I love birthdays, especially my own. Although last year’s celebrations were non-existent due to Covid, generally I indulge in a week-long round of drinks and dinners and general frolics, using the birthday as an excuse to try and see everyone I care about. The older I get, the more excited I am to see the next birthday come around (I’ve already started planning my 40th, and that’s not for another 5 years!)
However, inexplicably, many people do not enjoy birthdays. Lord Byron is a classic example of this, and never more so than on the occasion of his 33rd birthday, 200 years ago today.
Shortly before midnight on the 21st of January 1821, Byron notes in his journal that ‘in twelve minutes, I shall have completed thirty and three years of age!!!’ Writing of his ‘heaviness of heart’, Byron does not seem to have been overly happy at the prospect, and decides to go to bed and sulk. A few minutes later, however, and he is back at his journal having heard the clock strike midnight. These chimes announce that he is ‘now thirty-three!’, a melancholy signal inspiring Byron to scrawl a quote from Horace, ‘Eheu, fugaces, Posthume, Posthume, / Labuntur anni’ [Alas, O Postumus, Postumus, the years glide swiftly by] (Ode 2.14).
He continues in this gloomy vein, dashing off a deeply dismal little squib which offers a clear indication of his unenthusiastic state of mind:
Through life’s road, so dim and dirty,
I have dragged to three-and-thirty.
What have these years left to me?
Nothing – except thirty-three.
The next entry is even more lugubrious, as the poet glumly envisions an epitaph (complete with a scribbled outline of a sort of gravestone):
interred in the Eternity
of the Past,
from whence there is no
for the Days ― whatever there may be
for the Dust ―
the Thirty-Third Year,
of an Ill-spent Life,
A lingering disease of many months,
sunk into a lethargy,
January 22nd, 1821, A.D.
Leaving a successor
for the very loss which
In these lines, Byron offers an intriguing image of the debauched ‘Thirty-Third Year’ dying of its excesses (‘sunk into a lethargy, / and expired’) and leaving the Thirty-Fourth year as its lonely ‘successor’. The past 365 ‘Days’ are dead and gone, never to be remembered without remorse; and while man’s rotting carcass might be resurrected by a lenient deity, the time wasted in the course of an ‘Ill-spent Life’ cannot be redeemed or revived. Yet, the markedly mournful tone is characteristically undercut by a wry gleam of levity in the humorous image of the newly birthed Thirty-Fourth year slumped in despair at the grave of its dissipated predecessor, rendered foolishly ‘Inconsolable’ not only by the ‘very loss which / occasioned its / Existence’ but also by the thought of having to endure another such year of degenerate excess.
Byron’s dislike of birthdays, and despondency each year as yet another one loomed, is well known. (On his thirty-sixth birthday he writes with an almost gleeful morbidity of his ‘funeral pile’, a splenetic outlook that was unfortunately proved eerily prescient three months later). This gloomy stance was intensified by the poet’s melancholic disposition and a susceptibility to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), rendering dark wet Januarys particularly difficult. However, in later years personal vanity, as much as depression, undoubtedly play a part in the moody poetry Byron produced each birthday.
In 1818, he bemoans the fact that ‘now at thirty years my hair is grey’ and looks fearfully ahead to when he is ‘forty’ and must wear a wig (‘peruke’) to conceal his bald pate. This was not an isolated occurrence. Byron was increasingly obsessed with his appearance, especially after his scandalous separation from his wife and ignominious retreat from England’s shores in early 1816.
Shortly after arriving on the Continent, he writes to his sister Augusta Leigh about his white hairs, rotting teeth and extra poundage, concerned that he looks older than his years:
My hair is growing grey, & not thicker; & my teeth are sometimes looseish though still white & sound. Would not one think I was sixty instead of not quite nine & twenty?(BLJ, 5, 120)
This conviction intensified in the coming years. In 1822, Byron is agonising over Bartolini’s bust to his publisher John Murray, worrying that it makes him look ancient and gloomily prognosticating his imminent demise:
Bartolini’s is dreadful – though my mind misgives me that it is hideously like. If it is – I can not be long for this world – for it overlooks seventy.(BLJ, 9, 213)
A year later, and Lady Blessington records Byron’s seemingly endless discussions about his encroaching decrepitude. ‘To hear Byron talk of himself’, she writes cattily, ‘one would suppose that instead of thirty-six he was sixty years old’ (Lady Blessington’s Conversations of Lord Byron, 229).
