name to the poem, though he had it printed in an octavo edition of 1500 copies, which gave it a wider circulation among the middle-class reading public. To Shelley, "every word" of the fifth canto was "pregnant with immortality." In another key the reviewer for the British Critic (September 1821) denounced the poem, "begotten" and "spawned in filth and darkness," as an "obscure and ditch-delivered foundling," whose father, though well known, forbore "to give it the full title of avowed legitimacy."
In September, amid the confusion of packing for his move to Pisa, Byron took up a poem he had begun in May and immediately set aside. On 4 October, he completed one of his greatest works, The Vision of Judgment , a satiric riposte to Robert Southey's A Vision of Judgment, which had appeared in April. This solemn, sycophantic eulogy in limping hexameters commemorates the death, burial, and supposed apotheosis of King George III. In his preface, chiefly concerning the poem's metrics, Southey virulently attacked Byron (without naming him) as the leader of the "Satanic school" of contemporary writers, whose works mocked religion, represented "loathsome images of atrocities and horrors" and exhibited "a Satanic spirit of pride and audacious impiety."
In his "true dream" or vision, Byron, under the pseudonym "Quevedo Redivivus," trains his telescope on "the celestial gate" to espy the truth about George III's arrival there for judgment. He discovers that, during the mayhem caused by Southey's reading from his Vision of Judgment, the decrepit king simply "slipped into Heaven." Byron's hatred of oppression finds a worthy target in George III, whom Satan indicts as a warmonger and a symbol of tyranny in England, America, and Europe. Byron also directs his despite at Southey's poetry and politics: "He had written much blank verse, and blanker prose, / And more of both than any body knows." A political apostate, Southey began as an exponent of revolutionary views in Wat Tyler (written in 1795 but unpublished until 1817) only to become a voice of conservative reaction: this "hearty antijacobin" had "turned his coat--and would have turned his skin."
First published in the first number of The Liberal (15 October 1821), The Vision of Judgment is distinguished from Byron's other satires by its unity of structure and compactness of expression. A single significant target is attacked with a specific satiric purpose and without excessive digression. The fact that Byron leaves George III in heaven "practising the hundredth psalm" indicates that his satire was aimed less at the mad king than at toady Southey. Byron's biographer Leslie A. Marchand regards The Vision of Judgment as "the masterpiece of his whole writing career" and "the rarest distillation of his satiric genius."
Byron based Heaven and Earth, the "Mystery" he began in October, on Genesis 6:1-2, which records that the "sons of God" (to Byron, angels) took as wives "the daughters of men" (women descended from Cain, who were condemned to destruction in the Flood). Through Japhet, the elect but troubled son of Noah, Byron questions the doctrine of predestination, which had disturbed him all his life. As in Cain, this drama asks why evil exists, since Jehovah is good. Aholibamah, one of the women, articulates the familiar Byronic theme of human aspiration for celestial existence free from the limitations of the body: "where is the impiety of loving / Celestial natures?" (I.i).
The blank-verse evocations of the natural beauty of the earth and the defiant addresses to Jehovah impress by their power and majesty. The work was printed in the second number of The Liberal (1 January 1823). A projected second part to the drama was never written.
In Pisa, which he reached in November, Byron was drawn into a delightful circle of friends that included Percy and Mary Shelley, Edward and Jane Williams, and Shelley's cousin Thomas Medwin. They were joined in mid January by the flamboyant adventurer Edward John Trelawny.
On 19 December Murray published Sardanapalus, The Two Foscari, and Cain in a single volume (6,099 copies). In a letter of 26 January 1822, Shelley proclaimed Cain "apocalyptic--it is a revelation not before communicated to man." His was a minority opinion. Byron wrote Moore that "the parsons [were] all preaching at it from Kentish Town and Oxford to Pisa." To John Gibson Lockhart (Blackwood's Magazine, January 1822), Cain was "a wicked and blasphemous performance." To the Gentleman's Magazine (supplement to 1821), the play was "neither more nor less than a series of wanton libels upon the Supreme Being and His attributes." Few critics embraced Sardanapalus and fewer still The Two Foscari.
Byron had placed his daughter Allegra in a convent school in Bagnacavallo in March 1821; on 20 April 1822 she died there at the age of five, after a brief illness. Following Byron's instructions, she was buried in Harrow Church.
