Lord Byron: Exile & Death
Byron left England for good in June 1816. He went first to Geneva, where he spent the summer with his new lover, an Englishwoman named Claire Clairmont, and her half-sister and brother-in-law, Mary Godwin (soon to be Mary Shelley) and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley and Byron became friends, bonding over their shared love of poetry. Claire Clairmont became pregnant. She gave birth to Byron's daughter Clara Allegra in 1817. Soon after, he tired of Claire, discarding her for a string of lovers that he seemed to regard with general distaste. In a letter to friends Byron listed the names of all the women he'd slept with since he'd been in Italy, concluding "some of them are Countesses - & some of them Cobblers wives - some noble - some middling - some low - & all whores."17
A student in Pisa wrote upon Byron's arrival that the city had received a remarkable man, "one of royal blood, great wealth, sanguine temperament, fierce habits, masterly in knightly exercise and possessing evil genius."18 Byron's behavior ranged from bizarre to cruel. "As to my sadness - you know that it is in my character - particularly in certain seasons," he wrote to a lover. "It is truly a temperamental illness - which sometimes makes me fear the approach of madness - and for this reason, and at these times I keep away from everyone."19 He embarked on strange diets, went through bouts of prolonged sleeplessness, and kept a menagerie of animals in his household wherever he went. Desperate for cash to finance his exile, Byron sold Newstead Abbey and published the poem Manfred. Claire Clairmont sent her daughter to live with Byron in the hopes that she'd have a better life in his household. Instead he deposited the girl at a convent and refused to let her mother see her. She died of fever at the convent at the age of five.
In 1819, Byron moved in with his latest lover, the married countess Teresa Guiccioli. He published the beautiful first two cantos of Don Juan, his take on the classic legend of the Spanish lover. In 1822, Percy Shelley drowned in the Gulf of Spezia while sailing with a friend. Byron and Shelley's friends Leigh Hunt and Edward John Trelawny presided over Shelley's cremation on the beach. In typical Byron fashion, the baron made jokes as his friend's body burned, and announced with apparent nonchalance that he'd like to go for a swim. He swam out far from the shore, and vomited.
As he approached middle age, Byron grew more contemplative. He had the sense that he wanted to do something bigger than just flirt. In 1823, after publishing the remaining cantos of Don Juan, Byron traveled to Greece to assist the Greeks in their revolution against Turkish rule. He had always had a soft spot for the country and hoped to prove his heroics in their fight for independence. He instead got a rather unglamorous role in the revolution, helping to procure supplies. On 9 April 1824, Byron fell ill with a fever. Doctors bled him with leeches as his illness grew progressively worse, with Byron writhing, delirious and in pain. Ten days later, on 19 April 1824, Lord Byron died in Missolonghi, Greece at the age of 36.
His body was returned to England and the poet was buried near Newstead Abbey. Before his illness, Byron had written memoirs that he intended to have published after his death. When the papers were read following his demise, his friends were so shocked and appalled by the details he shared that they made a decision that scholars rue to this day. To protect his legacy, his friends burned Byron's memoirs. It was a great loss to literary history. Imagine the final confessions of a man who once said: "I have a conscience, although the world gives me no credit for it; I am now repenting, not of the few sins I have committed, but of the many I have not committed."20