Dangerous

Although a prodi­gy, sex­u­al­ly promis­cu­ous, and pugna­cious, Byron was a poet­ic genius who worked his gifts and him­self hard. Before his ear­ly death, at age 36, he had con­quered peaks of lit­er­a­ture and renown that con­tem­po­raries who lived to twice his years viewed only on the hori­zon.

Byron’s char­ac­ter was formed by strong, con­flict­ing cur­rents; his tur­bu­lent child­hood, his pre­co­cious wit, his sud­den acces­sion to wealth (or at least, its expec­ta­tion), his star­tling good looks and his always-present-nev­er-men­tioned lame­ness.

After his drunk­en, gold-brick­ing, father had desert­ed them, George Gordon’s moth­er some­times smoth­ered her son with affec­tion and gen­eros­i­ty but, at oth­er times, with rage and abuse. His scot­tish nurse, May Grey, ter­rorised her young charge with super­sti­tious Cal­vanist tales of damna­tion and (accord­ing to Byron) beat him sav­age­ly before climb­ing into the  bed to inter­fere with him sex­u­al­ly. The boy suf­fered phys­i­cal assault too, for his lame­ness — not a “club foot” but a con­gen­i­tal dys­pla­sia (with­er­ing) of the right calf and a foot that twist­ed inward — that a series of med­ical quacks tor­tured with use­less “cor­rect­ing” devices.

When even­tu­al­ly he was sent to a for­mal school (Har­row), he was treat­ed kind­ly and even def­er­en­tial­ly by the Mas­ters. But Byron was a lazy stu­dent, reck­less and dis­rup­tive. Although fierce­ly intel­li­gent, and sport­ing — he was a great swim­mer and despite his lame­ness played crick­et for the school in the 1805 match against Eton — the school had to be dis­suad­ed from send­ing him away in his final year for, among oth­er mis­deeds, com­pos­ing a poem slan­der­ing the new head­mas­ter.

It was only lat­er, dur­ing his Cam­bridge years, that he showed he could set­tle into peri­ods of steady, hard work, espe­cial­ly on poet­ry and dra­ma that dis­tract­ed him from feel­ings of guit and inse­cu­ri­ty brought on by debt and some­times mad indul­gence.

Byron was sex­u­al­ly ‘ambidex­trous’, tak­ing both male and female lovers at uni­ver­si­ty and lat­er in a “gap year” spent in Greece (he was prob­a­bly the vic­tim, too, of a sex­u­al assault by his noble ten­ant at New­stead Abbey, Lord Grey). Thanks, prob­a­bly, to his Nurse’s abuse of the pre-teen Byron, was — as he acknowl­edged — sex­u­al­ly pre­co­cious. He was promis­cu­ous, not preda­to­ry, but his attempts to man­age his (uncon­scious?) need for both com­fort­able, unchal­leng­ing sex­u­al inti­ma­cy and the thrill of illic­it rela­tions led to his social dis­grace. Ear­ly in 1815 he mar­ried a woman he respect­ed lit­tle and loved less chiefly to dis­tract him­self from a strong, mutu­al, inti­mate liai­son with his pret­ty, ador­ing, old­er half-sis­ter, Augus­ta Leigh. The mar­riage was a dis­as­ter, over short­ly after the birth of his daugh­ter, Ada, at the end of that same year.

For most of his life, Byron alter­nate­ly over-indulged food and drink until he became fat and pudgy, then starved him­self with bizarre diets or (after his first year at Cam­bridge) took up vio­lent exer­cise with a pair of fash­ion­able pugilists as per­son­al train­ers.

He hob­bled when he walked or tried to run but he attempt­ed to com­pen­sate his shame with feats of ath­let­ic brava­do such as swim­ming the Helle­spont, or along the Grand Canal at Venice. Or with feats of mil­i­tary adven­ture such as his final expe­di­tion to Greece where he fund­ed a nation­al­ist mili­tia and died of dis­ease (prob­a­bly typhus) and bar­barous med­ical treat­ment.

At Cam­bridge he became a reli­gious scep­tic. He was nev­er open­ly agnos­tic but he val­ued sci­ence above reli­gion where there was any con­flict.

