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Percy Bysshe Shelley by John Addington Symonds

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crude and immature. I am a devoted enemy to religious, political and
domestic oppression; and I regret this publication, not so much from
literary vanity as because I fear it is better fitted to injure than to
serve the sacred cause of freedom." This judgment is undoubtedly severe;
but, though exaggerated in its condemnation, it, like all Shelley's
criticisms on his own works, expresses the truth. We cannot include
"Queen Mab", in spite of its sonorous rhetoric and fervid declamation,
in the canon of his masterpieces. It had a succes de scandale on its
first appearance, and fatally injured Shelley's reputation. As a work of
art it lacks maturity and permanent vitality.

The Shelleys were suddenly driven away from Tanyrallt by a mysterious
occurrence, of which no satisfactory explanation has yet been given.
According to letters written by himself and Harriet soon after the
event, and confirmed by the testimony of Eliza, Shelley was twice
attacked upon the night of February 24 by an armed ruffian, with whom he
struggled in hand-to-hand combat. Pistols were fired and windows broken,
and Shelley's nightgown was shot through: but the assassin made his
escape from the house without being recognized. His motive and his
personality still remain matters of conjecture. Whether the whole affair
was a figment of Shelley's brain, rendered more than usually susceptible
by laudanum taken to assuage intense physical pain; whether it was a
perilous hoax played upon him by the Irish servant, Daniel Hill; or
whether, as he himself surmised, the crime was instigated by an
unfriendly neighbour, it is impossible to say. Strange adventures of
this kind, blending fact and fancy in a now inextricable tangle, are of
no unfrequent occurrence in Shelley's biography. In estimating the
relative proportions of the two factors in this case, it must be borne
in mind, on the one hand, that no one but Shelley, who was alone in the
parlour, and who for some unexplained reason had loaded his pistols on
the evening before the alleged assault, professed to have seen the
villain; and, on the other, that the details furnished by Harriet, and
confirmed at a subsequent period by so hostile a witness as Eliza, are
too circumstantial to be lightly set aside.

On the whole it appears most probable that Shelley on this night was the
subject of a powerful hallucination. The theory of his enemies at
Tanyrallt, that the story had been invented to facilitate his escape
from the neighbourhood without paying his bills, may be dismissed. But
no investigation on the spot could throw any clear light on the
circumstance, and Shelley's friends, Hogg, Peacock, and Mr. Madocks,
concurred in regarding the affair as a delusion.

There was no money in the common purse of the Shelleys at this moment.
In their distress they applied to Mr. T. Hookham, a London publisher,
who sent them enough to carry them across the Irish channel. After a
short residence in 35, Cuffe Street, Dublin, and a flying visit to
Killarney, they returned to London. Eliza, for some reason as
unexplained as the whole episode of this second visit to Ireland, was
left behind for a short season. The flight from Tanyrallt closes the
first important period of Shelley's life; and his settlement in London
marks the beginning of another, fruitful of the gravest consequences and
decisive of his future.



Early in May the Shelleys arrived in London, where they were soon joined
by Eliza, from whose increasingly irksome companionship the poet had
recently enjoyed a few weeks' respite. After living for a short while in
hotels, they took lodgings in Half Moon Street. The house had a
projecting window, where the poet loved to sit with book in hand, and
catch, according to his custom, the maximum of sunlight granted by a
chary English summer. "He wanted," said one of his female admirers,
"only a pan of clear water and a fresh turf to look like some young
lady's lark, hanging outside for air and song." According to Hogg, this
period of London life was a pleasant and tranquil episode in Shelley's
troubled career. His room was full of books, among which works of German
metaphysics occupied a prominent place, though they were not deeply
studied. He was now learning Italian, and made his first acquaintance
with Tasso, Ariosto, and Petrarch.

The habits of the household were, to say the least, irregular; for
Shelley took no thought of sublunary matters, and Harriet was an
indifferent housekeeper. Dinner seems to have come to them less by
forethought than by the operation of divine chance; and when there was
no meat provided for the entertainment of casual guests, the table was
supplied with buns, procured by Shelley from the nearest pastry-cook. He
had already abjured animal food and alcohol; and his favourite diet
consisted of pulse or bread, which he ate dry with water, or made into
panada. Hogg relates how, when he was walking in the streets and felt
hungry, he would dive into a baker's shop and emerge with a loaf tucked
under his arm. $This he consumed as he went along, very often reading at
the same time, and dodging the foot-passengers with the rapidity of
movement which distinguished him. He could not comprehend how any man
should want more than bread. "I have dropped a word, a hint," says Hogg,
"about a pudding; a pudding, Bysshe said dogmatically, is a prejudice."
This indifference to diet was highly characteristic of Shelley. During
the last years of his life, even when he was suffering from the frequent
attacks of a painful disorder, he took no heed of food; and his friend,
Trelawny, attributes the derangement of his health, in a great measure,
to this carelessness. Mrs. Shelley used to send him something to eat
into the room where he habitually studied; but the plate frequently
remained untouched for hours upon a bookshelf, and at the end of the day
he might be heard asking, "Mary, have I dined?" His dress was no less
simple than his diet. Hogg says that he never saw him in a great coat,
and that his collar was unbuttoned to let the air play freely on his
throat. "In the street or road he reluctantly wore a hat; but in fields
and gardens, his little round head had no other covering than his long,
wild, ragged locks." Shelley's head, as is well known, was remarkably
small and round; he used to plunge it several times a day in cold water,
and expose it recklessly to the intensest heat of fire or sun. Mrs.
Shelley relates that a great part of the "Cenci" was written on their
house-roof near Leghorn, where Shelley lay exposed to the unmitigated
ardour of Italian summer heat; and Hogg describes him reading Homer by a
blazing fire-light, or roasting his skull upon the hearth-rug by the

