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George Gordon, Lord Byron, was one of the foremost English Romantic poets. He contributed to the genre not only through his poetry, but also through the way he led his life, and a staple character of Romantic fiction, the Byronic hero, is named after him. Lord Byron embodied the Romantic ideals of passionate, if sometimes illicit, romantic love, mystery, a melancholy temperament, and nationalist fervor. He spent the last year of his life in Greece, where he had fully invested himself in the Greek war of independence against the Ottoman Empire.
Born on 22 January 1788 in London, England, George Gordon Byron was the son of Captain John Byron and Catherine Gordon. He suffered from clubfoot, a slight deformity of the right foot. Shortly before Byron's birth, his maternal grandfather had committed suicide, forcing his mother to sell the land and title she inherited from his estate in order to pay off his debts. His father abandoned his mother, who moved with her infant son to Aberdeen, Scotland, where they lived in near poverty.
Byron inherited his title, along with ancestral estates, at the age of ten, when his uncle passed away. He was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School, Harrow, in London, and Trinity College, Cambridge. Lord Byron began writing poetry as an adolescent, completing his first volume at the age of 14. It was recalled because of the passionate nature of some love poems, however, and an expurgated volume was published in its place.
He first visited the European continent at the age of 21, spending two years touring the Mediterranean. In Greece, he fell in love with Nicolò Giraud, who taught him Italian and took care of him during a prolonged episode of fever. Later, Lord Byron paid for Giraud's education and set aside a small fortune for him in his will. The poet would retain a strong emotional attachment to Greece throughout his life.
Upon returning to England in 1811, Lord Byron became a member of the House of Lords. The following year, the publication of the first two cantos of his epic poem, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, was a great literary success. In 1812, he had a short but scandalous affair with a married woman, Lady Caroline Lamb. He also became very intimate with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, whom he had scarcely known as a child. Their relationship was also the source of some scandal, as many suspected them of incest.
Lord Byron married Lady Caroline's cousin, Anabella Milbanke, in 1815. Their marriage lasted only a year, but produced a daughter, Augusta Ada. Upon leaving him, Anabella forbade her husband to have any further contact with Ada. Byron left England for good after signing separation papers in April 1816.
He spent the summer of 1816 at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland with fellow romantic authors John Polidori, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley. Mary Shelley's step-sister, Claire Clairmont, later arrived, pregnant with Lord Byron's child as a result of an affair in England. He financially supported the child, Allegra, but she died at the age of five, a year after being placed in a convent.
Byron lived in Italy, spending time in Venice, Rome, Pisa, and Genoa, from 1816 to 1823. He became romantically involved with Contessa Guiccioli, who left her husband for him. Lord Byron continued to publish poetry, focusing much of his attention on a second epic work, Don Juan. He also became interested in the culture of the Armenians he encountered on the Venetian island of Saint Lazarus, publishing books on Armenian grammar, an Armenian-English dictionary, and translations from Armenian.
The poet moved to Greece to participate in the fight for independence from the Ottomans in 1823. He invested a large amount of his own money in the Greek troops and planned to command part of a military expedition, but became ill before it began. On 19 April 1824, Lord Byron died of fever. His poetry remains among the best loved in the English language, and he is fondly remembered as a hero by the Greeks.
Lord Byron even inspired the now common epithet, "mad, bad and dangerous to know." Lady Caroline Lamb -- the married woman he had the affair with -- said that about him. To say he cut a swath through London society is the mildest thing that can be said about his life.
He would probably call himself bisexual these days, since it's pretty well established he was attracted to both sexes, with perhaps a slight bent toward women -- when he couldn't mess around with adolescent boys.
If Lord Byron were around today, he and Queen singer Freddie Mercury would have probably run in the same circles. Mercury's life is rather reminiscent of Byron's. He made it to age 45, where Byron was 36, but they shared many common traits.
"She Walks in Beauty" is probably one of my favorite Romantic poems, period. It is a wonderful lyric piece. I guess it's kind of cliche, but when you know what a rogue Byron was, that he wrote a poem dedicated to the beauty of an innocent heart, it's very touching. Almost as if this were his ideal woman, but she was unreachable, unattainable, unknowable -- at least for a cad like himself. And he was a cad, make no mistake.
He was a bounder and a rake, as they said at the time. But this piece almost makes up for it all.