The Complete Poetical Works of Lord Byron

By George Gordon Byron | Go to book overview
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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

THE main events of our poet's life are so well known that they may be rehearsed here with the utmost brevity. George Gordon was born in London, January 22, 1788. His mother's family, the Gordons, whose name he took owing to the will of a maternal ancestor, was Scottish but of French extraction. His father, Captain Byron, belonged to an ancient noble family which came to England with William the Conqueror. The poet's pride of ancestry was always one of the strongest traits of his character, mingled as it was, as in his hero Marino Faliero, with sincere republican feelings. The boy was born with a club foot, and this slight deformity had much to do with the waywardness of his disposition. Captain Byron soon dissipated most of his wife's fortune and then left her in liberty. In 1790 she removed to Aberdeen with her child, and the poet's early recollections were thus colored by his life in the Scottish Highlands. His first schooling was at Aberdeen, and later he was sent to Harrow. Meanwhile, the death of the old Lord Byron at Newstead Abbey gave him the title, at the age of ten, in default of nearer heirs. This fifth Lord Byron, whom the poet succeeded, left him, besides the title, a disagreeable family feud. He had, under suspicious circumstances, killed his neighbor and kinsman, Mr. Chaworth, in a duel. The poet afterwards was to fall in love with Chaworth's grandniece, the Mary whose name occurs so often throughout the poems. The brother of the fifth baron was the poet's grandfather, the celebrated Admiral John Byron, a bold but unfortunate seaman whose narrative of a shipwreck formed the groundwork of the great description in the second canto of Don Juan.

From Harrow Byron went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he led a reckless and defiant life. Like many a better man and worse poet, he left without taking a degree. His drinking cup, made of a human skull, and his savage pets were notorious. His days were now passed chiefly at Newstead and in London. On coming of age he presented himself at the House of Lords, and even thought of taking up a political career. The report of his speeches later on and his cleverness as a pamphleteer suggest that, had he persisted, he might have made his mark in this field. But the spirit of adventure seized him. June 11, 1809, he left London with his friend Hobhouse and for two years traveled, passing through Portugal and Spain, where he was much impressed by the results of the Peninsular War, and wandering extensively in Greece and the Levant. He returned to England in July of 1811, with his head full of romantic notions. The first two cantos of Childe Harold and the Oriental Tales were the product of his travels, and immediately raised him into astonishing popularity. His life in London was now a union of social dissipation and feverish work. January 2, 1815, came his unfortunate marriage with Miss Milbanke, who, after the lapse of a year, separated from him, taking with her their infant daughter, Augusta Ada. Into the causes and mysteries of the divorce we may not enter. Byron was wild and his wife was a prude; it would seem that nothing more should need be said.

The public violently, and to a certain extent rightly, sided with Lady Byron, and the poet found it necessary to quit England. He sailed April 25, 1816, never to see his native land again. His greatest comfort seems to have been the loyal affection of his half-sister, Lady Augusta Leigh. Byron journeyed to Switzerland by way of the Rhine, and there,

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