With somewhat uninspiring opening lines such as “O Thou! who rollest in yon azure field”, “When energising objects men pursue” and “We do not curse thee, Waterloo!” it’s a wonder that anyone reads Byron nowadays unless forced by academic requirements or perhaps an overenthusiastic zeal for the great days of the great Romantic Poets.
However his legacy remains popular and his following is undiminished. He wrote of course of, amongst other works, Don Jaun.
In the classic version, Don Juan is portrayed as a quite wealthy and seductive libertine who devotes his life and soul to the seducing of women.
His life is also punctuated with some extreme violence, some murder and of course lots of gambling. The ending depends on which version of the legend one is reading. Tirso’s original play has been interpreted as a religious parable against Don Juan’s sinful ways and ends with him dying having been denied salvation by God. Other authors and playwrights have interpreted the ending in their own fashion. Espronceda’s Don Felix walks into hell and to his death of his own volition, Zorrilla’s Don Juan asks for a divine pardon. The figure of Don Juan has inspired many interpretations.
Byron’s version of “Don Juan” however reverses that classic womanising image of the Don Juan legend, portraying Juan not as a womaniser but as someone easily seduced by women. With over 16,000 lines of verse Byron himself called it an “Epic Satire” which indeed it is.
There is much more to the man though. Born in 1788 in London and still regarded as one of the greats of British poetry writing, in Greece he is still revered as having fought for Greek Independence against the rule of the Ottoman Empire. In some ways his life, if you discount the numerous love affairs, aristocratic excesses and that slightly scandalous sexual affair with his half sister, mirrors that of Eric Blair.
Blair’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War might not be that different to those of Byron in the Greek Civil War of Independence. Between 1821 and 1832, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and several other European powers fought against the Ottoman Empire. Byron was for the Greeks and against the Turks and went so far as to die for the cause in April 1824 at the young age of 36. In truth, he died of fever and not of heroic wounds received in battle but given his romantic disposition and had he been able to tell of the demise he would no doubt have immortalised the death in heroic romantised stanzas.
The good folk of Greece and in particular the folk of Missolonghi where the poet died, still commemorate his arrival in January 1824 during a lull in the war with Turkey. There are those who to this day feel that he could have reversed the state of anarchy amongst the Greeks and brought the conflict to a swifter end.
Who was this man? A poet obviously and a great one. A romantic of course who lived life to the full. An Aberdonian? Well almost.
Byron’s mother was one Catherine Gordon of Gight. There are of course a whole lot of Gordon’s. From Moray to Aberdeenshire they ruled and feuded for hundreds of years. A Gordon fell at Flodden, another in Flanders and they murdered each other without mercy over the years. The family waged internecine war amongst themselves with predictable results. There are many Gordon Castles in NE Scotland and most are in either ruins or new ownership.
Catherine Gordon of Gight however topped the lot in some ways.
Gight Castle is a ruin nowadays. Set in a place of some beauty and difficult to get to it was described by Cuthbert Graham in his book Grampian the Castle Country as being associated “from first to last” with a race whose story was “crowded with murder and sudden death”.
George Gordon built the place in 1560. In line with the defensive thinking of the time, it resembled in design Delgatie castle at around 70ft by 50ft and built on an L plan and may have been commissioned from the same architect. Unlike Delgatie it has not survived the ravages of the last half millennia.
Catherine Gordon of Gight had the misfortune to marry a man by the name of Mad Jack Byron a conspicuous gambler and Coldstream Guard Officer.
After Mad Jack had squandered most of her fortune and deserted her, Mrs Byron took her infant son to Aberdeen, Scotland, where they lived in lodgings on a meagre income.
The rest is history. Mad “Foulweather” Jack died in 1791 at age 35 at Valenciennes in Spain. Lord Byron would tell friends that his father had cut his own throat however that may be an exaggeration.
Bryon junior attended school in Aberdeen and lived for a while in Queen Street. While his impoverished mother drank, he attended Aberdeen Grammar School before launching himself into what some see as a romantic repeat of his father’s attempts to gain happiness and fulfilment in a life misspent.
The lands and castle of Gight were sold to pay off Mad Jack’s gambling debts and the rest is history. The ruin remains and nowadays sheep graze on what might have been Lord Byron’s legacy. Perhaps I prefer the poetry though.
There is, I am told a pub in Aberdeen’s Northfield named after the man, now that is an accolade indeed.