A Byronic Biography
The baby boy who was later to become the notorious “lover, lunatic and poet”, Lord Byron, sixth Baron Byron, was born in 1788 in lodgings in London. His mother, alone during the last months of her pregnancy because her husband was in France, had been writing pathetic letters to lawyers asking for financial assistance, so she could buy food, a place to live and medical care. This was ironic as she was a Scottish noblewoman, Catherine Gordon, Laird of Ghigt, a descendant of the King of Scotland.
It is not known why she was in London. Her father-in-law, John Byron, had been an admiral and her mother-in-law, Sophia Trevanion Byron, was one of Dr. Johnson’s literary ladies. Although Sophia Byron was living in London, there is no record of her having met Catherine or her infant grandson.
The baby, named George Gordon Byron after his mother’s father, was born with a caul over his head and a misshapen foot.
Mrs. Byron soon moved back to her own family in Scotland where she raised her son in “reduced circumstances”. Her charming, handsome but disreputable husband, who had finished squandering her considerable fortune, had abandoned them and died in misery and poverty in France.
The little boy, active and mischievous, grew up in Aberdeen where these years of his childhood were the happiest of his life and were always remembered with nostalgia.
Even as a child he was marked for Love: at seven years old he experienced a “passion” for his cousin, Mary Duff, and his nursemaid “took liberties with his person” introducing him, at the age of nine, to sexual play.
When he was ten, in 1798, Byron inherited an English Barony from an elderly Great Uncle and became the Lord of a mismanaged and decrepit manor entangled in rumour, superstition and litigation.
The house, Newstead Abbey, built in the ruins of an Augustinian priory three hundred years before, was practically uninhabitable, but arcane and evocative to a precocious, intelligent boy fascinated by history. His practical and efficient mother began to restore the house to livability and the estate to profitability.
The boy Baron, used to the freedom and egalitarianism he had know as a Scottish schoolboy, resented the aristocratic distance expected of an English Peer. In an early poem he wrote:
Fortune take back these cultured lands,Byron, from “I Would I Were a Careless Child”, Hours of Idleness, 1807
Take back this name of splendid sound!
I hate the touch of servile hands,
I hate the slaves that cringe around.
Place me among the rocks I love,
Which sound to Ocean’s wildest roar.
I ask but this — again to rove
Through scenes my youth hath known before.
Byron, — and the nursemaid — lived in a grim house in Nottingham which still stands at the top of St. James Street, close to the hospital where Byron was being treated to correct the problem with his foot. They were also close to several Byron family aunts and cousins. Once Newstead was comfortable, Mrs. Byron leased it to Lord Grey de Ruthyn, a “sporting” young man of twenty two who was “mad” for hunting. She took a charming house, Burgage Manor, in Southwell, a small and pleasant town twelve miles from the estate. This house, also, is still there.
Byron was sent to school at Harrow, where he made friendships “too romantic to last” by defending younger boys from bullies. At home on holidays, he also befriended other young people who lived in the vicinity of Newstead . He always fell in love — and lust — very easily, and felt rejection very keenly.
His later adolescence was bedeviled by the power of his charismatic good looks and irresistible sexual charm. At Christmas, Byron was a guest of Lord Grey (in his own house) until something occurred that created a “shyness” between them. This was probably further sexual experimentation — of a very exotic sort. He inspired jealousy in both men and women while enjoying physical pleasures with schoolboy friends, harlots, household servants and social climbing young women of “quality”.
He began to write light-hearted and self-depreciating poetry inspired by his painful loves and erotic escapades.
Woman! experience might have told meByron, from “To Woman”, Hours of Idleness, 1807
That all must love thee that behold thee:
Surely experience must have taught
Thy firmest promises are but nought
Why should you weep like Lydia Languish,Byron, from “To a Lady”, who presented the author with a lock of her hair braided with her own and appointed a night in December to meet him in the garden, Hours of Idleness, 1807
And fret with self-created anguish?
Or doom the lover you have chosen
On winter nights to sigh half frozen;
In leafless shades to sue for pardon
Only because the scene’s a garden?
