Lord Byron's Poems

Personal life

Relationships and scandals

Byron described his first intense feelings at age eight for his distant cousin, Mary Duff:

My mother used always to rally me about this childish amour, and at last, many years after, when I was sixteen, she told me one day, 'O Byron, I have had a letter from Edinburgh, and your old sweetheart, Mary Duff, is married to Mr. C***.' And what was my answer? I really cannot explain or account for my feelings at that moment, but they nearly threw me into convulsions...How the deuce did all this occur so early? Where could it originate? I certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterwards; and yet my misery, my love for that girl were so violent, that I sometimes doubt if I have ever been really attached since. Be that as it may, hearing of her marriage several years after was like a thunder-stroke — it nearly choked me — to the horror of my mother and the astonishment and almost incredulity of every body. And it is a phenomenon in my existence (for I was not eight years old) which has puzzled, and will puzzle me to the latest hour of it; and 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.[59]

Byron also became attached to Margaret Parker, another distant cousin.[23] While his recollection of his love for Mary Duff is that he was ignorant of adult sexuality during this time, and was bewildered as to the source of the intensity of his feelings, 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. Perhaps this was one of the reasons that caused the anticipated melancholy of my thoughts — having anticipated life.[60]

This is the only reference Byron himself makes to the event, and he is ambiguous as to how old he was when it occurred. After his death, his lawyer wrote to a mutual friend telling him a "singular fact" about Byron's life which was "scarcely fit for narration". But he disclosed it nonetheless, thinking it might explain Byron's sexual "propensities":

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.[61]:139

Gray later used this sexual abuse as a means of ensuring his silence if he were to be tempted to disclose the "low company" she kept during drinking binges.[61]:435 She was later dismissed, supposedly for beating Byron when he was 11.[23]

A few years later, while he was still a child, Lord Grey (unrelated to May Gray), a suitor of his mother's, also made sexual advances on him.[61]:442 Byron's personality has been characterised as exceptionally proud and sensitive, especially when it came to his deformity.[7] And although Byron was a very self-centred individual, it is probable that like most children, he would have been deeply disturbed by these sexual advances. His extreme reaction to seeing his mother flirting outrageously with Lord Grey after the incident suggests this; he did not tell her of Grey's conduct toward him, he simply refused to speak to him again and ignored his mother's commands to be reconciled.[61]:442 Leslie Marchand, one of Byron's biographers, theorises that Lord Grey's advances prompted Byron's later sexual liaisons with young men at Harrow and Cambridge.[27]

Scholars acknowledge a more or less important bisexual component in Byron's very complex sentimental and sexual life. Bernhard Jackson asserts that, "Byron's sexual orientation has long been a difficult, not to say contentious, topic, and anyone who seeks to discuss it must to some degree speculate, since the evidence is nebulous, contradictory and scanty... it is not so simple to define Byron as homosexual or heterosexual : he seems rather to have been both, and either. "[62][63] Crompton states: "What was not understood in Byron's own century (except by a tiny circle of his associates) was that Byron was bisexual".[64] Another biographer, Fiona MacCarthy, has posited that Byron's true sexual yearnings were for adolescent males.[27] Byron notably used a code by which he communicated his homosexual Greek adventures to John Hobhouse in England: Bernhard Jackson recalls that "Byron's early code for sex with a boy" was "Plen(um). and optabil(em). -Coit(um)"[62]

In 1812, Byron embarked on a well-publicised affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb that shocked the British public.[65] 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".[66] This did not prevent him from pursuing her.[67][68]

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 sarcastically commented to her mother-in-law, his friend Lady Melbourne, that he was "haunted by a skeleton".[69] She began to call on him at home, sometimes dressed in disguise as a pageboy,[65] at a time when such an act could ruin both of them socially. One day, during such a visit, she wrote on a book at his desk, "Remember me!" As a retort, Byron wrote a poem entitled Remember Thee! Remember Thee! which concludes with the line "Thou false to him, thou fiend to me".

As a child, Byron had seen little of his half-sister Augusta Leigh; in adulthood, he formed a close relationship with her that has been interpreted by some as incestuous,[69] and by others as innocent.[23] Augusta (who was married) gave birth on 15 April 1814 to her third daughter, Elizabeth Medora Leigh, rumored by some to be Byron's.

