1 Leon to Annabella - International Byron Society

Leon to Annabella
Edited by Peter Cochran
This work purports to be a verse letter from Byron to Lady Byron. Its gist is that, upon
unwisely telling her family that Byron had made love to her in an unorthodox way, she
thought she realised from their reactions that he was an evil man, and left him – this being the
only reason for her doing so.
As a thesis it won’t stand ten seconds’ scrutiny. There were many reasons for Annabella
to leave Byron, principal among them being that he made her do so, but subtly, so that it
would look as if the move was her initiative. It was often his way to force upon others
initiatives that he didn’t want to acknowledge as his own.
Marriage to an innocent Christian woman who interpreted her vow of obedience literally
brought out such horrible things in Byron that he spent the rest of his life stunned by the
realisation of the kind of person he had it in him to be. He told his wife on the honeymoon
that they would have to separate. He threatened suicide. One of the first things he did on
returning to London was appear to walk out on her, go to his half-sister at Newmarket, in
whose favour he had recently made his will, and try and persuade her to elope with him.
When Augusta refused he returned to London and started a reign of terror. He drank, broke
things, went on irrational rages, and took a mistress. He told Annabella about his visits to the
woman, adding that Annabella was at liberty to take a lover herself. When she became
pregnant his behaviour deteriorated. He showed no tenderness during her pregnancy, his rages
got worse, and he would ask her after one of them if the child was dead. He expressed intense
dislike of her parents, told her he had only married her to revenge himself for her initial
refusal of him, said how much he resented it that she had not brought a fortune with her, and
said he was more accursed in marriage to her than in any other act of his life. Knowing how
religious she was, he blasphemed and talked bawdy.
He acknowledged that she was a perfect wife, and rather implied that that was why he
hated being married to her. Lovemaking did not stop, but was often followed by outbursts of
bitterness on his part. He refused to dine with her, and when on day she turned up at table by
accident, cursed her before the servants. He carefully avoided beating her, or locking her up,
so that she could not complain to the law.
Sodomy was the least of his trespasses, if indeed it was a trespass.
On January 6th 1816 he wrote her a note saying “When you are disposed to leave London
it would be convenient that a day should be fixed”. It was his way of throwing her out. She
obediently left, went to her parents, and never saw him again. For the poem’s version, see
below, lines 121-32.
The poem would have us believe that Byron was deprived of friends as a result of the
scandal (lines 224-5), and that the consequent isolation forced him out of the country. This
too is nonsense, for he had many friends, male and female, who stood by him throughout the
three-and-a-half months of 1816, when the separation occurred. Douglas Kinnaird and Maria
Keppel, Lord Holland, Samuel Rogers, Lady Jersey, Mercer Elphinstone (not to mention John
Cam Hobhouse), all remained his friends.
The poem wishes us to believe that he did not associate with atheists and loose women on
the continent – but everyone knows that he lived in Venice, where chastity was a rare
commodity, and that one of his closest friends in Switzerland and Italy was the atheist
Hobhouse – who may have written this poem, as well as Don Leon – seems to have been
a man whom proximity to Byron drove at once into a state of denial. Two days before the
wedding he’d been employed by Byron (without success), to persuade the vicar to call it off.
