A glimpse into the cottage at Great Marlow is afforded by a careless sentence of Leigh Hunt's. "He used to sit in a study adorned with casts, as large as life, of the Vatican Apollo and the celestial Venus." Fancy Shelley with his bright eyes and elf-locks in a tiny, low-roofed room, correcting proofs of "Laon and Cythna", between the Apollo of the Belvedere and Venus de' Medici, life-sized, and as crude as casts by Shout could make them! In this house, Miss Clairmont, with her brother and Allegra, lived as Shelley's guests; and here Clara Shelley was born on the 3rd of September, 1817. In the same autumn, Shelley suffered from a severe pulmonary attack. The critical state of his health, and the apprehension, vouched for by Mrs. Shelley, that the Chancellor might lay his vulture's talons on the children of his second marriage, were the motives which induced him to leave England for Italy in the spring of 1818. (See Note on Poems of 1819, and compare the lyric "The billows on the beach.") He never returned. Four years only of life were left to him—years filled with music that will sound as long as English lasts.
It was on the 11th of March that the Shelleys took their departure with Miss Clairmont and the child Allegra. They went straight to Milan, and after visiting the Lake of Como, Pisa, the Bagni di Lucca, Venice and Rome, they settled early in the following December at Naples. Shelley's letters to Peacock form the invaluable record of this period of his existence. Taken altogether, they are the most perfect specimens of descriptive prose in the English language; never over-charged with colour, vibrating with emotions excited by the stimulating scenes of Italy, frank in their criticism, and exquisitely delicate in observation. Their transparent sincerity and unpremeditated grace, combined with natural finish of expression, make them masterpieces of a style at once familiar and elevated. That Shelley's sensibility to art was not so highly cultivated as his feeling for nature, is clear enough in many passages: but there is no trace of admiring to order in his comments upon pictures or statues. Familiarity with the great works of antique and Italian art would doubtless have altered some of the opinions he at first expressed; just as longer residence among the people made him modify his views about their character. Meanwhile, the spirit of modest and unprejudiced attention in which he began his studies of sculpture and painting, might well be imitated in the present day by travellers who think that to pin their faith to some famous critic's verdict is the acme of good taste. If there were space for a long quotation from these letters, I should choose the description of Pompeii (January 26, 1819), or that of the Baths of Caracalla (March 23, 1819). As it is, I must content myself with a short but eminently characteristic passage, written from Ferrarra, November 7, 1818:—
"The handwriting of Ariosto is a small, firm, and pointed character, expressing, as I should say, a strong and keen, but circumscribed energy of mind; that of Tasso is large, free, and flowing, except that there is a checked expression in the midst of its flow, which brings the letters into a smaller compass than one expected from the beginning of the word. It is the symbol of an intense and earnest mind, exceeding at times its own depth, and admonished to return by the chillness of the waters of oblivion striking upon its adventurous feet. You know I always seek in what I see the manifestation of something beyond the present and tangible object; and as we do not agree in physiognomy, so we may not agree now. But my business is to relate my own sensations, and not to attempt to inspire others with them."
In the middle of August, Shelley left his wife at the Bagni di Lucca, and paid a visit to Lord Byron at Venice. He arrived at midnight in a thunderstorm. "Julian and Maddalo" was the literary fruit of this excursion—a poem which has rightly been characterized by Mr. Rossetti as the most perfect specimen in our language of the "poetical treatment of ordinary things." The description of a Venetian sunset, touched to sadness amid all its splendour by the gloomy presence of the madhouse, ranks among Shelley's finest word-paintings; while the glimpse of Byron's life is interesting on a lower level. Here is the picture of the sunset and the island of San Lazzaro:—
Oh! How beautiful is sunset, when the glow Of heaven descends upon a land like thee, Thou paradise of exiles, Italy, Thy mountains, seas, and vineyards, and the towers Of cities they encircle!—it was ours To stand on thee, beholding it: and then, Just where we had dismounted, the Count's men Were waiting for us with the gondola. As those who pause on some delightful way, Though bent on pleasant pilgrimage, we stood Looking upon the evening, and the flood Which lay between the city and the shore, Paved with the image of the sky. The hoar And airy Alps, towards the north, appeared, Thro' mist, a heaven-sustaining bulwark, reared Between the east and west; and half the sky Was roofed with clouds of rich emblazonry, Dark purple at the zenith, which still grew Down the steep west into a wondrous hue Brighter than burning gold, even to the rent Where the swift sun yet paused in his descent Among the many-folded hills. They were Those famous Euganean hills, which bear, As seem from Lido through the harbour piles, The likeness of a clump of peaked isles— And then, as if the earth and sea had been Dissolved into one lake of fire, were seen Those mountains towering, as from waves of flame, Around the vaporous sun, from which there came The inmost purple spirit of light, and made Their very peaks transparent. "Ere it fade," Said my companion, "I will show you soon A better station." So o'er the lagune We glided; and from that funereal bark I leaned, and saw the city, and could mark How from their many isles, in evening's gleam, Its temples and its palaces did seem Like fabrics of enchantment piled to heaven. I was about to speak, when—"We are even Now at the point I meant," said Maddalo, And bade the gondolieri cease to row. "Look, Julian, on the west, and listen well If you hear not a deep and heavy bell." I looked, and saw between us and the sun A building on an island, such a one As age to age might add, for uses vile,— A windowless, deformed, and dreary pile; And on the top an open tower, where hung A bell, which in the radiance swayed and swung,— We could just hear its coarse and iron tongue: The broad sun sank behind it, and it tolled In strong and black relief—"What we behold Shall be the madhouse and its belfry tower,"— Said Maddalo; "and ever at this hour, Those who may cross the water hear that bell, Which calls the maniacs, each one from his cell, To vespers."
It may be parenthetically observed that one of the few familiar quotations from Shelley's poems occurs in "Julian and Maddalo":—
Most wretched men Are cradled into poetry by wrong: They learn in suffering what they teach in song.
Byron lent the Shelleys his villa of the Cappuccini near Este, where they spent some weeks in the autumn. Here "Prometheus Unbound" was begun, and the "Lines written among the Euganean Hills" were composed; and here Clara became so ill that her parents thought it necessary to rush for medical assistance to Venice. They had forgotten their passport; but Shelley's irresistible energy overcame all difficulties, and they entered Venice—only in time, however, for the child to die.
Nearly the whole of the winter was spent in Naples, where Shelley suffered from depression of more than ordinary depth. Mrs. Shelley attributed this gloom to the state of his health, but Medwin tells a strange story, which, if it is not wholly a romance, may better account for the poet's melancholy. He says that so far back as the year 1816, on the night before his departure from London, "a married lady, young, handsome, and of noble connexions," came to him, avowed the passionate love she had conceived for him, and proposed that they should fly together. (Medwin's Life of Shelley, volume 1 324. His date, 1814, appears from the context to be a misprint.) He explained to her that his hand and heart had both been given irrevocably to another, and, after the expression of the most exalted sentiments on both sides, they parted. She followed him, however, from place to place; and without intruding herself upon his notice, found some consolation in remaining near him. Now she arrived at Naples; and at Naples she died. The web of Shelley's life was a wide one, and included more destinies than his own. Godwin, as we have reason to believe, attributed the suicide of Fanny Imlay to her hopeless love for Shelley; and the tale of Harriet has already been told. Therefore there is nothing absolutely improbable in Medwin's story, especially when we remember what Hogg half-humorously tells us about Shelley's attraction for women in London. At any rate, the excessive wretchedness of the lyrics written at Naples can hardly be accounted for by the "constant and poignant physical sufferings" of which Mrs. Shelley speaks, since these were habitual with him. She was herself, moreover under the impression that he was concealing something from her, and we know from her own words in another place that his "fear to wound the feelings of others" often impelled him to keep his deepest sorrows to himself. (Note on the Revolt of Islam.)