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. They married at Seaham Hall, County Durham, on 2 January 1815.[69]

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, assisted by a jealous Lady Caroline.[69] In a letter, Augusta quoted him as saying: "Even to have such a thing said is utter destruction and ruin to a man from which he can never recover." That same year Lady Caroline published her popular novel Glenarvon, wherein Lord Byron was portrayed as the seedy character Lord Ruthven.[70]


  • Some editors date Byron's poem "To My Son" about 1807, raising the possibility of more-than-imagined fatherhood that early.
  • In any case, he wrote a letter to John Hanson from Newstead Abbey, dated 17 January 1809, that includes "You will discharge my Cook, & Laundry Maid, the other two I shall retain to take care of the house, more especially as the youngest is pregnant (I need not tell you by whom) and I cannot have the girl on the parish."[71] His reference to "The youngest" is understood to have been to a maid, Lucy, and the parenthesised remark to indicate himself as siring a son born that year. In 2010 part of a baptismal record was uncovered which apparently said: "September 24 George illegitimate son of Lucy Monk, illegitimate son of Baron Byron, of Newstead, Nottingham, Newstead Abbey."[72]
  • Although it cannot be proved, some attest that Augusta Leigh's child, Elizabeth, born 1814, was fathered by Byron.
  • Byron had a child, The Hon. Augusta Ada Byron ("Ada", later Countess of Lovelace), in 1815 with Annabella Byron, Lady Byron (née Anne Isabella Milbanke, or "Annabella"), later Lady Wentworth. Ada Lovelace, notable in her own right, collaborated with Charles Babbage on the analytical engine, a predecessor to modern computers. She is recognised[73] as the world's first computer programmer.
  • He also had an illegitimate child in 1817, Clara Allegra Byron, with Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Mary Shelley and stepdaughter of William Godwin, writer of Political Justice and Caleb Williams. Allegra is not entitled to the style "The Hon." as is usually given to the daughter of barons, since she was illegitimate. Born in Bath in 1817, Allegra lived with Byron for a few months in Venice; he refused to allow an Englishwoman caring for the girl to adopt her, and objected to her being raised in the Shelleys' household.[39] He wished for her to be brought up Catholic and not marry an Englishman,[39] and made arrangements for her to inherit 5,000 lira upon marriage, or when she reached the age of 21, provided she did not marry a native of Britain.[39] However, the girl died aged five of a fever in Bagna Cavallo, Italy while Byron was in Pisa; he was deeply upset by the news.[39] He had Allegra's body sent back to England to be buried at his old school, Harrow, because Protestants could not be buried in consecrated ground in Catholic countries.[39] At one time he himself had wanted to be buried at Harrow. Byron was indifferent towards Allegra's mother, Claire Clairmont.[39]

Sea and swimming

He enjoyed adventure, especially relating to the sea.[3]

The first recorded notable example of open water swimming took place on 3 May 1810 when Lord Byron swam from Europe to Asia across the Hellespont Strait.[74] This is often seen as the birth of the sport and pastime, and to commemorate it, the event is recreated every year as an open water swimming event.[75]

Whilst sailing from Genoa to Cephalonia in 1823, every day at noon, Bryon and Trelawny, in calm weather, jumped overboard for a swim without fear of sharks, which were not unknown in those waters. And occasionally their exuberance found outlet on boyish horseplay. Once, according to Trelawny, they let the geese and ducks loose and followed them and the dogs into the water, each with an arm in the ship Captain’s new scarlet waistcoat, to the annoyance of the Captain and the amusement of the crew.[76]

Fondness for animals

Byron had a great love of animals, most notably for a Newfoundland dog named Boatswain. When the animal contracted rabies, Byron nursed him, albeit unsuccessfully, without any thought or fear of becoming bitten and infected.[77][78]

Although deep in debt at the time, Byron commissioned an impressive marble funerary monument for Boatswain at Newstead Abbey, larger than his own, and the only building work which he ever carried out on his estate. In his 1811 will, Byron requested that he be buried with him.[39] The 26‐line poem Epitaph to a Dog has become one of his best-known works, but a draft of an 1830 letter by Hobhouse shows him to be the author, and that Byron decided to use Hobhouse's lengthy epitaph instead of his own, which read: "To mark a friend's remains these stones arise/I never knew but one — and here he lies."[79]

Byron also kept a tame bear while he was a student at Trinity, out of resentment for rules forbidding pet dogs like his beloved Boatswain. There being no mention of bears in their statutes, the college authorities had no legal basis for complaining: Byron even suggested that he would apply for a college fellowship for the bear.[80] It has been suggested that Byron's relationship with the bear went beyond that of pet and master; scholars have occasionally cited this incident as evidence of Byron's zoophilia. [81]

During his lifetime, in addition to numerous dogs and horses, Byron kept 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, a honey badger, and a goat with a broken leg. Except for the horses, they all resided indoors at his homes in England, Switzerland, Italy and Greece.

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