Trin. Coll. (Wednesday), Novr. 6th, 1805
My Dear Augusta, - As might be supposed I like a College Life extremely, especially as I have escaped the Trammels or rather Fetters of my domestic Tyrant Mrs Byron, who continued to plague me during my visit in July and September. I am now most pleasantly situated in Superexcellent Rooms, flanked on one side by my Tutor, on the other by an old Fellow, both of whom are rather checks upon my vivacity. I am allowed 500 a year, a Servant and Horse, so Feel as independent as a German Prince who coins his own Cash, or a Cherokee Chief who coins no Cash at all, but enjoys what is more precious, Liberty.
George Gordon, Lord Byron [Trinity, 1805-07], letter to his sister Augusta, 6 November 1805
'I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame Bear, when I bought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was "he should sit for a fellowship." Sherard will explain the meaning of the sentence, if it is ambiguous. This answer delighted them not, we have eternal parties here, and this evening a large assortment of Jockies, Gamblers, Boxers, Authors, parsons, and poets, sup with me. - A precious Mixture, and they go well together.'
George Gordon, Lord Byron [Trinity, 1805-07], letter to Elizabeth Pigot, 26 October 1807
During the Vietnam War, many blue-collar and minority kids went to fight. The sons of more affluent and influential fathers went to Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Michigan and Berekley Universities and became radicals - rebels.
The high school classes of 1964-1969 took a pounding in Vietnam. Their Fortunate Son counterparts made war on American Involvement in South East Asia, Racism, Capitalism and Middle Class Mores. Dorms became he foxholes of a romantic revolution for American middle class and aristocratic rebels. Guys who sneaked a Schlitz in June, became Septemberists after a few tokes of weed. As Tom Hayden once said about the growing '60's drug culture, get a middle class square to break the law once, and you have a revolutionary for life.
All through their college years, some of America's Baby Boom generation played the role of Young Lord Byron. They repudiated the bourgeoisie lives of Ward and June, back home in Bloomfield Hills, MI, Winnetka, IL and Shaker Heights, OH. They bought East German Stassi great-coats, wore beads, long manes and facial hair. Some sported kaftans along with tied-dyed everything that matched classes on John Dewey,Thoreau, Rousseau, Marx, Hegel, Nietsche and sober sociology lectures on systemic racism.
Boot Camp over these young Robespierre's ascended the barricades and issued statements proclaiming solidarity with Nation Liberation Fronts Universal.
While the blue collar and minority running dog pawns went to Hines Hospital, Walter Reed and other Veterans Administration facilities to learn how to walk with prosthetic limbs, Childe Harold's matriculated to University of Michigan Law, Northwestern University Graduate Schools of Business, Johns Hopkins Medical School and other paths paved by Ward and June years before our Byrons took the ACTs.
Revolution is either for the miserable, or the very comfortable.
A peasant, slave or surf can only bear to see so many of his children starve. An Aristocratic Rebel can only stand to keep his/her views private in public for a non-second.
The Dead-head sticker on a Cadillac Generation had children and grandchildren now Occupying Time on Television and Editorial Pages.
Our Media is no longer made up of Chicago News Bureau shoe-leather investigators, but Medill School of Journalism Aristocratic Rebels.
Our Labor organizers are no longer articulate tough guys with visible scars and cauliflower ears, but University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work graduates trained by the generation of Aristocratic Rebels who fought the Vietnam War at Berkeley, Columbia, Michigan, Dartmouth and Yale.
Our Childe Harold's are being scooped up in Philly and L.A. and occasionally received a shot of pepper spray, or an old fashioned wood shampoo from law enforcement professionals. Here in Chicago, the iconic home of Underground Rowdies like Billy Ayers and Marilyn Katz, sadly enough the revolutionary spirit has done south for the winter - probably Naples, Fl. with gramps and granny, or to hotter climes.
Revolution is Romantic. Byron, Satan, Marx, Soros, Ayers, Code Pink, Daily Kos and OWS are the same.
The only thing difference being - Satan, Byron and Marx had some talent.