All this while his health was steadily improving. The menace of consumption was removed; and though he suffered from severe attacks of pain in the side, the cause of this persistent malady does not seem to have been ascertained. At Naples he was under treatment for disease of the liver. Afterwards, his symptoms were ascribed to nephritis, and it is certain that his greater or less freedom from uneasiness varied with the quality of the water he drank. He was, for instance, forced to eschew the drinking water of Ravenna, because it aggravated his symptoms; while Florence, for a similar reason, proved an unsuitable residence. The final settlement of the Shelleys at Pisa seems to have been determined by the fact that the water of that place agreed with him. That the spasms which from time to time attacked him were extremely serious, is abundantly proved by the testimony of those who lived with him at this period, and by his own letters. Some relief was obtained by mesmerism, a remedy suggested by Medwin; but the obstinacy of the torment preyed upon his spirits to such an extent, that even during the last months of his life we find him begging Trelawny to procure him prussic acid as a final and effectual remedy for all the ills that flesh is heir to. It may be added that mental application increased the mischief, for he told Leigh Hunt that the composition of "The Cenci" had cost him a fresh seizure. Yet though his sufferings were indubitably real, the eminent physician, Vacca, could discover no organic disease; and possibly Trelawny came near the truth when he attributed Shelley's spasms to insufficient and irregular diet, and to a continual over-taxing of his nervous system.
Mrs. Shelley states that the change from England to Italy was in all respects beneficial to her husband. She was inclined to refer the depression from which he occasionally suffered, to his solitary habits; and there are several passages in his own letters which connect his melancholy with solitude. It is obvious that when he found himself in the congenial company of Trelawny, Williams, Medwin, or the Gisbornes, he was simply happy; and nothing could be further from the truth than to paint him as habitually sunk in gloom. On the contrary, we hear quite as much about his high spirits, his "Homeric laughter," his playfulness with children, his readiness to join in the amusements of his chosen circle, and his incomparable conversation, as we do about his solitary broodings, and the seasons when pain or bitter memories over-cast his heaven. Byron, who had some right to express a judgment in such a matter, described him as the most companionable man under the age of thirty he had ever met with. Shelley rode and practised pistol-shooting with his brother bard, sat up late to talk with him, enjoyed his jokes, and even betted with him on one occasion marked by questionable taste. All this is quite incompatible with that martyrdom to persecution, remorse, or physical suffering, with which it has pleased some romantic persons to invest the poet. Society of the ordinary kind he hated. The voice of a stranger, or a ring at the house-bell, heard from afar with Shelley's almost inconceivable quickness of perception, was enough to make him leave the house; and one of his prettiest poems is written on his mistaking his wife's mention of the Aziola, a little owl common enough in Tuscany, for an allusion to a tiresome visitor. This dislike for intercourse with commonplace people was a source of some disagreement between him and Mrs. Shelley, and kept him further apart from Byron than he might otherwise have been. In a valuable letter recently published by Mr. Garnett, he writes:—"I detest all society—almost all, at least—and Lord Byron is the nucleus of all that is hateful and tiresome in it." And again, speaking about his wife to Trelawny, he said:—"She can't bear solitude, nor I society—the quick coupled with the dead."
In the year 1818-19 the Shelleys had no friends at all in Italy, except Lord Byron at Venice, and Mr. and Mrs. John Gisborne at Leghorn. Mrs. Gisborne had been a friend of Mary Wollstonecraft and Godwin. She was a woman of much cultivation, devoid of prejudice, and, though less enthusiastic than Shelley liked, quite capable of appreciating the inestimable privilege of his acquaintance. Her husband, to use a now almost obsolete phrase, was a scholar and a gentleman. He shared his wife's enlightened opinions, and remained staunch through good and ill report to his new friends. At Rome and Naples they knew absolutely no one. Shelley's time was therefore passed in study and composition. In the previous summer he had translated the "Symposium" of Plato, and begun an essay on the Ethics of the Greeks, which remains unluckily a fragment. Together with Mary he read much Italian literature, and his observations on the chief Italian poets form a valuable contribution to their criticism. While he admired the splendour and invention of Ariosto, he could not tolerate his moral tone. Tasso struck him as cold and artificial, in spite of his "delicate moral sensibility." Boccaccio he preferred to both; and his remarks on this prose-poet are extremely characteristic. "How much do I admire Boccaccio! What descriptions of nature are those in his little introductions to every new day! It is the morning of life stripped of that mist of familiarity which makes it obscure to us. Boccaccio seems to me to have possessed a deep sense of the fair ideal of human life, considered in its social relations. His more serious theories of love agree especially with mine. He often expresses things lightly too, which have serious meanings of a very beautiful kind. He is a moral casuist, the opposite of the Christian, stoical, ready-made, and worldly system of morals. Do you remember one little remark, or rather maxim of his, which might do some good to the common, narrow-minded conceptions of love,—'Bocca baciata non perde ventura; anzi rinnouva, come fa la luna'?" Dante and Petrarch remained the objects of his lasting admiration, though the cruel Christianity of the "Inferno" seemed to him an ineradicable blot upon the greatest of Italian poems. Of Petrarch's "tender and solemn enthusiasm," he speaks with the sympathy of one who understood the inner mysteries of idealizing love.
It will be gathered from the foregoing quotations that Shelley, notwithstanding is profound study of style and his exquisite perception of beauty in form and rhythm, required more than merely artistic excellences in poetry. He judged poems by their content and spirit; and while he plainly expressed his abhorrence of the didactic manner, he held that art must be moralized in order to be truly great. The distinction he drew between Theocritus and the earlier Greek singers in the "Defence of Poetry", his severe strictures on "The Two Noble Kinsmen" in a letter to Mary (August 20, 1818) and his phrase about Ariosto, "who is entertaining and graceful, and SOMETIMES a poet," illustrate the application of critical canons wholly at variance with the "art for art" doctrine.
While studying Italian, he continued faithful to Greek. Plato was often in his hands, and the dramatists formed his almost inseparable companions. How deeply he felt the art of the Homeric poems, may be gathered from the following extract:—"I congratulate you on your conquest of the Iliad. You must have been astonished at the perpetually increasing magnificence of the last seven books. Homer there truly begins to be himself. The battle of the Scamander, the funeral of Patroclus, and the high and solemn close of the whole bloody tale in tenderness and inexpiable sorrow, are wrought in a manner incomparable with anything of the same kind. The Odyssey is sweet, but there is nothing like this." About this time, prompted by Mrs. Gisborne, he began the study of Spanish, and conceived an ardent admiration for Calderon, whose splendid and supernatural fancy tallied with his own. "I am bathing myself in the light and odour of the starry Autos," he writes to Mr. Gisborne in the autumn of 1820. "Faust", too, was a favourite. "I have been reading over and over again "Faust", and always with sensations which no other composition excites. It deepens the gloom and augments the rapidity of ideas, and would therefore seem to me an unfit study for any person who is a prey to the reproaches of memory, and the delusions of an imagination not to be restrained." The profound impression made upon him by Margaret's story is expressed in two letters about Retzsch's illustrations:—"The artist makes one envy his happiness that he can sketch such things with calmness, which I only dared look upon once, and which made my brain swim round only to touch the leaf on the opposite side of which I knew that it was figured."
The fruits of this occupation with Greek, Italian, Spanish, and German were Shelley's translations from Homer and Euripides, from Dante, from Calderon's "Magico Prodigioso", and from "Faust", translations which have never been surpassed for beauty of form and complete transfusion of the spirit of one literature into the language of another. On translation, however, he set but little store, asserting that he only undertook it when he "could do absolutely nothing else," and writing earnestly to dissuade Leigh Hunt from devoting time which might be better spent, to work of subordinate importance. (Letter from Florence, November 1819.) The following version of a Greek epigram on Plato's spirit will illustrate his own method of translation:—
Eagle! why soarest thou above that tomb? To what sublime and star-y-paven home Floatest thou? I am the image of swift Plato's spirit, Ascending heaven:—Athens does inherit His corpse below.
Some time in the year 1820-21, he composed the "Defence of Poetry", stimulated to this undertaking by his friend Peacock's article on poetry, published in the Literary Miscellany. (See Letter to Ollier, January 20, 1820, Shelley Memorials, page 135.) This essay not only sets forth his theory of his own art, but it also contains some of his finest prose writing, of which the following passage, valuable alike for matter and style, may be cited as a specimen:—
"The functions of the poetical faculty are two-fold; by one it creates new materials of knowledge, and power, and pleasure; by the other it engenders in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange them according to a certain rhythm and order which may be called the beautiful and the good. The cultivation of poetry is never more to be desired than at periods when, from an excess of the selfish and calculating principle, the accumulation of the materials of external life exceed the quantity of the power of assimilating them to the internal laws of human nature. The body has then become too unwieldy for that which animates it.
"Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all; and that which, if blighted, denies the fruit and the seed, and withholds from the barren world the nourishment and the succession of the scions of the tree of life. It is the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of all things; it is as the odour and the colour of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it, as the form and splendour of unfaded beauty to the secrets of anatomy and corruption. What were virtue, love, patriotism, friendship—what were the scenery of this beautiful universe which we inhabit—what were our consolations on this side of the grave—and what were our aspirations beyond it, if poetry did not ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar? Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, "I will compose poetry." The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet. I appeal to the greatest poets of the present day, whether it is not an error to assert that the finest passages of poetry are produced by labour and study. The toil and the delay recommended by critics, can be justly interpreted to mean no more than a careful observation of the inspired moments, and an artificial connexion of the spaces between their suggestions by the intermixture of conventional expressions; a necessity only imposed by the limitedness of the poetical faculty itself; for Milton conceived the "Paradise Lost" as a whole before he executed it in portions. We have his own authority also for the muse having "dictated" to him the "unpremeditated song." And let this be an answer to those who would allege the fifty-six various readings of the first line of the "Orlando Furioso." Compositions so produced are to poetry what mosaic is to painting. This instinct and intuition of the poetical faculty is still more observable in the plastic and pictorial arts; a great statue or picture grows under the power of the artist as a child in the mother's womb; and the very mind which directs the hands in formation is incapable of accounting to itself for the origin, the gradations, or the media of the process.
"Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds. We are aware of evanescent visitations of thought and feeling sometimes associated with place or person, sometimes regarding our own mind alone, and always arising unforeseen and departing unbidden, but elevating and delightful beyond all expression: so that even in the desire and the regret they leave, there cannot but be pleasure, participating as it does in the nature of its object. It is as it were the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own; but its footsteps are like those of a wind over the sea, which the coming calm erases, and whose traces remain only, as on the wrinkled sand which paves it. These and corresponding conditions of being are experienced principally by those of the most delicate sensibility and the most enlarged imagination; and the state of mind produced by them is at war with every base desire. The enthusiasm of virtue, love, patriotism, and friendship, is essentially linked with such emotions; and whilst they last, self appears as what it is, an atom to a universe. Poets are not only subject to these experiences as spirits of the most refined organization, but they can colour all that they combine with the evanescent hues of this ethereal world; a word, a trait in the representation of a scene or a passion, will touch the enchanted chord, and reanimate, in those who have ever experienced these emotions, the sleeping, the cold, the buried image of the past. Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interlunations of life, and veiling them, or in language or in form, sends them forth among mankind, bearing sweet news of kindred joy to those with whom their sisters abide—abide, because there is no portal of expression from the caverns of the spirit which they inhabit into the universe of things. Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man."
In the midst of these aesthetic studies, and while producing his own greatest works, Shelley was not satisfied that his genius ought to be devoted to poetry. "I consider poetry," he wrote to Peacock, January 26th, 1819, "very subordinate to moral and political science, and if I were well, certainly I would aspire to the latter; for I can conceive a great work, embodying the discoveries of all ages, and harmonizing the contending creeds by which mankind have been ruled. Far from me is such an attempt, and I shall be content, by exercising my fancy, to amuse myself, and perhaps some others, and cast what weight I can into the scale of that balance which the Giant of Arthegall holds." Whether he was right in the conviction that his genius was no less fitted for metaphysical speculation or for political science than for poetry, is a question that admits of much debate. (See Mrs. Shelley's note on the Revolt of Islam, and the whole Preface to the Prose Works.) We have nothing but fragments whereby to form a definite opinion—the unfinished "Defence of Poetry", the unfinished "Essay on a Future State", the unfinished "Essay on Christianity", the unfinished "Essay on the Punishment of Death", and the scattered "Speculations on Metaphysics". None of these compositions justify the belief so confidently expressed by Mrs. Shelley in her Preface to the prose works, that "had not Shelley deserted metaphysics for poetry in his youth, and had he not been lost to us early, so that all his vaster projects were wrecked with him in the waves, he would have presented the world with a complete theory of mind; a theory to which Berkeley, Coleridge, and Kant would have contributed; but more simple, and unimpugnable, and entire than the systems of these writers." Their incompleteness rather tends to confirm what she proceeds to state, that the strain of philosophical composition was too great for his susceptible nerves; while her further observation that "thought kindled imagination and awoke sensation, and rendered him dizzy from too great keenness of emotion," seems to indicate that his nature was primarily that of a poet deeply tinctured with philosophical speculation, rather than that of a metaphysician warmed at intervals to an imaginative fervour. Another of her remarks confirms us in this opinion. "He considered these philosophical views of mind and nature to be instinct with the intensest spirit of poetry." (Note on Prometheus.) This is the position of the poet rather than the analyst; and on the whole, we are probably justified in concluding with Mrs. Shelley, that he followed a true instinct when he dedicated himself to poetry, and trained his powers in that direction. (Note on Revolt of Islam.) To dogmatize upon the topic would be worse than foolish. There was something incalculable, incommensurable, and daemonic in Shelley's genius; and what he might have achieved, had his life been spared and had his health progressively improved, it is of course impossible to say.
In the spring of 1819 the Shelleys settled in Rome, where the poet proceeded with the composition of "Prometheus Unbound". He used to write among the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, not then, as now, despoiled of all their natural beauty, but waving with the Paradise of flowers and shrubs described in his incomparable letter of March the 23rd to Peacock. Rome, however, was not destined to retain them long. On the 7th of June they lost their son William after a short illness. Shelley loved this child intensely, and sat by his bedside for sixty hours without taking rest. He was now practically childless; and his grief found expression in many of his poems, especially in the fragment headed "Roma, Roma, Roma! non e piu com' era prima." William was buried in the Protestant cemetery, of which Shelley had written a description to Peacock in the previous December. "The English burying-place is a green slope near the walls, under the pyramidal tomb of Cestius, and is, I think, the most beautiful and solemn cemetery I ever beheld. To see the sun shining on its bright grass, fresh, when we first visited it, with the autumnal dews, and hear the whispering of the wind among the leaves of the trees which have overgrown the tomb of Cestius, and the soil which is stirring in the sun-warm earth, and to mark the tombs, mostly of women and young people who were buried there, one might, if one were to die, desire the sleep they seem to sleep. Such is the human mind, and so it peoples with its wishes vacancy and oblivion."
Escaping from the scene of so much sorrow, they established themselves at the Villa Valsovano, near Leghorn. Here Shelley began and finished "The Cenci" at the instance of his wife, who rightly thought that he undervalued his own powers as a dramatic poet. The supposed portrait of Beatrice in the Barberini Palace had powerfully affected his imagination, and he fancied that her story would form the fitting subject for a tragedy. It is fortunate for English literature that the real facts of that domestic drama, as recently published by Signor Bertolotti, were then involved in a tissue of romance and legend. During this summer he saw a great deal of the Gisborne family. Mrs. Gisborne's son by a previous marriage, Henry Reveley, was an engineer, and Shelley conceived a project of helping him build a steamer which should ply between Leghorn and Marseilles. He was to supply the funds, and the pecuniary profit was to be shared by the Gisborne family. The scheme eventually fell through, though Shelley spent a good deal of money upon it; and its only importance is the additional light it throws upon his public and private benevolence. From Leghorn the Shelleys removed in the autumn to Florence, where, on the 12th of November, the present Sir Percy Florence Shelley was born. Here Shelley wrote the last act of "Prometheus Unbound", which, though the finest portion of that unique drama, seems to have been an afterthought. In the Cascine outside Florence he also composed the "Ode to the West Wind", the most symmetrically perfect as well as the most impassioned of his minor lyrics. He spent much time in the galleries, made notes upon the principal antique statues, and formed a plan of systematic art-study. The climate, however, disagreed with him, and in the month of January, 1820, they took up their abode at Pisa.
1819 was the most important year in Shelley's life, so far as literary production is concerned. Besides "The Cenci" and "Prometheus Unbound", of which it yet remains to speak, this year saw the production of several political and satirical poems—the "Masque of Anarchy", suggested by the news of the Peterloo massacre, being by far the most important. Shelley attempted the composition of short popular songs which should stir the English people to a sense of what he felt to be their degradation. But he lacked the directness which alone could make such verses forcible, and the passionate apostrophe to the Men of England in his "Masque of Anarchy" marks the highest point of his achievement in this style:—
Men of England, Heirs of Glory, Heroes of unwritten story, Nurslings of one mighty mother, Hopes of her, and one another!
Rise, like lions after slumber, In unvanquishable number, Shake your chains to earth like dew, Which in sleep had fall'n on you. Ye are many, they are few.