In July, the poet, critic, and editor Leigh Hunt accepted Shelley's year-old invitation, extended in Byron's name, to come to Pisa with his family to help edit a new literary journal. Despite Shelley's drowning death in July, plans went forward to start The Liberal. Verse and Prose from the South, to be published in London by Hunt's brother, John. Byron contributed to each of its four issues (published in 1822 and 1823).
He was also proceeding rapidly with Don Juan . After the erotic seraglio scenes in the sixth canto, he began to exhibit a new gravity. His satire on war and its false glory fills Cantos VII and VIII, on the siege of Ismail (with its panegyric digression on Daniel Boone in VIII, stanzas 61-66). Canto IX sends Juan with news of Ismail to Empress Catherine the Great of Russia.
In late September, the remnants of the Pisan Circle relocated to Genoa. Within a week of his arrival, Byron had completed the tenth canto of Don Juan, which carries the hero to England, and started the eleventh, with its satire on the shallowness and hypocrisy of the English aristocracy.
The first number of The Liberal appeared in mid October, leading with Byron's Vision of Judgment. Though published under a pseudonym and without the explanatory preface, the satire was immediately recognized as Byron's and deplored as slanderous, seditious, and impious. John Hunt was prosecuted for libeling the late king; he remained the publisher of The Liberal but turned printing duties over to the less radical printer C. H. Reynell.
Murray found Don Juan, Cantos VI, VII, and VIII "so outrageously shocking" that he refused to publish them. Byron responded by withdrawing from Murray and turning to John Hunt as his publisher. He analyzed the Englishwoman in the twelfth canto, completed by December 1822. Then, between December and January 1823 he composed a slashing satire, The Age of Bronze (published by John Hunt in 1823). As the title suggests, Byron voices disillusionment with the modern era, his targets being both political and economic. He aims his scornful heroic couplets at the reactionary Congress of Verona (November 1822), which had assembled to make Europe less free, and at "uncountry gentlemen" who profited during the Napoleonic Wars. A long passage contains his final thinking on Napoléon, who had died in 1821; the poet bemoans the what-might-have-been for this Promethean figure: "A single step into the right had made / This man the Washington of worlds betrayed." The evergreen theme of freedom fills the sixth section, with its hopes for liberation in Spain, the New World, and Greece.
In January 1823, in the midst of his satire, he reverted briefly to his earlier manner--the verse narrative. The Island; or, Christian and His Comrades is compounded from Captain William Bligh's Narrative of the Mutiny on ... [the] Bounty (1790) and the popular Romantic theme of the Noble Savage, depicted in the idyll of Neuha, "the gentle savage of the wild," and Torquil, "The fair-hair'd offspring of the Hebrides." Three editions, totaling three thousand copies, were published by John Hunt in 1823.
In the summer of 1823 he told his guest "the most gorgeous" Marguerite, Countess of Blessington, that "he who is only a poet has done little for mankind"; he would therefore "endeavour to prove in his own person that a poet may be a soldier." To this end he devoted himself to the Greek War of Independence from the Turks, begun in March 1821. In May he was elected to the London Greek Committee, recently formed to aid the struggling insurgents. After a reluctant farewell to Teresa, he made good on his offer of personal assistance to the patriots by sailing from Genoa on 16 July, bound for Leghorn and Greece. He was accompanied by Pietro Gamba, Trelawny, and a considerable sum of money and medical supplies for the Greek cause; he also packed gold and scarlet uniforms and heroic helmets for their landing on Greek shores. On 3 August they reached the island of Cephalonia, then under British protection. Byron did not immediately commit himself to any faction, preferring to wait for signs of unity in the Greek effort. Intent on the war, he gave no time to poetry, adding nothing to the fourteen stanzas of Don Juan, Canto XVII, he had started in Genoa.
Unknown to him, John Hunt published Don Juan, Cantos VI.--VII.--and VIII. in July. In Blackwood's Magazine (July 1823), "Timothy Tickler" (William Maginn) attacked them as "mere filth" for abusing chastity, matrimony, monarchy, and lawful government. In the September number of Blackwood's "Odoherty" (John Gibson Lockhart) maintained that Cantos IX, X, and XI (published in August) were, "without exception, the first of Lord Byron's works," containing the finest specimens of his serious poetry and of contemporary "ludicrous poetry"; Don Juan was "destined to hold a permanent rank" in British literature. The Literary Gazette (6 December 1823) found the "sportive satirical vein" of Cantos XII, XIII, and XIV (published that month) "very entertaining."
