A Regency Bicentennial:   Byron Hides Authorship of The Waltz

This coming Sunday marks the two hundredth anniversary of the writing of a letter by Lord Byron in which he directed his publisher to deny any claims that he was the author of a satirical poem entitled The Waltz. Byron had written the poem the previous year, but it had not been published until February 1813, and was published anonymously. Some people did suspect it had been written by Byron and the rumors were beginning to circulate.

Why did Byron wish to hide his authorship of The Waltz?

In late August of 1812, less than ten days after he had sold his ancestral family home, Newstead Abbey, George Gordon, Lord Byron, traveled from London to Cheltenham. Ostensibly, he had gone there for his health, to drink the waters in order to relieve the pain caused him by kidney stones. And he did drink the waters, occasionally, writing to friends that he found them " … very medicinal and sufficiently disgusting." But Byron had other, perhaps more important reasons, both for leaving London and for going to Cheltenham, in particular. He wanted to leave London to avoid Lady Caroline Lamb, since by that point, their affair was over, at least for him, and she was essentially stalking him so long as he remained in the metropolis. Though he could have gone anywhere to escape his former lover’s unwanted attentions, he chose to go to Cheltenham because a number of his political friends were also summering there. The Hollands, the Melbournes, the Cowpers and the Jerseys, all liberal Whigs, who had each taken lodgings in Cheltenham during the late summer.

Byron traveled to Cheltenham by the Bristol coach and, initially took rooms at an inn on High Street, since he was the first of his circle of Whig friends to arrive at the spa. But when the Hollands arrived in early September, they invited him to stay with them at Georgiana Cottage. Lord Holland was the leader of the liberal faction of the Whigs, and a nephew of the late Charles James Fox. Earlier that year, in February, Byron had allied himself with the liberal Whigs, and Lord Holland had helped him to write his maiden speech before the House of Lords. As a rising young star in the Whig party, Byron had become a regular visitor to Holland House in London. In fact, it was at Holland House that he first met Lady Caroline Lamb. Fortunately for Byron, at about the same time he was moving into Georgiana Cottage, William Lamb was taking his errant wife to Ireland.

In 1809, the third Drury Lane Theatre burned down, and the fourth, and still extant, theatre building, was scheduled to re-open in mid-October of 1812. A grand gala was planned for the opening night, and a competition was held by the theatre managing committee for an address by which to inaugurate the new theatre. However, the committee eventually rejected every entry. Lord Holland, a member of the Drury Lane management committee, asked Byron, who had just become famous as a poet in March of 1812, to write the opening address for the inaugural ceremonies. Initially, Byron tried to beg off, claiming his forte was poetry, not prose. But his political debt to Lord Holland, and his desire for the Whig leader’s backing for his own political career, was too great, and by mid-September he had set to work. The result was his Song of Drury Lane, which he completed on 22 September 1812. Byron did ask Lord Holland to keep the name of the author secret, as he was concerned he would be beset by all of those whose efforts to write an address had been rejected by the committee. Song of Drury Lane was the first address delivered during the opening ceremonies at the Drury Lane Theatre on Saturday, 10 October 1812.

But the opening of the new theatre in London was really only a footnote to the discussions between the Whigs who were gathered to enjoy the last weeks of summer at the Cheltenham spa. They were all much more occupied with the heavy and unexpected blow dealt them by the Prince Regent, who, upon the first anniversary of the Regency Act, when he had been granted the full powers of a sovereign, had refused to sweep aside the Tory government and put his Whig cronies into power. Needless to say, they were all furious with what they considered this betrayal of the Whigs by the Prince Regent. There were a number of spirited discussions as to what might be done to take revenge on His Faithless Majesty.

Byron had met the Prince Regent socially, but he did not like him, not only for his treatment of the Whigs, but also for his excessive weight and above all, for his "German-ness." Though Byron struggled with his weight throughout his life, he had an unreasoning animosity against those who were overweight. On his father’s side, Byron was descended from one of the barons who had accompanied William the Conquer when he invaded Britain in 1066. On his mother’s side, he was descended from the Stuart King, James I & VI. Byron was extremely proud of what he considered his royal lineage, which he believed to be more "English" and therefore superior, to that of those "German" Hanoverians. Byron, and many of his Whig friends, felt that the Hanoverian kings had brought too many of their Germanic customs and their courtiers to Britain, which was corrupting the true, "pure" culture of England. As far as Byron and his Whig friends were concerned, the Prince Regent was quite as bad, if not worse, that his Hanoverian predecessors, in indulging in many non-English, "German" customs. And in the early fall of 1812, Prinny was offending the sensibilities of many in England with his fondness for that so very scandalous German dance, the waltz. Apparently, at least two years before Almack’s finally sanctioned the waltz within its own hallowed rooms, it was danced at many of the private balls held at Carlton House.

