Useful Takeaways from the Childhood of a Great Writer
How can the life of Lord Byron, a romantic poet and an English lord, possibly have any practical value for us now? He lived more than two hundred years ago. Print culture then was a world away from online blogging, search engine optimization, and algorithms. His life must be more like a quill pen under glass in a museum than a useful model to follow if you’re a writer in 2020. It’s a relic. An antique. A curiosity.
I’ve found just the opposite is true. The chapters of Byron’s life story ground me and reassure me. They make me feel that even when his experience two centuries ago was different from mine his struggles are nevertheless familiar and recognizable to me. He managed to create memorable letters, poems and journal entries from material that was painful to him. This encourages and inspires me to try the same thing myself.
Knowing some of the episodes of his early life also reminds me that writing as a vocation is noble. Writers are among the great artists of any age. Their work often builds upon messy childhood beginnings. The discovery of their gift usually comes to them through an evaluation of their difficulties. Realizing this as a truth of Lord Byron’s story make me feel neither as alone nor as insignificant as I sometimes think.
Lord Byron’s life, written down as it was with a quill pen, sends me back to my laptop with renewed force and a sense of fun. A little of his glamor and gold dust rubs off on me. He’s taught me two lessons that have improved my own modern life as a writer.
1 Byron converted boyhood disappointment into exciting writing
A child looks to adults for examples of how to be, how to act, and how to work in the world. Lord Byron’s problem was that most adults regarded his mother as a fool. His nursemaid, who formed him by reading aloud to him, was also his abuser. Byron’s father died when he was too young to have any memory of him. Though he searched for a paternal replacement, the two candidates who were nearest to him let him down. From these dark materials Byron in his later teenaged years forged a writing style that sparkled and cracked with elements that were distinctively his.
One of the biggest bruises of Byron’s boyhood came from his relationship with the fifth earl of Carlisle. John Hanson, the Byrons’ solicitor, devised a strategy for scraping together financial support for Byron and his mother. They needed money to pay for Byron’s schooling and for his mother’s living expenses. The big estate Byron inherited at age ten was so indebted that there was little income from it.
Hanson applied for a government pension to support them. The rationale must have been that Byron could be expected one day to join the House of Lords and to serve the state. Lord Carlisle was related to the Byrons. He’d sheltered Byron’s half-sister Augusta after the death of her mother and Byron’s father. He lived at Castle Howard, one of the most imposing country houses in all of England. Designed by Vanbrugh in the seventeenth century, the house appears as the fictional Brideshead in the famous 1981 Granada film production for ITV of Evelyn Waugh’s novel. Hanson applied to Carlisle to be the boy Byron’s guardian and to support his application for a state pension.
Byron, Hanson, and Byron’s mother all hoped this nobleman would serve as a father figure to Byron. He’d grown up impetuous, ill-disciplined, and hard to handle. Byron himself recognized he needed some kind of paternal direction. Byron’s mother brought her son to meet Carlisle. They stopped at Castle Howard on their first trip south from Scotland.
Carlisle immediately took a deep dislike to Byron’s mother. He didn’t want anything to do with her. He agreed to be guardian and to support Hanson’s application for the pension, but that was all. He wanted as little contact with the boy Byron as possible. Hurt, Byron developed a lifelong hatred to having anything to do with Carlisle. Even when his half-sister Augusta intervened, even when he was later prominent in London society, and powerful friends tried to make things smooth between them, Byron always felt irrationally prickly around Carlisle. Byron went out of his way first to praise him, and then, vengefully, to make fun of Carlisle in print.
The most important senior male figure of Byron’s boyhood remained Hanson. His lawyer was also the first to give Byron contact with family life that included the equivalent of brothers and sisters. Hanson had a large house in Earl’s Court, a wife, and children, both boys and girls, not far off Byron’s age. Byron spent a number of Christmas holidays with the Hansons, either because his mother was living too far off, or because he wanted to escape going home to her altogether. He had good memories of these first holidays away from home.
Hanson also sent several of his boys to school with Byron at Harrow. This would have put the Hansons and Byron on roughly the same social level. Yet, Hanson’s letters to both Byron and his mother are oily and almost obsequious. He treated them as valuable clients rather than people who needed his advice. Byron ought to have been addressed and treated as the boy he still was.
