Lord Byron to Teresa Guiccioli

    Romantic novelists have long portrayed the dissipated aristocrat whose heart is awakened to true love by an innocent girl. It was played out in real life, at a deeper and more touching level than in fiction, by Lord Byron and the 18 year old Teresa, Countess Guiccioli. The letter printed here was written a few months after their meeting and reflects his emotional state: perplexed, but touched by the hope of a new beginning.
    When Byron met Teresa in Venice early in April 1819, he was one of the most famous men in Europe: the admired author of fine lyric poems and blistering satires, a notorious lover, and a liberal political sympathizer. He separated from his first wife, Annabella Milbanke--who he married on January 2, 1815--after less than a year. Some claimed she walked out on him because he had an affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. This, coupled with gossip about his many affairs, and his savage attacks on the British government, drove him from England in 1816, no longer welcomed among the English aristocracy.
    He went first to Switzerland, spending much time with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his admirers. After Switzerland he spent two years of restless promiscuity in Venice, and by the age of 31 was gaining weight and losing his dark good looks.
    A chance meeting with Teresa changed the course of his life. Last of his many loves, he behaved as if she were the first. The evening they met they talked excitedly of poetry, particularly that of Dante and Petrarch. The year before, Teresa, fresh out of convent school, had become the third wife of the ric and eccentric 60 year old Court Guiccioli in a marriage of convenience. Not surprisingly, Byron disliked the count; but he warmed to Teresa's father, Count Gamba, and his son Pietro. Like Byron, they held strong political principles; they were deeply involved in the struggle to free northern Italy from Austrian oppression imposed by the treaty following Napoleon's recent defeat.
    In Italian custom there was a place for a discreet attendant, a "gentleman servant," in a marriage of convenience such as Teresa's. But although he could pay court to her, the role excluded public recognition of them as a couple. This was not enough for Byron. He wanted a relationship that was lasting. As Teresa put it, he was:

"...not a man to confine himself to sentiment. And the first step taken, there was no further obstacles in the following days."

Breaking all the rules established by aristocratic Italian society, the couple spent 10 days together, openly, in Venice. This was no casual liaison for Byron. As he wrote to a friend,

"What shall I do? I am in love, and tired of promiscuous concubinage, and have now an opportunity of settling for life."

    Invited to visit Ravenna by Count Alessandro Guiccioli, Byron took up lodgings near Teresa's home and became a part of the household, riding with her every day under the pines, and writing some of the best poetry of his life in his epic, Don Juan. He wrote the letter printed here in English, a language he knew Teresa did not understand in her copy of their friend Madame de Staël's sentimental novel Corinne. He would not translate his words for her, writing almost as though to himself. She could only have understood the two words "amor mio"--"my love".
    As the love between Byron and Teresa deepened, so his friendship with her father and brother grew. They initiated him into the secret revolutionary society, the Carbonari, to which he gave money for arms. This activity was closely monitored by the Austrian police, and in 1821 the Gambas were exiled from Ravenna. Teresa was by now seeking a separation from her husband, and she and Byron accompanied them.
    The following year, in Genoa, an unfriendly spy spread an unkind rumor:

"It is said that he is already sated or tired of Favorite, the Guiccioli. He has...expressed his intention of going to Athens in order to make himself adored by the Greeks."

In fact, Byron's energies, reinvigorated by his love for Teresa, now turned from the cause of Italy--where police scrutiny rendered him powerless--to that of Greece. As a young man he had wept to see the state of the country under its Turkish masters; now, after 400 years of enslavement, the Greeks were up in arms and he longed to help. In December 1823 he arrived at Missolonghi in western Greece, with plans to capture a fortress held by the Turks. Instead fever struck him down, and on April 19, 1824, he died, murmuring in delirium that there were,

"...things which make the world dear to me."

Was the image of Teresa in his mind? She believed so. All her life she defended his memory, and on her own deathbed she wrote,

"The more Byron is known, the better he will be loved."

In her copy of Corinne she had underlined the words of his letter and written simply,

"God bless him."




Text from
Famous Love Letters
Messages of Intimacy and Passion
Edited by Ronald Tamplin