Friday, August 3, 2007
George Gordon Lord Byron (1788-1824)
What is the worst of woes that wait on age? What stamps the wrinkle deeper on the brow? To view each love one blotted from life's page, And be alone on earth as I am now. - Childe Harold (canto II, st. 98)
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George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron (1788-1824), English poet, was born in London at 16 Holles Street, Cavendish Square, on the 22nd of January 1788.
The Byrons were of Norman stock, but the founder of the family was Sir John Byron, succeeded by his great-nephew, the poet. Admiral the Hon. John Byron (q.v.) was the poet's grandfather. His eldest son, Captain John Byron ["Mad Jack"], the poet's father, was a libertine by choice and in an eminent degree. He caused to be divorced, and married (1779) as his first wife, the marchioness of Carmarthen (born Amelia D'Arcy), Baroness Conyers in her own right. One child of the marriage survived, the Hon. Augusta Byron (1783-1851), the poet's half-sister, who, in 1807, married her first cousin, Colonel George Leigh.
[Sir John's] second marriage to Catherine Gordon (b. 1765) of Gight in Aberdeenshire took place at Bath on the 13th of May 1785. [Sir John] is said to have squandered the fortunes of both wives. It is certain that Gight was sold to pay his debts (1786), and that the sole provision for his wife was a settlement of 3,000 pounds. It was an unhappy marriage. There was an attempt at living together in France, and, when this failed, Mrs Byron returned to Scotland.
On her way [to Scotland, Catherine] gave birth to a son, christened George Gordon after his maternal grandfather, who was descended from Sir William Gordon of Gight, grandson of James I. of Scotland. After a while her husband rejoined her, but went back to France and died at Valenciennes on the 2nd of August 1791.
[Catherine] was not a bad woman, but she was not a good mother. Vain and capricious, passionate and self-indulgent, she mismanaged her son from his infancy, now provoking him by her foolish fondness, and now exciting his contempt by her paroxysms of impotent rage. She neither looked nor spoke like a gentlewoman; but in the conduct of her affairs, she was praiseworthy. She hated and avoided debt, and when relief came (a civil list pension of 300 pounds a year) she spent most of it on her son. Fairly well educated, she was not without a taste for books, and her letters are sensible and to the point. But the violence of her temper was abnormal. Her father committed suicide, and it is possible that she inherited a tendency to mental derangement. If Byron owed anything to his parents it was a plea for pardon.
The poet's first years were spent in lodgings at Aberdeen. From 1794 to 1798 he attended grammar school, "threading all classes" till he reached the fourth. It was a good beginning, a solid foundation, enabling him from the first to keep a hand over his talents and to turn them to a set purpose. He was lame from his birth. His right leg and foot, possibly both feet, were contracted by infantile paralysis, and, to strengthen his muscles, his mother sent him in the summers of 1796, 1797, to a farm house of Deeside. He walked with difficulty, but he wandered at will, soothed and inspired by the grandeur of the scenery. To his Scottish upbringing he owed his love of mountains, his love and knowledge of the Bible, and too much Calvinism for faith or unfaith in Christianity.
The death of his great-uncle (May 19, 1798) placed him in possession of the title and estates. Early in the autumn Mrs Byron travelled south with her son and his nurse, and for a time made her home at Newstead Abbey. Byron was old enough to know what had befallen him. "It was a change from a shabby Scotch flat to a palace," a half-ruined palace, indeed, but his very own. It was a proud moment, but in a few weeks he was once more in lodgings. The shrunken leg did not improve, and acting on bad advice his mother entrusted him to the care of a quack named Lavender, truss-maker to the general hospital at Nottingham. His nurse who was in charge of him maltreated him, and the quack tortured him to no purpose. At his own request he read Virgil and Cicero with a tutor.
In August 1799 he was sent to a preparatory school at Dulwich. The master, Dr Glennie, perceived that the boy like reading for its own sake and gave him the free run of his library. He read a set of the British Poets from beginning to end more than once. This, too, was an initiation and a preparation. He remained at Dulwich till April 1801, when, on his mother's intervention, he was sent to Harrow. His school days, 1801-1805, were fruitful in two respects. He learned enough Latin and Greek to make him a classic, if not a classical scholar, and he made friends with his equals and superiors. He learned something of his own worth and of the worth of others. "My school-friendships," he says, "were with me passions." Two of his closest friends died young, and from Lord Clare, whom he loved best of all, he was separated by chance and circumstance. He was an odd mixture, now lying dreaming on his favourite tombstone in the churchyard, now the ring-leader in whatever mischief was afoot. He was a "record" swimmer, and, in spite of his lameness, enough of a cricketer to play for his school at Lord's, and yet he found time to read and master standard works of history and biography, and to acquire more general knowledge than boys and masters put together.
In the midsummer of 1803, when he was in his sixteenth year, he fell in love, once for all, with his distant relative, Mary Anne Chaworth, a "minor heiress" of the hall and park of Annesley which marches with Newstead. Two years his senior, she was already engaged to a neighbouring squire. There were meetings half-way between Newstead and Annesley, of which she thought little and he only too much. What was sport to the girl was death to the boy, and when at length he realized the "hopelessness of his attachment," he was "thrown out," as he said, "alone, on a wide, wide sea." She is the subject of at least five of his early poems, including the pathetic stanzas, "Hills of Annesley," and there are allusions to his love story in Childe Harold and in "The Dream" (1816).