The aristocratic rebel, of whom Byron was in his day the exemplar, is a very different type from the leader of a peasant or proletarian revolt. Those who are hungry have no need of an elaborate philosophy to stimulate or excuse discontent, and anything of the kind appears to the m, merely an amusement of the idle rich. They want what others have, not some intangible and metaphysical good. Though they may preach Christian love, as the medieval communist rebels did, their real reasons for doing so are very simple: that the lack of it in the rich and powerful causes the sufferings of the poor, and that the presence of it among comrades in revolt is thought essential to success. But experience of the struggle leads to a despair of the power of love, leaving naked hate as the driving force. A rebel of this type, if, like Marx, he invents a philosophy, invents one solely designed to demonstrate the ultimate victory of his party, not one concerned with values. His values remain primitive: the good is enough to eat, and the rest is talk. No hungry man is likely to think otherwise.Lord Betrand Russell History of Western Philosophy.
The aristocratic rebel, since he has enough to eat, must have other causes of discontent. I do not include among rebels the mere leaders of factions temporarrily out of power; I include only m,en whose philosophy requires some greater change than their own personal success. It may be that love of power is the underground source of their disconte, but in their conscious thought there is criticism of the government of the world, which, when it goes deep enough, takes the form of Titanic cosmic sel-assertion or, in those who retain some superstition, of Satanism. Both are to be found in Byron. Both, largely through men whom he influenced, became common in large sections of society which could hardly be deemed aristocratic. The aristocratic philosophy of rebellion, growing, developing, and changing as it approached maturity, has inspired a long series of revolutionary movement,s from the Carbonari after the fall of Napoleon to Hitler's coup in 1933; and at each stage it has inspired a corresponding manner of thought and feeling among intellectuals and artists.
It is obvious that an aristocrat does not become a rebel unless his temperament and circumstances are in some way peculiar. Byron's circumstances were very peculiar. His earliest recollections were of his parents' quarrels; his mother was a woman whom he feared for her cruelty and despised for her vulgarity; his lameness filled him with shame, and prevented him from being one of the herd at school. At ten years old, after living in poverty, he suddenly found himself a Lord and the owner of Newstead. His great-uncle the 'wicked Lord,' from whom he inherited, had killed a man in a duel thirty-three years ago, and been ostracized by his neighbors ever since. The Byrons had been a lawless family, and the Gordons, his mother's ancestors, even more so. After the squalor of a back street in Aberdeen, the boy naturally rejoiced in his title and his Abbey, and was willing to take on the character of his ancestors in gratitude for their lands. And if, in recent years, their bellicosity had led them into trouble, he learnt that in former centuries it had brought them renown. One of his earliest poems, "On Leaving Newstead Abbey", relates his emotions at this time, which are of admiration for his ancestors who fought in the Crusades, at Crecy and at Marston Moor. He ends with pious resolve:
Like you will he live, or like you will he perish:
When decay'd may he mingle his dust with your own.
This is not the mood of a rebel, but it suggests "Childe" Harold, the modern peer who imitates medieval barons. As an undergraduate, when for the first time he had an income of his own, he wrote that he felt as independent as "a German Prince who coins his own cash, or a Cherokee Chief who coins no cash at all, but enjoys what is more precious, Liberty. I speak in raptures of that Goddess because my amiable Mama was so despotic." He wrote, in later life, much noble verse in praise of freedom, but it must be understood that the freedom he praised was that of a German Prince or a Cherokee Chief, not the inferior sor that mught conceivably be enjoyed by ordinary mortals.
GEORGE GORDON, LORD BYRON
1812: Childe Harold, cantos 1 and 2.
1813–14: The Oriental tales, including The Giaour, The Corsair, Lara.
1816: Separation from Lady Byron; leaves England, never to return.
1818: Begins Don Juan.
1813: Joins the Greek war for liberation from the Turks.
In his History of English Literature, written in the late 1850s, the French critic Hippolyte Taine gave only a few condescending pages to Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats, and then devoted a long enthusiastic chapter to Lord Byron, “the greatest and most English of these artists; he is so great and so English that from him alone we shall learn more truths of his country and of his age than from all the rest together.” This comment reflects the fact that Byron had achieved an immense European reputation during his own lifetime, while his English contemporaries were admired only by small coteries in England and America; through much of the nineteenth century he continued to be rated as one of the greatest of English poets and the very prototype of literary Romanticism. His influence was felt everywhere, not only among minor writers—in the two or three decades after his death, most European poets struck Byronic attitudes—but among the major poets and novelists (including Goethe in Germany, Balzac and Stendhal in France; Pushkin and Dostoevsky in Russia, and Melville in America), painters (especially Delacroix), and composers (especially Beethoven and Berlioz).