He was very close to Byron throughout the separation, and was seen indeed by both
Annabella and Augusta as his friend’s evil genius. He started by swallowing Byron’s line on
the reasons for the separation. On February 5th he wrote in his diary:
Byron had received no answer from Kirkby – he was completely knocked up. He instantly
accepted my offer to write to Lady Byron, which I did in great agitation, conjuring her not to take
such a step, reminding her when she promised me to be happy at handing her into the carriage at
Seaham, &c. In short, just what the moment of this dreadful news prompted. At the same time
Byron wrote, and either by my advice or Mrs Leigh’s, put the letter under cover to her maid –
Fletcher’s wife – <who has written>
Byron told me he could make no sort of guess at the cause of this measure – that they parted
good friends, and that he was thinking of going down the following (last) Sunday.1
He did indeed write a letter – an ignorant, boorish, threatening, hectoring letter in which
his motive – to drive a still greater wedge between husband and wife – seems plain. But by
Monday February 12th he has seen the light:
Called on Byron saw Mrs Leigh and George Byron, and from them learnt what I fear is the real
truth – that Byron has been guilty of very great tyranny – menaces – furies – neglects, and even real
injuries, such as telling his wife he was living with another woman, and actually, in fact, turning her
out of the house. George Byron suspected she would leave him and told him so a month before she
went – but she had no intention of doing it when she went from London – – locking doors – showing
pistols – frowning at her in bed – reproaches – everything – he seems, to believe them, to have been
guilty of – and they acquit him – how? by saying that he is mad – certainly – and that Mr Le Mann
says it is the consequence of a torpid liver … and so on.2
My own theory is that nothing gave Hobhouse greater pleasure than driving a wedge
between Byron and any woman close to him. This had been the case during the hectic day in
1812 when Byron would have eloped with Caroline Lamb, had Hobhouse not “interposed his
body between them”; and was certainly the case at the start of 1816, when none worked
harder than Hobhouse at the problems of legally separating Byron from his wife. The fantasy
whereby Annabella’s “decision” to desert her husband was incomprehensible to any sensible
man is one that runs all through this poem, and one that would have fitted the mindset of
J.C.Hobhouse like a kid glove.
Once again I am indebted to Dan Kehayes for his comments. – P.C.
1: Broughton Holograph Diaries, Vol. 4, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, The New York Public Library,
Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
2: Broughton Holograph Diaries, Vol. 4, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, The New York Public Library,
Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
“Lady Byron can never cohabit with her noble husband again. He has given cause
for a separation which can never be revealed; but the honour due to the female sex
forbids all further intercourse for ever.”
Opinion of Dr. Lushington on the Question of Divorce.
The following lines were found written on several loose sheets of paper in a cottage by the
roadside, about a mile from the Porta all’argine, at Pisa. To this cottage an English
gentleman, whose name could not be learned, and who resided some time in that city, used
occasionally to resort for the purpose of firing at a mark with pistols.3 To save the trouble of
carrying his ammunition backwards and forwards, he deposited an old trunk in the garret of
the cottage, with some pistol balls, a bullet mould, several pieces of lead, &c., wrapped up in
these apparently useless pieces of paper. On the Englishman’s quitting the country, which, it
is supposed, was rather sudden on account of some quarrel he got into, the trunk was
forgotten and became the peasant’s property, who took it for a clothes trunk, and lined the
bottom of it with the paper, excepting a sheet, which, one cold day, he cut in half, and pasted
up in the place of two broken planes of glass.
In walking out of the environs of Pisa, accident drew the writer of this notice into
conversation with the peasant in question; and the weather being very hot, (for it was in the
month of August) the man requested him to walk in, and rest himself. Whilst sitting down, his
eye caught sight of the writing in the window. Curiosity led him to read it; and finding that it
was in verse and in English, he asked how it came there, upon which the peasant related his
story. This naturally led to a desire of obtaining possession of the other fragments, which
were taken from the bottom of the trunk, and given up for a trifling present.
The writer amused himself afterwards in putting the detached portions together. He found
much difficulty in fitting them in a way to make a connected sense; but at last he succeeded.
Some apology is due for the interpolation of ten whole lines in one place, two couplets
and a half in another, and several patches here and there: thus botched together, the verses,
with the supposed title of “An Epistle after the Manner of Ovid,” are given to the reader. It is
impossible to say to whom they relate; but there may be persons able to recognize the
individual who would be likely to give vent to such angry feelings. Some doubts may be
entertained as to the propriety of printing what was evidently intended to be private and
confidential; but it was imagined that, as the author seemed to attach no great interest to the
preservation of what he had written, a perfect stranger to him could not be blamed for
showing the like indifference in making his effusions public.
3: The farm was the Villa la Podera in Cisanello, two miles outside Pisa. Pistol-practise was illegal within the city
Se non è vero, è ben trovato.
From proud Venetia’s desolated strand
Peruse these traces of a husband’s hand;
Or, if that honoured word offends thine ear,
Read for the sake of him who once was dear.
