You will already know the story of the separation between Byron and his wife from several different sources: the biopic, the encyclopedia entry. Byron and Annabella had married on January 2, 1815. We are now going to zoom in on a particular episode. I’ll cite two brief summaries of the events of early 1816:
- 1. W. Paul Elledge (1985)
Following the birth of Augusta Ada on 10 December 1815, relations between Byron and his wife continued the rapid deterioration notable from early November when normal anxiety over the approaching confinement was exacerbated by a bailiff’s occupation of the house. Byron appears to have vented a good deal of rage and frustration over financial pressures in occasional verbal abuse of his wife, some of it hinting at his amorous relations elsewhere and at plans for a foreign excursion without her. Bewildered and apprehensive,she cultivated a suspicion that he was mentally deranged (possibly a murderer) and delayed a scheduled visit to her parents’ home in the hope of securing medical verification of it. On 15 January 1816 she left Piccadilly Terrace for Kirkby,but wrote Byron admonishingly and yet with good will that evening, in route. By private messenger on Friday, 2 February, after the letter had been intercepted and returned by a well-meaning Augusta the previous Monday, Byron received notification from his father-in-law that separation arrangements were underway. After weeks of distressed appeals and stubborn resistance on his part, coolly determined letters but often distraught behavior on his wife’s, and feverish consultations among their associates-during which time Byron’s mood ranged from initial astonishment through an agitation and depression that led Augusta to fear his suicide, finally to an exhausted and nearly despairing exasperation rendering him particularly susceptible to the importunities of Claire Clairmont- the preliminary Separation Agreement was signed on 17 March. The next day Byron wrote “”Fare Thee Well”” but held it for forty-eight hours before posting it along with a brief note to his wife. Two days later, Hobhouse found him in good spirits, eager to embark for foreign shores. On Byron’s instructions,””Fare Thee Well”” was first printed for private circulation on 8 April, and then without authorization was reproduced with “”A Sketch”” on 14 April in the Champion newspaper. Amidst the scandalized public outcry, directed almost entirely against “”A Sketch,”” Byron fled to Dover on the 23rd, the day after signing the final separation agreement, and thence to the continent on the 25th.
2. Susan Wolfson (2010)
In a match that seemed absurd to all, Lord Byron and heiress Miss Milbank wed on 2 January 1815. Daughter Ada was born in December, and within a month, a little month, on 15 January 1816, Lady Byron packed her up and left for her parents’ home. Early in February Lady Byron’s father sent Byron a letter notifying him of her wish for a separation. Byron was stung; rumors and gossip bubbled and boiled, the press got involved in mid-April…”Fare thee well!” [began as] some lines of poetry that Byron sent to his “Dearest Bell” in late March or early April (BLJ5: 51-52), just after the draft Separation Agreement, before the finalization five weeks later. “I had a copy of Verses from his Lordship yesterday-very tender and so he talks of me to Every one,” Bell wrote to her mother (Elwin 448). Intimacy notwithstanding, copies were legion. Byron showed his friend Moore the lines (“the tears, as he said, falling fast over the paper as he wrote”), then sent either this paper, blotted, or a fresh copy off to Murray, who quickly shared it (Byron knew he would) with Gifford, Rogers, Canning, Frere, and many others, even Caroline Lamb. Byron then asked Murray to print it up, along with a nasty “Sketch” on Lady Byron’s Maid. Murray relished this last piece, cheering for the general male-clubbing. “It is tremendously exquisite,” he wrote to Byron on 1 April; “the most astringent dose that was ever presented to female Character” (L 159). Byron’s private label debuted a week later, on April 8, for distribution to fifty close friends. The network quickly went wide. Old nemesis Henry Brougham poached a copy, dashing it over to the Champion’s editor John Scott, who featured the two poems in the 14 April Sunday paper, elaborated with attacks on Byron’s character. A feeding frenzy ensued, piracies erupted, and within days everyone from Wordsworth to Stael had weighed in…The whole world interacted. Shops filled with cartoons and caricatures; pamphlets volleyed parodies, gossip, poems cast in the voice of Lady Byron (in a range of tones), spuriously attributed to her or the Lord, and so forth.
Talk about a poem with a detailed biographical context! And yet, it names no names.
It existed for different audiences in turn:
1) Lady Byron;
2) a small group of Byron’s friends and associates;
3) the newspaper reading public (who knew Byron only by reputation)
4) the readers of Byron’s 1816 Poems, issued at year’s end by his authorized publisher John Murray, who prefaced that volume with the following notice:
As some of the Verses in this Collection were evidently not intended for general circulation, they would not have appeared in this authentic form, had they not been already dispersed through the medium of the public press, to an extent that must take away the regret which, under other circumstances, the reader might perhaps experience in finding them included amongst the acknowledged publications of the Noble Author.
5) Byron became a “classic”; this poem was collected in countless volumes after his death, arranged by editors, included in anthologies of English poetry….
Finally, a few questions to start discussion. What is the “best” way to read this poem? How much about Byron’s life do you need to know; how much do you want to know? What do you need to remember, or forget, to sympathize with this speaker; what do you need to remember or forget to find the speaker a villain?