Watercolor portrait of Lord Byron and locket that once belonged to Lady Caroline Lamb. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

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J.M.W. Turner’s “Childe Harold's Pilgrimage,” featured in the “Gallery Pictures” cigarette card series, ca. 1900–05. NYPL, George Arents Collection   More information

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Claire Clairmont’s draft letter to Lord Byron, May 4, 1820. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

The last two pages of Clairmont’s letter to Byron, May 4, 1820. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

On July 31, 1821, four-year-old Allegra writes to her father from the Italian convent where Byron had placed her: “What is my Dear Papa doing? I am so well, and so happy that I cannot but thank my ever dear Papa who brings me so much happiness and whose blessing I ask for. Your little Allegra sends her loving greetings.” Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

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“Byron contemplating the Roman Coliseum,” engraved by A. L. Dick (1793–1856) after the painting by William Westall (1781–1850). NYPL, Print Collection   More information

Byron and Shelley

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An Immediate Friendship

Absconding with Allegra

Sympathy for “Cudgelled and Heterodox People”

For much of their lives together, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley were accompanied by Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont (1789–1879). In 1816, Claire had a brief affair with Lord Byron (1788–1824), then the most celebrated poet of the day. At the time, Byron was suffering from the recent failure of his marriage and was about to leave England for good. Later that year, Claire introduced Shelley to Byron in Geneva, and the two poets struck up an immediate friendship.

Arguably the world’s first superstar, Byron received both the adulation and the notoriety that today is fixed upon Hollywood A-listers or hip-hop royalty. When the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage appeared in 1812, Byron’s disaffected anti-hero captivated an English reading public wearied by almost two decades of war with Napoleon. The poem was an overnight sensation. As Byron later recalled, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”

Byron’s fame contrasted with that of Shelley, whose reputation grew only after his death. Indeed, in many ways the two were opposites: Byron was famous, Shelley little known; Shelley was an idealist, Byron a pessimist; Shelley’s puritan temperament disapproved of Byron’s dissolute ways, while Byron looked askance at Shelley’s unconventional household. But they recognized each other’s genius, delighted in their conversations, and were drawn together as fellow exiles and outsiders.

In 1817, Claire Clairmont gave birth to Allegra, her daughter by Byron. Byron took custody of Allegra in Italy but refused to have anything to do with Claire. Shelley was obliged to act as mediator. This complicated, but did not end, Byron and Shelley’s friendship.

In April 1818, Claire allowed Allegra to be taken to Byron in Venice, on the understanding that Allegra always be in her or Byron’s care. Her draft letter to Byron of May 4, 1820, seen here, was prompted by Byron’s refusal to allow Allegra to visit her mother, and by his intention to place their daughter in a convent. “It is now 2 years since I have seen her,” Claire had written to him three days earlier; “she has outgrown my knowledge both in person & in mind & what interval would you place between her visits?”

In another poignant letter shown here, four-year-old Allegra writes to her father in Italian, on July 31, 1821, from the convent of San Giovanni Battista in Bagnacavallo, near Ravenna, where Byron had placed his daughter five months earlier. Shelley later tried unsuccessfully to persuade Byron to have Allegra removed from the convent, and, in 1822, Claire Clairmont hatched unlikely schemes to “rescue” her. But, in April of that year, Allegra became feverish and died shortly afterward, at the age of five years and three months.

Byron’s sympathies lay with displaced workers in England, with an Irish populace crushed by British oppression, and, as he wrote in a note to Childe Harold, with “cudgelled and heterodox people” everywhere. With his speeches in the House of Lords advocating Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform, Byron consistently supported the struggle for human freedom. In exile, he first cast his lot with the Carbonari movement, which sought to unify Italy, then turned his attention to the cause of Greek independence against the occupying Turks.

While helping the Greek independence movement, Byron died in Missolonghi, in 1824 (just two years after Percy Bysshe Shelley died in Italy). His body was returned to England and lay in state in London for two days. His remains then travelled north to the family vault in Nottinghamshire, in a hearse accompanied by a cortège of 47 carriages. Among the many who witnessed the procession was Mary Shelley, who told their mutual friend Edward John Trelawny: “It went to my heart when the other day the he[a]rse that contained his lifeless form, a form of beauty which in life I often delighted to behold, passed by my window.”

 

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