The Young and the Reckless: The Madness of George Gordon, Lord Byron
“I doubt sometimes whether… a quiet and unagitated life would have suited me, yet I sometimes long for it,” Lord Byron wrote. The early 19th century dandy is as famous for his wild mood swings as he is for leading the Romanticist literature. While penning lacy, sentimental verse, the good lord lived by wit and impulse. He soared from elemental heights into suicidal depths. One jilted lover famously called him “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”
Once upon a time, I found myself penniless in that most romantic and tragic of cities, New Orleans. It had seemed like a good idea at the time -- hit the road in a pick-up truck and see North America. The $100 bill I’d taken along proved woefully insufficient. When the truck broke down, I ended up in the city’s gothic underworld, in a burned-out plantation house with vampires. They were imaginative, intelligent, and exquisitely beautiful. Our squat was festooned with black and silver Mardi Gras beads and flickering candlelight, broken mirrors, and crushed red velvet drapes. These particular undead, mostly queer runaways from Mormon Utah, made their own unusual family. I didn’t tend towards the pale face and scarlet maquillage of the Goth women, nor the black lace handkerchiefs and bridal umbrellas, but I listened with fascination to stories of vampires, coffins, ghosts, and endless love.
I admit I was a bit weirded out by the vampire “siblings” who were always necking. I didn’t clue in until a decade later that this entire surrealist dream was Byronian theatre. Lord Byron: vampire, orphan, brilliant poet, tragic cripple; lover of youth, champion of the lost, lover of boys and girls; of cousins, and sister; anorexic and bulimic; a wan beauty and a wayward father. Byron’s melancholic turmoil was countered by his flamboyance. These night children of New Orleans carried antique copies of his poetry, alongside Spencer’s Faerie Queen and second-hand Anne Rice novels.
Those who are fierce believers in fate cannot imagine another course for the stormy poet. Are we destined to become what we become? I think we are. George Gordon was born in London in 1788 to Captain John Byron and Catherine Gordon. With an uncle called the “Wicked Lord,” for having murdered a man by sword in a saloon, and a father nicknamed “Mad Jack,” there’s no question that madness ran through Byron’s veins. His grandfather had a nickname, too: “Foulweather Jack,” earned for his violence and his bad luck.
Devilishly handsome Mad Jack loved to spend money and gamble and live like he was rich. The catch? He wasn’t. And so he wooed heiresses. His first wife, Amelia, died mysteriously after he spent all her money -- possibly by his hands. He quickly sought another rich babe, but he had to settle for a fat wife the second time around.
Lord Byron was born with a deformity, likely a clubfoot, for which he cursed himself as “the lame devil” -- le diable boiteux. He was also born with a caul, inspiring more superstitions. A caul is a transparent birth sac that shrouds an infant. A caulbearer is a lucky charm, gifted with second sight. But in other traditions, the babe born in a caul is a vampire.
Byron’s father abandoned mother and child and went on to the life he preferred, with whores and gambling, where liquor flowed freely: at his sister’s. Biographer Benita Eisler reports that Jack and Fanny were lovers who enjoyed swapping sex stories to inflame one another. But over time, our perve papa had sold sis’s silver, harpsichord, and eventually her furniture. Mad Dad Jack died an alcoholic when Byron was three, leaving his massive debt to his son. It is likely that Captain Jack had never even seen his son, but he may have had a fleeting glimpse in Byron’s first few days.
When his Wicked Lord uncle died, the title of Lord Byron was passed to the ten-year-old boy. By this time, he was a man in another regard: Byron claims he was initiated into love at the age of nine by a governess. The Lord was also tinkering with poetry, and he had a collection to show by 18, Fugitive Pieces. Byron was a brooding, mercurial child with keen wit and dramatic flair. He fell in and out of love, often -- with his cousins, among others. As a teenager, the poet also fell hard for choirboy John Eddleston, whose ring Byron wore until the day he died. Byron wrote that he had loved John most of anyone in his life.
The young man was outrageous and flamboyant despite his hated limp -- and during his studies at Cambridge, after being forbidden to have a dog, he acquired a pet bear. There were no rules against bears, after all. Inheriting his father’s recklessness with money, (among other things) Byron accumulated quite a menagerie of animals over time. There was a badger, a crocodile, a heron, horses, dogs, monkeys, cats, peacocks, and cranes.
