Shelley retained varied memories of Byron in their last meeting—his fine manners, candid conversation, generous impulses—and his apparent content with a degrading promiscuity of companions and courtesans. “The Italian women with whom he associates are perhaps the most contemptible of all who exist under the moon…. Byron is familiar with the lowest sort of these women, the people his gondoliers pick up in the streets. He allows fathers and mothers to bargain with him for their daughters…. But that he is a great poet I think his address to the ocean proves.”99 Byron was well aware of his abandonment of English morals and tastes; the English code had outlawed him, and he would reject it in return. Yet he told a friend in 1819, “I was disgusted and tired with the life I led in Venice, and was glad to turn my back on it.”100 He succeeded, with the help, patience, and devotion of Teresa Guiccioli.
They first met on her visit from Ravenna to Venice in April, 1819. She was nineteen, petite, pretty, vain, convent-educated, warmhearted, passionate. Her husband, Count Alessandro Guiccioli, fifty-eight, had had two previous marriages, and was often immersed in business. It was for precisely such a situation that the current moral code of the upper-class Italians allowed a woman to have a cavaliere servente—a gentleman servitor who would be always within call to admire, amuse, or escort her, and be rewarded with a kiss of her hand—or something more if they were discreet and the husband was preoccupied or tired. There was moderate danger of a duel, but sometimes the husband would appreciate the aid, and would absent himself a while. So the Contessa felt free to be drawn to the Englishman’s handsome face, intriguing conversation, and charming limp. Or in her later words:
His noble and exquisitely beautiful countenance, the tone of his voice, his manners, the thousand enchantments that surrounded him, rendered him so different, and so superior a being to any whom I had hitherto seen, that it was impossible that he should not have left the most profound impression upon me. From that evening, during the whole of my subsequent stay in Venice, we met every day.101
Those days of reckless happiness ended when the Count took Teresa back to Ravenna. Byron sent her some promissory notes, as on April 22, 1819: “I assure you that you shall be my last passion. Before I knew you, I felt an interest in many women, but never in one only. Now I love you; there is no other woman in the world for me.” So far as we know, he kept that pledge.
On June 1, in his “heavy Napoleonic carriage,” he left Venice for Ravenna as a tourist seeking Dante’s remains. Teresa welcomed him; the Count was complaisant; Byron wrote to a friend: “They make love a good deal here, and assassinate a little.”102 He was allowed to take Teresa to La Mira (seven miles south of Venice), where he had a villa; there the love affair advanced unhindered even by Teresa’s hemorrhoids.103 Allegra joined them there and made the party respectable. Tom Moore dropped in, and now received from Byron the manuscript of “My Life and Adventures,” which was to cause so much commotion after the author’s death.
From La Mira Byron took Teresa to Venice, where she lived with him in his Palazzo Mocenigo. There her father reclaimed her, and—forbidding Byron to follow—took her back to Ravenna. On arrival Teresa fell so convincingly ill that the Count hurriedly sent for her lover. Byron came (December 24, 1819), and, after some wandering, settled down as a paying tenant on the third floor of the Count’s palace. He brought with him into his new quarters two cats, six dogs, a badger, a falcon, a tame crow, a monkey, and a fox. Amid this life of varied dedications he wrote more of Don Juan, some rhetorical and unstageable plays on Venetian doges, a more presentable drama about Sardanapalus, and, in July, 1821, Cain: A Mystery, which completed the abomination of his name in England.
The opening scene shows Adam and Eve, Cain and his sister-wife Adah, Abel and his sister-wife Zillah, preparing to offer sacrifices and prayers to Jehovah. Cain asks his parents some of the questions that had puzzled Byron in his schooldays: Why did God invent death? If Eve ate of the tree of knowledge, why had God planted that forbidden tree so prominently in the Garden of Eden; and why should the desire for knowledge be accounted a sin? Why, in punishment for Eve’s modest collation, had the Omnipotent decreed labor as the lot and death as the fate of all living things? What is death? (No one had yet seen it.) Cain is left rebelliously brooding while the rest go to their tasks of the day. Lucifer (Lightbearer) appears, takes over the stage as in Milton, and calls himself proudly one of those
Souls who dare look the Omnipotent tyrant in
His everlasting face, and tell him that
His evil is not good.
Adah returns and pleads with Cain to rejoin his relatives in the field; he has neglected his share of the day’s work; she has done it for him, and now invites him to an hour of love and rest. Lucifer taunts her by describing love as a lure to reproduction, and predicts the centuries of toil, strife, suffering, and death awaiting the multitudes that will trace their existence to her womb…. Cain and Abel prepare their altars; Abel sacrifices the first of his flock; Cain offers fruit, but, instead of a prayer, asks again why the Omnipotent has permitted evil. Abel’s sacrificial lamb is consumed in a bright flame that ascends to heaven; Cain’s altar is overthrown by an angry wind that scatters his fruit in the dust. Furious, he tries to demolish Abel’s altar. Abel resists; Cain strikes him; Abel dies. Adam reproaches Eve as the primal source of sin; Eve curses Cain; Adah pleads for him: “Curse him not, mother, for he is my brother / And my betrothed.” Adam bids Cain leave them and never return; Adah accompanies Cain into banishment. Since Abel had died childless, all humanity (Byron concludes) was Cain’s progeny, and bears his mark in secret instincts finding vent in violence, murder, and war.
