George Gordon, Lord Byron, was born with a clubfoot and a moody temperament. Byron’s barbed tongue, louche appearance and licentious cantos set the literary world on fire. But writing was never his greatest love. He preferred to venture far afield, by land and by sea, rather than sit at a writing desk. And everywhere he roamed—England, Albania, Greece—he left not only his twisted footprint but throngs of devoted admirers.
At the turn of the 19th century, young Lord Byron was known more for his scandalous family than his literary achievements. His father was “Mad Jack” Byron, a notorious debtor, and his great-uncle, the “Wicked Lord,” had murdered a cousin in a drunken rage. In 1809, after a harsh review of some of his early poetry, Byron savaged his fellow writers with the poem “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.” That same year, at odds with half the literary community, challenged to a duel, in debt and at the end of a tempestuous affair with a choirboy named John Edleston, he set sail on the Grand Tour of countries around the Mediterranean. Byron wished to experience places “not through a misty morning twinkling weak as / A drunken man’s dead eye in maudlin sorrow,” as he described the English weather, but through a lively kaleidoscope of color. He stopped in Greece, Spain and Portugal before arriving in Albania, the “rugged nurse of savage men,” where he spent time with the infamous Ottoman vizier Ali Pasha, a psychotic killer and connoisseur of depraved tortures. In the rolling mountains of Albania, a tyrant at his side, Byron’s globe-trotting adventures truly began.
While in Albania, Byron began writing Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812–1818), equal parts epic poem, travelogue, satire and memoir. When the poem’s first two cantos appeared, Byron instantly became the most popular poet in England. “I awoke one morning, and found myself famous,” he wrote. Combine that with his good looks and bad-boy appeal (he slept with hundreds of men and women of every social station) and you have the ingredients for a figure of mythic proportions. What Byron’s poor wife, Annabella Milbanke, called “Byromania” soon began to spread. Young would-be seducers imitated him, practicing scowls in the mirror. One myth claimed Byron was the father of Lola Montez, another famous libertine. Meanwhile he became the prototype of the Brontë sisters’ brooding male protagonists.
Byron was a hero to the Armenians and Albanians largely because he showed interest in their overlooked cultures. He never visited Armenia, but he befriended several Armenians in Venice and extolled their language and customs. Generations after Byron’s death, Enver Hoxha, Albania’s Communist leader from 1944 to 1985 and a paranoid, anti-Western megalomaniac, was a fan. “I like Byron not because I am a Romantic,” Hoxha claimed, “but because he sincerely loved my people.”
When King George III died mad and blind in 1820, leaving the U.K. in the hands of a couple of his cronies and his playboy son, George IV, England’s poet laureate, Robert Southey, commemorated the late ruler with the sycophantic eulogy “A Vision of Judgment.” Southey imagines George III’s ascent into heaven, where sniveling angels dote upon the beatified monarch. Curiously, George Washington makes an appearance to pay his respects, even though George III was the tyrant who had provoked the American Revolutionary War. The poem—with its bumbling, awkward rhyme scheme—met with great hostility from critics and the public at large. Southey had predicted as much, writing a defensive ramble of a prologue. But perhaps he didn’t weigh the consequences of implying in this prologue that Lord Byron belonged to the “Satanic school” of poetry. Byron took the jab as an opportunity and penned his own “Vision of Judgment,” in which Lucifer makes an appeal for George III’s place in hell. At the end of his lampoon, Byron imagines dunking Southey into a lake. But Southey just pops up again, “for all corrupted things are buoy’d like corks, / By their own rottenness.”
Byron’s larger-than-life figure cast a shadow that has stretched from the Age of Romanticism into modern times. He is often fictionalized and adorned with newly imagined scandals and conquests. Gabriel Byrne plays him with smirking danger and violent seduction in Ken Russell’s film Gothic (1986). Stephanie Barron’s mystery novel Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron (2010) casts the profligate as a murder suspect (with Jane Austen as the detective). Sci-fi gurus William Gibson and Bruce Sterling elect him prime minister in the steampunk novel The Difference Engine (1990). He’s an immortal warrior-poet traipsing through Scotland in TV’s Highlander series (1992–1998). Young-adult author Rachel Hawkins even transforms Byron into a vampire teaching literature at a supernatural school in her Hex Hall series (2010–2012).
