This Day In Literary History
On April 19th, 1824, the legendary English poet Lord Byron died in Aetolia-Acarnania, Greece, at the age of 36. Born George Gordon Byron in January of 1788 in Dover, England, he established himself as one of the greatest English Romantic poets of all time.
He was also a master of dramatic verse, and his epic poems, such as The Corsair (1813), The Siege of Corinth (1816), and the unfinished Don Juan (1819-1824), are among his most memorable works.
In life, Byron proved to be as romantic and flamboyant as his poetry. He was brilliant, most likely bipolar, and an agnostic. Although a nobleman himself, he had little use for the British aristocracy and even less use for the monarchy.
He once gave a stirring speech before Parliament condemning the Church of England (the official clerical body of the British Empire) for its intolerance of other faiths.
An outspoken liberal and libertine, Byron's intellect, literary talent, charisma, flamboyance, excesses, and scandals made him a huge celebrity - a rock star of his time. Openly bisexual though he preferred women, Byron criticized the persecution of homosexuals by British law.
He also condemned the pro-Christian legal system's discrimination against atheists. His best friend, the legendary poet Percy Shelley, was denied custody of his children because he didn't believe in God.
Of his many female lovers, Lord Byron's most notorious relationship was with the married Lady Caroline Lamb, who had famously described him as "mad, bad and dangerous to know" - yet it was she who went mad after Byron ended their relationship.
Refusing to take no for an answer, she began stalking him, both privately and publicly, resulting in a huge scandal. It wouldn't be the only scandal to plague Byron.
He was also accused of homosexuality (considered both a disgrace and a crime in 19th century England) and having an incestuous affair with his older half-sister Augusta Leigh, resulting in her pregnancy.
While Byron was openly bisexual, the idea that he had an affair with his half-sister, to whom he was very close, is highly debatable. When he wasn't writing poetry, Lord Byron dedicated himself to political causes.
In 1809, he took a seat in Parliament's House of Lords, which he used to strongly advocate for social reform. He opposed capital punishment and laws that compromised one's civil liberties and / or encroached on the private lives of British subjects.
An animal lover, Byron kept many exotic pets, including a fox, an eagle, a crocodile, and an Egyptian crane. He kept a bear as a pet while studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, in response to the college's prohibition of keeping dogs as pets.
He publicly suggested that the bear should apply for a fellowship at Trinity. Byron's favorite pet was his dog - a Newfoundland called Boatswain.
When the dog contracted rabies, Byron nursed him until he died, unafraid of contracting the disease himself. He eulogized Boatswain in a poem called Epitaph to a Dog (1808).
By 1816, embittered and plagued with scandal, (thanks to Lady Caroline Lamb's public smear campaign) Byron left England and lived throughout Europe, mostly in Italy and Greece, until his death in 1824.
A year earlier, Byron had left his home in Genoa to join the famous Greek statesman Alexandros Mavrokordatos in his fight for Greece's independence from the Ottoman Empire. It would not be Byron's first voyage to Greece or his first conflict with the Ottoman Empire.
Byron had visited Athens several years earlier, interested in both Greek culture and the country's acceptance of homosexuality. While staying there, he met a handsome French boy named Nicolo Giraud who became his friend, traveling companion, and lover.
While living in Venice in 1816, Byron became acquainted with a Mechitarist (Armenian Catholic) priest who introduced him to Armenian culture. Fascinated, Byron attended lectures on Armenian history and learned the Armenian language.
He would help introduce Armenian culture to Western Europe and publicly support Armenia's struggle for independence against the Ottoman Empire. Since the Armenians were largely Christian, the Muslim Ottomans oppressed them ruthlessly.
So, in August of 1823, when Byron learned of Greece's struggle against the Ottomans, he set sail for Kefalonia in the Ionian Islands. His first mission was to help rebuild the Greek naval fleet, and he spent £4000 of his own money (the equivalent of £72,000 in today's money) to prepare the fleet for war.
By December, he joined Alexandros Mavrokordatos, to whom the Greek military was loyal, in Messolonghi. After he and Mavrokordatos supervised the training of the troops, Byron was given command of a regiment. The plan was to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto, located at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth.
Before the fleet could set sail for Lepanto, Byron fell ill. Although the bloodletting treatment (it was thought that draining a patient of small quantities of blood would speed up the healing process) weakened him further, he began to recover. By April, he caught a nasty cold which was aggravated by more bloodletting.
Lord Byron lapsed into a violent fever and died on April 19th. He was 36 years old. It is believed that Byron contracted sepsis (blood poisoning) as the result of bloodletting treatments performed with unsterilized medical instruments.
After he died, Greece's national poet, Dionysios Solomos, wrote a poem in his honor called To the Death of Lord Byron. His body was embalmed, his heart and lungs were removed, and the rest of his remains were sent to England.
The fate of Byron's heart and lungs is unclear. An urn containing the ashes of both organs was supposedly lost when the city of Messolonghi was sacked by the Ottomans in 1825. Some believe that the urn only contained the ashes of Byron's lungs, and that his heart is still in Messolonghi.
To this day, he is considered a national hero in Greece. It has been said that had he lived and led his men to victory against the Ottomans, he might have become the King of Greece, but that's highly unlikely.
When news of Lord Byron's death reached England, people were shocked and saddened despite the scandals that had plagued him in life. Huge crowds came to pay their respects as he lay in state in London. Byron was denied a Christian burial at Westminster Abbey for reason of "questionable morality."
He would later be buried at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham. At her request, Ada Lovelace, the love child he never knew, was buried next to him.
Ada became famous in her own right for her collaboration with Charles Babbage on the analytical engine, a precursor to the computer.
After his burial, Byron's friends raised a thousand pounds for a statue of him to be made by legendary Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen - an admirer of Byron's.
The statue would languish in storage for ten years, as most British institutions refused to host it on their premises. Finally, his alma mater, Trinity College, Cambridge, agreed to place the statue in its library.
Quote Of The Day
"Those who will not reason are bigots, those who cannot are fools, and those who dare not are slaves." - Lord Byron
Today's video features a reading of Lord Byron's classic poem, Darkness. Enjoy!