The other reason our group of four hardy travelers went to Montreux in 2018 was to follow the tracks of the famous Romantic poets, Byron and Shelley.
Lord Robert Byron fled England in the summer of 1816 for reasons centering around what the modern era would call ‘bad publicity’ scenarios. His reputation for eccentricity in most areas of life wouldn’t have been helped by news of the coach he traveled across Europe in (similar to the one Napoleon used for his journeys) as well the passengers which included his personal doctor, servants and a menagerie that included a peacock. Despite some severe character flaws, Byron can be given some credit with triggering and supporting the whole Swiss Tourist Industry. Wherever he traveled, the modern guidebooks inform us of his activities there; we earlier encountered his tracks in the Lauterbrunnen Valley below where we were staying in Wengen. In a previous trip to Athens, we ran into his heroic statue in the Plaka! After 200 years, he has gone but never forgotten, perhaps because his lifestyle seems to mirror so much of what has fascinated us in the late twentieth century…of individuals in the public eye who refuse to conform to accepted rules of social behaviour. He was fleeing both an abandoned marriage and rumours abroad in society that his relationship with a half-sister was less than fraternal. He was described by one girl-friend as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know!”
His main companion in Switzerland, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), was born the eldest son of a Member of the British parliament and his family wealth ensured that he didn’t believe he had to generate his own sources of finance. His poetry brought little fame or finance in his own lifetime. It was only after his death in a boating accident in Italy that he became recognised as one of the greatest ‘lyric’ poets in the English language. He was an anarchist and an atheist and took his girlfriend with him to Switzerland in 1816. No wonder Byron sought his company!
Our own tracks crossed the path of Byron and Shelley in Montreux. There is a fabulous paddle-wheel ferry that collects tourists at a jetty not far down from the train station which does the trip around the eastern end of the shoreline of Lake Geneva. We were heading for the very beautiful restored Castle of Chillon which was two stops down the shore of the lake. Sailing along the front of Montreux town was almost as good as strolling along the foreshore. Byron and Shelly were also sailing along this same shoreline more than two hundred years before us and they were also heading for the same castle.
The first mention of Chillon Castle is in 1005. It was built to control the Route over the Swiss Alps down into Italy and so was able to control the flow of trade through this region. It was the summer home of the Dukes of Savoy from the 12th century until 1536 when it was taken by the good folk of Bern who controlled it until the time of the French revolution when they were not only driven out of this area but their home city of Bern was sacked by Napoleon’s soldiers. Byron was originally a big fan of Napoleon but by 1816, Napoleon had fallen out of favour with everyone, including Byron, and was in exile on the Island of Elba in the Mediterranean.
When you enter Chillon Castle, you are immediately taken down into the nether regions of the the castle where you encounter the reminders of the most famous prisoner held in Chillon, Francois Bonivard, and the romantic poet who visited this spot three centuries later. Bonivard was a man after Byron’s heart. Although depicted as a monk in the paintings set out in the Chillon dungeon, he was a libertine (married four times) and a political activist opposed to the Duke of Savoy. He was held for six years in this castle and wrote later of the grooves he made in the floor of the dungeon while chained to a column. . Byron was inspired by this martyr to liberty and wrote two poems about Bonivard’s story. The second poem, “The Prisoner of Chillon’, was a long narrative which apparently was an enormous success back in England. It encouraged his contemporaries to visit Chillon dungeon, stand around the pillar to which Bonivard had been chained and recite the poem both in memory of Bonivard and Byron. We didn’t spot any visitors reciting poetry on our visit to Chillon. Certainly we noted Byron’s name carved into one of the pillars which suggested that he carried with him a hammer and chisel on his visit to Chillon. He was many things and probably not a ‘graffitist’ so doubts about the authenticity of his tag are well founded.
Like so many European castles, its function as a defense fortress dominating the trade route between Italy and France faded and so it was left to deteriorate until the late 19th century when it began to be renovated for a different purpose…its attraction to tourists. It was a fabulous place to visit in 2018, well preserved and presented and a great way to get a sense of the complex history of this area along the shores of Lake Geneva.
The poem on the right is the first poem about Chillon and Bonivard by Byron and the context of its writing might explain my particular interest in Byron’s visit to Chillon. At one of the gatherings back at their home for the summer, the group of four were entertaining each other one night by reading German Ghost stories. Mary Godwin, Shelley’s young girl friend at the time, suggested they have a contest and write their own grisly tales to entertain each other. The first ‘Sonnet on Chillon’ was Byron’s contribution.
Mary Godwin herself was no minor individual in the shadow of the two great English poets. Her heritage was immense; her mother was Mary Wolstencraft who is rightly identified as one of the first major activists in the feminist movement who inspired generations of women after her. Her father was Willam Godwin, a well known political philosopher of the time and considered by Shelley to be his mentor. Her contribution to the competition around the fire that night has ensured that her name has probably achieved greater fame than the young men she was holidaying with; she whipped off the story of ‘Frankenstein’ for the entertainment of her holiday group and her man-monster has continued to alarm and entertain generations ever since. Her story, like the story of Count Dracula, has provided the basis for so many Hollywood films and television shows.
The summer of 1816 along the shores of Lake Geneva was the “Summer of Frankenstein”, not the Summer of Love. As in 1967, there were many similarities in terms of the emerging challenges to widely held beliefs of how life should be lived. In 1816, the Napoleonic Wars had finished and after 20 years of Europe wide devastation, it is no wonder that attitudes to religion and social norms were under challenge after the cataclysm that destroyed the lives of so many young men. In 1967, the young people of America and its cultural satellites were rebelling against social beliefs that were the background to the wholesale destruction of young lives on both sides of the Vietnam war. The little group that gathered beside Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816 were at the sharp edge of social change and it is unsurprising that the atheistic, pro-anarchist Percy Shelley took his 18 year old girlfriend Mary and her sister, Claire Clairmont with him to his rented house on the shore of Lac Leman. Byron, who had already been exploring all his human dilemmas in poetry, had fled England as his cutting edge approach to human relationships had not gone down well. Unsurprisingly, both sisters accompanying Shelley returned to England pregnant at the end of the summer of Frankenstein. History tells us that Byron grumpily admitted his paternity to Claire Clarement. Their ‘sisters’ with flowers in the hair in San Francisco a century and a half later at least had the option of contraceptives.
Lord George Gordon Byron