A description of Lord Byron as a remark-able man would be analogous to a description of a Swiss mountain as a pretty hill, and an attempt to compress the story of his romantic life within the compass of one short article would be as futile as an attempt to swim the Atlantic.
Indeed, even to tell adequately the story of Byron and the Countess Guiccioli is impossible, for this liaison forms more than a mere incident in the poet's career; it is a thread woven inextricably into the web of his life, and marks a stage in the development, perhaps destruction, of that gorgeous intellect and that passionate emotion which composed the man, and which ultimately, like two relentless flames, burnt through and consumed him.
"Genius," it has been said, "is a Divine infirmity, a martyrdom," and to this infirmity was Byron born. He was a genius in spite of himself, and he suffered for it throughout his life. Again, his intellect, nature, and position were composed of an amazing blend of contrasts.
Of proud and ancient lineage - his ancestors were among the followers of the Conqueror - he was a nobleman vain and unbending, but possessed of a true love for democracy and liberty. He was an Adonis with the features of a Greek god, but was lame from infancy. He was lucky; his cup was filled with the rich wine of life, but as soon as he placed the cup to his lips the draught turned to bitterest gall.
A man to love and be loved, his life was wrecked by inconstancy. At one and the same time he was man and super-man, he could not keep himself in perspective to humanity; his body, his soul, and his intellect were ever at war against themselves and against each other.
He was ridiculously eccentric, he delighted in elaborating on his eccentricities, and spoke of his soul as "a dead body devoured by corruption."
During his Cambridge days he kept a pet bear, and drank out of the skull of a woman to whom he professed to have been attached, and who, he declared, had been murdered. Until the very day of his death he was obsessed with a horror of growing fat, and would subsist for weeks on biscuits, vinegar-and-water, and then give way to wild excesses of eating and drinking.
In 1813, after the publication of the early part of "Childe Harold," Lord Byron suddenly found himself a famous man. He was then twenty-five years of age, and a society pet. "The women," writes Lady Caroline Lamb, "suffocated him with their adulation in drawing-rooms."
Indeed, the extent of his popularity can be gauged from the fact that 14.000 copies of The Corsair " were sold in a single da
On the 15th of January, 1815, Byron was married to Miss Milbank. In spite of statements to the contrary, it appears to have. been more than a manage de convcnance In the first place, Miss Milbank was not the heiress to a fortune large enough materially to assist an impoverished peer. In the second place. Byron undoubtedly was attracted to her irresistibly
In a letter to Moore he declared: "My spouse and I agree to admiration. Swift says no wise man ever married; but for a fool I think it the most ambrosial of all future states. I still think a man ought to marry upon lease, but am very sure I should renew mine at the expiration though the next were for ninety and nine years."
Byron, however, although he endeavoured to discipline himself to constancy, at the end of a month came to the conclusion that he did not love his wife, but still he hoped that the birth of an heir would prove an unbreakable link in the chain which bound him to her. Happiness, however, was impossible; the man's extraordinary and irregular habits frightened his wife, and shortly after the birth of her daughter, she visited her parents, and from their house wrote to her husband saying that she could never return to him.
For some inexplicable reason this decision electrified England; the air became filled with vague insinuations, and a wave of unjustifiable wrath against the poet swept over the country. On one day he was the idol of the world, the darling of his country; on the next he was hounded into exile by the relentless forces of outraged propriety, with the echo of a nation's curses ringing in his ears.
Other men have been fickle husbands without, being deprived for a day of what Byron lost for ever.
Moreover, the only charge which can be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt against the poet in his relations to his wife is that of incompatibility of temperament. And how could any temperament be compatible with his ?
The street boys," writes Castelar, " flung mud upon him. In the theatres he was hissed. The most obscene libels attributed to him the most shameful vices. The daily papers represented him with horrible caricature. Fathers hid their daughters from his basilisk glances. ... To the eyes of society he was a devil illuminated with genius."
The blow stunned Byron; there was but one thing which he could do. In April, 1816,
From the mezzotint by C. Turner, after the painting by w. E. West he crossed from Dover to Ostend, and went into exile.
For three years he wandered over the face of Europe, a restless genius. The poet Shelley was often his companion, and the history of his travels would fill another Odyssey. Disgusting or delightful, according to the reader's point of view, the story cannot fail under any circumstances to be entrancing.
Ultimately Byron arrived at Venice, and at Venice he met Theresa Guiccioli, the woman who until his death guided his destinies. Instinctively, magnetically, the two were drawn the one towards the other. In Byron, Theresa saw the fulfilment of her dreams; and in Theresa the poet saw the realisation of that for which during many weary years he had been searching. The mind of the woman thirsted for a taste of life, and was impelled irresistibly towards that of the poet, which was seeking peace and consolation.