But all these recent incarnations wither when compared with the real Lord Byron. As a disgruntled former paramour, Lady Caroline Lamb, once put it, Byron was “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” For instance, he drunkenly shot pistols at the ceiling during an argument with his pregnant wife. Or consider Byron the student, a great animal lover, who, when told dogs were not allowed, decided to keep a pet bear at Trinity College.
Greeks and Albanians share a border, and, like siblings kept too long together, they squabble over everything: who can trace their people back the farthest, the ethnicity of Alexander the Great and which country captured Lord Byron’s heart. Byron wrote passionately about Albania, claiming that Alexander—or Iskander, as the poet styled his name—was Albanian. Yet Westerners did not flock to Albania as they did to Greece, probably because many in the West perceived Albania as a lawless country of bandits and renegades. Even recently when writer Elise Maclay tracked Byron’s trail, she maintained a “prudent 10- to 15-mile distance from the Albanian border.”
Byron’s poetry about Greece was part of a surge of 19th-century philhellenism, the love of Greek culture. Englishmen dusted off their volumes of Herodotus and brushed up on their Homer. In the 1820s some went further by joining Greek rebels battling for independence from the Ottoman Turks, who had ruled Greece for centuries. The two most famous philhellene soldiers are Charles Fabvier, a French ambassador, and Lord Byron. Although Fabvier and Byron fought alongside Greek ranks, the best-known portraits of both men show them proudly attired in gaudily colored robes and headgear—traditional Albanian dress.
Byron had nothing but disdain for the Lake Poets, those fellow Romantics determined to sing the beauties of nature, asking them to “change your lakes for Ocean.” To Byron, these meditative scribblers were as boring in real life as their verse was to read. While he roamed through exotic nations, boozing and fighting and loving, they sat under willow trees, nattering about piety. And Byron gave them dismissive monikers. William Wordsworth was Wordswords or occasionally Turdsworth. William Sotheby was Botherby. John Keats’s poetry was “piss-a-bed.” But Byron’s go-to whipping boy was Robert Southey, or Mouthey. Byron dedicated Don Juan to the poet laureate, calling him “a dry Bob” (i.e., impotent). For his part, Southey said Byron had “committed a high crime and misdemeanour against society” with his vulgar and immoral poetry, summing up much of the public reaction to Don Juan. When the first two cantos were printed in 1819, Byron’s publisher censored the content. Even still, reviews flooded in condemning the poet for his unabashed lechery. But Don Juan became so popular that, when the third, fourth and fifth cantos came out, the publisher resorted to handing parcels of books out its window to satisfy the demands of booksellers.
Byron spent his last months in Greece, having published the first 16 cantos of Don Juan the previous year. His philhellenism, or love of all things Greek, is on full display in the poem, especially in the third canto’s “Isles of Greece.” In this section, Byron puts aside the eponymous hero’s comic romances and hapless adventures and, adopting a new rhyme scheme, poignantly describes the country’s plight. Once “where burning Sappho loved and sung,” the mythic land has been brought to its knees by the occupying Ottoman Empire. He writes, “I dreamed that Greece might still be free; / For standing on the Persian’s grave, / I could not deem myself a slave.”
Byron died before finishing Don Juan, his progress slowed at every turn by friends horrified at the thought that he was out of his mind to write such ribaldry. By modern standards, Don Juan is not so risqué. Byron’s memoirs, however, were said to be scandalous. Friend and publisher John Murray read them after Byron’s death and burned the manuscripts in order to protect the poet’s reputation and family. Byron’s last great work was thus used for tinder, his life unfit to print.
Byron’s marriage didn’t last long after he sodomized his wife and slept with his half sister Augusta Leigh. With those stories being whispered around London, Byron left in a hurry in 1816, never to return. He went to Italy, bedded a countess and in 1820 tried to join a revolution against Austrian rule. But the war ended before it began. A disappointed Byron said of the Italian rebels, “I fear [opera] and macaroni are their forte.”
When the Greek War of Independence broke out shortly thereafter, Byron got another opportunity to fight. He had spent time in Greece in the summer of 1823, slept with legions of Greeks and was ready to die, sword swinging, to restore what was once the cultural pinnacle of the world. Ironically, Byron did not perish on a sandy battlefield but in Missolonghi, a malarial cesspool. Nor did he go down in a blaze of glory; instead he fell ill in February 1824, was leeched bloodless by doctors and died in April. Byron’s name can still be seen graffitied on Greek buildings. For his philhellenism and his love and willingness to fight for the Greek people, he is a national hero there—rake, wit, poet.