A sketch from The Wonderful History of Lord Byron & His Dog by E. B. Pigot, 1807 © Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin
Byron knew, more than any author before him, the power of an ellipsis. Foreshadowing twentieth-century theorists such as Wolfgang Iser, who posited that it is primarily the reader who creates a poem’s meaning by navigating gaps in the text, Byron filled his work with tantalizing omissions to fire the imagination. One of his bestselling poems, The Giaour, a classically Byronic tale of a brooding hero avenging his murdered beloved, was subtitled “A Fragment” to create an illusion that the full story lay elsewhere. The poem is riddled with asterisks that mark supposedly lost sections. “An outline is the best,” Byron wrote in his final epic Don Juan, “– a lively reader’s fancy does the rest”.
The poet invited conjecture not only about his work but also about his personal life. Readers were quick to see a link between Byron’s melancholic aristocratic heroes and the poet himself. In his preface to the work that made him famous in 1814, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron insisted that his character was not based on a “real personage”, but purely “the child of imagination”. Yet he continually gave his heroes the same dark hair and pale brow that readers were seeing in reproduced portraits of the poet that hung in countless print shop windows, and he often dropped in teasing autobiographical references to ancestral homes and heroic acts abroad. Readers looked for coded messages that they felt revealed the real Byron amid the gossip, and the Byronic hero was just ambiguous enough for them to see in him whatever suited them.
It is a wonderful dramatic irony, then, that Byron’s memoirs – which might have finally provided the “truth” about his life – were destroyed soon after his death. The story goes that three of his closest friends (his publisher, John Murray; his fellow celebrity poet, Thomas Moore; and his companion since his Cambridge days, John Cam Hobhouse), together with lawyers representing Byron’s half-sister and his widow, decided that the manuscript was so scandalous, so unsuitable for public consumption, that it would ruin Byron’s reputation forever. Gathered in Murray’s drawing room in Albemarle Street, they ripped up the pages and tossed them into the fire. The incident is often described as the greatest crime in literary history. It has certainly served to fuel curiosity and conjecture about Byron’s personal life for another couple of centuries. What was the damning secret his friends needed to protect? Domestic abuse? Sodomy? Incest? Probably all three, we imagine.