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The inner life of the poet Byron

January 11, 2013
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, by Richard Westall. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, by Richard Westall. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Anyone who does a cursory web search on Lord Byron will find much to titillate. Two hundred years after his arrival on the public scene, people are still fascinated by his behavior. He was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” said his married female lover who dressed as a boy in order to stalk him. He supposedly slept with his half-sister, fired guns indoors, drank to excess, and conducted liaisons with both males and females. His wife abandoned him after one year of matrimony, claiming he was insane. Byron was the template for many darkly brooding antiheroes of English literature, including Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. But with Byron, the inner man was very different from the outward myth.

One of the first biographies of Lord Byron was written by his friend Thomas Moore. Letters & Journals of Lord Byron includes large amounts of the poet’s own writings. The book gives a very different picture than the reckless, decadent adventurer we thought we know. Instead we perceive a man who was deeply melancholic, who was ashamed of his own crippled foot; a man who felt lonely in the midst of crowded parties and salons; a man whose own sophomoric dissipation as a youngster had left him with a distaste for debauchery. Moore burned some of the journals due to their unpublishable subject matter, but the ones that remain create a picture of a sad, chastened and largely abstemious man.

Byron in a brooding moment, by Gericault.

Byron in a brooding moment, by Gericault.

The concepts of neurosis, pathological behavior, poor self-esteem and eating disorder did not exist two hundred years ago. Moore loyally attributes Byron’s behavior as the necessary side effects of his genius, for genius at that time was expected to involve eccentricity. But a modern reader will understand at once from Moore’s text that the poet was a very disturbed man.

As a student at Cambridge, fighting the tendency to corpulence that he inherited from his obese mother, Lord Byron acquired an eating disorder that reduced his weight from slightly over 200 pounds to around 130 pounds (he was 5′ 8 1/2″). He did so by intentionally starving himself. Moore observed that Byron often went days without eating anything other than biscuits and appeased his appetite by chewing mastic [gum] and using tobacco. Byron wrote, “I have dined regularly to-day, for the first time since Sunday last — this being Sabbath, too. All the rest, tea and dry biscuits — six per diem. I wish to God I had not dined now! — It kills me with heaviness, stupor, and horrible dreams; — and yet it was but a pint of bucellas [wine], and fish. Meat I never touch, — nor much vegetable diet. I wish I were in the country, to take exercise, — instead of being obliged to cool by abstinence, in lieu of it. I should not so much mind a little accession of flesh, — my bones can well bear it. But the worst is, the devil always came with it, — till I starved him out, — and I will not be the slave of any appetite….Oh, my head — how it aches! — the horrors of digestion!” He regretted his periodic binges, noting, “When I do dine, I gorge like an Arab or a Boa snake, on fish and vegetables, but no meat. I am always better, however, on my tea and biscuit than any other regimen, and even that sparingly.”

Trying too hard to compensate?

Trying too hard to compensate?

Eating dysfunctions generally go hand in hand with poor self-esteem. A familial discussion ensued recently when a member of an older generation asserted to me that too much is made nowadays of poor self-esteem, and that to recognize one’s own limits is the beginning of true wisdom. But poor self-esteem has virtually nothing to do with wisdom, or recognizing one’s own limitations. Instead, it’s the deeply rooted and distorted belief that one is nothing BUT limitations: that in point of fact one is deeply unattractive, even hideous; unworthy of success in every possible way; and unable to ever hope to attract a worthy lover or mate. Byron very likely found little in himself to feel proud of. Afraid that he would gain weight again, afraid of attracting attention to his deformed foot, dreading rebuffs from others, and deeply wounded by his wife’s abandonment, he twice fled England for the Continent when public criticism of him became too strong.  It’s possible that even his youthful dissipation was evidence of his overall sense of unworthiness, for there is nothing that appears more bracing (on the surface) to an uncertain and irresolute young man than carousing with low companions and bedding numerous women. As an Englishman traveling in exile, the outward sense of bravado that he presented to others stands in contrast with the pensive thoughts he recorded of having no home to call his own, no society in which he belonged.

When people behave “badly” (to use a loaded word), they are often expressing pain and frustration. So it is with Byron’s case. If one bears this in mind when considering Byron’s reckless behavior, his life ceases to be titillating and becomes deeply touching instead. Similarly, one will then feel differently about modern celebrity scandal magazines with their news of the latest stars who have been caught DUI, in a car wreck, in rehab, or divorced; because it is now obvious that fame itself is another form of dysfunction that is extremely difficult to navigate.

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6 Comments
  1. insightful, thanks

  2. Mary R. permalink

    Really interesting, Carrol.

  3. ksc permalink

    There is a book by Louisa May Alcott, who became close acquantences with Lady Byron, that you might try to get and read. It tells a very different side to this story.

    • Thanks for writing, and thanks for the tip! It’s interesting that two such different people would meet and exchange confidences like this. But that said, the sad story of Lord and Lady Byron is a classic “he-said,” “she-said” situation. With so much missing information, which of the two can a reader believe? Byron was obviously not an easy person to live with, but Lady Byron could not have been ignorant of his reputation before she chose to marry him. Her treatment of him was not particularly exemplary either. When she departed with their baby to go on a trip to her parents’ home, she left him with professions of love and mailed him an affectionate letter during the long trip. Out of the blue, Byron then received a letter from his father-in-law stating that Lady Byron would not be returning to her husband. Baffled, Byron during the first weeks believed that his mother-in-law had orchestrated the whole thing. He made several attempts at a rapprochement, which his wife spurned. He was compelled to leave England due to the scandal. After some months apart, both parties began complaining bitterly and publicly to all their friends, and real hatred developed between them. Lady Byron became so filled with bitterness for her former husband that their daughter, the future Ada Lovelace (the brilliant co-developer of an early form of computer) was not permitted to view her own father’s portrait until she reached the age of 20. Lady Byron, trying to avert any possibility in her infant daughter of Byron’s tumultuous propensity toward Romantic excess, raised the girl on a strict regime of science and mathematics rather than anything that hinted at the “poetic”. Lord and Lady Byron were clearly two people who should never have married. Their marital discord caused waves that were still rippling half a century later when Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her book.

  4. How interesting! I wish I would’ve heard this version of his life in English class. I’ll have to check out his writing again.

    • Thanks for writing, Julie! I’ve been slogging through “Childe Harold” and even though I’m an English lit major, I find the fanciful phrasing of the era difficult to get through. I find his peers Shelley and Keats more accessible, but back in the day Byron was considered master of them all. Been looking through the Harriet Beecher Stowe “Vindication of Lady Byron” that the previous comment recommended and it’s distasteful going, about an obviously toxic marriage. Byron would fit right in with today’s bad-boy celebrity world—after all, he invented it.

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