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"For Since Thy Lip Met Mine": Byron and Shelley in Venice

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If I had been an unconnected man,
I, from this moment, should have formed some plan
Never to leave sweet Venice…. I might sit
In Maddalo's great palace, and his wit
And subtle talk would cheer the winter night
And make me know myself, and the firelight
Would flash upon our faces, till the day
Might dawn and make me wonder at my stay.

 

“Don’t you agree, Byron?”

“Not in the least. But, my dear Shelley, I think it’s time to retire.”

“It’s still early.”

“It’s nearly dawn,” Byron answered, amused.

“Oh.” Shelley offered him a vaguely embarrassed smile. “I suppose I was too engrossed in our conversation to notice.”

Byron stared at him for a moment. He said, slowly, “You realize that you’ll surely wake up your wife, plopping into bed at this late hour. You could share my bed if you like.”

Shelley again smiled his innocent smile. “Sounds amenable.”

They headed up the stairs to Byron’s room, Byron’s hand on Shelley’s back the entire way.

“Make yourself at home,” Byron said as they entered the room, and Shelley walked over to the bed and sat on its edge.

Byron walked up to him, didn’t stop until he was standing between Shelley’s knees. He looked down and started to unbutton Shelley’s shirt. Slowly, carefully.

Shelley stared up at him, and Byron couldn’t read his face, couldn’t tell if he saw curiosity or confusion, annoyance or anticipation.

On the third button down, as he pretended to fiddle with the unfastening, Byron said, “This is usually when men who wish to protest suddenly remember their wives.”

Shelley smiled, finally. “Most men have no conception of the vastness of my wife’s intelligence.”

“She is doubtlessly very impressive.”

Shelley’s lips pursed into a smirk. “She knew you wanted to bed me before I knew myself.”

Byron’s hands froze. “Did she?”

A nod.

“So then we have Mrs. Shelley’s blessing?” Byron’s face was oddly expressionless.

“I believe we do, yes,” Shelley answered. “But she was not without opinion on the matter.”

“Of course,” Byron said, his face all false politeness as he stepped slightly back.

Shelley smiled again, his lower lip loose, smug even. “She insists that I am careful with your heart, my dear Lord Byron. She thinks you are far more fragile than you appear.”

“Does she?” Byron said, frowning.

Shelley grabbed his hand and pulled him closer, his grin becoming cocky. “No need to worry. I shall take excellent care of you.”

Byron managed to neither laugh nor scowl, though the impulse was great for both. “And here I was planning on corrupting your innocence,” he said to Shelley, not quite in jest. “You’re supposed to be terrified of how you’re inexplicably drawn to me.”

Shelley placed his hand softly on Byron’s cock, stroking with his thumb through the soft cloth of his pants. “Utterly terrified,” he said, licking his own lower lip.

Byron’s breath hitched. He leaned down quickly to kiss Shelley on the mouth, tongue pressing past lips that opened up for him, warm and wet.

Byron pulled away long enough to mumble, “You realize that I’m only doing this to shut you up.”

“I would strongly object,” Shelley said breathlessly as he fumbled with the buttons on Byron’s pants. “But I’m helpless against your infamous powers of seduction.”

Byron pushed Shelley’s hands away to quickly undo his own pants and then Shelley’s. “If you mocked less, we would be farther along our way,” he said.

Shelley smiled up at him and didn’t say another word.

 

---

I love all waste
And solitary places; where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be;
And such was this wide ocean, and this shore
More barren than its billows.

 

The two of them find their balance in Venice, and they spend nearly every day together.

Shelley openly believes that Byron is the better poet, and Byron clearly believes that Shelley is the greater thinker. Both men feel overestimated: Byron often repeats Shelley's verse to himself when he is alone, stunned by its beauty, and Shelley often wonders at the quickness of Byron's mind, its capacity to consider multitudes of possibilities in wildly divergent directions. But neither of them ever corrects the other's misconception. They both assume that it is this mutual respect that allows their friendship to persist.

Byron loves competitions. Byron is better at billiards, Shelley is better at darts. Byron is better with a sword, but Shelley is, to the surprise of everyone, better with a gun, easily shattering the clay targets that all their other friends miss.

The two also argue about everything, a deep source of pleasure for them both. Byron cannot concur with Shelley’s optimism and Shelley cannot embrace Byron’s fatalism. They agree that the human race is in a wretched state, but Byron believes that the cause is human nature while Shelley argues that it is merely a problem of education.