When Byron wrote back to Hanson while still a teenager, he employed a tone that was that of someone jocularly addressing his social inferior. Even in as hierarchical a society as Britain still was at the beginning of the nineteenth century, his striking this pose toward Hanson is odd. It must’ve followed from Hanson doffing his cap too much to Byron. This was one of the ways Byron’s pride became inflated. It increased the distance between them when they might’ve been close.
Byron couldn’t rely on Carlisle. He couldn’t entirely count on Hanson. Neither were they helping him as much as he wanted nor supervising him as much as he needed. This influenced the poetry Byron began to write in his fatherless teenaged years. Much of it was derivative love poetry any beginning writer might produce. But Byron added a uniquely Byronic twist. Some of these earliest efforts were about forms of love that were forbidden in his era. He wrote openly of love affairs between boys at his school. He also wrote about kissing young women on the sofa in his mother’s house when she was out. He wrote even of shared orgasms.
Thus, even as a teenager he was delving into subjects that a father, or an involved father figure would have either cautioned him against or prevented him from distributing to his friends. The raciness, the sexual openness of Byron’s adult style, all things for which he is still admired today, even if they were condemned at the time, came to be made in the hedonist forge of Byron’s fatherless teens.
When he was only twenty-one Byron published his first hit, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. It’s a satirical poem that attacks the men who gave hostile reviews to his first volume of juvenile poetry. He then expands the attack to include the senior poets of his own age, Wordsworth and Coleridge. This is unmistakably the same attitude as he had to Carlisle. He’s a little boy who wants respect from senior men and when he doesn’t get it, he turns his cannon on them whether they deserve it or not. He fires away with a vengence. That free, take-no-prisoners spirit was to serve him well long into his career as a writer, no matter how boyish and immature it was in its origins.
2 Byron’s gift as a writer developed through early and involuntary self-reliance
Without a father also Byron learned to rely on himself. At the junior school he attended in Dulwich, in advance of going on to Harrow, a more important school, with a reputation for training future statesmen, Byron discovered that he was behind in Latin. He petitioned his mother to pay for a Latin tutor. Latin and Greek were the basis for elite boys’ education in Byron’s era. The belief was that Greek and Latin literature were the foundations of European civilization and English literature. They looked at classical civilizations as having reached a zenith of cultural achievement they wished to emulate. A twelve or thirteen-year-old might’ve asked his mother for a pony or a wagon. Byron’s boyhood insistence on more Latin lessons instead was a foretelling that his future lay in a command of language.
From learning Latin he had his first real grammatical understanding of how another language was put together and this increased his control of English. But Latin wasn’t all practical knowledge. From Latin lines about the mythological sexuality of the gods he admitted he’d had his first real knowledge about sex among his contemporaries. From lines by the Latin poet Virgil he first learned that homosexuality might be fun as well as forbidden. He has his boy hero in his best poem, Don Juan, mystified at gods and goddesses who wear no clothes, though he ultimately benefits from his reading. “His classic studies made a little puzzle, because of filthy loves of gods and goddesses, who in the earlier ages raised a bustle, but never put on pantaloons or boddices.” This leads to Juan’s first lovely love-making with an older woman.
Above all, Latin as the basis of modern Italian, made him feel at home in Venice, Ravenna, Pisa, and Genoa, where he later lived in exile from England. Of Italian Byron says in Beppo, another poem with a comic vein, “I love the language, that soft bastard Latin, which melts like kisses from a female mouth, and sounds as if it should be writ on satin.”
For Byron, Latin wasn’t a dead language, but a living origin of satire and of sexuality. It was better than a substitute father figure. It was home away from home.
The universal in Byron’s story is that all writers of whatever era must develop techniques for turning their own personal lead into gold. Byron’s inspiration to me is the way he achieves that alchemy by transforming his despair into a jokey combination of classical references and winning self mockery. Being a writer is often a lonely and an unremunerative business. Nevertheless, Byron’s early biography makes it feel as if no writer should ever want to do anything else.