"Peter Bell the Third", written in this year, and "Swellfoot the Tyrant", composed in the following autumn, are remarkable as showing with what keen interest Shelley watched public affairs in England from his exile home; but, for my own part, I cannot agree with those critics who esteem their humour at a high rate. The political poems may profitably be compared with his contemporary correspondence; with the letters, for instance, to Leigh Hunt, November 23rd, 1819; and to Mr. John Gisborne, April 10th, 1822; and with an undated fragment published by Mr. Garnett in the "Relics of Shelley", page 84. No student of English political history before the Reform Bill can regard his apprehensions of a great catastrophe as ill-founded. His insight into the real danger to the nation was as penetrating as his suggestion of a remedy was moderate. Those who are accustomed to think of the poet as a visionary enthusiast, will rub their eyes when they read the sober lines in which he warns his friend to be cautious about the security offered by the English Funds. Another letter, dated Lerici, June 29, 1822, illustrates the same practical temper of mind, the same logical application of political principles to questions of public economy.
That "Prometheus Unbound" and "The Cenci" should have been composed in one and the same year must be reckoned among the greatest wonders of literature, not only because of their sublime greatness, but also because of their essential difference. Aeschylus, it is well known, had written a sequel to his "Prometheus Bound", in which he showed the final reconciliation between Zeus, the oppressor, and Prometheus, the champion, of humanity. What that reconciliation was, we do not know, because the play is lost, and the fragments are too brief for supporting any probable hypothesis. But Shelley repudiated the notion of compromise. He could not conceive of the Titan "unsaying his high language, and quailing before his successful and perfidious adversary." He therefore, approached the theme of liberation from a wholly different point of view. Prometheus in his drama is the human vindicator of love, justice, and liberty, as opposed to Jove, the tyrannical oppressor, and creator of all evil by his selfish rule. Prometheus is the mind of man idealized, the spirit of our race, as Shelley thought it made to be. Jove is the incarnation of all that thwarts its free development. Thus counterposed, the two chief actors represent the fundamental antitheses of good and evil, liberty and despotism, love and hate. They give the form of personality to Shelley's Ormuzd-Ahriman dualism already expressed in the first canto of "Laon and Cythna"; but, instead of being represented on the theatre of human life, the strife is now removed into the reign of abstractions, vivified by mythopoetry. Prometheus resists Jove to the uttermost, endures all torments, physical and moral, that the tyrant plagues him with, secure in his own strength, and calmly expectant of an hour which shall hurl Jove from heaven, and leave the spirit of good triumphant. That hour arrives; Jove disappears; the burdens of the world and men are suddenly removed; a new age of peace and freedom and illimitable energy begins; the whole universe partakes in the emancipation; the spirit of the earth no longer groans in pain, but sings alternate love-songs with his sister orb, the moon; Prometheus is re-united in indissoluble bonds to his old love, Asia. Asia, withdrawn from sight during the first act, but spoken of as waiting in her exile for the fated hour, is the true mate of the human spirit. She is the fairest daughter of Earth and Ocean. Like Aphrodite, she rises in the Aegean near the land called by her name; and in the time of tribulation she dwells in a far Indian vale. She is the Idea of Beauty incarnate, the shadow of the Light of Life which sustains the world and enkindles it with love, the reality of Alastor's vision, the breathing image of the awful loveliness apostrophized in the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," the reflex of the splendour of which Adonais was a part. At the moment of her triumph she grows so beautiful that Ione her sister cannot see her, only feels her influence. The essential thought of Shelley's creed was that the universe is penetrated, vitalized, made real by a spirit, which he sometimes called the spirit of Nature, but which is always conceived as more than Life, as that which gives its actuality to Life, and lastly as Love and Beauty. To adore this spirit, to clasp it with affection, and to blend with it, is, he thought the true object of man. Therefore the final union of Prometheus with Asia is the consummation of human destinies. Love was the only law Shelley recognized. Unterrified by the grim realities of pain and crime revealed in nature and society, he held fast to the belief that, if we could but pierce to the core of things, if we could but be what we might be, the world and man would both attain to their perfection in eternal love. What resolution through some transcendental harmony was expected by Shelley for the palpable discords in the structure of the universe, we hardly know. He did not give his philosophy systematic form: and his new science of love remains a luminous poetic vision—nowhere more brilliantly set forth than in the "sevenfold hallelujahs and harping symphonies" of this, the final triumph of his lyrical poetry.
In "Prometheus", Shelley conceived a colossal work of art, and sketched out the main figures on a scale of surpassing magnificence. While painting in these figures, he seems to reduce their proportions too much to the level of earthly life. He quits his god-creating, heaven-compelling throne of mythopoeic inspiration, and descends to a love-story of Asia and Prometheus. In other words, he does not sustain the visionary and primeval dignity of these incarnated abstractions; nor, on the other hand, has he so elaborated their characters in detail as to give them the substantiality of persons. There is therefore something vague and hollow in both figures. Yet in the subordinate passages of the poem, the true mythopoeic faculty—the faculty of finding concrete forms for thought, and of investing emotion with personality—shines forth with extraordinary force and clearness. We feel ourselves in the grasp of a primitive myth-maker while we read the description of Oceanus, and the raptures of the Earth and Moon.
A genuine liking for "Prometheus Unbound" may be reckoned the touch-stone of a man's capacity for understanding lyric poetry. The world in which the action is supposed to move, rings with spirit voices; and what these spirits sing, is melody more purged of mortal dross than any other poet's ear has caught, while listening to his own heart's song, or to the rhythms of the world. There are hymns in "Prometheus", which seem to realize the miracle of making words, detached from meaning, the substance of a new ethereal music; and yet, although their verbal harmony is such, they are never devoid of definite significance for those who understand. Shelley scorned the aesthetics of a school which finds "sense swooning into nonsense" admirable. And if a critic is so dull as to ask what "Life of Life! thy lips enkindle" means, or to whom it is addressed, none can help him any more than one can help a man whose sense of hearing is too gross for the tenuity of a bat's cry. A voice in the air thus sings the hymn of Asia at the moment of her apotheosis:—
Life of Life! thy lips enkindle With their love the breath between them; And thy smiles before they dwindle Make the cold air fire; then screen them In those looks where whoso gazes Faints, entangled in their mazes.
Child of Light! thy limbs are burning Through the vest which seems to hide them, As the radiant lines of morning Through the clouds, ere they divide them; And this atmosphere divinest Shrouds thee whereso'er thou shinest.
Fair are others; none beholds thee. But thy voice sounds low and tender, Like the fairest, for it folds thee From the sight, that liquid splendour, And all feel, yet see thee never, As I feel now, lost for ever!
Lamp of Earth! where'er thou movest Its dim shapes are clad with brightness, And the souls of whom thou lovest Walk upon the winds with lightness, Till they fail, as I am failing, Dizzy, lost, yet unbewailing!
It has been said that Shelley, as a landscape painter, is decidedly Turneresque; and there is much in "Prometheus Unbound" to justify this opinion. The scale of colour is light and aerial, and the darker shadows are omitted. An excess of luminousness seems to be continually radiated from the objects at which he looks; and in this radiation of many-coloured lights, the outline itself is apt to be a little misty. Shelley, moreover, pierced through things to their spiritual essence. The actual world was less for him than that which lies within it and beyond it. "I seek," he says himself, "in what I see, the manifestation of something beyond the present and tangible object." For him, as for the poet described by one of the spirit voices in "Prometheus", the bees in the ivy-bloom are scarcely heeded; they become in his mind,—
Forms more real than living man, Nurslings of immortality.
And yet who could have brought the bees, the lake, the sun, the bloom, more perfectly before us than that picture does? (Forman, volume 2 page 181.) What vignette is more exquisitely coloured and finished than the little study of a pair of halcyons in the third act? (Forman, volume 2 page 231.) Blake is perhaps the only artist who could have illustrated this drama. He might have shadowed forth the choirs of spirits, the trailing voices and their thrilling songs, phantasmal Demorgorgon, and the charioted Hour. Prometheus, too, with his "flowing limbs," has just Blake's fault of impersonation—the touch of unreality in that painter's Adam.
