"Let Not My Body Be Hacked"

On this day in 1824 Lord Byron’s body arrived in London, returned home for burial from Missolonghi, Greece, where the thirty-six-year-old poet had died ten weeks earlier. Though his last days were confused and feverish, Byron was clear on several points: “Let not my body be hacked, or be sent to England…. Lay me in the first corner without pomp or nonsense.” But neither hacking, nor shipping, nor pomp and nonsense proved escapable. The reassembled body — minus the lungs, gifted to the citizens of Missolonghi, and identifiable after pickled transport only by its club foot — was refused burial in Westminster and St. Paul’s or any other kind of official honor. The press paid high tribute and the public wept, but high society felt so compromised by Byron’s “League of Incest” reputation and his revolutionary politics that they chose to both go and not go to the funeral. Thus, on its procession through London, the first stage of a four-day trip to the family church in Nottingham, the coach-and-six that carried the casket with Byron’s body and the urns with his inner organs was observed by hordes but followed by forty-seven mostly empty carriages.

Lady Caroline Lamb accidentally witnessed Byron’s funeral procession — and then, having just emerged from her bedroom after a two-month collapse at the news that her former lover had died, she apparently went right back to bed. Lamb is most famous for coining the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” description of Byron. It is a phrase as easily applied to Lamb herself: it was on this day in 1813, angry at having been tossed aside, she publicly drew a knife upon Byron and/or upon herself. The legendary ballroom attack — actually, in the supper room next to the ballroom, the weapon a table knife — scandalized high society and, added to other real or imagined offenses, drove Byron into self-exile three years later.

Byron began his affair with Lamb willingly enough and apparently with eyes open. He delivered his first flowers with “Your ladyship, I am told, likes all that is rare and new, for a moment.” But when the moment got too long, and the “little volcano” heart refused to cool, he iced it: “I shall ever continue your friend, if your Ladyship will permit me so to style myself; and, as a first proof of my regard, I offer you this advice: correct your vanity, which is ridiculous; exert your absurd caprices upon others; and leave me in peace.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.