Turning Through History: Lord Byron’s Skull Cup

Lord Byron was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” He earned the phrase from his discarded lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, and he more than lived up to the infamous epitaph. He lived for carnal pleasure, taking men and women as lovers. He lived for carnal pleasure, left a trail of broken hearts in his wake, and didn’t give a damn. This is why I find Lord Byron to be such an interesting character, and why I wanted to write a post on him for this week’s “Turning Through History.”

 

NPG 142; George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron replica by Thomas Phillips
Lord Byron in Albanian Dress, by Thomas Phillip. Painted in 1813. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Of course, when tackling someone as interesting as Lord Byron, where does one start? There are so many quirks, eccentricities, and stories I could focus on in paying attention to this raucous poet. Do I start with his relationship with the Shelleys? His only legitimate daughter, Ada Lovelace, surprisingly one of the first computer programmers? Or his self-imposed exile? I decided to tackle something smaller, something rather mundane in the larger scheme of the poet’s life, but fascinating regardless…

Lord Byron owned a skull cup.

Now, you must be asking yourself, “What the hay does that mean?” I’ll tell you! Lord Byron owned a cup fashioned from an actual skull. Yes, Lord Byron drank out of human remains.

 

Newstead_abbey
Byron’s ancestral home of Newstead Abbey, where the infamous skull was discovered. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

After attending Trinity College in Cambridge, Lord Byron resided at his family home of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. Newstead Abbey had been an Augustinian priory, until it was granted to one of Byron’s ancestors in 1540 by Henry VIII. On the property was a graveyard where the priory monks had been buried. One of the gardeners of the estate discovered a skull on the grounds, from one of the graves, and Lord Byron claimed it for his own. He had it fashioned into a cup for him to drink from, which he purportedly used to make toasts at many of his wild parties.

Lord Byron was so taken with the skull, he even wrote a poem in its honor:

“Start not—nor deem my spirit fled:
   In me behold the only skull
From which, unlike a living head,
   Whatever flows is never dull.

I lived, I loved, I quaff’d, like thee:
   I died: let earth my bones resign;
Fill up—thou canst not injure me;
   The worm hath fouler lips than thine.

Better to hold the sparkling grape,
   Than nurse the earth-worm’s slimy brood;
And circle in the goblet’s shape
   The drink of Gods, than reptiles’ food.

Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,
   In aid of others’ let me shine;
And when, alas! our brains are gone,
   What nobler substitute than wine?

Quaff while thou canst—another race,
   When thou and thine like me are sped,
May rescue thee from earth’s embrace,
   And rhyme and revel with the dead.

Why not? since through life’s little day
   Our heads such sad effects produce;
Redeem’d from worms and wasting clay,
   This chance is theirs, to be of use.”

Lord Byron left behind a legacy with his many fancies, eccentricities, and romances, which made him “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” He’s also remembered for his creative genius as one of the most brilliant poets of the Romantic movement, for poems such as “She Walks In Beauty,” “The Corsair,” “Don Juan,” and “The Vision of Judgement.” But the most important take away from all this⸺he owned a skull cup!

Sources:

Byron, George Gordon. “Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed from a Skull.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 11 July 2017, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/lines-inscribed-upon-cup-formed-skull.

“Lord Byron (George Gordon).” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/lord-byron.

Mondragon, B. “Neurotic Poets.” Neurotic Poets – Lord Byron, www.neuroticpoets.com/byron/.

Strangeremains. “Halloween Horror Post #9: Lord Byron’s Skull Cup.” Strange Remains, 28 Dec. 2016, strangeremains.com/2016/10/15/halloween-horror-post-9-lord-byrons-skull-cup/.

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