Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

The Cornelian

The Gay Love Letters of Lord Byron

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Portrait of Lord Byron The English Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824) took up residence at Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1805, and established an intimate friendship with John Edleston, a choirboy at Trinity Chapel, which lasted until he left Cambridge in June 1807. As a pledge of their love, Edleston in 1806 gave Byron a cornelian brooch pin in the shape of a heart, to which Byron refers in his poem "The Adieu" (about their parting) and the series of poems in which Edleston is disguised under the feminine name "Thyrza" (several of which were suppressed after their initial publication). Byron asked his other boyhood friend Edward Noel Long: "pray, keep the subject of my 'Cornelian' a Secret." Thomas Moore, Byron's friend and first biographer, who allowed Byron's memoir to be destroyed and who excised the homosexual passages from the surviving journals and letters, called Edlestone Byron's "adopted brother" – a tag that does not adequately account for the passion of the poetry:

Ours too the glance none saw beside;
          The smile none else might understand;
The whisper'd thought of hearts allied,
          The pressure of the thrilling hand;
The kiss so guiltless and refin'd
          That Love each warmer wish forbore;
Those eyes proclaim'd so pure a mind,
          Ev'n passion blush'd to plead for more.

Byron left England with some urgency in 1809, probably because some affair threatened to come to light. Byron's confidant John Cam Hobhouse recorded in his diary on June 6, 1810: "messenger arrived from England – bringing a letter from [Francis] Hodgson to B[yron] – tales spread – the Edleston accused of indecency." However Byron may once have struggled against his sexual inclinations, his experiences in Greece and Turkey confirmed his far-ranging sexual appetite. In 1810 Byron had already acquired a new companion, the teenager Nicolo Giraud, whom he made his principal beneficiary in his will. Byron returned to England – which he loathed because of its cant and puritanism – after the death of his mother in 1811, only to learn from Edleston's sister that his boyhood love had died in May that year. It was a greater shock than the death of his mother – indeed, Edleston was only twenty-one when he was felled by consumption – and prompted at least seven moving elegies, including "To Thyrza", "Away, away, ye notes of woe!", "One struggle more, and I am free", "And thou are dead, as young and fair", "If sometimes in the haunts of men", "On a Cornelian Heart Which Was Broken", and a Latin elegy newly discovered and published in 1974, the only poem that uses the masculine gender, "Te, te, care puer! (Thee, beloved boy)", with Edlestone's name written three times at the top. In 1812 Lady Caroline Lamb, mentally unbalanced, insulted Byron by sending him an envelope containing some of her pubic hair together with the inscription "next to Thyrsa Dearest." Byron had given the cornelian heart to Elizabeth Pigot, perhaps just before he left England in 1809, but in October 1811 he requested that it be returned to him as a memorial.

Thou bitter pledge! thou mournful token!
          Though painful, welcome to my breast!
Still, still preserve that love unbroken,
          Or break the heart to which thou'rt press'd.

The selections begin with a short note written in cypher characters a short time before Byron left Cambridge on June 27, 1807, and translated by Leslie Marchand with the help of an alphabetical key found in his papers.


May, 1807

D–R–T [Dearest?] —           Why not? With this kiss make me yours again forever.



June 30th, 1807

. . . I am almost superannuated here. My old friends (with the exception of a very few) all departed, and I am preparing to follow them, but remain till Monday to be present at 3 Oratorios, 2 Concerts, a Fair, and a Ball. I find I am not only thinner but taller by an inch since my last visit. I was obliged to tell every body my name, nobody having the least recollection of visage, or person. Even the hero of my Cornelian (who is now sitting vis-à-vis, reading a volume of my Poetics) passed me in Trinity walks without recognising me in the least, and was thunderstruck at the alteration which had taken place in my countenance, &c., &c. Some say I look better, others worse, but all agree I am thinner, – more I do not require. . . .
          I quit Cambridge with little regret, because our set are vanished, and my musical protégé before mentioned has left the choir, and is stationed in a mercantile house of considerable eminence in the metropolis. You may have heard me observe he is exactly to an hour two years younger than myself. I found him grown considerably, and as you will suppose, very glad to see his former Patron. He is nearly my height, very thin, very fair complexion, dark eyes, and light locks. My opinion of his mind you already know; – I hope I shall never have reason to change it. Every body here conceives me to be an invalid. The University at present is very gay from the fêtes of divers kinds. I supped out last night, but eat (or ate) nothing, sipped a bottle of claret, went to bed at two, and rose at eight. I have commenced early rising, and find it agrees with me. The Masters and the Fellows are all very polite but look a little askance – don't much admire lampoons – truth always disagreeable.



