The most flamboyant and notorious of the major English Romantic poets, George Gordon, Lord Byron, was likewise the most fashionable poet of the early 1800s. He created an immensely popular Romantic hero—defiant, melancholy, haunted by secret guilt—for which, to many, he seemed the model. He is also a Romantic paradox: a leader of the era’s poetic revolution, he named Alexander Pope as his master; a worshiper of the ideal, he never lost touch with reality; a deist and freethinker, he retained from his youth a Calvinist sense of original sin; a peer of the realm, he championed liberty in his works and deeds, giving money, time, energy, and finally his life to the Greek war of independence. His faceted personality found expression in satire, verse narrative, ode, lyric, speculative drama, historical tragedy, confessional poetry, dramatic monologue, seriocomic epic, and voluminous correspondence, written in Spenserian stanzas, heroic couplets, blank verse, terza rima, ottava rima, and vigorous prose. In his dynamism, sexuality, self-revelation, and demands for freedom for oppressed people everywhere, Byron captivated the Western mind and heart as few writers have, stamping upon 19th-century letters, arts, politics, even clothing styles, his image and name as the embodiment of Romanticism.
George Gordon Noel Byron was born, with a clubbed right foot, in London on January 22, 1788. He was the son of Catherine Gordon of Gight, an impoverished Scots heiress, and Captain John (“Mad Jack”) Byron, a fortune-hunting widower with a daughter, Augusta. The profligate captain squandered his wife’s inheritance, was absent for the birth of his only son, and eventually decamped for France as an exile from English creditors, where he died in 1791 at 36.
Emotionally unstable, Catherine Byron raised her son in an atmosphere variously colored by her excessive tenderness, fierce temper, insensitivity, and pride. She was as likely to mock his lameness as to consult doctors about its correction. From his Presbyterian nurse Byron developed a lifelong love for the Bible and an abiding fascination with the Calvinist doctrines of innate evil and predestined salvation. Early schooling instilled a devotion to reading and especially a “grand passion” for history that informed much of his later writing.