Byron's Boyfriends

[Note: A slightly shorter version of this review was published in the Gay & Lesbian Review (January-February 2011).]

Peter Cochran, Editor.
Byron and Women [and men].
Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
ISBN 978-1-4438-1988-6.
US $67.99  UK £44.99 .

    George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) was the reigning male sex symbol of the early 19th century. His sporadic personal beauty (alternating between plumpness and emaciation), his flamboyant lifestyle, and his real and imagined affairs with women all fed the image. But Byron's love life also included males. His bisexuality was known, not only within his own close circle, but “on the street”.
    There is a cultural taboo against acknowledging homoeroticism in the lives and works of canonized authors. The homoeroticism in Walt Whitman's Calamus poems was immediately recognized by such gay men as John Addington Symonds and Edward Carpenter, but biographers shied away from it. When Charley Shively in two pioneering works — Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working Class Comerados (1987) and Drum Beats: Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers (1989) — proved that Whitman really did have sex with his boyfriends, this should have settled things — but no, the “good grey poet” is still presented as straight or emasculated. Even with Oscar Wilde — whose trial for “gross indecency” (sex with hustlers) was the greatest sex scandal of the century — it took an openly gay man, Neil McKenna (The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, 2003), to fully document Wilde's homosexual activities, his gay consciousness, and the interest he took in the emerging homosexual rights movement. Confronted with evidence of Byron's bisexuality, Byron specialists been hard put to deny it outright, but they have done their best to minimize it.
    Byron and Women (and men) (BWM) is a welcome contribution to gay studies. The editor, Peter Cochran, is a major Byron specialist, and he is at least gay-friendly. BWM has twelve chapters, written by ten different authors as well as the first new edition since 1934 of the Don Leon poems.
    First, a bit of background. Although the earliest accounts of Byron's life, written by those who had known him personally, contained veiled hints as to his gayness, most of his subsequent biographers disregarded them. The truth emerged in bits and pieces. In the first comprehensive English-language work on homosexuality, Xavier Mayne (The Intersexes, 1909) makes a strong case that in Byron's poem Manfred, the “burden on the conscience of Manfred”, the “unspeakable sin”, is not incest, as is commonly assumed, but a hidden male relationship. Mayne writes: “Greek in his intellectual and sexual nature, [Byron] was Englishman by birth but Athenian by heart.”
    In researching a three-volume biography of Byron (1957), Leslie A. Marchand was given access to the Byron archives of publisher John Murray, the largest in the world, but only on condition that he not allude to Byron's bisexuality. Marchand partially rectified his omissions in a later single-volume work (Byron: A Portrait, 1970), which disclosed that Byron had belonged to a gay circle at Cambridge, whose members used coded language among themselves.
    G. Wilson Knight, in Lord Byron's Marriage: The Evidence of Asterisks (1957), examined Byron's marriage, Lady Byron's desertion, and the subsequent scandal. He addressed the incest hypothesis — that Byron had an “illicit relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh” — and dismissed it as the primary reason for the separation: “There is good reason to suppose that this incest-motif has been all the time, whether or not there be truth behind it, playing the part of a peculiarly effective red herring.”  Rather, Knight considered “that a more important and more consistently motivating secret of Byron's life lay somewhere within the area of homosexuality.” 
    The most influential of Byron's many female biographers was Doris Langley Moore, whose infatuation with Byron led her to attack anyone who discredited him. (In his BWM chapter David Herbert informs us that when Ms. Langley Moore was married, the ceremony was performed over Byron's Tomb in Hucknall Church.)  Although Langley Moore could not totally discount Byron's homoerotic attachments, she cut them to the bare minimum, opining that for many years of his life “he was not interested in any male.”  (Lord Byron: Accounts Rendered, 1974)  What she fails to grasp is that, when men in England could be hanged for having sex with other males, Byron necessarily concealed such relations.
    In 1985 the gay historian Louis Crompton (Byron and Greek Love, 1985) connected the dots throughout Marchand's work, and concluded that Byron, both in practice and in consciousness, qualified as a gay man.
    Another Marchand successor, Fiona MacCarthy (Byron: Life and Legend, 2002) was given full access to the John Murray archives, with no constraints. MacCarthy dared to assert that Byron was more strongly attracted to males than to females. As a result her fine biography (reviewed in GLR, March-April 2003) was coldly received by the Byron establishment.
    Against this background — with many dozens of lesser books and thousands of articles and theses on Byron — does BWM have anything new to offer?  Yes, it does. Peter Cochran unpacks the homoeroticism in Byron's works, which previous critics and biographers had overlooked or suppressed. For example, Cochran cites a female biographer, Ghislaine McDayter, who ponders why Conrad, the hero of The Corsair, persistently denies his desire for the heroine, Medora. Cochran comments: “But she does not take the analysis on its next logical step, which is to look at the possibility that the reason why Conrad's desire has to be deferred is because it was never for Medora at all, but for the young sailor Gonsalvo.”
    Byron's readers and biographers not only blank out the homoeroticism in his poetry, they go on to fantasize nonexistent heterosexuality. Again Cochran quotes McDayter, who portrays Byron or the Byronic hero “either striding toward a helpless (female) victim, cloak blowing and shirt open, or desperately trying to disentangle himself from his adoring herd.”  Cochran comments dryly: “A man striding towards a helpless female victim occurs nowhere in Byron's work. But in the post-modern twenty-first century, post-9/11, who needs evidence?”
    Cochran turns the tables on this heterosexist fantasy of a bodice-ripping stud:

