The Last Days of the Poets

The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Final Years of Byron and Shelley

by A.B.C. Whipple
Harper & Row, 298 pp., $5.00

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…

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