These facts may surprise the student who is aware of the modern estimate of Byron as the least consequential of the great Romantic poets, whose achievements have little in common with the distinctive innovations of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, or Shelley. Only Shelley, among these writers, thought highly of either Byron or his work; while Byron spoke slightingly of all of them except Shelley, and in fact insisted that, measured against the poetic practice of Alexander Pope, he and his contemporaries were “all in the wrong, one as much as another… we are upon a wrong revolutionary poetical system, or systems, not worth a damn in itself.” Byron’s masterpiece, Don Juan, is an instance of that favorite neoclassic type, a satire against modern civilization, and shares many of the aims and methods of Pope, Swift, Voltaire, and Sterne. Even Byron’s lyrics are old-fashioned: many are in the eighteenth-century gentlemanly mode of witty extemporization and epigram (Written after Swimming from Sestos to Abydos) or continue the Cavalier tradition of the elaborate development of a compliment to a lady (She Walks in Beauty and There Be None of Beauty’s Daughters).
Byron’s chief claim to be considered an arch-Romantic is that he provided his age with what Taine called its “ruling personage; that is, the model that contemporaries invest with their admiration and sympathy.” This personage is the “Byronic hero.” He occurs in various guises in Byron’s writings, but from the first sketch in the opening canto of Childe Harold, and in the verse romances and dramas that follow, his persistent character is that of a moody, passionate, and remorse-torn but unrepentant wanderer. In his developed form, as we find it in Manfred, he is an alien, mysterious, and gloomy spirit, immensely superior in his passions and powers to the common run of humanity, whom he regards with disdain. He harbors the torturing memory of an enormous, nameless guilt that drives him toward an inevitable doom. He is in his isolation absolutely self reliant, inflexibly pursuing his own ends according to his self generated moral code against any opposition, human or supernatural. And he exerts an attraction on other characters which is the more compelling because it involves their terror at his obliviousness to ordinary human concerns and values. This figure, infusing the archrebel in a nonpolitical form with a strong erotic interest, embodied the implicit yearnings of Byron’s time, as imitated in life as well as in art, and helped shape the intellectual as well as the cultural history of the later nineteenth century. The literary descendants of the Byronic hero include Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick, and the hero of Pushkin’s great poem Eugene Onegin. Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy, gives a chapter to Byron—not because he was a systematic thinker, but because “Byronism,” the attitude of “Titanic cosmic self assertion,” established an outlook and a stance toward humanity and the world that entered nineteenth-century philosophy and eventually helped to form Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman, the hero who stands outside the jurisdiction of the ordinary criteria of good and evil.
Byron’s contemporaries insisted on identifying the author with his fictional characters. But Byron’s letters and the testimony of his friends show that; except for recurrent moods of black depression, his own temperament was in many respects antithetic to that of his heroes. He was passionate and willful, but when in good humor he could be very much a man of the world in the eighteenth-century style—gregarious, lively, tolerant, and a witty conversationalist capable of taking an ironic attitude toward his own activities as well as those of other men. The aloof hauteur he exhibited in public was largely a mask to hide his diffidence when in a strange company; he possessed devoted friends, both men and women, and among them he was usually unassuming, companionable, sometimes even exuberant, and tactful; to his household dependents he was unfailingly generous and tenaciously loyal. But though Byronism was largely a fiction, produced by a collaboration between Byron’s imagination and that of his public, the fiction was historically more important than the poet in his actual person.
Byron was descended from two aristocratic families, both of them colourful, violent, and dissolute. His grandfather was an admiral nicknamed “Foulweather Jack”; his great-uncle was the fifth Baron Byron, known to his rural neighbors as the “Wicked Lord,” who was tried by his peers for killing his kinsman William Chaworth in a drunken duel; his father, Captain John Byron, was a rake and fortune-hunter who rapidly dissipated the patrimony of two wealthy wives. Byron’s mother was a Scotswoman, Catherine Gordon of Gight, the last descendant of a line of lawless Scottish lairds. After her husband died (Byron was then three), she brought up her son in near-poverty in Aberdeen, where he was indoctrinated with the Calvinistic morality of Scottish Presbyterianism. Mrs. Byron was an ill-educated and almost pathologically irascible woman who nevertheless had an abiding love for her son; they fought violently when together, but corresponded affectionately enough when apart, until her death in 1811.
