Lord Byron - Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: Live Fast, Die Young Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Lord Byron - Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: Live Fast, Die Young

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George Gordon, Lord Byron

The first part of this series of Entries covers the life of Lord Byron from his birth in 1788 to the start of his continental tour in 1809.

The second part covers the beginning of Lord Byron's continental tour in 1809 to his society life in 1812.

The third part covers Lord Byron's scandalous lifestyle in 1812 to his last times in England in 1816.

This entry covers the life of Lord Byron during his exile from England in 1816 to his death in 1824.

Fare Thee Well

Fare thee well! thus disunited,
Torn from every nearer tie,
Sear'd in heart, and lone, and blighted,
More than this I scarce can die.

- from Fare Thee Well, Domestic Pieces

On 24 April, 1816, Byron left England on self-imposed exile. Once the most famous poet of his time, he was now the most famous exile of his time. Now he was free of the scandal-ridden country he lived in, he could do what he wanted, just as during his first continental tour. There was no Caroline carrying her blade of vengeance, no Annabella trying to mould him into another person, and none of the restraints of London society. He was free, but locked away from his own country.

He visited the battlefield of Waterloo, which was now a popular tourist site1, and from then journeyed onwards to Geneva, Switzerland, where he rented out the Villa Diodati, near Lake Geneva. It was here that one of the greatest friendships in the literary world was formed, and also a world-famous novel was begun.

While Byron was lodged at the Villa Diodati, he became acquainted with fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Mary. Most of the time was spent exploring the surroundings of Lake Geneva, but evenings were whiled away reading a German book of ghost stories. It was Byron who uttered the immortal words, 'We will each write a ghost story.'

He himself started upon a story, but later abandoned it in favour of continuing the third and fourth cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Shelley was uninterested in the task, and Byron's doctor, John Polidori, had what Mary Shelley describes as 'a tale about a skull-headed lady'. She produced what would become Frankenstein, a chilling Gothic novel of creation that is read even today. Byron respected Mary Shelley as an intelligent woman, though preferring her step-sister, Jane 'Claire' Clairmont, for more passionate activities.

Byron became incredibly close with Shelley, and they often discussed poetry2, science, and the vanities of life. Some sources even suggest that the relationship went further than friendship, with the two poets 'exchanging roses' in a secret location. However, Shelley was just like Byron in some ways, having caused a riot at Oxford University for atheistic writing and later eloping with Mary, which caused his first wife, Harriet, to drown herself in sorrow.

After an incredibly wet and dreary summer at Diodati, and the end of his affair with Claire, Byron moved to Venice, where he began another affair with his landlord's wife, Marianna Segati. This was short-lived, and the poet soon returned to writing and completing more poetry. The third canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage was published in England at the end of 1816, along with a shorter piece (in Byronic terms compared to Childe Harold) called The Prisoner of Chillon. Despite not being the fat cat in London any more, Byron's works were still incredibly popular, and people lapped them up all the same.

Meeting up with John Hobhouse, who had gone on a continental tour earlier in the year, Byron travelled to Rome in 1817 for a short excursion, but returned to settle himself in Venice, only to start another affair: this time with Margarita Cogni, the wife of a Venetian baker. Life was going fairly swimmingly for him at that point - Newstead Abbey had finally been sold, giving him much-needed funds (though the loss of his ancestral home was terrible), a play titled Manfred, was published in June, and Beppo, the precursor to Don Juan, was begun.

The year after, in 1818, Byron received an interesting surprise. Claire Clairmont, who he had been having an affair with back at Diodati, had given birth to a daughter on 12 January 1817. The Shelleys visited Byron again during the March/November period, and Claire was able to let Byron meet his daughter. She called her Alba, but Byron named her Allegra. Byron always had a deep attachment to his daughter, probably because of his estrangement from Augusta Ada3. He sent Allegra to be educated in a convent, and always kept himself aware of her wellbeing.

His poetry was faring well too, with the fourth and final canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage published that April. He dedicated the completed poem in its entirety to John Hobhouse, the friend who had never abandoned him, ever since Byron got to know him during his Cambridge years. Hobhouse would be known as Byron's best and most loyal friend for many years to come.

Love and Loss

At one o'clock, the wind with sudden shift
Threw the ship right into the trough of the sea,
Which struck her aft, and made an awkward rift...

- from Canto the Second, Don Juan

With numerous affairs, a broken marriage and a taint upon his reputation, Byron needed to settle down. His time in Venice was taken up mainly by affairs and poetry, with the occasional letter to Hobhouse, Shelley, and his publisher. He was also getting increasingly paranoid that he was getting older, and believed that he would not be able to find a long-term love to settle down with. The money from Newstead Abbey had made him tubby around the waistline, his hair somewhat more grey, and Byron looking older than his age.

At a social meet in Ravenna, Byron was to meet the woman who he would love until the end of his life. However, the problem was that she was already married. The nineteen-year-old Countess Teresa Guiccioli was the object of his desire. She was in a loveless marriage, and Byron had just happened to come along at the right time. They fell for each other instantly, and Byron explicitly moved to Ravenna to be nearer to his love.

