George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) was the first literary megastar – a poet who, for a few years after the fall of Napoleon, was the most famous man in the western world. He dominated literary Europe, where he was seen as the prophet and champion of liberty, though ironically he was known only through prose translations of his poems.
After his death, young poets and artists throughout Europe idolised Byron, becoming oppositional, self-assertive, freedom-loving, and opposed to conventional sexual morality. In England, his poetry led to a public obsession with his scandalous private life, with its succession of public affairs with married women, and rumours of dark sexual secrets.
As a boy Byron was subjected to a series of painful but useless treatments for the club foot with which he had been born. In 1801 he was sent to Harrow, where he had crushes on fellow boys, though his gay encounters always tended to be when there were no women around, or in countries like Greece where homosexuality was regarded as perfectly acceptable.
His first poems, Hours of Idleness (1807) were generally well received, but one very hostile review upset him: "...it knocked me down - but I got up again. Instead of bursting a blood-vessel, I drank three bottles of claret, and began an answer." This was a satire attacking his critics, and the poetry of most contemporaries, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, published in 1809. After a tour of the Mediterranean he returned to England in 1811, and in 1812 Childe Harold's Pilgrimage was published. It sold out in three days, and Byron remarked, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous."
The sensation created by this poem is hard to understand today, when its style appears overblown and often absurd and affected. The attraction was the hero Harold, the Byronic hero: a gloomy, passionate, misanthropic type who stands aloof, moodily and cynically observing the follies of the world, and doomed by some dark but unspecified "crime" to be cut off forever from the one woman he loves.
Byron insisted "I would not be such a fellow as I made my hero for all the world," but his female readers saw only the poet, who though jaded with "concubines and carnal company", might yet be saved by a good woman. He was besieged, the road outside his apartments jammed with coaches bringing invitations from aristocratic hostesses, and women of all classes virtually queuing up for the opportunity to try some salvation on him.
He became the hero of fashionable society, and irresistible to women – who, mostly, had never met him. The (married) Lady Caroline Lamb was his biggest fan, declaring that ugly or not, she must see him. When she did, she decided "that beautiful, pale face is my fate." As, indeed, it was. Their very public affair was followed by tempestuous scenes when he tried to end the relationship. Byron had affairs with numerous other married women, and in June 1813 began a relationship with his older half-sister Augusta. Augusta had a daughter, Medora, who was assumed to be Byron's, though this seems unlikely.
Byron's private life was now very like those of the heroes of the verse narratives he somehow found time to write, which included The Bride of Abydos (1813), written in four days, and The Corsair (1814), which sold ten thousand copies on the day of publication. With their best selling ingredients of war, exotic settings and sexy Byronic heroes, they were best sellers, yet Byron was under no delusion as to the quality of these experiments on "public patience".
As if seeking stability, on 2 January 1814 he entered a worldly "marriage of reason" with the cool and rational Annabella Milbanke, who had previously rejected him. The marriage was disastrous, with Byron openly preferring Augusta to his wife. Shortly after the birth of a daughter, Augusta Ada, Lady Byron left him.
shoThe marriage had provoked intense interest, but not half as much as the long-drawn out divorce proceedings that followed. What was the mysterious crime for which she could never forgive him? (There probably wasn't one.) Gossips, in particular Lady Byron's lawyers, spread a series of wild speculations and rumours – he was accused of attempting to rape a ten-year-old girl, of sharing a bed with his wife and his half-sister, of brutalising and trying to rape his wife, allegations which he repeatedly and categorically denied and for which there is no evidence. Yet the damage was done, and the society that had idolised him now rejected him.
Soon after being seduced by the young Claire Clairmont, Byron fled England in 1816 to escape public ostracism and debt, narrowly avoiding the bailiffs who arrived to seize his property a few hours after his departure. At Dover society women disguised as chambermaids watched the disgraced poet leave. He crossed Europe to Switzerland, and in Geneva he found Claire Clairmont waiting to seduce him again. At the Villa Diodati with the poet and free-love advocate Shelley, his young wife Mary, and a doctor, John Polidori, there was much discussion and reading, and a famous ghost story writing competition, from which emerged the first version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Meanwhile English tourists, who had 'cut' the divorced poet in public, watched the villa through telescopes from the other side of the lake and circulated rumours about incest and four-in-a-bed sex games.
From Switzerland Byron moved to Venice. In 1817 Claire Clairmont gave birth to his daughter, Allegra. After a bout of gonorrhea early in 1818, Byron began the first cantos of Don Juan. The poem appeared anonymously in 1819, though its author was known, and it caused a scandal. Most reviewers were extremely hostile, and it was described as a "filthy impious poem" and a "high crime against society."
The poem, Byron's masterpiece, satirises English literature, society, and religion, and was open about sex to a degree that shocked his female readership, largely because he showed women taking the sexual initiative as the hero is pursued by a succession of voracious women.
Don Juan covers all aspects of human experience, from politics and war to hangovers, from heroism to farce, in a style that seems extraordinarily modern, using plain English which is both clear and colloquial. It is full of jokes and outrageous rhymes like 'Plato' and 'potato', and casual subversion:
Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded
That all the Apostles would have done as they did.
What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,
Is much more common where the climate's sultry.
Don Juan is very long, yet remained unfinished, Byron having "not quite fixed whether to make him end in Hell, or in an unhappy marriage, not knowing which would be the severest ".
Sales of Don Juan dropped off until cheap editions found a new readership, the radical working class, who saw Byron as the poet of freedom, both political and sexual. It is likely that through this huge readership that he had a considerable indirect influence on the radical politics of the nineteenth century.Byron moved from Venice to Ravenna to live with his new mistress, the Countess Teresa Guiccioli, and her husband. He became increasingly interested in politics.
In 1812 he had made two speeches in the House of Lords on contentious topics, one sympathetic to the machine-breakers protesting against the effects of the Industrial Revolution, and one on Catholic emancipation, but otherwise remained silent on political issues. He may have been a radical, even – in some ways a revolutionary – but he was no democrat.
"It is still more difficult to say which form of Government is the worst – all are so bad. As for democracy, it is the worst of the whole; for what is (in fact) democracy? An Aristocracy of Blackguards . . ." He was aristocrat by conviction as well as birth, his friend Shelley regretting that he had "the canker of aristocracy." If anything, he was temperamentally an anarchist: "I have simplified my politics into an utter detestation of all existing governments; ...the first moment of an universal republic would convert me into an advocate for single and uncontradicted despotism."
The London Greek Committee had elected him their deputy, and in 1823 he sailed to Greece with munitions, hoping to help bring about Greek independence, but died of a fever at Missolonghi on 19 April 1824. He became, and remains, a national hero of Greece.
His character, wit, and charm were impressed upon virtually everyone who met him. His generosity, even when deeply in debt – which he nearly always was – was outstanding. To read the letters and journals which chronicle every aspect of his life in his own words, and which have all the liveliness of his best poetry, is to feel one has met him.