Lord Byron: The Man, The Myth, The Legend
The Byronic hero is commonly described as arrogant and isolated, while also being seductive and mysterious. Part of the character’s mystery is usually due to their hidden, dark past. Our modern Byronic heroes would be Edward Cullen in Twilight, Tony Stark in Iron Man, and Bruce Wayne in Bat Man. None of these characters could compare to the man who inspired and popularized the use of the Byronic hero in Gothic Romantic literature, Lord Byron.
Byron was unlike all other canonical Romantics in that he was or at least gave a good public impression of being, economically well off. He was also famous; at the time of his death, the most famous writer in Europe.
Eighteenth century playboy, George Gordon, Lord Byron was born in London 1788 to John “Mad Jack” Byron and Catherine Gordon, a Scottish heiress. Before the age of one Byron’s father spent all Catherine’s fortune and her and Byron to fend for themselves. This experience took a huge toll on Byron’s mother. Catherine Gordon began to resent
Byron and left him to be taken care of by a nurse who Byron says “early awakened his sexuality” (Damrosch and Dettmar 708). At the age of thirteen, Byron was sent to Harrow for school; around the same time Byron is said to have met his half-sister Augusta.
Lord Byron first appeared as a writer in 1807, at the age of nineteen when Hours of Idleness was published. Byron’s Hours of Idleness, shook the literary world inciting a review from the Edinburgh Review that Byron would later satirize gaining more notoriety. From 1810 to 1811, Byron traveled to Lisbon, Spain, Greece, and Albania. He returned home to London in July 1811. Byron did some work in parliament but that was soon overshadowed by his second work, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. This poem was followed by several “eastern” stories inspired by Byron’s travels in 1810 and 1811.
Aside from Byron’s literature, he was known to be a “player.” Byron had many different lovers, both men and women, and experimented with anything he could get his hands on, i.e., opium. Byron’s eccentric lifestyle topped with his writings landed him in the spotlight of English writers. One of the largest scandals of the early nineteenth century was that of Byron’s affair with his half-sister Augusta. The rumor was that Lord Byron and Augusta had what may have been a long-lasting affair, 1801 to 1814. Byron then decided that the best way to distract the public from his incestuous affair was to propose
to heiress Annabella Milbanke. Soon after their marriage and birth of their daughter Augusta Ada in 1815, Milbanke found out about Byron’s past and left him. This scandal is one of the major reasons that Lord Byron’s works were popular, such as Manfred (1817).
Lord Byron’s Manfred tells the story of a man who is suffering from a lost love, Astarte, an incestuous pagan goddess. The name of Manfred’s lover reignited the rumors of Byron’s affair with his sister Augusta. Manfred’s self-imposed guilt leads him to call upon seven spirits of nature, to which he asks to forget about his past (Byron 716). Because he has no regard for nature or the spirits, Manfred is cursed to live in his misery (Byron 718). The readers at the time could not help but see Lord Byron in the character of Manfred. Many wondered whether this dramatic poem was just a narrative work or a confession from Byron.
But Byron’s promiscuous ways did not stop at his affair with Augusta or the poem Manfred. After fleeing England, Byron moved to Geneva where he lived with his lover, Mary Godwin’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont. Clairmont later gave birth to their daughter Allegra in England, and in October Byron left for Venice. While in Venice, Byron had many sexual escapades and finished Manfred. Byron also wrote many sexual poems including Beppo and Don Juan. Byron continued to push the envelope with these writing that discussed “sexual, political and religious” topics (Damrosch and Dettmar 709). In April 1819, Byron met and married nineteen-year-old Countess Teresa Gamba Guiccioli. At the time Byron was thirty-one. Through this marriage, Byron was given membership into the Carbonari, an organization that wanted Italian independence from Austria (Damrosch and Dettmar 709). In this period, Byron wrote more historical dramas loosely based on the things he experienced while apart of the Carbonari like Marino Faliero, Sardanopolus, and The Two Foscari.
Byron was eventually reduced to living a domestic life when his wife Teresa and her family were exiled because of their part in a radical revolution. In July 1823, Byron was sent to Cephalonia as an agent to help Greece gain their independence. Byron found himself completely devoted to this cause. Byron founded and financially aided and trained a brigade of soldiers to support the effort. After all the travels, literature, and political endeavors, Byron died at the age of thirty-six. Byron left a lasting impression on literature and on popular culture as he is deemed to be one of the first celebrities.
Ultimately, Lord Byron’s mysteriousness and charm is what led him to be in the spotlight of English literature. Throughout his short life, Byron managed to become one of the most influential writers of his time. Byron’s use of the hero with a tortured soul was a staple and has continued to be a popular archetype.
Byron, Lord. “Manfred.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, edited by Damrosch, David and Dettmar, Kevin J.H., Pearson, 2012, 712-722.
Damrosch, David and Dettmar, Kevin J.H. “George Gordon, Lord Byron.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, edited by Damrosch, David and Dettmar, Kevin J.H., Pearson, 2012, 708-710.
Damrosch, David and Dettmar, Kevin J.H. “Manfred, A Dramatic Poem.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, edited by Damrosch, David and Dettmar, Kevin J.H., Pearson, 2012, 711-712.
Phillips, Thomas. Portrait of George Gordon 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale in Albanian Dress, 1813 (oil on canvas). 1813. British Library, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/byron-portrait. Accessed April 2017.
Hayter, Charles. Anne Isabella Milbanke in 1812. 1812. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Isabella_Byron,_Baroness_Byron. Accessed April 2017.
Heinzelman, Kurt. “Lord Byron and the Invention of Celebrity.” Southwest Review, vol. 93, no. 4, 2008, pp. 489–501., http://www.jstor.org/stable/43472933.
Augusta Maria Leigh. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Isabella_Byron,_Baroness_Byron. Accessed April 2017.