The ‘mad, bad and dangerous’ George Gordon Byron, more commonly referred to as Lord Byron, was quite the rock and roll figure of the early 19th century. As an influential poet and a leading proponent of the Romantic Movement, the name Byron quickly became synonymous with excess, rebellion, and true joie de vivre. Whilst he may have only lived to the tender age of thirty six, this literary figure most certainly left his mark.
The poet known as George (Lord) Byron was born in 1788, in London. He died in 1824, after contracting a serious fever whilst in Greece. He continues to be greatly admired for intricate narrative poems like Don Juan, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and a Song for the Luddites. Byron continues to be regarded as one of the finest British poets of all time, alongside William Wordsworth, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The prestigious moniker of ‘Lord’ came to Byron early, after it was passed down from an uncle when he was just ten years of age. His father died when he was a toddler, so the future icon was certainly no stranger to misfortune or tragedy. He spent most of his childhood years in Scotland, but was later sent back to England to get an education.
The Humble Beginnings of a Future Star
In 1809, he left Cambridge University to embark on a two year trip around Europe. Upon his return, it was clear that he had a lot of stories to tell and the first would come just a year later, with the release of the first instalment of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The poem catapulted Bryon into the spotlight almost instantly and he started to build up a reputation for being a wild character very quickly.
The rumours of excess and debauchery were further compounded when his half-sister birthed a daughter, who was very much suspected to be his child (literary historians are now almost certain that this was the case). Only twelve months later, Byron tied the knot with Annabella Milbanke and sired his only legitimate baby. The relationship was set to be short lived, however, and the two were involved in an acrimonious split in 1816.
Yet, the split was not an easy or a clean one. In fact, it could be argued that the separation is one of the first examples of a ‘celebrity divorce.’ Due to Byron’s newfound status as the ‘playboy poet’ and the 'wild child of the literary world,' their personal issues were made very public. It was rumoured that the marriage to Milbanke had largely been one of convenience for the poet, because he was dogged by debt and she was due to inherit a great deal of money from a wealthy uncle.
The Origins of the Cult of Celebrity
The stories of his many affairs and as well as the claims that he could not resist the charms of his his half-sister, Augusta, were inescapable and Milbanke left with their daughter after dubbing Byron ‘insane.’ The scandal eventually proved too much for him to take and he escaped the gossip and mounting debt by travelling to Switzerland.
There he spent the summer with Percy and Mary Shelley. He later moved on to Italy, where he stayed for six years. It was during this period that he penned some of his most famous pieces, including Don Juan (written from 1819-1824). In 1823, Byron swapped Italy for Greece, in order to fight alongside the rebels battling for independence from the Ottoman Empire.
He was treated as a national hero in Greece for his part in the conflict, but just a year later, he contracted a serious fever and died unexpectedly at the age of thirty six. The passing of the first rock and roll celebrity was mourned all across Europe and there was a definite feeling that the world had lost somebody rather special. As requested in his will, Byron’s body was returned to England for burial.