Byron went into residence at Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1805. Cambridge did him no good. "The place is the devil," he said, and according to his own showing he did homage to the genius loci. But whatever he did or failed to do, he made friends who were worthy of his choice. Among them were the scholar-dandy Scrope Berdmore Davies, Francis Hodgson, who died provost of Eton, and, best friend of all, John Cam Hobhouse (afterwards Lord Broughton). And there was another friend, a chorister named Edleston, a "humble youth" for whom he formed a romantic attachment. He died whilst Byron was still abroad (May 1811), but not unwept nor unsung, if, as there is little doubt, the mysterious Thyrza poems of 1811, 1812 refer to his death. During the vacation of 1806, and in 1807 which was one "long vacation," he took his pen, and wrote, printed and published most of his "Juvenile Poems." His first venture was a thin quarto of sixty-six pages, dated the 23rd of December 1806, but before that date he had begun to prepare a second collection for the press. One poem ("To Mary") contained at least one stanza which was frankly indecent, and yielding to advice he gave orders that the entire issue should be thrown into the fire. Early in January 1807 an expurgated collection entitled Poems on Various Occasions was ready for private distribution. Encouraged by two critics, Henry Makenzie and Lord Woodhouselee, he determined to recast this second issue and publish it under his own name. Hours of Idleness, "by George Gordon Lord Byron, a minor," was published in June 1807. The fourth and last issue of Juvenilia, entitled Poems, Original and Translated, was published in March 1808.
Hours of Idleness enjoyed a brief triumph. The Critical and other reviews were "very indulgent," but the Edinburgh Review for January 1808 contained an article, not, as Byron believed, by Jeffrey, but by Brougham, which put, or tried to put the author and "his poesy" to open shame. The sole result was that it supplied fresh material and a new title for some rhyming couplets on "British Bards" which he had begun to write. A satire on Jeffrey, the editor, and Lord Holland, the patron of the Edinburgh Review, was slipped into the middle of "British Bards," and the poem rechristened English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (published the 1st of March 1809).
In April 1808, whilst he was still "a minor," Byron entered upon his inheritance. Hitherto the less ruinous portions of the abbey had been occupied by a tenant, Lord Grey de Ruthven. The banqueting hall, the grand drawing-room, and other parts of the monastic building were uninhabitable, but by incurring fresh debts, two sets of apartments were refurnished for Byron and for his mother. Dismantled and ruinous, it was still a splendid inheritance. In line with the front of the abbey is the west front of the priory church, with its hollow arch, once a "mighty window," its vacant niches, its delicate Gothic mouldings. The abbey buildings enclose a grassy quadrangle overlooked by two-storeyed cloisters. On the eastern side are the state apartments occupied by kings and queens not as guests, but by feudal right. In the park, which is part of Sherwood Forest, there is a chain of lakes -- the largest, the north-west, Byron's "lucid lake." A waterfall or "cascade" issues from the lake, in full view of the room where Byron slept. The possession of this lordly and historic domain was an inspiration in itself. It was an ideal home for one who was to be hailed as the spirit of genius of romance.
On the 13th of March 1809, he took his seat in the House of Lords. He had determined, as soon as he was of age, to travel in the East, but before he sought "another zone" he invited Hobhouse and three others to a house-warming. One of the party, C. S. Matthews, describes a day at Newstead. Host and guests lay in bed till one. "The afternoon was passed in various diversions, fencing, single-stick: . . . riding, cricket, sailing on the lake." They dined at eight, and after the cloth was removed they handed round "a human skull filled with Burgundy." After dinner they "buffooned about the house" in a set of monkish dresses. They went to bed some time between one and three in the morning. Moore thinks that the picture of these festivities is "pregnant in character," and argues that there were limits to the misbehaviour of the "wassailers." The story, as told in Childe Harold [canto 1, stanzas v-ix], need not be taken too seriously. Byron was angry because Lord De La Warr did not wish him good-bye, and visited his displeasure on friends and "lemans" alike.
May and June were devoted to the preparation of an enlarged edition of his satire. At length, accompanied by Hobhouse and a small staff of retainers, he set out on his travels. He sailed from Falmouth on the 2nd of July and reached Lisbon on the 7th of July 1809. The first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage contain a record of the principal events of his first year of absence.
The first canto describes Lisbon, Cintra, the ride through Portugal and Spain to Seville and thence to Cadiz. He is moved by the grandeur of the scenery, but laments the helplessness of the people and their impending fate. Talavera was fought and won whilst he was in Spain, but he is convinced that the "Scourge of the World" will prevail, and that Britain, "the fond ally," will display her blundering heroism in vain. Being against the government, he is against the war. History has falsified his politics, but his descriptions of places and scenes, of "Morena's dusky height," of Cadiz and the bull-fight, retain their freshness and their warmth.
Byron sailed from Gibraltar on the 16th of August, and spent a month at Malta making love to Mrs Spencer Smith (the "Fair Florence" [of Childe Harold, canto II, stanzas xxix-xxxiii]). He anchored off Prevesa on the 28th of September. The second canto records a journey on horseback through Albania, then almost a terra incognita, as far as Tepeleni, where he was entertained by Ali Pacha (October 20th), a yachting tour along the shores of the Ambracian Gulf (November 8-23), a journey by land from Larnaki to Athens (December 15-25), and excursions in Attica, Sunium and Marathon (January 13-25, 1810).