Byron also tells Shelley stories of his life, stories that the public would quiver to know. Yet Shelley knows that Byron will never tell him everything. Shelley, on the other hand, shares all of his ideas with Byron, ideas that would drive most Englishmen to swords, but Shelley rarely talks about his life. Byron wears the scandals of his past like a badge, but Shelley sees no reason for his own relatively minor scandals to influence his expositions of a higher nature.

Shelley is especially fascinated by stories of Byron’s temper: some stories are boasts, while some precious few are whispered confessions. In most, some small word or gesture, some perceived slight visible only to Byron’s perception, resulted in an outlandish display of Byron’s wrath. Ornamentations smashed, shots fired into the wall, cruel words and secrets revealed.

Shelley sees the greatness of the man, and tells himself that this excess of passion is merely a product of his genius. Secretly, he wonders about the day when Byron will turn on him, will take some joke or unrelated comment to be a great affront, an unforgiveable slight.

His fear nearly becomes self-fulfilling.

One night over dinner, when Byron is relating a particularly disturbing anecdote, Shelley replies, “But surely you can see in hindsight that no offense was intended.”

Byron looks at him coldly, then, his eyes suddenly dark, and Shelley swallows, wants to tell him he only speaks for the sake of Byron’s best interests, but he knows that such a claim would only enrage the man more.

Finally, Byron smiles. He jokes, “Haven’t you read the papers? I’m quite mad, and I’ll thank you to stop suggesting otherwise. Bad for the reputation, you see.”

They laugh, and Byron changes the subject. Shelley wants to ask him the reason, wants to know why Byron has granted him a latitude that none of Byron’s other friends may share. But the moment of coldness is over, and Shelley does not wish to return to it.

In all the years they know each other, Byron never remains angry at Shelley for more than a moment, and Shelley never brings himself to ask why.

 

---

“But words are things and a small drop of ink,
Falling like a dew, upon a thought produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions think;
'Tis strange, the shortest letter which man uses
Instead of speech, may form a lasting link
Of ages; to what straits old Time reduces
Frail man, when paper - even a rag like this -,
Survives himself, his tomb and all that's his.”

 

“Are you still writing?” Byron said, opening the door to Shelley’s study.

Shelley sighed. He was finding it hard to write in Venice, but he was not going to reveal this to Byron.

“I’m done for the day,” he called, and Byron walked in and sat snugly next to Shelley on the divan.

“I’m surprised you’re finished,” Byron said, looking Shelley over in unsubtle fashion.

“I suppose that sometimes the flesh has more appeal than the word,” Shelley said as he leaned in to kiss Byron on the jaw. He kissed slowly then, down his neck.

Byron moaned but managed to rebut, “Words are always better than flesh.”

Shelley paused. “I’m quite surprised to hear you say that.” Byron’s well-earned notoriety for love of flesh was left implied.

Byron smiled bitterly, almost laughed. “Flesh betrays,” he answered simply, and Shelley could not discern whether Byron was speaking of the past or present, his regrets or some current concern that Shelley was not privy to.

Shelley leaned back and thought over what to say. Comfort never came easy to him, but debate he could do, and Byron seemed to prefer the latter anyway. “But surely you can acknowledge that words are the most faithless creatures of all. They mean one thing here and another thing there, and something else altogether in some other man’s lips.” He raised an eyebrow, waiting for Byron to create some erotic wordplay about that last phrase.

Instead, Byron said, hint of edge in his voice, “Words have never changed anything. They are a hollow victory.”

Shelley wondered what had incurred this disdain for words, the medium of Byron’s greatest gift. Asking, however, would do nothing but make Byron retreat.

Shelley said, “Then let us perform an experiment. A contest, with you advocating for words and I advocating for flesh.”

Byron looked at him for a moment and then smirked. “And you say I turn everything into a competition.”

Shelley smiled. “Here are the terms I propose. I shall make you forget your woes using only my flesh. You shall try to stall my victory with only your words.”

Byron raised an eyebrow, suspicious. But he answered, “Agreed.”

Shelley stood and gestured for Byron to lie flat on the divan. Byron complied, and soon Shelley had lifted his shirt and was kissing a line from navel to chest and then back down again, smiling as Byron’s breath quickened the movements of his torso.

It wasn’t long before Byron began his own offense, his hand reaching down to softly tangle in Shelley’s hair. He started to speak, contemporaneous lines of poetry. Shelley tried to concentrate on Byron’s body, on making Byron lose all sense, but he found himself breathless at the verse spilling out of Byron’s lips, an incantation in praise of pleasure.

