Saturday, June 30, 2012


 As a young boy up to the age of 8, I attended the splendid Aberdeen Grammar School in my home city. The front of the granite-clad school was dominated by a large statue of Lord Byron, the most famous alumnus of the school, who also spent childhood years there up to the age of 10, leaving in 1798. The statue was of a solemn robed personage and my young mind assumed he had been a highly respectable member of our society and an obvious role model.

Byron's statue at Aberdeen Grammar School

Of course, he was nothing of the kind. Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) had an immense talent but he was a shaky pillar of society. So scandalous was his alleged private life that he left England never to return in 1816 and Westminster Abbey refused to bury him and did not allow a plaque in his honour until 1969. But in his time he was the most celebrated and admired poet in Europe.

Byron had a most unhappy childhood. His father “Mad Jack“ Byron died when Byron was 3 and his mother, Mad Jack’s second wife, had been squeezed by him of her Scottish fortune and they lived impecuniously. Lochnagar, Deeside and the Grampians made a lasting impression on the young boy but he had been born with a club right foot which caused him pain all his life, made worse by his unstable mother’s over-zealous care alternating with bouts of cruel ridicule of the sensitive child’s handicap. In 1798, his great-uncle died and George succeeded aged 10 to the title of Lord Byron and the heavily mortgaged properties of Newstead Abbey and Rochdale. He moved to England but initially lived with his mother in rural Southwell, quite near to Newstead which had been let out. They were penurious aristocrats.

After a spell at school in Dulwich he went to prestigious Harrow. He was a great success, making friends easily. His bi-sexual nature flourished as he had numerous affairs with both sexes. He started to write poetry and when he moved on to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1806, he continued his rather profligate life-style, ran up large debts, read much but neglected his studies. His youthful first volume of poetry was harshly criticised by Brougham in The Edinburgh Review and Byron’s rebuttal was his witty satire English Bards and Scotch Reviewers in 1809.

In that year he embarked on a Grand Tour with his Whig political friend John Hobhouse. As the Napoleonic Wars closed off much of Europe to Englishmen they travelled instead to England’s allies, Portugal and Spain and to the Balkans, then remote and under Ottoman control. Byron at that time was physically very attractive. Despite his club foot he was an excellent swimmer and horseman and had even played cricket for Harrow against Eton.

Byron, the handsome Poet

Byron loved the lively cities of Spain but was enchanted by the Balkans, by the exotic court of Ali Pasha in Ioannina and most of all by the tiny “village” of Athens where he cavorted sensually among the hovel-inhabiting population of about one thousand amid the splendid ruins of the Ancient World. In the nonchalant fashion of the time he even carved his name on the bottom of a capital at the lovely Temple of Poseidon at Sunion. He also visited Smyrna and like Leander swam across the Hellespont.  His muse was inspired and on his return he wrote the first 2 cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the largely autobiographical narrative poem, where the protagonist complains of the follies of the world and longs for a life of more excitement and profundity; the restless “Byronic” hero was born.

Byron in Albanian costume

 On the publication of the first parts of Childe Harold in their Spenserian stanzas in 1812, Byron remarked “I awoke famous”. For the next 3 years he was lionised by English society and the Whig establishment. He was pursued by many women, obsessively by Lady Caroline Lamb, who immortally described her Byron as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. He wrote much poetry with a fashionably Eastern flavour. The political side of Byron was revealed by his eloquent protest in the Lords in 1812 against the repressive policies towards organised labour practised by the Tory government:

You call these men a mob….are we aware of our obligations to a mob? It is the mob that labour in your fields and serve in your houses, that man your Navy and recruit your Army that has enabled you to defy the world and can defy you also when neglect and calamity have driven them to despair.

In January 1815 Byron married Annabella Milbanke, a talented mathematician – “the princess of parallelograms” he called her. The marriage was a disaster, they quarrelled, Byron took to drink and in 1816 they separated. Annabella only claimed he had gone mad, but widely believed stories of Byron’s fornication, incest (with his half sister Augusta) and sodomy circulated: whatever their truth Byron left England in 1816, never to return.

He first lived in Switzerland and was much influenced by the beauty of the Alps and then made a home in Venice where his dissolute behaviour was notorious. Oddly, he became interested in the Armenian religious community there, learned its language and was involved in producing grammars and a dictionary. He wrote more fine cantos of Childe Harold and composed the much-praised The Prisoner of Chillon and the dramatic poem Manfred among others.

 He was building a European reputation, was admired by Goethe, and in 1818 embarked on his masterpiece, the witty and wide-ranging Don Juan. The piece turns the Don Juan legend on its head and has the Don as the victim of voracious women. There are characteristic Byronic moments:

But sweeter still than this, than these, than all,
     Is first and passionate love—it stands alone,
Like Adam's recollection of his fall;
     The tree of knowledge has been pluck'd—all's known—
And life yields nothing further to recall
     Worthy of this ambrosial sin, so shown,
No doubt in fable, as the unforgiven
Fire which Prometheus filch'd for us from heaven

But Byron’s life was about to take a dramatic turn, presaged in Don Juan:

The mountains look on Marathon –
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone.
I dream’d that Greece might still be free.

In 1823 he accepted an offer to become the representative in Greece of the London Philhellenes, Greek nationalists having risen against Ottoman rule in 1821. He threw himself into the cause and tried to organise the ever-exasperating Greeks. He spent £4,000 of his own money (about £200,000 today) in refitting the Greek fleet to attack the Turks.

Byron at Missolonghi

Before he could do anything significant he contracted a malarial fever from the nearby swamps and died in Missolonghi on 19 April 1824. His death was received as a catastrophe throughout Europe but his sacrifice hugely boosted the Greek cause, leading to the decisive naval engagement at Navarino Bay in 1827, when a combined British, French and Russian fleet destroyed the Turkish one, and independence came in 1830.
Many years of Greek Anglophilia followed and even today many Greeks are named Vyron (pronounced “Veeron”) in honour of their national hero. A statue in Central Athens has a symbolic Greece proffering a laurel crown to Byron.

Byron Statue in Athens

So my piece starts and ends with two statues. Byron is best known in England for his shorter love poetry like So, we’ll go no more a-roving or She walks in Beauty although the greater achievements of Childe Harold and Don Juan are fully acknowledged. As I sit in my summer house in Samos – Fill high the cup with Samian wine – I raise a glass in salute.

 What a Life, What a Spirit, What a Genius!


 Text Copyright Sidney Donald 2012

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