IX. DECAY IN VENICE: BYRON, 1816–18

In September, 1816, Hobhouse came down from England, and joined Byron in an extensive tour of the Swiss Alps. In October they crossed them into Italy. They were well received at Milan; the educated Italians honored Byron as England’s greatest living poet, and appreciated his evident distaste for Austrian rule in Lombardy. He took a box at La Scala. Stendhal saw him there, and described him ecstatically: “I was struck by his eyes…. I have never in my life seen anything more beautiful or more expressive. Even today, if I come to think of the expression which a great painter should give to a genius, this sublime head at once appears before me…. I shall never forget the divine expression of his face; it was the serene air of power and genius.”84

Poet and friend reached Venice on November 16, 1816. Hobhouse left him for hurried sightseeing, and soon went on to Rome; Byron took lodgings in a side street off the Piazza San Marco, and made a mistress of his landlord’s wife, Marianna Segati. Even so he found time to complete Manfred and (September, 1818) to begin Don Juan, in which he passed from gloomy, romantic, self-indulgent brooding to rollicking, humorous, realistic satire.

Manfred, of course, is Byron again, now disguised as a melancholy misanthrope in a Gothic castle. Feeling “a strong curse upon my soul,” and brooding over his sins, he summons the witches from their Alpine lairs, and asks from them one gift—forgetfulness. They answer that forgetfulness comes only with death. He climbs the Jungfrau, and sees in a lightning-blasted pine tree a symbol of himself—”a blighted trunk upon a cursèd rock, which but supplies a feeling to decay.” He seeks death by trying to jump from a cliff; a hunter stops him, leads him to a mountain cottage, offers him a warming wine, and asks the reason for his despair. Manfred, taking the wine for blood, replies in words that might be taken as a confession of incest:

I say ‘tis blood! the pure warm stream

Which ran in the veins of my fathers, and in ours

When we were in our youth, and had our heart,

And loved each other as we should not love;

And that was shed; but still rises up,

Coloring the clouds that shut me out from heaven.

He envies the hunter’s free and healthy life

By danger dignified, yet guiltless; hopes

Of cheerful old age and a quiet grave,

With cross and garland over its green turf,

And thy grandchildren’s love for epitaph;

This do I see—and then I look within—

It matters not—my soul was scorched already.

He gives the hunter gold, and departs. Using his unsanctioned science, he summons Astarte, in whom he sees the figure of his forbidden love. His appeal to her to forgive him—”Astarte, my beloved, speak to me!”—is one of the high flights of Byronic passion and sentiment. Like the major criminals in Gulliver’s land of the Luggnaggians, he has been condemned to immortality, and thinks it the greatest possible penalty; he begs her, out of her mystic power, to grant him the gift of death. She accommodates him: “Manfrtd, tomorrow ends thy earthly life.” An attendant witch applauds his courage: “He mastereth himself, and makes his torture tributary to his will. Had he been one of us he would have made an awful spirit.” Milton’s Satan may have left here one of many echoes in Byron’s works. —To the abbot who, on the following evening, seeks to win him back to Christ, Manfred answers that it is too late, and adds:

There is an order

Of mortals on the earth, who do become

Old in their youth, and die ere middle age,

Without the violence of warlike death.

And when Manfred leaves for his last rendezvous, the abbot mourns:

This should have been a noble creature; he

Hath all the energy which would have made

A goodly frame of glorious elements,

Had they been wisely mingled.

As if challenging the world to think that its darkest suspicions of him were now confessed, Byron sent Manfred to England, and Murray published it on June 16, 1817. A week later a review in a London paper called for an end to all sympathy for Byron, who “has coloured Manfred into his own personal features…. Manfred has exiled himself from society, and what is to be the ground of our compassion for the exile? Simply the commission of one of the most revolting crimes. He has committed incest!”85

On April 17, 1817, Byron left Venice to spend a month with Hobhouse in Rome. His foot deterred him from touring the museums, but he saw the massive relics of classical Rome, and visited Pompeii; “I stand a ruin amidst ruins,” said Childe Harold.86 By May 28 he was back in Venice.

In December he succeeded, after many trials, in selling Newstead Abbey and its lands for £94,500; he instructed his London banker, Douglas Kinnaird, to pay all the poet’s debts, and send him £3,300 annually from the earnings of the residue; in addition to this he now agreed to receive payment for his poems. Flush, he bought the sumptuous Palazzo Mocenigo on the Grand Canal. He peopled it with fourteen servants, two monkeys, two mastiffs, and a new mistress—Margarita Cogni, proud wife of a local banker. He was not monogynous; he boasted of having had two hundred women, seriatim, in Venice.87 On January 20, 1817, he informed Kinnaird that “in the evenings I go out sometimes, and indulge in coition always”; and on May 9, 1818, he wrote to the banker, “I have a world of harlotry.”88 By midsummer he had fallen far from the divinity described by Stendhal two years before; he was fat, his hair was turning gray, and he looked older than his thirty years. Shelley was shocked to find him so when they met again.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!