Byron's most thorough portrayal of a bisexual (leaning towards the homo.) is in his notorious earlier creation, the Byronic Hero: though it's a covert portrayal. The Byronic Hero is a stroke of marketing genius, even though he didn't start out that way. Very sexy, he seems misogynist for much of the time, but possesses tender qualities which suggest that he might be redeemed by the Love of a Good Woman. This gave him an instant appeal to sentimental female readers.... But the Byronic Hero has no time for women.

Cochran convincingly argues that the Byronic heroes in The Siege of Corinth, The Corsair, and The Giaour not only reject females, but are covertly attached to their male companions.
    Two stanzas of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (CHP) allude to Byron's homoerotic adventures in 1811. These were bowdlerized by R.C. Dallas, “who introduced Byron to the market-conscious John Murray.” In consequence, “thanks to legions of pure, fastidious editors, the poem's confessional message has been muted out of existence ever since.”  In his Internet edition of CHP Cochran has restored the expurgated stanzas. Here is one, describing the court of Ali Pasha in Albania:

    Here woman's voice is never heard — apart,
    And scarce permitted guarded, veiled to rove,
    She yields to one her person & her heart,
    Tamed to her cage, nor feels a wish to move,
    For boyish minions of unhallowed love
    The shameless torch of wild desire is lit,
    Caressed, preferred even woman's self above,
    Whose forms for Nature's gentler errors fit
  All frailties mote excuse save that which they commit.

    Cochran concentrates on Don Juan (DJ), which is considered Byron's masterpiece. DJ is a very long poem — thousands of stanzas, each with over 60 words — and I suspect that few have ever read all of it. At times DJ can be tiresome, but at its best it is brilliant satire on a wide range of themes, which include, in Cochran's words, “politics, war, literature, religion, and education” as well as “love and sex.”  DJ is permeated with camp, and is best read by gay men, who know the conventions, rhythms, and language of camp. (For brief examples, the Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, is described as “This modern Amazon and queen of queans”; her attraction to Juan is explained: “Besides, the empress sometimes liked a boy.”
    The women in DJ all have powerful sexual urges, which are directed towards the eponymous hero, Don Juan, who in the course of the poem passes from late adolescence to early manhood (late teens to early twenties, which the late Warren Johansson called the “classic age of the hustler”). “Juan, with his virgin face” is pursued, but does not pursue; he is “always the seduced, but not the seducer ... the passive victim of active women.”  The male narrator of DJ is clearly in love with Juan — who is in love with himself: “He, on the other hand, if not in love, / Fell into that no less imperious passion, / Self-love....” (DJ, Canto IX: LXVIII).
    Byron delights in dressing up Juan, just as in real life he enjoyed dressing up his boys — he called them “pages” — from Robert Rushton in 1808 to Lukas Chalandritsanos in 1824. In Russia, Juan is dressed up militarily to please the lusty and super-dominant Catherine the Great. In a long comic episode Juan is kidnapped and held in a seraglio, where he is forced to wear women's clothes. The poor boy didn't really want to, but once in drag he makes the best of it. When the Sultan inspects his seraglio, his eye immediately picks out Juan from among the hundreds of concubines:

    His Highness cast around his great black eyes,
        And looking, as he always looked, perceived
    Juan amongst his damsels in disguise;
        At which he seemed no whit surprized nor grieved,
    But just remarked, with air sedate and wise,
        While still a fluttering sigh Gulbeyaz heaved,
    “I see you've bought another Girl, 'tis pity
    “That a mere Christian should be half so pretty.”