When Byron was ten, the death of his great-uncle, preceded by that of more immediate heirs to the title, made him the sixth Lord Byron. In a fashion suitable to his new eminence he was sent to Harrow School, then to Trinity College, Cambridge. He had been born with a clubfoot, which was made worse by inept medical treatment, and this defect all his life caused him physical suffering and agonized embarrassment. His lameness made him avid for athletic prowess; he played cricket and made himself an expert boxer, fencer, and horseman, and a powerful swimmer. He was also sexually precocious; when only seven, he fell in love with a little cousin, Mary Duff, and so violently that ten years later news of her marriage threw him into convulsions. Both at Cambridge and at his ancestral estate of Newstead, he engaged with more than ordinary zeal in the expensive pursuits and fashionable dissipations of a young Regency lord. As a result, despite a sizable and increasing income, he got into financial difficulties from which he did not entirely extricate himself until late in his life. In the course of his schooling he formed many close friendships, the most important with John Cam Hobhouse, a sturdy political liberal and commonsense moralist who exerted a steadying influence throughout Byron’s turbulent life.
Despite his distractions at the university, Byron found time to try his hand at lyric verse, some of which was published in 1807 in a slim and conventional volume entitled Hours of Idleness. This was treated with unmerited harshness by the pontifical Edinburgh Review and Byron was provoked to write in reply his first important poem, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, a vigorous satire in the couplet style of the late eighteenth-century followers of Pope, in which he incorporated skillful but tactless ridicule of all his major poetic contemporaries, including Scott, Wordsworth, and Coleridge.
After attaining his A. M. degree and his majority, Byron set out with Hobhouse in 1809 on a tour through Portugal and Spain to Malta, and then to little-known Albania, Greece, and Asia Minor. In this adventurous two-year excursion, he accumulated materials which he wove into most of his important poems, including his last work, Don Juan. The first literary product was Childe Harold; he wrote the opening two cantos while on the tour which the poem describes, published them in 1812 soon after his return to England, and, in his own oft-quoted phrase, “awoke one morning and found myself famous.” He became the celebrity of fashionable London, enjoying an unprecedented literary success, which he soon increased by his series of highly readable Near Eastern verse tales; in these the Byronic hero, in various embodiments, flaunts his misanthropy and undergoes a variety of violent and romantic adventures that current gossip attributed to the author himself. In his chronic shortage of money, Byron could well have used the income from these publications, but instead maintained his status as an aristocratic amateur by giving the royalties away. Occupying his inherited seat in the House of Lords, he also became briefly active on the extreme liberal side of the Whig party and spoke courageously in defense of the Nottingham weavers who, made desperate by technological unemployment, had resorted to destroying the new textile machines; he also supported other liberal measures, including that of Catholic Emancipation.
In the meantime he found himself besieged by women. He was extraordinarily handsome—“so beautiful a countenance,” Coleridge wrote, “I scarcely ever saw… his eyes the open portals of the sun—things of light, and for light.” Because of a constitutional tendency to obesity, however, Byron was able to maintain his beauty only by recurring again and again to a starvation diet of biscuits, soda water, and strong cathartics. Often as a result of female initiative rather than his own, Byron entered into a sequence of liaisons with ladies of fashion. One of these, the flamboyant, eccentric, and hysterical young Lady Caroline Lamb, caused him so much distress by her frenzied pursuit and public tantrums that Byron turned for relief to marriage with Annabella Milbanke, who was in every way Lady Caroline’s opposite, for was naïve, unworldly, intellectual (with a special passion for mathematics), and not a little priggish; she persuaded herself that she could make Byron over in her own image. This ill-starred marriage produced a daughter (Augusta Ada) and many scenes in which Byron, goaded by financial difficulties, behaved so frantically that his wife suspected his sanity; after only one year, the union ended in a legal separation. The final blow came when Lady Byron discovered her husband’s incestuous relations with his half sister, Augusta Leigh. The two had been raised apart, so that they were almost strangers when they met as adults; also, Byron seems to have had one attribute in common with the Byronic hero—a compulsion to try forbidden experience (including, as we now know, homosexual love affairs), joined with a tendency to court his own destruction. Byron’s affection for his sister, however guilty, was genuine, and endured all through his life. This affair proved a delicious morsel even to the jaded palate of the dissolute Regency society; Byron was ostracized by all but a few friends, and finally forced to leave England forever on April 25, 1816.