Passing to "The Cenci", we change at once the moral and artistic atmosphere. The lyrical element, except for one most lovely dirge, is absent. Imagery and description are alike sternly excluded. Instead of soaring to the empyrean, our feet are firmly planted on the earth. In exchange for radiant visions of future perfection, we are brought into the sphere of dreadful passions—all the agony, endurance, and half-maddened action, of which luckless human innocence is capable. To tell the legend of Beatrice Cenci here, is hardly needed. Her father, a monster of vice and cruelty, was bent upon breaking her spirit by imprisonment, torture, and nameless outrage. At last her patience ended; and finding no redress in human justice, no champion of her helplessness in living man, she wrought his death. For this she died upon the scaffold, together with her step-mother and her brothers, who had aided in the execution of the murder. The interest of "The Cenci", and it is overwhelmingly great, centres in Beatrice and her father; from these two chief actors in the drama, all the other characters fall away into greater or less degrees of unsubstantiality. Perhaps Shelley intended this—as the maker of a bas-relief contrives two or three planes of figures for the presentation of his ruling group. Yet there appears to my mind a defect of accomplishment, rather than a deliberate intention, in the delineation of Orsino. He seems meant to be the wily, crafty, Machiavellian reptile, whose calculating wickedness should form a contrast to the daemonic, reckless, almost maniacal fiendishness of old Francesco Cenci. But this conception of him wavers; his love for Beatrice is too delicately tinted, and he is suffered to break down with an infirmity of conscience alien to such a nature. On the other hand the uneasy vacillations of Giacomo, and the irresolution, born of feminine weakness and want of fibre, in Lucrezia, serve to throw the firm will of Beatrice into prominent relief; while her innocence, sustained through extraordinary suffering in circumstances of exceptional horror—the innocence of a noble nature thrust by no act of its own but by its wrongs beyond the pale of ordinary womankind—is contrasted with the merely childish guiltlessness of Bernardo. Beatrice rises to her full height in the fifth act, dilates and grows with the approach of danger, and fills the whole scene with her spirit on the point of death. Her sublime confidence in the justice and essential rightness of her action, the glance of self-assured purity with which she annihilates the cut-throat brought to testify against her, her song in prison, and her tender solicitude for the frailer Lucrezia, are used with wonderful dramatic skill for the fulfilment of a feminine ideal at once delicate and powerful. Once and once only does she yield to ordinary weakness; it is when the thought crosses her mind that she may meet her father in the other world, as once he came to her on earth.
Shelley dedicated "The Cenci" to Leigh Hunt, saying that he had striven in this tragedy to cast aside the subjective manner of his earlier work, and to produce something at once more popular and more concrete, more sober in style, and with a firmer grasp on the realities of life. He was very desirous of getting it acted, and wrote to Peacock requesting him to offer it at Covent Garden. Miss O'Neil, he thought, would play the part of Beatrice admirably. The manager, however, did not take this view; averring that the subject rendered it incapable of being even submitted to an actress like Miss O'Neil. Shelley's self-criticism is always so valuable, that it may be well here to collect what he said about the two great dramas of 1819. Concerning "The Cenci" he wrote to Peacock:—"It is written without any of the peculiar feelings and opinions which characterize my other compositions; I having attended simply to the impartial development of such characters as it is probable the persons represented really were, together with the greatest degree of popular effect to be produced by such a development." "'Cenci' is written for the multitude, and ought to sell well." "I believe it singularly fitted for the stage." "'The Cenci' is a work of art; it is not coloured by my feelings, nor obscured by my metaphysics. I don't think much of it. It gave me less trouble than anything I have written of the same length." "Prometheus", on the other hand, he tells Ollier, "is my favourite poem; I charge you, therefore, specially to pet him and feed him with fine ink and good paper"—which was duly done. Again:—"For 'Prometheus', I expect and desire no great sale; Prometheus was never intended for more than five or six persons; it is in my judgment of a higher character than anything I have yet attempted, and is perhaps less an imitation of anything that has gone before it; it is original, and cost me severe mental labour." Shelley was right in judging that "The Cenci" would be comparatively popular; this was proved by the fact that it went through two editions in his lifetime. The value he set upon "Prometheus" as the higher work, will hardly be disputed. Unique in the history of literature, and displaying the specific qualities of its author at their height, the world could less easily afford to lose this drama than "The Cenci", even though that be the greatest tragedy composed in English since the death of Shakespeare. For reasons which will be appreciated by lovers of dramatic poetry, I refrain from detaching portions of these two plays. Those who desire to make themselves acquainted with the author's genius, must devote long and patient study to the originals in their entirety.
"Prometheus Unbound", like the majority of Shelley's works, fell still-born from the press. It furnished punsters with a joke, however, which went the round of several papers; this poem, they cried, is well named, for who would bind it? Of criticism that deserves the name, Shelley got absolutely nothing in his lifetime. The stupid but venomous reviews which gave him occasional pain, but which he mostly laughed at, need not now be mentioned. It is not much to any purpose to abuse the authors of mere rubbish. The real lesson to be learned from such of them as may possibly have been sincere, as well as from the failure of his contemporaries to appreciate his genius—the sneers of Moore, the stupidity of Campbell, the ignorance of Wordsworth, the priggishness of Southey, or the condescending tone of Keats—is that nothing is more difficult than for lesser men or equals to pay just homage to the greatest in their lifetime. Those who may be interested in studying Shelley's attitude toward his critics, should read a letter addressed to Ollier from Florence, October 15, 1819, soon after he had seen the vile attack upon him in the "Quarterly", comparing this with the fragments of an expostulatory letter to the Editor, and the preface to "Adonais". (Shelley Memorials, page 121. Garnett's Relics of Shelley, pages 49, 190. Collected Letters, page 147, in Moxon's Edition of Works in one volume 1840.) It is clear that, though he bore scurrilous abuse with patience, he was prepared if needful to give blow for blow. On the 11th of June, 1821, he wrote to Ollier:—"As yet I have laughed; but woe to those scoundrels if they should once make me lose my temper!" The stanzas on the "Quarterly" in "Adonais", and the invective against Lord Eldon, show what Shelley could have done if he had chosen to castigate the curs. Meanwhile the critics achieved what they intended. Shelley, as Trelawny emphatically tells us, was universally shunned, coldly treated by Byron's friends at Pisa, and regarded as a monster by such of the English in Italy as had not made his personal acquaintance. On one occasion he is even said to have been knocked down in a post-office by some big bully, who escaped before he could obtain his name and address; but this is one of the stories rendered doubtful by the lack of precise details.
RESIDENCE AT PISA.
On the 26th of January, 1820, the Shelley's established themselves at Pisa. From this date forward to the 7th of July, 1822, Shelley's life divides itself into two periods of unequal length; the first spent at Pisa, the baths of San Giuliano, and Leghorn; the second at Lerici, on the Bay of Spezia. Without entering into minute particulars of dates or recording minor changes of residence, it is possible to treat of the first and longer period in general. The house he inhabited at Pisa was on the south side of the Arno. After a few months he became the neighbour of Lord Byron, who engaged the Palazzo Lanfranchi it order to be near him; and here many English and Italian friends gathered round them. Among these must be mentioned in the first place Captain Medwin, whose recollections of the Pisan residence are of considerable value, and next Captain Trelawny, who has left a record of Shelley's last days only equalled in vividness by Hogg's account of the Oxford period, and marked by signs of more unmistakable accuracy. Not less important members of this private circle were Mr. and Mrs. Edward Elleker Williams, with whom Shelley and his wife lived on terms of the closest friendship. Among Italians, the physician Vacca, the improvisatore Sgricci, and Rosini, the author of "La Monaca di Monza", have to be recorded. It will be seen from this enumeration that Shelley was no longer solitary; and indeed it would appear that now, upon the eve of his accidental death, he had begun to enjoy an immunity from many of his previous sufferings. Life expanded before him: his letters show that he was concentrating his powers and preparing for a fresh flight; and the months, though ever productive of poetic masterpieces, promised a still more magnificent birth in the future.
In the summer and autumn of 1820, Shelley produced some of his most genial poems: the "Letter to Maria Gisborne", which might be mentioned as a pendent to "Julian and Maddalo" for its treatment of familiar things; the "Ode to a Skylark", that most popular of all his lyrics; the "Witch of Atlas", unrivalled as an Ariel-flight of fairy fancy; and the "Ode to Naples", which, together with the "Ode to Liberty", added a new lyric form to English literature. In the winter he wrote the "Sensitive Plant", prompted thereto, we are told, by the flowers which crowded Mrs. Shelley's drawing room, and exhaled their sweetness to the temperate Italian sunlight. Whether we consider the number of these poems or their diverse character, ranging from verse separated by an exquisitely subtle line from simple prose to the most impassioned eloquence and the most ethereal imagination, we shall be equally astonished. Every chord of the poet's lyre is touched, from the deep bass string that echoes the diurnal speech of such a man as Shelley was, to the fine vibrations of a treble merging its rarity of tone in accents super-sensible to ordinary ears. One passage from the "Letter to Maria Gisborne" may here be quoted, not for its poetry, but for the light it casts upon the circle of his English friends.
