The real lives of the writers of the Romantic era aren’t always as charming as they might seem. Mary Shelley and her husband, Percy, violated her mother’s gravesite, John Keats provoked petty fights at dinner parties, and everyone accepted a depressed, suicidal teenager as their idol. Add to this a bizarre and uncomfortable episode in the life of the poet Lord Byron that often gets glossed over in admiring biographies: the time he tried to buy a twelve-year-old girl.
It happened in Greece, far away from his native England. While doing the Grand Tour, Byron attempted to collect more than just material for his epic poem Childe Harold. At different times in 1809 and 1810, he was a lodger in the home of Athens landlady Tasia Makri. While living under her roof, he became infatuated with her twelve-year-old daughter, Teresa.
Teresa wasn’t the only object of Byron’s affections. His friend Henry Drury might have raised his eyebrows when he received a letter from him claiming that he was “dying for love of three Greek Girls at Athens, Teresa, Mariana, and Kattinka.” However, Teresa was the only Athens beauty for which Byron was willing to part with his precious funds. He offered her mother £500 to take the girl. What did he want her for? A companion, a future lover, a daughter, and poetry protégé he could groom? Today, one can only speculate.
Historians have had to grapple with the disturbing inclinations of artists and poets, scholars and scientists. But this could be one problematic aspect of Byron’s life that’s difficult to ignore. Perhaps we can be grateful that Tasia Makri was wise and protective enough of her daughter not to accept the offer. Byron left Athens for Constantinople with only his servants and travel buddies in tow.
In his typical fashion, the thwarted Lord Byron lamented the loss of Teresa in a poem, “Maid of Athens, ere we part.” The poem, written in the style of traditional Greek refrains, could have been regarded as one of the greatest love letters in history if its subject wasn’t twelve. Literary scholar John A. Scott criticizes the poem not because of the subject matter, but because of a language barrier blunder. Scott writes that Byron’s repeated address to Teresa, “My life, I love you,” is sweet but written incorrectly in Greek.
“There can be little doubt that Byron was misled by the erotic expression in Juvenal and so mistranslated the Greek verse,” Scott comments wryly. Both professionally and personally, the desired affair with young Teresa Makri may not have resulted in Byron’s best work.