Sleeping in Byron’s Bed

The story…

In the autumn of 1998, I went to London. The trip from Los Angeles is a long one in miles. But it’s even more distant in history and culture. I wasn’t at all sure why I was going. It was just something I felt I needed to do.

I arranged to stay in a private home just around the corner from the Victoria & Albert Museum. The owner was a Mrs. Elliot, an elegant woman in her eighties, tall and thin, with a birdlike brightness about her.

As I was getting ready for bed that first night, feeling confused and a bit lost, wondering why I had come to this city of strangers where I had no reason to be, she appeared at the door of my room. “By the way,” she chirped, “you’re sleeping in Lord Byron’s camp bed.” Suddenly the world shifted just a little and I knew I was exactly where I wanted to be!

byrons_bed1The bed was one of four made specifically to Lord Byron’s instructions and taken with him when he galloped off to join the partisan fighters in Greece. The four-poster can be completely disassembled and packed for travel using the brass fasteners, two of which you can just make out near the top and bottom of the post in the left foreground. It was inherited by Mrs. Elliot from an aunt who had lived in a suite of rooms at Newstead Abbey, Lord Byron’s ancestral home. The bed was short and impossibly uncomfortable for any modern human, but it was the real thing (minus these particular chintz draperies).

Sleeping in Byron’s bed quickly became a metaphor for my visit to London. It represented a physical connection to a much mythologized world of poets and artists. How amazing it seemed to me that I had stumbled across such a unique relic. But as I got on with my adventure in London, I met many people with ties to artists of the past, some with close personal connections through a web of friendships and family relations. In the rootless, disconnected culture of the American west where I come from, no such web of relationships exists; art and intellect, more often than not, must survive in a vacuum. For me, it was a whole new way of looking at art – as a continuum, a river.

The phrase “sleeping in Byron’s bed” came to represent the perception of a long, unbroken line of artists who share an intimate relationship through their struggle to communicate their emotions. This feeling of being connected was strengthened when I went to visit Keats’ house – he seemed so present and real – and again on Cheyne Walk where Rosetti and Ruskin lived and worked and hung out. And I thought about how we all struggle with the same challenges when we choose to live the artist’s life. We all dream the same dreams. We all sleep in the same bed – the poet’s bed.

A perfect example…
After posting my story about Byron’s bed, I received a wonderful email from Derrick Leigh with a great example that illustrates exactly what I describe in my article. With his permission, I’m including it here.

“I always felt some vague affinity with the romantic poets and the pre-Raphaelites, but then my sister’s genealogical research uncovered some things that surprised me. One branch of the family tree contained a guy called Chandos Leigh, who was who was at Harrow school with Byron. They became friends, and when Byron got married Chandos bought his old bachelor pad. They dined together the evening Byron left the country.

“Chandos’s father was Henry James Leigh, who gave his name to Leigh Hunt, whose American father Isaac was his tutor. Chandos paid half the rent on Leigh Hunt’s house when he ran into difficulties, the other half being paid by Mary Shelley.

“It’s hard to describe how this knowledge has affected me, but it’s strengthened my artistic understanding of their lives and work and somehow brought them closer to the present day. It’s given me confidence and inspired me.”

Update…
In his book Joy Unconfined: Lord Byron’s Grand Tour Re-toured, Ian Strathcarron records that Byron traveled in 1809 with four army beds and four camp beds. It’s very likely that this is one of the camp beds. Mrs. Elliot sold the bed and nightstand in 1999 for $20,000 to a collector of Byron memorabilia. I’m glad I got to sleep in it before it disappeared.

Sleeping In Byron’s Bed

Words & Music by Robin Frederick

When you’re sleeping in Byron’s bed
Tangled thoughts will fill your head
Sleeping in the poet’s bed
You must keep the hunger fed

Are you capable of living with
uncertainty and mystery
Can you turn your back
on fact and reason… When a sense of beauty
leads you toward destruction
will you weaken, will you hide, or will you
let these voices tell you things
from somewhere deep inside you

When you’re sleeping in Byron’s bed
Tangled thoughts will fill your head
Sleeping in the poet’s bed
You must keep the hunger fed

Maybe if you write it down
you’ll find some kind of sense in all this
Maybe if you write it down
you’ll feel a little better
But the words become a storm that lifts you
higher than the faint horizon
Followed by an empty feeling
Maybe you should take up painting.

Visions float before you and you
fix the broken song as you
chant the list of stolen words
you feared you never find
Then your voice becomes the river
flowing on through endless years
She will teach you how to worship
if you offer up your tears.

When you’re sleeping in Byron’s bed
Tangled thoughts will fill your head
Sleeping in the poet’s bed
You must keep the hunger fed

Copyright 2002 Robin Frederick. All rights reserved. Used by permission.