Even near his last moment on this earth the little child haunted him. Before setting sail and meeting the storm that would swallow him up in the bay of La Spezia in July 1822 he saw an image of her rising naked from the waves, laughing at him, clapping her hands and beckoning him to follow her.
Last week I saw her too: a little girl playing in the churchyard of Harrow-on-the-Hill giving life among the tombs like the snowdrops and the daffodils rising early to beckon the spring all about me.
And yet she was dead: at just five years old and, since she was the fruit of an unsanctified union, without even a memorial to her – until 1980 – one hundred and fifty eight years later, after she died of malarial fever without her mother or father or step-sister by her in a lonely convent at Bagnacavallo near the venetian marshlands and lagoons.
Remorse evermore overcame the father.
As he wrote to the Countess of Blessington,
(The beautiful Countess Blessington: a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence)
“While she lived, her existence never seemed necessary to my happiness; but no sooner did I lose her, than it appeared to me as if I could not live without her”
The mother of the little angel ever accused the father of having murdered her.
Happy was her name, ‘Allegra’, and I was near her final resting place by the porch of Harrow’s mediaeval parish church of Saint Mary.
The sky was Italian blue, birds were singing and three crows hovered around the church steeple. I was quite alone with Allegra to reflect on her short, beleaguered life.
Conceived during a night of ecstatic love-making near Lake Geneva such as Claire Clairmont would ever afterwards remind Lord Byron afterwards in her letters, the mother decided to give guardianship of the child, originally named Alba (‘dawn’, also ‘Albé was Claire’s nickname for her famous lover) to Byron, hoping that his Lordship would give the child the means not only to be raised properly but also, in later life, to enter into aristocratic circles and make a fine marriage.
By this time, however, Byron had taken a distaste to ever seeing the buxom, temperamental brunette Claire ever again and took Allegra with him to Venice where he joined his Mistress of mistresses the Contessa Teresa Guiccioli.
(Another beautiful Contessa: Teresa Guiccioli)
Allegra was at first a somewhat unruly child but with precocious gifts for mimicry and a singing voice. She could, indeed, have become an actress. She also forgot her English and her first language now became the Venetian dialect – another language really and used to perfection by such great writers as Carlo Goldoni.
For Allegra’s education the capuchin convent of Bagnacavallo was chosen. The nuns’ regime calmed her down a little although she was never seriously punished for breaking the convent rules.
Meanwhile Claire was furious that her daughter was being brought up in a convent. She was told that Allegra was now constantly invoking her saints and the Virgin Mary. Percy Bysshe Shelley, a practising atheist, was also slightly concerned about this religious fervour. He visited Allegra twice and found her health declining.
(Percy Bysshe Shelley)
Allegra, or ‘Allegrina’ as she was called by the convent nuns who doted on her, only saw her father twice and fleetingly at that and her mother nevermore.
In his poem ‘Julian and Maddalo, a conversation’, partly written at Bagni di Lucca, Shelley described Allegra thus:
A lovelier toy sweet Nature never made;
A serious, subtle, wild, yet gentle being;
Graceful without design, and unforeseeing;
With eyes – O speak not of her eyes! which seem
Twin mirrors of Italian heaven, yet gleam
With such deep meaning as we never see
But in the human countenance.
Meanwhile, Claire was becoming ever more worried about her daughter (who would not have recognised or bonded with her anyway). She devised a plan with Shelley to take Allegra away from what she regarded as the unhealthy country round Bagnacavallo to the fresh air and verdant hills of Bagni di Lucca. A letter was forged in the name of Byron to authorise Allegra to be taken away to Bagni di Lucca but, at the last moment, Shelley dropped out of the plan, perhaps realising that his and Mary Shelley’s own experience with bringing up children had been disastrous, with only one surviving into manhood out of four offspring.
Poor Allegra remained at Bagnacavallo. She reminded Shelley to tell her mother she wanted a kiss and a gold dress and would he please beg her “Papa and Mammina to visit her”.
Allegra even wrote, with a little help from the nuns, a note to her dad, Lord Byron: “My dear Papa. It being fair-time, I should like so much a visit from my Papa as I have many wishes to satisfy. Won’t you come to please your Allegrina who loves you so”?