Trin. Coll. Camb.
July 5th, 1807

Since my last letter I have determined to reside another year at Granta, as my rooms, etc. etc. are finished in great style, several old friends come up again, and many new acquaintances made; consequently my inclination leads me forward, and I shall return to college in October if still alive. My life here has been one continued routine of dissipation – out at different places every day, engaged to more dinners, etc. etc. than my stay would permit me to fulfil. At this moment I write with a bottle of claret in my head and tears in my eyes; for I have just parted with my "Cornelian," who spent the evening with me. As it was our last interview, I postponed my engagement to devote the hours of the Sabbath to friendship: – Edleston and I have separated for the present, and my mind is a chaos of hope and sorrow. To-morrow I set out for London: you will address your answer to "Gordon's Hotel, Albemarle Street," where I sojourn during my visit to the metropolis.
          I rejoice to hear you are interested in my protégé; he has been my almost constant associate since October, 1805, when I entered Trinity College. His voice first attracted my attention, his countenance fixed it, and his manners attached me to him for ever. He departs for a mercantile house in town in October, and we shall probably not meet till the expiration of my minority, when I shall leave to his decision either entering as a partner through my interest, or residing with me altogether. Of course he would in his present frame of mind prefer the latter, but he may alter his opinion previous to that period; – however, he shall have his choice. I certainly love him more than any human being, and neither time nor distance have had the least effect on my (in general) changeable disposition. In short we shall put Lady E. Butler and Miss Ponsonby to the blush, Pylades and Orestes out of countenance, and want nothing but a catastrophe like Nisus and Euryalus to give Jonathan and David the "go by". He certainly is perhaps more attached to me than even I am in return. During the whole of my residence at Cambridge we met every day, summer and winter, without passing one tiresome moment, and separated each time with increasing reluctance. I hope you will one day see us together. He is the only being I esteem, though I like many. . . . My protégé breakfasts with me; parting spoils my appetite – excepting from Southwell [i.e. leaving England altogether].



Newstead Abbey
October 10th, 1811

I heard of a death the other day that shocked me more than any of the preceding, of one whom I once 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.



Newstead Abbey
October 13th, 1811

At present I am rather low, & dont know how to tell you the reason – you remember E[dleston] at Cambridge – he is dead – last May – his Sister sent me the account lately – now though I never should have seen him again, (& it is very proper that I should not) I have been more affected than I should care to own elsewhere; Death has been lately so occupied with every thing that was mine, that the dissolution of the most remote connection is like taking a crown from a Miser's last Guinea.



King's College, Cambridge
October 22nd, 1811

The event I mentioned in my last has had an effect on me, I am ashamed to think of, but there is no arguing on these points. I could "have better spared a better being." – Wherever I turn, particulaly in this place, the idea goes with me, I say all this at the risk of incurring your contempt, but you cannot despise me more than I do myself. – I am indeed very wretched, & like all complaining persons I can't help telling you so.



October 28th, 1811

Dear Madam, —
          I am about to write to you on a silly subject & yet I cannot well do otherwise. – You may remember a cornelian which some years ago I consigned to Miss Pigot, indeed gave to her, & now I am going to make the most selfish & rude of requests. – The person who gave it to me, when I was very young, is dead, & though a long time has elapsed since we ever met, as it was the only memorial I possessed of that person (in whom I was once much interested) it has acquired a value by this event, I could have wished it never to have borne in my eyes. – If therefore Miss P[igot] should have preserved it, I must under these circumstances beg her to excuse my requesting it to be transmitted to me at No. 8 St. James's Street London & I will replace it by something she may remember me by equally well. – As she was always so kind as to feel interested in the fate of [those?] that formed the subject of our conversations, you may tell her, that the Giver of that Cornelian died in May last of a consumption at the age of twenty one, making the sixth within four months of friends & relatives that I have lost between May & the end of August!

          — Believe [me] Dear Madam
                    yrs. very sincerely

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

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