An exile in a foreign clime I roam,
Expelled thy bed, and driven from my home.
Be this enough to satisfy thy hate,
If not enough my crime to expiate.
My crime! – What was it? – Publish it aloud –
Why thus in mystery thy dudgeon shroud?
Utter thy wrongs; or mine, if just, redress;
Lady, be bold, and prove my wickedness;
Nor let malicious calumny proclaim,
With foulest tongue, dishonour on my name.
Thou know’st, when first I wooed thy maiden vow,
A poet’s laurels decked my youthful brow;
And, thou descended from a noble race,
Whose blazoned4 scutcheons might their issue grace,
My pride was not by them alone to shine;
The lustre borrowed I repaid with mine.
Thou know’st, how many matrons spread their wiles,
How many daughters lavished5 all their smiles!
All these I scorned – that scorn by thee returned,
Whilst others burned for me, for thee I burned,
Till, won at last, I to the altar led
Thy faltering steps: the priest his rubric said.
Thy promised troth to honour and obey
Was faintly pledged, and pledged but to betray.
How rash the mariner would seem to be,
Who launches forth his vessel on the sea
Without a compass, with no lead to sound;
No marks to show the harbour where he’s bound:
Unknown what shoals lie hid, what winds assail,
What fogs mephitic6 on the coast prevail.
So thoughtless man, who sets his mast afloat
To seek the haven of a petticoat,
Upon an inauspicious strand may run,
And mourn his folly e’er his course is done.
Nay, e’en the morrow’s dawn may see him rise,
In vain regretting his vain enterprise.
4: … blazon’d … (1865).
5: … lavish’d … (1865).
6: mephitic: smelly.
Oh! Woman, oft the homage you inspire
Is not on you bestowed, but your attire.
For who can say if what delights our eyes
Is nature’s self, or nature in disguise?
The pallid cheek and bloodless lip we see,
But all the rest is clothed in mystery.
In airy dreams imagination strays;
Counts every charm, and, daring, seems to raise
The jealous robe that hides your snowy limbs,
Till, drunk with thought, the brain in pleasure swims.
Vain hopes! which cruel disappointments pay.
That tissue covers only mortal clay.
When marriage comes, the gaudy vestments fall,
And all our joys may prove apocryphal.
For when the abigail’s7 auspicious hand
Has loosened here a string, and there a band;
When, slipping to the tag, the bursting lace
Has given you breath; and, rumbling to their place,
The joyous entrails set your flanks at ease;
When nothing veils you but a thin chemise;
The bridegroom’s happy, who, between the sheets,
Without alloy the promised banquet meets.
What lot was mine – and, on my wedding night,
What viands waited for my appetite –
I will not say: but e’en the best repast,
Repeated often, surfeits us at last.
The surfeit came: to this my crime amounts,
I fain would slake my thirst from other founts.
But, not like those, who, with adult’rous steps,
Seek courtesans and hackneyed8 demireps,
I left thee not beneath a widowed9 quilt,
To take another partner to my guilt.
Thy charms were still my refuge – only this,
I hoped to find variety in bliss.
Thou know’st, when married, from the church we came,
Heedless I called thee by thy maiden name.
Unmeaning words! – yet some malignant fiend,
Who under friendship’s guard the poison screened,
Could draw an omen from a verbal slip,
And drug the nuptial chalice at thy lip:
Could bid thee mark that man with evil eye,
Whose thoughts still lingered on celibacy.
Believe it not: – the scene my mind confused,
Of coming joys, and not on past, I mused.
I saw the ring upon thy finger shine;
If that could make a wife, I saw thee mine.
The surplice-man his mockery had done,
And Mother Church of two had made us one.
Attesting hands had inked the feathered quill,
And yet there seemed a something wanting still;
And yet, I know not why, my tongue denied
7: abigail: maidservant.
8: … hackney’d … (1865).
9: … widow’d … (1865).
To call thee dame, although thou wast my bride.
For still thy virgin look and maiden guise
Were seemings stronger than realities;
Which said, “Beside thee hangs a lovely flower,
Pluck it, ’tis thine: thou only hast the power.”
