First encounters: When Byron met Shelley

Illustration by Edward Sorel Text by Nancy Caldwell Sorel Next week: Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt

In the early spring of 1816, two English parties crossed the Channel and headed for Geneva. Lord Byron, barred from France for his radical politics, routed his carriage across Belgium and down the Rhine. Shelley travelled via Paris by hired vehicle with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, their baby, William, and Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont. Both poets were running from wives and domesticity, and Byron from bailiffs and scandal as well (his adored half-sister, Augusta, was expecting). Byron was 28, Shelley 23.

Shelley's Geneva venture was masterminded by Claire in her pursuit of Byron. In London, she had introduced him to Shelley's poems, and Byron had greatly admired Queen Mab. So when, one morning after his arrival, he returned from a row on the lake and spotted the Shelley party walking along the plage, Byron plunged into the shallow water and splashed toward his fellow poet. It was a Childe Harold kind of gesture. Would Shelley dine with him - alone? He would.

The evening was relaxed. Byron delighted in Shelley's candid narration of his unorthodox career. In the ensuing months the two households rented neighbouring dwellings, and breakfasted, walked and boated together.

At night, in the drawing room of the Villa Diodati, they talked of macabre experiments and ghostly sensations. Mary had a nightmare about a poor student who constructed a hideous being that came to life. Claire got pregnant.

Byron and Shelley embarked on a week-long sail that climaxed during a squall when the rudder broke and waves spilled into the boat. Byron took off his coat, Shelley followed, and both sat mute with arms crossed, waiting. Shelley could not swim. Aware that Byron knew it, he was consumed with humiliation that this man, who like Leander had crossed the Hellespont, might feel compelled to save him. The danger passed. Six years later, when off the coast of Italy another squall blew in, Byron was not there

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