George Gordon, Lord Byron

  (1788 - 1824)

Early attachments

Mary Duff, Margaret Parker, Mary Chaworth, Julia Leacroft

Mary Duff

Byron records an early passionate attachment to Mary Duff in his journal of 1813 (25), looking back on his childhood to about the age of 8:

I have been thinking lately a good deal of Mary Duff. How very odd that I should have been so utterly, devotedly fond of that girl, at an age when I could neither feel passion, nor know the meaning of the word. And the effect! 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, 'Oh, Byron, I have had a letter from Edinburgh, from Miss Abercromby, and your old sweetheart Mary Duff is married to a 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, and alarmed my mother so much, that after I grew better, she generally avoided the subject - to me - and contented herself with telling it to all her acquaintance. Now, what could this be? I had never seen her since her mother's faux pas at Aberdeen had been the cause of her removal to her grandmother's at Banff; we were both the merest children. I had and have been attached fifty times since that period; yet I recollect all we said to each other, all our caresses, her features, my restlessness, sleeplessness, my tormenting my mother's maid to write for me to her, which she at last did, to quiet me. Poor Nancy thought I was wild, and, as I could not write for myself, became my secretary. I remember, too, our walks, and the happiness of sitting by Mary, in the children's apartment, at their house not far from the Plain-stones at Aberdeen, while her lesser sister Helen played with the doll, and we sat gravely making love, in our way.

He is clearly perplexed by his own emotions. He continues:

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 almost 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. I wonder if she can have the least remembrance of it or me? or remember her pitying sister Helen for not having an admirer too? .... the more I reflect, the more I am bewildered to assign any cause for this precocity of affection.

To the same Mary, he later writes the following poem:

Untutor'd by science, a stranger to fear,
And rude as the rocks, where my infancy grew,
No feeling, save one, to my bosom was dear,
Need I say, my sweet Mary, twas centred in you?

Yet it could not be Love, for I knew not the name,
What passion can dwell in the heart of a child?
But, still, I perceive an emotion the same
As I felt, when a boy, on the crag-covered wild:
One image, alone, on my bosom imprest,
I lov'd my bleak regions, nor panted for new,
And few were my wants, for my wishes were blest,
And pure were my thoughts, for my soul was with you.

(When I rov'd a young highlander, Hours of Idleness, 1807, 19)

Byron's experiences at the hands of May Gray followed this idyll of young love. He was introduced to sex proper by a fully mature woman at a very early age (nine according to his later accounts). more on May Gray

Mary Parker

A second passionate attachment occurred when he was staying in Nottingham during the summer of the year 1800 (12), and he fell in love with his first cousin, Margaret Parker:

My first dash into poetry was the ebullition of a passion for my first Cousin Margaret Parker one of the most beautiful of Evanescent beings - I have long forgotten the verses - but it would be difficult for me to forget her - ... one of the most beautiful of Evanescent beings... Her dark eyes - her long eye-lashes! - her completely Greek cast of face and figure! .... I do not recollect scarcely anything equal to the transparent beauty of my cousin - or to the sweetness of her temper - during the short period of our intimacy - she looked as though she had been made out of a rainbow -all beauty and peace. (Detached Thoughts, written at Pisa in 1821 (33))

Leslie Marchand writes:

It is strange how little account has been taken of Byron's plain statement that his passions were developed very early and that this 'caused the anticipated melancholy of my thoughts - having anticipated life'. One of the two parallel developments in his relations with women, associated in his mind with Mary Duff and Margaret Parker, stimulated him to a 'dash in poetry' and became the constant symbol to him of the ideally beautiful unpossessed love, the sort of image that usually blossoms in adolescence but that in Byron was a dominating vision between the years of eight and twelve. It had numerous embodiments male and female during the rest of his life. The other, the premature sexual awakening, caused disillusionment, the melancholy which springs from physical disgust and the failure of the real experience to measure up to the ideal. The first carried him into love with young girls and boys; the second into the cynical search for 'fine animals' like the baker's wife in Venice. (Marchand, Leslie, Byron, a Portrait, p39)

The comments, though clearly mediated through Marchand's own sexual experiences (indeed it would be difficult to conceive how it could be otherwise), and clearly in some respects purely speculative (there are many unexplained assumptions in the statement that his premature sexual awakening caused disillusionment, for instance), they nevertheless address what is perhaps the central issue in understanding Byron's personality and poetry, which can possibly best be summed up as the dialectic between sacred and profane love, with profane love generally coming out on top.