Trou­bled? Pos­si­bly. Neu­rot­ic? Of course; who would not be, sad­dled with his rep­u­ta­tion, his belief in him­self, his debts, his upbring­ing?

Dan­ger­ous? Chiefly to him­self.

 

Mad

Was Gor­don, Lord Byron, mad?

At one point, as their brief mar­riage came to an end, Byron’s wife Annabelle Mill­banke (or her moth­er) sought the opin­ion of his doc­tor whether the tem­pes­tu­ous poet was insane.

In a tepid endorse­ment of his patient’s men­tal state, the doc­tor replied that he had not observed any “set­tled luna­cy.”

Still… his dis­solute father, who desert­ed him, “Mad Jack” Byron was alleged­ly unsta­ble (he may have slit his won throat after a bout of heavy drink­ing in France). Then, there was his Grand-father, Admi­ral “Foul Weath­er, Jack” Byron, who had a rep­u­ta­tion for stormy tem­pers as well as bad luck with storms at sea…

Annabelle was deeply unhap­py in the mar­riage; as was Byron. She hat­ed Lon­don and dis­liked Byron’s acquain­tance with the­atre peo­ple, pugilists, god­less intel­lec­tu­al lib­er­als and polit­i­cal skep­tics. She was in love with her hus­band, how­ev­er, and fool­ish­ly attempt­ed to attach her­self to him through a close friend­ship with his half-sis­ter Augus­ta whose inces­tu­ous rela­tions with Byron she refused to acknowl­edge, even when pre­sent­ed with the child of that liai­son, Medo­ra Leigh.

He was drink­ing too much and tak­ing lau­danum (an opi­ate syrup). He was loud, irre­spon­si­ble and angri­ly unhap­py — with him­self as much as with Annabelle —. espe­cial­ly when his wife insist­ed on hav­ing his sis­ter Augus­ta stay with them. He drunk­en­ly teased and insult­ed Annabelle in front of his sis­ter and forced her to take refuge, for a while, in Augusta’s sim­ple-mind­ed friend­ship and her own half-mys­ti­cal reli­gious deter­mi­na­tion some­how to ‘save’ them both. Final­ly as the birth of their first child approached and Byron became still more errat­ic, with fits of tem­per in which he smashed decanters or clocks or fur­ni­ture. Annabelle came to depend on Augus­ta, despite Byron’s evi­dent pref­er­ence for his sister’s com­pa­ny over hers.

Still, his doc­tor was very like­ly right; there was an ele­ment of hys­te­ria and play-act­ing in Byron’s behav­iour around this time. Per­haps a juve­nile piqué at his hope­less finan­cial sit­u­a­tion and his fool­ish mar­riage. He was beset by debts whose inter­est he was unable to pay (a bailiff moved into the elab­o­rate Pic­cadil­ly town­house — rent­ed with Annabelle’s mon­ey — sleep­ing on the stair and sell­ing up what­ev­er he could move). Byron was unable to real­ize any val­ue from his main asset, New­stead Abbey, and now sur­round­ed in Lon­don soci­ety by rumours of immoral­i­ty and cru­el­ty, prob­a­bly spread by his neu­rot­ic for­mer lover — and now noto­ri­ous “stalk­er” — Lady Car­o­line Lamb, wife of his friend William (lat­er Prime Min­is­ter, Lord Mel­bourne).

He could have offered — his friends did offer — plau­si­ble expla­na­tions, if not excus­es for his actions. He, too, was unhap­py with mar­riage to a woman whom he did not respect; who prob­a­bly loved some ide­al image of him and dis­ap­proved of the rest. He had lost the free­dom of his glit­ter­ing Lon­don lit­er­ary life, and gained in place of the par­ents who had been absent all through his youth, bor­ing, cen­so­ri­ous par­ents-in-law.

He and Annabelle could set­tle briefly into qui­et habits while he was dis­tract­ed by work. Dur­ing these times she, at first, did every­thing to please him and was reward­ed briefly by Byron’s sen­ti­men­tal affec­tion. But it would nev­er last.

Bad

Byron iron­i­cal­ly choos­es a hero for his epic poem whose rep­u­ta­tion matched his own scan­dalous celebri­ty: Don Juan, the jaun­ty, titled, sex­u­al preda­tor of pan­tomime who, after a thou­sand amours and intrigues, was dragged down to hell by the Dev­il.

