George Gordon, sixth Lord Byron was born in London on 22 January 1788. The son of Catherine Gordon and Captain (‘Mad Jack') Byron, he was born with a club foot and carried the disability all his life. Abandoned and paupered by her husband, Catherine Gordon moved with her son to Aberdeen, Scotland where they lived until the young George inherited his title at the age of ten, at which time they moved to Newstead Abbey. It was here that Byron first received private tuition in preparation for a public education. He became a student at Harrow in 1801 and in 1805 went up to Trinity College, Cambridge where he earned an MA.
Perhaps in reflection of his fathers extravagant ways, Byron seemingly went out of his way to live life to the full and by the time he left Cambridge in 1808 he had accumulated debts of some £5000. As well as possessing a marked lack of restraint in his financial dealings, Byron's passions extended beyond lifestyle, and he established what was to become a pattern of romantic encounters with women (both unattached and married), as well as passionate affairs with two of his cousins, Mary Duff and Margaret Parker. Possibly his most significant love affair was with Augusta Byron, George's half sister by his father and his first wife. Byron eventually married Annabella Milbanke on January 2, 1815, but the marriage was made in haste and failed, the two separating in 1816 to a wash of rumours and innuendo which continued to plague Byron, ostracizing him from polite society and eventually prompting him to leave England for the final time.
Later in 1816 Byron embarked on an extensive tour of Europe during which he met and became friends with Shelley. The two got on despite often apposing views on the poetry and poets of the day. In 1821 Byron moved to Piza, ostensibly to be nearer to Shelley and the two, along with Leigh Hunt, endeavoured to establish their own literary journal, The Liberal. Sadly Shelley died before the project was able to succeed and the idea was soon abandoned. Byron later took up the fight for Greek Independence by joining the Greek Forces. Whilst out walking one day in 1824, he was caught in bad weather and contracted a fever, he died shortly after in April of that year.
One of the major poets of the Romantic Era, Byron first published his own work as a collection of juvenilia entitled Poems on Various Occasions in 1807 which was quickly followed in the same year by another volume Hours of Idleness. These works drew harsh criticism in the Edinburgh Review and prompted Byron to take up his pen once again to write a piece entitled English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809); a scathing satire on the world of literature and a condemnation of many of the major literary figures of the day. It effectively summed up Byron's own poetic leanings as influenced by the neo-classical poets such as Alexander Pope, whilst branding the majority of the Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, as ineffective, self-serving intellectuals. Whilst obviously strongly opposed by those it sought to criticise, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers was enthusiastically received by the reading public.
While is was the success of English Bards that first won Byron the public's attention, it was the publication in 1812 of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage Cantos I and II that cemented his place in literary history. Childe Harold's Pilgrimage is written in Spenserian stanzas and is an epic poem that, through the journeying of its protagonist (a romantic youth who is clearly representative of the author himself), treats the reader to the physical grandeur of Portugal and Spain and establishes Byron's on going love of Greece and her people. It is here that we first encounter the figure of the “Byronic Hero”; his qualities were to thread their way through much of Byron's subsequent work and were greatly representative of the poet himself. Such a figure does not possess any heroic virtue as it might traditionally be identified, but rather is possessed of a restless and roving nature and superior intelligence, is proud, moody, cynical and defiant, scorning his contemporaries but capable of a deep and passionate affinity with his cause.
With Don Juan, published in portions between 1819 and 1824, Byron once again found himself tarred with the brush of controversy as the result of the exploits of yet another “Byronic” character. Also an epic poem, Don Juan has been said to completely undermine all the merits of human virtue and religious faith while drawing into focus the very worst of social behaviour. The deeply satirical poem holds nothing to be sacred and reduces everything the hero encounters to the same debased and materialistic level. This style, whilst dark in the extreme, has been largely responsible for the tremendous success that Byron enjoyed both in his own time and throughout literary history.
Some other significant works by Byron include the poems Manfred (1917) and Prometheus (1816) and the political satire The Vision of Judgement(1822).