Mary Chaworth

Byron attached much importance to his youthful passion for Mary Chaworth, of Annesley Hall, a neighbour and distant cousin, strangely the grand-daughter of the man Byron's grandfather had killed in a duel, but herself enamoured of a local hunting man, John Musters, whom she later married, much to her subsequent chagrin.

Byron and Mary Chaworth
The Dream, Byron with Mary Chaworth on the 'Diadem' with John Musters in hot pursuit, and the dog, Boatswain, by Ford Madox Brown. The sexual symbolism of the scarf, rabbit hole and whip is ridiculously obvious.

Caroline Byron wrote to John Hanson:

You may well be surprised and so may Dr Drury, that Byron is not returned to Harrow. But the Truth is, I cannot get him to return to school, though I have done all in my power for six weeks past. He has no indisposition that I know of, but love, desperate love, the worst of all maladies in my opinion. In short the Boy is distractedly in love with Miss Chaworth, and he has not been with me three weeks all the time he has been in this county, but spent all his time at Annesley.

Interestingly, Byron himself writes later to Thomas Medwin:

She was the beau idéal of all that my youthful fancy could paint of beautiful; and I have taken all my fables about the celestial nature of women from the perfection my imagination created in her - I say created, for I found her, like the rest of her sex, anything but angelic.

Byron's disillusionment with women comes from the reality of their conduct when compared with his ideal, not from his experience of sex at an early age, as Marchand will have it. As Byron clearly sees, it is in the nature of idealism to be disillusioned at some point, and Byron himself, of course, wallows in his disillusionment to an extent probably unparalleled before or since. Again, his disillusionment is not based on a specifically sexual experience, since Mary Chaworth refused all his advances except the most fleeting and innocuous. She apparently disdained Byron as 'that lame boy', but lived to regret her passion for the dissolute and promiscuous John Musters.

The Dream

I.

Our life is twofold: Sleep hath its own world,
A boundary between the things misnamed
Death and existence: Sleep hath its own world,
And a wide realm of wild reality.
And dreams in their developement have breath,
And tears, and tortures, and the touch of Joy;
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts,
They take a weight from off our waking toils,
They do divide our being; they become
A portion of ourselves as of our time,
And look like heralds of Eternity;
They pass like spirits of the past, - they speak
Like Sibyls of the future; they have power -
The tyranny of pleasure and of pain;
They make us what we were not - what they will,
And shake us with the vision that's gone by,
The dread of vanished shadows - Are they so?
Is not the past all shadow? - What are they?
Creations of the mind? - The mind can make
Substance, and people planets of its own
With beings brighter than have been, and give
A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh.
I would recall a vision which I dreamed
Perchance in sleep - for in itself a thought,
A slumbering thought, is capable of years,
And curdles a long life into one hour.

II.