But nature whispered, till that hour arrived,
Though fools might tell me so, I was not wived.
But when lone night had spread her sable tent,
And Cynthia’s lamp had lit the firmament;10
When the flushed bride-maid had her office done,
And ingress to the bridal bower11 was won;
When on thy naked neck a fervent kiss
Announced the prelude of impending bliss;
When, half resisting, yielding half, I pressed
Thy trembling form; when – but thou know’st the rest.
Then, and then only, would my heart avow,
This is the wedding – thou art madam now:
And glibly to my lips the accents came
At next day’s dawn, “How fares it with thee, dame?”
The happy moments in thy arms enjoyed,
Whilst love was new, nor yet possession cloyed,
Our joys, when virgin diffidence was o’er,
I pass in silence: moments now no more.
For oft a bride from modesty restrains
The latent heat that bubbles in her veins.
From coyness checks the impulse that she feels,
And on the sense by slow caresses steals.
Thus passed the fleeting hours, and still had passed,
But fate resolved our nuptial joys to blast.
One day a boon thou seemedst to require.
“Leon, I go to see my honoured sire:12
My mother, too – ’tis long sing we have met;
And, loving thee, I must not them forget.”
“Speed thee,” I cried, “and brief, dame, make thy stay –
Dreary’s the husband’s couch whose wife’s away.
Nor let thy filial piety preclude
Some lines each day to cheer my solitude.”
Thou wentest: and the chariot of the sun
Had scarcely half the morrow’s journey run,
When thy much-longed for tablets came,
To tell thy Leon thou wert still the same.
Another letter followed close the first.
With eager hand the waxen seal I burst:
But could I read, and credit what I read?
“Leon, in future think of me as dead.
Take back the ring which late my fingers wore;
For, though thy wife, thou ne’er wilt see me more.”
Aghast I stood, in motionless surprise:
And whence, thought I, can such a change arise?
At first I thought there might some error be:
But no! the hand was thine, and sent to me.
10: And Cynthia’s lamp had lit the firmament; / But when lone night had spread her sable tent, (1865).
11: … bow’r … (1865).
12: 1865 always adds open inverted commas at the start of each line of reported speech.
Not more amazed,13 while feasting in his hall,
Belshazzar saw the writing on the wall:
Not e’en the felon looks with deeper gloom
Upon the warrant which decides his doom.
In vain I passed my actions in review:
My faults were many, but they were not new.
The harlot’s smile, the wassail’s merriment,
With boon companions all my substance spent;
All this was known before thou wast my bride;
Methought for this ’twas now too late to chide.
Thus mused I long: till,14 with conjecture tired,
Alone and sad I to my couch retired.
The night was cold, the wind tempestuous blew:
My curtain round me mournfully I drew.
And wert thou there (thus to myself I said)
My breast should be a pillow for thy head,
Locked15 in my arms the night might rage its fill:
’Twould only make me clasp thee closer still,
Then, as I lay, my memory portrayed
A picture of thy charms, and Love, in aid,
Called up the tender pastimes of the night,
When shame was lulled, and transport at its height.
Yes, truth to tell (I cried) thy form was fair;
Thy skin was alabaster, and thy hair
Fell in profusion down thy taper waist.
And oh! what undulating beauties graced
Those loins whose fall had mocked the sculptor’s hand,
And gained thee worship in a Cnidian16 land.
Whilst these reflections in my brains ferment,
Sudden their course assumed another bent.
What! if by thoughtless indiscretion led,
Thou couldst betray the secrets of our bed?
I know thy unsuspecting soul too well –
All, all thou would’st, interrogated, tell
Thy sex will often, under friendship’s mask,
Shrive a young bride, and such avowals ask,
As pleaders draw from some deluded wench,
Who brings her Tarquin17 to the judge’s bench.
Then, foul-mouthed, forth their specious venom spout,
And try to put the torch of Hymen out.
Accursed be those of woman or mankind,
Who could thy duty and affections blind!
Some serpent she, perhaps, whose jaundiced eye,
Beheld our union with malignity.18
It could not be thy mother – she’s too wise
13: … amaz’d … (1865).