Of the tour in Asia Minor, a visit to Ephesus (March 15, 1810), an excursion in the Torad (April 13), and the famous swim across the Hellespont (May 3), the record is to be sought elsewhere. The stanzas on Constantinople (lxxvii.-lxxxii.), where Byron and Hobhouse stayed for two months, though written at the time and on the spot, were not included in the poem till 1814. They are, probably, part of a projected third canto. On the 14th of July Hobhouse set sail for England and Byron returned to Athens.
Of Byron's second year of residence in the East little is known beyond the bare facts that he was travelling in the Morea during August and September, that early in October he was at Patras, having just recovered from a severe attack of malarial fever, and that by the 14th of November he had returned to Athens and taken up his quarters at the Franciscan convent. Of his movements during the next five months there is no record, but of his studies and pursuits there is substantial evidence. He learnt Romaic, he compiled the notes to the second canto of Childe Harold. He wrote (March 12) Hints from Horace (published 1831), an imitation or loose translation of the Epistola ad Pisones (Art of Poetry), and (March 17) The Curse of Minerva (published 1815), a skit on Lord Elgin's deportation of the metopes and frieze of the Parthenon.
He left Athens in April, passed some weeks at Malta, and landed at Portsmouth (c. July 20). Arrived in London, his first step was to consult his literary adviser, R. C. Dallas, with regard to the publication of Hints from Horace. Of Childe Harold he said nothing, but after some hesitation produced the MS. from a "small trunk," and presenting him with the copyright, commissioned Dallas to offer it to a publisher. Rejected by Miller of Albemarle Street, who published for Lord Elgin, it was finally accepted by Murray of Fleet Street, who undertook to share the profits of an edition with Dallas.
Meanwhile Mrs Byron died suddenly from a stroke of apoplexy. Byron set off at once for Newstead, but did not find his mother alive. He had but little affection for her while she lived, but her death touched him to the quick. "I had but one friend," he exclaimed, "and she is gone." Another loss awaited him. Whilst his mother lay dead in his house, he heard that his friend Matthews had been drowned in the Cam. Edleston and Wingfield had died in May, but the news had reached him on landing. There were troubles on every side. On the 11th of October he wrote the "Epistle to a Friend" ("Oh, banish care," &c.) and the lines "To Thyrza," which, with other elegies, were appended to the second edition of Childe Harold (April 17, 1812). It was this cry of desolation, this open profession of melancholy, which at first excited the interest of contemporaries, and has since been decried as morbid and unreal. No one who has read his letters can doubt the sincerity of his grief, but it is no less true that he measured and appraised its literary significance. He could and did turn it to account.
At the end of October Byron moved to London and took up his quarters at 8 St. James's Street.
On the 27th of February 1812 he made his first speech in the House of Lords on a bill which made the wilful destruction of certain newly invented stocking-frames a capital offence, speaking in defence of the riotous "hands" who feared that their numbers would be diminished by improved machinery. It was a brilliant speech and won the praise of Burdett and Lord Holland. He made two other speeches during the same session, but thenceforth pride or laziness kept him silent. Childe Harold (4to) was published on Tuesday, the 10th of March 1812. "The effect," says Moore, "was . . . electric, his fame . . . seemed to spring, like the palace of a fairy king, in a night." A fifth edition (8vo) was issued on the 5th of December 1812. Just turned twenty-four he "found himself famous," a great poet, a rising statesman. Society, which in spite of his rank had neglected him, was now at his feet. But he could not keep what he had won. It was not only "villainous company," as he put it, which was to prove his "spoil," but the opportunity for intrigue. The excitement and absorption of one reigning passion after another destroyed his peace of mind and put him out of conceit with himself.
His first affair of any moment was with Lady Caroline Lamb, the wife of William Lamb, better known as Lord Melbourne, a delicate, golden-haired sprite, who threw herself in his way, and afterwards, when she was shaken off, involved him in her own disgrace. To her succeeded Lady Oxford, who was double his own age, and Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, the "Ginevra" of his sonnets, the "Medora" of The Corsair.
His "way of life" was inconsistent with an official career, but there was no slakening of his poetical energies. In February 1813 he published The Waltz (anonymously), he wrote and published The Giaour (pulished June 5, 1813) and The Bride of Abydos (published November 29, 1813), and he wrote The Corsair (published February 1, 1814). The Turkish Tales were even more popular than Childe Harold. Murray sold 10,000 copies of The Corsair on the day of publication. Byron was at pains to make his accessories correct. He prided himself on the acccuracy of his "costume." He was under no delusion as to the ethical or artistic value of these experiments on "public patience."
In the summer of 1813 a new and potent influence came into his life. Mrs Leigh, whose home was at Newmarket, came up to London on a visit. After a long interval the brother and sister met, and whether there is or is not any foundation for the dark story obscurely hinted at in Byron's lifetime, and afterwards made public property by Mrs Beecher Stowe (Macmillan's Magazine, 1869, pp. 377-396), there is no question as to the depth and sincerity of his love for his "one relative," - that her well-being was more to him than his own. Byron passed the "seasons" of 1813, 1814 in London. His manner of life we know from his journals. Socially he was on the crest of the wave. He was a welcome guest at the great Whig houses, at Lady Melbourne's, at Lady Jersey's, at Holland House. Sheridan and Moore, Rogers and Campbell, were his intimates and companions. He was a member of Alfred's, of Watier's, of the Cocoa Tree, and half a dozen clubs besides. After the publication of The Corsair he had promised an interval of silence, but the abdication of Napoleon evoked "An Ode," &c., in his dishonour (April 16); Lara, a Tale, an informal sequel to The Corsair, was published anonymously on August 6, 1814.