I saw two beings in the hues of youth
Standing upon a hill, a gentle hill,
Green and of mild declivity, the last
As 'twere the cape of a long ridge of such,
Save that there was no sea to lave its base,
But a most living landscape, and the wave
Of woods and cornfields, and the abodes of men
Scattered at intervals, and wreathing smoke
Arising from such rustic roofs; - the hill
Was crowned with a peculiar diadem
Of trees, in circular array, so fixed,
Not by the sport of nature, but of man:
These two, a maiden and a youth, were there
Gazing - the one on all that was beneath
Fair as herself - but the Boy gazed on her;
And both were young, and one was beautiful:
And both were young - yet not alike in youth.
As the sweet moon on the horizon's verge,
The Maid was on the eve of Womanhood;
The Boy had fewer summers, but his heart
Had far outgrown his years, and to his eye
There was but one belovèd face on earth,
And that was shining on him: he had looked
Upon it till it could not pass away;
He had no breath, no being, but in hers;
She was his voice; he did not speak to her,
But trembled on her words; she was his sight,
For his eye followed hers, and saw with hers,
Which coloured all his objects: - he had ceased
To live within himself; she was his life,
The ocean to the river of his thoughts,
Which terminated all: upon a tone,
A touch of hers, his blood would ebb and flow,
And his cheek change tempestuously - his heart
Unknowing of its cause of agony.
But she in these fond feelings had no share:
Her sighs were not for him; to her he was
Even as a brother - but no more; 'twas much,
For brotherless she was, save in the name
Her infant friendship had bestowed on him;
Herself the solitary scion left
Of a time-honoured race. - It was a name
Which pleased him, and yet pleased him not - and why?
Time taught him a deep answer - when she loved
Another: even now she loved another,
And on the summit of that hill she stood
Looking afar if yet her lover's steed
Kept pace with her expectancy, and flew.

III.

 A change came o'er the spirit of my dream.
There was an ancient mansion, and before
Its walls there was a steed caparisoned:
Within an antique Oratory stood
The Boy of whom I spake; - he was alone,
And pale, and pacing to and fro: anon
He sate him down, and seized a pen, and traced
Words which I could not guess of, then he leaned
His bowed head on his hands, and shook as 'twere
With a convulsion - then arose again,
And with his teeth and quivering hands did tear
What he had written, but he shed no tears.
And he did calm himself, and fix his brow
Into a kind of quiet: as he paused,
The Lady of his love re-entered there;
She was serene and smiling then, and yet
She knew she was by him beloved - she knew,
For quickly comes such knowledge, that his heart
Was darkened with her shadow, and she saw
That he was wretched, but she saw not all.
He rose, and with a cold and gentle grasp
He took her hand; a moment o'er his face
A tablet of unutterable thoughts
Was traced, and then it faded, as it came;
He dropped the hand he held, and with slow steps
Retired, but not as bidding her adieu,
For they did part with mutual smiles; he passed
From out the massy gate of that old Hall,
And mounting on his steed he went his way;
And n'er repassed that hoary threshold more;

IV.

A change came o'er the spirit of my dream
The Boy was sprung to manhood: in the wilds
Of fiery climes he made himself a home,
And his Soul drank their sunbeams: he was girt
With strange and dusky aspects; he was not
Himself like what he had been; on the sea
And on the shore he was a wanderer;
There was a mass of many images
Corwded like waves upon me, but he was
A part of all; and in the last he lay
Reposing from the noontide sultriness,
Couched among fallen columns, in the shade
Of ruined walls that had survived the names
Of those who reared them; by his sleeping side
Stood camels grazing, and some goodly steeds
Were fastened near a fountain; and a man
Clad in a flowing garb did watch the while,
While many of his tribe slumbered around:
And they were canopied by the blue sky,
So cloudless, clear, and purely beautiful,
That God alone was to be seen in Heaven.

Byron's Dream, by Sir Charles Lock Eastlake
Byron's Dream, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, 1827, currently in the Tate Gallery, London

V.

A change came o'er the spirit of my dream.
The Lady of his love was wed with One
Who did not love her better - in her home,
A thousand leagues from his, - her native home,
She dwelt, begirt with growing infancy.
Daughters and sons of Beauty, - but behold!
Upon her face there was the tint of grief,
The settled shadow of an inwards strife,
And an unquiet drooping of the eye,
As if its lid were charged with unshed tears.
What could her grief be? - she had all she loved,
And he who had so loved her was not there
To trouble with bad hopes, or evil wish,
Or ill-repressed affliction, her pure thoughts.
What could her grief be? - she had loved him not.
Nor given him cause to deem himself beloved.
Nor could he be a part of that which preyed
Upon her mind - a spectre of the past.

VI.