These personal details cannot be omitted by the biographer of such a man
as Shelley. He was an elemental and primeval creature, as little subject
to the laws of custom in his habits as in his modes of thought, living
literally as the spirit moved him, with a natural nonchalance that has
perhaps been never surpassed. To time and place he was equally
indifferent, and could not be got to remember his engagements. "He took
strange caprices, unfounded frights and dislikes, vain apprehensions and
panic terrors, and therefore he absented himself from formal and sacred
engagements. He was unconscious and oblivious of times, places, persons
and seasons; and falling into some poetic vision, some day-dream, he
quickly and completely forgot all that he had repeatedly and solemnly
promised; or he ran away after some object of imaginary urgency and
importance, which suddenly came into his head, setting off in vain
pursuit of it, he knew not whither. When he was caught, brought up in
custody, and turned over to the ladies, with, Behold, your King! to be
caressed, courted, admired, and flattered, the king of beauty and fancy
would too commonly bolt; slip away, steal out, creep off; unobserved and
almost magically he vanished; thus mysteriously depriving his fair
subjects of his much-coveted, long looked-for company." If he had been
fairly caged and found himself in congenial company, he let time pass
unheeded, sitting up all night to talk, and chaining his audience by the
spell of his unrivalled eloquence; for wonderful as was his poetry,
those who enjoyed the privilege of converse with him, judged it even
more attractive. "He was commonly most communicative, unreserved, and
eloquent, and enthusiastic, when those around him were inclining to
yield to the influence of sleep, or rather at the hour when they would
have been disposed to seek their chambers, but for the bewitching charms
of his discourse."

From Half Moon Street the Shelleys moved into a house in Pimlico; and it
was here, according to Hogg, or at Cooke's Hotel in Dover Street
according to other accounts, that Shelley's first child, Ianthe Eliza,
was born about the end of June, 1813. Harriet did not take much to her
little girl, and gave her over to a wet-nurse, for whom Shelley
conceived a great dislike. That a mother should not nurse her own baby
was no doubt contrary to his principles; and the double presence of the
servant and Eliza, whom he now most cordially detested, made his home
uncomfortable. We have it on excellent authority, that of Mr. Peacock,
that he "was extremely fond of it (the child), and would walk up and
down a room with it in his arms for a long time together, singing to it
a song of his own making, which ran on the repetition of a word of his
own coining. His song was YŠhmani, YŠhmani, YŠhmani, YŠhmani." To the
want of sympathy between the father and the mother in this matter of
Ianthe, Mr. Peacock is inclined to attribute the beginning of troubles
in the Shelley household. There is, indeed, no doubt that the revelation
of Harriet's maternal coldness must have been extremely painful to her
husband; and how far she carried her insensibility, may be gathered from
a story told by Hogg about her conduct during an operation performed
upon the child.

During this period of his sojourn in London, Shelley was again in some
pecuniary difficulties. Yet he indulged Harriet's vanity by setting up a
carriage, in which they afterwards took a hurried journey to Edinburgh
and back. He narrowly escaped a debtor's prison through this act of
extravagance, and by a somewhat ludicrous mistake Hogg was arrested for
the debt due to the coach-maker. His acquaintances were few and
scattered, and he saw nothing of his family. Gradually, however, he
seems to have become a kind of prophet in a coterie of learned ladies.
The views he had propounded in "Queen Mab", his passionate belief in the
perfectibility of man, his vegetarian doctrines, and his readiness to
adopt any new nostrum for the amelioration of his race, endeared him to
all manners of strange people; nor was he deterred by aristocratic
prejudices from frequenting society which proved extremely uncongenial
to Hogg, and of which we have accordingly some caustic sketches from his
pen. His chief friends were a Mrs. Boinville, for whom he conceived an
enthusiastic admiration, and her daughter Cornelia, married to a
vegetarian, Mr. Newton. In order to be near them he had moved to
Pimlico; and his next move, from London to a cottage named High Elms, at
Bracknell, in Berkshire, had the same object. With Godwin and his family
he was also on terms of familiar intercourse. Under the philosopher's
roof in Skinner Street there was now gathered a group of miscellaneous
inmates--Fanny Imlay, the daughter of his first wife, Mary
Wollstonecraft; Mary, his own daughter by the same marriage; his second
wife, and her two children, Claire and Charles Clairmont, the offspring
of a previous union. From this connexion with the Godwin household
events of the gravest importance in the future were destined to arise,
and already it appears that Fanny Imlay had begun to look with perilous
approval on the fascinating poet. Hogg and Mr. Peacock, the well-known
novelist, described by Mrs. Newton as "a cold scholar, who, I think, has
neither taste nor feeling," were his only intimates.

