BYRON AND THE COUNTESS GUICCIOLI





In 1812, when he was in his twenty-fourth year, Lord Byron was

more talked of than any other man in London. He was in the first

flush of his brilliant career, having published the early cantos

of "Childe Harold." Moreover, he was a peer of the realm,

handsome, ardent, and possessing a personal fascination which few

men and still fewer women could resist.



Byron's childhood had been one to excite in him strong feelings of

revolt, and he had inherited a profligate and passionate nature.

His father was a gambler and a spendthrift. His mother was

eccentric to a degree. Byron himself, throughout his boyish years,

had been morbidly sensitive because of a physical deformity--a

lame, misshapen foot. This and the strange treatment which his

mother accorded him left him headstrong, wilful, almost from the

first an enemy to whatever was established and conventional.



As a boy, he was remarkable for the sentimental attachments which

he formed. At eight years of age he was violently in love with a

young girl named Mary Duff. At ten his cousin, Margaret Parker,

excited in him a strange, un-childish passion. At fifteen came one

of the greatest crises of his life, when he became enamored of

Mary Chaworth, whose grand-father had been killed in a duel by

Byron's great-uncle. Young as he was, he would have married her

immediately; but Miss Chaworth was two years older than he, and

absolutely refused to take seriously the devotion of a school-boy.



Byron felt the disappointment keenly; and after a short stay at

Cambridge, he left England, visited Portugal and Spain, and

traveled eastward as far as Greece and Turkey. At Athens he wrote

the pretty little poem to the "maid of Athens"--Miss Theresa

Macri, daughter of the British vice-consul. He returned to London

to become at one leap the most admired poet of the day and the

greatest social favorite. He was possessed of striking personal

beauty. Sir Walter Scott said of him: "His countenance was a thing

to dream of." His glorious eyes, his mobile, eloquent face,

fascinated all; and he was, besides, a genius of the first rank.



With these endowments, he plunged into the social whirlpool,

denying himself nothing, and receiving everything-adulation,

friendship, and unstinted love. Darkly mysterious stories of his

adventures in the East made many think that he was the hero of

some of his own poems, such as "The Giaour" and "The Corsair." A

German wrote of him that "he was positively besieged by women."

From the humblest maid-servants up to ladies of high rank, he had

only to throw his handkerchief to make a conquest. Some women did

not even wait for the handkerchief to be thrown. No wonder that he

was sated with so much adoration and that he wrote of women:



I regard them as very pretty but inferior creatures. I look on

them as grown-up children; but, like a foolish mother, I am

constantly the slave of one of them. Give a woman a looking-glass

and burnt almonds, and she will be content.



The liaison which attracted the most attention at this time was

that between Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb. Byron has been greatly

blamed for his share in it; but there is much to be said on the

other side. Lady Caroline was happily married to the Right Hon.

William Lamb, afterward Lord Melbourne, and destined to be the

first prime minister of Queen Victoria. He was an easy-going,

genial man of the world who placed too much confidence in the

honor of his wife. She, on the other hand, was a sentimental fool,

always restless, always in search of some new excitement. She

thought herself a poet, and scribbled verses, which her friends

politely admired, and from which they escaped as soon as possible.

When she first met Byron, she cried out: "That pale face is my

fate!" And she afterward added: "Mad, bad, and dangerous to know!"



It was not long before the intimacy of the two came very near the

point of open scandal; but Byron was the wooed and not the wooer.

This woman, older than he, flung herself directly at his head.

Naturally enough, it was not very long before she bored him

thoroughly. Her romantic impetuosity became tiresome, and very

soon she fell to talking always of herself, thrusting her poems

upon him, and growing vexed and peevish when he would not praise

them. As was well said, "he grew moody and she fretful when their

mutual egotisms jarred."



In a burst of resentment she left him, but when she returned, she

was worse than ever. She insisted on seeing him. On one occasion

she made her way into his rooms disguised as a boy. At another

time, when she thought he had slighted her, she tried to stab

herself with a pair of scissors. Still later, she offered her

favors to any one who would kill him. Byron himself wrote of her:



You can have no idea of the horrible and absurd things that she

has said and done.



Her story has been utilized by Mrs. Humphry Ward in her novel,

"The Marriage of William Ashe."



Perhaps this trying experience led Byron to end his life of

dissipation. At any rate, in 1813, he proposed marriage to Miss

Anne Millbanke, who at first refused him; but he persisted, and in

1815 the two were married. Byron seems to have had a premonition

that he was making a terrible mistake. During the wedding ceremony

he trembled like a leaf, and made the wrong responses to the

clergyman. After the wedding was over, in handing his bride into

the carriage which awaited them, he said to her:



"Miss Millbanke, are you ready?"



It was a strange blunder for a bridegroom, and one which many

regarded at the time as ominous for the future. In truth, no two

persons could have been more thoroughly mismated--Byron, the human

volcano, and his wife, a prim, narrow-minded, and peevish woman.

Their incompatibility was evident enough from the very first, so

that when they returned from their wedding-journey, and some one

asked Byron about his honeymoon, he answered:



"Call it rather a treacle moon!"



