Monday, March 22, 2010

The End of Lord Byron

"But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think."

-Don Juan III.88-

Caught in a downpour as he galloped with Gamba in the olive groves outside Missolonghi, he was soon after seized with cold shuddering fits, for which he was prescribed a hot bath and doses of castor oil. Within days, the fever had worsened and two more doctors were summoned, all at variance as to whether he had rheumatic, typhoid or malarial fever. None could agree, except that they bled him frequently, the lancet sometimes going to near the temporal artery, so that the blood could not be stopped; Dr. Parry vehemently trying to stop them and Byron in agony crying out 'Close the veins, close the veins.'

A few days later on Easter Sunday the startled and disbelieving group began to fear the worst or, as Dr. Bruno said, the cup of health was passing from His Lordship's lips. Byron himself recalled that long ago a clairvoyant had foretold misfortune for him in his thirty-seventh year. Outside the pestulent sirocco wind was blowing a hurricane, the rain fell with tropical violence, the bedroom a scene of confusion and despair, the warring doctors unmanned by grief. Byron finally agreed to the fourth bleeding because Bruno warned that if he didn't, the disease might act on his cerebral and nervous system, thereby depriving him of his reason. Thus he lay propped on a pillow, his head bandaged, the leeches along his temples discharging trickles of blood, slipping in and out of delirium, giving confused orders and wishes in both English and Italian, a melee tongues, the baffled onlookers helpless as to what to do.

A deathbed scene that many an artist would have painted, litres of blood in basins, wrung towels, lancets, Byron holding Dr. Parry's hand and at times weeping uncontrollably. Delacroix would have done so with poetic ghastliness, Caravaggio with forensic cruelty, but only Rembrandt would have caught the fear and bewilderment in the eyes of the onlookers, all of who venerated Byron but in their zeal and helplessness differed as to what could or should be done. "You know my wishes', Byron would say, his commands wild, scattered and contradictory, his mood ranging from the philosophical to the frantic, pressing Parry to get on with building a schooner for their proposed trip to South America, then again believing that the evil eye had been put on him and requesting that a witch from Missolonghi be summoned to lift it. He raved and half rose as if he were mounting a breach in an assault, then according to Parry cried out 'My wife, my Ada, my country', while others claimed that he said 'Dear Augusta, poor Ada', then place names, numbers, snatches of Greek and Latin poetry from his Harrow days, a mysterious reference to 'something precious' that he was leaving behind, stuttered syllables, then nothing.

At dusk on Easter Monday, 19 April, amid dark skies and a thunderstorm, Lord Byron, who had been the hope of the Greek nation, who had known 'the idolatry of man and the flattering love of women', breathed his last, passing over, as it was reported, to 'his everlasting tabernacle.' The guns were fired over the lagoon at given intervals and answered by volleys of rejoicing cannon from the Turks at Patras and Lepano. The Greek woman who had laid him out said that the 'corpse was white like the wing of a young chicken' and the citizens of Missolonghi kept asking for his heart. Twenty-one days of mourning were ordered to be held in every Church in Greece.

'Let not my body be hacked or sent to England- here let my bones moulder', were two of Byron's injunctions that were ignored. The doctors found the cranium could be that of a man of eighty, the heart a great size but flaccid, the liver showing the toll of alcohol, stomach and kidney's impaired. Those honored organs were placed in urns for embalming, but the lungs and larynx allowed to reside in the Church of San Spiridione, stolen not long afterwards. The body was placed in a packing case lined with tin, the lid hermetically closed and fixed with the seals of the Greek authorities.

The 'fatal intelligence' came upon England like an earthquake on 14 May. "Byron is dead. Byron is dead.' Thus did Jane Welsh write to her future husband Thomas Carlyle, who felt as if he had lost a brother, as did Victor Hugo in France, where young men wore black crepes bands on their hats in mourning. A hasty painting depicting Byron on his deathbed was placed in the Passage Feydeau in Paris, where crowds filed past, and it was noted in the newspapers that the two greatest men of the century, Napoleon and Byron, had departed in the same decade. Schoolchildren were put to reciting verses of Childe Harold. Tennyson, aged fifteen ran into the woods and carved the same grieving sentence on sandstone rock near his father's rectory.

Sir Francis Burdett broke the news to Byron's half-sister at St. James's Palace, who clung to a sanctimonious straw, gathered from Fletcher's letter, that Mylord, since his first seizure, had place the Bible she had given him on the breakfast table each morning. It seems to be the only recorded time that Byron appeared at a breakfast table. Hobhouse advised that she should not disclose such a confidence, convinced as he was that Byron would not make 'superstitious use' of the Holy Book. As a young rising parliamentarian, Hobhouse appointed himself as Byron's keeper.

