Sunday, September 19, 2010

George Gordon Byron (1788-1824): A Biographical Sketch

During his lifetime, Byron was the most interna­tionally famous poet England had produced and, long after his death, he continued to be the most influen­tial, widely initiated and widely reviled personalities of his age. A complex man, and fond of describing his own complexity, he made the adjective “Byronic” syn­onymous, during the nineteenth century, with one very important strain of Romantic sensibility, the image of the artist as a mysterious, mocking, perhaps sinful, and certainly outcast figure. Indeed, by the early twen­tieth century says Frank D. McConnell, interest in By­ron’s personality seemed to far outweigh the interests in his poems themselves.
A common attitude, even of the scholars and critics of Romanticism, was that By­ron’s poetry-except, of course, his masterpiece, Don Juan is of an inferior (if not adolescent) quality, and that his real contribution to the cultural history of Europe was solely the force of his extraordinary in­stinct for self-dramatisation and self-advertisement. More recently, however, his poetic contribution has begun “another pendulum swing toward the positive side”. Contemporary critics and scholars, without de­molishing the sheer power Byron exerted over his age, have begun to recognise in his poetry a purely literary power and self-consciousness which makes him, appear, not only one of the greatest Romantic poets, but perhaps the most “modem” of his group, who has often been accused, as he himself says of
A tendency to under-rate, and scoff
At human power and virtue, and all that.
Considered the foremost of the second generation of Romantic poets (the other two being. Shelley and Keats, George Gordon Byron was born in London on January 22, 1788, the year preceding the French Revo­lution. His father, “Mad Jack” Byron was a dissipated spend thrift of questionable morals. His mother, Catherine Gordon, was a Scotch heiress, passionate and imbalanced. Owing to his father’s escape to France on account of his creditors, the poet was brought by his mother to Aberdeen.
When Byron was eleven, the death of a grand uncle left him heir to Newstead Abbey and to the baronial title (Lord) of one of the oldest houses in England. He was singularly handsome, and a lameness resulting from a deformed foot lent a suggestion of pathos to his make-up. All this, with his social position, his pseudo-heroic poetry and his dissipated life (over which he contrived to throw a veil of romantic secrecy), made him the centre of attraction to many thoughtless young men and foolish young women. This made his downhill path both easy and rapid to one whose genetic inclina­tions led him in that direction. Naturally, he was gen­erous and easily led by affection. Byron was, therefore, largely a victim of his own weaknesses and surround­ings.
At school in Harrow and in the University of Cam­bridge, Byron led an unbalanced life and was more given to certain sports from which he was not fevered by lameness than to looks. His school life, like his infancy, was sadly marked by vanity, violence and re­bellion against every form of authority, yet it was not without its moments of nobility and generosity. Sir Walter Scott has described him as “a man of real good­ness of heart, and the kindest and best feelings miserably thrown away by his foolish contempt of public opinion.
While at Cambridge, Byron published his first volume of poems, Hours in Idleness (1907). His vanity was wounded when the volume was severely criticised in Edinburgh Review. It threw him into a violent pas­sion, the result of which was the famous satire, Eng­lish Bards and Scotch Reviewers in which not only his enemies, but also literary personalities of his day were lampooned in heroic completes after the manner of Alexander Pope’s Dundad. Afterwards he made friends with Scott and with others whom he had satirised without provocation. It is interesting to note that he denounced all the masters of romance and accepted the Augustan standards of Pope and Dyden. His two favourite books were the Old Testament and a volume of Pope’s poetry. Of Pope, Byron said, “His is the great­est name in poetry and all the rest and barbarians”.
Byron’s university years were followed, not by exactly by the Grand Tour, but by a much more adven­turous journey embracing Portugal, Spain, Albania, Greece and Turkey. It was at this time that he con­ceived his lifelong passion for Greece and his detesta­tion of the subjugation of the Ottoman Empire. The poetic results of this trip were the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, with their marked descrip­tions of romantic scenery. This made him instantly popular. “I awoke one morning and found myself fa­mous.” On the debit side was his insincerity, his con­tinuously posing as the hero of his poetry.
His return to England was blighted by the news of the death of several close friends and of his mother. Though Byron had hated as much as loved her, he was deeply stricken by her death. His closest relationships (possibly an incestuous one was with his elder half-sister Augusta.
For three years, he was the idol of English society and was pursued by women, one of whom was the novelist, Lady Caroline Lamb, wife of Lord Melbourne, who created a public scandal by her in fatuation. Byron lived his adult life in a “glare of publicity”. There was a lot of posturing in Byron, a lot of playing up to his public image and to the emergent “Byronic” discourse. Even Cooethe was deceived; he declared that a man so wonderful in character had never before appeared in literature and would never appear again.
The fame which Childe Harold had won him was reinforced by the Turkish tales, which were snapped up by an avid public. This vortex of fame and dissipa­tion, however, could not satisfy Byron’s deepest needs and this, perhaps, accounted for his disastrous choice of a wife, in 1815. Anna Alilbanke was a bluestocking and something of a pride (her caricature is to be found in the picture of Donna Inez in Don Juan, Canto I). She clearly hoped to reform Byron and he seems to have concurred in this wish. But these expectations were doomed to disappointment; after only a year of mar­riage Lady Byron separated from her husband taking with her their daughter Ada. Her specific ground for separation was sufficient to scandalise society, whether it was Byron’s incest with Augusta or whether it was some unorthodox sexual practice (maybe, sodomy) to which she took exception. Infamy followed and Byron, again took himself abroad to remain for the rest of his days in exile from English society. Eight years were spend abroad largely in Italy, where he was associated with Shelley until the latter’s tragic death in 1822.
Venice delighted him and inspired not only a part of Childe Harold, but also the delightful, poem Beppo (1818). His house was ever the meeting place for Revo-lationists and malcontents calling themselves patriots, whom Byron trusted too greatly and with whom he shared his money most generously. Curiously enough, while he trusted men too easily, Byron had no faith in human society or government:
“I have simplified my politics to an utter detesta­tion of all existing governments.’’
My days are in the yellow leaf,
The flowers and fruits of love are gone.
The worm, the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone.

People who read this post also read :


Post a Comment

Please leave your comments!