Lord Byron’s copy of the first Barnes Latin edition of the Poems of Anacreon (Cambridge, 1705) was given as a gift and inscribed to him by Leigh Hunt. The book contains autograph translations by Hunt, which would later form the core of his renderings of Anacreon into English in his 1818 volume Foliage. Hunt was a close friend of Byron, and his affectionate inscription reads ‘Honoratissimo Domino, Baronis Byron, Poeto et Amico, Italiam Graeciamque proficiscenti, (‘verecunde admodum tanto viro tam modicum’) + Amicus exoptans, Leigh Hunt. April, Kalend. MDCCCXVI. + Petrarcha de Bocatio in Testam. Spo.’ The book was thus a parting gift on the very eve of Byron’s departure from England in April 1816, ‘on his way to Italy and Greece’, never to return, after ever-mounting debts and a scandalous lifestyle forced him to leave his homeland for good.
Anacreon’s odes to the pleasures of wine captivated Hunt and Byron. The latter had included translations of the classical Greek poet in his earliest publications, Fugitive Pieces (1806) and Hours of Idleness (1807). The opening lines of his translation of Anacreon’s Ode 5 suggest that Byron’s experiments with flowing, mellifluous language sacrifice the simplicity and terseness of Anacreon’s original:
Mingle with the genial bowl
The Rose, the ‘flow’ret’ of the Soul,
The Rose and Grape together quaff’d,
How doubly sweet will be the draught!
With Roses crown our jovial brows,
While every cheek with Laughter glows;
While Smiles and Songs, with Wine incite,
To wing our moments with Delight.
By contrast, take the markedly starker opening lines of Hunt’s published version of this ode, titled ‘Roses’, as it appears in his 1818 volume Foliage:
The rose, the flower of love,
Mingle with our quaffing;
The rose, the lovely leav’d,
Round our brows be weav’d,
Hunt’s published interpretation might be more compact and to the point, but his manuscript version of ‘Roses’, found between the pages of his notes in the copy of Anacreon given to Byron, is strikingly different from the finished article. We find, for example, that the ‘flower of love’ in the stanza above had once been a ‘flower of amorousness’, and we see that Hunt in his early attempts was more influenced by Byron – ‘our brows be weav’d, / Genially laughing’ in Hunt’s published version of ‘Roses’ had originally read ‘our genial brows be weaved’, which is more in keeping with the ‘genial bowl’ and the ‘jovial brow’ of Byron’s translation quoted above.
The appearance of these autograph translations thus starts to shed exciting new light on Hunt’s poetic craft and the labour it entailed, which makes the acquisition of this handsome – and well-preserved – book all the more important for the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, who intend to publish a new edition of Hunt’s ‘Anacreontics’ incorporating these hitherto unpublished experiments. Byron’s copy of Anacreon, moreover, joins a small, but important, collection of classical books owned by the second-generation Romantic poets at the House in Rome, including John Keats’s copy of Tacitus (acquired in 2014 with the generous support of the Friends of the National Libraries) and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s copy of Homer.