Italy And The English Romantic Poets

How Lord Byron's encounter with Italy shaped English and Italian literature.

Lord Byron
Portrait of Lord Byron. Photo: (c) Newstead Abbey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.

How Lord Byron shaped English and Italian literature.

In 1815, Caroline of Brunswick, wife of the future King George IV, left England to buy the Nuova Villa d’Este in Cernobbio, on Lake Como. It was the year after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which had kept the English away from the continent for nearly two decades. Yet, with Caroline’s purchase, Italy immediately became the height of travel fashion once again — and English intellectuals, writers, and personalities descended on the country.

George Gordon Byron, the English baron and superstar Romantic poet, was one of them. His relationship with Italy, where he spent the last eight years of his life, and its influence on him, would change the way the English-speaking world saw the country. It was no longer just another stop on the Grand Tour — a rite of passage for a certain class of English person in the 19th century — but a realm of the mysterious, the exotic, the marvelous, the unknown, and the spiritual.

Of course, Byron’s was a poetic, idealized image of Italy. Yet, his depiction of his travels through the country provides a fascinating insight into the ways that the British saw Italy, and the ways that the literature of both countries intertwined.

Who was Byron?

Lord Byron became a member of the English House of Lords in 1809, at the age of 21. Yet, while this moment would perhaps be the kernel of the ‘hero’ he would become, it wasn’t this alone that would make him a celebrity.

It was rather his epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), documenting his two years touring Spain, Greece, and Germany, that made his name across Europe — and that would later open doors for him in literary circles in Venice and Milan. This work created the character of the aristocrat burdened by ennui, cynicism, arrogance, disrespect for authority, past trauma, and nihilism for which he was known — the so-called ‘Byronic hero’.

All of this he would bring to his depiction of Italy when he left England forever in 1816 — at the age of 28 — beset by scandals over his very public love life and his political radicalism.

Byron’s travels in Italy

Byron arrived in Italy later that year, 1816, after spending the summer in Switzerland, where he met other writers including Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley. 

The poet went straight to Venice, a city that would become his home for three years. There, he stayed as the guest of a friend, with whose wife he almost immediately started an affair (which would be the pattern wherever he travelled) and he frequented the famous Café Florian in Piazza San Marco meeting many writers and artists, including Charles Dickens, Carlo Goldoni, and Goethe. He writings took from his surroundings, like Beppo a story about the Venetian Carnevale. His Italian improved and his thirst for reading and translating Italian writers grew.

To learn more, though, he needed to move on. In Ravenna he settled into an apartment belonging to Count Alessandro Guiccioli and had a relatively long affair with Guiccoli’s young wife, Teresa. Byron was later introduced to the secret Carbonari revolutionary society. He was fascinated by the idea of popular revolution. However, he was again his own worst enemy and his favor ran out in Ravenna, too. He moved to Pisa.

Personal tragedy struck. Byron’s daughter Allegra died of malaria and Byron moved to Livorno to be near Shelley. A month later, Shelley drowned in a boating accident off Livorno. He was 29. Shelley’s widow, Mary, author of Frankenstein, left Pisa and moved to Genoa, along with Byron and another poet, Leigh Hunt. Here again, Byron was received in the city’s literary circles where he fascinated some people and repelled others. Byron was alone with the burden of more scars. He contemplated going to South America or Ireland, somewhere he could be part of a revolution, anything that “would make me feel alive,” as he wrote to Mary.

Byron’s Italy and Romantic poetry

The connection between Byron and Italy was sincere and deep. The poet’s many pronouncements on the country (where he lived between 1816 and 1823), its history, culture and people, as well as about his own experiences in Italy and among Italians, are part of his legend and part of his being Italy’s best source of international publicity while he lived there. A favorable comment from Byron ensured the success of an event, a location, a publication. The contrary was also true.

He wrote much of his greatest poetry in Italy, including two further cantos of Childe Harold that would follow between 1816 and 1818. Largely autobiographical, it had a profound effect not only on the literature of Britain and Italy but that of much of Europe. As one critic says, “hordes of later travellers to Italy got to grips with the peninsula by first engaging with Byron’s and Italy’s constructions of each other.”

The titles of Byron’s works give a sense of how the poet himself became enthralled by the country and ‘Italianized’: The Lament of Tasso (1817), Beppo (1818), Mazeppa (1819), The Prophecy of Dante (1821), Marino Faliero (1821), The Two Foscari (1821). Meanwhile, he claimed to have perused either in the original, or in translations some excerpts from the writings of Tasso, Ariosto, Petrarch, Dante, Pietro Bembo, Goldoni, and Giuseppe Parini. He prided himself on his direct knowledge of the country and its culture and often corresponded in Italian. Byron was in fact so deeply imbued in the culture of Italy that almost a century later, a young Umberto Bosco, one of the major voices in 20th century Italian Studies, could still confidently claim that Byron was an ‘almost Italian’ poet: “more than a foreigner full of affection for Italy.” Among Italians, Bosco says, Byron “becomes almost Italian.”

Yet, while Italy influenced Byron, the poet ‘Byronized’ Italy too, so to speak. And this wasn’t always welcome. In fact, Byron was loved and hated in equal measure. He was fascinating to many. Yes, as Alan Rawes points out in Un paese tutto poetico, Byron’s works show that he considered and used Italy and its culture mostly as a spectacular backdrop to his own performances and its people as walk-on performers. This acceptance by society of a man who disregarded the fundamentals of its culture irritated many.

Like other Romantics, he wanted to make the country into an “imaginary elsewhere of lemon trees and olive groves” and a “sensuous landscape of desire.” He wanted Italy to respond to his fantasy. As Byron writes in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, “Italia! Looking on thee, full flashes on the soul the light of ages.”

Connecting Italy and Britain

Byron’s account of Italy was never neutral. Yet, they show a fascination for Italy among the British (a fascination that you could say survives to this day), as well as an intertwinement of the literatures of both countries. At the height of Byron’s popularity, British literary publications were more interested in Italian writings in general than in, say, French or Spanish. This interest was mutual and, without doubt, part of the Byron fashion. We find influences of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard in Ugo Foscolo’s I Sepolcri and of Sterne’s Sentimental Journey in Ultime Lettere di Jacopo Ortis.

Whether Byron would have been ‘Byronic’ without his years in Italy or Foscolo — who helped Byron write his Essay on the Present Literature of Italy — more Romantic had he remained in Italy are moot questions. We cannot but marvel, however, at some coincidences which, very likely, Byron would have found symbolic of deeper entwined threads. In 1810, Byron left for Switzerland. In 1815 so did Foscolo. In 1816, while Byron left England for Italy, Foscolo left Italy for England where he died. Neither would return to his homeland.  

After the publication of his masterpiece, Don Juan, Byron decided to accept the invitation from a London Greek Committee to go to Greece and exploit his fame to stir up patriotic sentiment in Greece’s war against the Turks. But his charisma couldn’t protect him against fever. He died in Missolonghi on April 19, 1824. He was mourned throughout Greece as a symbol of disinterested patriotism. He would have loved such adulation.

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