In Italy I’ve no objection;
Warm nights are proper for reflection;
But here our climate is so rigid
That love itself is rather frigid:
Then let us meet as oft we’ve done
Beneath the influence of the sun
Or if at midnight I must meet you
Within your boudoir let me greet you
There we can love for hours together
Much better in such snowy weather
Then if my passion fail to please
Next night I’ll be content to freeze
In law an infant, and in years a boy,Byron, from “Damaetas”, Hours of Idleness, 1807
In mind a slave to every vicious joy;
From every sense of shame and virtue wean’d
In lies an adept, in deceit a fiend;
Versed in hypocrisy, while yet a child;
Fickle as wind, of inclinations wild;
Woman his dupe, his heedless friend a tool;
Old in the world though scarcely broke from school
He published a book of his poetry, in 1807, at the age of nineteen, as Hours of Idleness.
In his second year at Cambridge, as a published author, he was accepted into a group of older, influential scholars, many of whom remained his closest friends for life. At Cambridge, also, he had become entranced by the beautiful face and angelic singing voice of a choirboy, John Edelston, and fell painfully and somewhat guiltily in love with him.
There be none of Beauty’s daughtersByron, from “Stanzas for Music”, Occasional Pieces, 1807-1824
With a magic like thee;
And like music on the waters
Is thy sweet voice to me
He was reconciled to this “paederasty” by one of his new friends, Charles Matthews, who was known as “Citoyen” for his radical ideas, sympathetic to the French Revolution.
With Matthews, John Cam Hobhouse, founder of the Cambridge Whig club and Scrope Davies, a perpetual and successful gambler, Byron , handsome, fashionable and convivial, submerged himself in a life of dissipation. He went up to London and took up sponsorship of prize fights, dinners with “bawds and ballet masters” and ordered £500 worth of wine — when, in Scotland, he and his mother had lived on £150 a year.
His first book of poetry having been mercilessly criticized in the Edinburgh Review, in 1809, at twenty one, Byron took revenge by publishing English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, a scathing satire on the currently popular poets and critics. This made his name as a poet.
After running up further enormous debts by purchasing the freedom of a mistress from her bordello, driving around in a coach and four and redecorating his ancestral home with expensive wallpaper, elaborate draperies, ornate furniture and a life size portrait of himself, he left on a journey to the exotic and erotic countries of the east.
Although the Napoleonic war was at it’s height, he rode through Portugal and Spain wearing a military uniform while his servants travelled to Gibraltar by sea. In later years, Byron’s travelling companion, John Cam Hobhouse, acted as a military courier and diplomat. They may have been combining a diplomatic or military mission with their tourism.
Byron spent the next two years in Greece, Turkey and Albania, collecting souvenir costumes and once more, possibly, acting in a diplomatic capacity in visits to Ali Pasha and his son Veli Pasha, Turkish rulers in Albania and southern Greece. At one point he and Hobhouse took command of a captured Turkish vessel and became privateers. Byron’s favourite sport was long distance swimming. He was very proud of having swum the Hellespont in imitation of Leander’s mythic feat.
For me degenerate modern wretch
Though in the genial month of May
My dripping limbs I faintly stretch
And think I’ve done a feat today
But since he cross’d the rapid tide
According to the doubtful story
To woo — and who knows what beside
And swam for Love, as I for Glory
‘T were hard to say who fared the best:Byron, from “Written after Swimming From Sestos to Abydos”, Occasional Pieces, 1807-1824
Sad mortals! thus the gods still plague you
He lost his labour, I my jest;
For he was drowned and I’ve the ague
After Hobhouse returned to England, Byron stayed on in Greece, living in a boy’s residential school and once more enjoying the physical pleasures indulged in by early adolescent school mates. He also travelled throughout the Peloponnesus and Greek Islands, once in company with a “talented” boy who wore long curls and carried a parasol. He began writing a long poem in the style of a Medieval romance called Childe Burun’s Pilgrimage.
He did not report falling in love there, but one of the boys — Nicolo Giraud — became his constant companion, riding down to swim together every day at Piraeus. He saved Byron’s life by nursing him through a serious fever which was probably his first bout of malaria. Later Byron paid for Nicolo’s education in a monastery on Malta and provided a large legacy for him in his will of 1811. Byron’s love for boys always had a strong element of paternal responsibility.
