In 1805, when he became a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, the college authorities told Lord Byron that pet dogs were banned. He was so annoyed by the draconian rules that he brought a tame bear instead.
He argued that as bears weren’t specifically mentioned in their statutes the college had no legal grounds for complaint. Where he acquired the animal isn’t clear but it may have been from a travelling menagerie. Byron won the argument against the college and the bear stayed with him in his lodgings. He would walk the bear around the grounds of Trinity on a chain like a dog, and delighted in the reactions he got from passers-by.
Not finished yet, however, Byron even suggested that he would apply for the bear to join the college. He once wrote: “I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was, ‘he should sit for a fellowship’.”
His enormous menagerie is remembered just as vividly today. His collection included numerous dogs and horses, a fox, a parrot, a crocodile, a honey badger, three geese, a heron and a goat with a broken leg. Unwilling to expose his beloved creatures to the cruel outdoors, they were often kept inside the home at his properties in England, Switzerland, Italy and Greece.
Upon visiting Byron’s Italy home in 1821, Percy Shelley witnessed first hand Byron’s eccentricities, and later noted in his diary:
Lord Byron gets up at two. I get up, quite contrary to my usual custom…at 12. After breakfast we sit talking till six. From six to eight we gallop through the pine forests which divide Ravenna from the sea; we then come home and dine, and sit up gossiping till six in the morning. I don’t suppose this will kill me in a week or fortnight, but I shall not try it longer. Lord B’s establishment consists, besides servants, of ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon; and all these, except the horses, walk about the house, which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were the masters of it…
P.S. I find that my enumeration of the animals in this Circean Palace was defective…I have just met on the grand staircase five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian crane.
Out of all the animals he loved, the one he loved most was a Newfoundland dog named Boatswain.
Just as the twenty-year-old aspiring poet was completing his studies at Trinity College after years as a middling and distracted student, Boatswain contracted rabies. Desperate to nurse him back to life and unaware of the deadly course of the disease — the rabies vaccine was still a century away — Byron fed his beloved dog with bare hands and tenderly wiped the frothing drool from his muzzle during seizures.
That November, during one such seizure, Boatswain died in his arms. Byron was devastated. “He expired in a state of madness, after suffering much,” the poet wrote to a friend, “yet retained all the gentleness of his nature to the last, never attempting to do the least injury to anyone near him.” And then, inconsolable, he added: “I have lost everything except Old Murray” — his publisher.
Byron commissioned a large tomb to be built in the grounds of his family seat, Newstead Abbey. Upon the tomb is engraved a glorious epitaph. The epitaph, originally thought to have been written by Lord Byron, was later found to be by his friend John Hobhouse in 1808.
Following this is a poem by Byron himself, 'Epitaph to a Dog'
When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown to Glory but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor's art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below:
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master's own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonour'd falls, unnotic'd all his worth,
Deny'd in heaven the Soul he held on earth:
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.
Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debas'd by slavery, or corrupt by power,
Who knows thee well, must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye! who behold perchance this simple urn,
Pass on, it honors none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend's remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one—and here he lies.
Byron would continue his swashbuckling existence, travelling extensively across Europe, especially in Italy, where he lived for seven years in the cities of Venice, Ravenna, and Pisa. During his stay in Italy he would frequently visit his friend and fellow poet Percy Shelley. Later in life, Byron joined the Greek War of Independence fighting the Ottoman Empire and died leading a campaign during that war, for which Greeks revere him as a folk hero. He died in 1824 at the age of 36 from a fever contracted after the First and Second Siege of Missolonghi. Reunited with Boatswain at last.