In This Article Lord Byron

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Editions
  • Bibliographies
  • Facsimiles
  • Archives
  • Reference Works
  • Journals

British and Irish Literature Lord Byron
by
Tom Mole
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0010

Introduction

George Gordon Byron, sixth Lord Byron (b. 1788–d. 1824), was one of the most important poets of the British romantic period and one of the most prominent public figures in Regency England. His poetry is wide-ranging and accomplished, from lyrics and couplet satires to narrative poems and plays and the masterful satirical epic Don Juan. His life was often controversial and unconventional, and the whiff of scandal surrounding him was part of his appeal to his first admirers as well as to subsequent readers. Born in 1788 in London, the son of Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron, who died in Byron’s infancy, Byron moved with his mother, Catherine Byron (née Gordon), to Aberdeen until, aged ten, he inherited the title of Baron Byron of Rochdale when his uncle (the “Wicked Lord Byron”) died without a legitimate male heir. Byron was educated at Harrow School and Cambridge, where he reportedly kept a bear in his rooms. He traveled widely in Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Albania in 1809–1811 and wrote about his experiences in his first major poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812). This poem and the series of verse tales that followed it made Byron a celebrity in Regency society. In 1815 he married Annabella Milbanke, and soon after the couple had a daughter, Ada. The marriage rapidly and acrimoniously deteriorated, however, and they separated in 1816. Byron would never see his daughter again. Amid rumors that some dark transgression on his part had precipitated the separation—modern scholars disagree about whether the cause lay in adultery, homosexuality, incest with his half sister Augusta Leigh, or some more prosaic explanation—Byron was ostracized from English society and left the country in 1816, never to return. He settled in Switzerland and then in Italy, adding two more cantos to Childe Harold and writing his first drama, Manfred. In Italy he began the most stable and rewarding sexual relationship of his life with Theresa Guiciolli. He also discovered the ottava rima stanza form, in which he wrote the short comic tale Beppo and the long comic epic Don Juan. This latter poem, a retelling of the legend in which Juan is more passive victim than active seducer, allowed Byron a wide canvas for his thoughts and opinions, expressed in a conversational style that belies very considerable technical mastery of the verse form. Having long been a supporter of Greek independence from Turkish rule, Byron in 1823 traveled to Greece, where he took an active part in the Greek struggle. He died at Messolonghi on 19 April 1824 as a result of a fever and the incompetence of his doctors. His body was returned to England.

General Overviews

The best introduction to reading Byron is undoubtedly to pick up the poems themselves. Although the critical studies listed in subsequent sections show that they are complex and profound, the poems are not elliptical, obscure, or forbidding at first encounter. Byron valued plain speaking and detested “cant,” and this preference is plainly visible, especially in his later poetry. Nonetheless, the range of Byron’s writing, the sheer bulk of his longer poems, and his many references to contemporary events and people mean that some introductory reading can be helpful. Bone 2000 is a short introductory book on Byron’s life and work, and Barton 1992 focuses on Don Juan in particular. Bone 2004 is a very useful collection of specially commissioned essays that provides a good introduction, while Shilstone 1991 offers a guide to teaching Byron’s poetry that may also be of interest to students. Stabler 1998 collects previously published essays, and Stabler 2007 surveys the field of Byron studies for those who want to explore further.

  • Barton, Anne. Don Juan. Landmarks of World Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    The best short book-length introduction to this long poem available. Particularly interesting is Barton’s account of the poem’s structure in terms of Byron’s composition. She suggests that Byron initially conceived of Don Juan as a short tale like Beppo, then extended it, but lost narrative momentum in the Haidee episode and restarted the narrative flow in canto 4.

  • Bone, J. Drummond. Byron. Edited by Isobel Armstrong. Writers and Their Work. Tavistock, UK: Northcote House, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    A useful short introduction to Byron’s life and work, it alternates chapters of biography with chapters of close attention to Byron’s poetic technique.

  • Bone, J. Drummond, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Byron. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521781469E-mail Citation »

    Bone gathers a distinguished set of contributors who provide essays on all of Byron’s major poems as well as a number of recurrent themes in his work. This is an excellent introduction to the poet’s life, work, and thought.

  • Lansdown, Richard. The Cambridge Introduction to Byron. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    A short, readable overview of Byron’s life and work, including his letters and journals and the full range of his poetic output. Includes some discussion of Byron’s legacy in art, music, literature, politics, and philosophy.

  • Shilstone, Frederick W., ed. Approaches to Teaching Byron’s Poetry. New York: Modern Language Association, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    Part of the Modern Language Association of America’s series of books on approaches to teaching different authors and texts, this volume includes several pedagogical essays on teaching a variety of texts by Byron and taking different approaches to his work. Useful reading for anyone teaching Byron but also of interest to students.

  • Stabler, Jane, ed. Byron. London: Longman, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    A critical reader that brings together important previously published essays on Byron. Includes an introductory essay outlining developments in Byron criticism. As a whole the volume provides a useful snapshot of Byron criticism at the time of its publication.

  • Stabler, Jane. Byron Studies. Palgrave Advances. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230206106E-mail Citation »

    An overview of trends in criticism relating to Byron.

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