Returning to England in late summer, 1811, completely without funds, he never again saw his mother as she died suddenly at Newstead. Within a few weeks he was crushed by grief. John Edelston, his beloved choirboy had died while he was away.
Without a stone to mark the spot
And say what Truth might well have said
By all, save one, perchance forgot
Ah! wherefore art thou lowly laid?
By many a shore and many a sea
Divided yet beloved in vain
The past the future fled to thee
To bid us meet — no — ne’er again!
Ours too the glance none saw beside
The smile none else might understand
The whispered thoughts of hearts allied
The pressure of the thrilling hand:
The kiss, so guiltless and refined,
That Love each warmer wish forbore;
Those eyes proclaim’d so pure a mind,
Even passion blush’d to plead for more.
That tone that taught me to rejoice,Byron, from “To Thyrza”, Occasional Pieces, 1807-1824
When prone, unlike thee, to repine
The song, celestial from thy voice,
But sweet to me from none but thine;
Away, away, ye notes of woe!Byron, from “Away, away, ye notes of woe!”, Occasional Pieces, 1807-1824
Be silent, thou once soothing strain,
Or I must flee from hence — for, oh!
I dare not trust those sounds again.
To me they speak of brighter days —
But lull the chords, for now, alas!
I must not think, I may not gaze,
On what I am — on what I was.
At Christmas time, 1811, Byron invited friends to Newstead Abbey, attempting to “banish care” by re-creating the days when he and his college cronies dressed up in monks robes, drank from a silver cup made from a skull and chased the housemaids. Boringly, they read, talked and studied.
Byron fell in love with a “decorative and pliant”, Welsh housemaid named Susan Vaughn. She, presumably not believing he truly loved her, entertained other men in Byron’s absence and became involved in jealous intrigues. He “sent her home to her family”, but she broke his heart.
In March 1812 the long poem he had begun in Greece was released, renamed Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. He said “I woke up one day and found myself famous”. Handsome, charming and with a reputation for wickedness, he was the star of London’s social season of spring 1812.
Byron and the waltz became the fashion of the drawing rooms of London at the same time. Because of his twisted foot, he stood apart from the dance, apparently brooding darkly in depreciation of the frivolities of society. This enhanced his melancholic reputation — and his sexual attractiveness.
An emotional and eccentric older married woman, Lady Caroline Lamb, became infatuated with him. At first he was flattered and responded to her with abandon. Byron liked to collect “locks” of hair as mementoes of his loves. Caroline sent him one — of pubic hair — with a warning to be careful of the scissors points if he attempted to duplicate the compliment. She didn’t want any damage done to the essential equipment of a lover. He confided his sexual experiences and preferences to her. She came to his rooms, and had a portrait painted, dressed as a boy in a page’s uniform.
Her family became increasingly embarrassed by Caroline’s behaviour. Her husband, William Lamb, was a politician. As they were afraid that they might elope together, her mother-in-law, Lady Melbourne, befriended Byron and convinced him to break off the relationship. Her family whisked Caroline off to their estate in Ireland.
Byron consoled himself by becoming the live-in lover of Lady Oxford. She was twice his age but years later he wrote that “her autumnal charms” were among the finest he had ever enjoyed. Lady Oxford was a friend of Caroline the Princess of Wales, and Byron became part of her society. There he met her daughter, the Heir to the throne, Princess Charlotte.
In the summer of 1813 Byron fell into a passion which seriously affected his life. There was something forbidden and dangerous about it. He confided his love in letters to Lady Melbourne, who was alarmed for him. Most biographers, following the evidence compiled by Byron’s wife and grandson, accept that he had a love affair with his half-sister Mrs. Augusta Leigh.
Lady Caroline Lamb returned from Ireland and continued to write to him, go to his home and threaten him. At an evening party, after becoming angry with Byron, she cut her hand. This was reported in the papers as an attempted suicide. Today, her behaviour would be considered as stalking — a crime. Once, in his rooms when he was absent, she wrote “Remember me” on the fly leaf of a book. The book was Vathek a novel written by a man who had been convicted of sodomy. Byron’s response was a poem:
Remember thee! remember thee!
