Poet and Revolutionary
'People take for gospel all I say, and go away continually with false impressions . . . I am so changeable, being everything by turns and nothing long - such a strange melange of good and evil . . . But there are two sentiments to which I am constant - a strong sense of liberty, and a detestation of cant, and neither is calculated to gain me friends.'
'Butchers!' he called them but still allowed the doctors to bleed him with leeches. The fever gripped harder. They administered a potion but the delirium increased and he muttered incoherently. Falling into a profound sleep, he awoke 24 hours later, opened his eyes to immediately close them again. At that moment a thunderstorm broke over Missolonghi, and Lord Byron, famous English poet and revolutionary, died.
At dawn the next day, the Greeks fired a 37 minute gun-salute corresponding to his 37th year. Charming, generous, brave, gifted, a crusader against tyranny, yet fate had given George Byron a strain of loutishness that was too often out of control. Impeached by those with an incurable talent for doing nothing, Byron may have been short on discipline but his energy, for good or bad, had been a wonder - a lamp that spent its oil in blazing.
George Byron's father, John Byron, known as 'Mad Jack', was a wastrel. He persuaded the wife of Lord Carmarthen to elope with him. On her divorce, 'Mad Jack' married her and proceeded to ruin her fortunes till she died five years later, literally of a broken heart. She left an infant daughter named Augusta.
Desperately in need of more money, 'Mad Jack' then married Catherine Gordon of Gight, who had an over-buxom figure and a respectable fortune for a Scottish heiress. He soon frittered away her fortune and they became separated. He returned to London from France in January 1788 in time for the birth of their son, George Gordon Byron.
Whilst her husband dodged his creditors, Mrs. Byron took her son to Aberdeen where they lived reasonably well under a settlement secured by her solicitor.
Three years later 'Mad Jack' died aged only 36. Mrs. Byron's grief was loud and vehement which was more than he deserved - he seemed born for his own ruin and that of the other sex.
At the age of five, dressed in a red jacket and nankeen trousers, George Byron attended a private school in Aberdeen. A good hand at marbles, he enjoyed swimming and provoking people - the fishwives of Aberdeen, incited by his pranks, dubbed him 'Mrs. Byron's crockit deevil', which alluded to his malformed foot. His defect did not help the pugnacious temper that he had inherited from his mother. Her moods towards him varied from violent rages to loving affection. 'Her temper is so variable, and when inflamed, so furious,' Lord Byron later wrote, 'that I dread our meeting.'
When she raged at him, which was often, she would shout: 'Ah, you little dog, you are a Byron all over; you are as bad as your father!' Once she called him 'a lame brat!' but a moment later was smothering him with kisses. Short and corpulent, she rolled in her gait and he would mimic her as she chased him around the room attempting to inflict punishment. On his side, George had the same quick temper and an irresistible urge to provoke conflict.
George's great-uncle, William Byron, was known as the 'The Devil Byron'. After killing his neighbour in a drunken brawl, he scraped an acquittal by exercising his right as the 5th Lord Byron to be tried by the House of Lords.
Because he disapproved of his son's marriage, he allowed both the house and estate at Newstead Abbey to go to ruin to deprive him of his inheritance. Surrounded by sensational gossip, he lived at Newstead Abbey in dirty and discreditable retirement with a domestic servant known locally as 'Lady Betty'.
His son died first, followed by his only surviving grandson who was killed by a cannonball in Corsica in 1794, and when he himself died four years later, his great-nephew, George Gordon, at the age of ten, became the 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale.
The new Lord Byron arrived in Nottingham with his mother late in the summer of 1798 and found Newstead Abbey unfit to live in. The young lord lodged at St. James's Street, Nottingham, under the care of a quack, misnamed Lavender, who ineffectually tried to cure his deformity by screwing his malformed foot into a wooden machine. George was later placed under a proper doctor in London with more fortunate results.
In the summer of 1801 he was sent to Harrow where he excelled at boxing and cricket, but not in the classroom. He hated the 'drill'd dull lesson' and soon came into conflict with the school authorities - with one exception, Dr. Drury, the Head Master, who saw something more beyond the indiscipline in this 'mountain colt' and treated him with some sympathy. In later years the poet wrote: 'Dr. Drury, whom I plagued sufficiently too, was the best, the kindest (and yet strict, too) friend I ever had.'
