Lost Byron manuscript discovered
9 January 2006
An original manuscript of a poem by Lord Byron has been discovered in UCL’s library. Thought to have been lost or destroyed, the poem, handwritten by the poet, was found inside an 1810 copy of Samuel Rogers’ ‘Pleasures of Memory’.
UCL librarian Ms Susan Stead stumbled upon the work during a routine cataloguing of the Strong Room Collections. Samuel Rogers (1763–1855) was a rich patron of the arts and a minor poet. He established a London literary salon in 1793 where he entertained writers, artists, actors, and politicians. ‘Pleasures of Memory’ was his most noted work. First published in 1792, it went through 15 editions before 1806. Ms Stead said: “Byron praised the work highly – in a letter to Thomas Moore in 1813 he wrote ‘His elegance is really wonderful – there is no such thing as a vulgar line in the book.’”
Rogers was a friend of Byron, and they spent time together along with Shelley in Italy in 1822. However, it was by this time that Byron had written a bitter lampoon against Rogers, although this attack was not out of character – Byron turned on most of his friends at some point.
Rogers liked to present inscribed copies of his work to his friends. This copy is inscribed to ‘The Right Hon.ble The Lord Byron, from his obliged & faithful friend The Author.’ The inscription is not dated. Beneath this inscription is another in a different hand: ‘Afterwards returned by Lord Byron to Mr Rogers with the lines written on the other side’. On the other side of the page is a 12-line poem beginning ‘Absent or present still to thee’, in Byron’s hand. It is signed in Greek characters and dated 19 April 1812.
Ms Stead said: “The poem talks of friendship and memory, the same themes as Rogers’ work and it seems likely that Byron was directly inspired by his reading of ‘Pleasures of Memory’ to compose his poem. This poem appeared in print in 1816 in a volume of collected poems, but there is no known autograph manuscript of it in existence.”
The book came to UCL through the Rogers and Sharpe families. Samuel Rogers’ sister, Maria, married Sutton Sharpe, whose granddaughter married Karl Pearson, mathematician and professor at UCL. Their children presented many family books and papers to UCL in the 1950s.
Two acknowledged authorities on Byron have authenticated the poem. The discovery comes after another in the same UCL library – a previously unrecorded manuscript of the 1820 ‘Ode to Naples’ in the handwriting of Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Shelley’s wife, Mary, and Shelley’s alleged mistress.
Byron’s poem reads:
- Absent or present still to thee
- My friend, what magic spells belong!
- As all can tell, who share, like me,
- In turn thy converse, and thy song.
- But when the dreaded hour shall come
- By Friendship ever deemed too nigh,
- And “Memory” oer her Druid’s tomb
- Shall weep that aught of thee can die,
- How fondly will She then repay
- Thy homage offered at her shrine
- And blend, while Ages roll away
- Her name immortally with thine