"[A]ll I have yet written has been for women-kind," the poet Lord Byron told some friends one day as the men were out riding. "You must wait until I am forty, their influence will then die a natural death, and I will show the men what I can do." Whatever the personal circumstances of the poet, there is no denying that Byron's poetry remains among the most lyrical and the most moving in the English language.
George Gordon Byron was born 22 January 1788 in London, the only child of Catherine Gordon and Captain John "Mad Jack" Byron, so named because storms seemed to blow wherever he sailed. (A quick word on Byron's name - he was given the name George Gordon Byron at birth. When he inherited the title, his name officially became George Gordon, 6th Baron Byron. Somewhere along the way he adopted the name "Noel" as a middle name. It's confusing, and to save ourselves all a lot of trouble we're going to just call him "Byron" or "Lord Byron." We suggest you do the same.)
Baby Byron was born with a condition known as club foot, which caused one of his feet to twist inward. All his life he took great pains to wear special boots that hid his disability, and lashed out at anyone who teased him about it. Byron believed that his disability was caused by the too-tight corsets his mother wore in pregnancy. This was just one of many grudges Byron held against his mother Catherine, an overbearing woman whom he openly resented. While other boys may have defended their mothers passionately on the playground, Byron responded to one boy who mocked his mother's intellect with "I know it but you must not say so." The newly-minted baron soon adopted a sense of entitlement to match his new role. Already a spoiled boy with a reputation as a troublemaker, Byron proved himself a nasty little brat toward his mother, the Newstead servants and anyone else he believed to be in his employ.
In 1801, Byron entered Harrow, a prestigious boys' boarding school. While home at Newstead for the summer holiday in 1803, he met his cousin Mary Chaworth, a young girl who lived not far from his estate. Byron fell in love - hard and fast - for the first time. He refused to return to Harrow and even withdrew from school for a few months to be closer to her. When he departed for college a few years later and learned she'd married someone else, Byron was devastated. He never really got over that first love, and Mary continued to be an inspiration for his poetry for years to come.
In October 1805, Byron went to Cambridge University to begin his studies at Trinity College. He brought with him a bulldog - the first of many unusual animals he liked to keep in his company - and a full bar. Byron was instantly popular among his fellow students. He was rich, and exuded a magnetic charisma that drew people to him. He was also attractive - like, incredibly smokin' hot attractive. His physical beauty was one of his most famous qualities. Even straight guys took notice. "Nature could do little more than she had done for him, both in outward form and in the inward spirit she had given to animate it," wrote his friend Edward John Trelawny. Despite his prodigious gifts as a poet - he published his first collection, Fugitive Pieces, as a student in - he liked to behave as though poetry was an afterthought. Byron was far more interested in pleasures of the body than of the mind. In some ways this was good for literature, as many of Byron's most beautiful poems were inspired by love - or lust.
By this time, Byron had figured out that he was attracted to both men and women. At college he fell in love with John Edleston, who was at Cambridge on a singing scholarship. When his voice changed, Edleston lost his scholarship and had to leave school, bringing the romance to an end. Byron wore a ring that Edleston gave him for the rest of his life. He also wrote the poem "Thyrzna" to immortalize his lover, though he changed all the pronouns from male to female in order not to publicize his same-sex relationship.
In 1808 Byron received his degree from Cambridge. Shortly after, he fathered the first of his several illegitimate children, this one with a maid at Newstead Abbey. He arranged to have a generous annual stipend sent to the mother and her baby. With things getting a little dicey in England, he did what all good young noblemen did and set his sights on Europe.
In July 1809 Lord Byron set sail for a tour of the European continent, accompanied by an entourage of friends and advisers. He spent two years touring, carousing and hooking up with everyone in sight. Byron's arrogance could make him look a fool at times. When his ship arrived at Malta, he assumed that he'd be honored by a royal gun salute upon arrival because of his noble title. He waited on the boat while everyone else got off. When nightfall came and still no salute had happened, Byron glumly agreed to be rowed to shore. Soon after that a college friend drowned, and not long after that Byron received word that his former lover John Edleston had died of consumption while Byron was abroad. Byron was grief-stricken.
In 1812, Byron published his completed Childe Harold. The poem introduced the concept of the Byronic hero, a literary type who persists in literature today. The heroes of Byron's poems tended to be melancholy, tortured young men, haunted by a past deed for which there was no redemption. The poem and its hero resonated immediately with readers. "I awoke one morning and found myself famous,"
Of Byron's many lovers during this time, the married Lady Caroline was perhaps the most notorious. This was not because of the length of their affair - they were only together a few months - but because she was as crazy as Byron. She would sneak into his rooms and go through his stuff, and show up at his house disguised as a page. When they finally broke up she burned his effigy in a bizarre, pagan-like ritual, and maintained a virulent hatred of him for the rest of her life. Lady Caroline Lamb was not his most scandalous affair, however - not by a long shot.
Over the years Byron had kept in touch with his half-sister, Augusta Byron Leigh, the child of "Mad Jack" Byron and his late first wife. In 1813 she came to visit Byron while her husband and three children vacationed elsewhere. The two began a relationship of extreme, unsettling closeness. According to Byron's letters, journals, comments he made at the time and observations from his contemporaries, it's pretty clear that he and his sister were having an affair. Augusta became pregnant, and in April 1814 she delivered a baby girl believed to be Byron's daughter.
Byron's literary career continued at a clip. In 1813 he published the poems Giaour and The Bride of Abydos. In January 1814, he published the long poem The Corsair, which became an instant bestseller. Though his relationship with Augusta continued, he began to court a woman named Annabella Milbanke. Prim and stout, Annabella was not the kind of woman Byron usually went after. Scholars speculate that marriage may have been a bid for respectability, or a way to distance himself from the relationship with his half-sister that even he knew was wrong. Annabella, for her part, fell wildly in love with the hot young baron, who wrote love letters to die for.
The couple married 2 January 1815. It was immediately clear to both of them that they'd made a huge mistake. Almost immediately after the wedding, Byron took his wife to visit Augusta, whose husband was away. During the two-week visit, Annabella slept alone in a guest room while Byron and Augusta shared the master bedroom. Byron and Annabella's marriage fell apart spectacularly hard and fast. Within a few months of their wedding day, he referred to his wife as "a nice little sullen nucleus of concentrated savageness."
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."
Father: John Byron (1756-1791)
Mother: Catherine Gordon Byron (c. 1764-1811)
Half-Sister: Augusta Byron Leigh (1783-1851)
Daughter: Elizabeth Medora Leigh (1814-1849)
Wife: Anne Isabella Milbanke (1792-1860)
Daughter: Augusta Ada Byron King (1815-1852)
Mistress: Mary Jane "Claire" Clairmont (1798-1879)
Daughter: Clara Allegra Byron (1817-1822)
Fugitive Pieces (1806)
Hours of Idleness (1807)
English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809)
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812)
The Giaour (1813)
The Bride of Abydos (1813)
The Corsair (1814)
Hebrew Melodies (1815)
The Siege of Corinth (1816)
The Prisoner of Chillon (1816)
The Prophecy of Dante (1819)
The Vision of Judgment (1821)
The Deformed Transformed (1822)
The Age of Bronze (1823)
The Island (1823)
Don Juan (1824)