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George Gordon, Lord Byron

Born in London on 22 January 1788 as the son of Captain John ("Mad Jack") Byron and his second wife, the former Catherine Gordon, George Gordon Byron might have seemed destined for the urbane existence for which he later made himself famous. But within a year his parents separated, his father left for France where he would die two years later, and his deserted mother, whose fortune had been squandered by her philandering husband, moved back to the distant environs in which she was raised, the granite-gray, provincial county seat of Aberdeen in northeastern Scotland where, in genteel poverty, she raised her only son. Although he later extolled his Scottish roots, that son's early existence was singularly remote from the grandeur to which he was later elevated.

The crucial event in the young boy's life was the sudden death of a second cousin in 1795, which, seemingly by sheer accident, put him in line to succeed to a baronial title when his great-uncle, the fifth Baron Byron of Rochdale, died three years later, in 1798. The youth was eleven years old, deformed with a club foot, and unaccustomed to aristocratic hauteur, when he was thus catapulted into the ranks of the highest nobility of Great Britain. He and his mother immediately removed to the ancestral estate of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, and his second life, as Lord Byron, began in earnest.

During his first years in England, Byron, up to this point comparatively well educated in the enlightened Scottish tradition at the Aberdeen Grammar School, was left to the devices of a tutor. But in 1801 he matriculated at Harrow in the suburbs of London, long an academy where England's privileged class was educated. From that elite center he transferred in 1805 to Cambridge University, entering Trinity College, where John Milton had been a student. Although he remained only two years and never graduated, the friends he made at Cambridge, particularly the later member of parliament and statesman John Cam Hobhouse, remained central through all his later life. Here, too, he began to experiment with the bisexuality that, along with his later, possibly incestuous, relation with his slightly older half-sister Augusta Leigh, would make him conscious of other realms beyond the strictly codified decorum of his society. A sense of transgressive individuality continually insinuates itself in his writings, either in isolated heroic figures like Manfred or in mythic avatars such as the vampire around whom he centered his contribution to the competition that also prompted Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

While at Cambridge Byron began his writing career, first privately printing his Fugitive Pieces (1806) and its revision, Poems on Various Occasions (1807), then publishing an expanded version of the latter the same year under the title Hours of Idleness. These are youthful, not especially distinguished, poems, but when they were seized upon for a full-scale dressing-down by the Edinburgh Review, Byron, suspecting a political animus, responded with a scathing satire of the contemporary literary scene, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, that at once revealed his brilliance for all to see. This same year, 1809, having attained his majority, Byron took his seat in the House of Lords, then, almost immediately, set out on a grand tour of Europe that, dodging the numerous conflicts of the contemporary Napoleonic Wars, finds voice in the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, published upon his return in 1812.

For the next years Byron was the undisputed literary lion of London, publishing a succession of highly popular poems. Handsome, debonaire, and witty, he also became a central figure in the glittering Regency society. Although he clearly enjoyed its limelight, he soon learned its price, finding his several romantic attachments the center of broad public attention and malicious gossip. Thus, early in 1815 he married the highly intelligent, respectable, and wealthy Annabella Milbanke. It was a misalliance of almost monumental proportions. Within a year, after the birth of their daughter Ada, the couple separated, and, instead of escaping the public eye, Byron found himself at the center of a newspaper war conducted by his and his wife's partisans. To elude it, rather following the pattern of his father, in April 1816 Byron took refuge on the continent, never during his life to return to England.

Making a literary virtue out of his exile, Byron first established himself that summer in Geneva, where he met Percy Bysshe Shelley and his still-unmarried lover Mary Godwin: the summer's events are more fully treated in a separate account.

That fall Byron set out for Italy, where, in various cities, he would live for the next seven years and continue his prodigious literary production, branching out from the brooding darkness of his earlier work into what many believe to be the highest comedy in the English language, his epic-satire Don Juan. He began this work late in 1818 after again joining up with the now-married Shelleys, who had themselves gone into exile in Italy in March of that year. Although the relations between the two men were sometimes strained, they were also continuously fruitful in respect to literary creativity until Shelley's death in July 1822 ruptured their circle. In her widowhood Mary found Byron an inconsistent friend and withdrew further upon her own resources, depending also on the always affectionate if generally improvident Leigh Hunt and his wife Marianne, who had themselves emigrated to Italy to join the Shelleys and Byron in associated literary projects, especially a periodical they called The Liberal: Verse and Prose from the South. The associates established themselves for the time being in Albaro, a suburb of Genoa, but Shelley's death left Byron intellectually and, perhaps emotionally unsettled, ready to answer the call from the Greek Committee in London to operate as their liaison to help finance leaders of the revolutionary armies attempting to overthrow the centuries of Turkish rule in that country. It was while officiating in this guise in Missolonghi, a town in western Greece, that Byron contracted meningitis and, suffering under the supervision of incompetent physicians, wasted away until, on 19 April 1824 he died. His body was returned to England and, refused burial in Westminster Abbey on account of the heretical tendencies of his writing, he was interred at Newstead Abbey in July.