George Gordon, Lord Byron
"I awoke and found myself famous"
- On the overnight success as the epic poem "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage"
Lord Byron was born lame, a fate to which he was never able to reconcile himself. Born only remotely to nobility, he inherited his title at age 11 on the death of a great-uncle. When he entered Cambridge at 17, he was well read in Latin and Greek, excelled in swimming and boxing, and had already fallen in love twice. After graduation he travelled throughout Europe and Asia Minor. Returning to London when he was 23, he published the first two cantos of Childe Harold, made a brilliant speech in the House of Lords defending workers who had wrecked machinery that threatened their jobs, and became famous overnight.
He relished his role as the favourite of London society. After several love affairs, he married the nobly born, very proper Annabella Milbanke, but at the end of the first year of marriage Annabella took their newborn daughter and returned to her parents. Byron was outraged. Londoners, appalled at Byron's egotistical conduct, ostracised him. Bitter about the hypocrisies of society, he left England in 1816, never to return.
Byron wandered about the continent, doing precisely as he pleased, hobnobbing with prominent people, befriending Shelley, and carrying on intrigues with ladies, one of whom, Claire Claremont, bore him a daughter. He finished Childe Harold, began his masterpiece, Don Juan, and wrote many shorter poems. His verse sold well, but while his fortunes prospered, his health, always poor, began to fail.
A foe of despotism anywhere, Byron in 1823 joined the Greek war for independence from the Turks, devoting much time and money to the effort. But before he could see battle, he caught fever and died in camp at Missolonghi, embittered and old at 36.
To his contemporaries Byron was more a colourful and scandalous personality than a poet. His poetry reflects the paradoxes of his life. He was a fiery rebel and a conventional aristocrat, an idealist and a cynic, a cad to his countrymen and a hero to the Greeks. His power as a poet is due to his sharp eye for human foibles and hypocrisy; his satire was the best produced in England since Pope's.
contributed by Gifford, Katya
2 March 2002