Newstead had been put up for sale, but pending completion of the contract was still in his possession. During his last visit but one, whilst his sister was his guest, he became engaged to Miss Anna Isabella Milbanke (b. May 17, 1792; d. May 16, 1860), the only daughter of Sir Ralph Milbanke, Bart., and the Hon. Judith (born Noel), daughter of Lord Wentworth. She was an heiress, and in succession to a peerage in her own right (becoming Baroness Wentworth in 1856). She was a pretty girl of "a perfect figure," highly educated, a mathematician, and, by courtesy, a poetess. She had rejected Byron's first offer, but, believing that her cruelty had broken his heart and that he was an altered man, she was now determined on marriage. High-principled, but self-willed and opinionated, she believed that she held her future in her own hands. On her side there was ambition touched with fancy - on his, a wish to be married and some hope of perhaps finding an escape from himself. The marriage took place at Seaham in Durham on the 2nd of January 1815. Bride and bridegroom spent three months in paying visits, and at the end of March settled at 13 Piccadilly Terrace, London.
Byron was a member of the committee of management of Drury Lane theatre, and devoted much of his time to his professional duties. He wrote but little poetry. Hebrew Melodies (published April 1815), begun at Seaham in October 1814, were finished and given to the musical composer, Isaac Nathan, for publication. The Siege of Corinth and Parasina (published February 7, 1816) were got ready for the press. On the 10th of December Lady Byron gave birth to a daughter christened Augusta Ada. To judge from his letters, for the first weeks or months of his marriage things went smoothly. His wife's impression was that Byron "had avowedly begun his revenge from the first." It is certain that before the child was born his conduct was so harsh, so violent, and so eccentric, that she believed, or tried to persuade herself, that he was mad.
On the 15th of January 1816 Lady Byron left London for her father's house, claimed his protection, and after some hesitation and consultation with her legal advisers demanded a separation from her husband. It is a matter of common knowledge that in 1869 Mrs Beecher Stowe affirmed that Lady Byron expressly told her that Byron was guilty of incest with his half-sister, Mrs Leigh; also that in 1905 the second Lord Lovelace (Lord Byron's grandson) printed a work entitled Astarte which was designed to uphold and prove the truth of this charge. It is a fact that neither Lady Byron nor her advisers supported their demand by this or any other charge of misconduct, but it is also a fact that Lord Byron yielded to the demand reluctantly, under pressure and for large pecuniary considerations. It is a fact that Lady Byron's letters to Mrs Leigh before and after the separation are inconsistent with a knowledge or suspicion of guilt on the part of her sister-in-law, but is also a fact (see Astarte, pp. 142-145) that she signed a document (dated March 14, 1816) to the effect that any renewal of intercourse did not involve and must not be construed as a withdrawal of the charge. It cannot be doubted that Lady Byron's conviction that her husband's relations with his half-sister before his marriage had been of an immoral character was a factor in her demand for a separation, but whether there were other and what issues, and whether Lady Byron's conviction was founded on fact, are questions which have not been finally answered. Lady Byron's charge, as reported by Mrs Beecher Stowe and upheld by the 2nd earl of Lovelace, is "non-proven." Mr Robert Edcome, in Byron: the Last Phase (1909), insists that Mary Chaworth was the real object of Byron's passion, and that Mrs Leigh was only shielding her.
The separation of Lord and Lady Byron was the talk of the town. Two poems entitled "Fare Thee Well" and "A Sketch," which Byron had written and printed for private circulation, were publishe d by The Champion on Sunday, April 14. The other London papers one by one followed suit. The poems, more especially "A Sketch," were provocative of criticism. There was a balance of opinion, but politics turned the scale. Byron had recently published some pro-Gallican stanzas, "On the 'Star of the Legion of Honour,'" in the Examiner (April 7), and it was felt by many that private dishonour was the outcome of public disloyalty. The Whigs defended Byron as best they could, but his own world, with one or two exceptions, ostracized him. The "excommunicating voice of society," as Moore put it, was loud and insistent.