Their love was clandestine, but the emotion in his letters to Teresa was so heart-wrenching that it is obvious that Byron was truly, madly, deeply in love with this woman.

Unfortunately for him, she could not understand English. Fortunately for her, he knew Italian.

In that year, 1819, the first two cantos of the poem Don Juan were published, and just like the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, they were an instant hit. He had to juggle his poetry with staying with Teresa, and often he ended up sacrificing his time with his new lover to complete the work. But where there is a will, there is a way, and Byron found himself invited to live in the Guiccioli palace along with Allegra, Teresa and her husband in 1820.

On the other hand, having become friends with Teresa's father and brother, Byron was now involved in the Carbonari Movement against Austrian rule. People suspected that the poet was actually helping the revolution forward, and with such a high-profile celebrity involved in the fight, Byron was officially put on the hitlist. He funded the arms of the Carbonari, and gave substantial alms to the poor.

In 1821, the revolution failed, and Teresa's family, the Gambas, were exiled to Pisa. Byron naturally followed Teresa, since she and her husband had separated from each other, and was now her official live-in lover. Now he had her all to himself, he was happy. More of his poetry was published, namely Marino Faliero, Cain, The Two Foscari, and the third and fourth cantos of Don Juan. But Teresa was his love, and poetry was taking up too much time. Byron made a solemn promise to her that he would end the Don Juan series just so he could spend more time with her.

But with love comes loss. The year of 1822 was full of tragedy. Byron was wounded deeply when Allegra died of consumption at the tender age of five. She was Byron's closest chance of bringing up a child, and now she was gone, there would be little chance of him doing it again.

The next tragedy occurred on 8 July. Percy Bysshe Shelley had taken his boat, named Don Juan after Byron's poem, off the Bay of Spezia. Unfortunately, he was caught in a tempest, and the boat was lost. A few days later, the body was washed up on the shore of Spezia. Byron was shellshocked - other than Hobhouse, Shelley was Byron's friend in poetics. He sailed over to watch the funeral. It had been decided that the body of Shelley had to be cremated to prevent disease spreading.

As Byron watched the funeral pyre light up, he vomited on the ground, jumped into the bay and swam to his private boat in sorrow.

Poetic Warfare

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.

- from So, We'll Go No More A Roving, Domestic Pieces

After the deaths of Shelley and Allegra, Byron tried his best to find solace in Teresa in their new household in Genoa. However, there was something missing. The happiest days of his life were spent with Teresa, and also during his continental tour in Greece, when he swam the Hellespont, visited the Acropolis and had wild drunken parties. He could relive one of them again.

In 1823, Byron received a letter from the British Greek Committee, asking for his financial help in funding the Greeks in their war for independence. However, this would mean that he had to leave his beloved Teresa to meet the troops in Missolonghi. It was a difficult choice to make. If he helped the Greeks, it would cleanse his soul and reputation of the scandals that caused him to leave - a noble act. Did he want to stay in the domestic world that he had now become accustomed to?

On 16 July, 1823, Byron sailed from Genoa, landing on the Ionian island of Cephalonia, settling in Metaxata on 2 August. He used £4000 of his own money to fund the Greek fleet for active service. On 28 December, he landed in Missolonghi to meet the leader of the western Greek forces, Prince Alexandros Mavrokordatos. The moment he landed, he was warmly greeted by the prince, but the journey had been tiring. Byron was then led to his lodgings to wash and rest a little. Unfortunately for the poet turned liberator, the authorities wanted to get right down to business. They immediately went over to Byron's lodgings and demanded to see him. Byron was in the bath at the time, and coolly sent a message saying that he would see them later.

After the bathtime frolics were over, Byron set to work reinforcing the troops, and entering into the plans to attack the Turkish-held fortess of Lepanto. He funded the Souliot soldiers, who were the Triarii4 of the Greeks, and attempted to unite western and eastern Greece so they would fight together against one foe.

Unfortunately for Byron, the Greeks failed to acknowledge his work upon unity, and the battle was between Byron and the leaders of the Greek armies, which took a toll upon him as well as the war.

On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year

If thou regrett'st thy youth, why live?
The land of honourable death
Is here: - up to the field and give
Away thy breath!

- from On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year, Missolonghi, Jan. 22, 1824

1824 was a wholly miserable year. Byron was stretching himself further and further to help the Greeks, and it was certainly not doing any good to his health. In February, Byron suffered from two seizures within a fortnight, leaving him temporarily speechless. As a treatment, his doctors bled him, which left him weakened. However, he recovered, able to organise the Greek troops and carry on with some poetry as well. This time it was written about his young page, Loukas Chalandritsanos.