Till Lethe quench life’s burning stream
Remorse and shame shall cling to thee
And haunt thee like a feverish dream
Remember thee! Aye doubt it not.Byron, “Remember Me!”, Occasional Pieces, 1807-1824
Thy husband too shall think of thee!
By neither shalt thou be forgot,
Thou false to him thou fiend to me!
Caroline continued to follow him and spy on him for years, trying to guess who his new “attachments” could be — and spreading gossip in order to embarrass him and possibly destroy his relationships.
In January 1815, Byron married Anne Isabella Milbanke, known as Annabella. She was a staid, portentous, analytical young woman who had read too many “Gothic” novels and fancied herself as a “disinterested” heroine, sacrificing herself for Love. She intended to redeem Byron from his life of wickedness by the good example of her Undeviating Rectitude.
She was, undoubtedly, interesting and intelligent. She wrote poetry and had been patroness to a poet, which was why Byron had first become attracted to her. He called her the “Princess of Parallelograms” — referring to her reputation as a mathematician. As she was completely unable to ever understand, or take interest in, the serious financial problems faced by her parents and her husband, her mathematics must have been exclusively theoretical.
The sale of Newstead Abbey was supposed to provide the funds to cancel Byron’s debts and to support the marriage, but the purchaser defaulted.
Annabella was passionate, but prudish. She was, also, madly jealous. As they were hopelessly mismatched, the marriage was painful right from the start. Annabella did not like it when Byron “versified,” as she put it, because she resented his need for private contemplation. Their financial situation became so difficult that the bailiffs moved into their London house to prevent them from removing the furniture.
In the evenings, he escaped his domestic troubles by immersing himself in the theatrical life of the city, as he was a director of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Suffering from extreme mood swings, at first Byron turned to brandy. Annabella did not approve. After telling his pregnant wife, “I must have brandy or a mistress”, he set up an actress for sympathy and comfort and to satisfy his, no doubt, exotic carnal tastes.
Their daughter Ada was born in December, eleven months after their wedding. A few weeks later, claiming that Byron was insane, Annabella took the child home to her parents. Byron never saw either of them again.
Lady Caroline Lamb had not relinquished her desire for Byron, but it had metamorphosed to the “fury of a woman scorned”. William Lamb, her husband, was Annabella’s cousin. After the separation, Caroline arranged a meeting with her and revealed Byron’s secrets — as she interpreted them — that he had slept with, and possibly impregnated, his half sister and that, at school and in the East, he had enjoyed homosexual contact with boys. “Sodomy” was, at the time, a capital crime in Britain.
This salacious gossip was soon circulating throughout society. Annabella discovered that by keeping a “policy of silence”, the rumours re-enforced her position on the moral high ground, even though she had walked out on her husband. Byron was devastated.
Alone in his huge and elegant house on Piccadilly Terrace in London, Byron was visited by a eighteen year old girl who wanted to become his mistress.
Claire Clairmont and her stepsister, Mary Godwin, had returned from Switzerland where they had eloped with Percy Shelley, a married man who was also a poet, but one of little fame. They believed in the “Otaheite” (Tahiti) Philosophy — of free love. As Percy and Mary now had a child, Claire was no longer welcome in their unconventional family. It took persistence and many visits, but Claire finally got her wish — Byron consoled himself with her. Two weeks later he left England forever.
Byron travelled through Europe, writing additional verses for Childe Harold, and settled in a villa, Diodati, on the lake near Geneva. Claire was there, waiting for him, with Mary and Shelley.
Byron, in need of a friend, became very attached to Shelley. The time they spent together discussing philosophy and poetry, enriched his craftsmanship. They sailed down the lake together, visiting the romantic settings in La Nouvelle Heloise, a novel by Rousseau. They did not take the women with them. One afternoon they exchanged roses.
After visiting the Chateau of Chillon, Byron was inspired to write one of his most moving poems: The Prisoner of Chillon. One rainy night, the group, which included Byron’s handsome young personal physician, Dr. Polidori, decided to compose ghost stories. The result was Mary’s Frankenstein and Dr. Polidori’s The Vampyre. This story was published as “a story of Lord Byron’s” which it undoubtedly is, even though he publicly denied it. It concerns a man named Lord Ruthin who lives in an Abbey and infects his victims with an unholy sexual need.
