XVI. TRANSFIGURATION: BYRON, 1822–24

In September, 1822, Byron and the Gambas moved from Pisa to Albaro, a suburb of Genoa. The several moves of body, mind, and mood that he had made since leaving England had tired him, and he had begun to tire even of Teresa’s untiring love. His sharp eyes and sardonic spirit had removed the veils of life, and apparently had left no reality that could stir him to idealism or devotion. He was the most famous living poet, but he was not proud of his poetry; the febrile plaints of Childe Harold seemed unmanly now, and the clever cynicism of Don Juan left author and reader naked in a disillusioned world. “A man,” he now felt, “ought to do something more for mankind than write verses.”150 At Genoa he asked his physician to tell him “which is the best and quickest poison?”151

Greece offered him a redeeming death. It had fallen subject to the Turks in 1465, and had become somnolent under alien domination. Byron, in Childe Harold (Canto 11, lines 73–84), had called upon it to revolt: “Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not / Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?” Greece had revolted in 1821, but it was without arms, without money, without unity; it was crying out for help from the nations to which it had transmitted its rich inheritance. It had sent a committee to London to seek funds; the committee sent representatives to Genoa with a challenge to Byron to use some of his wealth in furthering the revolution he had sought to inspire. On April 7, 1823, he told the emissaries that he was at the service of the Greek Provisional Government.

He was transformed. He was now all action. Cynicism gave way to dedication; poetry was laid aside; romance graduated from rhymes to resolution. After putting aside some funds for the Hunts and above all for Teresa, he devoted the remainder of his fortune to the Greek Revolution. He instructed his agents in London to sell everything of his in England that could bring money, and to send him the proceeds. He sold the Bolivar for half its cost, and engaged an English vessel, the Hercules, to take him, Pietro Gamba, and Trelawny to Greece with some cannon and ammunition, and with medical supplies for a thousand men for two years. Teresa Guiccioli struggled to keep him with her; he resisted her affectionately, and had the consolation of knowing that she and her parents had received permission to return to their home in Ravenna. He told Lady Blessington: “I have a presentiment that I shall die in Greece. I hope it may be in action, for that would be a good finish to a very triste existence.”152

On July 16, 1823, the Hercules left Genoa for Greece. After exasperating delays it anchored (August 3) at Argostólion, the port of Cephalonia, largest of the Ionian Islands. This was still fifty miles from Greece, but Byron was forced to fret away months there; he had hoped to join, at Missolonghi, the most inspiring of the Greek leaders; but Marco Bozzaris had been killed in action, Missolonghi was in Turkish hands, and Turkish warships controlled all western approaches to the Greek mainland. Early in December Prince Alexandros Mavrokordatos recaptured Missolonghi, and on the 29th Byron left Cephalonia. Colonel Leicester Stanhope, agent of the Greek committee that was raising funds in England to aid the revolution, wrote from Missolonghi: “All are looking forward to Lord Byron’s arrival as they would be to the coming of the Messiah.”153 After several adventures and delays the young savior reached Missolonghi, January 4, 1824, and received a joyous welcome from prince and people scenting gold.

Mavrokordatos commissioned him to pay, provision, and lead a squad of six hundred Suliotes—bellicose barbarians part Greek, part Albanian. He was not inspired by their appearance, and he knew that the Greek revolutionists were divided into rival factions under leaders more political than martial. Nevertheless he was happy to have been assigned an active role, and did not delay in dispensing aid; to Mavrokordatos alone he gave some two thousand pounds a week to keep the Missolonghians in food and spirit. Meanwhile he lived in a villa north of the town and near the shore, “on the verge,” said Trelawny, “of the most dismal swamp I have ever seen.” The Suliotes proved disorderly and rebellious, more anxious to get his money than his leadership; the young Lochinvar’s hope for martial action had to wait till order and morale had been restored. Trelawny, never good at waiting, went off to seek adventure elsewhere. Only Pietro Gamba remained close to Byron, watching over him anxiously as he saw him failing under the heat, the worry, and the malarial air.

