Byron composed on horseback, Shelley gnawed a hunch of dry bread

A visit with the legendary Romantic poets in Pisa

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Advice on imposter syndrome, procrastination, and getting to your real work.

Lord Byron (1788–1824) and
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822)

In honor of National Poetry Month, here’s a glimpse of the everyday lives of the two legendary Romantic poets via the British writer and adventurer Edward John Trelawny, who first met the pair in Pisa in January 1822. For the next several months—until Shelley’s tragic death in a boating accident that July—Trelawny “was on the most intimate terms with both, and saw them every day.” Decades later, he published his impressions in the book Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author, which contains a number of revealing descriptions of the poets’ personalities and habits.

Trelawny’s breakdown of Byron’s and Shelley’s daily routines is especially memorable. Here he is on Byron’s “lazy, dawdling habits”:

He was seldom out of his bed before noon, when he drank a cup of very strong green tea, without sugar or milk. At two he ate a biscuit and drank soda-water. At three he mounted his horse and sauntered along the road—and generally the same road,—if alone, racking his brains for fitting matter and rhymes for the coming poem; he dined at seven, as frugally as anchorites are said in story-books to have done; at nine he visited the family of [his teenage mistress, Teresa Guiccioli]; on his return home he sat reading or composing until two or three o’clock in the morning, and then to bed, often feverish, restless, and exhausted—to dream, as he said, more than to sleep.

Shelley, by contrast, was “up at six or seven, reading Plato, Sophocles, or Spinoza, with the accompaniment of a hunch of dry bread.” According to Trelawny, the poet often spent the entire day reading. “Shelley’s thirst for knowledge was unquenchable,” he wrote. “He set to work on a book, or a pyramid of books; his eyes glistening with an energy as fierce as that of the most sordid gold-digger who works at a rock of quartz, crushing his way through all impediments, no grain of the pure ore escaping his eager scrutiny.”

Though Byron and Shelley followed opposite schedules, their eating habits were nearly identical—neither poet ate much of anything. In Byron’s case, this was because, according to Trelawny, “his terror of getting fat was so great that he reduced his diet to the point of absolute starvation.” Shelley, on the other hand, was usually too engrossed in his work to bother about food. Trelawny writes, “His drink was water, or milk if he could get it, bread was literally his staff of life; other things he thought superfluous.”

In Trelawny’s descriptions of Shelley’s days, there is no mention of the work he did to help his wife, Mary Shelley, care for their three-year-old son—and that’s because, surprise, the poet did no such work. According to the biographer Charlotte Gordon, “not once did he offer to help with domestic obligations. As the resident genius, he wandered in and out of the house at any time of day or night.” (By this time, Mary had already published Frankenstein and could easily be considered a resident genius herself.)

Nor was Shelley accommodating or even tolerant of wife’s love of hosting parties, which he went out of his way to avoid. “Poor Mary!” he told Trelawny. “Hers is a sad fate. . . . She can’t bear solitude, nor I society—the quick coupled with the dead.”

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From the archives:


Last Friday, I was bummed to read about the death of Giancarlo DiTrapano, the founder, editor, and publisher of the literary journal New York Tyrant Magazine and its publishing offshoot, Tyrant Books. I was only vaguely aware of DiTrapano’s work, but reading his obituary and the tributes on Twitter made me wish I had been part of his orbit—by all accounts, he was a remarkable editor and booster of new voices.

I was especially intrigued to read about the weeklong writing workshop that DiTrapano and the writer Chelsea Hodson have been hosting at DiTrapano’s historic family home in Italy, a ruined former castle that he and his husband began renovating several years ago. According to the obituary:

Students traveled from all over the world to work with Gian, who was known for his brilliant editing skills, affable nature, and impeccable taste in books. Gian’s husband, Giuseppe, cooked meals for everyone at the villa, and, as resident cultural curator, he also helped explain Italian history when the group went on nearby excursions to abbeys, temples, and historic sites such as the Garden of Ninfa and revealed enriching new layers of meaning and context.

Well, that sounds impossibly lovely. And check out these photos of the Villa DiTrapano via Italian Vanity Fair:

In the accompanying article, DiTrapano said:

Becoming a writer doesn't have to mean isolation and suffering, it can also mean beaches, the Gardens of Ninfa, white wine and abandoned castles.

Yes! Let’s hope the workshop continues, though of course it won’t be the same without DiTrapano as resident sage.

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