Lord Byron's Poem, She Walks in Beauty - Part I
by Garry Gamber
Lord Byron’s opening couplet to “She Walks In Beauty” is among the most memorable and most quoted lines in romantic poetry. The opening lines are effortless, graceful, and beautiful, a fitting match for his poem about a woman who possesses effortless grace and beauty.
Life in England
Lord Byron was born George Gordon Noel Byron in London in 1788. He became a Lord in 1798 when he inherited the title and the estate of his great-uncle. Byron’s mother had taken him to Scotland for treatment for his club foot, but she brought him back to England to claim the title and the estate.
Byron was privately tutored in Nottingham for a short period. He then studied in Harrow, Southwell, and Newstead, and finally at Trinity College. Byron discovered a talent for writing poetry and published some early poems in 1806 and his first collection, called Hours of Idleness, in 1897 at the age of 19. When he turned age 21 he was able to take his seat in the House of Lords.
However, Lord Byron left England for two years with his friend, John Hobhouse, to travel through Europe. They toured Spain, Malta, Greece, and Constantinople. Greece especially impressed Byron and would create a recurring theme in his life.
After returning to England Lord Byron made his first speech to the House of Lords. Later that year he published a “poetic travelogue” titled, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a respectable collection of verses about his recent travels in Europe. The collection earned Lord Byron lasting fame and admiration. Lord Byron had become a ladies’ man and the newly earned celebrity brought him a series of affairs and courtships.
Lord Byron married Anna Isabella Milbanke in 1815 and his daughter, Augusta, was born later that year. However, the marriage did not last long. In early 1816 Anna and Augusta left Lord Byron and later that year he filed for legal separation and left England for Switzerland, a self-imposed exile.
Life in Europe
While in Switzerland Lord Byron stayed with Percy Bysshe Shelley, a prominent metaphysical and romantic poet, and had an illegitimate daughter, Allegra, with Claire Clairmont. After that affair ended, Lord Byron and his friend, John Hobhouse traveled through Italy, settling first in Venice, where he had a couple more affairs, including an affair with the nineteen year old Countess Teresa Guicciolo. Here Lord Byron began his most famous and most acclaimed work, the epic poem Don Juan.
Lord Byron and Teresa moved to Ravenna, then to Pisa, and then to Leghorn, near Shelley’s house, in 1821. The poet Leigh Hunt moved in with Lord Byron later that year after Shelley drowned off the coast near Leghorn in a storm. Lord Byron contributed poetry to Hunt’s periodical, The Liberal, until 1823 when he took the opportunity to travel to Greece to act as an agent for the Greeks in their war against Turkey.
Lord Byron used his personal finances to help fund some of the battles by the Greeks against the Turks. He even commanded a force of three thousand men in an attack on the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto. The siege was unsuccessful and the forces withdrew. At this time Lord Byron suffered one or two epileptic fits. The remedy of the day, blood-letting, weakened him.
Six weeks later, during a particularly chilly rainstorm, Lord Byron contracted a severe cold. The accompanying fever was treated by repeated bleeding by trusted physicians, but his condition worsened until he eventually slipped into a coma and died on April 19, 1924.
Lord Byron was a hero in Greece and was deeply mourned there. His heart was buried in Greece and his body was sent to England where it was buried in the family vault near Newstead. He was denied burial in Westminster Abbey because of the perceived immorality of his life and numerous controversies. Finally in 1969, 145 years after his death, a memorial was placed in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, commemorating his poetry and accomplishments.
Shortly after his arrival in Greece, Lord Byron had written these appropriate lines.
"Seek out—less often sought than found—
A soldier's grave—for thee the best
Then look around, and choose thy ground,
And take thy rest."
An interesting and exceptional biography of Lord Byron’s life was written in 1830 by a contemporary and friend, John Galt, titled, The Life of Lord Byron. The 49 chapters give a good measure of Lord Byron’s complexity.