The articles of separation were signed on or about the 18th of April, and on Sunday, the 25th of April, Byron sailed from Dover for Ostend. The "Lines on Churchill's Grave" were written whilst he was waiting for a favourable wind. His route lay through the Low Countries, and by the Rhine to Switzerland. On his way he halted at Brussels and visited the field of Waterloo. With "the Shelleys" in Geneva May 1816
[Byron] reached Geneva on the 25th of May, where he met by appointment at Dejean's Hotel d'Angleterre, [Percy Bysshe] Shelley, Mary Godwin and Clare (or "Claire") Clairmont. The meeting was probably at the instance of Claire, who had recently become, and aspired to remain, Byron's mistress. On the 10th of June Byron moved to the Villa Diodati on the southern shore of the lake. Shelley and his party had already settled at an adjoining villa, the Campagne Montalegre. The friends were constantly together. On the 23rd of June Byron and Shelley started for a yachting tour round the lake. They visited the castle of Chillon on the 26th of June, and, being detained by weather at the Hotel del l'Ancre, Ouchy, Byron finished (June 27-29) the third canto of Childe Harold (published November 18), and began the Prisoner of Chillon (published December 5, 1816). These and other poems of July-September 1816, e.g. "The Dream" and the first two acts of Manfred (published June 16, 1817), betray the influence of Shelley, and through him of Wordsworth, both in thought and style. Byron knew that Wordsworth had power, but was against his theories, and resented his criticism of Pope and Dryden. Shelley was a believer and a disciple, and converted Byron to the Wordsworthian creed. Moreover he was an inspiration in himself. Intimacy with Shelley left Byron a greater poet than he was before. Byron passed the summer at the Villa Diodati, where he also wrote the Monody on the Death of Sheridan, published September 9, 1816. The second half of September was spent and devoted to "an excursion in the mountains." His journal (September 18-29), which was written for and sent to Mrs Leigh, is a great prose poem, the source of the word pictures of Alpine scenery in Manfred. His old friend Hobhouse was with him and he enjoyed himself, but at the close he confesses that he could not lose his "own wretched identity" in the "majesty and the power and the glory" of nature. Remorse was scotched, not killed.
On the 6th of October Byron and Hobhouse started via Milan and Verona for Venice, which was reached early in November. For the next three years Byron lived in or near Venice - at first, 1816-1817, in apartments in the Frezzeria, and after January 1818 in the central block of Mocenigo palace. Venice appealed both to his higher and his lower nature. He set himself to study her history, to understand her constitution, to learn her language. The sights and scenes with which Shakespeare and romantic Schiller's Ghostseer, and Madame de Stael's Corinne had made him familiar, were before his eyes, not dreams but realities. He would "re-people" her with her own past, and "stamp her image" on the creations of his pen. But he had no one to live for but himself, and that self he gave over to a reprobate mind. He planned and pursued a life of deliberate profligacy. Of two of his amours we learn enough or too much from his letters to Murray and to Moore - the first with his landlord's wife, Marianna Segati, the second with Margarita Cogni (the "Fornarina"), a Venetian of the lower class, who amused him with her savagery and her wit. But, if Shelley may be trusted, there was a limit to his candour. There is abundant humour, but there is an economy of detail in his pornographic chronicle. He could not touch pitch without being defiled. But to do him justice he was never idle. He kept his brains at work, and for this reason, perhaps, he seems for a time to have recovered his spirits and sinned with a good courage. His song of carnival, "So we'll go no more a-roving," is a hymn of triumph.
About the middle of April he set out for Rome. His first halt was at Ferrara, which inspired "The Lament of Tasso" (published July 17, 1817). He passed through Florence, where he saw "the Venus" (of Medici) in the Uffizi Gallery, by reedy Thrasymene and Terni's "matchless cataract" to "Rome the wonderful." At Rome, with Hobhouse as companion and guide, he stayed three weeks.
He returned to Venice on the 28th of May, but shortly removed to a villa on Mira on the Brenta, some 7 m. inland. A month later (June 26) when memory had selected and reduced to order the first impressions of his tour, he began to work them up into a fourth canto of Childe Harold. A first draft of 126 stanzas was finished by the 29th of July; the 60 additional stanzas which made up the canto as it stands were written up to material suggested by or supplied by Hobhouse, "who put his researches" at Byron's disposal and wrote the learned and elaborate notes which are appended to the poem. Among the books which Murray sent out to Venice was a copy of Hookham Frere's Whistlecraft. Byron took the hint and produced Beppo, a Venetian Story (published anonymously on the 28th of February 1818). He attributes his choice of the mock-heroic ottava-rima to Frere's example, but he was certainly familiar with Casti's Novelle, and, according to Stendhal, with the poetry of Buratti. The success of Beppo and a growing sense that "the excellent manner of Whistlecraft" was the manner for him, led him to study Frere's masters and models, Berni and Pulci. An accident had led to a great discovery.
The fourth canto of Childe Harold was published on the 18th of April 1818. Nearly three months went by before Murray wrote to him, and he began to think that his new poem was a failure. Meanwhile he completed an "Ode on Venice," in which he laments her apathy and decay, and contrasts the tyranny of the Old World with the new birth of freedom in America.