Eventually, the words were too much. Shelley paused. He looked up at Byron’s face.

“Yes?” Byron asked.

“You’re exquisite,” Shelley answered simply.

Byron’s face softened. “Then I believe that I have won,” Byron said, voice thick, exposed.

Shelley smile had no regrets. “Yes. Words have won. And now flesh will give words their reward.” He ran a thumb softly, teasingly, across Byron’s lips.

“I’ve always liked that you are such a good sport,” Byron said, before Shelley’s hands moved again and Byron’s words disappeared, leaving nothing but moans and grunts and whispered fragments of Shelley’s name.

 

---

[He] Who loved and pitied all things, and could moan
For woes which others hear not, and could see
The absent with the glance of fantasy,
And with the poor and trampled sit and weep,
Following the captive to his dungeon deep;
Me--who am as a nerve o'er which do creep
The else unfelt oppressions of this earth.

 

It was, at first, a debate like any other: words rapidly fired as they strolled along the canal, only occasionally getting appalled looks (to Byron’s great amusement) from locals who happened to speak English. Shelley was arguing the moral imperative of destroying traditional notions of nation, family, morality, and station, and Byron was in the rather uncharacteristic position of being the advocate of (certain forms of) tradition.

Byron adored revolutions, of course. But he knew that they came with a price. He knew the French disaster was the rule and not the exception when old reigns are overthrown. And while he enjoyed his debauched lifestyle, savored it even, he wasn’t sure he wanted to live in a society so free-thinking that it had no concept of debauchery at all. What would be the point of living in a world with no transgression?

Of course, Byron grew less entertained by the conversation as Shelley became more and more vigorous in his insistence that the oppressed were intolerably confined while only seeming to be free. And that every minute social interaction served to foster an adoration of dominance and power over freedom and reason. Soon, Shelley was providing examples from the newspapers, men killed for expressing unpopular opinions, colonial exploits praised instead of abhorred, children dying of poverty mere feet away from wealthy tables. Shelley grew more and more agitated as he spoke, and Byron said little as he observed the sweat start to drip from Shelley’s brow, the trembling of his fists as they clenched in anger, the meander of his feet as he walked sideways so he could gesticulate to Byron. And the strain in the voice too, the struggle not to sob for these downtrodden souls.

Byron was frightened by this side of Shelley, though of course he hid it well. Not by the ideas, but by the chance that Shelley might be swept away by his own compassion. Byron knew that everyone assumed that Shelley was of less volatile temperament than he, but there were times when Byron was not sure where Shelley’s passion would lead. Byron flirted with madness daily, or so he liked to think; Shelley seemed the sort to lose his sense all at once, in one great leap.

“Shelley, my friend, these stories have great pathos, to be sure. But you cannot take every wrong to humanity as if it were a wound to your individual person.” It will break you one day, he did not add.

“But that is the great fault of our species and our way of life: we must take every wrong to humanity in such a way.” He was starting to get that look on his face, the one that reminded Byron of a puppy during a thunderstorm. The look Shelley gave when he was afraid that he might be utterly alone in his beliefs.

“You are very right,” Byron said, “But the world needs your intellect, and I fear that if you don’t desist in your enthusiasm, your genius may end up in this canal.”

Shelley paused. He suddenly laughed. “My dear Byron. You are worried for me?”

“I don’t see what’s so absurd about that,” Byron grumbled.

“Of course you don’t,” Shelley answered, and he grabbed the lapels of Byron’s coat. He leaned in slowly, kissing Byron once on each cheek.

Byron sighed then as Shelley continued to discuss the finer points of some political philosopher who had apparently gotten it all wrong. But he was satisfied, for the time being, that now Shelley was not sweating and shaking quite so much as he was.

 

---

“Between two worlds life hovers like a star,
'Twixt night and morn, upon the horizon's verge.
How little do we know that which we are!
How less what we may be! The eternal surge
Of time and tide rolls on, and bears afar
Our bubbles; as the old burst, new emerge,
Lash'd from the foam of ages; while the graves
Of Empires heave but like some passing waves.”

 

“This city has inspired the next great utopia,” Shelley announced as he entered Byron’s bedroom early in the morning, sitting next to him on his bed with a swift jump.

Byron, still half asleep, groaned. “Utopia is a fool’s errand. And I only went to sleep an hour ago.”

Shelley grinned. “Why is Venice so beautiful?” he asked.

“All the naked statues.”

“No. Well, yes. That as well. But Venice is beautiful because we know that our moments here are precious. Because we know that the city is sinking.”

