Poetry: Byron's dark shadows

In Nuce: Poetry - Lord Byron
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, by Richard Westall,

An account of Byron's childhood from Lord Byron, by Karl Friedrich Elze:

Mrs. Byron was delivered, January 22, 1788, of a boy, her first and only child. This was the future poet, George Gordon Byron.

The false modesty* of Mrs. Byron is said to have been the cause of one foot of the infant receiving an injury or twist at the birth, which laid the foundation of the deformity that threw so dark a shadow over the poet's whole life; for while Scott's lameness left his heart untouched, Byron's was ever embittered from this source.

'Some curse'—he writes, in a letter to his friend Davies on the death of his mother— 'hangs over me and mine.' 

Byron's inauspicious inheritance included unbridled passions, defiant self-will, arrogant contempt of the received order of things and of the world's opinion, along with high endowments and much resolute energy of character.

Byron's father was careless and dissipated, and squandered the fortune of his two wives.The prejudicial influence which the character of the father, his immoral course of life, and his early death, exercised on Byron, was of yet greater importance than the mere loss of property. Byron afterwards, indeed, admitted and deeply lamented, that he was deprived of the love and guidance of a father.

From "Childish Recollections" in the Hours of Idleness:
Stern death forbade my orphan youth to share
The tender guidance of a father's care.
Can rank or e'en a guardian's name supply
The love which glistens in a father's eye

For this can wealth or titles' sound atone,
Made by a parent's early loss my own
It is almost to be deplored that the poor boy had not lost his mother at the same time with his father; the sad lot of being an orphan, and of growing up among strangers, would, in many respects, have been fortunate for him. The first impressions which the child received were poisoned by domestic discord and the feeling of poverty. If the father were a heartless, selfish rake, the mother, destitute of all self-control, blindly yielded herself to all the impulses of the moment, and was as much wanting in solemn feelings of duty as her husband. A slave to the most violent tempers, she overwhelmed the child alternately with outbursts of rage and love, so that he could feel for her neither affection nor respect. At one time she beat him, called him 'a lame brat,' and railed at him: 'You little dog, you are a thorough Byron, you are just as bad as your father;' at another she covered him with kisses, and declared his eyes were as beautiful as his father's.

Before Byron had completed his fifth year, he was sent to school, probably more in order that the house should be rid of a restless inmate than that he should learn anything. The school which was chosen appears, in fact, to have been little suited for the latter purpose. Under the direction of a Mr. Bowers, the children—it was a mixed school of boys and girls—were taught to read. Byron in one of his journals says that he learned to repeat fluently by rote his first lessons of monosyllables (God made man—Let us love Him), but merely by ear, without knowing a single letter. When this fact was detected at home, his ears were boxed—very undeservedly, adds Byron, for it was by ear only that he had acquired his letters.

Like Walter Scott, he did not distinguish himself at school, being deficient not so much in quickness of apprehension, as in love of study and perseverance. His place was generally in the lower regions, and he displayed little ambition to rise higher. Again, as in Scott, so also in Byron, his mind was occupied and developed by subjects that lay beyond the sphere of the school. As soon as he could read, history, he says, became his grand passion, and in Roman history, the battle of Lake Regillus had especial charms for him.

One more significant circumstance belonging to Byron's childhood remains to be mentioned, his love for Mary Duff when he was only eight years old, Mary being two years older. This strange phenomenon places him beside Dante, who, it is well known, fell in love in his ninth year with Beatrice at the May day Festival at Florence. According to his own account, Byron, during this childish passion, was restless and sleepless, and tormented his mother's maid until she wrote in his name to the little object of his affections, who had been removed to her grandmother's at Banff. She was afterwards married to a wine merchant in Edinburgh, Mr. Robert Cockburn, Byron being then sixteen years old. When his mother communicated this piece of news to him, it nearly threw him, according to his own account, into convulsions, so that his mother scarcely ever ventured to return to the subject.

Let us see him as he was; not a perfect or faultless man; but an object of contemplation far more interesting if not better,—a man of noblest gifts, sorely tried and tempted, erring too often and too sadly, but who withal has given to the English-speaking race poems of such fiery vigor and originality as place him high, if not highest, among our poets of the past.

Read a wonderful brief account of the rest of Byron's eccentric life here

*"False modesty" aside, Byron was born with some sort of deformity of his right foot that caused him to limp.

Norton Critical Edition

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