A change came o'er the spirit of my dream.
The Wanderer was returned. - I saw him stand
Before an Altar - with a gentle bride;
Her face was fair, but was not that which made
The Starlight of his Boyhood; - as he stood
Even at the altar, o'er his brow there came
The self-same aspect, and the quivering shock
That in the antique Oratory shook
His bosom in its solitude; and then -
As in that hour - a moment o'er his face
The tablet of unutterable thoughts
Was traced - and then it faded as it came,
And he stood calm and quiet, and he spoke
The fitting vows, but heard not his own words
And all things reeled around him; he could see
Not that which was, nor that which should have been -
But the old mansion, and the accustomed hall
And the remembered chambers, and the place,
The day, the hour, the sunshine, and the shade
All things pertaining to that place and hour
And her who was his destiny, came back
And thrust themselves between him and the light:
What business had they there at such a time?

VII.

A change came o'er the spirit of my dream.
The Lady of his love: - Oh! she was changed
As by the sickness of the soul; her mind
Had wandered from its dwelling, and her eyes
They had not their own lustre, but the look
Which is not of the earth: she was become
The Queen of a fantastic realm; her thoughts
Were combinations of disjointed things;
And forms, impalpable and unperceived
Of others' sight familiar were to hers
And this the world calls frenzy; but the wise
Have a far deeper madness - and the glance
Of melancholy is a fearful gift;
What is it but the telescope of truth?
Which strips the distance of its fantasies,
And brings life near in utter nakedness,
Making the cold reality too real!

VIII.

A change came o'er the spirit of my dream.
The Wanderer was alone as heretofore,
The beings which surrounded him were gone,
Or were at war with him; he was a mark
For blight and desolation, compassed round
With Hatred and Contention; Pain was mixed
In all which was served up to him, until,
Like to the Pontic monarch of old days,
He fed on poisons, and they had no power,
But were a kind of nutriment; he lived
Through that which had been death to many men
And made him friends of mountains; with the stars
And the quick Spirit of the Universe
He held his dialogues, and they did teach
To him the magic of their mysteries;
To him the book of Night was opened wide,
And voices from the deep abyss revealed
A marvel and a secret - Be it so.

IX.

My dream was past; it had no further change.
It was of a strange order, that the doom
Of these two creatures should be thus traced out
Almost like a reality - the one
To end in madness - both in misery.

July 1816

First published in The Prisoner of Chillon, 1816

This is a very interesting analysis of consciousness, and of the significant events which impress themselves on our experience with such force that they re-emerge unexpectedly in later contexts, and only then disclose their full meaning with a sort of inflexible inevitability of destiny. It is the grand possibility of poetry to address these complex issues in a way that takes into account the whole man, acting as a sort of

telescope of truth,
Which strips the distance of its fantasies,
And brings life near in utter nakedness,
Making the cold reality too real!

Byron sees the experience of parting from Mary Chaworth as pivotal in both their lives, a moment lost when neither of them was conscious of the full significance of what was happening, though he clearly felt the pain and the separation as a more significant and desolating, even devastating event. The consciousness of the loss she had suffered only came to Mary later, and slowly, but just as inevitably. Following Byron's poem, we see that he perceives theirs as a shared, poisoned destiny. She descends into madness, her mind had wandered from its dwelling, he is subjected to blight and desolation, compassed round / With Hatred and Contention; Pain was mixed / In all which was served up to him.

In the poem, we can also trace Byron's attitude towards his eventual marriage to Annabella Millbanke, which is interrupted during the very ceremony by a 'quivering shock' which takes him back to the moment of parting from Mary Chaworth, and the scenes of that time. What business had they there at such a time? he asks.

Having experienced the nec plus ultra of passions, what is left?