Even the story of Newstead Abbey (where he kept his zoo!) is a gothic fantasy. While Byron was certainly no monk, his Newstead was built from what was left of a 12th century Augustinian priory, home to black-robed monks for some 400 years. In the hands of King Henry the 8th, during the Reformation zeal to destroy Catholic landmarks, the priory was sold to a Byron for 800 pounds. The poet claimed that he shared Newstead with the ghosts of the monks. He was haunted one way or another: in 1811 his mother died, the same year his love John died from consumption. Another friend drowned at that same time. Byron became quite obsessed with the morbid. “Death has been lately so occupied with every thing that was mine,” he wrote. Nor did it end there -- his bastard daughter, Alba, later died of fever at age five. His only other (acknowledged) child, from his disastrous marriage to Annabella Milbanke, died, as did Byron, at 36. He never knew her. A mathematical prodigy, she has the rather unusual distinction of becoming known as the world’s first computer programmer. Though Ada was a woman before she knew her father was the famous poet, there’s no doubt that Byron blood ran in her veins -- she nearly bankrupted her own husband with her racetrack gambling.
On the coat tails of Byron’s overnight fame -- for he published Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage to instant success -- there was the scandal with Lady Caroline Lamb. At first it was mutually obsessive soap opera. The Lady, parent to a dead child and an autistic one, and struggling with marital tension, welcomed the excitement in her life, and famously declared, “that beautiful pale face is my fate.” But Byron quickly grew tired of her -- she was “too thin” to love. He moved on, and the poor Lamb began stalking him, disguised as a boy to avoid notice. She burned an effigy of him in a bonfire, dancing hysterically. She slit her wrists at a party, and later took a knife and tried to stab herself in front of him. She sent him her pubic hair in the mail.
Later, Byron, who was continuing to publish and becoming quite the celebrity, began officially to court Annabella Milbanke, though he was already involved -- with his own sister. They’d only known each other briefly growing up, and upon meeting as adults felt a mutual chemistry. There is a very disturbing but totally realistic possibility that Byron was actually father to sister Augusta’s child. Though some refute the obvious, saying there is no "proof," Byron wrote poetry about doomed incestuous love, and expressed freely his relief that the child had not been born an ape. He pointed out himself that the child was born ten months after their reunion, and that Augusta had not been living with her husband at the time of conception.
He also alluded to the notion that marriage may be his last chance “at salvation,” and so married Annabella. With her stuck in her bedroom, Byron carried on with his sister in the parlour. After one year of enduring his verbal abuse, and his frequent expressions that he did not need her for any purpose, as he preferred Augusta, his wife fled with newborn Ada. Byron would never see them again.
The Lord was exiled after the spectacle of this ménage a trois. Abroad, he wrote poetry constantly, traveled and had many more scandalous love affairs. He got involved with Greece’s rebel army, despite the absence of military experience. Some speculate that his life of late night carousing, drinking, laudanum abuse, and sudden military engagement were forms of roulette- self-destruction, tempting death.
Certainly Byron suffered suicidal depressions throughout his life, between bouts of what he described as losing his mind. He also feared being fat, and would often binge and purge. A stunning eulogy by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison leaves little doubt that Byron was severely bipolar. In the end, however, he lost his life to a fever in 1824. He may have survived the illness had bloodletting not been in vogue. The doctors literally drained Byron’s life, giving rise to Romantic vampire cults nearly two centuries later in New Orleans.
Byron was refused a ceremony and burial when shipped to England’s Westminster Abbey, due to his questionable morality. Perhaps it is more fitting that he was laid to rest at St. Mary Magdalene’s Church in Nottingham.
It’s rare that an artist is a legend in his or her own life, and Byron’s mythology expanded from the moment he died, 36 years old. Societies, cults, and associations of Byron abound worldwide; gay teenagers seek solace in his love poetry; his expanse of poetic works from She Walks In Beauty Like the Night to Don Juan are immortal among the undead or the not-yet-dead; his persona appears in countless incarnations throughout literature, cinema, and popular fiction. He does indeed appear as vampire in a novel by Tom Holland, and he even made a brief appearance on Star Trek. The great composers Schumann, Berlioz, and Tchaikovsky, among others, wrote symphonies and operas for their fallen lord. Other artists, writers, and filmmakers too numerous to count were inspired by the great poet.
Though the tempestuous melodrama of Byron wounded spirits in his wake, the good lord himself lamented his chaotic mind. Nonetheless, he understood that fine madness’s contribution to his poetry, which may not have existed at all, had he not been in constant states of upheaval or despair. Dr. Jamison said it best when she wrote, “He was not alone among writers and artists in having to play out the cards of a troubled inheritance.”
As a wild and crazy artist, poet, and writer, this babe’s favourite thing in the world is learning about other unusual lives. Lorette C. Luzajic began writing about Fascinating People: gossip for smart people (at fascinatingpeople.wordpress.com), and now writes Fascinating Writers for Bookslut, and Fascinating Queers for outimpact.com. She also writes about poetry, art, chick stuff, addiction, bipolar life, celebrities, spirituality, and poetry and fiction. Care of the Soul writer Thomas Moore called her poetry imaginative, witty, and profound. Her collection, The Astronaut’s Wife: Poems of Eros and Thanatos, and her just-released second book, Weird Monologues for a Rainy Life (irreverent ramblings from the end of the world) are available online. Visit www.thegirlcanwrite.net for more details.