In November Byron agreed to loan four thousand pounds to the Greek fleet for its activation. In January 1824 he joined the moderate leader Prince Alexander Mavrokordátos on the mainland in swampy Missolonghi. Wearing his red military uniform, Byron was enthusiastically welcomed by shouts, salutes, and salvos, and hailed as a "Messiah." On the eve of his birthday, he turned once more to poetry to express his inner feelings on his life and the principles of freedom; the ten stanzas of "On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year" constitute one of his last poems. Over the next three and one-half months, all occasions--military, political, physical, climatic, and amorous--seemed to conspire against him: his leadership of a planned attack on the Turkish stronghold at Lepanto was postponed for lack of soldiers; factions still prevented a unified war effort; his constitution, weakened by years of dieting to combat congenital portliness, deteriorated under the constant strain and the cold winter rains in Missolonghi; the emotional frustration of his unrequited love for his handsome fifteen-year-old page boy, Loukas Chalandritsanos, seems to have inspired his final poem (posthumously titled and published as "Love and Death") which concludes, "Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot / To strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still." Despite uncertainty and reverses, he continued to commit money and energy to Mavrokordátos and the Greek cause.
In March 1824, John and H. L. Hunt published the last complete sections of Don Juan, Cantos XV and XVI. The Literary Gazette (3 April 1824) pronounced them "destitute of the least glimmering of talent" and a "wretched" "piece of stuff altogether."
On 9 April, having been soaked by a heavy rain while out riding, Byron suffered fever and rheumatic pains. By the twelfth he was seriously ill. Repeated bleedings, which he initially resisted, further debilitated him. On Easter Sunday, he entered a comatose state. At six o'clock on the evening of Easter Monday, 19 April 1824, during a violent electrical storm, Byron died.
In memorial services throughout the country, he was proclaimed a national hero of Greece. His death proved effective in uniting Greece against the enemy and in eliciting support for its struggle from all parts of the civilized world. In October 1827 British, French, and Russian forces destroyed the Turkish and Egyptian fleets at Navarino, assuring Greek independence, which was acknowledged by the sultan in 1829.
Byron's body arrived in England on 29 June, and for two days lay in state in a house in Great George Street, London. On Friday, 16 July 1824, Lord Byron was buried in the family vault beneath the chancel of Hucknall Torkard Church near Newstead Abbey.
The fame to which Byron awoke in London in 1812 was spread rapidly throughout Europe and the English-speaking world by scores of translations and editions. He was delighted to see his merits argued in a Java gazette in 1814 and gratified some years later to find himself described as "the favourite poet of the Americans." His influence was pervasive and prolonged. Alfred de Musset was his disciple in France, Aleksandr Pushkin in Russia, Heinrich Heine in Germany, Adam Mickiewicz in Poland. His poetry inspired musical compositions by Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; operas by Gaetano Donizetti and Giuseppe Verdi; and paintings by J. M. W. Turner, John Martin, Ford Madox Brown, and Eugène Delacroix. His spirit animated liberal revolutionary movements: most of the officers executed following the unsuccessful 1825 Decembrist uprising in Russia were Byronists; the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini associated Byron with the eternal struggle of the oppressed to be free. Shelley, Heine, and others adopted Byron's open-necked shirt, which he wears in Thomas Phillips's striking 1814 painting.
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. He wished that Coleridge would "explain his Explanation" of his thought (Dedication to Don Juan ). He did not embrace for long Wordsworth's belief in the benevolence of nature, espouse Shelley's faith in human perfectibility, or experience Keats's private vision. Yet, 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."
"I was born for opposition," Byron proclaimed in Don Juan, Canto XV. The outstanding elements of his poetry both support his self-analysis and insure his enduring reputation. As a major political and social satirist, he starts, in the Classical and Augustan manner, with a fixed standard of judgment, then, in either seriocomic or savage tones, repeatedly denounces war, tyranny, and hypocrisy. As an untiring champion of liberty, he firmly believed that "Revolution / Alone can save the earth from hell's pollution" (Don Juan, Canto VIII), a tenet he defended with his life.
The last word properly belongs to Byron, who perceptively captured his essence in Canto IV of Childe Harold :
But I have lived, and have not lived in vain:
My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire,
And my frame perish even in conquering pain,
But there is that within me which shall tire
Torture and Time, and breathe when I expire [.]
From: Gatton, John Spalding. "George Gordon, Lord Byron (22 January 1788-19 April 1824)." British Romantic Poets, 1789-1832: Second Series, edited by John R. Greenfield, vol. 96, Gale, 1990, pp. 18-69. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 96.