TO understand Byron we should have to know with some fullness the history and character of the ancestors whose blood ran like an intermittent fever in his veins. Some of that blood, like his name, may have come from France, where several Birons were remembered by history; Byron himself proudly mentioned, in Don Juan (Canto x, line 36), a supposed progenitor, Radulfus de Burun, as having come over to England with William the Conqueror. In the twelfth century the Buruns became Byrons. A Sir John Byron served Henry VIII so well that, on the dissolution of the monasteries, the King transferred to him, for a nominal sum, the abbey (founded about 1170) and lands of “the late Monastery and Priory of Newstede … within our County of Nottingham.”1 A succession of baronial Byrons thereafter played minor parts in English history, supporting the Stuart kings, following Charles II into exile, forfeiting Newstead Abbey, regaining it at the Restoration.
The poet’s great-uncle William, the fifth Lord Byron (1722–98), handsome and reckless, served in the Navy; earned the name “Wicked Lord” by living as a rake in the Abbey; squandered much of his wealth; killed his relative William Chaworth in an impromptu duel in a darkened room of a tavern; was sent to the Tower on a charge of murder; was tried by the House of Lords (1765), was declared “not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter”; retired to the Abbey, and lived there in somber isolation till his death.
His brother John Byron (1723–86) became a midshipman, suffered shipwreck, and published a Narrative from which his grandson took the vivid shipwreck scene in Don Juan. As commander of the Dolphin John circumnavigated the globe. Finally he retired to a home in west England, where he was known as “the Nautical Lover” because he had a wife or a mistress in every port.
His eldest son, Captain John Byron (1756–91), father of the poet, crowded so many deviltries into his thirty-five years that he was called “Mad Jack.” After service in the American colonies he spent some time in London, making his mistresses pay his debts. In 1778 he eloped with the Marchioness of Carmarthen; her husband the Marquess divorced her, Captain Byron married her and enjoyed her income. She bore him three children, of whom one, Augusta Leigh, became the poet’s half sister and sometimes mistress.
In 1784 the former Lady Carmarthen died. A year later the dashing widower married a Scotch girl of twenty years and £23,000—Catherine Gordon of Gight, plain but fiercely proud, with a pedigree going back to James I of Scotland. When she bore the poet she gave him another line of distinguished and hectic heredity: French in origin, stormy in character, with a turn for robbery, murder, and feud. The mother herself was a medley of wild love and hate. These she spent upon her husband, who squandered her fortune and then deserted her; and then upon her only son, whom she pampered with affection, bruised with discipline, and alienated with such epithets as “lame brat.” Said Childe Harold (i.e., Byron), “I should have known what fruit would spring from such a seed.”2
George Gordon Byron was born in London January 22, 1788. His right foot, at birth, was deformed by an inward turn of the sole and an upward tension of the heel. The deformity might have been cured by daily manipulation of the foot; but the mother had neither the patience nor the hardihood for a procedure that would have seemed to the child intentionally cruel; nor were the physicians inclined to recommend it. By the age of eight the misshapen foot had so far improved that the boy could wear a common shoe over an inner shoe designed to balance and diminish the distortion. In daily life and in sports he became agile on his feet, but he could not cross a drawing room without painful consciousness of his limp. In youth he flared up at any mention of his handicap. It shared in sharpening his sensitivity and temper; but it probably spurred him on to victories—in swimming, courtship, and poetry—that might divert attention from his deformity.
In 1789 the mother moved with her child to Aberdeen. A year later her husband fled to France, where he died in 1791, dissolute and destitute. Left with only a fragment of her fortune, Mrs. Byron did her best to give her son an education fit for a lord. She described him fondly, when he was six, “as a fine boy, and walks and runs as well as any other child.”3 At seven he entered Aberdeen Grammar School, where he received a good grounding in Latin. Through further education and much travel in Greece, Asia Minor, and Italy, he became so familiar with Latin and Greek literature that only an accomplished scholar in classical antiquity can understand the quotations and historical allusions that emerge through the playfulness of Don Juan. Byron loved history—cleansed of nationalism and mythology—as the only truth about man; Shelley ignored it, being wedded to an ideal uncomfortable with history.
In 1798 Byron’s great—uncle, “the Wicked Lord,” died at Newstead, leaving the ten-year-old boy his baronial title, the Abbey, his 3,200 acres, and his debts. These were so profuse that only enough income remained to enable the widow to move from Aberdeen to the Abbey, and live there in middleclass comfort. She sent her boy to a school at Dulwich, and, in 1801, to the famous “public” school at Harrow, eleven miles from London. There he resisted the “fagging” services usually required of the younger by the older students; and when he himself, as an upper—class man, used a “fag,” it was with a quite revolutionary courtesy. He was a troublesome pupil, disrupted discipline, committed pranks, and neglected the studies assigned; but he did much reading, often of good books, and rising to Bacon, Locke, Hume, and Berkeley. Apparently he lost his religious faith, for a fellow student called him a “damned atheist.”4
At seventeen he entered Trinity College, Cambridge. There he took expensive quarters, with servants, a dog, and a bear as room-mates. He patronized the local prostitutes and physicians, and occasionally sought more distinguished service in London. On a vacation at Brighton (1808) he kept with him a girl disguised as a boy; but, with due impartiality, he developed at Cambridge what he described as “a violent, though pure, love and passion” for a handsome youth.5 Also, by his exuberance, generosity, and charm, he made several lasting friendships; best of all with John Cam Hobhouse, who, almost two years his senior, contributed some momentary sense and caution to Byron’s often lawless life. For the young poet seemed bent on ruining himself with a moral freedom that would not wait for intelligence to replace the prohibitions of a lost religious faith.
In June, 1807, aged nineteen, he published a volume of poems—Hours of Idleness by George Gordon, Lord Byron, a Minor. He went to London to arrange for favorable notices of the book. The Edinburgh Review for January, 1808, greeted it with sarcastic comments on the title as a pose, and on the signature as an excuse; why had not the adolescent peer waited a decent time for some measure of maturity?
He reached his majority on January 22, 1809. He paid off the more pressing of his debts, and incurred more by gambling. He took his seat in the House of Lords, and suffered under the silence recommended to novices; but three days later he blasted the critics of his book in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, a clever and slashing satire imitating, and almost rivaling, Pope’s Dunciad. He ridiculed the sentimental Romantic movement (of which he was soon to be a leader and a god), and called for a return to the masculine vigor and classic style of England’s Augustan Age:
Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey….
We learn from Horace, “Homer sometimes sleeps”;
We feel, without him, Wordsworth sometimes wakes.6
Then, after taking his M.A. degree at Cambridge, befriending pugilists, practicing fencing, and taking an additional course in London’s night life, he sailed with Hobhouse, July 2, 1809, for Lisbon and points east.