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Byron, Lord

Category: Poet

George Gordon Byron, (1788 –  1824), commonly known simply as Lord Byron, was an English poet and a leading figure in the Romantic movement.  He  was beautiful to look at - slim with curly hair, sensual lips, large eyes.  As attractive to men as women.   And he did his best to be attractive; he made sure he  kept fit by exercising a great deal, and kept on a strict diet to control his weight. For most of his life he was a vegetarian.  From birth, Byron suffered from a deformity of his right foot. He was afflicted with a limp that caused him lifelong psychological and physical misery, aggravated by painful and pointless "medical treatment". 

He was extremely self-conscious about his deformity from a young age,  He often wore specially-made shoes in an attempt to hide the deformed foot.  He was prescribed laudanum for the pain and became an addict, a factor which helps explain practically all his subsequent behaviour.  He was not, as some say, manic depressive or any of the other mental aberrations attributed to him.  He was as high or as low as opium can leave you.

Byron was the son of Captain John "Mad Jack" Byron, an adventurer and a rogue.  As a boy, Byron was described as a "mixture of affectionate sweetness and playfulness, by which it was impossible not to be attached", and a boy who could display "silent rages, moody sullenness and revenge".

 

He later earned a reputation as being extravagant, generous, courageous, unconventional, eccentric, flamboyant and controversial. He was independent and given to extreme mood swings and violent bursts of temper.  On at least one trip his travelling companions were so puzzled by his mood swings they thought he was mentally ill.   

His early life was dominated by his mother, the former Catherine Gordon, heiress of the Gight estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.  When not at school or college, Byron lived with her at Burgage Manor in Southwell, Nottinghamshire.  The relationship was not a happy one.  Described as "a woman without judgment or self-command", Catherine either spoiled and indulged her son or criticised him. Her drinking disgusted him. In a fit of temper, she once referred to him as "a lame brat".  Byron racked up numerous debts as a young man, owing to what his mother termed a "reckless disregard for money".

Byron appeared to be a total enigma.  He loved his friends and inspired extreme loyalty in them, but he treated women abominably.  Really abominably.  He loved them and he left them.  There is just a feeling one gets on reading about these 'conquests', that his mother may have had a hand in this attitude, but I think a far greater influence  - and one that probably marked him for life  - was one Mary Gray.  He would later confess that:

"My passions were developed very early — so early, that few would believe me — if I were to state the period — and the facts which accompanied it. "

'The facts that accompanied it' became known after his death, when his lawyer wrote to a mutual friend telling him a "singular fact" about Byron's life which was "scarcely fit for narration":

"When nine years old at his mother's house a Free Scotch girl [May, sometimes called Mary, Gray, one of his first caretakers] used to come to bed to him and play tricks with his person."

 

Gray was later dismissed, supposedly for beating Byron when he was 11.  A few years later, while he was still a child, a suitor of his mother's also made sexual advances to him.  So sexually he was initiated at aged 9 and introduced to homosexuality fairly early too. I am no psychiatrist, but all I know is what it would have done to me.  I would probably have been pretty confused and troubled after these encounters too.

The true Byron is probably most evident in his great love of animals, most notably for a Newfoundland dog named Boatswain. When the animal contracted rabies, Byron nursed him. In his 1811 will, Byron even requested that he be buried with him.  Byron also had numerous dogs and horses, a fox, four monkeys, a parrot, five cats, an eagle, a crow, a crocodile, a falcon, five peacocks, two guinea hens, an Egyptian crane, a badger, three geese, a heron and a goat with a broken leg. Except for the horses, they all resided indoors at his homes in England, Switzerland, Italy and Greece.

Byron was thus an abused [psychological trauma] sensitive potentially loving child with an opium problem.  A person of excess.  He loved to excess, he had sex to excess, he spent money to excess, he exercised to excess, he occasionally ate to excess and then purged himself, or the opposite, lived for days on dry biscuits and white wine. This extremely high emotion possibly also caused temporary suppression of memory and thus learnt behaviour – behaviour to curb high emotion and behaviour that one might loosely classify as moral behaviour.  He was to all intents and purposes amoral.  Not immoral, amoral.

Byron knew only passion or rage, highs and lows, the massive swings of the pendulum of a sensitive individual.  He was bewildered by himself.  He did not know himself why he reacted the way he did:

"I am such a strange mélangé of good and evil that it would be difficult to describe me."

 

He wanted to be seen as sophisticated and invincible, but he was actually extremely sensitive and cared deeply what people thought of him, which made his behaviour seem even more illogical, as he spent most of his time shocking people or rebelling against them.

Byron kept a tame bear while he was a student at Trinity.  The college did not allow pet dogs, but as there was no mention of bears in their statutes, the college authorities had no legal basis for complaining: So Byron kept a bear.  Byron even suggested that he would apply for a college fellowship for the bear.

Byron also seemed to me to be someone who was principally attracted to the unattainable.  Once he had 'acquired' and thus conquered his women he lost interest.  He described his feelings when he found out his first love [at age eight] Mary Duff, his distant cousin, had married:

" .... hearing of her marriage ... was like a thunder-stroke — it nearly choked me .....  lately, I know not why, the recollection (not the attachment) has recurred as forcibly as ever...But, the more I reflect, the more I am bewildered to assign any cause for this precocity of affection."