    DJ is filled with double entendres and in-group references hinting at male love. In four lines Byron discloses that he is writing for the initiated — a word that was used in Byron's time (including by Shelley) as a code word for “gay”:

    The grand Arcanum's not for men to see all;
        My Music hath some mystic diapasons,
    And there is much which could not be appreciated
    In any manner by the uninitiated.
        (DJ XIV, 22, 5-8)

    Unless I missed it, Cochran neglected to cite one of Byron's most significant hints to the initiated, the two lines:

    But Virgil's songs are pure, except that horrid one
    Beginning with ‘Formosum Pastor Corydon’
            (DJ, Canto I: XLII).

Byron is camping here, and “horrid” is just mock disapproval. The reference is to Virgil's Second Eclogue, where the shepherd Corydon expresses his burning love for the boy Alexis, his master's darling. This is significant because for centuries the Eclogue has been used by gay men to identify each other — along with such references as Shakespeare's sonnets, Antinous, Orestes and Pylades, Achilles and Patroklos, David and Jonathan, and so on. Byron is saying to the initiated that he is one of us.
    Although women went wild over Byron's earlier poems, many of them (including his mistress, Countess Teresa Guiccioli) were hostile to DJ, which not only had pederastic overtones, but made fun of women's hypocrisy, sentimentality, and self-delusion. After asserting that “few modern academics enjoy poetry” Cochran takes on modern feminist critics, who, concerned with politically correct gender issues, approach DJ “in a guarded, tight-lipped way.” As an example, Cochran quotes passages from the writings of Princeton Professor Susan J. Wolfson, who, without really enjoying DJ, grudgingly concedes:

Byron's poem does not, finally, escape the roles fashioned and maintained by his culture, but it does explore the problems of living with and within those roles.
    Jack Gumpert Wasserman, in his chapter, “Homosexuality in Venice in the time of Lord Byron”, vehemently denies that he is concerned with Byron's sexuality, or whether Venice's gay community attracted Byron to the City or influenced his work. Rather, his paper “addresses two broad questions: first, what was it about Venice that made it attractive to the homosexual, and second, how did the gay community comport itself in the public life of the City during Byron's residence?”
    By Byron's time “most of the areas of Italy had eliminated criminal prosecution for sodomy” [thanks to the Code Napoléon]. Wasserman poses the question: “Why, then, did Venice attract a disproportionately large and overtly gay community?”  He gives six reasons, beginning: “First, and certainly foremost was the absence of all criminal and civil laws proscribing sodomy. It is worth emphasizing again that homosexuality was still a capital offense in England.”  (Here Wasserman might have said “sex between males” rather than “homosexuality”.)  Wasserman's other five reasons concern associations with the culture of antiquity, a historically close connection with Greece, the “topography of Venice” (which “provided unparalleled opportunities for clandestine meetings”), and the artificiality or magic quality of Venice.
    Wasserman describes the Venetian Carnival, in which gay men exuberantly took part. The traditional Carnival costumes, the volto and tabarro, disguised the features and physiognomy so that “it was impossible to tell whether the masked wearer was male or female.” But as always, guys with good bodies wanted to show them off, and they wore skin-tight garments and masks to impersonate Hermes, Eros, Pan, or Harlequin. Wasserman quotes a passage from Byron's Beppo, which sings the delights of the Venetian Carnival:

    The moment Night with dusky mantle covers
        The skies (and the more duskily the better)
    The Time — less liked by husbands than by lovers —
        Begins, and Prudery flings aside her fetter,
    And Gaiety on restless tiptoe hovers.
        Giggling with all the Gallants who beset her;
    And there are Songs, and quavers, roaring, humming,
    Guitars, and every other sort of strumming.

Here we note Byron's use of “Gaiety” — almost certainly a code word directed to the initiated. Byron frequently uses “gay” or “gaily” or “gaiety” in homoerotic contexts. Rictor Norton (Myth of the Modern Homosexual, 1997) has demonstrated that by Byron's time, the words gay and lesbian were already used and understood in their current, homoerotic sense.
    Wasserman demonstrates that Venice had a large and vibrant gay community. Obviously Byron went there for the same reason that gay men in the previous and present centuries have gone to Provincetown or Amsterdam or Mykonos.