Newstead Abbey was let and during school holidays Byron would wander around the place. After making acquaintance with the Chawiths, who were neighbours, he fell distractedly in love with Mary, the daughter and heiress of the family. Though the affection meant little to her - she was overheard to say: 'What, me care for that lame boy!' - it consumed Byron, and years later he wrote: 'I have taken all my fables about the celestial nature of women from the perfection my imagination created in her - I say created, for I found her, like the rest of her sex, anything but angelic.'
Mary married John Musters two years later.
While at Harrow, Byron began to write to his half-sister Augusta (pictured right), who was his elder by four years and engaged to her cousin George Leigh, a Colonel of Dragoons and a financial duffer.
He wrote to her with some affection, his letters usually opening: 'My beloved Augusta,' followed by complaints about his mother, before usually ending: 'I remain, more than words can express, your ever sincere, affectionate brother and friend.' Once he did implore her: 'Can't you drive this cousin of ours out of your pretty little head.'
After attending Harrow, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where his allowance of £500 a year, a servant and a horse were insufficient to cover his extravagance. Bottles of port, sherry, claret and Madeira were ordered by the dozen and his mother soon complained that her son had bought a carriage, given 30 guineas to Pitt's statue, had fallen into bad hands and would be the death of her. He had to borrow from Augusta.
As an undergraduate his life was unremarkable. He held wine parties where he was usually out-drunk by more practiced performers, engaged in diving into the not very translucent river Cam for plates and shillings, and read a formidable list of books. By the time he was twenty he had covered history, biography, philosophy, some geography, all the British classics in poetry and endless novels.
Byron said little about his main absorption - his work on his first book of poems. Though assiduously preparing to be a poet, he was never ever confident that writing was a gentleman's trade, having the notion that a peer should establish himself in gallant political or military action.
In 1807 he took his seat in the House of Lords and published his first book of poems Hours of Idleness. The book was moderately received except for The Edinburgh Review which counseled 'that he do forthwith abandon poetry, and turn his talents . . . to better account.' The effect of this criticism on Byron was to put him into a rage, drink three bottles of claret and write the satire English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.
His latter days at Cambridge were mainly spent away from it. He kept table, so he said, with jockeys, gamblers, boxers, parsons and poets. He also kept a tame bear in his attic. He swam the Thames from Lambeth to Blackfriars for a bet, and made friends with Gentleman John Jackson, or 'Dear Jack' as he called him, the retired champion prize-fighter of England. After learning to spar at Jackson's rooms in Bond Street, Byron described himself as 'not a bad boxer when I could keep my temper, which was difficult.' The Champion himself described Byron as 'coming up well to the blows.'
A gentlemanly fencing instructor taught him to fence but swimming and shooting pistols at a mark were his favourite pastimes. And he loved the Drury Lane theatre, often dining with the great actor Edmund Kean whom he admired. Wearing no whiskers, Byron began to carry an imposing, rather supercilious air and took to wearing very broad white trousers to hide his lame foot. Confessing to being 'a spice of everything, except a jockey', he spent himself freely 'in routs, riots, balls, and boxing-matches, cards . . . masquerades, love, and lotteries . . . opera-singers and oratorios, wine, women, wax-works and weather-cocks', or so he later boasted to a newspaper correspondent.
Like a wayward weathercock, nature had conspired to keep him always bewildered between a gifted intelligence and insecure experience. Despite his boasts, Byron could not keep up this life continuously. And since he was naturally inclined to corpulence, of which he had a horror, he had to exercise regularly and exist for long periods on soda-water, bread and vegetables.
Also suffering from periods of depression, he often fell out with his friends, even sometimes abused them. His English Bards and Scotch Reviewers sold well but whilst cleverly satirical it was no respecter of persons, lampooning the poets Wordsworth, Lamb, Coleridge and Burns. Byron later repented his criticism and two years later suppressed the publication altogether.
During those next two years, Byron travelled extensively in the Mediterranean. In Seville, he exchanged locks of hair with a Spanish beauty in whose house he lodged; in Cadiz, he was captivated by the daughter of an admiral whom he pursued with the aid of a dictionary till they fell out over the possession of a ring; in Malta, he divided his time between Arabic lessons and Mrs. Spencer Smith on whose account he nearly had to fight a duel.
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