VIII. SWISS HOLIDAY: BYRON AND SHELLEY, 1816

Both poets, independently, had chosen Switzerland as their haven, and Geneva as their center of operations. Shelley’s party arrived on May 15, and took lodgings in suburban Sécheron. Byron and his retinue boarded at Ostend a sumptuous coach which he had ordered built, at a cost of five hundred pounds, on the model of one used by Napoleon and captured at Genappe as part of the trophies of Waterloo; it had a bed, a library, and all facilities for dining. Byron made a special tour of the ground and the remains of the battle; and probably at Brussels that evening composed the stanzas 21 to 28 that were to be especially memorable in Canto III of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Late on May 25 he checked in at the Hotel d’Angleterre, a mile north of Geneva center. The entry register required him to give his age; he wrote “100.” Claire Clairmont, who had been eagerly checking arrivals, discovered this, and sent him a note commiserating on his age and suggesting a rendezvous. On May 27 he came across Shelley, Mary, and Claire at a boat landing; this was the first meeting of the poets. Byron had read Queen Mab, had praised its poetry, but had been politely silent about its politics; it was too much to expect a youth of twenty-four to understand the virtues of aristocracy—though they might have agreed on the convenience of inheritance. Shelley to the end considered Byron his superior in poetry.

On July 4 he leased a home at Montallègre, two miles from Geneva, on the southern shore of Lake Geneva. On July 7 Byron rented the Villa Diodati, ten minutes’ walk from Shelley. They united in leasing a small sailboat, and the two families often joined in sailing on the lake, or in an evening of discussion at the Villa Diodati. There, on June 14, Byron suggested that each write a ghost story. They tried; all confessed failure except Mary, who, aged nineteen, produced one of the most famous novels of the nineteenth century—Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus; it was published in 1818, with a preface by Shelley. Among many other remarkable features it posed two problems still of basic interest: Can science create life? And can it keep its powers from producing evil as well as good?

Byron also suggested that he and Shelley undertake to circumnavigate the lake in their modest boat, stopping at historic spots, especially those made famous by Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse. Shelley agreed, though he still had not learned to swim. They set out, with two boatmen, on June 22, and took two days to reach Meillerie (in Savoy). There they lingered on the spot where, in the novel, Saint-Preux, banished from Julie, had supposedly written her name upon the rocks. Resuming their voyage, the poets ran into a sudden storm; the waves repeatedly climbed over the prow into the boat, threatening to capsize it. Byron later recalled the scene: “I stripped off my coat, made him strip off his and take hold of an oar, telling him that I thought … I could save him if he would not struggle when I took hold of him…. He answered with the greatest coolness that he had no notion of being saved, that I would have enough to do to save myself, and begged not to trouble me.”79

The storm subsided, the poets landed and rested, and on the next morning they visited Chillon and the castle where François de Bonnevard had been imprisoned (1530–36) by the Duke of Lausanne. At Clarens—Shelley holding Rousseau’s novel in his hands as a guide—the poets walked over the ground made memorable as a sanctuary of French Romanticism. On June 27 they docked at Ouchy, port of Lausanne; that night Byron wrote The Prisoner of Chillon and sketched the stanzas on Rousseau in Childe Harold. On June 28 the poets visited the Lausanne home in which Gibbon had written The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. On July 1 the wanderers were back at Montallègre and Diodati. During the next two weeks Byron wrote the third canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and Claire Clairmont copied it for him, knowing now one of the few happy moments in her life.

It was her fate to bring misfortune with her. Her open devotion to Byron raised Swiss gossip to a point where it hurt: the two poets, it charged, were living in promiscuous relations with two sisters. Some imaginative souls called Byron and Shelley incarnate devils; and one English lady traveling in Switzerland fainted when Byron appeared at Mme. de Staël’s Coppet salon.80 Perhaps the gossip shared in Byron’s determination to end his relations with Claire. He asked Shelley not to let her come to the Villa Diodati anymore. Claire, now three months pregnant with Byron’s child, pleaded to be allowed one more visit, but was dissuaded.

On July 24 Shelley took Claire and Mary on a trip to Chamonix in Savoy. They failed that day—succeeded on the next—in their attempt to reach the Mer-de-Glace. Returning to Switzerland, they stopped at a Chartreuse monastery in Montenvers. Under his signature in the guest book—irritated by the pious entries before his own—he wrote, in Greek: “Eimi philanthropos demokratikos t’atheos te—” (I am a lover of mankind, a democrat, and an atheist).81 When Byron, shortly thereafter, stopped at the same place, he blotted out the “atheos” fearing that it would be used against Shelley in England. It was.82

On August 29 Shelley, Mary, and Claire left for England. Byron gave Shelley the manuscript of The Prisoner of Chillon and Cantos III and IV of Childe Harold for delivery to the publisher John Murray. Shelley himself, busy with Mary and Claire, brought only the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” and the ode “Mount Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni [Chamonix].” This ode is almost as confused as the rivulets of ice that curl down the mountain slopes to the Mer-de-Glace. Shelley found his impressions so many and so diverse that he was unable to give them any clear expression; and while for a time he thought of the towering mass as voicing Wordsworth’s Nature God, he fell back upon the feeling of a cold immensity disdainfully silent before all human judgments.

The “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” also shows some influence of Wordsworth, but Shelley’s “intimations of immortality” soon fade. He wonders why there is darkness as well as light, evil as well as good. He dreams that man might yet be saved by a deepening and broadening of the aesthetic sense, and the pursuit of the beautiful in thought and deed as well as in flesh and form:

I vowed that I would dedicate my powers

To thee and thine—have I not kept the vow? …

… never joy illumed my brow

Unlinked with hope that thou wouldst free

This world from its dark slavery,

That thou—O awful Loveliness,

Wouldst give whate’er these words cannot express.83

In the end the attempts of Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley to find a benevolent friend in nature failed before its calm neutrality. Wordsworth surrendered to the Church of England; Byron and Shelley surrendered to despair.

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