It was soon after this that he met a woman who was to be to him for the rest of his life what a well-known writer has called “a star on the stormy horizon of the poet.” This woman was Teresa, Countess Guiccioli, whom he first came to know in Venice. She was then only nineteen years of age, and she was married to a man who was more than forty years her senior. Unlike the typical Italian woman, she was blonde, with dreamy eyes and an abundance of golden hair, and her manner was at once modest and graceful. She had known Byron but a very short time when she found herself thrilling with a passion of which until then she had never dreamed. It was written of her:
She had thought of love but as an amusement; yet she now became its slave.
To this love Byron gave an immediate response, and from that time until his death he cared for no other woman. The two were absolutely mated. Nevertheless, there were difficulties which might have been expected. Count Guiccioli, while he seemed to admire Byron, watched him with Italian subtlety. The English poet and the Italian countess met frequently. When Byron was prostrated by an attack of fever, the countess remained beside him, and he was just recovering when Count Guiccioli appeared upon the scene and carried off his wife. Byron was in despair. He exchanged the most ardent letters with the countess, yet he dreaded assassins whom he believed to have been hired by her husband. Whenever he rode out, he went armed with sword and pistols.
Amid all this storm and stress, Byron’s literary activity was remarkable. He wrote some of his most famous poems at this time, and he hoped for the day when he and the woman whom he loved might be united once for all. This came about in the end through the persistence of the pair. The Countess Guiccioli openly took up her abode with him, not to be separated until the poet sailed for Greece to aid the Greeks in their struggle for independence. This was in 1822, when Byron was in his thirty-fifth year. He never returned to Italy, but died in the historic land for which he gave his life as truly as if he had fallen upon the field of battle.
Teresa Guiccioli had been, in all but name, his wife for just three years. Much, has been said in condemnation of this love-affair; but in many ways it is less censurable than almost anything in his career. It was an instance of genuine love, a love which purified and exalted this man of dark and moody moments. It saved him from those fitful passions and orgies of self-indulgence which had exhausted him. It proved to be an inspiration which at last led him to die for a cause approved by all the world.
As for the woman, what shall we say of her? She came to him unspotted by the world. A demand for divorce which her husband made was rejected. A pontifical brief pronounced a formal separation between the two. The countess gladly left behind “her palaces, her equipages, society, and riches, for the love of the poet who had won her heart.”