He seemed on the road to complete recovery, but while riding his horse during a day in April, he was caught in a rainstorm. Despite this, he carried on riding in the storm, and he caught a violent cold which left him bedridden. His doctors wanted to use leeches, but Byron thought the whole procedure disgusting and refused. However, his condition weakened, and he submitted to their advice. They continually bled him, refusing him water. Byron commented to his valets that his doctors were killing him. He was not wrong.

His condition was brought about by several factors. It was known that Byron was supping upon soda water and biscuits, perhaps in an attempt to lose weight, suggesting that he was suffering from an eating disorder. Also, he may have had a relapse of the malaria that he had during his continental tour. The cold just pushed him over the edge, complete with dehydration due to his doctors' refusal to give him water.

Byron's condition rapidly deteriorated, and he slipped into a coma. On the evening of 19 April, 1824 at around six o'clock, George Gordon, 6th Lord Byron, died. He was thirty-six.

Snatch'd Away In Beauty's Bloom

Oh! snatch'd away in beauty's bloom,
On thee shall press no ponderous tomb:
But on thy turf shall roses rear
Their leaves, the earliest of the year;
And the wild cypress wave in tender gloom...

- from Oh! Snatch'd Away In Beauty's Bloom, Hebrew Melodies

On 25 April, 1824, Byron's embalmed body was sealed in its coffin, and in May the body was transported upon a ship to be taken to England. There was some speculation that Byron wanted to be buried in Athens, but there was equal speculation that he wanted to be buried in England. In the end, the body was transported to London, arriving there on 5 July.

When the cortège went to Westminster Abbey, they were informed that Byron would be refused burial or acknowledgement in what is now known as Poets' Corner. His reputation as a libertine went against the doctrines of the Church.

Instead, the funeral cortège journeyed up north, towards Byron's home county of Nottinghamshire. A great following gathered to watch the procession. Women wept in the streets, because Lord Byron the celebrity, the poet Byron, Byron the seducer, Byron the politician, Byron the liberator, was dead. Mary Shelley went to pay her respects to her late husband's friend. Lady Caroline Lamb regretted the revenges that she had enacted upon her eternal love, saying, 'I am very sorry I ever said one unkind word against him'. The literary world was in turmoil, as Byron's fellow poets, such as John Clare, wrote tributes to the man who had changed the face of literature:

While I was in London, the melancholy death of Lord Byron was announced in the public papers, and I saw his remains borne away out of the city on its last journey to that place where fame never comes... I happened to see it by chance as I was wandering up Oxford Street... when the train of funeral suddenly appeared, on which a young girl that stood beside me gave a deep sigh and uttered 'Poor Lord Byron.' ... I looked up at the young girl's face. It was dark and beautiful, and I could almost feel in love with her for the sigh she had uttered for the poet... The common people felt his merits and his power, and the common people of a country are the best feelings of a prophecy of futurity.

John Hobhouse, forever loyal to his college friend, sorted out the funeral, and published the remaining cantos of Don Juan. His memoirs, which Byron intended to be published after his death, were burned by Hobhouse and other friends. Byron was finally laid to rest in the vault of his ancestors at Hucknall Parish Church, not far from Newstead Abbey.

The Byron Paradox

It is now thought that Byron, in total, slept with between 200 to 500 women and men in his lifetime. The question then beckons - how can one man sleep with so many people in his short life and yet not record any incidence of sexually-transmitted infections or have very few children outside of and indeed, within marriage?

The answer is in fact simple - Lord Byron was a great user of the condom. Apparently he would always carry a condom on his person (just in case it came in handy), and would buy them by the dozen.


Today, Lord Byron's poetry is read all over the world, and many people took on the fallen Byronic spirit and were lionised just as he was, one such notable example being Oscar Wilde. It took Westminster Abbey one hundred and forty-five years to relent on their stance on the poet, and he was finally allowed a memorial plaque in 1969 in his rightful place on Poets' Corner.

Lord Byron is seen as the ultimate personification of the Romantics - brooding, damned, and thoroughly enthralling. He lived fast and died young, but in his short and tragic life, Byron is seen as a man who changed the face of society and literature with a tortured soul that consumed everybody.

Youth, Nature, and relenting Jove,
To keep my lamp in strongly strove;
But Romanelli was so stout,
He beat all three - and blew it out.

O Byron, Where Art Thou?

Read more about the BBC two-part drama about the man who was mad, bad, and dangerous to know - Byron, or...

...from the man who played Lord Byron, Jonny Lee Miller, interviewed on Radio 1 by Mark Radcliffe and Marc 'Lard' Riley - listen to Part 1, and Part 25, or...

...learn more about the hauntingly beautiful ancestral home of the Byrons, Newstead Abbey.

1This is thanks to a certain Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, after his defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815.2Byron was well-known for his dislike of the poetry of John Keats, and criticised it terribly. Upon the death of Keats, Byron commented, 'I did not realise that criticism could be so killing'.3Byron would always try to find out how Augusta Ada was, remembering her birthday, and trying to see how she was, despite their distance.4The Triarii, in the Roman legions, were the best of the best.5You'll need RealPlayer, click here for more information.

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