George Noel Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824), was once the most celebrated poet in Europe. Handsome and charismatic, he was the darling of polite society, the cynosure of salons, a pacesetter in fashion and mannerism, the observed of all observers. Smitten debutantes, madams, and maidservants vied for the attention of the dashing peer of the realm. Men envied him. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, published when the poet was twenty-four, captivated the romantic imagination of a continent. “I awoke one day,” said Byron, “and found myself famous.” His fame was solidified by Don Juan, a mock epic masterpiece.
When he died of a fever in Missolonghi, where he was aiding the Greeks in their struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire, newspapers called him and Napoleon the greatest men of the era. Goethe, the reigning monarch of belles lettres, hailed Byron as “a personality of such eminence as has never been and is not likely to come again.”
“Eminence” played better on the Continent than in England. There, long before his death, Byron’s fame had mutated to infamy. In separation papers, Lady Annabella Milbanke, his wife and the mother of his infant daughter, Ada, accused him of psychological and physical abuse, including attempted rape. Soon, his private history, sordid and profligate, became public. One report had him and some Cambridge cronies, dressed as monks and using skulls for bowls, keeping wassail at one of his estates. Gossip sheets sizzled with lurid tales of homoeroticism, pederasty, whoremongering, adultery, and an incestuous liaison with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. Throughout England, the clergy thundered “on his head pious libels by no means few.”
Ostracized in London, where he was then living, Byron fled England in April 1816 and never returned. He spent his final eight years in Italy, Switzerland, and Greece. Reviled at home, he was feted abroad.
Caroline Lamb, a blueblood who hounded Byron into an affair, said he was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” (her kind of guy, apparently). George Ticknor, a literary acquaintance, described him as “gentle, mannerly, natural, affectionate, and modest.” Both were right. Byron was an amalgam of disparate traits: cruelty and kindness; misanthropy and philanthropy; cynicism and idealism; affectation and sincerity; arrogance and self-mockery; pettiness and magnanimity; intemperance and asceticism; self-pity and courage.
On balance, the virtues trumped the vices: “For all his flashes of vulgarity, his unworthy intrigues, his intellectual caprices,” biographer Ethel Mayne concluded, “Byron was a man of daring, tenderness, and candor, and one of the most generous spirits of his age.”
Byron’s vices were aggravated by indoctrination to Calvinism, which he could never quite shake despite “an early dislike to the persuasion.” Of his first grammar school, in Aberdeen, Scotland, he reminisced: “I learned little there—except to repeat by rote the first lesson of monosyllables—‘God made man—let us love him’—by hearing it often repeated.” Harangued by a pious, domineering mother and catechized by a string of Presbyterian tutors and Scripture-quoting nurses, young Byron perversely deduced he was irremediably damned. A clubfoot (his mark of Cain), the mockery of playmates, and the early loss of his father confirmed his reprobate status. His wife, who penned an account of their stormy marriage, limned a victim of religion gone haywire: “His principal insane ideas are—he must be wicked—is foredoomed to evil—and compelled by some irresistible power to follow this destiny.”
Armed with a Puritan conception of wickedness, Byron wallowed in Olympian debauchery, oscillating between “ungodly glee” and self-loathing. His Calvinistic conscience doomed him to a repetitive round of sin, remorse, and desire for punishment. “Byron,” said literary critic Mario Praz, “wished to experience the feeling of being struck with full force by the vengeance of Heaven. The gloomy tragedy of his life was set in a moral torture chamber.” Like Childe Harold, Byron was tormented “by demons, who impair / The strength of better thoughts, and seek their prey / In melancholy bosoms, such as were / Of moody texture from their earliest day, / And loved to dwell in darkness and dismay.” His unmerited reprobation led him to identify with Lucifer and Cain: “Souls who dare look the Omnipotent tyrant in / His everlasting face, and tell Him that / His evil is not good.”
Whenever Byron eluded the undertow of Calvinism, he wrote like an Enlightenment rationalist. “In morality,” he remarked, “I prefer Confucius to the Ten Commandments and Socrates to St. Paul.” He disdained revelation and mystery: “God would have made his will known without books,” he told his lifelong friend Francis Hodgson, a cleric, “considering how very few could read when Jesus of Nazareth lived, had it been His pleasure to ratify any peculiar mode of worship.”
