[p.199] ROMANTIC WRITERS IN MALTA: LITERARY AND HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES

Peter Vassallo

Literary visitors to Malta in the early nineteenth century could be placed into three categories. The first comprises those who were part of that recognized institution, the Grand Tour, without which no English gentleman could consider his education complete. This attitude was epitomized by Dr Johnson's assertion that "a man who has not been to Italy is always conscious of an inferiority".[1] To this category belong Byron, Disraeli, who modelled himself on Byron, and Thackeray. The second group are those who travelled to the South in search of a mild climate; Coleridge, for instance, who thought of the Mediterranean as affording relief from his craving for opium, or Hookham Frere who settled in Malta as a consequence of his wife's bronchial ailment. In the third category one could place those who came by coincidence, like Edward Lear or those who, like Angel de Saavedra, the Duque de Rivas, fled to the island in order to elude his captors.

In this paper I shall focus on the relations, historical and literary, between some of the Romantic writers who for some reason or another travelled to Malta in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Coleridge, Byron, Frere, and Scott who visited Malta at different times between 1804 and 1831, had something in common - they were in the period 1815-16, habitués at John Murray's literary drawing room in 50 Albemarle Street where Murray received his literary guests every "morning", that is from three to five in the afternoon. Six years previously, Byron had jibed at Coleridge and Scott in his satirical English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. Frere, for his part, had attacked Cole-ridge's Jacobin sentiments, in the Anti-Jacobin for tempering his muse to the Gallic cause and for allowing himself to be beguiled by Jacobin demagoguery. [p.200] Later, in London, Scott and Coleridge forgave Byron, and Frere himself befriended the disillusioned Coleridge who had by then become "intensely anti-Jacobin" and introduced the neophyte to Toryism to the Murray synod of literati.

Coleridge's coming to Malta was the result of the invitation of his friend John Stoddart who had taken up the post of King's and Admiralty Advocate. His sojourn in Malta (1804-1805) has been dealt with in exhaustive detail by Donald Sultana[2] and Kathleen Coburn[3] and need not be recounted here. What emerges from his letters and Maltese journal is a picture of a man in deep conflict with himself, unable to resist the steady transformation into civil servant that his Malta office imposed on him, in his capacity as under-Secretary to Sir Alexander Ball, the Civil Commissioner, drawing up bandi and proclamations in the exigencies of British officialdom. His notebook entries in Malta are in the main eclectic and fragmentary and reveal a brilliant mind unable to come to grips with itself, constantly flitting from the sublime to the trivial. In turn he was impressed by the massive fortifications of Valletta with their curious conjunction of stonework and orangeries, he was annoyed by the bomb-like burst of the cries of the Maltese street vendors and irritated by what he called the "indefatigable, ubiquitarian intrusia of the Catholic Superstition of every staircase, by every bedside...". There is a feeling, on reading the Maltese journal, of a mind seeking release from its immediate confines, a lonely mind compelled into dialogue with itself, a situation epitomized by his description of the garret of the Treasury (unfortunately destroyed by enemy action in the War) with its four windows in a room of "4 strides by 4" which convey the impression of solitary confinement. The journal also shows Coledridge's attempts to teach himself Italian through the medium of translation. His impression of the Maltese language was that it sounded like "Arabic corrupted with Italian". But in the main, most of the journal entries are the reflections of a sad and lonesome man seeking relief from an unhappy marital relationship (to Sarah Fricker), tormented by his hopeless love for Sarah Hutchinson and racked by his increasing addiction to opium, and above all by his awareness of his failing poetic powers. Here in the middle of the Mediterranean was the Ancient Mariner in the doldrums desperately craving for the pleasure-dome of Xanadu.

[p.201] Byron's reasons for embarking on the Grand Tour were not purely educational, even though he had always yearned to visit Greece and the Levant. Travel, in 1809, afforded him relief from the demands of persistent creditors and from emotional entanglement with John Edelston, the choir boy at Trinity College Cambridge. The Byron who arrived in Malta en route for Greece (31 August 1809) was a budding poet and would-be politician, ensconced in the "buff and blue" of Whig tradition, the author of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, which had somewhat compensated for the devastating review of his Hours of Idleness in the heavyweight Edinburgh Review. The Tour involved a stop in Malta on the way out and on the return voyage. Malta, for Byron, was another stage on which he could posture before his public. His brief affair (platonic or otherwise) with the aristocratic Constance Spencer Smith, an unhappily married romantic heroine, slightly older than the poet who was twenty-one at the time, was soon to be metamorphosed into an encounter with "Fair Florence", that enticing siren on Calypso's isle luring this modern British Odysseus on his travels who remains heroically immune to "love's snares".[4] Here in British Malta is one of the first instances of Byron's poetic creation of the Byronic hero - the projection of the poet's persona as a blase and world-weary man of the world haunted by cynicism and misanthropy.

