As I wrote the other day, Byron, having enormous emotional difficulty with the cremations of his friends, Edward Williams and Bysshe, had gone for a long swim off the coast of Viareggio while the fire sputtered and blazed on the beach. Byron was an excellent swimmer—an activity that was not hindered—as walking and running were—by his club foot.
On May 3, 1810 (he was twenty-two years old), he swam the Dardanelles (aka Hellespont). A few weeks later he wrote to his mother about his accomplishment: my only notable exploit lately, has been swimming from Sestos to Abydos on the 3rd of this month, in humble imitation of Leander … though I had no Hero to receive me on the other shore of the Hellespont.
But on that day off the coast of Viareggio, he lost track of the time and—as I mentioned—sustained a serious sunburn, so serious that, later, his entire back peeled in a continuous sheet of skin. What I’ve not mentioned till now is this. Byron died only about two years later—off in Greece, where he’d gone with Trelawny to join the Greek War of Independence (1821–32)—but it was illness that got him, not warfare. Later still, we learn that Teresa Guiccioli, his lover at the time, had kept some of that sheet of skin.
As long as we’re being grim … when friends and family arranged for Byron’s body to return to England for burial, they packed it in wine for preservation’s sake. Mary, back in England now, was among the few allowed to view the poet’s remains (they were purple), and she also saw the throngs lining the route to his ancestral home, Newstead Abbey near Nottingham. On July 28, 1824, she wrote to Trelawny: it went to my heart when the other day the hearse that contained his lifeless form, a form of beauty which in life I often delighted to behold, passed my window going up Highate Hill on his last journey …
But something grimmer was about to occur. Byron’s friends—worried about the poet’s reputation (which was already scandalous, to say the least)—burned his unpublished memoirs. Mary had read them, and in the same letter to Trelawny said there was not much in them. Oh, but isn’t it fun to wonder?