The emotion he felt was hurt pride.  Someone had taken one of his 'possessions'.  When he was 15,  Byron 'fell in love' with Mary Chaworth, who he couldn't have, another unattainable.

Lady Caroline Lamb

Byron embarked on a well-publicised affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb that 'shocked the British public'.  She had spurned the attention of the poet on their first meeting, subsequently giving Byron what became his lasting epitaph when she famously described him as "mad, bad and dangerous to know". This didn't prevent him from pursuing her.

Byron eventually broke off the relationship and moved swiftly on to others (such as that with Lady Oxford), but Lamb never entirely recovered, pursuing him even after he tired of her. She was emotionally disturbed, and lost so much weight that Byron cruelly commented to her mother-in-law, his friend Lady Melbourne, that he was "haunted by a skeleton".

Eventually Byron began to court Lady Caroline's cousin Anne Isabella Milbanke ("Annabella"), who refused his first proposal of marriage but later accepted him. Milbanke was a highly moral woman, intelligent and mathematically gifted; she was also an heiress.

Anne Isabella Milbanke

The marriage proved unhappy. He treated her poorly. They had a daughter (Augusta Ada). On 16 January 1816, Lady Byron left him, taking Ada with her. On 21 April, Byron signed the Deed of Separation. Rumours of marital violence, adultery with actresses, incest with Augusta Leigh, and sodomy were circulated.

After this break-up of his domestic life, Byron left England, and, as it turned out, it was forever. He settled at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva, Switzerland. There Byron befriended the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Shelley's future wife Mary Godwin. He was also joined by Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont, with whom he had an affair.

Byron wintered in Venice, pausing his travels when he 'fell in love' with Marianna Segati, in whose Venice house he was lodging, and who was soon replaced by 22-year-old Margarita Cogni; both women were married.  Cogni could not read or write, and she left her husband to move into Byron's Venice house. Their fighting often caused Byron to spend the night in his gondola; when he asked her to leave the house, she threw herself into the Venetian canal.  There are more.

In contrast, his relationships with men were not nearly so possessive and destructive.  Public schools in the UK were hotbeds of homosexuality [sorry for the pun] at the time Byron was there [and right up until the 1960s and 70s after which they became co-ed].  Even boys who were essentially heterosexual by preference were singled out for homosexual advances if they were attractive.  They didn't have to be willing.  One chap I went out with a long time ago had been b***ered at public school against his will.  At least Byron sounds like he was a willing participant.  Byron became emotionally involved with a number of Harrow boys, which he recalled with great vividness: "My school friendships were with me passions " His nostalgic poems about his Harrow friendships, are told in Childish Recollections (1806).

This initiation into the homosexual world followed him to Trinity College, Cambridge,  where he met and formed a close friendship with the younger John Edleston. About his "protégé" he wrote, "He has been my almost constant associate since October, 1805, when I entered Trinity College. His voice first attracted my attention, his countenance fixed it, and his manners attached me to him for ever." In his memory Byron composed Thyrza, a series of elegies.  In later years he described the affair as "violent, though pure love and passion". This statement, however, needs to be read in the context of the severe punishments (including public hanging) that could be inflicted against convicted or even suspected homosexual men.

 

The latter part of Byron's life is very in line with all his earlier life.  Byron was living in Genoa when, in 1823, growing bored with his life there, he accepted a request for his help from representatives from the movement for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. Byron left for Greece.  He arrived in Missolonghi in western Greece on 29 December, and joined Alexandros Mavrokordatos, a Greek politician with military power.

Mavrokordatos and Byron planned to attack the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth. Byron employed a fire-master to prepare artillery and took part of the rebel army under his own command, despite his lack of military experience.

Before the expedition could sail, in 1824, he fell ill, and the usual remedy of bloodletting weakened him further. He made a partial recovery, but in early April he caught a violent cold which 'therapeutic bleeding', insisted on by his doctors, aggravated. It is suspected this treatment, carried out with unsterilised medical instrumentation, may have caused him to develop sepsis. He developed a violent fever, and died aged 36 on 19 April.

Byron wrote prolifically his entire life. In 1832 his publisher, John Murray, released the complete works in 14 duodecimo volumes. Subsequent editions were released in 17 volumes, first published a year later, in 1833. Among Byron's best-known works are the lengthy narrative poems Don Juan and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and the short lyric "She Walks in Beauty." He is regarded as one of the greatest British poets and remains widely read and influential. 

Byron became the archetype for a host of subsequent so called 'Byronic heros' – idealistic and flawed whose attributes include: great talent; great passion; a distaste for society and social institutions; a lack of respect for rank and privilege (although possessing both);  rebellion; exile; an unsavory secret past; arrogance; overconfidence or lack of foresight; and, ultimately, a self-destructive manner.

One could simply say that Byron's poetry and inspiration was entirely opium driven, but this would be to simplify things too much.  He was a deeper character than this.  From 1809 to 1811, for example, Byron went on the Grand Tour.  He travelled from England over Portugal, Spain and the Mediterranean to Albania and spent time at the court of Ali Pasha of Ioannina, and in Athens. For most of the trip, he travelled with his friend John Cam Hobhouse.  Byron  was attracted to Sufi mysticism and later wrote,

“With these countries, and events connected with them, all my really poetical feelings begin and end."

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