Byron was a fastidious self-fashioner. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

April 17, 2024   6 mins

In 1798, a lame, rough-mannered 10-year-old boy from Aberdeen called George Gordon Byron inherited a peerage, along with an abbey in Nottinghamshire, and grew up to be one of the most notorious Romantic poets of all time. He died two centuries ago this week, while taking part in the War of Independence of his beloved Greece. Byron’s father, “Mad Jack” Byron, provided a perfect role model for his dissolute, incestuous son. Having married a Marchioness and run through her fortune of £30,000, he escaped from his creditors to France, where he had an affair with his own sister and died, probably by suicide. Byron himself fell in love for the first time at the age of seven and suffered regular sexual assault at the hands of his nursemaid.

After a homoerotic spell at Harrow, Byron became a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he used to tether his small pet bear to the fountain in Great Court. In Italy some years later, he would gather together a menagerie of 10 horses, eight dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow and a falcon, whose company he seemed to prefer to that of most of his fellow humans. Like all aristocrats at Cambridge, he was exempt from lectures and exams, which left him little to do but drink and have sex. His frequent fond embraces of the bear, who he thought should sit for a college fellowship, provoked charges of bestiality, though for the most part he preferred to satisfy his sexual needs by visiting what he called “houses of Fornication” in a life of “the most laudable systematic profligacy”. He disguised one of his female lovers as a boy and passed her off as his younger brother, only to create horror among the chambermaids when she miscarried in a Bond Street hotel.

It was the long poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, published in 1812, which first launched Byron on the world as a saturnine rebel tormented by Gothic passion and world-weary gloom. In an age when poetry could sell almost as well as today’s tabloid newspapers, he had travelled from near-poverty in Aberdeen to the kind of celebrity which these days is more typical of Mick Jagger than Simon Armitage, rubbing shoulders with the Prince Regent and chalking up a number of smash poetic hits. His publishers offered him the stupendous sum of 1,000 guineas for a later poem, which Byron as a nobleman refused to accept. In fact, he would accept no payment for his poetry at all. He visited Turkey, where he delighted in a Turkish bath as “a marble paradise of sherbet and sodomy”. As one of the greatest playboys in the English literary canon, he also pursued young men in Greece while turning his home in England into a small harem.

The English are said to love a lord, but this particular lord loved the English to the point of dragging a fair proportion of them into bed with him. Among his mistresses were his half-sister Augusta Leigh and Caroline Lamb, who coined the renowned saying that Byron was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. The same might well have been said of herself, as these two emotionally unstable, compulsively self-dramatising lovers conducted their highly public liaison in Johnny Depp and Amber Heard mode. In a classic case of art imitating life, Byron modelled himself on his own poetic protagonists, while Caroline gave him a golden locket containing clippings of her pubic hair. When she asked for a lock of his own hair in return, Byron sent her a snippet from the head of his new mistress, who had been among Caroline’s closest friends. He had something of the brutality of his social class, along with its reckless generosity of spirit. He also provided his wife Annabella Milbanke with a list of the gifts he had bestowed on his mistresses, telling her how much he enjoyed toying with two naked women at once.

The generosity of spirit was apparent in his liberal politics, at a time when Britain was effectively a police state. Speaking in the House of Lords, he defended working men driven by poverty to acts of protest such as frame-breaking, which the Tory government intended to make a capital crime. “Will you erect a gibbet in every field and hang up men like scarecrows?” he inquired of his more bloodthirsty colleagues. He also unsuccessfully supported equal legal protection and privilege for Catholics and the promotion of the rights of Ireland.

