George Byron was born in 1788 with a deformed foot: he limped all his life. His father was ‘Mad Jack’ Byron, an infamous adventurer who abandoned his wife and family in 1790 and died in 1791. At the age of ten, Byron became the sixth Baron Byron of Rochdale. He attended Harrow School and Cambridge, then lived in London writing verse and carousing with friends. His first published collections were badly received but, after extensive travels abroad, he began ‘Child Harold’s Pilgrimage’; the first two cantos were published in 1812, selling out within a few days. Written in the nine-line stanza of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, this is an account of a young aristocrat’s Grand Tour of Europe and the Middle East. The fashionably disillusioned voice was immediately recognised as that of Byron himself. Canto 111, of which an extract is recorded here, is part of a vivid description of the Battle of Waterloo.

Byron became celebrated and much in demand; Lady Caroline Lamb called him ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ after a brief liaison with him. Soon afterwards, Byron renewed his acquaintance with his half sister, Augusta. The attraction was immediate and their relationship was almost certainly sexual; Augusta gave birth to a daughter who was generally supposed to be Byron’s. Meanwhile, after much hesitation, he married Annabella Milbanke, a union which proved disastrous from the wedding onwards.

Plagued by debts and by rumours of incest, Byron left England in 1816, never to return. Despite his bitterness and disillusionment, in 1817 he wrote Beppo, a cheerful and self-mocking poem mostly about the pleasures of life and the attractions of abroad. Our extract is from Canto 11, and gives a flavour of its tone. This was to lead him eventually to the style of Don Juan, an extraordinary masterpiece more than 16,000 lines long. Byron reverses the traditional Don Juan story of the man with insatiable sexual appetite, and has his hero easily seduced by women. As usual though, the story is a vehicle for Byron’s digressions, asides and jokes. Our extract describes an episode in which the hero is stranded on a becalmed boat with assorted crew members who decide to eat each other in order to survive.

Byron never completed Don Juan. He came to feel that action was more important than poetry and travelled to Greece to help the insurgents there. He formed the Byron Brigade, but in 1824, before he saw action, died of fever.

Recordings commissioned by the Poetry Archive, used here with kind permission of the reader.

Poems by Lord Byron

She Walks in Beauty

Read by Jude Law
She Walks in Beauty - Lord Byron - Read by Jude Law

The Destruction of Sennacherib

Read by Daljit Nagra
The Destruction of Sennacherib - Lord Byron - Read by Daljit Nagra

So We’ll Go No More a Roving

Read by Andrew Greig
So We’ll Go No More a Roving - Lord Byron - Read by Andrew Greig

Beppo (extract)

Read by Fleur Adcock
Beppo (extract) - Lord Byron - Read by Fleur Adcock

She Walks in Beauty

Read by Fleur Adcock
She Walks in Beauty - Lord Byron - Read by Fleur Adcock

Don Juan (extract)

Read by Fleur Adcock
Don Juan (extract) - Lord Byron - Read by Fleur Adcock
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