Byron now resumed the travels incorporated in the third and fourth cantos of Childe Harold. At Geneva he lived for several months in close and intellectually fruitful relation to Shelley, who was accompanied by his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and by his wife’s stepsister Claire Clairmont—a misguided girl of seventeen who had forced herself upon Byron while he was still in England and who in January 1817 bore him a daughter, Allegra. In the fall of 1817 Byron established himself in Venice, where he inaugurated various affairs that culminated in a period of frenzied debauchery that, he estimated, involved more than two hundred women, mainly of the lower class. This period was also one of great literary creativity: often working through the later hours of the night he finished his tragedy Manfred, wrote the fourth canto of Childe Harold, and after turning out Beppo, a short preview of the narrative style and stanza of Don Juan, began the composition of Don Juan itself In the colloquial ottava rima, he finally learned to write poetry as well as he had written the prose of his superbly vivid, informative, and witty letters.
Exhausted and bored by promiscuity, Byron in 1819 settled into a placid and relatively faithful relationship with Teresa Guiccioli, the young wife of the elderly Count Alessandro Guiccioli; according to the Italian upper-class mores of the times, having contracted a marriage of convenience, she could now with propriety attach Byron to herself as a cavaliere servente. Through Teresa’s nationalistic family, the Gambas, Byron became involved in the Carbonari plot against Austrian control over northern Italy. When the Gambas were forced by the authorities to move to Pisa, Byron followed them there, and for the second time joined Shelley. There grew up about the two friends the “Pisan Circle,” which in addition to the Gambas included Shelley’s wife Mary and his friends Thomas Medwin and Edward and Jane Williams, as well as the Greek nationalist leader Prince Mavrocordatos, the picturesque Irish Count Taaffe, and the flamboyant and mendacious adventurer Edward Trelawny, who seems to have stepped out of one of Byron’s romances. The circle was gradually broken up, first by Shelley’s anger over Byron’s treatment of his daughter, Allegra (Byron had sent the child to be brought up as a Catholic in an Italian convent, where she died of a fever in 1822); then by the expulsion of the Gambas, whom Byron followed to Genoa; and finally by the drowning of Shelley and Williams in July 1822.
Byron meanwhile had been steadily at work on a series of closet tragedies (including Cain, Sardanapalus, and Marino Faliero) and on his superb satire, The Vision of Judgment. But increasingly he devoted himself to the continuation of Don Juan. He had always been diffident in his self-judgments and easily swayed by literary advice. But now, confident that he had at last found his métier and was accomplishing a masterpiece, he kept on, in spite of persistent objections against the supposed immorality of the poem by the English public, by his publisher John Murray, by his friends and well-wishers, and by his extremely decorous mistress, the Countess Guiccioli—by almost everyone, in fact, except the idealist Shelley, who thought Juan incomparably better than anything he himself could write and insisted “that every word of it is pregnant with immortality.”
Byron finally broke off literature for action when he organized an expedition to assist in the Greek war for independence from the Turks. He knew too well the conditions in Greece, and had too skeptical an estimate of human nature, to entertain hope of success; but he was bored with love; with the domesticity of his relations to Teresa, and in some moods, with life itself. Also, since his own writings had helped to kindle European enthusiasm for the Greek cause, he now felt honor-bound to try what could be done. In the dismal, marshy town of Missolonghi he lived a Spartan existence, training troops whom he had himself subsidized and exhibiting great practical grasp and power of leadership amid a chaos of factionalism, intrigue, and military ineptitude. Worn out, he succumbed to a series of feverish attacks and died just after he had reached his thirty-sixth birthday. To this day Byron is revered by the Greek people as a national hero.
Students of Byron still feel, as his friends had felt, the magnetism of volatile temperament. As Mary Shelley wrote six years after his death, when she read Thomas Moore’s edition of his Letters and journals: “The Lord Byron I find there is our Lord Byron—the fascinating—faulty—childish—philosophical being—daring the world—docile to a private circle—impetuous and indolent—gloomy and yet more gay than any other. … [I become] reconciled (as I used to in his lifetime) to those waywardnesses which annoyed me when he was away, through the delightful and buoyant tone of his conversation and manners.” Of his inner discordances, Byron himself was aware; he told his friend Lady Blessington: “I am so changeable, being everything by turns and nothing long—I am such a strange mélange of good and evil, that it would be difficult to describe me.” Yet he remained faithful to his code: a determination always to tell the truth as he saw it about the world and about himself (his refusal to suppress or conceal any of his moods is in part what made him seem so contradictory) and a dedication to the freedom of nations and individuals. As he went on to say to Lady Blessington: “There are but two sentiments to which I am constant—a strong love of liberty, and a detestation of cant.”