Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 3. Life at Venice and Ravenna

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

II. Byron

§ 3. Life at Venice and Ravenna

The events of the year 1816 mark a crisis both in Byron’s domestic life and in his poetic career. The outrage which he believed, not unreasonably, that he had suffered at the hands of English society embittered a mind naturally prone to melancholy, and equally prone to hide that melancholy beneath a mask of cynicism. Knowing only too well the hollowness of the world of English fashion under the regency, he looked upon the fit of virtuous indignation which made him its victim and drove him from the land as an outburst of envenomed hypocrisy. And, just as the contemptuous criticism of Hours of Idleness by the Edinburgh reviewer had roused him to a satiric onslaught upon the whole contemporary world of letters, so, now, in his new home, he prepared himself for the task of levelling against social hypocrisy the keenest weapons which a piercing wit and versatile genius had placed at his command. But, bitter as Byron’s feelings towards England were, it is obvious that the new life which now opened up to him on the shores of the Adriatic proved congenial to his tastes and fostered the growth of his poetic genius. If the loose code of morals accepted by Venetian society plunged him, for a time, into libertinism, the beauty of the “sea Cybele” and the splendour of her historic past fired his imagination.

More or less indifferent to the triumphs of Italian plastic and pictorial art, he was in full accord with what was best in Italian poetry. His Lament of Tasso, Prophecy of Dante and Francesca of Rimini are an imperishable witness to the sympathy which he felt with the works and tragic destinies of two of Italy’s greatest poets; his Venetian tragedies and Sardanapalus show the influence upon him of Alfieri, while his indebtedness to the great Italian mock-heroic school, from Berni to Casti, is everywhere manifest in Beppo and in his great masterpiece, Don Juan. Finally, his liaison with the countess Guiccioli, which began in 1819 and remained unbroken till his death, brought him into direct touch with the Carbonari movement and made him the champion of the cause of national freedom.

An exile from England, and deeply resentful of the wrongs which he had suffered there, Byron, nevertheless, continued to follow with keen interest the course of English political, literary and domestic affairs. He kept up an active correspondence with the friends whom he had made there—Moore, Scott and his publisher, John Murray, among others—studiously read the English reviews, and remained almost morbidly sensitive to the reception of his works by the British public. He was, moreover, ever ready to offer hospitality to English friends in his Venetian home: Hobhouse was with him in the summer of 1818, and was followed, soon afterwards, by Shelley, whose intercourse with Byron is ideally commemorated in Julian and Maddalo; in the next year, he entertained Moore, who has left a vivid picture of his friend’s domestic life at this time. At no period of his career, moreover, was Byron’s literary activity so great as during the years which immediately followed his departure from England. His tour through Germany and Switzerland inspired the third canto of Childe Harold, The Prisoner of Chillon and his witch-drama, Manfred, while the concluding canto of Childe Harold was the outcome of an Italian tour entered upon in the spring of 1817, before he established himself definitely at Venice. To the year 1818 belong, among other things, Mazeppa, Beppo, and the first canto of Don Juan; about the same time, he began his famous Memoirs, which he put into the hands of Moore, when his future biographer and editor visited him at Venice, and which, in accordance with the wishes of the poet’s friend Hobhouse and his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, was committed to the flames after Byron’s death. The publication of his poems—especially the third and fourth cantos of Childe Harold and Manfred—greatly increased Byron’s reputation as a poet, and his fame spread from England to the continent. The resemblance of Manfred to Faust stimulated the interest of the most famous of Byron’s literary contemporaries, Goethe, who, henceforth, showed a lively regard for the younger poet’s genius and character. A correspondence sprang up between them; Byron dedicated to Goethe, in language of sincere homage, his tragedy Sardanapalus (1821), and, after Byron’s death, Goethe honoured his memory by introducing him as Euphorion, child of Helen and Faust, of Hellenism and the renascence, in the second part of Faust.

In the spring of 1819 began Byron’s connection with Theresa, countess Guiccioli, the young wife of the sexagenarian count Guiccioli, whose home was at Ravenna. On either side the attachment was one of passionate devotion: the lady was prepared to make supreme sacrifices for the man she loved, and her influence upon him was ennobling. She lifted him out of the mire of Venetian libertinism and aroused his interest in the cause of Italian freedom; she inspired one of his sublimest poems, The Prophecy of Dante, while such was her power over him that, for her sake, he desisted, for a time, from the continuation of Don Juan after the completion of the fifth canto. In December, 1819, Byron broke up his home at Venice and moved to Ravenna, in order to be nearer to the countess. Here, he was visited by Shelley, who, in a letter to Mrs. Shelley, dated 8 August, 1821, speaks as follows of the change which had come over his friend:

  • Lord Byron is greatly improved in every respect. In genius, in temper, in moral views, in health, in happiness. The connection with La Guiccioli has been an inestimable benefit to him.… He has had mischievous passions, but these he seems to have subdued, and he is becoming, what he should be, a virtuous man. The interest which he took in the politics of Italy, and the actions he performed in consequence of it, are subjects not fit to be written, but are such as will delight and surprise you.
  • In the preceding year, the countess had obtained a papal decree of separation from her husband, and was now living in a villa belonging to her borther, count Gamba, about fifteen miles from Ravenna.

