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Byron, George Gordon, Lord (1788-1824)  
 
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No poet has ever fascinated his contemporaries to the same extent as Byron. His poetry enjoyed an immediate popularity inconceivable in our own day. What his contemporaries called a "Byronomania" was ignited by his aristocratic glamour, his personal beauty, and his literary persona, which mixed proud disdain with tantalizing hints of guilty secrets.

His love affairs with women and the rumors attending the breakup of his marriage increased the notoriety that was always half of his fame. To the nineteenth century, he was the archetypal nobleman-rake, poète maudit, and, after his death in Greece, heroic liberator.

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His influence on other writers in Europe and the Americas and beyond was enormous; his narrative and descriptive poetry was also a major source of inspiration to painters, and to musicians like Berlioz, Rossini, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky.

What was not understood in Byron's own century (except by a tiny circle of his associates) was that Byron was bisexual. During at least three periods of his life, homosexual interests predominated over his numerous heterosexual involvements. This side of Byron's nature, however, did not become general knowledge among scholars until the publication of biographical studies by G. Wilson Knight and Leslie Marchand in 1957.

The taboo against homosexuality in England and the punitive measures against it (including frequent executions) reached their zenith in Byron's lifetime. Despite this hostility to same-sex love, there was at the same time a notable cult of romantic friendships among boys at English private schools, well attested by such writers as Benjamin Disraeli, Leigh Hunt, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Inspired by this literary tradition and his own strong personal inclinations, Byron wrote a significant number of poems in this genre based on his feelings for younger boys at Harrow school. These appear in two collections, Fugitive Pieces (1806) and Poems on Various Occasions (1807), which Byron printed privately while he was at Cambridge.

In "Childish Recollections," he himself expresses puzzlement at the strength of these attachments. They may well have had a sexual element. Lady Caroline Lamb, in revelations she made to Byron's wife, claimed that Byron confessed to her that he had had "unnatural" connections with his schoolfellows.

In 1807, Byron published Hours of Idleness, in which he reprinted some of these early friendship poems, but suppressed "The Cornelian," the most personal and revealing of them. Two years earlier, he had met and fallen in love with John Edleston, a young chorister at Trinity College. "The Cornelian" records an emotional moment in their love affair.

In "To Thyrza," a poem in which he pretends to be writing about a woman, Byron laid emphasis on the clandestine nature of their love: "Ours too the glance none saw beside / The smile none else might understand." He implies that he was sexually attracted to "Thyrza" but that the relation remained chaste.

Byron, who boasted he had spent thirteen years studying Greek and Latin, found support for the homosexual element in his own make-up in Classical literature. He translated one of Catullus' love poems to Juventius (retitling it "To Ellen"), was well aware of Horace's bisexuality and Virgil's Corydon eclogue, and published a translation of "The Episode of Nisus and Euryalus" from the Aeneid.

After graduating from Cambridge, Byron made his first voyage to Greece. His letters to his Cambridge friends Charles Skinner Matthews and John Cam Hobhouse, which employ Latin codes based on Petronius and Horace (first deciphered by Marchand in 1957), show that he had numerous homosexual experiences there. Though later tradition focused on his flirtation with Theresa Macri, the "Maid of Athens," Byron was in fact more intrigued by the schoolboys in a local convent where he took up lodgings.

His main involvements were with an effeminate youth named Eustathius Giorgiu and with the more robust Nicolo Giraud, whom he made his heir on returning to England. While abroad, Byron received coded letters from his friend Matthews giving many details about homosexual scandals in England, including hangings and pilloryings. These reveal that Byron, Hobhouse, and Matthews formed a circle with shared interests at Cambridge and were keenly aware of the harsh sanctions visited upon homosexuals in England in their day.

On his return to England, Byron was devastated to learn of Edleston's death, and wrote a series of elegies, the so-called "Thyrza" poems, in which he affected to be mourning a female lover. These include "To Thyrza," "Away, away, ye notes of woe!" "One struggle more and I am free," "And thou art dead, as young and fair," and "On a cornelian heart which was broken."

The first three elegies were added to the first edition of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in 1812. They aroused considerable interest because of their obviously personal nature and inspired much speculation about Thyrza's identity, which Byron kept mysteriously secret.

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