Caronline Franklin (University of Wales, Swansea)
Byron, Italian Poetry, and The Liberal
This essay focuses on the ideological context of the interest in Italian literature of the Byron-Shelley-Hunt circle.
These second-generation British Romantics, like earlier Italophiles such as the Della Cruscans and later expatriates
such as the Brownings, tried to inspire nationalist feeling in, and on behalf of, their adopted homeland. But their
struggle for the authority to re-present Italy was also directed towards rival literary coteries back home. Byron’s
poetry in the years of fame had been produced from the Murray circle which published the Quarterly Review. This
coterie reprised that of the Antijacobin Review which, in the 1790s, had satirized liberal writers, particularly Wil-
liam Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, as well as the Della Cruscans. Some members of the Quarterly set were
Anti-Jacobin veterans, for example William Gifford, John Hookham Frere, and George Canning. Post 1815, Percy
Shelley, Mary Godwin, and Leigh Hunt consciously re-instituted the Godwin ‘Jacobin’ circle. In proclaiming the
genius of Dante, the group saw the medieval exiled poet as a Promethean hero who opposed the absolutism pro-
duced by secular and religious power combined. They created a cosmopolitan canon of writers who championed
liberty to rival the way Gifford and Coleridge were moulding Shakespeare and British Renaissance dramatists into
patriotic icons of ‘merrie England’. In addition, by adopting Italian burlesque poetry as a model, Byron was at-
tempting to wrest from pioneering anti-Jacobin wits Frere and William Stewart Rose the weapon of satirical com-
edy and use it for what he saw as its original purpose: sceptical questioning of the authority of the church and
moral absolutism. Thomas Carlyle would later drily comment that he was setting up as a latter-day Voltaire. Even-
tually, the launch of The Liberal by the Byron-Shelley-Hunt circle was an overt attempt to link their authoritative-
ness on Italy and Italian literature with radical political views disseminated to a British audience and, specifically,
their support for the renewed campaign for religious toleration.
Increased fascination with Italy was arguably an index of the growth of British Romanticism. For the second generation, led by Lord Byron, Italy assumed paramount importance.1 Dry classicism was replaced by experience of the country itself after 1815, when travel was possible again after the Napoleonic wars. Byron and Shelley channelled their political idealism into Italian nationalism, focusing on the political irony that Italy, cradle of republicanism in the classical and medieval past, was now mostly under the heel of Austrian dynastic or monarchical administrations. They deeply resented their own British government’s complicity with the Congress system, operated by Metternich, which actively prevented any liberalization whatsoever of these absolutist regimes. For example, Viscount Castlereagh had withdrawn British support for the constitutional experiment in Sicily as soon as Napoleon was defeated in 1814, and when the constitutional governments set up after the revolutions of 1820–21 in Piedmont and Naples were dismantled by the great powers he made no
1 For a detailed consideration of the Italian influence on Byron, see Peter Vassallo, Byron: The Italian Literary Influence (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1984).