It is well-know that Lord Byron was born with a deformed foot which, though it did not inhibit his participation in many sports, did make it impossible for him to dance. During his affair with Lady Caroline Lamb in the spring of 1812, he pleaded with her to sit out any dances they were to share when they attended balls together. And, though it was not yet sanctioned by Almack’s, some private balls, beyond those held by the Prince Regent, did occassionally include a waltz or two on the dance programme. It was apparently during one of these balls that Byron extracted a promise from Lady Caroline that she would not waltz, since he was jealous to see her waltzing in the arms of other men. When they met again, at a party in July, after the affair was over, Lady Caroline approached Byron and asked, "I conclude I may waltz now?" Perhaps because they were at a society event and could be overheard, Byron replied, rather magnanimously , "With every body in turn — you always did it better than anyone. I shall have a pleasure in seeing you." Unfortunately, he later remarked to her, after she had danced a waltz with someone else, "I have been admiring your dexterity." His sarcastic tone drove her to snatch up a table knife, at which point he was contemptuously amused. "Do, my dear. If you mean to act a Roman’s part, mind which way you strike with your knife — be it at your own heart, not mine — you have struck there already." This remark caused her to cry out, "Byron!" before she fled the room in tears. This whole sordid scene was reported in the London newspapers.

Based on his experiences earlier in that year of 1812, the waltz may well have been on the mind of Lord Byron that autumn, when he and his Whig friends were discussing their betrayal by the Prince Regent. The scandalous waltz had caused Byron public embarrassment, it was favored by the now hated Prince Regent, and, perhaps worst of all, it was "German." Perhaps that is why he chose the waltz as the literary whip by which to scourge the Prince Regent. Scholars believe that Byron began his highly satirical poem, The Waltz, in late September of 1812, while he was still in Cheltenham. But he probably finished it in early October, at the home of Lord and Lady Jersey, at Middleton, in Oxfordshire, to where he was invited when the Jerseys departed Cheltenham. Though it is certain that Byron had completed The Waltz by the end of October of 1812, it was not immediately published. It appears that the poem was first privately circulated among the poet’s Whig friends, and they were all delighted with this long poem which humorously denigrated both the waltz and the Regent who so enjoyed it.

The Waltz was finally published in February of 1813, just one year after the Prince Regent had betrayed the Whigs at the expiration of the Regency Act. It was published anonymously, as Waltz; An Apostrophic Hymn. It was prefaced with a letter to the publishers, purportedly from Horace Hornem, " … a country gentleman from a midland county." The fictitious Mr. Hornem writes about bringing his wife and daughters to London for the Season, and how shocked he was to see his wife dancing the waltz with "a huge hussar-looking gentleman" who had his arms around her waist.

The first stanza of the poem took those maidens who danced the waltz to task for their often skimpy attire. The next took note of the popularity of the waltz with many young officers. But in the third stanza Byron gets down to targeting the German-ness of the waltz and in the next stanza he takes aim at both the Prince Regent and his German wife, Caroline. Perhaps the lines which most directly attack the Regent dancing the waltz are these:

The lady’s in return may grasp as much
As princely paunches offer to her touch.
Pleased round the chalky floor how well they trip,
One hand reposing on the royal hip;
The other to the shoulder no less royal
Ascending with affection truly loyal!

Byron gets in a direct dig at the Prince Regent’s excessive weight by the mention of "princely paunches." By the term "chalky floor" he points to Carlton House, where it was very common to chalk the floor for the balls held there. But perhaps the most sarcastic line with regard to the Regent is "Ascending with affection truly loyal!" a double-entendre on the Prince’s well-known fickleness when in came to women and his lack of loyalty to the Whigs.

