(1788-1824) English poet, a leading figure in the English Romantic movement (see Romanticism). Descended from an aristocratic family (he became 6th Baron Byron in 1798), Byron inherited many of their traits (his forebears all seem to have been insane, profligate or rascals; Lady Caroline Lamb later called Byron "mad, bad and dangerous to know"). He needed the energy of Europe for inspiration. Although, after the swift success of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812 cantos I and II; 1816 canto III; 1818 canto IV), he was lionized by society, he despised England, and, though shocked at the reaction to his scandalous morality, did not regret his ostracism from England from 1816 on. Always an outsider, he became the very symbol of the Accursed Wanderer, a figure doomed never to rest, an image he had himself portrayed in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and which has become regarded as quintessentially Byronic.
Following his departure from the UK Byron settled briefly with Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley in Switzerland in 1816. It was after reading a collection of Ghost Stories that Byron suggested they each write one. This contest resulted in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818); Byron's physician, John Polidori, unable to finish his own story, borrowed an idea from Byron for "The Vampyre" (1819 New Monthly Magazine), first published as by Byron – though Polidori seemingly had assumed publication would be anonymous. Byron was forced to submit his own incomplete "Fragment of a Novel" to his publisher, John Murray, who published it as a supplement to Mazeppa (1819). There is more than a little of Byron in Polidori's Vampire, Lord Ruthven, the name which had already been used by Caroline Lamb to disguise (thinly) Byron in her novel Glenarvon (1816). Polidori also drew upon the imagery used by Byron in the latter's poem The Giaour (1813), which includes reference to a vampire-like spectre.
Byron never completed his "Fragment". More important was Manfred (1817), written in the wake of the contest and inspired by the immensity of the Swiss scenery and Byron's own anguish as an Obsessed Seeker; it also owes something to his youthful love of Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796). The poem, the epitome of Byronic tragedy, brought him to the attention of Goethe (there were those who claimed Byron had based Manfred on Faust), who honoured him by including him, in the character of Euphorion, in the second part of Faust – Der Tragödie zweiter Teil (1832).
Although Byron often used the power and imagery of the supernatural in his poetry he never returned to it with such extensive intensity as in Manfred. His death from rheumatic fever while fighting with the Greeks in their war of independence marked the ultimate fate of the Byronic hero. [MA]
further reading: Byron and the Romantics in Switzerland, 1816 (1978) by Elma Dangerfield; Byron (1982) by Frederic Raphael; Byron and the Eye of Appetite (1986) by Mark Storey; Byron's Travels (1988) by Allan Massie; The Politics of Paradise (1988) by Michael Foot.
Lord George Gordon Byron