BYRON AND THE COUNTESS GUICCIOLI
In 1812, when he was in his twenty-fourth year, Lord Byron was more talked of than any other man in London. He was in the first flush of his brilliant career, having published the early cantos of “Childe Harold.” Moreover, he was a peer of the realm, handsome, ardent, and possessing a personal fascination which few men and still fewer women could resist.
Byron’s childhood had been one to excite in him strong feelings of revolt, and he had inherited a profligate and passionate nature. His father was a gambler and a spendthrift. His mother was eccentric to a degree. Byron himself, throughout his boyish years, had been morbidly sensitive because of a physical deformity—a lame, misshapen foot. This and the strange treatment which his mother accorded him left him headstrong, wilful, almost from the first an enemy to whatever was established and conventional.
As a boy, he was remarkable for the sentimental attachments which he formed. At eight years of age he was violently in love with a young girl named Mary Duff. At ten his cousin, Margaret Parker, excited in him a strange, un-childish passion. At fifteen came one of the greatest crises of his life, when he became enamored of Mary Chaworth, whose grand-father had been killed in a duel by Byron’s great-uncle. Young as he was, he would have married her immediately; but Miss Chaworth was two years older than he, and absolutely refused to take seriously the devotion of a school-boy.
Byron felt the disappointment keenly; and after a short stay at Cambridge, he left England, visited Portugal and Spain, and traveled eastward as far as Greece and Turkey. At Athens he wrote the pretty little poem to the “maid of Athens”—Miss Theresa Macri, daughter of the British vice-consul. He returned to London to become at one leap the most admired poet of the day and the greatest social favorite. He was possessed of striking personal beauty. Sir Walter Scott said of him: “His countenance was a thing to dream of.” His glorious eyes, his mobile, eloquent face, fascinated all; and he was, besides, a genius of the first rank.
With these endowments, he plunged into the social whirlpool, denying himself nothing, and receiving everything-adulation, friendship, and unstinted love. Darkly mysterious stories of his adventures in the East made many think that he was the hero of some of his own poems, such as “The Giaour” and “The Corsair.” A German wrote of him that “he was positively besieged by women.” From the humblest maid-servants up to ladies of high rank, he had only to throw his handkerchief to make a conquest. Some women did not even wait for the handkerchief to be thrown. No wonder that he was sated with so much adoration and that he wrote of women:
I regard them as very pretty but inferior creatures. I look on them as grown-up children; but, like a foolish mother, I am constantly the slave of one of them. Give a woman a looking-glass and burnt almonds, and she will be content.