14: … ’till … (1865).
15: … lock’d … (1865).
16: For Cnidos / Cnidian, see Don Leon, 1223 or 1449.
17: Tarquin: rapist.
18: “Beheld our union with malignity” / “… Semel cupido dabit illa marito: / Sepius hoc fieri nutrix
materque vetabunt”. MARTIAL, Epig. xi. 79 (1865). [In modern editions, xi. 78: “… She will let her eager
spouse sodomize her once, while she fears the first wound of the new lance, but her nurse and her mother will
forbid its happening often and say: ‘She’s your wife, not your boy …’” The Leon text is corrupt and conflated. The
reference is to Mrs Clermont, Annabella’s older companion, whom Byron blamed – on no evidence – for his
wife’s coldness, and whom he tried to immortalise in A Sketch from Private Life.]
To blab these Eleusinian mysteries.
She knows the wife, whose conduct prudence guides,
A threefold ægis for herself provides.
Discretion ever is thy sex’s boast:
She moves unseen, and comes, like Banquo’s ghost,
The bold assassin’s impious tongue to chill,
Who dares a woman’s reputation kill.
Oh! would some goblin take thee pick-a-back
From house to house, and draw the curtains back,19
Where, sheltered by the mantle of the dark –
Hot with desires which reach high-water mark,
The loving couples play Lampsacian20 games,
In postures more than Elephantis21 names;
A sage reserve thou surely had’st maintained.
Nor thought thy chastity nor virtue stained;
Thou had’st not bared my actions to the sun,
Nor scoffers called to mock what we had done.
Thus through the night doubt combatted with grief;
Morn came, but brought my sorrow no relief.
A bland epistle all my woes revealed:
I wrote – my letters were returned unsealed.
In vain new missives some solution asked,
In vain my bosom every action tasked,
Though silenced22 oft, some voice still seemed to cry,
“Thy wife is false to Love’s freemasonry!”23
And, though I drove the fancy from my brain,
The fixed idea still returned again.
It made me sad: on me fell all the blame:
The people’s talk resounded with my shame.
Men doubted what the mystery could mean;
Chimæras monstrous filled the darkened scene.
Friends and relations left me one by one,
And like a plague my presence seemed to shun,
Till, stung with rage, and ulcered with my sores,
I left my home, and fled to foreign shores.
So, with a stone, we see some urchin make
A splash upon the bosom of a lake:
In circles back the troubled water flows,
And down the pebble to the bottom goes.
How here I live, let busy fame report;
Men’s blames I fear not, nor their praises court.
They tell thee harlots sit upon my knee,
And mask and revel in ebriety:
They tell thee atheists, and men profane,
Mock truths divine, and call God’s vengeance vain;
They bid thee mark the ravings of my muse,
And every dirty critic venom spews.
Insensate herd! ’tis theirs24 to triumph now
But time shall come, when, on my honoured brow,
19: Refers to the devil Asmodeus in le Sage’s Le Diable Boiteux.
20: Lampsacus was a city on the Hellespont, and was the chief centre for the worship of Priapus.
21: Elephantis unidentified.
22: … silenc’d … (1865).
23: Thy wife is false to love’s freemasonry. (1865)
24: … their’s … (1865).
Posterity shall place a tardy crown,
And truth shall hurl the base detractors down.
My fears were just! Infatuated maid,
And have their arts your innocence betrayed?
How could’st thou go, opinions vile to beg,
And hang thy conscience on a lawyer’s peg?25
Some lisping fool, with empty dictums big,
Proud of his LLD26 and periwig.
His mind was not the crucible to try
The deep arcana of love’s alchemy,
Whose highest flight of genius seems to be
To settle squabbles on a belfry key.
Shall dolts like him a husband’s rights define?
Say wives may grant him this, must that decline,
Arrest the tide with which our passions flow,
And vainly cry, “No farther shalt thou go!”27
No! – common stars their usual course maintain,
That order on the universe may reign.
But, through the path of Love’s celestial sphere
Erratic comets now and then appear,
And spread their tails. With superstitious eye
The vulgar view, and some fear danger nigh.