Cain seems at times an essay in defiance by a schoolboy atheist who has not read Ecclesiastes; and yet at times the drama rises to an almost Miltonic power. Walter Scott, to whom the Mystery was dedicated, praised it; as Goethe, losing for a moment his Olympian perspective, said, “Its beauty is such as we shall not see a second time in the world.”104 In England its publication was met with a furor of criticism and horror: here, it seemed, was another Cain, but a worse murderer—killing the faith that had sustained a thousand generations. Murray warned Byron that he was rapidly losing readers for his works.
The portrait of Cain’s faithful Adah gave another proof of tender elements in Byron’s character; but his treatment of Allegra and her mother showed a tougher strain. The once happy child, now four years old, had been saddened by the distances that separated her from both her parents; and she felt that the Hoppners were wearying of her. Byron sent for her to come to Ravenna; and yet he could hardly ask her to live with him and his menagerie in the palace of the man who was becoming audibly uncomfortable with his horns. After much thought he put her into a convent at Bagnacavallo, twelve miles from Ravenna (March 1, 1821). There, he presumed, she would have companionship, be out of his way, and receive some education. That this would be Catholic did not disturb him; on the contrary he felt that it would be a tragedy for the girl to grow up without a religion in an Italy where every woman was a pious Catholic even in her amours. After all, if one must be a Christian, better go all the way, take the Apostles’ Creed, the Mass, and the saints, and be a Catholic. “It is my wish,” he wrote on April 3, 1821, “that Allegra should be a Roman Catholic, which I look upon as the best religion.”105 When Allegra was ready for marriage he would settle upon her a fortune of four thousand pounds, and she would have no difficulty in finding a husband.
This was convenient for Byron, but when the news of it reached Claire Clairmont she protested passionately, and begged that Shelley get the child restored to her. Shelley undertook to go to Ravenna and see how Allegra was faring. He arrived there on August 6, 1821, and was cordially received by Byron. He wrote back to his wife: “Lord Byron is very well, and was delighted to see me. He has … completely recovered his health, and lives a life totally the reverse of that which he led in Venice.”106 Byron told him that political conditions would soon compel him to move to Florence or Pisa; he would take Allegra with him, and she would be close to her mother. Shelley was content with this, and turned his attention to something more immediately affecting himself.
He was dismayed to learn that Allegra’s nurse Elise (whom he had dismissed from his service in 1821) had told the Hoppners that he had had secret sexual relations with Allegra’s mother; that Claire, in Florence, had borne his child, which he had at once placed in a foundling asylum; furthermore, that Shelley and Claire had treated Mary shamefully, even to his beating her. The astonished poet wrote at once to Mary (August 7), asking her to write to the Hoppners denouncing these tales; Mary did, but sent her letter to Shelley for his approval; he showed it to Byron, and apparently relied on him to give it to Hoppner. Shelley was disappointed to find that Byron had known of the rumors, and had apparently believed them. The famous friendship began to cool, and cooled further when Byron moved from Ravenna to Pisa, leaving Allegra in her convent.
That change was the result of mixing love and revolution. In July, 1820, Teresa’s father, Count Ruggero Gamba, had secured from the Papal Curia a writ awarding her a separation from her husband, with regular payments of alimony from him, on condition that she live with her parents. She moved accordingly, and Byron, still living in the Guiccioli palace, became a frequent visitor to the Gamba household. He was delighted to find that Gamba and his son Pietro were leaders in the Carbonari, a secret organization plotting to overthrow Austrian rule in north Italy, papal rule in middle Italy, and Bourbon rule at Naples over the “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies”—i.e., south Italy and Sicily. Byron, in “The Prophecy of Dante” (1819), had already appealed to the Italian people to rise and free themselves from Hapsburg or Bourbon rule. By 1820 Austrian spies suspected him of paying for weapons to be delivered to the Carbonari; and a royalist poster set up in Ravenna called for his assassination.107 On February 24, 1821, the Carbonari insurrection failed; its leaders fled from those parts of Italy under Austrian, papal, or Bourbon rule. Count Gamba and son went to Pisa; on Byron’s advice Teresa soon followed them; and on November 1, 1821, Byron arrived there, and settled in the Casa Lanfranchi on the Arno, where Shelley had already rented rooms for him. Now would come the final test of their friendship.