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).

Don Juan and the year of revolt

It is astonishing to us, now, that the amusing, clever, mostly-light-hearted tales in Cantos I and II of Don Juan were condemned by the English establishment for blasphemy, depravity and inciting misbehaviour (among the lower classes). Byron protested, accurately, that his poem was innocent when measured by the standards of Classical Roman verse, or or Dante or even Milton.

But Byron knew well what he was up to — whom his satire would sting and whom it would please — and clearly delighted in it.

To appreciate the daring, as well as the fun, of Don Juan we must bear in mind the bitterly charged politics and near class-warfare that gripped England in the the year (1819) that the poem first appeared. The propertied classes — nobility, gentry, the army, church and parvenu industrialists — feared riot, revolt or even bloody revolution by workers and their radical allies of the constitutional Reform movement.

I could not tell the story of that year better than this excerpt from David Erdman’s 1944 talk “Byron and Revolt in England”

“In January the laborers of Manchester paraded with red flags surmounted by red caps of liberty. In February and March there were strikes (the word was new) of weavers and colliers, and a month-long hubbub in Westminster where a stormy bye- election was won by the pooling of Tory and Whig votes against a field of Radicals led by Byron’s associate Hobhouse; crowds in Covent Garden attacked the successful candidate shouting “Hobhouse for ever.”

In April the Quarterly [Review] came out with a tardy but copious denunciation of Shelley’s Revolt of Islam as a production of “that industrious knot of authors” whose work “loosened the hold of our protecting laws . . . and blasphemed our holy religion.”

The Peterloo Massacre
The Peterloo Massacre from a pamphlet published by Richard Carlile

In June the weavers were making wage demands again, and a wave of Reform meetings swept the counties, continuing in July to fill news- papers with accounts of banners, placards, and (at Rochdale, one of Lord Byron’s fiefs) female Reformers marching 5,000 strong. Reform was in their mouths, said Sidmouth, “but rebellion and revolution in their hearts.” That month the government arrested several “malicious, seditious, evil-minded persons,” including the editors of the [radical weekly newspaper] Black Dwarf and the Manchester Observer, as well as Major Cartwright, whose Radical Hampden Club Byron had joined in 1813.

[In July] John Murray, in spite of politics, published what another Tory called a diabolic burlesque poem “loosely written in every sense of the word called the Two First Cantos of Don Juan.” It appeared, because of politics, without the names of author or pub- lisher, but [radical publisher William] Hone soon “unmasked” “Don John (Murray),” and everybody knew it was Byron’s.

Bankruptcies and the distress of the laborers increased. In Keswick [Poet Laureate, Tory mouthpiece and Byron’s antagonist Robert] Southey heard the poor talk of “parceling out” estates. And then on the 16th of August 60,000 men and women “marched” to St. Peter’s Fields, near Manchester, where, said the government papers, they would have been incited to treason by the “democratical” Orator [Williamn] Hunt, but for the timely, if bloody, action of the magistrates, mostly clergymen, on whose orders Constables and Yeomanry dispersed the crowd with sabre and pistol, killing 11 and wounding 600.

Following [the] Peterloo [“Massacre”] the more extreme Radicals, [radical London publisher Richard] Cariile for instance in his new Republican, openly defied the government, urging huge protest meetings and calling upon the people to “arm against the coming evil,” boasting “we can beat off the combined Yeoman Cavalry of the whole country.”

In September the government was still finding signs of the coming “simultaneous insurrection,” especially in an ominous silence on the part of the Radicals. [Arthur Wellesley, Lord] Wellington sent “troops with cannon . . . into Cheshire, Lancashire, and Yorkshire.” The Duke of Hamilton reported that he had seen Radicals surveying his park. Lord Dudley, in a more inclusive view, saw “the whirlpool of democracy” swirling nearer. Alarm swept the Emergency session of Parliament that opened November 23rd, shortly following a panic among the moneyed men. The question was not whether Reformers were marching “in military array” but how many thousands? Bootle Wilbraham claimed to have seen pistols and pikes and the plans of the poor to divide the land “by force.”

In October hundreds of pulpits rejoiced over the defeat of “Satan and Carlile” when the latter was convicted of selling the “Theological Works” of [the author of the “Rights of Man”] Tom Paine.

[In November, William] Cobbett’s recent return from America -“to die for Reform,” wrote one Radical- had been followed by an ominous reconciliation of the Radical factions. Alarming enough to Tories and Conservative Whigs was the appearance, within Parliament itself, of two new Radical members: Douglas Kinnaird and John Cam Hobhouse, bosom friends of Byron [since their days as students in Cambridge], who was known to have joined their “Radical Rota Club” in absentia.™ … [In the debate on the trial of the Peterloo demonstrators] Hobhouse spoke so very much like an inciter to rebellion that the House, in mounting hysteria, voted him to a cell in Newgate jail.”