Mrs. Newton's unfair judgment of Mr. Peacock marks a discord between the
two chief elements of Shelley's present society; and indeed it will
appear to a careful student of his biography that Hogg, Peacock, and
Harriet, now stood somewhat by themselves and aloof from the inner
circle of his associates. If we regard the Shelleys as the centre of an
extended line, we shall find the Westbrook family at one end, the
Boinville family at the other, with Hogg and Peacock somewhere in the
middle. Harriet was naturally drawn to the Westbrook extremity, and
Shelley to the Boinville. Peacock had no affinity for either, but a
sincere regard for Harriet as well as for her husband; while Hogg was in
much the same position, except that he had made friends with Mrs.
Newton. The Godwins, of great importance to Shelley himself, exercised
their influence at a distance from the rest. Frequent change from
Bracknell to London and back again, varied by the flying journey to
Edinburgh, and a last visit paid in strictest secrecy to his mother and
sisters, at Field Place, of which a very interesting record is left in
the narrative of Mr. Kennedy, occupied the interval between July, 1813,
and March, 1814. The period was not productive of literary masterpieces.
We only hear of a "Refutation of Deism", a dialogue between Eusebes and
Theosophus, which attacked all forms of Theistic belief.

Since we are now approaching the gravest crisis in Shelley's life, it
behoves us to be more than usually careful in considering his
circumstances at this epoch. His home had become cold and dull. Harriet
did not love her child, and spent her time in a great measure with her
Mount Street relations. Eliza was a source of continual irritation, and
the Westbrook family did its best, by interference and suggestion, to
refrigerate the poet's feelings for his wife. On the other hand he found
among the Boinville set exactly that high-flown, enthusiastic,
sentimental atmosphere which suited his idealizing temper. Two extracts
from a letter written to Hogg upon the 16th of March, 1814, speak more
eloquently than any analysis, and will place before the reader the
antagonism which had sprung up in Shelley's mind between his own home
and the circle of his new friends:--"I have been staying with Mrs. B--
for the last month; I have escaped, in the society of all that
philosophy and friendship combine, from the dismaying solitude of
myself. They have revived in my heart the expiring flame of life. I have
felt myself translated to a paradise, which has nothing of mortality but
its transitoriness; my heart sickens at the view of that necessity,
which will quickly divide me from the delightful tranquillity of this
happy home,--for it has become my home. The trees, the bridge, the
minutest objects, have already a place in my affections."

"Eliza is still with us--not here!--but will be with me when the
infinite malice of destiny forces me to depart. I am now but little
inclined to contest this point. I certainly hate her with all my heart
and soul. It is a sight which awakens an inexpressible sensation of
disgust and horror, to see her caress my poor little Ianthe, in whom I
may hereafter find the consolation of sympathy. I sometimes feel faint
with the fatigue of checking the overflowings of my unbounded abhorrence
for this miserable wretch. But she is no more than a blind and loathsome
worm, that cannot see to sting."

While divided in this way between a home which had become distasteful to
him, and a house where he found scope for his most romantic outpourings
of sensibility, Shelley fell suddenly and passionately in love with
Godwin's daughter, Mary. Peacock, who lived in close intimacy with him
at this period, must deliver his testimony as to the overwhelming nature
of the new attachment:--"Nothing that I ever read in tale or history
could present a more striking image of a sudden, violent, irresistible,
uncontrollable passion, than that under which I found him labouring
when, at his request, I went up from the country to call on him in
London. Between his old feelings towards Harriet, FROM WHOM HE WAS NOT
THEN SEPARATED, and his new passion for Mary, he showed in his looks, in
his gestures, in his speech, the state of a mind 'suffering, like a
little kingdom, the nature of an insurrection.' His eyes were bloodshot,
his hair and dress disordered. He caught up a bottle of laudanum, and
said, 'I never part from this.'"