In September he began Don Juan. His own account of the inception of his last and greatest work is characteristic but misleading. He says (September 9) that his new poem is to be in the style of Beppo, and is "meant to be a little quietly facetious about everything." A year later (August 12, 1819), he says that he neither has nor had a plan--but that "he had or has materials." By materials he means books, such as Dalzell's Shipwrecks and Disasters at Sea, or de Castelnau's Histoire de la nouvelle Russie, &c., which might be regarded as poetry in the rough. The dedication to Robert Southey (not published till 1833) is a prologue to the play. The "Lakers" had given samples of their poetry, their politics and their morals, and now it was his turn to speak and to speak out. He too would write "An Excursion." He doubted that Don Juan might be "too free for these modest days." It was too free for the public, for his publisher, even for his mistress; and the "building up of the drama," as Shelley puts it, was a slow and gradual process. Cantos I., II. were published (4to) on the 15th of July 1819; Cantos III., IV., V., finished in November 1820, were not published till the 8th of August 1821. Cantos VI.-XVI., written between June 1822 and March 1823, were published at intervals between the 15th of July 1823 and the 26th of March 1824. Canto XVII. was begun in May 1823, but was never finished. A fragment of fourteen stanzas, found in his room at Missolonghi, was first published in 1903. The Poet and the Countess Teresa Guiccioli 1819
He did not put all his materials into Don Juan. "Mazeppa, a tale of the Russian Ukraine," based on a passage in Voltaire's Charles XII., was finished by the 30th of September 1818 and published with "An Ode" (on Venice) on the 28th of June 1819. In the spring of 1819 Byron met in Venice, and formed a connexion with an Italian lady of rank, Teresa (born Gamba), wife of the Cavaliere Guiccioli. She was young and beautiful, well-read and accomplished. Married at sixteen to a man nearly four times her age, she fell in love with Byron at first sight, soon became and for nearly four years remained his mistress. A good and true wife to him in all but name, she won from Byron ample devotion and prolonged constancy. Her volume of Recollections (Lord Byron juge par les temoins de sa vie, 1869), taken for what it is worth, is testimony in Byron's favour. The countess left Venice for Ravenna at the end of April; within a month she sent for Byron, and on the 10th of June he arrived at Ravenna and took rooms in the Strada di Porto Sisi. The house (now No. 295) is close to Dante's tomb, and to gratify the countess and pass the time he wrote the "Prophecy of Dante" (published April 21, 1821). According to the preface the poem was a metrical experiment, an exercise in terza rima; but it had a deeper significance. It was "intended for the Italians." Its purport was revolutionary. In the fourth canto of Childe Harold, already translated into Italian, he had attacked the powers, and "Albion most of all" for her betrayal of Venice, and knowing that his word had weight he appeals to the country of his adoption to strike a blow for freedom - to "unite."
It is difficult to realize the force or extent of Byron's influence on continental opinion. His own countrymen admired his poetry, but abhorred and laughed at his politics. Abroad he was the prophet and champion of liberty. His hatred of tyranny - his defence of the oppressed - was a word spoken in season when there were few to speak but many to listen. It brought consolation and encouragement, and it was not spoken in vain. It must, however, be borne in mind that Byron was more of a king-hater than a people-lover. He was against the oppressors, but he disliked and despised the oppressed. He was aristocrat by conviction as well as birth, and if he espoused a popular cause it was de haut en bas. His connexion with the Gambas brought him into touch with the revolutionary movement, and thenceforth he was under the espionage of the Austrian embassy at Rome. He was suspected and "shadowed," but he was left alone.
Early in September Byron returned to La Mira, bringing the countess with him. A month later he was surprised by a visit from Moore, who was on his way to Rome. Byron installed Moore in the Mocenigo palace and visited him daily. Before the final parting (October 11) Byron placed in Moore's hands the MS. of his Life and Adventures brought down to the close of 1816. Moore, as Byron suggested, pledged the MS. to Murray for 2000 guineas, to be Moore's property if redeemed in Byron's lifetime, but if not, to be forfeit to Murray at Byron's death. On the 17th of May 1824, with Murray's assent and goodwill, the MS. was burned in the drawing-room of 50 Albemarle Street. Neither Murray nor Moore lost their money. The Longmans lent Moore a sufficient sum to repay Murray, and were themselves repaid out of the receipts of Moore's Life of Byron. Byron told Moore that the memoranda were not "confessions," that they were "the truth but not the whole truth." This, no doubt, was the truth, and the whole truth. Whatever they may or may not have contained, they did not explain the cause or causes of the separation from his wife.
At the close of 1819 Byron finally left Venice and settled at Ravenna in his own apartments in the Palazzo Guiccioli. His relations with the countess were put on a regular footing, and he was received in society as her cavaliere servente. At Ravenna his literary activity was greater than ever. His translation of the first canto of Pulci's Morgante Maggiore (published in the Liberal, No. IV., July 30, 1832), a laborious and scholarly achievement, was the work of the first two months of the year. From April to July he was at work on the composition of Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice, a tragedy in five acts (published April 21, 1821). The plot turns on an episode in Venetian history known as La Congiura, the alliance between the doge and the populace to overthrow the state. Byron spared no pains in preparing his materials. In so far as he is unhistorical, he errs in company with Sanudo and early Venetian chronicles. Moved by the example of Alfieri he strove to reform the British drama by "a severer approach to the rules." He would read his countrymen a "moral lesson" on the dramatic propriety of observing the three unities. It was an heroic attempt to reassert classical ideals in a romantic age, but it was "a week too late"; Byron's "regular dramas" are admirably conceived and finely worded, but they are cold and lifeless.
Eighteen additional sheets of the Memoirs and a fifth canto of Don Juan were the pastime of the autumn, and in January 1821 Byron began to work on his second "historical drama," Sardanapalus. But politics intervened, and little progress was made. He had been elected capo of the "Americani," a branch of the Carbonari, and his time was taken up with buying and storing arms and ammunition, and consultations with leading conspirators. "The poetry of politics" and poetry on paper did not go together. Meanwhile he would try his hand on prose. A controversy had arisen between Bowles and Campbell with regard to the merits of Pope. Byron rushed into the fray. To avenge and exalt Pope, to decry the "Lakers," and to lay down his own canons of art, Byron addressed two letters to (i.e. John Murray), entitled "Strictures on the Life and Writings of Pope." The first was published in 1821, the second in 1835.
