Byron was born in London in 1788, physically disabled by a clubfoot, but was taken to live in Scotland when young by his mother, Catherine Gordon. At the age of 10, he inherited the title, house and grounds of Newstead Abbey from his great-uncle, who had been granted them by Henry VIII. Thereafter, he was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he formed a close friendship with John Cam Hobhouse. In January 1809, he took his seat in the House of Lords, but then embarked on a tour of Europe, often accompanied by Hobhouse, which included a sojourn in Greece.
Byron returned to England in 1811, and to Newstead where his ailing mother had just died. In 1812, his book Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage made him a society celebrity and brought him into contact with Lady Caroline Lamb, who became one of his many mistresses (and who wrote of him, he was ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’). It is widely accepted, also, that Byron had an affair with his married half-sister Augusta Leigh, and that he fathered her daughter Elizabeth. Though Byron married Anne Isabella Milbanke in early 1815, partly to try and shake off scandal, his relationship with Leigh continued. (Milbanke’s daughter, Augusta Ada, and Byron’s only legitimate child, became a mathematician but died young, at the same age as her father, 36).
Much encumbered by debts and with his wife accusing him of incest, Byron left England in 1816 never to return. He journeyed to Switzerland first, and then Italy where he lived for six years - in Venice, Ravenna, Pisa, Genoa - selling Newstead Abbey to pay off his debts. He continued writing his long satiric poem, Don Juan, which was first published in 1819. Famously, he was friends in Italy with Percy Bysshe Shelley (and his sister, Mary), and together they started a newspaper The Liberal. Shelley drowned in 1922, and the following year, Byron, bored with his life, bought a boat and sailed to Greece to help with the nationalist fight against the Ottoman empire. He spent thousands of pounds of his own money for the cause, and began to lead a rebel army, only to fall sick and die of a fever, on 19 April 1824.
There is no shortage of information about Byron available on the internet, at Wikipedia, for example, the English History website, The Literature Network, and the BBC. Thomas Moore’s early biography (Byron had named the Irish poet as his literary executor in 1822), Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, published in 1830, is also widely available, at Internet Archive, or more accessibly at Virginia Tech’s Lord Byron website. Confusingly, at Internet Archive, one can also find 17 volumes of Moore’s The Works of Lord Byron: with his letters and journals, and his life, all published in the 1930s too.
For years, Byron had been writing an autobiographical memoir, but on his death, this was deemed too scandalous for publication, and his publisher, John Murray along with several of Byron’s friends burned the manuscript. However, four of Byron’s journal/diary jottings were edited by Moore and published in his voluminous works (and can be found through the links above). Though fragmentary, the diaries sparkle with Byron’s literary skill. The diaries of others, of course, also contain much about Byron, not least those written by Hobhouse, Mary Shelley and Thomas Moore (see also Doomed to sing).
There are four separate, but rather short, periods for which Byron’s journals survive (Peter Cochran’s website provides accessible pdfs for each diary): between November 1813 and April 1814 (the London Journal); in September 1816 (the Alpine Journal); in January and February 1821 (the Ravenna Journal); and between June and December 1823 (the Cephalonia Journal). Here are a few extracts, all taken from Moore’s Letters and Journals.
14 November 1813
’If this had been begun ten years ago, and faithfully kept!!! - heigho! there are too many things I wish never to have remembered, as it is. Well, - I have had my share of what are called the pleasures of this life, and have seen more of the European and Asiatic world than I have made a good use of. They say ‘virtue is its own reward,’ - it certainly should be paid well for its trouble. At five-and-twenty, when the better part of life is over, one should be something; - and what am I? nothing but five-and-twenty - and the odd months. What have I seen? the same man all over the world, - ay, and woman too. Give me a Mussulman who never asks questions, and a she of the same race who saves one the trouble of putting them. But for this same plague - yellow-fever - and Newstead delay, I should have been by this time a second time close to the Euxine. If I can overcome the last, I don’t so much mind your pestilence; and, at any rate, the spring shall see me there, - provided I neither marry myself nor unmarry any one else in the interval. I wish one was - I don’t know what I wish. It is odd I never set myself seriously to wishing without attaining it - and repenting. I begin to believe with the good old Magi, that one should only pray for the nation, and not for the individual; - but, on my principle, this would not be very patriotic.
No more reflections. - Let me see - last night I finished ‘Zuleika,’ my second Turkish Tale. I believe the composition of it kept me alive - for it was written to drive my thoughts from the recollection of -
“Dear, sacred name, rest ever unreveal’d.”
At least, even here, my hand would tremble to write it. This afternoon I have burned the scenes of my commenced comedy. I have some idea of expectorating a romance, or rather a tale, in prose; - but what romance could equal the events - [. . .]
To-day Henry Byron called on me with my little cousin Eliza. She will grow up a beauty and a plague; but, in the mean time, it is the prettiest child! dark eyes and eyelashes, black and long as the wing of a raven. I think she is prettier even than my niece, Georgina, - yet I don’t like to think so neither; and, though older, she is not so clever. [. . .]
I have declined presenting the Debtor’s Petition, being sick of parliamentary mummeries. I have spoken thrice ; but I doubt my ever becoming an orator. My first was liked; the second and third - I don’t know whether they succeeded or not. I have never yet set to it con amore; one must have some excuse to oneself for laziness, or inability, or both, and this is mine. ‘Company, villanous company, hath been the spoil of me;’ - and then, I have ‘drunk medicines,’ not to make me love others, but certainly enough to hate myself.
Two nights ago, I saw the tigers sup at Exeter ‘Change, Except Veli Pacha’s lion in the Morea, - who followed the Arab keeper like a dog, - the fondness of the hyaena for her keeper amused me most. Such a conversazione! There was a ‘hippopotamus,’ like Lord ____ in the face; and the ‘Ursine Sloth’ hath the very voice and manner of my valet - but the tiger talked too much. The elephant took and gave me my money again - took off my hat - opened a door - trunked a whip - and behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler. The handsomest animal on earth is one of the panthers; but the poor antelopes were dead. I should hate to see one here: - the sight of the camel made me pine again for Asia Minor. “Oh quando te aspiciam?” ’
19 April 1814
There is ice at both poles, north and south - all extremes are the same - misery belongs to the highest and the lowest only, - to the emperor and the beggar, when unsixpenced and unthroned. There is, to be sure, a damned insipid medium - an equinoctial line - no one knows where, except upon maps and measurement.
“And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death.”
I will keep no further journal of that same hesternal torch-light; and, to prevent me from returning, like a dog, to the vomit of memory, I tear out the remaining leaves of this volume, and write, in ipecacuanha, - “that the Bourbons are restored!!!” “Hang up philosophy.” To be sure, I have long despised myself and man, but I never spat in the face of my species before - “O fool! I shall go mad.” ’
17 September 1816
‘Rose at five; left Diodati about seven, in one of the country carriages (a char-a-banc), our servants on horseback. Weather very fine; the lake calm and clear; Mont Blanc and the Aiguille of Argentines both very distinct; the borders of the lake beautiful. Reached Lausanne before sunset; stopped and slept at __. Went to bed at nine; slept till five o’clock.’
18 September 1816
‘Called by my courier; got up. Hobhouse walked on before. A mile from Lausanne, the road overflowed by the lake; got on horseback, and rode till within a mile of Vevay. The colt young, but went very well. Overtook Hobhouse, and resumed the carriage, which is an open one. Stopped at Vevay two hours (the second time I had visited it); walked to the church; view from the churchyard superb; within it General Ludlow (the regicide’s) monument - black marble - long inscription - Latin, but simple; he was an exile two-and-thirty years - one of king Charles’s judges. Near him Broughton (who read King Charles’s sentence to Charles Stuart) is buried, with a queer and rather canting, but still a republican, inscription. Ludlow’s house shown; it retains still its inscription - ‘Omne solum forti patria.’ Walked down to the lake side; servants, carriage, saddle -horses - all set off and left us plantes la, by some mistake, and we walked on after them towards Clarens; Hobhouse ran on before, and overtook them at last. Arrived the second time (first time was by water) at Clarens. Went to Chillon through scenery worthy of I know not whom; went over the Castle of Chillon again. On our return met an English party in a carriage; a lady in it fast asleep - fast asleep in the most anti-narcotic spot in the world - excellent! I remember at Chamouni, in the very eves of Mom Blanc, hearing another woman, English also, exclaim to her party, ‘Did you ever see anything more rural?’ - as if it was Highgate, or Hampstead, or Brompton, or Hayes - ‘Rural!’ quotha? - Rocks, pines, torrents, glaciers, clouds, and summits of eternal snow far above them - and ‘rural!’
After a slight and short dinner we visited the Chateau de Clarens; an English woman has rented it recently (it was not let when I saw it first); the roses are gone with their summer; the family out, but the servants desired us to walk over the interior of the mansion. Saw on the table of the saloon Blair’s Sermons, and somebody else (I forget who’s) sermons, and a set of noisy children. Saw all worth seeing, and then descended to the ‘Bosquet de Julie,’ &c. &c.; our guide full of Rousseau, whom he is eternally confounding with St. Preux, and mixing the man and the book. Went again as far as Chillon to revisit the little torrent from the hill behind it. Sunset reflected in the lake. Have to get up at five to-morrow to cross the mountains on horseback; carriage to be sent round; lodged at my old cottage - hospitable and comfortable; tired with a longish ride on the colt, and the subsequent jolting of the char-a-banc, and my scramble in the hot sun.
Mem. The corporal who showed the wonders of Chillon was as drunk as Blucher; he was deaf also, and thinking every one else so, roared out the legends of the caste so fearfully. However, we saw things from the gallows to the dungeons (the potence and the cachots), and returned to Clarens with more freedom than belonged to the fifteenth century.’
19 September 1816
‘Rose at five. Crossed the mountains to Montbovon on horseback, and on mules, and, by dint of scrambling, on foot also; the whole route beautiful as a dream, and now to me almost as indistinct. I am so tired; for though healthy, I have not the strength I possessed but a few years ago. At Montbovon we breakfasted; afterward, on a steep ascent, dismounted; tumbled down; cut a finger open; the baggage got loose and fell down a ravine, till stopped by a large tree; recovered baggage; horse tired and drooping; mounted mule. At the approach of the summit of Dent Jument dismounted again with Hobhouse and all the party. Arrived at a lake in the very bosom of the mountains; left our quadrupeds with a shepherd, and ascended farther; came to some snow in patches, upon which my forehead’s perspiration fell like rain, making the same dints as in a sieve; the chill of the wind and the snow turned me giddy, but I scrambled on and upwards. Hobhouse went to the highest pinnacle; I did not, but paused within a few yards (at an opening of the cliff). In coming down, the guide tumbled three times; I fell a laughing, and tumbled too - the descent luckily soft, though steep and slippery: Hobhouse also fell, but nobody hurt. The whole of the mountains superb. A shepherd on a very steep and high cliff playing upon his pipe; very different from Arcadia, where I saw the pastors with a long musket instead of a crook, and pistols in their girdles. Our Swiss shepherd’s pipe was sweet, and his tune agreeable. I saw a cow strayed; am told that they often break their necks on and over the crags. Descended to Montbovon; pretty scraggy village, with a wild river and a wooden bridge. Hobhouse went to fish - caught one. Our carriage not come; our horses, mules, &c. knocked up; ourselves fatigued.
The view from the highest points of to-day’s journey comprised on one side the greatest part of Lake Leman; on the other, the valleys and mountain of the canton of Fribourg, and an immense plain, with the lakes of Neufchatel and Morat, and all which the borders of the Lake of Geneva inherit; we had both sides of the Jura before us in one point of view, with Alps in plenty. In passing a ravine, the guide recommended strenuously a quickening of pace, as the stones fall with great rapidity and occasional damage; the advice is excellent, but, like most good advice, impracticable, the road being so rough that neither mules, nor mankind, nor horses, can make any violent progress. Passed without fractures or menace thereof.
The music of the cow’s bells (for their wealth, like the patriarch’s, is cattle) in the pastures, which reach to a height far above any mountains in Britain, and the shepherds shouting to us from crag to crag, and playing on their reeds where the steeps appeared almost inaccessible, with the surrounding scenery, realized all that I have ever heard or imagined of a pastoral existence: much more so than Greece or Asia Minor; for there we are a little too much of the sabre and musket order, and if there is a crook in one hand, you are sure to see a gun in the other: but this was pure and unmixed - solitary, savage, and patriarchal. As we went, they played the ‘Rans des Vaches’ and other airs, by way of farewell. I have lately repeopled my mind with nature.’
4 January 1821
‘ “A sudden thought strikes me.” Let me begin a Journal once more. The last I kept was in Switzerland, in record of a tour made in the Bernese Alps, which I made to send to my sister in 1816, and I suppose that she has it still, for she wrote to me that she was pleased with It. Another, and longer, I kept in 1813-1814, which I gave to Thomas Moore in the same year.’