We may therefore affirm, I think, with confidence that in the winter and
spring of 1814, Shelley had been becoming gradually more and more
estranged from Harriet, whose commonplace nature was no mate for his,
and whom he had never loved with all the depth of his affection; that
his intimacy with the Boinville family had brought into painful
prominence whatever was jarring and repugnant to him in his home; and
that in this crisis of his fate he had fallen in love for the first time
seriously with Mary Godwin. (The date at which he first made Mary's
acquaintance is uncertain. Peacock says that it was between April 18 and
June 8.) She was then a girl of sixteen, "fair and fair-haired, pale
indeed, and with a piercing look," to quote Hogg's description of her,
as she first appeared before him on the 8th or 9th of June, 1814. With
her freedom from prejudice, her tense and high-wrought sensibility, her
acute intellect, enthusiasm for ideas, and vivid imagination, Mary
Godwin was naturally a fitter companion for Shelley than the good
Harriet, however beautiful.

That Shelley early in 1814 had no intention of leaving his wife, is
probable; for he was re-married to her on the 24th of March, eight days
after his impassioned letter to Hogg, in St. George's, Hanover Square.
Harriet was pregnant, and this ratification of the Scotch marriage was
no doubt intended to place the legitimacy of a possible heir beyond all
question. Yet it seems, if we may found conjecture on "Stanzas, April,
1814," that in the very month after this new ceremony Shelley found the
difficulties of his wedded life insuperable, and that he was already
making up his mind to part from Harriet. About the middle of June the
separation actually occurred--not by mutual consent, so far as any
published documents throw light on the matter, but rather by Shelley's
sudden abandonment of his wife and child. (Leigh Hunt, Autobiography
page 236, and Medwin, however, both assert that it was by mutual
consent. The whole question must be studied in Peacock and in Garnett,
Relics of Shelly, page 147.) For a short while Harriet was left in
ignorance of his abode, and with a very insufficient sum of money at her
disposal. She placed herself under the protection of her father, retired
to Bath, and about the beginning of July received a letter from Shelley,
who was thenceforth solicitous for her welfare, keeping up a
correspondence with her, supplying her with funds, and by no means
shrinking from personal communications.

That Shelley must bear the responsibility of this separation seems to me
quite clear. His justification is to be found in his avowed opinions on
the subject of love and marriage--opinions which Harriet knew well and
professed to share, and of which he had recently made ample confession
in the notes to "Queen Mab". The world will still agree with Lord Eldon
in regarding those opinions as dangerous to society, and a blot upon the
poet's character; but it would be unfair, while condemning them as
frankly as he professed them, to blame him also because he did not
conform to the opposite code of morals, for which he frequently
expressed extreme abhorrence, and which he stigmatized, however wrongly,
as the source of the worst social vices. It must be added that the
Shelley family in their memorials of the poet, and through their friend,
Mr. Richard Garnett, inform us, without casting any slur on Harriet,
that documents are extant which will completely vindicate the poet's
conduct in this matter. It is therefore but just to await their
publication before pronouncing a decided judgment. Meanwhile there
remains no doubt about the fact that forty days after leaving Harriet,
Shelley departed from London with Mary Godwin, who had consented to
share his fortunes. How he plighted his new troth, and won the hand of
her who was destined to be his companion for life, may best be told in
Lady Shelley's words:--

"His anguish, his isolation, his difference from other men, his gifts of
genius and eloquent enthusiasm, made a deep impression on Godwin's
daughter Mary, now a girl of sixteen, who had been accustomed to hear
Shelley spoken of as something rare and strange. To her, as they met one
eventful day in St. Pancras Churchyard, by her mother's grave, Bysshe,
in burning words, poured forth the tale of his wild past--how he had
suffered, how he had been misled, and how, if supported by her love, he
hoped in future years to enrol his name with the wise and good who had
done battle for the fellow-men, and been true through all adverse storms
to the cause of humanity. Unhesitatingly, she placed her hand in his,
and linked her fortune with his own; and most truthfully, as the
remaining portions of these Memorials will prove, was the pledge of both
redeemed. The theories in which the daughter of the authors of
"Political Justice", and of the "Rights of Woman", had been educated,
spared her from any conflict between her duty and her affection. For she
was the child of parents whose writings had had for their object to
prove that marriage was one among the many institutions which a new era
in the history of mankind was about to sweep away. By her father, whom
she loved--by the writings of her mother, whom she had been taught to
venerate--these doctrines had been rendered familiar to her mind. It was
therefore natural that she should listen to the dictates of her own
heart, and willingly unite her fate with one who was so worthy of her

Soon after her withdrawal to Bath, Harriet gave birth to Shelley's
second child, Charles Bysshe, who died in 1826. She subsequently formed
another connexion which proved unhappy; and on the 10th of November,
1816, she committed suicide by drowning herself in the Serpentine. The
distance of time between June, 1814, and November, 1816, and the new
ties formed by Harriet in this interval, prove that there was no
immediate connexion between Shelley's abandonment of his wife and her
suicide. She had always entertained the thought of self-destruction, as
Hogg, who is no adverse witness in her case, has amply recorded; and it
may be permitted us to suppose that, finding herself for the second time
unhappy in her love, she reverted to a long-since cherished scheme, and
cut the knot of life and all its troubles.

