Shelley and Byron (1822)

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (1840)
Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (1840)

For the first few years of his self-imposed exile in Italy, Byron’s strongest literary friendship was with the similarly self-exiled Percy Bysshe Shelley. PBS was a wild, truly radical genius married, but frequently unfaithful, to the witty, loyal, liberal Mary (Woolstonecraft Godwin) Shelley; the author of Frankenstein (and several other novels) and later copyist of several of Byron’s Canto’s of Don Juan.

Shelley was an impetuous, often brilliant character whose poetry leaped a generation, at least, to influence major British poets writing at the end of the 19th century. But he honoured — adored, in truth — his friend Byron.

I am thinking again of their relationship because I am starting to prepare to record Canto VI of Don Juan, which Byron composed in the first few months of 1822 in Pisa. He had moved there from Ravenna, possibly at Shelley’s urging, accompanied by Teresa (now separated by Papal decree from the mercurial, ageing Count Guiccioli) and her father (Count Gamba), who had been exiled from Ravenna for supporting political intrigues against the Austrian occupation.

Shelley and Mary were now resident in Pisa; the importunate Claire Claremont — Mary’s half-sister-by-marriage and mother of Byron’s daughter Allegra — having been banished to Rome (Byron had placed their daughter at a convent near Ravenna). Yes, it’s complicated.

Byron was on top of his game. Happy to move to the sunny city of Pisa from the harsher climate of Ravenna. Murray had, finally, agreed to pay 2500 guineas for Cantos 3, 4 & 5 of Don Juan plus three dramas: Sardanapalus, The Two Foscari and Cain. But Bryon was planning to take his profitable poems elsewhere. Canto’s 1 and 2 of Don Juan were already a roaring success (even in Murray’s expensive Quarto edition). His cuttingest satire of English poesie and poets The Vision of Judgment was ready for publication and would mark the transition from John Murray to the radical Leigh Hunt as his publisher. He had completed the silly, steamy romp of Canto VCross-Dressing in the Seraglio — in December of 1821 and now he took a break, in part because Teresa disapproved of the poem, urging him to abandon it, and in part because of Murray’s reluctance to publish it.

Byron gave himself over, for a while, to riding and shooting and long drunken dinners with the small english literary community he drew around him. He also came into a welcome inheritance following the death of his mother-in-law (part of the separation settlement) that boosted his annual income from his English estates. He resumed work on Don Juan, however, in February of 1822.

Shelley was both in awe of Byron’s intellect and unable to fathom his friend’s refusal to be ‘serious’ about the things that Shelley himself took terribly seriously. Here is Leslie Marchand’s report (referring to the late dinners where Shelley would not stay):

“Despite the fact that Shelley was sometimes annoyed by Byron’s flitting from subject to subject without arguing any point through, he too was drawn by the personality and brilliance of the man whose genius so overawed his own that for the first months of Byron’s residence in Pisa the younger poet wrote but little. He had written from Ravenna in August: “I despair of rivalling Lord Byron, as well I may, and there is no other with whom it is worth contending.”” And he later told Horace Smith: “I do not write I have lived too long near Lord Byron and the sun has extinguished the glow-worm …. ” He wrote to John Gisborne apropos of Cain: ”What think you of Lord Byron now? Space wondered less at the swift and fair creations of God, when he grew weary of vacancy, than I at the late works of this spirit of an angel in the mortal paradise of a decaying body. So I think — let the world envy while it admires, as it may.” Even after he had begun to feel the strain of Byron’s parties and wished he might gracefully withdraw from them, he continued to hold exaggerated views of the merits of Cain.” (from Vol. 3 of Marchand’s Autobiography of Byron, p. 951)

There’s more here at the British Library (including the manuscripts of Cantos VI & VII).