Byron kept Claire busy, letting her copy out his poetry and bedding her until she revealed that she had become pregnant by him in England. He agreed to care for the child, but refused to have any more to do with her.
Byron moved to Venice, where he conveniently fell in love with his landlady. His poetic production there was very rich — completion of Childe Harold, The Lament of Tasso, Mazeppa, Manfred, Beppo, and the first parts of his masterpiece, Don Juan.
His sexual activity was frenetic and legendary. He kept several mistresses, his gondolier procured whores, and he rented a “casino” — a small apartment — for assignations with actresses, opera stars and countesses, all of whom competed for him and seem to have been most grateful for his attentions.
Claire brought his daughter, Allegra, to Italy. He welcomed the child, but he refused to see Claire, allowing only Shelley to visit him.
One fateful evening in 1819, at a “conversatione” at Contessa Benzone’s palazzo, Byron met a very pretty nineteen year old contessa, Teresa Guiccioli, who delighted in discussion of poets and poetry. The next few days were spent making ecstatic love at his casino. He wrote to a friend that she was “lovely as dawn and warm as noon”. He fell “most painfully” in love with her — at the age of thirty one.
When she returned to Ravenna with her elderly husband, she became ill. Byron was sent for. He arrived to find that she was not expected to live. He bought poison intending to join her if she died, as so many others he had loved had done.
She soon recovered enough to travel to a doctor in Venice, in company with Byron. They went to his summer palazzo, where they “adulterated” in uninterrupted luxurious private leisure.
After her husband arrived in Venice and subjected them to some fiery scenes, Teresa returned to Ravenna. Byron planned to go back to England, but his daughter, Allegra, came down with a fever which, as it was winter, delayed their journey. Teresa became seriously ill again and her family begged Byron to come to her. Realizing that he loved her, he moved to Ravenna and became Teresa’s “cavaliere servente” — an official lover. He wrote five verse dramas while living in Count Guiccioli’s house and enjoying the favours of his wife.
Teresa’s brother and father were part of a secret revolutionary cabal, the Carbonari, attempting to free Italy from the Austrian Empire. Byron joined them in their intrigues. They were all banished from Ravenna and, over the next few years, lived in several northern Italian cities. Their movements were closely watched and reported on by the secret police who misinterpreted most of their actions and intentions.
In Pisa, Byron was reunited with Shelley and Mary. They attracted a group of British writers and hangers-on, a sort of a “court”, that has been called the “Pisan Circle”. Many of them subsequently wrote lucrative memoirs glorifying their time as “friends” of the famous poets.
Little Allegra, who had been boarding at a convent school, died of a fever in April 1822. Tragically, a few months later, Shelley and a friend were drowned while sailing off the coast of Italy. Byron was, once again devastated by the death of loved ones.
In Greece, a rebellion had begun against the Turks and a committee had been organized in England to raise money to support the war. Byron was elected to the Committee because several of his writings had expressed sympathy with Greek independence, and he had become a symbol of the return of Greece to the classic ideal. He went to Cephalonia to supervise the distribution of the Committee Funds. Unfortunately, they were slow to arrive. He was, for the first time in his life, rich, as he had finally sold Newstead Abbey, and had inherited money from his mother-in-law’s estate. He was compelled to use his personal fortune to support the Greek war — until the funds arrived.
His emotional life was, as usual, distractingly complex. He had fallen in love with a fifteen year old Greek boy named Lukas. He knew this love could not be indulged, but he spoiled the boy with presents, elegant uniforms and the command of a troop of soldiers
‘Tis time this heart should be unmoved
Since others it has ceased to move,
Yet though I cannot be beloved
Still let me love.
The hope, the fear, the jealous care
The exalted portion of the pain
And power of Love I cannot share
But wear the chain.
Tread those reviving passions downByron, found, after his death, among his papers at Missolonghi.
Unworthy manhood; -unto thee
Indifferent should the smile or frown
Of beauty be.