The revolution in Italy came to nothing, and by the 28th of May, Byron had finished his work on Sardanapalus. The Two Foscari, a third historical drama, was begun on the 12th of June and finished on the 9th of July. On the same day he began Cain, a Mystery. Cain was an attempt to dramatize the Old Testament; Lucifer's apology for himself and his arraignment of the Creator startled and shocked the orthodox. Theologically the offence lay in its detachment. Cain was not irreverent or blasphemous, but it treated accepted dogmas as open questions. Cain was published in the same volume with the Two Foscari and Sardanapalus, December 19, 1821. The "Blues," a skit upon literary coteries and patronesses, was written in August. It was first published in The Liberal, No. III., April 26, 1823. When Cain was finished Byron turned from grave to gay, from serious to humorous theology. Southey had thought to eulogize George III. in hexameter verse. He called his funeral ode a "Vision of Judgment." In the preface there was an obvious reference to Byron. The "Satanic School" of poetry was attributed to "men of diseased hearts and depraved imaginations." Byron's revenge was complete. In his "Vision of Judgment" (published in The Liberal, No. I., October 15, 1822) the tables are turned. The laureate is brought before the hosts of heaven and rejected by devils and angels alike. In October Byron wrote Heaven and Earth, a Mystery (The Liberal, No. II., January 1, 1823), a lyrical drama based on the legend of the "Watchers," or fallen angels of the Book of Enoch.
The countess and her family had been expelled from Ravenna in July, but Byron still lingered on in his apartments in the Palazzo Guiccioli. At length (October 28) he set out for Pisa. On the road he met his old friend, Lord Clare, and spent a few minutes in his company. Rogers, whom he met at Bologna, was his fellow traveller as far as Florence. At Pisa he rejoined the countess, who had taken on his behalf the Villa Lanfranchi on the Arno. At Ravenna Byron had lived amongst Italians. At Pisa he was surrounded by a knot of his own countrymen, friends and acquaintances of the Shelleys. Among them were E. J. Trelawny, Thomas Medwin, author of the well-known Conversations of Lord Byron (1824), and Edward Elliker Williams. His first work at Pisa was to dramatize Miss Lee's Kruitzner, or the German Tale. He had written a first act in 1815, but as the MS. was mislaid he made a fresh adaptation of the story which he rechristened as Werner, or the Inheritance. It was finished on the 20th of January and published on the 23rd of November 1822. Werner is in parts Kruitzner cut up into loose blank verse, but it contains lines and passages of great and original merit. Alone of Byron's plays it took hold of the stage. Macready's "Werner" was a famous impersonation.
In the spring of 1822 a heavy and unlooked-for sorrow befell Byron. Allegra, his natural daughter by Claire Clairmont, died at the convent of Bagna Cavallo on the 20th of April 1822. She was in her sixth year, an interesting and attractive child, and he had hoped that her companionship would have atoned for his enforced separation from Ada. She is buried in a nameless grave at the entrance of Harrow church. Soon after the death of Allegra, Byron wrote the last of his eight plays, The Deformed Transformed (published by John Hunt, February 20, 1824). The "sources" are Goethe 's Faust, The Three Brothers, a novel by Joshua Pickersgill, and various chronicles of the sack of Rome in 1527. The theme or motif is the interaction of personality and individuality.
Remonstrances on the part of publisher and critic induced him to turn journalist. The control of a newspaper or periodical would enable him to publish what and as he pleased. With this object in view he entered into a kind of literary partnership with Leigh Hunt, and undertook to transport him, his wife and six children to Pisa, and to lodge them in the villa Lanfranchi. The outcome of this arrangement was The Liberal - Verse and Prose from the South. Four numbers were issued between October 1822 and June 1823. The Liberal did not succeed financially, and the joint menage was a lamentable failure. Correspondence of Byron and some of his Contemporaries (1828) was Hunt's revenge for the slights and indignities which he suffered in Byron's service.
Yachting was one of the chief amusements of the English colony at Pisa. A schooner, the "Bolivar," was built for Byron, and a smaller boat, the "Don Juan" re-named "Ariel," for Shelley. Hunt arrived at Pisa on the 1st of July. On the 8th of July Shelley, who had remained in Pisa on Hunt's account, started for a sail with his friend Williams and a lad named Vivian. The "Ariel" was wrecked in the Gulf of Spezia and Shelley and his companions were drowned. On the 16th of August Byron and Hunt witnessed the "burning of Shelley" on the seashore near Via Reggio. Byron told Moore that "all of Shelley was consumed but the heart." Whilst the fire was burning Byron swam out to the "Bolivar" and back to the shore. The hot sun and the violent exercise brought on one of those many fevers which weakened his constitution and shortened his life.