Despite merrily claiming to be over one hundred years old in one hotel guestbook in Geneva, as he left his twenties behind Byron undoubtedly grew increasingly sensitive about his age and appearance – particularly when people assumed he was much older than he was. And many people did think he looked old for his years. In 1818, on visiting the poet in Venice, Newton Hanson (who had known Byron since his youth), cruelly observed that:
Lord Byron could not have been more than 30, but he looked 40. His face had become pale, bloated, and sallow. He had grown very fat, his shoulders broad and round, and the knuckles of his hands were lost in fat.(BLJ, 6.78)
This appears to have been a common refrain. On arriving in Pisa in 1821 and catching his first sight of the famous poet, Thomas Medwin was shocked to see a short man ‘apparently forty years of age’ (Medwin’s Conversations of Lord Byron, 7).
Medwin’s account of this meeting draws attention to one of the main sources of Byron’s self-consciousness in 1821 – the loss of the luscious locks immortalised by Thomas Phillips and Richard Westall, etched in prints, and distributed to tens of thousands of readers. Though, as Medwin notes, his hair still ‘waved in natural and graceful curls over his head’, it had become ‘thin’ and ‘grey’, and his head ‘was assimilating itself fast to the “bald first Caesar’s”’ (7-8). This change is captured in Alfred D’Orsay’s 1823 sketch of Byron, in which the receding hairline is striking (though Byron was going through one of his periodic bouts of abstemiousness and is particularly slender).
Byron was obsessed with his thinning hair, so obsessed in fact, that he even resorted to a noxious old wives’ remedy sent to him by his friend and factotum Douglas Kinnaird, involving eggs and other less-savoury items being plastered across the scalp each day:
What’s that you say about “Yolk of Egg for the hair”? The receipt―the receipt immediately.(BLJ 9.101)
By the way, your hair receipt costs me an egg a day. ――Does it nourish as well as embellish the hair?(BLJ 9.143)
(Any user of modern hair-loss treatments will appreciate the desperation driving Byron at this point!)
Thomas Moore, meanwhile, noted during a visit in 1819 that Byron’s features had lost their ‘romantic character’, coarsened by his dissipate lifestyle. This observation draws attention to the other aspect of the poet’s vanity, the sneaking sense of personal culpability and conviction that his dissolute excesses – particularly the ‘fuff-fuff and passades―& fair fucking’ with countless ‘Seminal vessels’ in his ‘Whore-hold’ in Venice (BLJ 6.40) – were to blame for the rapid deterioration of his looks. Certainly, Byron ruefully echoes Moore’s views, sheepishly admitting that his dissolute habits would soon see him fall, like a ‘yellow leaf’ to ‘the ground, with all deliberate speed’ (BLJ, 6.106), the same guilt inflecting the 1821 birthday squib on the evils of his ‘Ill-spent Life’.
By January 22nd 1821, the beautiful youth who enraptured Ali Pasha with his delicate features and shell-like ears was long gone, as was the dashing young poet lionised by London and eagerly pursued by countless women. In their place was an aging Lothario who would – a mere three years later – be reduced to bribing his lovers with costly gifts, no longer able to rely on the allure of a handsome face and physique. As Byron morosely admitted later in 1821, ‘it was one of the deadliest and heaviest feelings of my life that I was no longer a boy’ (BLJ, 9.37).
Yet, while Byron might have worried about the loss of his looks and feared he would be ‘interred in the Eternity / of the Past, / from whence there is no / Resurrection’, 200 years on we’re still celebrating his life and works (and his birthday) – so I’d say he’s aged pretty well, all thing’s considered!
Dr Emily Paterson-Morgan is Head of Publishing for Knowledge E and the Director of The Byron Society. In addition, she sits on the editorial boards of The Byron Journal and the Gender and Culture in the Romantic Era series for Anthem Press, and is currently researching Byron’s engagement with adultery discourses in English print culture. Contact her via Twitter: @epatersonmorgan or email: email@example.com
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