February 1816. Wife and child gone. Bailiffs in the house. His precious library of books seized, to be sold on behalf of his debtors.
Byron was – as might be expected – in extremely low spirits at this time. And so his friends began to rally round and offer help.
His closest male friend, John Hobhouse, offered moral support. He visited Byron frequently – often several times in a single day – wrote to Annabella on Byron’s behalf, listened to his friend’s often confused outpourings about his marriage.
His publisher, John Murray, made a more practical offer of help. He was about to publish two new poems by his best-selling author, The Siege of Corinth and Parisina. He made a very generous offer: rather than pay a steady trickle of royalties over the years, he would buy the copyright of both poems, with a lump sum of £1,050. It is difficult to calculate a precise equivalent, but this would be at least £100,000 in today’s money: far more than any modern poet would ever dream of earning for two pieces.
This large sum would have been tremendously helpful to Byron in clearing at least part of his enormous backlog of debt. It would have got him out of immediate trouble and taken the bailiffs out of his kitchen, but would by no means have cleared everything: in 1818, when he was finally in a position to satisfy all of his creditors, it took £34,000 – around £3 million today – to pay all of his debts.
However Byron, always the gentleman, refused Murray’s offer. Partly this was because an aristocratic author could not be seen to make money from his writing. That would have carried a very unwelcome aura of “trade.” Partly it was because – as Byron freely admitted in his letter to Murray – neither poem was very good. They were, he said, “…compositions which I do not feel at all equal to my own notions of what they should be…”
Murray published the poems on 13th February 1816. They sold remarkably well, passing through at least three editions in that year alone. The verses were what was expected from Byron at that time: tales of war, doomed love and violent death. Each featured the type of tortured hero whom the reading public were happy to confuse with the creator, in much the same way that a modern celebrity can be conflated with their most famous film or TV role. And no doubt the growing whiff of scandal (the gossip columns were full of stories about Lord B….. and the departure of Lady B……) helped to boost sales quite nicely.