    Byron’s literary activity remained unabated in his new home. To the Ravenna period belong, in addition to his Prophecy of Dante, Francesca of Rimini and his translation of the first canto of Pulci’s Morgante Maggiore, most of his dramatic writings. Drama had always interested him keenly, and, while living in London, after his return from the east, he had been elected a member of the Drury lane theatre committee, and had thus gained some first-hand knowledge of the stage. His earliest play, Manfred, had been begun in Switzerland and completed at Venice in the spring of 1817; after his removal to Ravenna, he turned his attention to historical tragedy, and, in little more than a year, produced his two tragedies of Venetian history, Marino Faliero and The Two Foscari, together with his oriental Sardanapalus. Following upon these came the two “mysteries,” Cain and Heaven and Earth, both written currente calamo between the July and October of 1821. These plays were not intended for the stage, and the only one acted during the author’s lifetime was Marino Faliero, which was performed at Drury lane, against Byron’s express wish, in April, 1821. To the Ravenna period also belongs Byron’s Letter to John Murray, Esq. on the Rev. W. L. Bowles’s Strictures on the Life and Writings of Pope, in which the poet came forward as the champion of Pope and the Augustan school of poetry against the attacks directed upon them by the romanticists. The controversy is chiefly interesting as an indication of Byron’s regard for the classical principles of literary taste and, arising out of this, his uncritical exaltation of the poetry of Crabbe and Rogers over the great romantic poets of his own day. Of far greater consequence was his attack upon Southey, which followed a little later. The feud between the two poets was an old one: Southey had attacked Byron in an article contributed to Blackwood’s Magazine (August, 1819) and the younger poet had replied with Some Observations on the attack, in which he brought a charge of apostasy and slander against the poet laureate. In 1821 appeared Southey’s fatuous A Vision of Judgment, prefixed to which was a gross onslaught upon Don Juan as “a monstrous combination of horror and mockery, lewdness and impiety,” and a reference to its author as the founder of “the Satanic school” inspired by

  • the spirit of Belial in their lascivious parts, and the spirit of Moloch in those loathsome images of atrocities and horrors which they delight to represent.
  • To all this, Byron’s effective rejoinder was his own The Vision of Judgment, published in Leigh Hunt’s magazine, The Liberal, in 1822. Byron’s victory was complete and uncontestable, though the British government brought against the publisher a charge of “calumniating the late King and wounding the feelings of his present Majesty,” and won their suit.

    Byron’s connection with countess Guiccioli brought him, as already stated, into direct relationship with the Carboneria, one of the many secret societies of the time in Italy, which had its headquarters in Naples, and of which count Pietro Gamba was an enthusiastic leader. Its ultimate aim was the liberation of Italy from foreign domination and the establishment of constitutional government. To Byron, this was “a grand object—the very poetry of politics,” and to it he devoted, at this time, both his wealth and his influence. But the movement, owing to lack of discipline and resolution on the part of its adherents, proved abortive, and the Papal States confiscated the property of the Gambas and exiled them from the Romagna. They fled to Pisa in the autumn of 1821, where Byron soon joined them, and shared with them the palazzo Lanfranchi. The change of residence brought Byron into closer contact with Shelley, whose home, at this time, was in Pisa, and, through Shelley, he made the acquaintance of captain Medwin, the author of the Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron (1824). Here, too, he first met captain Trelawny, who subsequently accompanied the poet to Greece and, many years after Byron’s death, published his Recollections of the last days of Shelley and Byron (1858). In April, 1822, a heavy blow fell upon the poet through the death of his natural daughter Allegra, whose mother was Jane Clairmont, a half-sister of Mary Shelley; and, in the following month, in consequence of a street-brawl with an Italian dragoon who had knocked Shelley from his horse, the little circle of friends at Pisa was broken up. Byron and the Gambas retired to a villa near Leghorn, while the Shelleys, with Trelawney, left for Lerici. The tragic death of Shelley in the gulf of Spezia took place two months later.