Characteristically Byron failed to keep his lover's tryst with Constance Spencer Smith. When he returned on the way back nearly two years after his arrival, he was in the company of the fifteen-year-old Nicolo Giraud for whom he had developed a strong Romantic affection. The sad parting from Giraud who was placed in a school on the island, the tediousness of his imprisonment in the lazaretto, the embarrassing farewell to Constance, the irksome tertian fever which troubled him - all contributed to his mood of genuine despondency in which he wrote down his dismal and melancholic reflections on his state of affairs. The jocose Hudibrastics entitled Farewell to Malta, which most educated Maltese will quote with some embarrassment, were written to alleviate his despondency and were not meant for publication. The verses given to Mrs Fraser were somehow brought to the notice of the Commissioner General Hildebrand Oakes[5] who was peeved ("in a pucker", to use Byron's words) when he read such lines as "red coats and redder faces/Adieu the supercilious air/ Of all that strut en militaire!" What is curious is that frigate [p.202] Hydra which brought Byron into Marsamxetto harbour carried in its hold some of the marbles which were dispatched from Greece to England under the supervision of the artist Gianbattista Lusieri who had befriended Byron and who actually was brother-in-law to Nicolo Giraud.[6] On the Hydra Byron carried with him the unfinished manuscript of his scathing satire on Lord Elgin who had employed Lusieri to make accurate drawings of these marbles. This satire was eventually printed as The Curse of Minerva and contained Byron's scathing verses on Elgin who is referred to as "the plundering Scot". The satire was, in all probability, completed in Malta and was inspired, in part, by Cicero's attack on Caius Verres's plunder of the island of Melita.[7] It is interesting to note that Byron suppressed the publication of the poem and instructed Murray to print only eight copies for private circulation. The reason, I would suggest, is that he very probably had misgivings about some of the verses of the poem, in particular, those which allude to Lusieri in the lines "still with his hireling artists let him prate" which would have portrayed the Neapolitan artist as a collaborator in the despoliation of the Parthenon. Lusieri, it will be recalled, had remained in Malta to see to the schooling of his brother-in-law Nicolo Giraud.

I now wish to turn to another prominent member of the Murray circle who eventually visited Malta and lived on the island for over twenty years. This was John Hookham Frere, a Cambridge scholar and former Minister Plenipotentiary in Madrid during the Peninsular War and who was forced into early retirement after a public outcry over his conduct of the Peninsular campaign. It was his wife's, Lady Erroll's, bronchial illness which compelled him to settle on the island where it was hoped that the climate would be more amenable. Malta was, for Frere, the country or "sovereign isle of chivalry, honour and arms", as he rather romantically put it, and in his villa in Pieta, he devoted himself to translating Aristophanes and to the writing of verse. It was Frere's bland burlesque The Monks and the Giants which was to suggest to Byron the comic possibilities of the Pulcian ottava rima which he emulated in Beppo and later in Don Juan. Frere, who was one of John Murray's literary councillors before he set foot in Malta, admired Byron's satiric genius and "protean talent". Although he was ensconced in Villa Frere after 1821 where he was fond of cultivating his garden, Frere paid the occasional visit to his literary friends in [p.203] London and corresponded with them. He was in fact consulted by Murray as to the advisability of the continued publication of further Cantos of Don Juan. Frere was somewhat taken aback by the pungency of Byron's new style what Byron called his "finest, ferocious Caravaggio style", and advised Murray against the publication of Don Juan on the grounds that the poem offended decency and propriety. This is not surprising since Frere himself had abandoned his burlesque The Monks and the Giants for the very reason that it might offend Tory morality. Byron, who had no such scruples, was stung to the quick when Hobhouse relayed Frere's advice to Murray, for he never expected such an attitude from the genial and witty Cambridge scholar who had introduced the irreverent Pulci to the British reading public. He subsequently dismissed Murray's literati of Albemarle Street as the "cursed puritanical committee" for Tory scruples and the moral cant of the day, he felt, were not to suppress his genius.[8]

Frere lingered in Malta for twenty years. In the period 1825-26 he formed an interesting literary friendship with a Spanish nobleman Angel de Saavedra who was to become the Duque de Rivas and acclaimed as the leading exponent of Spanish Romanticism. Saavedra, a liberal by conviction, was compelled to flee for his life when Ferdinand VII was restored to the monarchy in 1823 and Spanish liberals or exaltados were hounded by fanatical monarchists styling themselves "the society of the exterminating angel". He was in fact sentenced to death by edict of 11 June 1824 pronounced by the Audiencia de Sevilla. Saavedra fled to Gibraltar, then to London where he was befriended by the Holland House Whig intellectuals. But homesickness and poor health compelled him to travel to Italy and, while journeying through Tuscany, he narrowly avoided capture by embarking on a Maltese schooner, the Assunta, which was about to sail to Malta from Livorno. Saavedra had been advised by Mr Falconer, the British Consul in Rome, to seek the protection of the British flag. His poem El Faro de Malta is a vivid and moving poetic record of his stormy passage to Malta where the lighthouse over St Elmo is transfigured into a symbol of the torch of reason prevailing over the passions of men.[9]

