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.



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 pique 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.


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.)


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…