Not so the sage: his telescope he draws,
And pierces through those fundamental laws
By which the wise Creator’s plans may reach
Perfection, not by order, but its breach.
Oh! lady, had’st thou known what mischief hung
On that one slip of my poor silly tongue,
Thou had’st not thus divulged a harmless freak,
And brought contrition on thy pallid cheek.
For dream not peace will ever be thy lot,
Or Leon’s wife will henceforth be forgot.
Approving conscience cannot be thy meed,
Fly where thou wilt, thy heart is doomed to bleed,
Through life remains for thee no safe retreat;
Man’s finger shall point at thee in the street;
Or, left awhile upon thy thoughts to brood,
Regret shall make a hell of solitude.
And live we then in some Bœtian land,28
That Love and Themis29 should go hand in hand?
Fools! take her balance and her sword away;
The sighs of lovers were not made to weigh.
Ah! would you with those manacles repress
The fitful æstus30 of a warm caress?
Or try young Hymen’s31 inoffensive sports
By blood-stained statutes and in penal courts?
Hang up the glaive,32 – Love does not kill or steal;
25: … peg. (1865).
26: … LLD.D. … (1865).
27: And vainly cry no farther shalt thou go? (1865).
28: … is some Bœtian land, (1865). Bœtian: barbarous.
29: Themis: Greek goddess associated with the law.
30: æstus: here, orgasm.
31: … Young Hymen’s … (1865)
32: A glaive is an improvised spear. Compare Don Leon, 748 or 987.
He forms no plot against the common weal,
The playful urchin meditates no sin;
Why sternly rein his wanton gamboling?
His harmless deeds were surely never meant
To be defined by act of parliament,
His code was framed where nymphs in synod sat,
And were his mother33 wore the speaker’s hat.
Let Paphian casuists expound the laws,
The only proper judges of our cause.
Oh, lovely woman! by your Maker’s hand
For man’s delight and solace wisely planned.
Thankless is she whom34 nature’s bounty mocks,
Nor gives Love entrance wheresoe’er he knocks.
The breechless vagrant has no settled spot,
Now seeks the brook, now nestles in the grot.
Where pleasure offers nectar to the lip,
Anon he steals the honey’d draught to sip.
Shall priest-born prejudice the honeyed draught deny,35
And send away the thirsty votary?36
Matrons of Rome, held ye yourselves disgraced
In yielding to your husbands’37 wayward taste?
Ah, no! – By tender complaisance ye reigned:38
No wife of wounded modesty complained.
Though Gracchus sometimes his libations poured
In Love’s unhallowed vase,39 yet, still adored
By sage Cornelia, ’twas her pride to be
His paradise, with no forbidden tree.
The blooming damsel, on the wedding night,
Conducted to the hymenæal fight,40
Would pray her lord to spare a virgin’s fear,
And take his restive courser to the rear –
Put off the venue to another place,
And dread the trial more than the disgrace.
But now no couple can in safety lie;
Between the sheets salacious lawyers pry.
Yet nature varies not: – desires we feel,
As Romans felt; but woe if we reveal,
For what were errors then, our happy times
With sainted zeal have registered as crimes.
Lady, inscribed in characters of gold
This adage – “Truth not always must be told.”
Virtues and vices have no certain dye,
But take the colour of society.
The ore which bears the impress of the crown,
Is passed as standard money through the town;
33: his mother: Venus.
34: … she who … (1865).
35: The only alexandrine in the poem.
36: Nupta tu quoque, quæ tuus / Vir petet, cave non neges. / CATUL. lvi. 161. (1865). [“You too, O bride, be
sure you refuse not what your husband claims, lest he go elsewhere to find it.”]
37: … husband’s … (1865).
38: … reign’d: (1865).
39: … vase; … (1865).
40: Novimus instam maritorum abstinentiam, qui, etiamsi virginibus timidis primiam remisere noctem,
vicines tamen ludunt. – SENEC. Controv. ii. (1865). [“We know that abstinence of husbands, who, although
they allow the first night to pass without enjoying the timid virgins, yet sport in neighbouring places”.]
But what we fashion into private plate,
We keep at home and never circulate.