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A ‘passion which consumed me’: Byron and Foscolo’s Ultime Lettere di Jacopo Ortis

by Helen Stark, Newcastle University

Ugo Foscolo (1778–1827)

In September 2013 I was lucky enough to spend 5 days in the Pforzheimer Collection at the New York Public Library, largely – despite the myriad treasures there – consulting just one item: Teresa Guiccioli’s copy of Ugo Foscolo’s Ultime Lettere di Jacopo Ortis (1802), annotated by Lord Byron in 1820 (I’m very grateful to the Keats-Shelley Association of America for the grant that allowed me to conduct this research). On one hand this was a tremendous opportunity to geek out – although I knew, for example, that the bottom of one page had been cut out, there’s nothing quite like seeing it for oneself and speculating wildly (and fruitlessly) about what Byron had written that would necessitate removing the comment. However, what I was really interested in was testing my hypothesis that Byron uses his annotations to present himself as a member of a community of men of feeling.

Although Volume VIII of Shelley and his Circle (edited by Donald H. Reiman and Doucet Devin Fischer) reproduces Byron’s annotations to Foscolo’s novel, only one page is a facsimile. The remaining annotations are reproduced as a transcription. The opportunity to analyse the text in person allowed me to make some discoveries that I could not have done using the transcription alone. Byron’s annotations begin with a note describing his state of mind during both this reading and his first encounter with Foscolo’s novel. He plays with the conventions of the man of feeling, commenting, for example, that when he first read Ultime Lettere in 1813 (implicitly, like the protagonist Jacopo Ortis) he ‘was then in a state of great agony of mind from a passion which consumed me’. What the transcription isn’t able to convey is that this initial note was written on a blank page opposite to and continuing on the same page as the address to the reader (‘Al Lettore’) from the fictional editor of the novel, Lorenzo. In placing his note here, Byron at once aligns himself with the rational and logical Lorenzo and establishes himself as a kind of curator of his own life. However by self-consciously addressing his reader in this way, he sets himself up as a man of feeling whose words are, like Jacopo’s, ‘un monumento alla virtù sconosciuta’ (‘a monument to unknown virtue’). This has powerful implications for our reading of Byron’s portrayal of feeling masculinity.

Consulting the text in person also dramatically highlighted for me the incongruity of Byron writing this initial note in English while the novel and the remainder of his annotations are in Italian. Reiman and Fischer propose in Shelley and his Circle that ‘Byron must have penned [the note] in English for himself and posterity, inasmuch as Teresa Guiccioli read no English at this time’. The editors also suggest that the ‘clear implications of Byron’s note in English reinforce the other evidence that he became ambivalent about his passion for Teresa Guiccioli in direct proportion to the removal of the obstacles to its enjoyment’, intimating that the note is in English because it reflects badly on his feelings for Teresa. For me, however, this note signals an attempt by Byron to write back to the country which had refused to accept him and that his identification as a man of feeling is one aspect of a kind of defence of his conduct.

All this is by way of introduction to the kinds of things you might find me blogging about on Romantic Textualities in the coming months.  I explored the relationship between Byron and Foscolo in my PhD which focused on constructions of masculinities and national identity, specifically the way the man of feeling is implicated in discourses of nation-making in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These themes will recur in later posts and I’ll also mention some of the projects I’m currently involved in at Newcastle University.

Teresa Guiccioli (1800–1873)

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