Byron & Casanova

Twenty-one-year-old Byron began Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage on this day in 1809. The poem created a sensation when published in 1812, occasioning Byron’s legendary, “I woke up one morning and found myself famous.” Soon finding himself infamous, he published an autobiographical disclaimer in his Preface: “It has been suggested to me by friends, on whose opinions I set a high value, that in this fictitious character, ‘Childe Harold,’ I may incur the suspicion of having intended some real personage: this I beg leave, once for all, to disclaim—Harold is the child of imagination….” Whether of Byron or the Byronic Hero, the following lines are from early on in Canto I:

Whilome in Albion’s isle there dwelt a youth,
Who ne in virtue’s ways did take delight;
But spent his days in riot most uncooth,
And vex’d with mirth the drowsy ear of Night.
Ah, me! in sooth he was a shameless wight,
Sore given to revel and ungodly glee;
Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.

On this day in 1756 Casanova escaped from imprisonment in The Leads, the legendary Venetian prison which lies across the Bridge of Sighs from the Doge’s palace. He tells his version of the story in his memoirs, and many have retold or borrowed from it. Sandor Marai’s Casanova in Bolzano (Knopf, 2004) begins with the aftermath of the demon-lover’s escape, the news of it spreading through Italy and firing all imaginations:

They slept, and smiled as they dreamed. Wherever he went they took greater care than usual to close their windows and doors by night, and behind closed shutters men would spend a long time talking to their wives. It was as if every feeling that yesterday had been ashes and embers had started to smoke and spout flames. He cast no spells on cows, but cowherds swore that calves born that year were prettier and that there were more of them. Women woke, fetched water from the well in wooden buckets, kindled fires in their kitchens, warmed pans of milk, set fruit out on glazed trays, suckled their infants, fed the men, swept out the bedrooms, changed the beds, and smiled as they worked. …And everywhere there was smiling. And the policemen, the magistrates, the militiamen and the spies—everyone whose business it was to keep people in the grip of fear of the authorities—went about their work suspiciously and in ill temper. Because there is nothing quite as dangerous as a man who will not yield to despotism.

In Canto IV of Childe Harold, Byron’s lover-hero takes a turn on the legendary spot:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs,
A palace and a prison on each hand.