He fed on poisons, and they had no power,
But were a kind of nutriment; he lived
Through that which had been death to many men
And made him friends of mountains; with the stars
And the quick Spirit of the Universe
He held his dialogues, and they did teach
To him the magic of their mysteries;
To him the book of Night was opened wide,
And voices from the deep abyss revealed
A marvel and a secret

Vague enough to mean almost anything, or nothing at all, but strangely similar to William Wordsworth's assessment of his own situation:

He was one who own'd
No common soul. In youth, by genius nurs'd,
And big with lofty views, he to the world
Went forth pure in his heart, against the taint
Of dissolute tongues, 'gainst jealousy, and hate,
And scorn, against all enemies prepared, 
All but neglect: and so, his spirit damp'd 
At once, with rash disdain he turned away,
And with the food of pride sustain'd his soul
In solitude.

and:

Nor, that time,
Would he forget those beings, to whose minds,
Warm from the labours of benevolence,
The world, and man himself, appeared a scene
Of kindred loveliness: then he would sigh
With mournful joy, to think that others felt
What he must never feel: and so, lost man!
On visionary views would fancy feed,
Till his eye streamed with tears

William Wordsworth, Lines left upon a seat, Lyrical Ballads (1798)

At length a pleasant instantaneous gleam 
Startles the pensive traveller while he treads 
His lonesome path, with unobserving eye 
Bent earthwards; he looks up -the clouds are split 
Asunder,--- and above his head he sees 
The clear Moon, and the glory of the heavens. 
There, in a black-blue vault she sails along, 
Followed by multitudes of stars, that, small 
And sharp, and bright, along the dark abyss 
Drive as she drives: how fast they wheel away, 
Yet vanish not! --- The wind is in the tree, 
But they are silent; still they roll along 
Immeasurably distant; and the vault, 
Built round by those white clouds, enormous clouds, 
Still deepens its unfathomable depth. 
At length the Vision closes; and the mind, 
Not undisturbed by the delight it feels, 
Which slowly settles into peaceful calm, 
Is left to muse upon the solemn scene.

William Wordsworth, Night Thoughts, composed 1798

Wordsworth articulates the particulars of the consequences of his withdrawal from human society into nature, rather than satisfying himself with the mere generalities with which Byron concludes his poem, but in doing so he allows us to question whether the particulars, ie the experience of seeing the moon and stars through a gap in the clouds, justify the generalities, ie that it is in this experience that one finds the goal and culmination of poetry. But the disillusionment felt by the two poets is very similar: with Byron it is his unrequited love and his realisation that Mary Chaworth is not the angelic being he has made of her, which leads to disillusionmant, with Wordsworth it is rather the fact that he feels himself to have been neglected. Both poets experience rejection, and in both cases the rejection pushes the poet to experience in a direct relationship with nature what he cannot experience in a simple relationship with another human being. Rocks, stones, trees and stars replace human objects of the poetic imagination. The poet can idealise to his heart's content, these objects will never contradict him.

Concerning his meeting with Anne Chaworth at a dinner five years after their parting, Byron writes to Hodgson on 3 November 1808:

You know, laughing is the sign of a rational animal, so says Dr Smollett. I think so too, but unluckily my spirits don't always keep pace with my opinions - I had not so much scope for risibility the other day as I could have wished, for I was seated near a woman, to whom when a boy I was as much attached as boys gereally are, and more than a man should be. I knew this before I went, and was determined to be valiant, and converse with sang froid, but instead I forgot my valour and my nonchalance, and never opened my lips even to laugh, far less to speak, and the Lady was almost as absurd as myself, which made both the object of more observation, than if we had conducted ourselfes with easy indifference - You will think all this great nonsense, if you had seen it you would have thought it still more ridiculous. (LMBL, vI, p173-4)

This was not the last of Mary Chaworth. She would later leave her husband and attempt to contact Byron once more. Byron received a note from her dated 24th December 1813. She was staying with her five children at her cousin Ann Radford's cottage in Edwalton, near Nottingham. She had written:

My dearest Lord, if you are coming to Notts, call at Edwalton nr Nottingham where you will find a very old and sincere friend most anxious to see you.

Byron, heartlessly, writes to Lady Melbourne on 16th January 1814:

Do not you think people are very naughty -- what do you think I have this very day heard said of poor M [Mary Chaworth Musters]? it provoked me beyond any thing - as he was named as authority - why - the abominable stories they circulate about Lady Wd of which I can say no more - all this is owing to 'dear friend' and yet as far as it regards 'dear friend' I must say I have very sufficing suspicions for believing them totally false - at least she must have altered strangely within these nine years - but this is the age of revolution -- The ascendancy always appeared to me that of a cunning mind over a weak one -- but - but - why the woman is a fright -- which after all is the best reason for not believing it.