You are now In London, that great sea, whose ebb and flow At once is deaf and loud, and on the shore Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more. Yet in its depth what treasures! You will see That which was Godwin,—greater none than he Though fallen—and fallen on evil times—to stand Among the spirits of our age and land, Before the dread tribunal of "To come" The foremost, while Rebuke cowers pale and dumb. You will see Coleridge—he who sits obscure In the exceeding lustre and the pure Intense irradiation of a mind, Which, with its own internal lightning blind, Flags wearily through darkness and despair— A cloud-encircled meteor of the air, A hooded eagle among blinking owls. You will see Hunt; one of those happy souls Which are the salt of the earth, and without whom This world would smell like what it is—a tomb; Who is, what others seem. His room no doubt Is still adorned by many a cast from Shout, With graceful flowers tastefully placed about, And coronals of bay from ribbons hung, And brighter wreaths in neat disorder flung; The gifts of the most learn'd among some dozens Of female friends, sisters-in-law, and cousins. And there is he with his eternal puns, Which beat the dullest brain for smiles, like duns Thundering for money at a poet's door; Alas! it is no use to say, "I'm poor!"— Or oft in graver mood, when he will look Things wiser than were ever read in book, Except in Shakespere's wisest tenderness. You will see Hogg; and I cannot express His virtues, though I know that they are great, Because he locks, then barricades the gate Within which they inhabit. Of his wit And wisdom, you'll cry out when you are bit. He is a pearl within an oyster-shell, One of the richest of the deep. And there Is English Peacock, with his mountain fair,— Turn'd into a Flamingo, that shy bird That gleams in the Indian air. Have you not heard When a man marries, dies, or turns Hindoo, His best friends hear no more of him. But you Will see him, and will like him too, I hope, With the milk-white Snowdownian antelope Match'd with this camelopard. His fine wit Makes such a wound, the knife is lost in it; A strain too learned for a shallow age, Too wise for selfish bigots; let his page Which charms the chosen spirits of the time, Fold itself up for the serener clime Of years to come, and find its recompense In that just expectation. Wit and sense, Virtue and human knowledge, all that might Make this dull world a business of delight, Are all combined in Horace Smith. And these, With some exceptions, which I need not tease Your patience by descanting on, are all You and I know in London.
Captain Medwin, who came late in the autumn of 1820, at his cousin's invitation, to stay with the Shelleys, has recorded many interesting details of their Pisan life, as well as valuable notes of Shelley's conversation. "It was nearly seven years since we had parted, but I should have immediately recognized him in a crowd. His figure was emaciated, and somewhat bent, owing to near-sightedness, and his being forced to lean over his books, with his eyes almost touching them; his hair, still profuse, and curling naturally, was partially interspersed with grey; but his appearance was youthful. There was also a freshness and purity in his complexion that he never lost." Not long after his arrival, Medwin suffered from a severe and tedious illness. "Shelley tended me like a brother. He applied my leeches, administered my medicines, and during six weeks that I was confined to my room, was assiduous and unintermitting in his affectionate care of me." The poet's solitude and melancholy at this time impressed his cousin very painfully. Though he was producing a long series of imperishable poems, he did not take much interest in his work. "I am disgusted with writing," he once said, "and were it not for an irresistible impulse, that predominates my better reason, should discontinue so doing." The brutal treatment he had lately received from the "Quarterly Review", the calumnies which pursued him, and the coldness of all but a very few friends, checked his enthusiasm for composition. Of this there is abundant proof in his correspondence. In a letter to Leigh Hunt, dated January 25, 1822, he says: "My faculties are shaken to atoms and torpid. I can write nothing; and if "Adonais" had no success, and excited no interest, what incentive can I have to write?" Again: "I write little now. It is impossible to compose except under the strong excitement of an assurance of finding sympathy in what you write." Lord Byron's company proved now, as before, a check rather than an incentive to production: "I do not write; I have lived too long near Lord Byron, and the sun has extinguished the glow-worm; for I cannot hope, with St. John, that THE LIGHT CAME INTO THE WORLD AND THE WORLD KNEW IT NOT." "I despair of rivalling Lord Byron, as well I may, and there is no other with whom it is worth contending." To Ollier, in 1820, he wrote: "I doubt whether I shall write more. I could be content either with the hell or the paradise of poetry; but the torments of its purgatory vex me, without exciting my powers sufficiently to put an end to the vexation." It was not that his spirit was cowed by the Reviews, or that he mistook the sort of audience he had to address. He more than once acknowledged that, while Byron wrote for the many, his poems were intended for the understanding few. Yet the sunetoi, as he called them, gave him but scanty encouragement. The cold phrases of kindly Horace Smith show that he had not comprehended "Prometheus Unbound"; and Shelley whimsically complains that even intelligent and sympathetic critics confounded the ideal passion described in "Epipsychidion" with the love affairs of "a servant-girl and her sweetheart." This almost incomprehensible obtuseness on the part of men who ought to have known better, combined with the coarse abuse of vulgar scribblers, was enough to make a man so sincerely modest as Shelley doubt his powers, or shrink from the severe labour of developing them. (See Medwin, volume 2 page 172, for Shelley's comment on the difficulty of the poet's art.) "The decision of the cause," he wrote to Mr. Gisborne, "whether or no I am a poet, is removed from the present time to the hour when our posterity shall assemble; but the court is a very severe one, and I fear that the verdict will be, guilty—death." Deep down in his own heart he had, however, less doubt: "This I know," he said to Medwin, "that whether in prosing or in versing, there is something in my writings that shall live for ever." And again, he writes to Hunt: "I am full of thoughts and plans, and should do something, if the feeble and irritable frame which encloses it was willing to obey the spirit. I fancy that then I should do great things." It seems almost certain that the incompleteness of many longer works designed in the Italian period, the abandonment of the tragedy on Tasso's story, the unfinished state of "Charles I", and the failure to execute the cherished plan of a drama suggested by the Book of Job, were due to the depressing effects of ill-health and external discouragement. Poetry with Shelley was no light matter. He composed under the pressure of intense excitement, and he elaborated his first draughts with minute care and severe self-criticism.
These words must not be taken as implying that he followed the Virgilian precedent of polishing and reducing the volume of his verses by an anxious exercise of calm reflection, or that he observed the Horatian maxim of deferring their publication till the ninth year. The contrary was notoriously the case with him. Yet it is none the less proved by the state of his manuscripts that his compositions, even as we now possess them, were no mere improvisations. The passage already quoted from his "Defence of Poetry" shows the high ideal he had conceived of the poet's duty toward his art; and it may be confidently asserted that his whole literary career was one long struggle to emerge from the incoherence of his earlier efforts, into the clearness of expression and precision of form that are the index of mastery over style. At the same time it was inconsistent with his most firmly rooted aesthetic principles to attempt composition except under an impulse approaching to inspiration. To imperil his life by the fiery taxing of all his faculties, moral, intellectual, and physical, and to undergo the discipline exacted by his own fastidious taste, with no other object in view than the frigid compliments of a few friends, was more than even Shelley's enthusiasm could endure. He, therefore, at this period required the powerful stimulus of some highly exciting cause from without to determine his activity.
Such external stimulus came to Shelley from three quarters early in the year 1821. Among his Italian acquaintances at Pisa was a clever but disreputable Professor, of whom Medwin draws a very piquant portrait. This man one day related the sad story of a beautiful and noble lady, the Contessina Emilia Viviani, who had been confined by her father in a dismal convent of the suburbs, to await her marriage with a distasteful husband. Shelley, fired as ever by a tale of tyranny, was eager to visit the fair captive. The Professor accompanied him and Medwin to the convent-parlour, where they found her more lovely than even the most glowing descriptions had led them to expect. Nor was she only beautiful. Shelley soon discovered that she had "cultivated her mind beyond what I have ever met in Italian women;" and a rhapsody composed by her upon the subject of Uranian Love—Il Vero Amore—justifies the belief that she possessed an intellect of more than ordinary elevation. He took Mrs. Shelley to see her, and both did all they could to make her convent-prison less irksome, by frequent visits, by letters, and by presents of flowers and books. It was not long before Shelley's sympathy for this unfortunate lady took the form of love, which, however spiritual and Platonic, was not the less passionate. The result was the composition of "Epipsychidion," the most unintelligible of all his poems to those who have not assimilated the spirit of Plato's "Symposium" and Dante's "Vita Nuova". In it he apostrophizes Emilia Viviani as the incarnation of ideal beauty, the universal loveliness made visible in mortal flesh:—
Seraph of Heaven! too gentle to be human, Veiling beneath that radiant form of woman All that is insupportable in thee Of light, and love, and immortality!
