Lord Byron

Lord Byron

George Gordon, the son of Captain John Byron and Catherine Gordon, was born in London in 1788. Born with a club-foot, he spent the first ten years in his mother's lodgings in Aberdeen. Although originally a rich women, her fortune had been squandered by her husband.

In 1798 George succeeded to the title, Baron Byron of Rochdale, on the death of his great-uncle. Money was now available to provide Lord Byron with an education at Harrow School and Trinty College, Cambridge.

Lord Byron's first collection of poems, Hours of Idleness, appeared in 1807. The poems were savagely attacked by Henry Brougham in the Edinburgh Review. Byron replied with the publication of his satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809).

In 1809 Byron set on his grand tour where he visited Spain, Malta, Albania and Greece. His poetical account of this grand tour, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812) established Byron as one of England's leading poets.

Lord Byron scandalized London by starting an affair with Lady Caroline Lamb and was ostracized when he was suspected of having a sexual relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, who gave birth to an illegitimate daughter.

Byron attending the House of Lords where he became a strong advocate of social reform. In 1811 he was one of the few men in Parliament to defend the actions of the Luddites and the following year spoke against the Frame Breaking Bill, by which the government intended to apply the death-penalty to Luddites. Byron's political views influenced the subject matter of his poems. Important examples include Song for the Luddites (1816) and The Landlords' Interest (1823). Byron also attacked his political opponents such as the Duke of Wellington and Lord Castlereagh in Wellington: The Best of the Cut-Throats (1819) and the The Intellectual Eunuch Castlereagh (1818).

Annabella Milbanke rejected his first marriage proposal but accepted his second proposal in 1814 and they were married on 2nd January 1815. Their daughter, Ada, was born in December of that year. However Byron's continuing obsession with Augusta and his continuing sexual escapades with actresses and others, made their marital life difficult. Annabella considered Lord Byron insane, and in January 1816 she left him, taking their daughter, and began proceedings for a legal separation. A few months later he labeled his former wife a "moral Clytemnestra."

Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips (1811)
Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips (1811)

Lord Byron moved to Venice where he met the Countess Teresa Guiccioli, who became his mistress. Some of Byron's best known work belongs to this period including Don Juan. The last cantos is a satirical description of social conditions in England and includes attacks on leading Tory politicians.

Lord Byron also began contributing to the radical journal, the Examiner, edited by his friend, Leigh Hunt. Leigh Hunt, like other radical journalists had suffered as as result of the Gagging Acts and had been imprisoned for his attacks on the monarchy and the government.

In 1822 Byron, Leigh Hunt, and Percy Bysshe Shelley travelled to Italy where the three men published the political journal, The Liberal. By publishing in Italy they remained free from the fear of being prosecuted by the British authorities. The first edition was mainly written by Leigh Hunt but also included work by William Hazlitt, Mary Shelley and Byron's Vision of Judgement sold 4,000 copies. Three more editions were published but after the death of Shelley in August, 1822, the Liberal came to an end.

For a long time Lord Byron had supported attempts by the Greek people to free themselves from Turkish rule. This included writing poems such as The Maid of Athens (1810). In 1823 he formed the Byron Brigade and joined the Greek insurgents who had risen against the Turks. However, in April, 1824, Lord Byron died of marsh fever in Missolonghi before he saw anymilitary action.

Primary Sources

(1) Lord Byron, speech in the House of Lords (27th February, 1812)

During the short time I recently passed in Nottingham, not twelve hours elapsed without some fresh act of violence; and on that day I left the the county I was informed that forty Frames had been broken the preceding evening, as usual, without resistance and without detection.

Such was the state of that county, and such I have reason to believe it to be at this moment. But whilst these outrages must be admitted to exist to an alarming extent, it cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of the most unparalleled distress: the perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings, tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large, and once honest and industrious, body of the people, into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community.

They were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them: their own means of subsistence were cut off, all other employment preoccupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be subject to surprise.

As the sword is the worst argument than can be used, so should it be the last. In this instance it has been the first; but providentially as yet only in the scabbard. The present measure will, indeed, pluck it from the sheath; yet had proper meetings been held in the earlier stages of these riots, had the grievances of these men and their masters (for they also had their grievances) been fairly weighed and justly examined, I do think that means might have been devised to restore these workmen to their avocations, and tranquillity to the country.

(2) Lord Byron, Song of the Luddites (1816)

As the Liberty lads over the sea

Brought their freedom, and cheaply with blood,

So we, boys, we

Will die fighting, or live free,

And down with all kings by King Ludd!

When the web that we weave is complete,

And the shuttle exchanged for the sword,

We will fling the winding sheet

Over the despot at our feet,

And dye it deep in the gore he has poured.

Though black as his heart its hue,

Since his veins are corrupted to mud,

Yet this is the dew

Which the tree shall renew

Of Liberty, planted by Ludd!

(3) Lord Byron, Wellington: The Best of Cut-Throats (1819)

Though Britain owes (and pays you too) so much,

Yet Europe doubtless owes you greatly more:

You have repaired Legitimacy's crutch,

A prop not quite so certain as before:

The Spaniard, and the French, as well as Dutch,

Have seen, and felt, how strongly you restore:

And Waterloo has made the world your debtor

(I wish your bards would sing it rather better).

You are 'the best of cut-throats': - do not start;

The phrase is Shakespeare's, and not misapplied;

War's a brain-spattering, wind-pipe-slitting art,

Unless her cause by right be sanctified.

If you have acted once a generous part,

The world, not the world's masters, will decide,

And I shall be delighted to learn who,

Save you and yours, have gained by Waterloo?

I've done. Now go and dine from off the plate

Presented by the Prince of the Brazils,

And send the sentinel before your gate

A slice or two from your luxurious meals:

He fought, but has not fed so well of late.

Some hunger, too, they say the people feels: -

There is no doubt that you deserve your ration,

But pray give back a little to the nation.

Never had mortal man had such opportunity

Except Napoleon, or abused it more:

You might have freed fallen Europe from the unity

Of tyrants, and been blest from shore to shore:

And now - what is your fame? Shall the Muse tune it ye?

Now - that the rabble's first vain shouts are over?

Go! hear it in your famished country's cries!

Behold the world! and curse your victories!