The rumours circulating about Mary Chaworth Musters were that she was in a lesbian relationship with Ann Radford, the same 'abominable stories' which were circulating about Lady Westmorland. The cunning mind was Ann Radford, and the weak mind Mary Ann Chaworth, who, it seems, is also the 'fright': she had borne five children in the ten years since Byron had a passion for her, and was also ill, 'swollen faced with erysipelas and with one eye closed'. (MBQF, p 60-61)

Julia Leacroft

While he was in Southwell, he writes to his half-sister, Augusta:

My mother gives a party tonight at which the principal Southwell Belles will be present, with one of which, although I don't as yet know whom I shall so far honour, having never seen them, I intend to fall violently in love, it will serve as an amusement pour passer le temps and it will at least have the charm of novelty to recommend it, then you know that in the course of a few weeks I shall be quite au desespoir, shoot myself and Go out of the world with eclat, and my History shall furnish materials for a pretty little Romance which shall be entitled and denominated Lord B. and the cruel and Inconsistent Sigismunda Cunegunda Bridgetina etc. etc. princess of Terra Incognita. - Don't you think I have a good knack for novel writing? (Letter to Augusta, 9 April 1804, MBLW, p6)

His subsequent attachment to Julia Leacroft culminated in the prospect of a duel between Byron and her brother. His poem To Lesbia is supposed addressed to her:

LESBIA! since far from you I've ranged,
Our souls with fond affection glow not;
You say 'tis I, not you, have changed,
I'd tell you why, - but yet I know not.

Your polish'd brow no cares have crost;
And, Lesbia! we are not much older
Since, trembling, first my heart I lost,
Or told my love, with hope grown bolder.

Sixteen was then our utmost age,
Two years have lingering pass'd away, love!
And now new thoughts our minds engage,
At least I feel dispos'd to stray, love!

'Tis I that am alone to blame,
I, that am guilty of love's treason;
Since your sweet breast is still the same,
Caprice must be my only reason.

I do not, love! suspect your truth,
With jealous doubt my bosom heaves not;
Warm was the passion of my youth,
One trace of dark deceit it leaves not.

No, no, my flame was not pretended;
For, oh! I loved you most sincerely;
And - though our dream at last is ended -
My bosom still esteems you dearly.

No more we meet in yonder bowers;
Absence has made me prone to roving;
But older, firmer hearts than ours,
Have found monotony in loving.

Your cheek's soft bloom is unimpair'd,
New beauties still are daily bright'ning,
You eye for conquest beams prepared,
The forge of love's resistless lightning.

Arm'd thus, to make their bosoms bleed,
Many will throng to sigh like me, love!
More constant they may prove, indeed;
Fonder, alas! they ne'er can be love!

Clever, urbane in the manner of one of the Roman poets, Byron's knack for convincing, sometimes audacious rhyme makes us put to one side, but not forget altogether the rather cynical basis of the poem. We oscillate between amusement and disapproval (at least, if we have any feeling for or appreciation of genuine emotion we do). Byron is clearly moving away from the narrow, lower-middle class world of Southwell, with its ancient virgins and portly females, a world which nevertheless produced men of significant and lasting achievement. He is already playing to a gallery of urbane, world-weary, cynical, bored, amoral lords, peers, and parvenus who constitute 'Society', whom he will first amuse and entertain, then scandalise, for, at bottom, there was too much truth and poetry in him to entirely play their game. Besides, the milieu in which he later found himself, despite its chic and its pretensions to intelligence, was little more than Southwell writ large, with the same imbecile addiction to gossip and scandal. 

Abbreviations:

LMBL Marchand, Leslie, Byron's Letters and Journals, London, 1973-1994

MBQF Boyes, Megan, Queen of a Fantastic Realm, Derby, 1986

The poet biographies, criticism, translations, and textual notes on this site are the copyright of Paul Scott
www.adnax.com