Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 2. Departure from England

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

II. Byron

§ 2. Departure from England

In the following June, accompanied by his friend, John Cam Hobhouse, Byron left England for a tour in the Mediterranean and the east. He was away for little more than a year; but the impressions which he received of the life and scenery of Spain, Portugal and the Balkan peninsula profoundly affected his mind and left an indelible imprint upon his subsequent work as a poet. The letters which he wrote at this time furnish a singularly vivid record of the gay life of Spanish cities, the oriental feudalism of Ali pasha’s Albanian court, and of the memories of, and aspirations for, political freedom which were quickened within him during his sojourn at Athens. The first two books of Childe Harold and the oriental tales—The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair and The Siege of Corinth—were the immediate outcome of this year of travel, but the memory of the scenes which he had witnessed remained freshly in his mind when, years afterwards, he composed Don Juan, and, at the close of his life, played his heroic part in the liberation of Greece.

The publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold in 1812, shortly after his return to England, placed Byron on the summit of the pinnacle of fame, and, from this time onwards to his death, he remained, through good report and evil report, the poet most prominently before the minds of Englishmen. The story of the three years which he spent as the lion of London society under the regency, and of his marriage with Miss Milbanke in 1815, is too familiar to need detailed record here; nor is this the place to dwell upon the causes which led to the separation of husband and wife shortly after the birth of their only child, Ada, in 1816. Rightly or wrongly, the sympathies of English society at this crisis in Byron’s life were overwhelmingly on the side of Lady Byron, and the poet was subjected to the grossest insults. At first bewildered, and then lacerated in his deepest feelings, by the hue and cry against him, he perceived that “if what was whispered and muttered and murmured was true, I was unfit for England; if false, England was unfit for me.” He accordingly left England for the continent in May, 1816, and never returned. He proceeded leisurely up the Rhine to Switzerland, where he made the acquaintance of Shelley and his wife, and spent much time in their society. Thence, he passed to Italy, and established himself before the end of the year at Venice, “like the stag at bay, who betakes himself to the waters.”