In January of 1813, James Leigh Hunt began serving a two-year prison term for libel, after having printed an exposé on the Prince Regent in his newspaper, The Examiner. Despite the fact that his article was fully supported by the facts, he was prosecuted by the Crown and sentenced to two years in prison. By early April, Byron was leaning that rumors were circulating that he was the author of the anonymously published Waltz; An Apostrophic Hymn, a poem that took very harsh satirical aim directly at the Prince Regent. And Leigh Hunt, who had done much the same, with the truth on his side, was currently imprisoned for his writing. It is therefore no surprise that on Wednesday, 21 April 1813, Byron wrote to his publisher, John Murray, " … to contradict the report that he was the author of a certain malicious publication on waltzing." Apparently to hide his fear of imprisonment, Byron put it about to his close friends that he wished to disassociate himself from his satirical poem because it had not been well-received by the public. It certainly never attained the popularity of poems such as Childe Harold or The Giaour, but many people were reading this anonymously published poem.

Byron may have had another, more personal, reason for disavowing authorship of The Waltz. In October of 1812, Annabella Milbanke had refused his proposal of marriage. She had even written an essay on his character to justify her rejection of his suit. Ironically, he had meet her at Melbourne House, at one of the morning waltz parties which Lady Caroline frequently organized there, though it is not clear if Miss Milbanke chose to indulge in this new, if rather scandalous dance craze. Despite her initial rejection of his marriage proposal, Byron was still attempting to woo Miss Milbanke by trying to show her a better side of his character. Therefore, he may very well not have wanted her to know he was the author of satirical poem, The Waltz.

By the end of May, Byron must have been feeling quite safe from the authorities, since he accompanied his friend, Thomas Moore, to visit Leigh Hunt in prison. In addition, he was continuing his pursuit of Miss Milbanke and he was hopeful of gaining her hand. He was able to re-establish a relationship with her in August of that year. Ultimately he was successful in his suit, as Miss Milbanke accepted his second proposal in September of 1814.

For what ever reason, whether to stay out of jail, or to woo a young lady of fortune, two hundred years ago this Sunday, Lord Byron wrote to his publisher, asking him to deny any reports that he was the author of the poem he had published anonymously in February of that same year. Despite what many people think today, The Waltz was intended much more as an attack on the Prince Regent than it was on this new form of dance, however scandalous that dance was considered to be.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to A Regency Bicentennial:   Byron Hides Authorship of The Waltz

  1. That explains a great deal. I knew Byron was opposed to the waltz – indeed I have had a character mention this, in some puzzlement since his name was attached to many scandals – but like my puzzled character had never had any idea WHY. Thank you for this insight into the motivations of this often complex and enigmatic character.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      From what I can tell, Byron didn’t care much for dancing in general, since he could not participate due to his deformity. But his strenuous objection to the waltz, in particular, seems to have been much more politically than personally motivated. I don’t think he cared a pin that it was scandalous, rather, it was its German origins which most offended him. Considering his own scandalous behavior, I suspect that if he could have danced and the waltz came from anywhere but German territories, he would have danced it regularly.



  2. Susan Page Davis says:

    Dear All,

    I imagine a lot of people with romantical notions about Lord Byron would be very surprised to meet the real man, in the perhaps too solid flesh – while at Cambridge, one biographer says his weight was close to three hundred pounds! A handsome young man, if you like them big and scary!

    Tout a vous,

    Page Davis

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      From what I understand, his weight fluctuated wildly, so it may have depended upon which week one happened to meet him as to whether he appeared svelt and handsome or large and scary. He was a very complex person, with a difficult childhood. I suspect he found life very difficult without the childhood experiences more ordinary people had. But then again, it was perhaps that challenging childhood which brought out his creativity.



  3. Elf Ahearn says:

    It may be true that Byron was “was no more scandalous than the other young aristocrats at this time,” but they weren’t men of genius with tons of money and exceptional good looks. Extra attention is always paid to the behavior of superstars. Think of Michael Jackson’s plastic surgery or President Bill Clinton’s extra marital affairs. Plastic surgery isn’t rare, nor is cheating on one’s wife, but public opinion went nuts on these guys, as I imagine it did on Byron in his day.

  4. Pingback: 1813:   The Year in Review | The Regency Redingote

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