It is hardly necessary here to tell over the story of their

domestic troubles. Only five weeks after their daughter's birth,

they parted. Lady Byron declared that her husband was insane;

while after trying many times to win from her something more than

a tepid affection, he gave up the task in a sort of despairing

anger. It should be mentioned here, for the benefit of those who

recall the hideous charges made many decades afterward by Mrs.

Harriet Beecher Stowe on the authority of Lady Byron, that the

latter remained on terms of friendly intimacy with Augusta Leigh,

Lord Byron's sister, and that even on her death-bed she sent an

amicable message to Mrs. Leigh.



Byron, however, stung by the bitter attacks that were made upon

him, left England, and after traveling down the Rhine through

Switzerland, he took up his abode in Venice. His joy at leaving

England and ridding himself of the annoyances which had clustered

thick about him, he expressed in these lines:



Once more upon the waters! yet once more!

And the waves bound beneath me as a steed

That knows his rider. Welcome to the roar!



Meanwhile he enjoyed himself in reckless fashion. Money poured in

upon him from his English publisher. For two cantos of "Childe

Harold" and "Manfred," Murray paid him twenty thousand dollars.

For the fourth canto, Byron demanded and received more than twelve

thousand dollars. In Italy he lived on friendly terms with Shelley

and Thomas Moore; but eventually he parted from them both, for he

was about to enter upon a new phase of his curious career.



He was no longer the Byron of 1815. Four years of high living and

much brandy-and-water had robbed his features of their refinement.

His look was no longer spiritual. He was beginning to grow stout.

Yet the change had not been altogether unfortunate. He had lost

something of his wild impetuosity, and his sense of humor had

developed. In his thirtieth year, in fact, he had at last become a

man.



It was soon after this that he met a woman who was to be to him

for the rest of his life what a well-known writer has called "a

star on the stormy horizon of the poet." This woman was Teresa,

Countess Guiccioli, whom he first came to know in Venice. She was

then only nineteen years of age, and she was married to a man who

was more than forty years her senior. Unlike the typical Italian

woman, she was blonde, with dreamy eyes and an abundance of golden

hair, and her manner was at once modest and graceful. She had

known Byron but a very short time when she found herself thrilling

with a passion of which until then she had never dreamed. It was

written of her:



She had thought of love but as an amusement; yet she now became

its slave.



To this love Byron gave an immediate response, and from that time

until his death he cared for no other woman. The two were

absolutely mated. Nevertheless, there were difficulties which

might have been expected. Count Guiccioli, while he seemed to

admire Byron, watched him with Italian subtlety. The English poet

and the Italian countess met frequently. When Byron was prostrated

by an attack of fever, the countess remained beside him, and he

was just recovering when Count Guiccioli appeared upon the scene

and carried off his wife. Byron was in despair. He exchanged the

most ardent letters with the countess, yet he dreaded assassins

whom he believed to have been hired by her husband. Whenever he

rode out, he went armed with sword and pistols.



Amid all this storm and stress, Byron's literary activity was

remarkable. He wrote some of his most famous poems at this time,

and he hoped for the day when he and the woman whom he loved might

be united once for all. This came about in the end through the

persistence of the pair. The Countess Guiccioli openly took up her

abode with him, not to be separated until the poet sailed for

Greece to aid the Greeks in their struggle for independence. This

was in 1822, when Byron was in his thirty-fifth year. He never

returned to Italy, but died in the historic land for which he gave

his life as truly as if he had fallen upon the field of battle.



Teresa Guiccioli had been, in all but name, his wife for just

three years. Much, has been said in condemnation of this love-

affair; but in many ways it is less censurable than almost

anything in his career. It was an instance of genuine love, a love

which purified and exalted this man of dark and moody moments. It

saved him from those fitful passions and orgies of self-indulgence

which had exhausted him. It proved to be an inspiration which at

last led him to die for a cause approved by all the world.



As for the woman, what shall we say of her? She came to him

unspotted by the world. A demand for divorce which her husband

made was rejected. A pontifical brief pronounced a formal

separation between the two. The countess gladly left behind "her

palaces, her equipages, society, and riches, for the love of the

poet who had won her heart."



Unlike the other women who had cared for him, she was unselfish in

her devotion. She thought more of his fame than did he himself.

Emilio Castelar has written:



She restored him and elevated him. She drew him from the mire and

set the crown of purity upon his brow. Then, when she had

recovered this great heart, instead of keeping it as her own

possession, she gave it to humanity.



For twenty-seven years after Byron's death, she remained, as it

were, widowed and alone. Then, in her old age, she married the

Marquis de Boissy; but the marriage was purely one of convenience.

Her heart was always Byron's, whom she defended with vivacity. In

1868, she published her memoirs of the poet, filled with

interesting and affecting recollections. She died as late as 1873.



Some time between the year 1866 and that of her death, she is said

to have visited Newstead Abbey, which had once been Byron's home.

She was very old, a widow, and alone; but her affection for the

poet-lover of her youth was still as strong as ever.



Byron's life was short, if measured by years only. Measured by

achievement, it was filled to the very full. His genius blazes

like a meteor in the records of English poetry; and some of that

splendor gleams about the lovely woman who turned him away from

vice and folly and made him worthy of his historic ancestry, of

his country, and of himself.





Bertel Thorwaldsen Canute the Great facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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