XIV. PISAN CANTO: 1821–22

Byron, when he reached Pisa, had almost outlived his sexual history, except for an idealizing memory as in the Haidee episodes in Don Juan. At Pisa Teresa Guiccioli lived with Byron, but in diminishing intimacy; he spent most of his time with his friends and Shelley’s. For them he arranged weekly dinners, where discussion ran freely. Shelley attended, stood his ground politely but firmly in argument, but slipped away before strong drinking began. Teresa tried to give substance to her quiet life by becoming friends with Mary Shelley and reading history to keep up with Mary’s intellectual interests. Byron disapproved of Teresa’s studies, preferring women whose intellect was modestly subordinated to their charms.

He had almost forgotten Allegra. Her mother pleaded with Mary Shelley to come to Florence to join her in a plan to go to Ravenna, abduct the girl, and bring her to a healthier climate and wider life. Shelley refused to allow this. Then came the news that on April 20, 1822, Allegra, five years old, had died of malaria in her convent. The event shared in the cooling of Shelley’s friendship with Byron. Earlier in this spring he had written to Leigh Hunt: “Particular dispositions in Lord Byron’s character render the close and exclusive intimacy with him, in which I find myself, … intolerable to me. Thus much, my best friend, I will confess and confide to you.”139

He tried to conceal his discomfort, for he had persuaded Byron to invite Hunt to come to Pisa and edit a new magazine, The Liberal, which Byron and Shelley planned to launch as an offset to the conservative Quarterly Review. Byron sent the bankrupt Hunt two hundred fifty pounds; Hunt and family sailed from London, hoping to reach Leghorn on July 1, 1822. Shelley promised to meet him.

Externally the first six months of that fatal year were a pleasant time for the two poets. They went riding together almost daily, and matched their marksmanship in a pistol club; Shelley almost equaled Byron’s accuracy of aim. “My health,” he wrote to Peacock, “is better; my cares lighter; and tho’ nothing will cure the consumption of my purse, yet it drags on a sort of life in death, very like its master, and seems, like Fortunatus’ purse, always empty, yet never quite exhausted.”140 In January Byron’s mother-in-law died, leaving him (despite the separation from his wife) properties that brought him an additional three thousand pounds per year. Flush, he ordered a commodious yacht to be built for himself at Leghorn, appointed John Trelawny its skipper, named it Bolivar in honor of the South American revolutionist, and invited Shelley and his new friends Edward Williams and Thomas Medwin to join him and the Gambas in a yachting trip in the coming summer. Shelley and Williams shared in having a smaller sailboat, eighty-four feet long, eight in the beam, to be built for them at a cost of eighty pounds. Trelawny named it Don Juan, Mary renamed it Ariel.141

Looking forward to a summer of boating, Byron engaged the Villa Dupuy near Leghorn. Shelley and Williams rented for their families the Casa Magni, near Lerici, on the shores of the Bay of Spezia, some forty miles north of Leghorn. On April 26, 1822, the Shelleys and Williams transferred their ménages to the Casa Magni, and there awaited the delivery of their boat.

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