Byron at Cambridge
Whilst Coleridge’s drug use is really just rather sad, the lives of the two younger Romantic Poets whose exploits will form much of the rest of this list, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, are far more amusing. We begin with George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), whose name has rightly been a byword for promiscuous men since the poet’s own lifetime. In the words of the great literary critic, Harold Bloom, âno author before or since has enjoyed and suffered such notoriety, or had a literary or social influence beyond his actual imaginative achievement, considerable as that was.’
Byron’s father was John Byron, a degenerate hell raiser known as âMad Jack’. âMad Jack’ died when his son was but 3 years old, leaving him heir to a depleted fortune and in the care of his mentally unstable and alcoholic mother, Catherine. George became Lord Byron aged 10 when his great-uncle died, by which age he claimed to have been seduced by his governess. He also suffered from the caprices of his mother’s mood swings, alternately brow-beaten and overindulged. His was an unusual childhood, and after attending school at Harrow he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge.
Despite his reputation as a lady-killer, Byron was actually largely homosexual. Byron first had gay relationships at Harrow, which he continued at Trinity. His beau there was John Edleston, a choir boy at Trinity, to whom he addressed the following lines upon leaving Cambridge in 1807: âand thou, my Friend! whose gentle love/ yet thrills my bosom’s chords/how much thy friendship was above/description’s power of words!’ (The Adieu, 61-64). Their relationship lasted the full two years of Byron’s attendance at Trinity, during which time he also began to write poetry, publishing his first collection in 1806 before he graduated.
Byron kept a rather unusual pet at Trinity. A lifelong animal lover, Byron was distraught to learn that college rules forbade the keeping of dogs. No mention, however, was made of pet bears, and so he procured himself an ursine companion which he kept in a garret. âI have got a new friend, the finest in the world’, he wrote. âA tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was, “he should sit for a fellowship”‘. Rules are rules, and so he was allowed to keep the beast.
Although he got his degree, Byron was not an especially hard-working or disciplined student. He attended literally no lectures, noting that ânobody here seems to look into an author ancient or modern if they can afford it’. He had a very generous allowance of Â£500 per year, which he squandered on clothes, alcohol, and trips to London, and had to borrow against his future inheritance. In fact, Byron was so busy doing other things that he was only at Cambridge for 3 of the 9 terms required to be awarded a degree. Aristocratic privilege meant that he graduated, regardless.