Mad, Bad, Dangerous and Byronic

Upon meeting George Gordon Byron, Lady Caroline Lamb famously called him “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”  And even though the end of their affair drove her to madness and obsession, Lady Lamb was crushed at the news of his death. (1)  How could someone be described as such still inspire a level of love and devotion that would ruin people?  What sort of life did he live that would qualify him as a “rock star” as well as a scandalous exile?  And how does that inform how we see the Byronic hero as defined by the author (both by his works and unintentionally by his life)?  

Byron was born to Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron and Catherine Gordon.  By accounts, the marriage was unhappy as “Mad Jack” was awful to his wife prior to their child’s birth (it was also said he only married her for her fortune).  He left not long after George Byron’s birth and continued on accruing debt until his death several years later in France.  Byron’s mother raised him in Scotland but was known for being unstable throughout his upbringing; she was described as having tempers of “excessive tenderness, fierce temper, insensitivity, and pride.”(3)  This along with her indulgences in his behavior (as well as his vanity and overcompensation for a birth deformity of a club foot), led to mercurial behavior from Byron.  Prone to extremes (and suspected of being of the same temper as both his parents), he fell in love initially with a cousin named Mary Chaworth, who became the subject of several poems.  He also was said to have affairs with young men and called his own passions (friendships and otherwise) as being violent in relation to the extremes he would experience. (4)

In his twenties, Byron began travelling throughout the Mediterranean – something that he’d dreamed about doing for a long time.  It also helped him evade creditors due to mounting debts.  And it was during these travels that he began working on the poems that would make him a near-overnight success, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.  He also fell in love with the three daughters of a Greek widow that he’d been staying with (two of whom were 15 and one who was 12 and the inspiration for his poem “Maid of Athens.”

On his return to England, Byron held a seat in the House of Lords where he tried to improve workers conditions and began a petition for Catholic Emancipation (at the time there were restrictions on Catholics under the Act of Uniformity).  After he became a poetic sensation, he left the House and began touring to read his poems.  It was also around this time (1811-1816) that he had an affair with Caroline Lamb (who was married at the time), began courting a cousin of hers (who he would later marry), and was alleged to have had an affair with his half-sister.  Upon his divorce and the subsequent scandal from the rumors, Byron exiled himself from England.  Byron continued to travel (and have notorious affairs) as he made his way to Greece where he fought in the Hellenic Wars.  He was a firm believer in the Greek’s fight for emancipation from Turkey and was hailed as a hero.  But like many of the radical Romantics, Byron died relatively young at the age of 36.

After examining his life, it’s easy to see how many can read his works and see Byron as a typical Byronic hero.  While he may have based the character off Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, Byron lived a Byronic life himself.

A dramatic portrait of a dramatic man.

Works Cited

“CARO: The Lady Caroline Lamb Website.” CARO: The Lady Caroline Lamb Website. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.

“Lord Byron (George Gordon).” : The Poetry Foundation. Poetry Magazine, n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.

“Lord Byron.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 11 Feb. 2013. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.

Citation #14

Phillips, Thomas. Lord Byron in Albanian Dress. 1835. Oil on Canvas. National Portrait Gallery, London, England.