On this day in 1814, Lord Byron’s “The Corsair” is published and sells some 10,000 copies on its first day in print. The poem was one of several gloomy works he produced at a time when he was engaged in several ill-fated love affairs.
Byron was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1788 and was raised in poverty. Burdened with a clubfoot, Byron later forbid anyone to mention his condition. At age 10, he inherited his great uncle’s title and became Lord Byron. He attended Harrow, then Trinity College, Cambridge, where he ran up enormous debts. His first published volume of poetry, Hours of Idleness (1807), was savaged by critics, especially in Scotland, and his second published work, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), attacked the British literary establishment.
After taking his master’s degree in 1809, he traveled in Portugal, Spain, and the Near East for two years. His wanderings inspired his poetic work Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), which won him almost instant acclaim in England. As he said at the time, “(I) awoke one morning and found myself famous.” His poetry, manners, fashion, and tastes were widely imitated.
In 1815, he married Anne Isabella Milbanke, and the couple had a daughter, August Ada, the following year. Ada proved to be a mathematical prodigy and is considered by some to be the first computer programmer, thanks to her work on Charles Babbage’s computing machine.
The marriage quickly foundered, and the couple legally separated. By this time, scandal had broken out over Byron’s suspected incest with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. He was ostracized from society and forced to flee England in 1816. He settled in Geneva, near Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. There, he became intimately involved with Mary’s half-sister, Claire Clairmont, who bore his daughter Allegra in January 1817. Byron moved to Venice that same year and began a period of debauchery.
In 1819, he entered an affair with the Countess Teresa Guiccioli, the young wife of an elderly count, and the two remained attached for many years. Byron, always an avid proponent of liberal causes and national independence, supported the Greek war for independence. He joined the cause in Greece, training troops in the town of Missolonghi, where he died just after his 36th birthday.