The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Final Years of Byron and Shelley
In February last year the editor of Life International began a series of Literary Landscapes by writing two articles on “The Italy of Byron and Shelley,” with some striking new photographs by David Lees. To get this material, Mr. Whipple and his photographer had sought out for themselves many of the scenes, cities, and houses in Italy associated with these two poets. The present book is an expansion of the articles in Life, but without the photographs. Its ornamental title comes from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and refers to Italy, not to Romantic poetry, and the author claims it to be unique in concentrating on the “Italian climax, on the interrelationship of the two poets during this time, and on the influence of Italy’s beauty upon their poetry.”
There have in fact been several books that concentrate on the first two topics, including Shelley and Byron: A Tragic Friendship (1934), by Isabel Clarke (who lived in Rome), to which Mr. Whipple makes acknowledgment. But the third, the effect of Italy on the poetry, opens new possibilities. How was it, for instance, that in spite of Byron’s close contact (too close, in many cases) with Italian people and politics, his poetry grew more and more aggressively English, culminating at last in the comic glories of Lady Adeline Amundeville’s house-party in Don Juan, whereas in spite of Shelley’s isolation with a handful of English friends his poetry grew more and more Italian? Shelley’s exile in the universal sun seems indeed to have brought him nearer to his own native landscape. There are topographical puzzles, too, connected with Italy: the famous one concerning the location of Byron’s Venetian madhouse, for example, or the lines about Ripafratta in “The Boat on the Serchio.”
It turns out, however, that Mr. Whipple is not interested in things like these, but has the more modest aim of telling once again, in a popular, lively way, the full life-stories of Byron and Shelley. Nearly a quarter of the book is over before Byron gets to Italy, and nearly a third before he meets Shelley there. Even so, a popular modern biography to dislodge the lingering fictions of André Maurois’ Byron and Ariel would delight ordinary readers and relieve everyone trying to teach literature. Byron and Shelley both appear quite different now from the men they seemed to be forty years ago, and new qualities in their poetry are admired. Not that such a book would be easy to write. It would need to be up-to-date in its attitudes and familiar with the latest scholarship, as well as readable and understandable, which the latest scholarship practically never is, Mr. Whipple scores high marks for readability, and his obvious pleasure in the locale brings the physical environment vividly to life: the slimy steps of Venetian palaces; the streets of Ravenna; the umbrella-shaped trees of the Tuscan pinewoods. He does not try to be sensational. When, in listing theories about the baby girl whom Shelley is known to have had christened “Elena Adelaide Shelley” in Naples, he arrives at “the most scandalous of all,” the reader braces himself: what can be more absurdly scandalous than Ursula Orange’s suggestion that Shelley had a child by the family nursemaid, and smuggled her secretly into a Founding Home in order to smuggle her secretly out again? But the most scandalous of all theories proves to be only the original one—the nursemaid’s own story that Shelley had been Claire Clairmont’s lover, which was old hat in 1816. Mr. Whipple is oddly reticent on sexual matters. His sketch of Byron’s separation from his wife takes no notice of all the detailed work on the affair done in the last ten years by Wilson Knight, Mrs. Langley Moore, and Malcolm Elwin. And who, in this year of Fanny Hill, would expect to be told that Beatrice Cenci was seduced by her father? On the other hand, his sources are often jazzed-up to a point far beyond toleration. Mary Shelley, reporting one of her husband’s nightmares, wrote: “…talking it over the next morning he told me that he had had many visions lately”; in Mr. Whipple’s account this becomes: “Next day, shaking at the thought of it, Shelley began to wonder if he really was cracking up.”
We must still wait for that good entertaining biography of Byron-and-Shelley. This one is less good than Isabel Clarke’s, and is not objective so much as simply lacking a viewpoint of any kind. Above all, The Fatal Gift of Beauty has the more fatal gift (in a biographer) of inaccuracy. A steady stream of misinformation, made appetizing by the circumstantial detail and pre-digested by the chatty style, is fed to the reader throughout the book. Where did Mr. Whipple get the idea that Gilbert Imlay was an artist? Or that T. J. Hogg, Shelley’s co-mate at Oxford and persistently aspiring co-husband, was “the son of a successful attorney in New York”? Or that Mary Godwin’s marriage, when the bride was so proudly given away by her father before the altar of St. Mildred’s, was “an offhand civil ceremony”? Mary was not Claire Clairmont’s half-sister; Shelley’s complexion was not pallid but high-colored, like that of his “red faced brute” of a brother John and like his sister Elizabeth’s, whose miniature was reproduced recently in the Keats-Shelley Memorial Buletin; Byron’s last resting-place is not Newstead Abbey, nor is Allegra’s, but Hucknall Torkard and Harrow respectively; The Necessity of Atheism was not a “little volume” but a leaflet shorter than this review; Mary and Claire did not climb Monte San Pellegrino with Shelley (poor Mary!—she would have been in no state to object to “The Witch of Atlas” after slogging the 200-odd kilometres from San Giuliano and back that she is credited with). “Taaffe” is misspelled “Taffe” throughout, which if mispronounced as well would make him Welsh instead of Irish. Like Isabel Clarke and Maurois, Mr. Whipple chooses to call Shelley’s boat Ariel, which is surprising in someone who knows the sea so well. The editor of the new Shelley Letters corrected this bit of sentimentality nearly thirty years ago. Don Juan scrawled on the boat’s mainsail was a “superscription,” that is, an unwanted name added above the normal lettering on her bow, and as her captain (“Williams is captain”) was calling her Don Juan less than a fortnight before her last voyage, it is quite certain what that lettering spelt.
Some of the poems that were attached to wrong dates or localities in Life International, such as Byron’s “So we’ll go no more a-roving,” are put right in the book, but many others are glaringly misplaced. Byron’s “The Isles of Greece” belongs to 1819, not 1823. There couldn’t possibly have been a waterfall near the spot where Shelley wrote “Ariel to Miranda,” which was as flat as the trackless sea and is now underneath it. The “Ode to the West Wind” was written not in Leghorn but in Florence; “To a Skylark,” on the other hand, was written in Leghorn, not in Pisa (and if this poem had really been inspired by “the evening calls of the birds wheeling in high circles above the pineta” it would have been “To a Swift”).
But the most unforgivable single item in the book (mercifully relegated to the notes from the magazine prominence it was given) is the suggestion that “Shelley’s death was not murder [i.e., the result of deliberate collision by another boat] but suicide,” based on a rumor spread by Taaffe that Shelley had been seen stopping the sails from being reefed when the storm broke. Of course if this worthless tale were true Shelley’s death would be suicide and murder, for he had two innocent lives in the boat with him. But Captain Roberts himself saw the Don Juan‘s topsails being taken in, as he told the poet’s widow in Geneva.
The Fatal Gift of Beauty is a chance thrown away. Mr. Whipple evidently loves Italy, and loves his two subjects. But in the words of one of these, love far more than hatred can be the source of all sorts of mischief.