During his sojourn in Malta (1825-30), Saavedra was befriended by Frere, who must have sympathized with the plight of this Spanish hidalgo and his wife, [p.204] who had found themselves in financial straits. Both Frere and Saavedra had lived through similar experiences for, at the time that Frere was Minister Plenipotentiary in Madrid, Saavedra joined Palafox at Zaragoza and later took part in the battle of Talavera (1809) against the French invaders. Saavedra respected Frere as a scholar and man of letters who was au fait with English, Spanish, and Italian literature and who had actually translated El Poema del Cid into English. Frere's influence on Saavedra was decisive for he encouraged the Spanish nobleman to turn to the writing of verse romances rooted in the historical past of Spain. Frere, in fact, reassured Saavedra that he could profitably revitalize the old Spanish leyendas and romances by giving them a contemporary flavour in the same manner as Scott, Byron, and Southey had versified the old chivalric tales. Under Frere's tutelage, Saavedra conceived the idea of reviving one of the popular themes of Spanish literature - the exotic legend of the seven sons of Lara and the revenge of Mudarra, the foundling Moor of El Moro Exposito as this long poem was entitled. When this romance was eventually published in Paris in 1834 it contained Saavedra's dedication to Frere (in English), publicly acknowledging his guidance and assistance in Frere's role as godfather to his Castilian foundling. Frere had actually supplied Saavedra with English models from his library in Pieta and among them were Scott's lays and Ivanhoe and Southey's Roderick, last of the Goths which is set in Spain. Saavedra was quick to realize that Spain's colourful medieval past afforded an excellent opportunity for the expression of nostalgic sentiment about his native Cordoba, while at the same time indulging his artistic flair for effects of colour and shade. It should be recalled that in Malta Saavedra had taken up painting under the guidance of the Maltese artist Giuseppe Hyzler and, in the early Cantos of El Moro Exposito, Saavedra indulges in word-painting especially in his descriptions of sunset.[10] In the second half of the poem, Saavedra drew heavily on Scott's Ivanhoe for his account of the wedding jousts in the later Cantos and for his protrait of the villain Rui Velazquez who has obvious similarities with Scott's Bois Guilbert. Indeed, Saavedra went a step further, for in the Sixth canto he digresses from the narrative in order to incorporate his own tribute to the island of Malta which had shown him such generous hospitality.[11] He actually mentions Frere and Giuseppe Hyzler by name while expressing his appreciation of their kindness and artistic talent – [p.205] they were friends indeed whose kindness was "un dulce consuelo de todos mis afanes". Interestingly, Saavedra deploys Southey's technique of drawing parallels between the occupation of Spain by the Moors and the invasion of the Peninsula by Napoleon's troops - thereby harnessing poetry to a political cause, in this case the cause of the Spanish liberals against the monarchical despotism of Ferdinand VII.



[1] Boswell's Life of Johnson, vol. ii, ed. Sir Sydney Roberts (London, 1958), 25.

[2] D. Sultana, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Malta and Italy (New York, 1969).

[3] K. Coburn, "Poet into Public Servant", Royal Society of Canada Lecture, liv, 3rd series, 1960.

[4] In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto II, stanza xxxiii.

[5] Major-General Hildebrand Oakes (1754-1822) had been in command of the British Troops at Malta since March 1808. He succeeded Sir Alexander Ball as Civil Commissioner in 1810.

[6] In a footnote to stanza XVI Canto II of Childe Harold, Byron refers to him as "an Italian painter of the first eminence".

[7] Jerome McGann suggests this as a possible source in his Lord Byron. The Complete Poetical Works vol. i (Oxford, 1986), 446.

[8] See, for instance, E. Boyd, Byron Don Juan: A Critical Study (New York, 1958), 13.

[9] For further biographical details, A. Alcala Galiano, Memorias de Don A. Alcald Galiano publicado por su hijo (Madrid, 1826) and N. Pastor Diaz, introduction to the Obras Comp/etas del Duque de Rivas (Madrid, 1894).

[10] E. Allison Peers, Rivas and Romanticism in Spain (Liverpool, 1923), 40.

[11] Fora full account of Saavadra's mention of Malta, my "The Duque de Rivas, John Hookham Frere and the tribute to Malta in El Moro Esposito" MH, ix, 4 (1987), 315-328.