LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron
Chapter XVII.

Chapter I.
Chapter II.
Chapter III.
Chapter IV.
Chapter V.
Chapter VI.
Chapter VII.
Chapter VIII.
Chapter IX.
Chapter X.
Chapter XI.
Chapter XII.
Chapter XIII.
Chapter XIV.
Chapter XV.
Chapter XVI.
‣ Chapter XVII.
Chapter XVIII.
Chapter XIX.
Chapter XX.
Chapter XXI.
Chapter XXII.
Chapter XXIII.
Chapter XXIV.
Chapter XXV.
Chapter XXVI.
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Awak’ning with a start!
The waters heave around me: and on high
The winds lift up their voices: I depart,
Whither I know not.

On the 13th of July, 1823, we shipped the horses, four of Byron’s, and one of mine, and in the evening, Byron, Gamba, and an unfledged medical student with five or six servants embarked. I and my negro completed the complement. On my observing to Byron the Doctor would be of no use, as he had seen no practice, he answered, “If he knows little I pay little, and we will find him plenty of work.” The next day it was a dead calm, so we relanded; on the 15th we weighed anchor at daylight, several American ships in compliment to Byron, sending their boats to tow us out of the bay, but made very little progress; we lay in the
offing all day like a log upon the main under a broiling sun,—the Italians skipping about, gesticulating, and chattering like wild monkeys in a wood. The Pilgrim sat apart, solemn and sad,—he took no notice of anything nor spoke a word. At midnight the sea breeze set in and quickly freshened, so we shortened sail and hauled our wind. As soon as the old tub began to play at pitch and toss, the noisy Italians, with the exception of the Venetian gondolier,
Baptista, crept into holes and corners in consternation. The horses kicked down their flimsy partitions, and my black groom and I had to secure them, while the sea got up and the wind increased. I told Byron that we must bear up for port, or we should lose our cattle—“Do as you like,” he said. So we bore up, and after a rough night, re-anchored in our former berth; as the sun rose the wind died away, and one by one the land-lubbers crawled on deck. Byron having remained all night on deck, laughed at the miserable figure they cut; they all went on shore, and I set to work with two or three English carpenters to repair damages.

In the evening we took a fresh departure, and
the weather continuing fine, we had no other delay than that which arose from the bad sailing qualities of our vessel. We were five days on our passage to Leghorn, not averaging more than twenty miles a day. We all messed and most of us slept, on deck. Byron unusually silent and serious, was generally during the day reading
Scott’sLife of Swift,’ Col. Hippesley’sExpedition to South America,’ Grimm’sCorrespondence,’ or ‘Rochefoucault.’ This was his usual style of reading on shore. We were two days at Leghorn completing our sea stores. A Mr. Hamilton Brown and two Greeks, who had previously applied to Byron for a passage, came on board. One of the Greeks called himself, Prince Shilizzi, the other, Vitaili, assumed no higher rank than Captain. The friends who accompanied them on board, whispered me to be wary of them, asserting that the Prince was a Russian spy, and the Captain in the interests of the Turks. This was our first sample of the morality of the modern Greeks. On my telling this to Byron, he merely said, “and a fair sample too of the ancient as well as modern, if Mitford is to be believed.”

Our Scotch passenger, with no other handle to
his name than plain
Mr. Hamilton Brown, was an acquisition; he had been in office in the Ionian Islands, spoke Italian and Romaic, and knew a good deal of the Greeks, as well as the characters of the English residents in command of the Islands. From what we learnt from him we altered our plan, and instead of Zante decided on going to Cephalonia, as Sir C. J. Napier was in command there, and the only man in office favourably disposed to the Greeks and their cause. We remained two days at Leghorn completing our stores. I don’t remember that Byron went on shore more than once, and then only to settle his accounts with his agent Webb. As we were getting under weigh, my friend Grant came on board, and gave Byron the latest English papers, Reviews, and the first volume of Las Cases’Memoirs of Napoleon,’ just out. On the 23rd of July, 1823, we put to sea in the finest possible weather; drifting leisurely along the Italian coast, we sighted Piombino, a town in the midst of the pestilential lagoons of the Maremma famous for its wild fowl and fevers; a dark line of jungle fringed the shore for many leagues; we crossed the mouth of the muddy Tiber; saw the
Alban Mount, and Mount Soracte, the land-marks which point out the site of Rome. On coming near Lonza, a small islet, converted into one of their many dungeons by the Neapolitan government, I said to Byron,

“There is a sight that would curdle the milky blood of a poet-laureate.”

“If Southey was here,” he answered, “he would sing hosannas to the Bourbons. Here kings and governors are only the jailors and hangmen of the detestable Austrian barbarians. What dolts and drivellers the people are to submit to such universal despotism. I should like to see, from this our ark, the world submerged, and all the rascals on it drowning like rats.”

I put a pencil and paper in his hand, saying,

“Perpetuate your curses on tyranny, for poets like ladies generally side with the despots.”

He readily took the paper and set to work. I walked the deck and prevented his being disturbed. He looked as crest-fallen as a riotous boy, suddenly pounced upon by a master and given an impossible task, scrawling and scratching out, sadly perplexed. After a long spell, he said,


“You think it is as easy to write poetry as smoke a segar,—look, it’s only doggerel. Extemporising verses is nonsense; poetry is a distinct faculty,—it won’t come when called,—you may as well whistle for a wind; a Pythoness was primed when put upon her tripod. I must chew the cud before I write. I have thought over most of my subjects for years before writing a line.”

He did not, however, give up the task, and sat pondering over the paper for nearly an hour; then gnashing his teeth, he tore up what he had written, and threw the fragments overboard.

