Lord Byron’s letters reveal the real queer love and loss that inspired his poetry

It’s July 5, 1807. A drunk and tearful young man sits in his college rooms at Cambridge writing in a “chaos of hope and sorrow” to his childhood friend, Elizabeth Pigot. He has just parted with the one he calls his “Cornelian”, who he loves “more than any human being” – and he is pouring out his heart.

The young man is Lord Byron and his Cornelian is the Cambridge chorister John Edleston. He appears as “the Cornelian” in Byron’s prose writing, named for a gift he had given Byron. Gift and Giver were immortalised in Byron’s first poetry collection, Hours of Idleness (1807), and Byron wore the Cornelian ring till the end of his life. This month marks 200 years since he died in 1824.

Researching LGBTQ+ history often means attempting to uncover and reconstruct evidence that has been excluded or erased, searching for queer traces that are frequently hidden, obscured or disguised.

The letter Byron wrote that night is a rare survivor, preserved, along with another written to Pigot’s mother after Edleston’s death, in the Newstead Abbey archive. They are fragments that gesture towards a larger story of teenage romance, loss and early-19th-century queer life.

To unearth queer history, researchers like myself must work with absences, deliberate erasures – lives and relationships that were hidden, denied or disguised. Byron researchers usually face an overabundance of material, but his queerness is still a question of fragments. Researching his sexuality requires the slow process of learning to recognise and connect codes and threads through his prose and verse.

In Byron’s case, the most tantalising absence is the burning of his memoirs by the overzealous curators of his posthumous reputation – his sister, his publisher and his friends. We have few clues to do more than imagine all that it might have contained.

Another issue is the fact many contemporary claims about Byron’s queerness come in the form of accusations from the records of a conversation between Lady Caroline Lamb (a former lover) and Annabella Milbanke (Byron’s estranged wife).

Other letters and sources have been lost and Byron’s correspondence about homosexual desire is often encoded. He writes to his Cambridge friends with shared shorthand references, usually based on classical allusions, which are difficult to penetrate for the uninitiated.

So how do we approach Byron’s queer history in all its messy reality when the archive is a patchwork of fragments, absences, erasures and obfuscations? In part, by embracing this fragmentation, rejecting the urge for a single story across Byron’s life and meeting Byron in the moment a source offers us.

It is also a question of connection, of tracing elements across poetry and correspondence, memoirs and accusations, weaving together threads to form a fuller picture. The Newstead letters, when read in conjunction with his poetry, letters and journals are an evocative source.

The Newstead letters

The 1807 letter tells us that Byron met Edleston two years before, when he was 17 and Edleston was 15: “His voice first attracted my notice, his countenance fixed it, and his manners attached me to him forever.”

According to Byron: “During the whole of my residence at Cambridge, we met every day summer and winter, without passing one tiresome moment.” He exaggerates, creating his own, romanticised story. In reality, Byron was rarely present at Cambridge, spending only a few months there each year, and usually preferring to spend his time in London.

Byron’s off-handed comment to a friend after returning from a break that Edleston’s character was “much improved” also doesn’t suggest a constant veneration. Whether the reality tallies exactly with the letter is less important, though, than the fact that this is the story Byron wished to tell.

Byron chooses the story of a continuous romantic attachment to a young man. In a period marked by numerous relationships of different types with men and women, Byron claims in the letter that: “I certainly love him more than any human being, & neither time nor Distance have had the least effect on my (in general) changeable Disposition [sic].” It is the passionate declaration of a teenage boy separating from an early love.

Byron’s sunny hopes for the future, his plans for constancy and his naivety over the obstacles are another reminder of his youth. When he comes of age at 21, finally gaining independent control of his fortune and his life, he promises: “I shall leave the decision either entering as a partner [in the mercantile house where Edleston is going to work], or residing with me altogether.”

Towards the end of his letter, just before he returns to practicalities and a more jovial tone, he expresses a more realistic but equally futile hope: “I hope you will one day, see us together.”

Edleston died at 21, before Byron returned from his coming-of-age tour of Europe.

Byron’s queer role models

There is a note of patronage in Byron’s emphasis on offering Edleston a partnership. This is a thread that ran through many of his relationships. A joking letter to his former tutor Henry Drury during his sexually adventurous travels in Greece promised a treatise on “Sodomy simplified or Pederasty proven to be praiseworthy from ancient authors and modern practice.”

This ancient Greek model, of a sexual relationship with a younger, lower-status man or teenage boy, which included aspects of patronage, was one of the primary models Byron had access to to describe and understand his own desires and relationships. Byron also draws comparisons with contemporary and historical figures as models, giving an insight into relationships used as a queer shorthand in the period:

We shall put Lady E Butler and Miss Ponsonby [the ladies of Llangollen] to the Blush, & Pylades & Orestes out of countenance, & want nothing but a Catastrophe like Nisus and Euryalus to give Jonathan & David the ‘go by’.

With the exception of the ladies of Llangollen Eleanor Butler and Susan Ponsonby, who ran away from Ireland in 1780 and lived together till their deaths, his examples are all steeped in tragedy and death. Nisus and Euryalus are two inseparable soldiers in Virgil’s Aeneid who died together. They are the subject of two poems in Byron’s first collection, Hours of Idleness (1807). His repeated return to their story, suggests an internal (though perhaps subconscious) map of queer masculinity which offers little hope of shared futures and emphasises tragic loss and queer love that kills.