A fit­ting sub­ject, it seemed, for England’s most wicked, pop­u­lar, roman­tic exile.

The Eng­lish estab­lish­ment — Byron’s own class — guard­ed its con­tempt for him. As late as 1924, the Dean of West­min­ster, refus­ing a memo­r­i­al in the Abbey to one of England’s great­est roman­tic poets claimed that

Byron, part­ly by his own open­ly dis­solute life and part­ly by the influ­ence of licen­tious verse, earned a world­wide rep­u­ta­tion for immoral­i­ty among Eng­lish-speak­ing peo­ple. A man who out­raged the laws of our Divine Lord, and whose treat­ment of women vio­lat­ed the Chris­t­ian prin­ci­ples of puri­ty and hon­or, should not be com­mem­o­rat­ed in West­min­ster Abbey.” (Quot­ed in: Antho­ny Lewis, Lon­don Cor­re­spon­dent, New York Times, May 7, 1969 p. 19)

(It was not until 1969, one hun­dred and forty-five years after his death, that Byron was final­ly com­mem­o­rat­ed by a plaque in the Poets Cor­ner of West­min­ster Abbey.)

oo0oo

When the twen­ty-some­thing Gorge Gor­don, Lord Byron, fled to Italy in 1816 to escape the sen­sa­tion­al rumours (true!) of an inces­tu­ous liai­son with his beau­ti­ful half-sis­ter and of cru­el treat­ment of his bright, prig­gish young wife, he was London’s — even Europe’s — most admired poet of the Napoleon­ic years.

He estab­lished him­self in Venice where he soon became known for tor­rid affairs with mar­ried women, hero­ic swim­ming in the canals and gal­lop­ing his hors­es along the sand flats of the Lido. Here, short­ly after com­plet­ing the roman­tic fan­ta­sy that made his ear­ly lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion (Childe Harold), Byron set out on a much longer, wit­ti­er, more per­son­al poet­ic adven­ture, Don Juan, in which he iron­i­cal­ly exam­ined the pol­i­tics, reli­gion, sex, food, sport, edu­ca­tion, hopes and hor­rors of the bril­liant Regency age.

Still rag­ing from the dis­ap­point­ment of Napoleon — who crowned him­self Emper­or — and the repres­sion of reac­tionary Euro­pean regimes that defeat­ed him, Byron, Shel­ley and their cir­cle of rad­i­cal poets, authors and pam­phle­teers tossed lit­er­ary bombs from abroad at the self-sat­is­fied but fear­ful ( of pop­u­lar revolt) Eng­lish Regency estab­lish­ment and their “mouthy” sup­port­ers; espe­cial­ly the tame, con­ser­v­a­tive poets Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge.

Byron’s dis­tin­guished Lon­don pub­lish­er, John Mur­ray — cau­tious of his rep­u­ta­tion and of the pow­er­ful cen­sor­ship laws — was hor­ri­fied by the first Can­tos of Don Juan. The poem was (mild­ly) blas­phe­mous, rid­dled with sex­u­al allu­sions, made libel­lous attacks on the con­ser­v­a­tive British Prime Min­is­ter, Lord Castlereagh, and showed lit­tle rev­er­ence for the stan­dards of polite soci­ety. He refused to pub­lish the first two parts — they appeared anony­mous­ly — and broke with his most prof­itable author after the fifth instal­ment (only to buy all the rights to the poem at auc­tion after Byron’s death).

But how quick­ly pub­lic opin­ion swung to Byron’s side! Refused the pro­tec­tion of copy­right (because sus­pect­ed of sedi­tious libel) Don Juan was instant­ly pirat­ed in cheap ver­sions that were wide­ly dis­trib­uted. It quick­ly became anoth­er hit for the Wicked Lord.

Far from being a “wicked” poem Byron’s Don Juan is no more than sug­ges­tive. But it’s still aston­ish­ing­ly sexy, sar­cas­tic and uproar­i­ous­ly rude. The hero, Juan, is mod­est, charm­ing, brave and rather earnest. Even a bit dull. For­tu­nate­ly, how­ev­er, his hero­ines are any­thing but…