Seeing I looked disappointed—

“You might as well ask me to describe an earthquake, whilst the ground was trembling under my feet. Give me time,—I can’t forget the theme: but for this Greek business I should have been at Naples writing a Fifth canto of Childe Harold, expressly to give vent to my detestation of the Austrian tyranny in Italy.”

Sometime after, I suggested he should write a war song for the Greeks; he did so afterwards. I saw the original amongst his papers at Missolonghi, and made a copy of it which I have lost. Proceeding on
our voyage, it was not until we had been some days fairly at sea, with no land to look back upon, that the Pilgrim regained something of his self-command,—he may have felt the truth of the old song—
“Now we’re in for it, dam’ee what folly, boys,
To be downhearted, yo ho.”
His sadness intermitted, and his cold fits alternated with hot ones. Hitherto he had taken very little notice of anything, and when he talked it was with an effort. The lonely and grim-looking island of Stromboli was the first object that riveted his attention; it was shrouded in the smoke from its eternal volcanic fires, and the waves rolling into the deep caverns at its base, boomed dismally. A poet might have compared it to the bellowings of imprisoned demons.

Our Captain told us a story at night. It was an old tale told by all Levant sailors, and they are not particular as to names and dates.

“That a ship from the port of London was lying off this island loading with sulphur, when her Captain, who was on shore superintending the men, distinctly saw Alderman Curtis,—”


“Not Alderman Curtis,” shouted Byron, “but cut-throat Castlereagh!”

“Whoever it was, my Lord,” continued the Skipper, “he was walking round and round the edge of the burning crater; his mate and crew were witnesses of the same: and when the vessel returned to England they heard that the person they had seen was dead; and the time of his death tallied exactly with the above event, as entered in the ship’s log-book.”

Byron, taking up the yarn-spinning, said—

Monk Lewis told me, that he took lodgings at Weimar in Germany, and that every morning he was awakened by a rustling noise, as of quantities of papers being torn open and eagerly handled; the noise came from a closet joining his room; he several times got out of bed and looked into it, but there was no one there. At length he told the servant of the house: the man said, ‘Don’t you know the house is haunted? It belonged formerly to a lady; she had an only son, he left her and went to sea, and the ship was never heard of,—but the mother still believed he would return, and passed all her time in reading foreign newspapers,
of which the closet was full; and when she died, at the same hour every morning, in that closet, her spirit is heard frantically tearing open papers.’

Monk Lewis,” added Byron, “though so fond of a ghost story, was not superstitious, he believed nothing. Once at a dinner party he said to me, across the table, ‘Byron, what did you mean by calling me Apollo’s sexton in your English Bards?’ I was so taken aback I could not answer him, nor could I now. Now, Tre,” he said, “it’s your turn to spin a yarn.”

“I will tell you one of presentiment,” I said, “for you believe in that.”

“Certainly, I do,” he rejoined.

“The Captain of Lord Keith’s ship, when she was lying at Leghorn, was on a visit to Signor Felleichi, at Pisa; the Captain was of a very gay and talkative turn; suddenly he became silent and sad; his host asked if he was ill? he said ‘No, I wish I was on board my ship; I feel as if I was going to be hanged.’ At last he was persuaded to go to bed; but, before he got to his room, an express arrived with the news that his ship was on fire. He instantly posted to Leghorn, went on board, worked
his ship out of the harbour to avoid perilling the other vessels lying there, but in spite of great exertion the fire reached the magazine, and every soul perished. A little middy on shore at Leghorn, with a heart as great as his Captain’s, gave a boatman a draft on Signor Felleichi for sixty pounds, to put him alongside his ship.”

The Poet had an antipathy to everything scientific; maps and charts offended him; he would not look through a spy-glass, and only knew the cardinal points of the compass; buildings the most ancient or modern he was as indifferent to as he was to painting, sculpture, and music. But all natural objects, and changes in the elements, he was generally the first to point out and the last to lose sight of. We lay-to all night off Stromboli; Byron sat up watching it. As he went down to his cabin at day-light, he said—

“If I live another year, you will see this scene in a fifth canto of Childe Harold.”

In the morning we entered the narrow strait of Messina, passed close by the precipitous promontory of Scylla, and at the distance of a mile on the opposite shore, Charybdis; the waters were boiling and
lashed into foam and whirlpools by the conflicting currents and set of the sea; in bad weather it is dangerous to approach too near in small craft. The Poet had returned to his usual post by the taffrail; and soon after Messina was spread out before us, with its magnificent harbour, quays, and palaces; it was a gorgeous sight, and the surrounding scenery was so diversified and magnificent, that I exclaimed—

“Nature must have intended this for Paradise.”

“But the devil,” observed the Poet, “has converted it into Hell.”

After some deliberation, the wind blowing fresh and fair, we reluctantly passed the city, and scudded through the Straits along the grim and rugged shores of Calabria; at 2 p.m. we got into the vortex of another whirlpool, and the conflicting winds, currents, and waves contending for mastery, held us captive. Our vessel was unmanageable, and there we lay oscillating like a pendulum for two hours close to the rocks, seeing vessels half-a-mile from us scudding by under double reefed topsails. The spell broken, we resumed our course. On passing a fortress called the Pharo, in the narrowest
part of the Strait, we had a good view of Mount Etna, with its base wreathed in mists, while the summit stood out in bold relief against the sky. To the east we had the savage shores of Calabria, with its gray and jagged rocks; to the west the sunny and fertile coast of Sicily,—gliding close by its smooth hills and sheltered coves,
Byron would point to some serene nook, and exclaim, “There I could be happy!”