He tells her that he loves her, and describes the troubles and deceptions of his earlier manhood, under allegories veiled in delicate obscurity. The Pandemic and the Uranian Aphrodite have striven for his soul; for though in youth he dedicated himself to the service of ideal beauty, and seemed to find it under many earthly shapes, yet has he ever been deluded. At last Emily appears, and in her he recognizes the truth of the vision veiled from him so many years. She and Mary shall henceforth, like sun and moon, rule the world of love within him. Then he calls on her to fly. They three will escape and live together, far away from men, in an Aegean island. The description of this visionary isle, and of the life to be led there by the fugitives from a dull and undiscerning world, is the most beautiful that has been written this century in the rhymed heroic metre.
It is an isle under Ionian skies, Beautiful as a wreck of Paradise; And, for the harbours are not safe and good, This land would have remained a solitude But for some pastoral people native there, Who from the Elysian, clear, and golden air Draw the last spirit of the age of gold, Simple and spirited, innocent and bold. The blue Aegean girds this chosen home, With ever-changing sound and light and foam Kissing the sifted sands and caverns hoar; And all the winds wandering along the shore, Undulate with the undulating tide. There are thick woods where sylvan forms abide; And many a fountain, rivulet, and pond, As clear as elemental diamond, Or serene morning air. And far beyond, The mossy tracks made by the goats and deer, (Which the rough shepherd treads but once a year,) Pierce into glades, caverns, and bowers, and halls Built round with ivy, which the waterfalls Illumining, with sound that never fails Accompany the noonday nightingales; And all the place is peopled with sweet airs. The light clear element which the isle wears Is heavy with the scent of lemon-flowers, Which floats like mist laden with unseen showers, And falls upon the eyelids like faint sleep; And from the moss violets and jonquils peep, And dart the arrowy odour through the brain, Till you might faint with that delicious pain. And every motion, odour, beam, and tone, With that deep music is in unison: Which is a soul within a soul—they seem Like echoes of an antenatal dream. It is an isle 'twixt heaven, air, earth, and sea, Cradled, and hung in clear tranquillity; Bright as that wandering Eden, Lucifer, Washed by the soft blue oceans of young air. It is a favoured place. Famine or Blight, Pestilence, War, and Earthquake, never light Upon its mountain-peaks; blind vultures, they Sail onward far upon their fatal way. The winged storms, chanting their thunder-psalm To other lands, leave azure chasms of calm Over this isle, or weep themselves in dew, From which its fields and woods ever renew Their green and golden immortality. And from the sea there rise, and from the sky There fall, clear exhalations, soft and bright, Veil after veil, each hiding some delight, Which sun or moon or zephyr draws aside, Till the isle's beauty, like a naked bride Glowing at once with love and loveliness, Blushes and trembles at its own excess: Yet, like a buried lamp, a soul no less Burns in the heart of this delicious isle, An atom of the Eternal, whose own smile Unfolds itself, and may be felt not seen O'er the grey rocks, blue waves, and forests green, Filling their bare and void interstices.
Shelley did not publish "Epipsychidion" with his own name. He gave it to the world as a composition of a man who had "died at Florence, as he was preparing for a voyage to one of the Sporades," and he requested Ollier not to circulate it, except among a few intelligent readers. It may almost be said to have been never published, in such profound silence did it issue from the press. Very shortly after its appearance he described it to Leigh Hunt as "a portion of me already dead," and added this significant allusion to its subject matter:—"Some of us have in a prior existence been in love with Antigone, and that makes us find no full content in any mortal tie." In the letter of June 18, 1822, again he says:—"The 'Epipsychidion' I cannot look at; the person whom it celebrates was a cloud instead of a Juno; and poor Ixion starts from the Centaur that was the offspring of his own embrace. If you are curious, however, to hear what I am and have been, it will tell you something thereof. It is an idealized history of my life and feelings. I think one is always in love with something or other; the error, and I confess it is not easy for spirits cased in flesh and blood to avoid it, consists in seeking in a mortal image the likeness of what is, perhaps, eternal." This paragraph contains the essence of a just criticism. Brilliant as the poem is, we cannot read it with unwavering belief either in the author's sincerity at the time he wrote it, or in the permanence of the emotion it describes. The exordium has a fatal note of rhetorical exaggeration, not because the kind of passion is impossible, but because Shelley does not convince us that in this instance he had really been its subject. His own critique, following so close upon the publication of "Epipsychidion," confirms the impression made by it, and justifies the conclusion that he had utilized his feeling for Emilia to express a favourite doctrine in impassioned verse.
To students of Shelley's inner life "Epipsychidion" will always have high value, independently of its beauty of style, as containing his doctrine of love. It is the full expression of the esoteric principle presented to us in "Alastor", the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," and "Prince Athanase." But the words just quoted, which may be compared with Mrs. Shelley's note to "Prince Athanase," authorize our pointing out what he himself recognized as the defect of his theory. Instead of remaining true to the conception of Beauty expressed in the "Hymn," Shelley "sought through the world the One whom he may love." Thus, while his doctrine in "Epipsychidion" seems Platonic, it will not square with the "Symposium." Plato treats the love of a beautiful person as a mere initiation into divine mysteries, the first step in the ladder that ascends to heaven. When a man has formed a just conception of the universal beauty, he looks back with a smile upon those who find their soul's sphere in the love of some mere mortal object. Tested by this standard, Shelley's identification of Intellectual Beauty with so many daughters of earth, and his worshipping love of Emilia, is a spurious Platonism. Plato would have said that to seek the Idea of Beauty in Emilia Viviani was a retrogressive step. All that she could do, would be to quicken the soul's sense of beauty, to stir it from its lethargy, and to make it divine the eternal reality of beauty in the supersensual world of thought. This Shelley had already acknowledged in the "Hymn;" and this he emphasizes in these words:—"The error consists in seeking in a mortal image the likeness of what is, perhaps, eternal."
The fragments and cancelled passages published in Forman's edition do not throw much light upon "Epipsychidion." The longest, entitled "To his Genius" by its first editor, Mr. Garnett, reads like the induction to a poem conceived and written in a different key, and at a lower level of inspiration. It has, however, this extraordinary interest, that it deals with a love which is both love and friendship, above sex, spiritual, unintelligible to the world at large. Thus the fragment enables the student better to realize the kind of worship so passionately expressed in "Epipsychidion."
The news of Keats's death at Rome on the 27th of December, 1820, and the erroneous belief that it had been accelerated, if not caused, by a contemptible review of "Endymion" in the "Quarterly", stirred Shelley to the composition of "Adonais". He had it printed at Pisa, and sent copies to Ollier for circulation in London. This poem was a favourite with its author, who hoped not only that it might find acceptance with the public, but also that it would confer lustre upon the memory of a poet whom he sincerely admired. No criticisms upon Shelley's works are half so good as his own. It is, therefore, interesting to collect the passages in which he speaks of an elegy only equalled in our language by "Lycidas", and in the point of passionate eloquence even superior to Milton's youthful lament for his friend. "The 'Adonais', in spite of its mysticism," he writes to Ollier, "is the least imperfect of my compositions." "I confess I should be surprised if that poem were born to an immortality of oblivion." "It is a highly wrought PIECE OF ART, and perhaps better, in point of composition, than anything I have written." "It is absurd in any review to criticize 'Adonais', and still more to pretend that the verses are bad." "I know what to think of 'Adonais', but what to think of those who confound it with the many bad poems of the day, I know not." Again, alluding to the stanzas hurled against the infamous "Quarterly" reviewer, he says:—"I have dipped my pen in consuming fire for his destroyers; otherwise the style is calm and solemn."