So far as this is possible, I have attempted to narrate the most painful
period in Shelley's life as it occurred, without extenuation and without
condemnation. Until the papers, mentioned with such insistence by Lady
Shelley and Mr. Garnett, are given to the world, it is impossible that
the poet should not bear the reproach of heartlessness and inconstancy
in this the gravest of all human relations. Such, however, is my belief
in the essential goodness of his character, after allowing, as we must
do, for the operation of his peculiar principles upon his conduct, that
I for my own part am willing to suspend my judgment till the time
arrives for his vindication. The language used by Lady Shelley and Mr.
Garnett justify us in expecting that that vindication will be as
startling as complete. If it is not, they, as pleading for him, will
have overshot the mark of prudence.

On the 28th of July Shelley left London with Mary Godwin, who up to this
date had remained beneath her father's roof. There was some secrecy in
their departure, because they were accompanied by Miss Clairmont, whose
mother disapproved of her forming a third in the party. Having made
their way to Dover, they crossed the Channel in an open boat, and went
at once to Paris. Here they hired a donkey for their luggage, intending
to perform the journey across France on foot. Shelley, however, sprained
his ancle, and a mule-carriage was provided for the party. In this
conveyance they reached the Jura, and entered Switzerland at Neufchatel.
Brunnen, on the Lake of Lucerne, was chosen for their residence; and
here Shelley began his romantic tale of "The Assassins", a portion of
which is printed in his prose works. Want of money compelled them soon
to think of turning their steps homeward; and the back journey was
performed upon the Reuss and Rhine. They reached Gravesend, after a bad
passage, on the 13th of September. Mrs. Shelley's "History of a Six
Week's Tour" relates the details of this trip, which was of great
importance in forming Shelley's taste, and in supplying him with the
scenery of river, rock, and mountain, so splendidly utilized in

The autumn was a period of more than usual money difficulty; but on the
6th of January, 1815, Sir Bysshe died, Percy became the next heir to the
baronetcy and the family estates, and an arrangement was made with his
father by right of which he received an allowance of 1000 pounds a year.
A portion of his income was immediately set apart for Harriet. The
winter was passed in London, where Shelley walked a hospital, in order,
it is said, to acquire some medical knowledge that might be of service
to the poor he visited. His own health at this period was very bad. A
physician whom he consulted pronounced that he was rapidly sinking under
pulmonary disease, and he suffered frequent attacks of acute pain. The
consumptive symptoms seem to have been so marked that for the next three
years he had no doubt that he was destined to an early death. In 1818,
however, all danger of phthisis passed away; and during the rest of his
short life he only suffered from spasms and violent pains in the side,
which baffled the physicians, but, though they caused him extreme
anguish, did not menace any vital organ. To the subject of his health it
will be necessary to return at a later period of this biography. For the
present it is enough to remember that his physical condition was such as
to justify his own expectation of death at no distant time. (See Letter
to Godwin in Shelley's Memorials, page 78.)

Fond as ever of wandering, Shelley set out in the early summer for a
tour with Mary. They visited Devonshire and Clifton, and then settled in
a house on Bishopsgate Heath, near Windsor Forest. The summer was
further broken by a water excursion up the Thames to its source, in the
company of Mr. Peacock and Charles Clairmont. Peacock traces the poet's
taste for boating, which afterwards became a passion with him, to this
excursion. About this there is, however, some doubt. Medwin tells us
that Shelley while a boy delighted in being on the water, and that he
enjoyed the pastime at Eton. On the other hand, Mr. W.S. Halliday, a far
better authority than Medwin, asserts positively that he never saw
Shelley on the river at Eton, and Hogg relates nothing to prove that he
practised rowing at Oxford. It is certain that, though inordinately fond
of boats and every kind of water--river, sea, lake, or canal--he never
learned to swim. Peacock also notices his habit of floating paper boats,
and gives an amusing description of the boredom suffered by Hogg on
occasions when Shelley would stop by the side of a pond or mere to float
a mimic navy. The not altogether apocryphal story of his having once
constructed a boat out of a bank-post-bill, and launched it on the lake
in Kensington Gardens, deserves to be alluded to in this connexion.

On their return from this river journey, Shelley began the poem of
"Alastor", haunting the woodland glades and oak groves of Windsor
Forest, and drawing from that noble scenery his inspiration. It was
printed with a few other poems in one volume the next year. Not only was
"Alastor" the first serious poem published by Shelley; but it was also
the first of his compositions which revealed the greatness of his
genius. Rarely has blank verse been written with more majesty and music;
and while the influence of Milton and Wordsworth may be traced in
certain passages, the versification, tremulous with lyrical vibrations,
is such as only Shelley could have produced.