For all his sense of public duty, however, his private life continued to be plunged into turmoil, punctuated by bouts of insanity in which he would smash the furniture and wish Annabella and her unborn child dead. Once the glamorous literary icon of the upper classes, he now gained a reputation for madness, incest, domestic abuse and sodomy, not to speak of being up to his ears in debt, and fled from his creditors from England to Italy. Even so, he was flush enough to spend several thousand pounds on women in his first two years abroad. One of them threatened him with a knife in Venice and threw herself into a canal. He also became a resident in the house of a man he was cuckolding. Despite his cruel way with women, he could still present himself as their victim, claiming that “I have been more ravished myself than any body since the Trojan war”. Smashed on laudanum and brandy, falling on an unsuspecting chambermaid “like a thunderbolt”, he made an unlikely Helen of Troy.

While in Italy, Byron joined the Carbonari, a secret society of Italian revolutionary nationalists, and grew increasingly involved in the fight for a unified nation free of Austrian rule. It was a prelude to his more celebrated participation in the struggle for independence for Greece, a country of which he is said to be one of the spiritual founders. Yet as Andrew Stauffer comments in his erudite, eloquent new study Byron: A Life in Ten Letters, any thoughts he had of himself as a hero were heavily coloured with irony and self-deprecation, and he confined himself for the most part to giving money to the nationalists and lending them the prestige of his name. He now had £25,000 to hand, having sold some coal mines in Rochdale, and was ready to donate it all to the revolutionary cause. He also dealt with local disputes, helped to arrange prisoner exchanges, paid soldiers and spent money for the relief of families. Since he then died of a fever at Messolonghi at the age of 37, what Duncan says of Cawdor in Macbeth can be said of him too — that nothing became his life like the leaving of it.

For the most part, that life had been one of unbridled self-indulgence, redeemed only by the bout of selfless devotion with which it concluded and (for some at least) the grandeur of his poetry. His freedom was vacuous and self-consuming, as he swanned from one expensive Greek or Italian villa to another along with his writing desk, menagerie, liquor cabinet and collapsible bed. Byron was a grotesque caricature of an English aristocrat, a man who, like the more midget-like figure of Boris Johnson, snatched everything he could grab and considered that laws existed to be broken. He was savage, abusive and self-serving, all of which, as with Johnson, could be greeted as mere lovable idiosyncrasy by his more servile admirers.

“His freedom was vacuous and self-consuming.”

In his eyes, the line between liberty and libertinism was never very firm. His poetry has a brio and panache which rightly won him applause, as well as a depth of personal passion relatively new in English writing; yet it also lacks texture and resonance, and strikes many a modern reader as too stereotypically “Romantic”. As with many Romantic artists, a spiritual homelessness lies at its heart, though Byron compensated for feeling displaced in bourgeois Britain by his affection for a less hidebound southern Europe.

He was also the kind of poet who might have been despatched to Regency London by a casting agency. Handsome, brooding, moody and mercurial, veering between the dashing and the melancholic, he was wit, sceptic, satirist and visionary all at the same time. He was, in a word, everything that people in a Romantic age expected their poets to be. It was hard to know, however, how much of this was the real George Gordon and how much was theatrical posturing. The frontier between life and art never struck him as one to be particularly respected. At home in Newstead Abbey, decked out in an Abbot’s robes, he would drink wine from a monk’s skull while the servants played sex games around him, as though he had just stepped out of one of the fashionable Gothic novels of the time. Like Oscar Wilde after him, he was a fastidious self-fashioner, living his life at times like a wild beast and at other times like a work of art.

He was also one source of the modern image of the poet as demonic. His deformed foot, which didn’t prevent him from swimming the Hellespont, he regarded as the mark of Cain. As the 19th century unfolds, a lot of poets became more Satanic than sociable, a cult which finds its consummation in the work of Charles Baudelaire. They were now exiles and outcasts, refugees from an increasingly philistine society, allured by the demonic rather than the pallidly conventional. The devil, as they say, has all the best tunes.

Yet Byron was at his finest when he placed his talents at the service of others, not when he was preening himself on his rebellious, diabolical streak. The true rebels in his life were the Greeks and Italians whose political cause he espoused, and who had nothing like the privilege which he himself sometimes mistook for freedom.

Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.