BYRON (GEORGE GORDON, LORD) Autograph letter signed ("Byron"), to Michele Leoni in Florence, 1818
Lot 217
Sold for £ 9,375 (US$ 12,351) inc. premium

Lot Details
Autograph letter signed ("Byron"), to Michele Leoni in Florence, thanking him for his translation of Pope's 'Eloisa and Abelard' ("Eloisa &c") which be believes must always be regarded as among "the most beautiful works of our language – and worthy of being translated into yours", his translation doing both justice and honour to the original, and looking forward to receiving "the other translations principally 'Lyrical' which your letter intimates your intention of honouring me with"; the rest of the letter being devoted to a discussion of his translation of Ossian; with autograph address leaf ("Á Monsieur/ Monsieur M. Leoni/ Firenze"), prominently sealed in red wax and postmarked 'Venezia' and '29/ [step] Settembre', one page, on a single folded bifolium, cherub with 'Al Masso' banner watermark (see note below), top right-hand corner of first page defective and professionally repaired, further minor repairs, with probable loss of the date loss and of one or two words (without affecting the sense), some light time-staining and foxing, but nevertheless still in fresh and attractive condition overall, 4to, Venice, postmarked 29 September [1818]


  • 'THE TRANSFUSION INTO A SOFTER LANGUAGE': A NEWLY-DISCOVERED LETTER BY BYRON ABOUT OSSIAN, written while the Shelleys were with him in Venice – "I have lately made the acquaintance of your Ossian – who appears to retain that influence over the Italian reader which he has lost upon the English (of late years) and who perhaps deserves to do so – by the ornaments which he has acquired by the transfusion into a softer language – and the exchange of measured prose into a happier melody".

    The poems of Ossian, the 'Homer of the North', were discovered – or invented – by the sometime Scottish MP James Macpherson and published in 1760 as Fragments of ancient poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language; to which were added the verse epic Fingal in 1762; the whole being collected as The Works of Ossian in 1765. Although Macpherson claimed merely to be the translator, much scepticism ensued as to whether the originals ever existed, not least from David Hume and Dr Johnson, the latter famously declaring that Macpherson was 'a mountebank, a liar, and a fraud, and that the poems were forgeries'. As Byron observes in our letter, the Scots Homer fared rather better on the continent of Europe than he did in Great Britain. Indeed the craze for all things Ossianic which swept Europe (as well as Russia) – in the field of the visual arts as well as literature, with Napoleon a devoted fan – was not to be equalled until the craze for Goethe's Werther, itself incorporating material from Ossian, burst upon the scene: to be followed of course by the potent brew of romanticism whipped up by Lord Byron himself (who was to show greater staying power than his Celtic confrere in that the adjective 'Byronic' still retains currency).

    The only substantive critical comment on Ossian that we have located in Byron's work is the note he appended to 'The Death of Calmar and Orla: An Imitation of Macpherson's Ossian' in Hours of Idleness (1807): 'I fear Laing's late edition has completely overthrown every hope that Macpherson's Ossian might prove the translation of a series of poems complete in themselves; but while the imposture is discovered, the merit of the work remains undisputed, though not without faults – particularly, in some parts, turgid and bombastic diction'. Byron's Ossianic pastiche is an example of that "measured prose" with which, in our letter, he contrasts Leoni's "happier melody": 'Morn glimmers on the hills: no living foe is seen; but the sleepers are many; grim they lie on Erin. The breeze of Ocean lifts their locks; yet they do not awake. The hawks scream above their prey'. The mature Byron restricts himself to one further, decidedly dismissive, Ossianic reference, in his diary: 'mist, mizzle, the air replete with Scotticisms, which, though fine in the descriptions of Ossian, are somewhat tiresome in real, prosaic perspective' (16 January 1821).

    Two letters by Byron to Michele Leoni have been known hitherto, the first written from Venice on 30 May 1818, the other in May 1820 (see Byron's Letters and Journals, vols i-xii and supplement, edited by Leslie A. Marchand, 1973-1994). Leoni was a prolific translator of English authors, including Byron, Shakespeare, Milton, Goldsmith, Pope, Gray and Otway. His translation of Ossian was first published as Nuovi Canti di Ossian, pubblicati in Inglese da Giovanni Smith e recati in Italiano da Michele Leoni in 1813 (Smith being translator of further Ossianic poems published as Galic Antiquities in 1780). A third edition, with additional critical material concerning the authenticity of the poems, was published in 1818, and this was the one bought by Byron (see below). For a recent critical analysis, tracing the influence of Leoni's translation upon Leopardi's Canti, with a discussion of his 'fluid versification' and use of the 'poetic character of the Italian language' – both characteristics picked up on by Byron in our letter – see Francesca Broggi-Wűthrich, 'From Smith's Antiquities to Leoni's Nuovi Canti: the Making of the Italian Ossianic Tradition Revisited' in The Reception of Ossian in Europe, edited by Howard Gaskill, 2004, p. 334.

    The first work discussed in this letter is by Byron's favourite author, Pope, his 'Eloisa and Abelard' of 1717, of which Howard Erskine-Hill remarks: 'Far from a classical poem... this may be the first 'Gothic' work in English literature. Its setting is medieval since Eloisa and Abelard were medieval lovers' (ODNB). Leoni's Epistola di Eloisa ad Abelardo: carme was to be published in 1823. Byron's reference to Leoni's "lyrical" translations is to his anthology Scelta di poesie inglesi recate in italiano, published in 1818.

    The Shelleys visitied Byron in Venice from 24 to 29 September; the latter just having, on the 19th, finished the first Canto of Don Juan (a starker contrast with Ossian it is hard to imagine). Coincidentally, the paper Byron uses for this letter is very similar, in its distinctive putto and 'Al Masso' watermark, to the stock Shelley is known to have used when in Italy: see for example his letters from Milan to Peacock of 8 and 20 April 1818 and to Byron of 13 and 22 April 1818 (B.C. Barker-Benfield, Shelleyan Writing-Materials in the Bodleian Library: A Catalogue of Formats, Papers and Watermarks, 2002, p. 106).

    Among the books brought back from Genoa after Byron's death and auctioned by Evans of Pall Mall on 6 July 1827, we find as lot 150: 'Ossian, Nuovi Canti, da Leoni, 3 vol. with Lord Byron's Autograph, Ven. 1818' which was bought by 'Brumby £5 15s 6d' (see Peter Cochran, Byron's Library: The Three Book Sales, pdf, p. 69). Doris Langley Moore transcribes a document in the Murray archive which also lists the book and suggests that the Wildean 'Brumby' was in fact Byron's friend John Cam Hobhouse: 'Ossian Neuve Canti da Leoni, with Lord Byron's autograph bought by Mr Hobhouse for 5½gs' [i.e. £5 15s 6d] (The Late Lord Byron, 1976, p. 217).
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  1. Luke Batterham
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