The Austrian Government would not allow the Gambas of the countess Guiccioli to remain at Pisa. As a half measure Byron took a villa for them at Montenero near Leghorn, but as the authorities were still dissatisfied they removed to Genoa. On reaching Genoa Byron took up his quarters with the Gambas at the Casa Saluzzo, "a fine old palazzo with an extensive view over the bay," and Hunt and his party at the Casa Negroto with Mrs Shelley. Life at Genoa was uneventful. Of Hunt and Mrs Shelley he saw as little as possible, and though his still unfinished poems were at the service of The Liberal, he did little or nothing to further its success. Each number was badly received. Byron had some reason to fear that his popularity was on the wane, and though he had broken with Murray and was offering Don Juan (cantos VI.-XII.) to John Hunt, the publisher of The Liberal, he meditated a "run down to Naples" and a recommencement of Childe Harold. There was a limit to his defiance of the "world's rebuke." Home politics and the congress of Verona (November-December 1822) suggested a satire entitled "The Age of Bronze" (published April 1, 1823). It is, as he said, "stilted," and cries out for notes, but it embodies some of his finest and most vigorous work as a satirist. By the middle of February (1823) he had completed The Island; or Christian and his Comrades (published June 26, 1823). The sources are Bligh's Narrative of the Mutiny on the Bounty, and Mariner's Account of the Tonga Islands. Satire and tale are a reversion to his earlier method. The execution of The Island is hurried and unequal, but there is a deep and tender note in the love-story and the recital of the "feasts and loves and wars" of the islanders. The poetic faculty has been "softened into feeling" by the experience of life.
When 'The Island' was finished, Byron went on with 'Don Juan'. Early in March the news reached him that he had been elected a member of the Greek Committee, a small body of influential Liberals who had taken up the cause of the liberation of Greece. Byron at once offered money and advice, and after some hesitation on the score of health, determined "to go to Greece." His first step was to sell the "Bolivar" to Lord Blessington, and to purchase the "Hercules," a collier-built tub of 120 tons. On the 23rd of July the "Hercules" sailed from Leghorn and anchored off Cephalonia on the 3rd of August. The party on board consisted of Byron, Pietro Gamba, Trelawny, Hamilton Browne and six or seven servants. The next four months were spent at Cephalonia, at first on board the "Hercules," in the harbour of Argostoli and afterwards at Metaxata. The object of this delay was to ascertain the real state of affairs in Greece. The revolutionary Greeks were split up into parties, not to say factions, and there were several leaders. It was a question to which leader he would attach himself. At length a message reached him which inspired him with confidence. He received a summons from Prince Alexander Mavrocordato, a man of birth and education, urging him to come at once to Missolonghi, and enclosing a request from the legislative body "to co-operate with Mavrocordato in the organization of western Greece." Byron felt that he could act with a "clear conscience" in putting himself at the disposal of a man whom he regarded as the authorized leader and champion of the Greeks.
He sailed from Argostoli on the 29th of December 1823, and after an adventurous voyage landed at Missolonghi on the 5th of January 1824. He met with a royal reception. Byron may have sought, but he did not find, "a soldier's grave." During his three months' residence at Missolonghi he accomplished little and endured much. He advanced large sums of money for the payment of the troops, for repair and construction of fortifications, for the provision of medical appliances. He brought opposing parties into line, and served as a link between Odysseus, the democratic leader of the insurgents, and the "prince" Mavrocordato. He was eager to take the field, but he never got the chance. A revolt in the Morea, and the repeated disaffection of his Suliote guard prevented him from undertaking the capture of Epacto, an exploit which he had reserved for his own leadership. He was beset with difficulties, but at length events began to move. On the 18th of March he received an invitation from Odysseus and other chiefs to attend a conference at Salona, and by the same messenger an offer from the government to appoint him "governor-general of the enfranchised parts of Greece." He promised to attend the conference but did not pledge himself to the immediate acceptance of office. But to Salona he never came. "Roads and rivers were impassable," and the conference was inevitably postponed.
His health had given way, but he does not seem to have realized that his life was in danger. On the 15th of February he was struck down by an epileptic fit, which left him speechless though not motionless. He recovered sufficiently to conduct his business as usual, and to drill the troops. But he suffered from dizziness in the head and spasms in the chest, and a few days later he was seized with a second, though slighter, convulsion. These attacks may have hastened but they did not cause his death. For the first week of April the weather confined him to the house, but on the 9th a letter from his sister raised his spirits and tempted him to ride out with Gamba. It came on to rain, and though he was drenched to the skin he insisted on dismounting and returning in an open boat to the quay in front of his house. Two hours later he was seized with ague and violent rheumatic pains. On the 11th he rode out once more through the olive groves, attended by his escort of Suliote guards, but for the last time. Whether he had got his deathblow, or whether copious blood-letting made recovery impossible, he gradually grew worse, and on the ninth day his of illness fell into a comatose sleep. It was reported that in his delirium he had called out, half in English, half in Italian, "Forward - forward - courage! follow my example - don't be afraid!" and that he tried to send a last message to his sister and to his wife.
[George Gordon Byron] died at six o'clock in the evening of the 19th of April 1824, aged thirty-six years and three months. The Greeks were heartbroken. Mavrocordato gave orders that thirty-seven minute-guns should be fired at daylight and decreed a general mourning of twenty-one days. His body was embalmed and lay in state. On the 25th of May his remains, all but the heart, which is buried in Missolonghi, were sent back to England, and were finally laid beneath the chancel of [St. Mary Magdalene] the village church of Huchnall-Torkard [i.e. Hucknall] on the 16th of July 1824. The authorities would not sanction burial in Westminster Abbey, and there is neither bust nor statue of Lord Byron in Poets' Corner. [E.H.Coleridge, Edited by Andie Gilmour, 1905]
Books from Alibris: George Gordon Lord Byron