On February 15, visiting Colonel Stanhope, Byron suddenly grew pale and fell to the ground in convulsions, unconscious, and foaming at the mouth. He recovered consciousness, and was taken to his villa. Doctors gathered around him, and applied leeches to bleed him. When these were removed the bleeding could not be soon stopped, and Byron fainted from loss of blood. On February 18 his Suliotes rioted again, threatening to invade his villa and kill all available foreigners. He rose from his bed and calmed them, but his hope to lead them against the Turks at Lepanto faded, and with it his dream of a fruitful and heroic death. He was comforted by a letter from Augusta Leigh, enclosing a picture of his daughter Ada and Annabella’s description of the child’s habits and temperament. His eyes lighted with a moment’s happiness. Everything normal had been denied him.

On April 9 he went out riding with Pietro. They were caught in a heavy rain on their way back, and Byron that evening suffered chills and fever. On the 11th his fever grew worse; he took to his bed, felt his strength ebbing, and recognized that he was dying. Sometimes, in those last ten days, he thought of religion, but “to say the truth,” he remarked, “I find it equally difficult to know what to believe in this world and what not to believe. There are so many plausible reasons for inducing me to die a bigot, as there have been to make me hitherto live a freethinker.”154 Dr. Julius Millingen, his chief physician, recorded:

It is with infinite regret that I must state that, although I seldom left Lord Byron’s pillow during the latter part of his illness, I did not hear him make any, even the smallest, mention of religion. At one moment I heard him say, “Shall I sue for mercy?” After a long pause he added: “Come, come; no weakness! Let’s be a man to the end.”

The same doctor quotes him as saying, “Let not my body be sent to England. Here let my bones molder. Lay me in the first corner without pomp or nonsense.”155

On April 15, after another convulsion, he allowed the doctors to bleed him again. They took two pounds of blood, and, two hours later, another. He died on April 19, 1824. The unusually incompetent autopsy showed uremia—the poisonous accumulation, in the blood, of elements that should have been eliminated in the urine. There was no sign of syphilis, but much evidence that repeated bleedings and strong cathartics had been the final causes of death. The brain was one of the largest ever recorded—710 grams above the top range for normal men.156 Perhaps years of sexual excess, and alternate periods of heavy eating and reckless fasts, had weakened the body’s resources against strain, anxiety, and miasmic air.

News of the death did not reach London till May 14. Hobhouse brought it to Augusta Leigh; the two broke down together. Hobhouse then turned to the problem of Byron’s secret memoirs. Moore had sold these for two thousand guineas to Murray, who was tempted to send them to the press despite warning from his chief adviser, William Gifford, that (in Hobhouse’s words) they were “fit only for the brothel, and would doom Lord Byron to everlasting infamy if published.”157 Murray and Hobhouse proposed to destroy the manuscript; Moore protested, but agreed to let Mrs. Leigh decide; she asked that it be burned; it was done. Moore returned two thousand guineas to Murray.

Byron’s old servant, Fletcher, insisted that his master, shortly before death, had expressed a wish to be buried in England. The Greek authorities and populace protested, but they had to be content with parts of the viscera removed before embalming. The body, preserved in 180 gallons of spirits, reached London on June 29. A request was made to the authorities of Westminster Abbey to let the corpse be buried in the Poets’ Corner there; permission was refused. On July 9–10 the public was allowed to view the coffined remains; many people came, very few of note; but some dignitaries allowed their empty carriages to take part in the procession that carried the corpse from London, July 12–15, to Nottingham. From a window Claire Clairmont and Mary Shelley saw the funeral move by. Farther along it passed an open carriage bearing Caroline Lamb; her husband, riding ahead, learned the name of the dead, but did not, till days later, reveal it to his wife. On July 16 the poet was buried in the vault of his ancestors, beside his mother, in the parish church of Hucknall Torkard, a village near Newstead Abbey.

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