“In hundreds of years it will sink. As far as tragedies go, it seems a bit slow-paced.”

“You misapprehend my argument, my dear Byron. Together, we will plan the perfect society.”

“Shelley,” Byron said, a gentle hand on Shelley’s knee, “I admire your convictions. But you know I have no desire to take part in such schemes.”

“That is precisely the point. I have devised a utopia that even you will be persuaded by. At least enough to help me design it.”

“Let me guess, Mary doesn’t want to help?”

“Mary believes the idea is better in theory than in practice. But whether she does or not, I conceived of this utopia precisely so that you would be convinced by it.”

“And how’s that?”

“It is a cynic’s utopia.”

“That sounds like a dour place.”

“Not at all,” Shelley said excitedly. “All empires crumble. All civilizations sink into nothing, into remnants, buried by Nature and time. Why not plan a society with the intent that it should do exactly that?”

“I’m not sure decay requires that much planning, Shelley.”

Shelley ignored him. “We will create a society in which all are equal. No traditional rules about sexual congress or marriage or familial authority, no violence of any sort, no outdated reverence for honor and status – present company excepted of course – and no monarchy obviously. All adults and children will be educated in the philosophies of revolutionary thinkers. And science and poetry. And Greek, perhaps.”

“And all the people will voluntarily choose to read Plato rather than fight or steal?”

“Yes. Except you, perhaps. But you are most welcome anyway.”

“I’m not convinced that I wish to be welcomed.”

“And the entire society will abide on an enormous raft.”

Byron sat up finally. He cringed in the sunlight, and asked, “Elaboration?”

“The largest raft ever built. With sails, of course, for navigation.”

“Is this because we did not go sailing last week? Because we shall go again next week.”

“Hush. You well know that societies grow worse as they grow larger. But this nation, adrift, windswept, will never be able to forget that Nature reigns, not tyrants. And if the civilization grows large enough, if it starts to imagine itself an empire, then surely the weight of its pilfered goods will sink the raft.”

Byron paused. “You want to build your own sinking city.”

“A utopia designed to die. The impossibility of immortal glory through power and riches.”

“Us, sitting on a boat, waiting for it to sink.”

“Waiting, perhaps, for generations.”

Byron smiled. “It does not sound like you need my help to design this sinking utopia, my dear Shelley.”

“Of course I do. You will be the Poet Laureate, and will thus determine the role that poetry will have in this society.” Shelley grinned at him, and Byron had no idea if Shelley were jesting or not.

“Lie down,” Byron said.

“Why?”

“I need to compose some verse. For the occasion of the first meeting of the New Venice Utopian Society.”

Shelley looked confused but did as Byron asked. Byron retrieved a brush and ink from his desk and proceeded to open Shelley’s shirt. He scrawled several lines of verse on Shelley’s chest, smiling whenever Shelley started at the tickle of the brush.

When he was done, he read the lines aloud to Shelley.

Shelley closed his eyes to listen. When Byron was done, he opened his eyes and said, “Beautiful. Truly. But those words are not about New Venice, as you call it.”

Byron looked down at him, a fingertip blurring the border of a letter on Shelley's chest. “These lines are about you. These are the qualities that only you possess. They are the reason I am going to follow you to this idiotic raft if you are ever fool enough to build it.”

Shelley looked down at the black streaks across his chest, melancholy for some reason. “Of course a raft so big could not be built.” He seemed disappointed, as if the realization were sudden, though of course it could not be. Byron knew that Shelley must have been jesting.

Byron leaned down and kissed him on the lips, smudging the top line of ink between their bodies. “But we will imagine we are building this civilization every time we go sailing.”

Shelley looked up at him, eyes soft. He paused for a long time. Then: “You have heard that I am leaving Venice soon.”

“Yes.” Of course he had heard.

“We will see each other again?”

“Any time you are able,” Byron promised, voice gentle.

Shelley reached a hand up and pulled Byron down by the collar, kissed him deep, forceful.

When they finally parted, Byron said, “You certainly don’t kiss like a pacifist.”

Shelley snorted a laugh and pulled Byron close again.

When they were finished, Byron soon fell back into sleep. Before he did, however, he could see, in his sated daze, Shelley standing in front of the mirror. His hands lingered on his own chest and stomach, on the morass-like smear of ink, no longer resembling words. He was staring at this blotch of dark, and in the mirror Byron could see that he was frowning.

Soon, though, Byron was asleep, and he could not see Shelley at all.