I watched thee when the foe was at our side –
Ready to strike at him, -or thee and me –
Were safety hopeless – rather than divide
Aught with one loved – save love and liberty.
I watched thee in the breakers – when the rock
Received our prow – and all was storm and fear,
And bade thee cling to me through every shock –
This arm would be thy bark – or breast thy bier.
I watched thee when the fever glazed thine eyes –
Yielding my couch – and stretched me on the ground
When overworn with watching – ne’er to rise
From thence – if thou an early grave hadst found.
The earthquake came and rocked the quivering wall –
And men and Nature reeled as if with wine –
Whom did I seek around the tottering hall –
For thee – whose safety first provide for – thine.
And when convulsive throes denied my breath
The faintest utterance to my fading thought –
To thee – to thee – even in the grasp of death
My Spirit turned – Ah! oftener than it ought.
Thus much and more – and yet thou lov’st me not,Byron, found, after his death, among his papers at Missolonghi.
And never wilt – Love dwells not in our will –
Nor can I blame thee – though it be my lot
To strongly – wrongly – vainly – love thee still.
Byron mortified his flesh with a stringent diet — soda water and biscuits — which, as he no doubt knew, was the medieval penance prescribed for homoerotic lust. Unfortunately, a man on a starvation diet could not withstand the stress of organizing and mediating a war. He succumbed to two seizures — probably symptoms of anorexia nervosa — that were diagnosed by his incompetent doctors as brain disease — which would be, in the nineteenth century medical opinion, the inevitable result of his life of sin.
Weakened and ill, he went riding in a rainstorm and came down with a fever — probably a recurrence of malaria. His doctors wanted to bleed him, which Byron resisted. If bleeding were efficacious there would be a lot of healthy people on a battle field. Ultimately he became too weak to argue. They bled him for two days and were pleased when his veins ran clear. One of his last lucid remarks, to his valet, was : “My doctors have assassinated me”. They may very well have done so. As the embodiment of Romantic rebellion many powerful people wanted Byron dead — the crowned heads of Europe, the Sultan of Turkey and the Pope.
On Easter Sunday, 1824, at the age of thirty six, Byron died, during a suitably ferocious thunder storm.
When Time, or soon or late, shall bring
The dreamless sleep that lulls the dead
Oblivion! may thy languid wing
Wave gently o’er my dying bed
No band of friends or heirs be there
To weep or wish the coming blow:
No maiden with dishevelled hair
To feel, or feign, decorous woe
But silent let me sink to earth,Byron, from “Euthanasia”, Occasional Pieces, 1807-1824
With no officious mourners near:
I would not mar one hour of mirth,
Nor startle friendship with a tear.
He did not get this wish. He was surrounded to the last by a babble of weeping servants, helpless body guards and horrified supplicants.
He was immediately autopsied and the doctors found what they were looking for — the brain lesions that they believed resulted from his sexual promiscuity. This provided the evidence they needed for the necessity of having bled him — which probably killed him. Malaria attacks the red blood cells.
His lungs were left in Greece, but contrary to his wishes, the rest of him was pickled in spirits and shipped back to England. Westminster Abbey refused to conduct his funeral because he was an unrepentant sinner. Finally, a long cortege followed his funeral carriage north to his internment — next to his mother — among generations of Byrons.
When, to their airy hall my fathers’ voiceByron, “A Fragment”, Hours of Idleness, 1807
Shall call my spirit, joyful in their choice
When poised upon the gale, my form shall ride,
Or dark, in mist, descend the mountain’s side
Oh! may my shade behold no sculptured urns,
To mark the spot where earth to earth returns!
No lengthened scroll, no praise—encumber’d stone
My epitaph shall be my name alone:
If that with honour fail to crown my clay
Oh! may no other fame my deeds repay!
That only that, shall single out the spot;
By that remembered or by that forgot.
This wish, written in 1803, at the age of fifteen, was granted. He is in the crypt under the choir stall of the parish church of St. Mary Magdalen at Hucknall Torkard, appropriately dedicated to an adulterous woman — who was forgiven. It is covered by a plaque presented by the King of Greece, which carries only his name — and a hero’s laurel wreath.