“I wouldn’t subscribe to some of the articles of faith,” he told a correspondent, “if I were as sure as St. Peter after the Cock crew. I refuse to take the Sacrament because I do not think eating Bread or drinking wine from the hand of an earthly vicar will make me an inheritor of Heaven.” On miracles, he sided with the skeptics: “I agree with Hume that it is more probable men should lie or be deceived than that things out of the course of nature should so happen.”
Resurrection made no sense: “If people are to live, why die? And are our carcasses worth raising? I hope, if mine is, I shall have a better pair of legs than I have moved on these two-and-twenty years, or I shall be sadly behind in the squeeze into Paradise.” Like eternal punishment, eternal bliss was unjust: “All the pious deeds performed on Earth can never entitle a man to everlasting happiness.”
The Christian scheme of salvation was superfluous: “Christ came to save men, but a good Pagan will go to heaven and a bad Nazarene to hell. If mankind who never heard or dreamt of Galilee and its Prophet may be saved, Christianity is of no avail. And who will believe God will damn men for not knowing what they were never taught?” Even were Christianity valid, the Christian is no more spiritually secure than the ancient Roman: “According to the Christian dispensation, no one can know whether he is sure of salvation—even the most righteous—since a single slip of faith may throw him on his back, like a skater, while gliding smoothly to his paradise. Therefore, whatever the certainty of faith in the facts may be, the certainty of the individual as to his happiness or misery is no greater than it was under Jupiter.”
Byron anticipated Sigmund Freud’s “moral fallacy” of Christianity: “The basis of your religion,” he wrote Hodgson, “is injustice. The Son of God, the pure, the immaculate, the innocent, is sacrificed for the guilty. This proves His heroism; but no more does away with man’s guilt than a schoolboy’s volunteering to be flogged for another would exculpate the dunce from negligence or preserve him from the rod. You degrade the Creator by converting Him into a tyrant over an immaculate and injured Being, sent to suffer death for the benefit of some millions of scoundrels, who, after all, seem as likely to be damned as ever.”
Byron judged religions pragmatically by the moral character of their adherents. On that score, Christianity did not impress him: “Talk of Galileeism? Show me the effects—are you better, wiser
, kinder by your precepts? I will bring you ten Mussulmans shall shame you in all good will towards men and duty to their neighbours.” On the efforts of Hodgson and another Christian friend to proselytize him, Byron commented: “If Hodgson takes half the pains to save his own soul, which he risks to redeem mine, great will be his reward hereafter; I honor and thank you both, but am convinced by neither.”
Byron despised institutionalized religion: “I know nothing, at least in its favour,” he wrote. “We have fools in all sects and impostors in most.” Elsewhere, he said: “I am no Platonist, I am nothing at all; but I would sooner be a Paulician, Manichean, Spinozist, Gentile, Pyrrhonian, Zoroastrian, than one of the seventy-two villainous sects tearing each other to pieces for the love of the Lord and hatred of each other.”
In The Vision of Judgment, a satirical tour de force on Christian eschatology, Byron ridiculed the Church of England:
I know this is unpopular; I know
Tis blasphemous; I know one may be damned
For hoping no one else may e’er be so;
I know my catechism; I know we’re crammed
With the best doctrines till we quite o’erflow;
I know that all save England’s church have shammed,
And that the other twice two hundred churches
And synagogues have made a damned bad purchase.
Despite the impieties, Byron was never secure in his apostasy. “He had read enough of Hume and the Voltairian skeptics before he left Cambridge to unsettle his faith in the dogmas of the established religion, both Catholic and Protestant, and to make him an agnostic,” noted biographer Leslie Marchand, “but he never completely made up his mind.” Percy Bysshe Shelley, his neighbor and fellow exile in Switzerland, bemoaned his own inability to “eradicate from Byron’s great mind the delusions of Christianity, which, in spite of his reason, seem perpetually to recur.”
“Let us ponder boldly,” Byron wrote, “‘tis a base / Abandonment of reason to resign / Our right of thought—our last and only place / Of refuge; this, at least, shall be mine.”
But the demons of his childhood dwelt there, too.