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England was passing through a critical period of popular distress and dangerous discontent. On the one hand, a government set in its conservatism; on the other, a people unsettled by new industrial conditions, impoverished by overtaxation, impatient to gain a voice in their own government, and brought at length by poor crops to the verge of actual starvation. The assembling of the people for free speech was pronounced illegal; and at a great meeting at Manchester the cavalry charged upon the crowd, and answered their petitions for a vote in Parliamentary elections with the edge of the sword (1819). A year later a conspiracy was formed to murder the members of the Cabinet. Four poets, LORD BYRON (1788-1824),
(1788–1824), PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY (1792–1822), THOMAS CAMPBELL (1777-1844), and THOMAS MOORE (1779-1852), -- all born during the last quarter of the preceding century, express in greater or less degree the spirit of this time. Each was, in his way, a poet of the Revolution, a lover of liberty, a believer in progress. When Wordsworth and Coleridge sang their first pæans to Liberty, her white robes were still stainless, her fame unspotted. The poets of this younger group in their early manhood had looked on at the crimes committed in her name; they had breathed in an atmosphere heavy with the sense of failure; they were confronted with an oppression and misery calculated to make them embittered and rebellious.
In some respects, Lord Byron, in the power and brilliancy of his genius, in his audacious and dramatic
personality, thrusts himself forward as the most truly representative poet of this time. We see in his life, character, and work a rebellious arraignment of life, a passionate, impotent complaint against the entire order of things.
His Heritage. — George Gordon Byron was born in London, in 1788. The Byrons were thought to be descended from a Scandinavian settler in Normandy. The family had come into England with William the Conqueror. They were a fighting race; we find them in the field at Creçy, and at other great battles. Ungovernable and proud, the spirit of the Viking seemed to survive in them; and after long generations they produced a poet. Byron reminds us of the hero in some Greek tragedy, born to a heritage of guilt and suffering. His grand-uncle, “the wicked lord,” was convicted of manslaughter, and, like some of his nephew's miserable heroes, was cast out from human society. The father of the poet, Captain John Byron, known as “Mad Jack,” was a profligate and heartless spendthrift; his mother, Catherine Gordon, who traced her descent from James I, was a silly and impulsive woman, subject to furious paroxysms of temper. Having squandered his wife's fortune, Captain Byron left her in greatly straitened circumstance shortly after the birth of their son. The worse than fatherless child was thus left wholly at the mercy of an injudicious and passionate woman, who treated him, according to her passing whims, with alternate harshness and over-indulgence.
Youth and Manhood. — Under these wretched conditions Byron's life began. He grew up a spoiled child, passionate, headstrong, sullen, and defiant. On all this was piled yet another misery — he was lame, owing
to the deformity of one foot; and to his vain and morbidly sensitive nature this misfortune was a lifelong torture. In 1798, by the death of “the wicked lord,” he succeeded to the title and family estates. In 1801 he entered Harrow, where he was noted as a fighter, and acted as ringleader in a boyish rebellion against the authorities. Four years later he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he led the life of the idle and dissipated undergraduate. Here his "gyp,” or college servant, spoke of him with respect as "a young gentleman of tumultuous passions." In 1807 he published his first book of poems, Hours of Idleness. An unfavorable review of this youthful venture, which had in reality but little merit, aroused his passionate temper, and he struck back fiercely in a satire on English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). After two years of Continental travel (1809-1811), he gave the world the splendid record of his impressions in the first two cantos of Childe Harold (1812). The result was one of the most sudden and memorable successes in English literary history; in his own familiar phrase, Byron awoke one morning and found himself famous. The poetic star of Scott, who had been enchanting the world with his vigorous ballads of romance and chivalry, declined before the brightness of this new luminary. The public turned from tales of Border warfare, from the mailed knights and moated castles of medievalism, to enter under Byron's guidance the unfamiliar regions of the East. The Giaour (1813) is the first of a succession of Eastern tales, in the meter of Scott, each of which increased the fever of popular enthusiasm. In these tales the Byronic hero, first outlined in Childe Harold, reappears under different names and varying disguises, with significant persistence in all his solitary, joyless, and misanthropic personality.
In 1815 Byron married Miss Milbanke, but after about a year they separated for reasons not fully known. The public turned furiously upon the man it had so lately idolized, and overwhelmed him with its sudden condemnation. Smarting under a sense of injustice, Byron left England forever, pursued across Europe by the outcry against him. After spending some time at Geneva under the stimulating influence of Shelley, he settled at length on the "waves of the Adriatic, like the stag at bay who betakes himself to the waters." During this time he wrote with extraordinary power and rapidity, producing, among a great number of other poems, the remaining cantos of Childe Harold, Cain, Manfred, and Don Juan. At length he seemed to weary of poetry, as he did of everything, declaring that he did not consider it his “vocation,” but that, if he lived ten years, he was determined to do something in new fields. His ardent and invincible spirit found
He threw himself into the cause of the Greeks, then struggling against Turkish despotism, and in 1823 chartered a vessel and sailed from Genoa in their aid. He reached Missolonghi, and was made commander-inchief of an expedition against Lepanto. But the presentiment of his approaching death was upon him. On his thirty-sixth birthday, while yet at Missolonghi, he composed some verses which seem touched with the spirit of prophecy:
“If thou regret'st thy youth, why live ?
Death would not spare him for the soldier's grave he