"Alastor" is the Greek name for a vengeful daemon, driving its victim
into desert places; and Shelley, prompted by Peacock, chose it for the
title of a poem which describes the Nemesis of solitary souls. Apart
from its intrinsic merit as a work of art, "Alastor" has great
autobiographical value. Mrs. Shelley affirms that it was written under
the expectation of speedy death, and under the sense of disappointment,
consequent upon the misfortunes of his early life. This accounts for the
somewhat unhealthy vein of sentiment which threads the wilderness of its
sublime descriptions. All that Shelley had observed of natural
beauty--in Wales, at Lynton, in Switzerland, upon the eddies of the
Reuss, beneath the oak shades of the forest--is presented to us in a
series of pictures penetrated with profound emotion. But the deeper
meaning of "Alastor" is to be found, not in the thought of death nor in
the poet's recent communings with nature, but in the motto from St.
Augustine placed upon its title page, and in the "Hymn to Intellectual
Beauty", composed about a year later. Enamoured of ideal loveliness, the
poet pursues his vision through the universe, vainly hoping to assuage
the thirst which has been stimulated in his spirit, and vainly longing
for some mortal realization of his love. "Alastor", like
"Epipsychidion," reveals the mistake which Shelley made in thinking that
the idea of beauty could become incarnate for him in any earthly form:
while the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" recognizes the truth that such
realization of the ideal is impossible. The very last letter written by
Shelley sets the misconception in its proper light: "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."
But this Shelley discovered only with "the years that bring the
philosophic mind," and when he was upon the very verge of his untimely

The following quotation is a fair specimen of the blank verse of
"Alastor". It expresses that longing for perfect sympathy in an ideal
love, which the sense of divine beauty had stirred in the poet's

At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore
He paused, a wide and melancholy waste
Of putrid marshes. A strong impulse urged
His steps to the sea-shore. A swan was there,
Beside a sluggish stream among the reeds.
It rose as he approached, and, with strong wings
Scaling the upward sky, bent its bright course
High over the immeasurable main.
His eyes pursued its flight:--"Thou hast a home,
Beautiful bird! thou voyagest to thine home,
Where thy sweet mate will twine her downy neck
With thine, and welcome thy return with eyes
Bright in the lustre of their own fond joy.
And what am I that I should linger here,
With voice far sweeter than thy dying notes,
Spirit more vast than thine, frame more attuned
To beauty, wasting these surpassing powers
In the deaf air, to the blind earth, and heaven
That echoes not my thoughts?" A gloomy smile
Of desperate hope wrinkled his quivering lips.
For Sleep, he knew, kept most relentlessly
Its precious charge, and silent Death exposed,
Faithless perhaps as Sleep, a shadowy lure,
With doubtful smile mocking its own strange charms.

William, the eldest son of Shelley and Mary Godwin, was born on the 24th
of January, 1816. In the spring of that year they went together,
accompanied by Miss Clairmont, for a second time to Switzerland. They
reached Geneva on the 17th of May and were soon after joined by Lord
Byron and his travelling physician, Dr. Polidori. Shelley had not yet
made Byron's acquaintance, though he had sent him a copy of "Queen Mab",
with a letter, which miscarried in the post. They were now thrown into
daily intercourse, occupying the villas Diodati and Mount Alegre, at no
great distance from each other, passing their days upon the lake in a
boat which they purchased, and spending the nights in conversation. Miss
Clairmont had known Byron in London, and their acquaintance now ripened
into an intimacy, the fruit of which was the child Allegra. This fact
has to be mentioned by Shelley's biographer, because Allegra afterwards
became an inmate of his home; and though he and Mary were ignorant of
what was passing at Geneva, they did not withdraw their sympathy from
the mother of Lord Byron's daughter. The lives of Byron and Shelley
during the next six years were destined to be curiously blent. Both were
to seek in Italy an exile-home; while their friendship was to become one
of the most interesting facts of English literary history. The influence
of Byron upon Shelley, as he more than once acknowledged, and as his
wife plainly perceived, was, to a great extent, depressing. For Byron's
genius and its fruits in poetry he entertained the highest possible
opinion. He could not help comparing his own achievement and his fame
with Byron's; and the result was that in the presence of one whom he
erroneously believed to be the greater poet, he became inactive.
Shelley, on the contrary, stimulated Byron's productive faculty to
nobler efforts, raised his moral tone, and infused into his less subtle
intellect something of his own philosophical depth and earnestness. Much
as he enjoyed Byron's society and admired his writing, Shelley was not
blind to the imperfections of his nature. The sketch which he has left
us of Count Maddalo, the letters written to his wife from Venice and
Ravenna, and his correspondence on the subject of Leigh Hunt's visit to
Italy, supply the most discriminating criticism which has yet been
passed upon his brother poet's character. It is clear that he never
found in Byron a perfect friend, and that he had not accepted him as one
with whom he sympathized upon the deeper questions of feeling and
conduct. Byron, for his part, recognized in Shelley the purest nature he
had ever known. "He was the most gentle, the most amiable, and least
worldly-minded person I ever met; full of delicacy, disinterested beyond
all other men, and possessing a degree of genius joined to simplicity as
rare as it is admirable. He had formed to himself a beau ideal of all
that is fine, high-minded, and noble, and he acted up to this ideal even
to the very letter."

