On this day in 1824, the poet Byron died, probably from sepsis, while helping the Greeks battle for their independence from the Ottoman Turks. He was only thirty-six. There were, perhaps, a thousand other things a man like Byron could have done with his inherited wealth, the fame and fortune that his epic poem Don Juan brought him, and his seemingly-boundless energy, but he chose to go help the Greeks. He chose to spend 4000 of his own pounds to outfit the Greek navy. He was, in the best sense of the word, an adventurer. He was also one of the freest and bravest men in England of the nineteenth century, and a superb technician in his poetry.
The freedom of his life did not come without costs. He was most likely seduced and molested at the age of nine by a babysitter named May Gray. For years, he carried on love affairs with both men and women. One of these women was Caroline Lamb, the wife of British politician William Lamb, the 2nd Lord Melbourne. She left her husband to pursue the affair, a decision whose emotional impact colored Lord Melbourne’s life, and may explain his much-later decision not to pursue the relationship that was probably open to him with the young Queen Victoria. After Byron “woke to find himself famous” upon the publication of Don Juan, he was pursued by every eligible young woman in England, including Caroline Lamb. She sent him a note, enclosing with it a lock of her pubic hair. His response was to pen a short poem: “Caro Lamb / Goddamn!” Her response to that was to proclaim him a man “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
Byron’s ultimate response to all this adulation was to marry the one woman who wasn’t chasing him, Annabella Millbank. She was a Victorian before the age of Victoria actually began, not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say, but she was emotionally and physically unsuited for Byron, and the marriage was a disaster. Byron eventually settled down (as much as possible for him) with one Teresa Guicolli, before turning his interests toward politics and the Greek situation.
Byron’s life was so rich and full and he wrote about it so well in his letters and journals that it has become a kind of looking-glass for later generations. Those who look see either everything they love about humanity or everything they hate. The British unease with any sexuality that isn’t hetero kept Byron’s bones out of Westminster Abbey for 145 years, and their distaste for his exposure of their many hypocrisies long kept them from admiring his heroism.
The Greeks knew better. They erected monuments to him; named their children after him, and honored his sacrifice in other ways the British could not or would not. It is true: conventional piety was not in Byron. He thought that was the source of much trouble in the world. But honor was in him. So was courage. So was talent. His letters breathe life as few other letters do; and his satire in Don Juan makes our satirical efforts today look juvenile. He was great at the short-form poem, also. “The Destruction of Sennacherib” has had me under a spell for years.
Byron’s experience of life, both light and dark, from such a young age, matured him rapidly. In contrast to that highly-charged and compressed lifespan, our lives–nearly all of them–have been drawn out, our maturation delayed, mostly by education in the forms of college and graduate school. There are good reasons for the delay. There are more facts to know than Byron’s age was aware of, for one thing. But there are also bad consequences, too. The education we provide our children doesn’t provide much guidance in how to choose a life path from among the dozens of choices open to us.
Caroline Kitchener explores some of the dilemmas raised by the multiplicity of these choices in her book Post Grad: Five Women and Their First Year Out of College. I’m struck by three things in my reading of the early chapters: the pressure that Ivy League students (in this case, five women from Princeton) feel as they strive to succeed in their careers; and the close, often-uncomfortable relationship those students have with their parents. As Kitchener herself admits, it’s perilous to draw conclusions from a dataset comprised of only five people, but what limited data those women do provide suggests that the well-to-do are far more like the rest of their fellow Americans than their parents would like to admit.
The third thing I’ve noticed is that these women struggle not only with the expectations they place upon themselves and the expectations of their parents, but also with the expectations of the social framework within which they think they’re going to live–namely, feminism. For all of their expressed desires to succeed on their own, to be free of emotional encumbrances, these women opt a surprising number of times to stay in the personal relationships they’ve established. The choice to continue to involve another person this early in their life’s journey unsettles them, but I smile in solidarity with them in thinking about it. It’s yet another sign that the struggles of the young in the Western World are many times the same no matter where one goes to observe them. As for whether they will succeed or not, the end of Kitchener’s book will tell. But, like their counterpart Byron from two centuries ago, these women, blessed with wealth, freedom, and a sense of responsibility, are seeking to do good things with the lives they have. In this respect, their intentions–quite apart from the mistakes they make–do count for something laudable, no matter how they may end up.