With these estimates the reader of to-day will cordially agree. Although "Adonais" is not so utterly beyond the scope of other poets as "Prometheus" or "Epipsychidion," it presents Shelley's qualities in a form of even and sustained beauty, brought within the sphere of the dullest apprehensions. Shelley, we may notice, dwells upon the ART of the poem; and this perhaps, is what at first sight will strike the student most. He chose as a foundation for his work those laments of Bion for Adonis, and of Moschus for Bion, which are the most pathetic products of Greek idyllic poetry; and the transmutation of their material into the substance of highly spiritualized modern thought, reveals the potency of a Prospero's wand. It is a metamorphosis whereby the art of excellent but positive poets has been translated into the sphere of metaphysical imagination. Urania takes the place of Aphrodite; the thoughts and fancies and desires of the dead singer are substituted for Bion's cupids; and instead of mountain shepherds, the living bards of England are summoned to lament around the poet's bier. Yet it is only when Shelley frees himself from the influence of his models, that he soars aloft on mighty wing. This point, too, is the point of transition from death, sorrow, and the past to immortality, joy, and the rapture of the things that cannot pass away. The first and second portions of the poem are, at the same time, thoroughly concordant, and the passage from the one to the other is natural. Two quotations from "Adonais" will suffice to show the power and sweetness of its verse.
The first is a description of Shelley himself following Byron and Moore—the "Pilgrim of Eternity," and Ierne's "sweetest lyrist of her saddest wrong"—to the couch where Keats lies dead. There is both pathos and unconscious irony in his making these two poets the chief mourners, when we remember what Byron wrote about Keats in "Don Juan", and what Moore afterwards recorded of Shelley; and when we think, moreover, how far both Keats and Shelley have outsoared Moore, and disputed with Byron his supreme place in the heaven of poetry.
Midst others of less note, came one frail Form, A phantom among men, companionless As the last cloud of an expiring storm, Whose thunder is its knell. He, as I guess, Had gazed on Nature's naked loveliness, Actaeon-like, and now he fled astray With feeble steps o'er the world's wilderness, And his own thoughts, along that rugged way, Pursued like raging hounds their father and their prey.
A pard-like Spirit beautiful and swift— A love in desolation masked—a Power Girt round with weakness; it can scarce uplift The weight of the superincumbent hour; Is it a dying lamp, a falling shower, A breaking billow;—even whilst we speak Is it not broken? On the withering flower The killing sun smiles brightly: on a cheek The life can burn in blood, even while the heart may break.
His head was bound with pansies over-blown, And faded violets, white and pied and blue; And a light spear topped with a cypress cone, Round whose rude shaft dark ivy-tresses grew Yet dripping with the forest's noon-day dew, Vibrated, as the ever-beating heart Shook the weak hand that grasped it. Of that crew He came the last, neglected and apart; A herd-abandoned deer, struck by the hunter's dart.
The second passage is the peroration of the poem. Nowhere has Shelley expressed his philosophy of man's relation to the universe with more sublimity and with a more imperial command of language than in these stanzas. If it were possible to identify that philosophy with any recognized system of thought, it might be called pantheism. But it is difficult to affix a name, stereotyped by the usage of the schools, to the aerial spiritualism of its ardent and impassioned poet's creed.
The movement of the long melodious sorrow-song has just been interrupted by three stanzas, in which Shelley lashes the reviewer of Keats. He now bursts forth afresh into the music of consolation:—
Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep! He hath awakened from the dream of life. 'Tis we who, lost in stormy visions, keep With phantoms an unprofitable strife, And in mad trance strike with our spirit's knife Invulnerable nothings. WE decay Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief Convulse us and consume us day by day, And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.
He has outsoared the shadow of our night; Envy and calumny, and hate and pain, And that unrest which men miscall delight, Can touch him not and torture not again; From the contagion of the world's slow stain He is secure, and now can never mourn A heart grown cold, a head grown grey in vain; Nor, when the spirit's self has ceased to burn, With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn.
He lives, he wakes—'tis Death is dead, not he; Mourn not for Adonais.—Thou young Dawn, Turn all thy dew to splendour, for from thee The spirit thou lamentest is not gone; Ye caverns and ye forests, cease to moan! Cease, ye faint flowers and fountains, and thou Air Which like a mourning veil thy scarf hadst thrown O'er the abandoned Earth, now leave it bare Even to the joyous stars which smile on its despair!
He is made one with Nature: there is heard His voice in all her music, from the moan Of thunder, to the song of night's sweet bird; He is a presence to be felt and known In darkness and in light, from herb and stone, Spreading itself where'er that Power may move Which has withdrawn his being to its own; Which wields the world with never wearied love, Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.
He is a portion of the loveliness Which once he made more lovely: he doth bear His part, while the One Spirit's plastic stress Sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there All new successions to the forms they wear; Torturing th' unwilling dross that checks its flight To its own likeness, as each mass may bear; And bursting in its beauty and its might From trees and beasts and men into the Heaven's light.
But the absorption of the human soul into primeval nature-forces, the blending of the principle of thought with the universal spirit of beauty, is not enough to satisfy man's yearning after immortality. Therefore in the next three stanzas the indestructibility of the personal self is presented to us, as the soul of Adonais passes into the company of the illustrious dead who, like him, were untimely slain:—
The splendours of the firmament of time May be eclipsed, but are extinguished not: Like stars to their appointed height they climb, And death is a low mist which cannot blot The brightness it may veil. When lofty thought Lifts a young heart above its mortal lair, And love and life contend in it, for what Shall be its earthly doom, the dead live there, And move like winds of light on dark and stormy air.
The inheritors of unfulfilled renown Rose from their thrones, built beyond mortal thought, Far in the Unapparent. Chatterton Rose pale, his solemn agony had not Yet faded from him; Sidney, as he fought And as he fell, and as he lived and loved, Sublimely mild, a Spirit without spot, Arose; and Lucan, by his death approved:— Oblivion as they rose shrank like a thing reproved.
And many more, whose names on Earth are dark, But whose transmitted effluence cannot die So long as fire outlives the parent spark, Rose, robed in dazzling immortality. "Thou art become as one of us," they cry; "It was for thee yon kingless sphere has long Swung blind in unascended majesty, Silent alone amid an Heaven of song. Assume thy winged throne, thou Vesper of our throng!"
From the more universal and philosophical aspects of his theme, the poet once more turns to the special subject that had stirred him. Adonais lies dead; and those who mourn him must seek his grave. He has escaped: to follow him is to die; and where should we learn to dote on death unterrified, if not in Rome? In this way the description of Keat's resting-place beneath the pyramid of Cestius, which was also destined to be Shelley's own, is introduced:—
Who mourns for Adonais? oh come forth, Fond wretch! and show thyself and him aright. Clasp with thy panting soul the pendulous Earth; As from a centre, dart thy spirit's light Beyond all worlds, until its spacious might Satiate the void circumference: then shrink Even to a point within our day and night; And keep thy heart light, let it make thee sink When hope has kindled hope, and lured thee to the brink.
Or go to Rome, which is the sepulchre, Oh, not of him, but of our joy: 'tis nought That ages, empires, and religions there Lie buried in the ravage they have wrought; For such as he can lend,—they borrow not Glory from those who made the world their prey; And he is gathered to the kings of thought Who waged contention with their time's decay, And of the past are all that cannot pass away.
Go thou to Rome,—at once the Paradise, The grave, the city, and the wilderness; And where its wrecks like shattered mountains rise, And flowering weeds and fragrant corpses dress The bones of Desolation's nakedness, Pass, till the Spirit of the spot shall lead Thy footsteps to a slope of green access, Where, like an infant's smile, over the dead A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread;
And grey walls moulder round, on which dull Time Feeds, like slow fire upon a hoary brand; And one keen pyramid with wedge sublime, Pavilioning the dust of him who planned This refuge for his memory, doth stand Like flame transformed to marble; and beneath, A field is spread, on which a newer band Have pitched in Heaven's smile their camp of death, Welcoming him we lose with scarce extinguished breath.
Here pause: these graves are all too young as yet To have outgrown the sorrow which consigned Its charge to each; and if the seal is set, Here, on one fountain of a mourning mind, Break if not thou! too surely shalt thou find Thine own well full, if thou returnest home, Of tears and gall. From the world's bitter wind Seek shelter in the shadow of the tomb. What Adonais is, why fear we to become?
Yet again the thought of Death as the deliverer, the revealer, and the mystagogue, through whom the soul of man is reunited to the spirit of the universe, returns; and on this solemn note the poem closes. The symphony of exultation which had greeted the passage of Adonais into the eternal world, is here subdued to a graver key, as befits the mood of one whom mystery and mourning still oppress on earth. Yet even in the somewhat less than jubilant conclusion we feel that highest of all Shelley's qualities—the liberation of incalculable energies, the emancipation and expansion of a force within the soul, victorious over circumstance, exhilarated and elevated by contact with such hopes as make a feebler spirit tremble: