Byron, Lord George Gordon

Byron, Lord George Gordon (1788–1824)

(pop culture)

Lord George Gordon Byron, purported author of the first modern vampire story in English, was born in 1788 in London, the son of Catherine Gordon and John Byron. After his father spent the fortune brought to the marriage by Catherine, she took Byron to Aberdeen, Scotland in 1790, where he had a poor but somewhat normal childhood, disturbed only by a lame foot. His father died in 1791. Due to the untimely death of a cousin in 1794, he became the family heir, and when his great-uncle died in 1798, he became Lord Byron. Soon thereafter, he and his mother moved to the family estate in Nottinghamshire. In 1801 he entered Harrow School, and four years later went on to Trinity College at Cambridge University.

While at Cambridge Byron privately published his first poetry collection, Fugitive Pieces (1806). The next year another collection was published as Hours of Idleness (1807). He received his master’s degree in 1808 and the following year took his seat in the House of Lords. He spent much of 1809 and 1810 traveling and writing Cantos I and II of Childe Harolde. Its publication in 1812 brought him immediate fame. He also began his brief liaison with Lady Caroline Lamb.

The following year he broke off the relationship with Lamb and began his affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. At about the same time he was also initially exploring the subject of vampirism in his poem “The Giaour,” completed and published in 1813. In the midst of the battles described in the poem, the Muslim antagonist speaks a lengthy curse against the title character, the giaour (an infidel, one outside the faith). Upon death, the infidel’s spirit would surely be punished. However, the Muslim declared that there would be more:

But first, on earth as Vampire sent, Thy corpse shall from its tomb be rent:

Then ghastly haunt thy native place, And suck the blood of all thy race;

There from thy daughter, sister, wife, At midnight drain the stream of life;

Yet loathe the banquet which perforce Must feed thy livid living corpse.

Thy victims are they yet expire Shall know the demon for their sire, As
cursing thee, thou cursing them, Thy flowers are withered on the stem.

In “The Giaour” Byron demonstrated his familiarity with the Greek vrykolakas, a corpse that was animated by a devilish spirit and returned to its own family to make them its first victims. While the Greek vampire in “The Giaour” would be the only overt mention of the vampire in Byron’s vast literary output, it merely set the stage for the more famous “vampiric” incident in Byron’s life. Meanwhile, in January 1814, Byron married Annabelle Milbanke. Their daughter was born in December. Early in 1816, the couple separated after she and British society became aware of Byron’s various sexual encounters. When both turned on him, he decided to leave the country (for good as it turned out).

In the spring of 1816, Byron left for the Continent. Accompanying him was a young physician/writer, John Polidori, who among other services supplied Byron with a spectrum of mood-altering and hallucinogenic drugs. By the end of May, they had arrived in Geneva and early in June rented the Villa Diodati, overlooking the Lake of Geneva. Joining him were Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, and Godwin’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, another of Byron’s mistresses. On June 15, weather having forced them inside, Byron suggested that each person write and share a ghost story with the small group. Two evenings later the stories began. The most serious product of this adventure was, of course, Frankenstein, Godwin’s story expanded into a full novel.

Byron’s contribution to the ghostly evening was soon abandoned and never developed. It concerned two friends who, like himself and Polidori, left England to travel on the Continent, in the story’s case, to Greece. While there, one of the friends died, but before his death obtained from the other a promise to keep secret the matter of his death. The second man returned to England only to discover that his former companion had beaten him back home and had begun an affair with the second man’s sister. Polidori kept notes on Byron’s story, which Byron had jotted down in his notebook. (Two novels, both later made into movies, Gothic, directed by Ken Russell, and Haunted Summer, offered an account of Byron and his associates during these weeks in Switzerland.) Byron and Polidori parted company several months later. Polidori left for England and Byron continued his writing and the romantic adventures that were to fill his remaining years. The ghost story seemed a matter of no consequence. Then in May 1819, he saw an item concerning a tale, “The Vampyre,” supposedly written by him and published in the New Monthly Magazine in England. He immediately wrote a letter denying his authorship and asking a retraction. As the story unfolded, Byron discovered that Polidori had written a short story from his notes on the tale told by Byron in 1816 in Switzerland. Polidori’s story was the first piece of prose fiction to treat a literal vampire, and the publisher of the New Monthly Magazine took it upon himself, based upon Polidori’s account of the story’s origin, to put Byron’s name on it. In the light of a not unexpected response, he quickly published it in a separate booklet over Byron’s name, and had it translated into French and German. Both Polidori and Byron made attempts to correct the error, and before the year was out Byron had the “Fragment of a Story” published as part of his attempt to distance himself from the finished story. The problem he encountered in denying his authorship was amply demonstrated in 1830 by the inclusion of “The Vampyre” in the French edition of his collected works. Byron must have been further irritated by Polidori’s choice of a name for the vampire character in the story, Lord Ruthven, the same name given to the Byron-figure in Lady Caroline Lamb’s fictionalized account of their liaison, Glenarvon (1816).

Once the Polidori incident was behind him, Byron never returned to the vampire in any of his writings. Twentietli-century critics, however, have seen vampirism as a prominent metaphor in the romantic treatment of human relations, especially destructive ones. Vampires are characters who suck the life force from those they love, and the romantic authors of the early nineteenth century, such as Byron, utilized psychic vampirism despitenever labeling such characters as vampires.

For example, critic James B. Twitchell saw the psychic vampire theme as an integral aspect of Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred, the first acts of which were written in the summer of 1816 at the Villa Diodati. Illustrative of this “vampirism” was a scene in the first act in which the person who had just stopped Manfred from suicide offered him a glass of wine. Manfred refused comparing the wine to blood—both his blood and that of his half sister with whom he had an affair. Here Twitchell saw a return to the Greek vampires who first drank/attacked the blood/life of those closest to them. Manfred was an early manifestation of “l’homme fatal,” the man who acts upon those around him as if he were a vampire.

During a severe illness in April 1824, Byron underwent a series of bleedings that, ironically, probably caused his death. He died April 19, 1824. His body was returned to England for burial. In the mid 1990s, novelist Tom Holland issued an entertaining book based on the premise that Byron did not die, but lives on as a vampire.

Sources:

Bone, Drummond. The Cambridge Companion to Byron. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 360 pp.
Byron, Lord. The Complete Poetic Works of Byron. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1933. 1,055 pp.
Dangerfield, Elma. Byron and the Romantics in Switzerland, 1816. London: Ascent Books, 1978. 93 pp.
Edwards, Anne. Haunted Summer. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973. 278 pp.
Eisler, Benita. Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame. New York: Vintage, 2000. 880 pp.
Holland, Tom. The Vampyre: Being the True Pilgrimage of George Gordon, Sixth Lord Byron. London: Little Brown and Company, 1995. 339 pp.
Senf, Carol. The Vampire in Nineteenth-Century English Literature. Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press, 1988. 204 pp.
Twitchell, James B. The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1981. 219 pp.
Volk, Stephen. Gothic. London: Grafton, 1987. 222 pp.