Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets
Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets

Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets

Tim Flight - July 18, 2018

Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets
The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edward Fournier, Paris, 1889. WordPress

The Death of Shelley

‘It’s better to burn out, than to fade away’, as Neil Young once observed in Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black). Part of the legend of the Romantic Poets comes from several of them dying young, including Byron, Shelley, and their contemporary, John Keats (1795-1821). Shelley died at the age of 29, less than a month before his 30th birthday, sailing his boat in the Gulf of Spezia, Italy. His boat was named the Don Juan after Byron’s famous poem of the same name, and in it Shelley was returning from founding a politically radical journal called The Liberal.

The boat, an open vessel, had been custom-made for Shelley in the famous shipbuilding port of Genoa. Unfortunately, whilst crossing from Livorno to Lerici, the Don Juan met with a sudden and violent storm, which caused it to sink, due to a design fault according to Mary Shelley. Others have blamed the poor navigational skills of Shelley and his companions, a retired naval officer and a boat boy, who also perished. Still others have suggested that Shelley deliberately drowned himself out of depression, though he had just founded a journal of which his works would form a large part.

It took some time for Shelley’s body to wash ashore, and when it did it was hideously disfigured and bloated. Owing to quarantine regulations, he was cremated on the beach where he washed up. Many in England however were not sad to hear of his passing: ‘Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned; now he knows whether there is God or no’, smirked The Courier. But while that particular publication has been forgotten, Shelley’s legacy lives on, and a memorial to him was erected in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, the highest accolade for a British writer.

Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets
Lord Byron on his Death-bed by Joseph Denis Odevaere, Netherlands, c.1826. Wikimedia Commons

Byron goes to War (sort of)

True to his revolutionary principles, in 1823 Byron involved himself in the Greek War of Independence, fighting for Greece’s freedom from the Ottoman Empire. Before he set sail, he told Lady Blessingham that, ‘I have a presentiment I shall die in Greece’. After a series of mishaps, Byron’s hired brig, the Hercules, reached Missolonghi in January 1824. Along the way, his deep pockets and spendthrift nature caused widespread squabbling amongst rival Greek factions over which cause he should join. After all, he had personally shelled out £4, 000 to refit the Greek fleet. He eventually allied himself with Alexandros Mavrokordatos.

Farcically, even the enemy got wind of Byron’s wealth, and the garrison meant to be protecting the Ottoman fortress at Navpaktos offered to surrender to him without a fight if he would pay them the wages they claimed to be owed by their employers! Even when the Ottomans executed the mutineers and restocked the fortress with loyal soldiers, Byron still could not launch an attack on Navpaktos because the men he had been assigned kept demanding more money from him, and eventually he sent them all home with the words, ‘they may go to the Turks or the devil!’

Byron sold his remaining property in England for a handsome price, and planned to plunge all of his wealth into the Greek war effort. Byron even paid for his own unit of 30 officers and 200 men, known as ‘Byron’s Brigade’, out of his own pocket. He nevertheless still found the time to fall deeply in love with his Greek page, Lukas Chalandritsanos, upon whom he lavished around £25, 000 in today’s money. His affections were, unusually, not returned. But before Byron saw any serious military action, he developed sepsis, and died in Missolonghi on April 19th 1824.

Fallen ill, Byron had his blood let with field instruments, which is presumed to have caused the lethal infection. The Greeks mourned deeply for Byron, and crowds flocked to see his body as it lay in state in London, but the Deans of both Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral refused to bury his body, and instead he was interred in the Byron family vault in Hucknall Torkard, near Newstead. Although there is now a memorial to him in Westminster Abbey, Byron’s beloved Newfoundland dog, Boatswain, still has a more elaborate memorial than his more famous master at Newstead Abbey.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Blake, William. The Complete Poems. Ed. by Alicia Ostriker. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.

Bloom, Harold, and Lionel Trilling, eds. Romantic Poetry and Prose. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Damrosch, Leopold. Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit. London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 2013.

MacCarthy, Fiona. Byron: Life and Legend. London: Faber & Faber, 2003.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Wu, Duncan, ed. Romanticism: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.