Toward the end of June the two poets made the tour of Lake Geneva in
their boat, and were very nearly wrecked off the rocks of Meillerie. On
this occasion Shelley was in imminent danger of death from drowning. His
one anxiety, however, as he wrote to Peacock, was lest Byron should
attempt to save him at the risk of his own life. Byron described him as
"bold as a lion;" and indeed it may here be said, once and for all, that
Shelley's physical courage was only equalled by his moral fearlessness.
He carried both without bravado to the verge of temerity, and may justly
be said to have never known what terror was. Another summer excursion
was a visit to Chamouni, of which he has left memorable descriptions in
his letters to Peacock, and in the somewhat Coleridgian verses on Mont
Blanc. The preface to "Laon and Cythna" shows what a powerful impression
had been made upon him by the glaciers, and how he delighted in the
element of peril. There is a tone of exultation in the words which
record the experiences of his two journeys in Switzerland and
France:--"I have been familiar from boyhood with mountains and lakes and
the sea, and the solitude of forests. Danger, which sports upon the
brink of precipices, has been my playmate. I have trodden the glaciers
of the Alps, and lived under the eye of Mont Blanc. I have been a
wanderer among distant fields. I have sailed down mighty rivers, and
seen the sun rise and set, and the stars come forth, whilst I have
sailed night and day down a rapid stream among mountains. I have seen
populous cities, and have watched the passions which rise and spread,
and sink and change amongst assembled multitudes of men. I have seen the
theatre of the more visible ravages of tyranny and war, cities and
villages reduced to scattered groups of black and roofless houses, and
the naked inhabitants sitting famished upon their desolated thresholds."

On their return to the lake, the Shelleys found M.G. Lewis established
with Byron. This addition to the circle introduced much conversation
about apparitions, and each member of the party undertook to produce a
ghost story. Polidori's "Vampyre" and Mrs. Shelley's "Frankenstein" were
the only durable results of their determination. But an incident
occurred which is of some importance in the history of Shelley's
psychological condition. Toward midnight on the 18th of July, Byron
recited the lines in "Christabel" about the lady's breast; when Shelley
suddenly started up, shrieked, and fled from the room. He had seen a
vision of a woman with eyes instead of nipples. At this time he was
writing notes upon the phenomena of sleep to be inserted in his
"Speculations on Metaphysics", and Mrs. Shelley informs us that the mere
effort to remember dreams of thrilling or mysterious import so disturbed
his nervous system that he had to relinquish the task. At no period of
his life was he wholly free from visions which had the reality of facts.
Sometimes they occurred in sleep, and were prolonged with painful
vividness into his waking moments. Sometimes they seemed to grow out of
his intense meditation, or to present themselves before his eyes as the
projection of a powerful inner impression. All his sensations were
abnormally acute, and his ever-active imagination confused the
border-lands of the actual and the visionary. Such a nature as
Shelley's, through its far greater susceptibility than is common even
when with artistic temperaments, was debarred in moments of high-strung
emotion from observing the ordinary distinctions of subject and object;
and this peculiar quality must never be forgotten when we seek to
estimate the proper proportions of Dichtung and Wahreit in certain
episodes of his biography. The strange story, for example, told by
Peacock about a supposed warning he had received in the spring of this
year from Mr. Williams of Tremadoc, may possibly be explained on the
hypothesis that his brooding thoughts had taken form before him, both
ear and eye having been unconsciously pressed into the service of a
subjective energy. (Fraser's Magazine, January, 1860, page 98.)

On their return to England in September, Shelley took a cottage at Great
Marlow on the Thames, in order to be near his friend Peacock. While it
was being prepared for the reception of his family, he stayed at Bath,
and there heard of Harriet's suicide. The life that once was dearest to
him, had ended thus in misery, desertion, want. The mother of his two
children, abandoned by both her husband and her lover, and driven from
her father's home, had drowned herself after a brief struggle with
circumstance. However Shelley may have felt that his conscience was free
from blame, however small an element of self-reproach may have mingled
with his grief and horror, there is no doubt that he suffered most
acutely. His deepest ground for remorse seems to have been the
conviction that he had drawn Harriet into a sphere of thought and
feeling for which she was not qualified, and that had it not been for
him and his opinions, she might have lived a happy woman in some common
walk of life. One of his biographers asserts that "he continued to be
haunted by certain recollections, partly real and partly imaginative,
which pursued him like an Orestes," and even Trelawny, who knew him only
in the last months of his life, said that the impression of that
dreadful moment was still vivid. We may trace the echo of his feelings
in some painfully pathetic verses written in 1817 (Forman, 3 148.); and
though he did not often speak of Harriet, Peacock has recorded one
memorable occasion on which he disclosed the anguish of his spirit to a
friend. (Fraser, January, 1860, page 102.)