The note remained unanswered.
So many things remain unanswered in our lives as I pondered the mystery of existence and death in Harrow Church’s graveyard.
In it there is also another recollection of Byron: the Peachy tomb upon which the poet would muse when a boy at the school (which now celebrates four hundred years since its foundation) and by which he wrote these lines, half of which are now inscribed on a stone by the moss-covered sepulchre.
Lines Written Beneath An Elm In The Churchyard Of Harrow On The Hill, Sept. 2, 1807
Spot of my youth! whose hoary branches sigh,
Swept by the breeze that fans thy cloudless sky;
Where now alone I muse, who oft have trod,
With those I loved, thy soft and verdant sod;
With those who, scattered far, perchance deplore,
Like me, the happy scenes they knew before:
Oh! as I trace again thy winding hill,
Mine eyes admire, my heart adores thee still,
Thou drooping Elm! beneath whose boughs I lay,
And frequent mused the twilight hours away;
Where, as they once were wont, my limbs recline,
But ah! without the thoughts which then were mine.
How do thy branches, moaning to the blast,
Invite the bosom to recall the past,
And seem to whisper, as the gently swell,
“Take, while thou canst, a lingering, last farewell!”
When fate shall chill, at length, this fevered breast,
And calm its cares and passions into rest,
Oft have I thought, ‘twould soothe my dying hour,—
If aught may soothe when life resigns her power,—
To know some humbler grave, some narrow cell,
Would hide my bosom where it loved to dwell.
With this fond dream, methinks, ’twere sweet to die—
And here it lingered, here my heart might lie;
Here might I sleep, where all my hopes arose,
Scene of my youth, and couch of my repose;
For ever stretched beneath this mantling shade,
Pressed by the turf where once my childhood played;
Wrapped by the soil that veils the spot I loved,
Mixed with the earth o’er which my footsteps moved;
Blest by the tongues that charmed my youthful ear,
Mourned by the few my soul acknowledged here;
Deplored by those in early days allied,
And unremembered by the world beside.
Ironically, this was the same spot where George Gordon Lord Byron lover, warrior, and supreme romantic poet had wished to be buried. (As he wrote “where I once hoped to have laid my own.”)
(The wonderful view looking towards Windsor Castle from Peachy’s Tomb, Harrow-on-the-Hill)
His wish, however, was refused by the sanctimonious vicar of the time, shocked at the ‘scandalous’ life the poet had led.
Allegra was born in Bath (The English Bagni)
She was brought up at Bagnacavallo (literally horse-wash – perhaps it was a stopping post for coaches and diligences where horses were cooled down) and where she died as this plaque on the convent wall confirms:
Allegra was almost abducted to Bagni di Lucca where Percy Bysshe Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley and George Gordon Byron had all stayed. I wonder whether she would have fared better here. I think so.
Overlooking the superb views of London from Battels Café (where one can get an excellent capuccino) and near Allegra’s final resting place, quite alone under an aquamarine Mediterranean-like sky I meditated upon the utter strangeness of life just as I had done a week previously by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s monument at Viareggio:
Unbound, you look across the seaside square,
beyond cool lime trees by the promenade,
towards the sea which took your every care
and washed your corpse on shore like broken shard.
From books inside your coat they knew you were
a poet. After, like an Indian sage,
they burnt you on gold sands just to deter
infection: regulations of the age.
Proscribed by man, by sea cast out as well,
your works don’t live in blaze of glorious light;
they seem but little read nor do they sell:
perhaps mankind now lacks ethereal sight.
The highest poets live beyond their time,
their verses are addressed to unborn souls;
the hour’s not right: our thoughts are not sublime,
that’s why your poetry rarely consoles.
Yet moments ripen and your name’s still known
as long as you gaze out across the square
towards the sea and the supreme unknown,
as long as there is sun and moon and air.
PS For reference here’s a genealogical tree for Byron, Shelley and Claire to sort out any confusion:
And here’s a selection of reading about Allegra starting from Iris Origo’s pioneering book written in 1935 and first published by Leonard and Virginia Wolf.
You’ll find plenty of books (and not just on Shelley) at Bagni di Lucca’s own ‘Shelley House.’ For more information see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/01/30/bagni-di-luccas-casa-shelley/