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.


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Byron fan (not fanatic); poetry lover (not tragic); doctor of melancholia (not gloom).

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