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GEORGE NOEL GORDON, LORD BYRON (1788-1824)

Byron's father, a military rake known as 'mad Jack Byron,' had squandered his wife's estate and terminated an ill-spent life within three years after the poet's birth in a London lodging house. His mother was a 'mad Gordon.' Byron therefore was half Scotch, and part of his childhood was spent in Scotland. His early training, chiefly at the hands of nurses and tutors, was incoherent and shabby-genteel.' When ten years of age he succeeded to the titles and estates of his uncle, the wicked Lord Byron' of Newstead. At Harrow (1801-5), in spite of a deformed ankle which the torture of surgeons had failed to correct and which his pride and sensitiveness converted into a curse, he was energetic in sports and laid the basis of those athletic habits which remained with him through life. While at Trinity College, Cambridge, he brought out his first volume of poems, Hours of Idleness (1807). To the ridicule of the Edinburgh Review he retorted angrily and with some vigor in his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), then left England for two years of travel in Spain, Greece and the Levant, and, on his return, published the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812). The effect was electrical. Young, proud, traveled, mysteriously unhappy, romantically wicked, with a countenance of wild insolent beauty, a poet and a peer, Byron became the rage. Under such circumstances poetry is not critically scanned for its deeper elements. Byron's powers were sufficient for the occasion. From the midst of the social whirl into which he was caught up he extemporized tale after tale. The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, Lara, followed each other in swift succession. Scott seemed local and tame, Marmion a schoolboy. Fashion followed and the critics fawned. Then came Byron's marriage, and a year later, his separation, and in one of those periodical spasms of British morality' his worshippers suddenly discovered that their idol had been a monster. Byron left England never to return alive. In Switzerland he met Shelley and the two poets spent some months together among the Alps, an intimacy of great value to both, which they afterward renewed in Italy. From this time Byron's poetry, though still unequal, showed a deeper quality and his activity increased. The third canto of Childe Harold, The Prisoner of Chillon, and many short pieces of new sincerity and strength were finished, and Manfred begun, in Switzerland. In the autumn of 1816 he settled at Venice, and, except for short tours, remained there until in 1819 he removed to Ravenna in order to be near the Countess Guiccioli. He became domiciled with that lady in 1819, and in 1821 they moved to Pisa. Throughout his Italian residence Byron had been greatly interested in the plans for Italian independence, and had constantly given aid and comfort to the Carbonari. In 1823 he resolved to devote his fortune and services to the cause of Greek freedom, and it was while assisting in the organization of the patriot forces in Greece, that he succumbed to a fever at Missolonghi when only thirtysix years of age. During his seven years in Italy Byron had completed Manfred (1817) and written seven other dramas, and had added a fourth canto to Childe Harold. What was more important he had discovered in Beppo (1818) the serio-comic vein in which his real strength lay, had produced in The Vision of Judgment (1821) the sublimest of parodies, and in Don Juan (1819-23) his masterpiece. Few poets are so difficult to represent by selections as Byron. His lyrics do not exhibit him to advantage, and extracts give but a poor idea of his variety, sweep, and vitality. Great faults and great virtues antithetically mixed'; a spirit hampered by mal-direction, affectation, and self-sophistication, but when it gets free, giant and fine; an imagination full of clay and crudities, but volleying at times into prodigious passion, reality, and compass; this is Byron.

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