In the letter, Byron claims that Edleston “certainly is perhaps more attached to me, than even I am in return”. He reveals a power imbalance and a desire to be more loved than loving, more needed than needing. It is, perhaps, a symptom of his insecurities about his leg, a deformity he was conscious of throughout his life (look closely at full body images of Byron and you will notice one foot is always covered).

Byron also struggled with his weight and disordered eating through his life. During his time at Cambridge he experienced significant changes to his body due to extreme dieting and exercise. When he returned after a break in June 1807, Edleston didn’t even recognise him at first.

The imbalance may also be a reflection of Byron’s feelings of unworthiness. In much of his poetry, he aligns himself with gross carnality and Edleston with purity, seeing himself as a potentially corrupting influence. In To Thryza (1811) Byron portrays a “refined” love at risk of “debasement”:

The kiss, so guiltless and refined,
That Love each warmer wish forbore;
Those eyes proclaim’d so pure a mind,
Even Passion blush’d to plead for more.

Romantic friendships

Byron and Edleston’s relationship slips out of easy categorisation. Byron later referred to it as a “violent, though pure, love and passion”. He also called Edleston his “more than friend”, though he denied any sexual relationship and wrote a poem in Latin, wishing that he’d “lived more truly for” him.

John Murray, Byron’s long-term publisher, released an edited collection of his work in 1834 with commentary from a variety of contemporaries, which referred to it as a “romantic friendship” – a category which filled an ambiguous space beyond heterosexuality. Lisa Moore, a professor of American and English literature, suggests that the term “raises anxieties in the act of attempting to contain them” – it notions towards queerness while seemingly denying it.

Equally though, it suggests other forms of “queer” relation beyond binary definitions based only on sexual activity. Social approbation was granted only on certain terms for romantic friendships. One of the main ones was plausible deniability about actual sexual contact.

The relative social acceptance of these relationships explains, to some extent, Byron’s openness with Elizabeth Pigot. The recognition of the “romantic friendship” category allows space for intense, passionate or romantic relationships between people of the same sex to be recognised and given value.

A tragic love story

After Edleston’s death, Byron wrote to Pigot’s mother asking for the return of his Cornelian which “had acquired a value by this event [Edlestone’s death] which I could have wished it never to have borne in my eyes”.

Elizabeth has added an addendum, noting that she instructed her mother to give it back, because he “never gave it to me, he only placed it in my hands to be Taken care of for him – & that I then restored him his own”. An act of both kindness and recognition.

Byron and Edelston’s relationship ended in tragedy and death, in stark contrast to the hopes he had expressed in 1807, but fulfilling the prophecy of his role models.

Byron left England in 1809 and travelled until 1811. The exact reason that he left and in such an apparent hurry is unclear, although some critics like Leslie Marchand and Fiona McCarthy have suggested a connection to Edleston – the threat of discovery or the importunities of a needy lover.

Why Byron and Edleston separated, whether there was any contact after Byron left England, and how their relationship stood are unclear. When Byron returned to England though, Edleston was dead: a fact he didn’t discover until five months later, from Edleston’s sister.

Writing to his friend Francis Hodgson in 1811, Byron said:

I heard of a death the other day that shocked me more than any of the preceding [his mother and two other friends had recently died], of one whom I loved more than I ever loved a living thing, & one who I believe loved me to the last, yet I had not a tear left for an event which five years ago would have bowed me to the dust; still it sits heavy on my heart & calls back what I wish to forget, in many a feverish dream.

Byron may have repeated to his friends over and over that he hadn’t a tear to cry, but the repetition itself is revealing. His mourning for Edleston led to the creation of the Thyrza poems. As well as depicting his grief, they give us further fragments of the story of their relationship. To Thyrza (1811), for example, suggests an angry or indifferent parting, a misunderstanding or simply the failure to say goodbye:

Could this have been – a word, a look,
That softly said, “We part in peace,’
Had taught my bosom how to brook,
With fainter sighs, thy soul’s release.

Other poems take us through Byron’s grieving process, from the effect of the music he associated with Edleston in Stanzas (December 1811) to the description of self-destructive and desperate gaiety tinged by self-loathing as a coping mechanism in the second To Thyrza poem (1812), which gives a revealing context for Byron’s reckless affairs in 1812, the year of his meteoric rise to fame:

Then bring me wine, the banquet bring;
Man was not form’d to live alone:
I’ll be that light, unmeaning thing
That smiles with all, and weeps with none.
It was not thus in days more dear,
It never would have been, but thou
Hast fled, and left me lonely here;
Thou’rt nothing – all are nothing now.

Byron’s grief – however much of it was self-creation and dramatisation, however much a deeply hidden sorrow for a love that he couldn’t publicly claim, or however much an attempt to depict a constancy he wished he’d felt or had never got over – is recognisable and relatable in his verses.

A queer grief, unvoiced, committed to paper with changed pronouns and pseudonyms. A revelation and an obfuscation – a grief which couldn’t truly speak its name.

No doubt his painful emotions were mixed with genuine gaiety. He wrote his poems fast, pinning down potentially momentary impressions as long-lasting realities. But the moments are, perhaps, as meaningful and illuminating as any more overarching narrative.

Each poem and each letter tells a slightly different story, captures a different moment, and provides a new insight to a queer life lived over 200 years ago.

Sam Hirst is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in History at the University of Nottingham.
This article first appeared on
The Conversation.

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