The Late Lord Byron: Posthumous Dramas

By Doris Langley Moore | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XII
THE COST OF A JOURNEY

Byron and Shelley were the centres of two intersecting circles to which so large a literature has been devoted that the survivors are only brought forward here when, like Medwin, Trelawny, or Hunt, they played an important part in shaping the beliefs that future generations were to hold about Byron. The general drift of events that affected his reputation was given its direction, to a greater extent than has generally been recognized, by a group of persons who, at the time of his death or later, had real or imaginary grievances to redress.

It was inevitable that, after the enormous vogue he had enjoyed, Byron's poetry should have gone for a time into eclipse, and that there would be a process of compensation for his having been more renowned in his lifetime than the two great poets nearest him in age, Keats and Shelley. Their relative obscurity had naturally been resented by their friends who felt that Byron had received homage beyond his due, and unfairly overshadowed names that were more deserving. His impetuous and insensitive criticisms did not conduce to give Keats enthusiasts a good opinion of him: and the rivalry between Byron's fame and Shelley's was yet more pronounced because their lives had been intimately and tragically entwined, and they had just enough in common to make a comparison to Byron's disadvantage highly effective.

That some personal element would tinge the view of those who were concerned to see justice done to Shelley was to be expected; but that a bitter posthumous warfare should have been waged by some of his admirers against Byron was due to several factors which are only by slow stages being brought to light.

Any poet of brilliant gifts and outstanding character who meets a sudden and most untimely end is likely to be enshrined in the hearts of those who loved him rather as a saintly image in a niche than in the human guise he once wore. In Shelley's case the idealization, which scarcely fell short of myth-making, was fostered by his widow's earnest and understandable desire to live down all that had been considered disreputable about his past and hers. The desertion of his first wife, Harriet, and her subsequent suicide, her own elopement with him and the birth of a child before marriage, their practical experiment in 'free love', his rashly flaunted atheism -- she wanted these things forgotten, and so decided to erase them from the annals. She was under a monetary as well as a social pressure to take this course, Shelley's father, Sir Timothy, not wishing the turpitude of his son's career to attain further notoriety.

Mary was not untruthful by nature, and would have contented herself

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