So in that great flux of grief and condolence, something ugly and incontrovertible was afoot, with Hobhouse a its mastermind, backed, as he wrote triumphantly in his diary, by Byron's publisher's (Murray) decisive conduct. The 'plaguy' Memoirs was for burning.

In 1819 when Tom Moore visited him in his villa at Brenta near Venice, Byron presented him with 78 folio pages of his Memoirs, written as he said ' in his finest, fiercest, Caravaggio style. Byron's one stipulation was that they could not be published in his lifetime and gave Moore the freedom to sell them if he had to. Murray had determined that the Memoirs were written 'in a language so horrid and disgusting'- most cruel and lamentable with regard to Lady Byron herself- that as a man of honor, he would not publish them.

The burning of the Memoirs remains an act of collective vandalism and redounds badly on all, on Moore for his fecklessness in having sold the manuscript in the first place, on Hobhouse for his bogus sincerity regarding Byron's reputation and on Murray for his evident self-righteousness, describing himself as "a tradesman determined to preserve' that reputation; on Augusta and Annabella (his wife), the silent colluders, and on the two 'executioners' who tore the pages from their binding and fed them to the fire. The folio sheets were swept in a fierce carnival of flames, before curdling to ash.

The ship Florida, carrying Byron's remains arrived in England in July 1824. Colonel Stanhope expected state barges to come bearing dignitaries and bands to play sacred music, but he was sorely disappointed. Byron in death, just as in life, would suffer the mildewing of official censure. The Times noted that 'others were more tenderly loved than Lord Byron'. Approached by Murray and Kinnaird about burying Byron in the Poet's Corner of Westminister Abbey, the Dean was unable to repress his disgust and told them 'to carry the body away and say as little about it as possible."

But Byron mania was to hit London again as it had at the height of his fame in 1812, but this time it was not in the gilded drawing rooms, it was the masses who thronged to pay their respects, believing that something of them had died with him. Tears, flowers, odes, laments and notes on black-bordered cards were strewn in the little parlor were his coffin was set out- though no one of note ever came. Lit by tallow candles, Byron's coat of arms hastily painted on a wooden board, the masses thronged in numbers 'beyond precedent, the melee become so obstreperous that a wooden frame was erected around the bed and police sergeants called to maintain order.

The hearse, with its twelve sable plumes, drawn by six black horses, left Westminister on a warm July day, bound for the family vault at Hucknall Church, not far from Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. Of the forty-seven crest-emblazoned carriages following the the hearse, forty-three were empty, no loyal friend from the houses of Holland, Devonshire, Melbourne or Jersey had come to mourn but the people poured onto the streets to bid their farewells. The procession, minus the empty carriages, took four days to reach Nottinghamshire, mourners thronged the roadside, as from all the upstairs people craned to see the bier of the man they only knew by hearsay. At Blackamoor's Head where his remains lay in a little parlour, the crush of people was so great that a large body of the constabulary had to keep order; squires, squireens and farmers came to pay their respects.

At the very same time an epidemic of Byron mania struck the world. The literary deification, bludgeoning and misrepresenting was now afoot. Books of gossip, smut, malice, lies and 'intrinsic nothings' were soon to proliferate. Fascination, envy and literary malfeasance on Byron were unceasing. Before the end of the year Southy, the Poet Laureate, in the Quarterly Review, accused Byron of committing 'high crime, misdemeanors against society, work in which mockery was mingled with horror, filth and impiety, profligacy with sedition and slander'. A Mr. Dugdale was even more extreme, justifying his pirating of Cain and Don Juan as quite reasonable, since the works were ' so shocking and flagitious' as to be unworthy to be dignified by the word 'copyright.'

They buried Byron like a poet, but he resurrected as a legend. Why? we may ask. Why him above the legion of poets down the years? He was the embodiment of Everyman, human, ambitious, erratic, generous, destructive, dazzling, dark and dissonant, but yet there is the unfathomable that eludes us, and perhaps even eluded him. It was not simply that he was a poet whose poetry burst upon the world or that he was a letter-writer of consummate greatness, he reincarnated for each age as an icon with a divine spark and all-too-human flaws.


  1. "Byron in Love; A Short Daring Life by Edna O'Brien; W.W. Norton & Co.; 2009