    Although BWM is generally pro-gay, Cochran and other contributors sometimes downplay the homoerotic aspects of Byron's life and work. The title of book does this, by putting men in parentheses.
    Like other Byron biographers, even including openly gay Louis Crompton, Cochran believes that Byron was not attracted to post-adolescent males. While it is true that we lack forensic evidence of Byron's sex acts with other adult males, we should not expect to find such evidence, considering that Byron's very survival depended on discretion 
that his writings were expurgated during his lifetime, while his letters and Memoir were burned after his death.
    In fact, there is some evidence that Byron was attracted to post-adolescent males. Take William Fletcher, who “was at Byron's side from 1804, when Byron was sixteen, almost without interval until his master died.”  (MacCarthy)  The teenage Byron had spied the teenage Fletcher plowing the fields, and then taken him on as his valet or personal servant. Well now, the Fletcher behind the plow may have had a good body, but did this qualify him to be a valet (“gentlemen's gentleman”), whose duties included taking care of clothes and other personal services?
    In 1809 Byron and Fletcher were travelling in Portugal, where they visited a monastery: “Fletcher complained that the ‘benevolent faced clergyman’ had been teaching him Greek and kissing him.”  (MacCarthy)  So, Fletcher in his early twenties was good-looking, and didn't resist being kissed by a clergyman. In 1814 Byron and Fletcher, then in their mid-twenties, were living in a Piccadilly apartment, where after exercise Byron would “get Fletcher to rub him down.”  (MacCarthy)  When a gay man receives a massage from a handsome and well built young man — a young man he is paying to perform personal services — we may imagine that the massages become erotic and one thing leads to another. Why not?
    When Fletcher was in his early thirties he was still good-looking and had flaxen hair, according to a 1821 letter written by Percy Bysshe Shelley. At Byron's funeral, overcome with grief, Fletcher collapsed and had to support himself against a pew. This is the reaction of a lover, not just a loyal servant.
    Another of Byron's servants was Giovanni Battista Falcieri, known as “Tita”, a muscular young gondolier he had acquired in Venice. It should be noted that Venetian gondoliers traditionally sold their sexual services. Apparently Tita had sex (for “broad silver pieces”) with one of Byron's guests, William Bankes, who as a young man had initiated Byron into the gay world at Cambridge.
    Whether or not he had sex with them, Byron liked the company of handsome young men. These would include his travelling companion, Dr. John Polidori; his companion for the last four years of his life, Count Pietro (“Pierino”) Gamba; as well as Edward John Trelawny, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Edward Ellerker Williams. In London Byron frequented a boxing club, which was patronized by wealthy men. Very likely the boxers did a bit of hustling on the side.
    Cochran quotes from a letter Shelley wrote to his good friend, Thomas Love Peacock:

He [Byron] associates with wretches who seem almost to have lost the gait & physiognomy of man, & do not scruple to avow practices which are not only not named but I believe seldom even conceived in England. He says he disapproves, but he endures. (17 or 18 December 1818)

Cochran merely comments that “Shelley may be being polite” in attributing the inconceivable practices to the malformed wretches rather than to Byron. Other critics, including Crompton and Wasserman, have read homophobia into the passage, but this reflects a failure to appreciate the need to write defensively, not to say ironically. Cochran grasps the principle involved: “Fearful that his letters would be opened, C.S. Matthews [Byron's gay friend at Cambridge] had to take refuge behind a facade of pretended horror.”  Clearly, Shelley is writing defensively and tongue-in-cheek, as one of the initiated to another, feigning horror as Matthews did. The unnameable practices allude to the crime of sodomy (or buggery). “Seldom even conceived” is written in jest. Read with the proper inflection, the entire passage becomes high camp.
    Perhaps as a sop to his less-than-gay-friendly colleagues, Cochran sometimes gratuitously bolsters Byron's heterosexuality. After quoting from a letter in which Hobhouse describes Byron dressing in drag, Cochran writes: “But this is a rarity.”  What is Cochran's point? — that most of the time Byron did not dress in drag?  The same could be said of Provincetown's famous female impersonators, who only wear drag when performing (and some of them can be charmingly butch in their “boy clothes”).
    After citing Byron's letter to Kinnaird, which describes a “firm of flesh” Venetian woman, Cochran comments: “This is not the language of a man with an exclusive preference for other men.”  True, but who ever claimed Byron had such an exclusive preference?  To the point: it is to be expected that Byron would flaunt his female and conceal his male relationships.

    The last 79 pages of BWM consist of Cochran's attractive and heavily annotated edition of two poems, Don Leon (DL) and Leon to Annabella, which were published, attributed to Lord Byron, in 1866 (though an earlier edition has been lost). This edition is available gratis on Cochran's personal website. Don Leon is important as a powerful plea, the first published in English, for the reform of England's sodomy (or buggery) law; it gives information on Byron's sexuality, most of which has since been shown to be true; and the best passages qualify as great literature.
    Don Leon was rescued from obscurity by G. Wilson Knight (op. cit.), who made two main claims: that DL tells the truth about Byron's sexuality, and that “the quality of the writing is of the highest order. Indeed, no such brilliant manipulation of the rhymed couplet has been known since Pope.”  Although parts of DL are obscene (Byron has sex with Lady Byron per anum), its best passages are forceful, moving, and elegantly crafted. DL is not just a neglected masterpiece, but one which has been rigorously suppressed. The Fortune Press edition of 1934 was immediately confiscated by the London police, and most of the copies were destroyed. (In my personal library I have one that did survive.)
    The authorship of DL is contested. Although the 1866 Dugdale edition attributes DL to Lord Byron, he cannot be the sole author, since the poem relates events that occurred after his death. Among the authorship candidates advanced are George Colman the Younger (by G. Knight) and Richard Paternoster (by Langley Moore). Louis Crompton, begged the question, simply referring to the author as “Byron”. Cochran puts forward Byron's often troublesome friend, John Cam Hobhouse, later Baron Broughton, the subject of his 2010 biography Byron and Hobby-O.
    None of the above writers seem to have considered that DL may be a group effort, with Byron as one of the contributors. This hypothesis is at least tenable, given the variability of DL in terms of style and subject matter. Cochran does make a good case that Hobhouse, with his intimate knowledge of Parliamentary affairs, may have had a hand in DL, but he fails to convince me that Hobhouse had the talent to be the sole or major author.
    Langley Moore despised DL (“two dirty, dingy poems ... full of sniggering puns”), but neither Crompton nor Cochran fully appreciated its quality. The question, in my opinion, is not whether DL is worthy of Byron, but whether Byron had the power and gravitas to write DL.
    Much of the earlier editions of DL consist of notes, which appear to have been written by several hands over time. These notes include newspaper accounts of scandals and trials for homosexual offenses, excerpts from works advocating legal reform, and quotations from classical and contemporary literature. Hundreds of lines of the notes are in foreign languages, mostly Latin and French, and some of these are obscene even by present-day standards. Cochran deleted most of the notes, which is a shame, but probably done on economic grounds.
    Quibbles aside, BWM has important information for gay scholars and students of English literature. If it seems expensive, make an acquisitions request to an appropriate library.

Cochran, Peter.  Personal website.  http://petercochran.wordpress.com/

  — (2010).  Byron and Hobby-O: Lord Byron's Relationship with John Cam Hobhouse.  Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Crompton, Louis. (1983).  “Don Leon, Byron, and Homosexual Law Reform”.  Journal of Homosexuality, 8:3/4.

  — (1985). Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th Century England. Berkeley: U of California P.

Hunt, Leigh. (1828). Lord Byron and Some of His Contemporaries. London.

Knight, G., Wilson. (1957). Lord Byron's Marriage: The Evidence of Asterisks. Macmillan.

Langley Moore, Doris (Levy). (1974). Lord Byron: Accounts Rendered.
London: John Murray.

Lauritsen, John. (2005).  “Hellenism and Homoeroticism in Shelley and his Circle.”  Journal of Homosexuality (Volume 49, Numbers 3/4 2005).  http://paganpressbooks.com/jpl/HHREV3.HTM

MacCarthy, Fiona. (2002). Byron: Life and Legend. London: John Murray and New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Marchand, Leslie A. (1970). Byron: A Portrait. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Mayne, Xavier (pseud. for Edward Irenaeus Prime-Stevenson) (1908). The Intersexes.  Privately printed.

McDayter, Ghislaine. (2009). Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture. SUNY Press.

McKenna, Neil. (2003).  The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. London: Century.

Medwin, Thomas. (1966). Conversations of Lord Byron — Revised with a New Preface by the Author (E.J. Lovell, Jr., Ed.)  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP. Originally published 1824.

Norton, Rictor. (1997). The Myth of the Modern Homosexual, London & Washington: Cassell.

Peacock, Thomas Love. (1830) Review of Thomas Moore's Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, with Notices of his Life. Westminster Review.

Shively, Charley. (1987) Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working Class Comerados.  San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press.

  — (1989) Drum Beats: Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers.  San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press.

Trelawny, Edward John. (1858). Recollections of Shelley and Byron. London: Moxon. Repr. with Introduction by David Crane, New York: Carroll & Graf, 2000.

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