Shelley hurried at once to London, and found some consolation in the
society of Leigh Hunt. The friendship extended to him by that excellent
man at this season of his trouble may perhaps count for something with
those who are inclined to judge him harshly. Two important events
followed immediately upon the tragedy. The first was Shelley's marriage
with Mary Godwin on the 30th of December, 1816. Whether Shelley would
have taken this step except under strong pressure from without, appears
to me very doubtful. Of all men who ever lived, he was the most
resolutely bent on confirming his theories by his practice; and in this
instance there was no valid reason why he should not act up to
principles professed in common by himself and the partner of his
fortunes, no less than by her father and mother. It is, therefore,
reasonable to suppose that he yielded to arguments; and these arguments
must have been urged by Godwin, who had never treated him with
cordiality since he left England in 1816. Godwin, though overrated in
his generation, and almost ludicrously idealized by Shelley, was a man
whose talents verged on genius. But he was by no means consistent. His
conduct in money-matters shows that he could not live the life of a
self-sufficing philosopher; while the irritation he expressed when
Shelley omitted to address him as Esquire, stood in comic contradiction
with his published doctrines. We are therefore perhaps justified in
concluding that he worried Shelley, the one enthusiastic and
thorough-going follower he had, into marrying his daughter in spite of
his disciple's protestations; nor shall we be far wrong if we surmise
that Godwin congratulated himself on Mary's having won the right to bear
the name of a future baronet.

The second event was the refusal of Mr. Westbrook to deliver up the
custody of his grandchildren. A chancery suit was instituted; at the
conclusion of which, in August, 1817, Lord Eldon deprived Shelley of his
son and daughter on the double ground of his opinions expressed in
"Queen Mab", and of his conduct toward his first wife. The children were
placed in the hands of a clergyman, to be educated in accordance with
principles diametrically opposed to their parent's, while Shelley's
income was mulcted in a sum of 200 pounds for their maintenance. Thus
sternly did the father learn the value of that ancient Aeschylean maxim,
to drasanti pathein, the doer of the deed must suffer. His own
impulsiveness, his reckless assumption of the heaviest responsibilities,
his overweening confidence in his own strength to move the weight of the
world's opinions, had brought him to this tragic pass--to the suicide of
the woman who had loved him, and to the sequestration of the offspring
whom he loved.

Shelley is too great to serve as text for any sermon; and yet we may
learn from him as from a hero of Hebrew or Hellenic story. His life was
a tragedy; and like some protagonist of Greek drama, he was capable of
erring and of suffering greatly. He had kicked against the altar of
justice as established in the daily sanctities of human life; and now he
had to bear the penalty. The conventions he despised and treated like
the dust beneath his feet, were found in this most cruel crisis to be a
rock on which his very heart was broken. From this rude trial of his
moral nature he arose a stronger being; and if longer life had been
granted him, he would undoubtedly have presented the ennobling spectacle
of one who had been lessoned by his own audacity, and by its bitter
fruits, into harmony with the immutable laws which he was ever seeking
to obey. It is just this conflict between the innate rectitude of
Shelley's over-daring nature and the circumstances of ordinary
existence, which makes his history so tragic; and we may justly wonder
whether, when he read the Sophoclean tragedies of Oedipus, he did not
apply their doctrine of self-will and Nemesis to his own fortunes.



Amid the torturing distractions of the Chancery suit about his children,
and the still more poignant anguish of his own heart, and with the cloud
of what he thought swift-coming death above his head, Shelley worked
steadily, during the summer of 1817, upon his poem of "Laon and Cythna".
Six months were spent in this task. "The poem," to borrow Mrs. Shelley's
words, "was written in his boat, as it floated under the beech-groves of
Bisham, or during wanderings in the neighbouring country, which is
distinguished for peculiar beauty." Whenever Shelley could, he composed
in the open air. The terraces of the Villa Cappuccini at Este and the
Baths of Caracalla were the birthplace of "Prometheus". "The Cenci" was
written on the roof of the Villa Valsovano at Leghorn. The Cascine of
Florence, the pine-woods near Pisa, the lawns above San Guiliano, and
the summits of the Euganean Hills, witnessed the creation of his
loveliest lyrics; and his last great poem, the "Triumph of Life", was
transferred to paper in his boat upon the Bay of Spezia.

If "Alastor" had expressed one side of Shelley's nature, his devotion to
Ideal Beauty, "Laon and Cythna" was in a far profounder sense
representative of its author. All his previous experiences and all his
aspirations--his passionate belief in friendship, his principle of the
equality of women with men, his demand for bloodless revolution, his
confidence in eloquence and reason to move nations, his doctrine of free
love, his vegetarianism, his hatred of religious intolerance and
tyranny--are blent together and concentrated in the glowing cantos of
this wonderful romance. The hero, Laon, is himself idealized, the self
which he imagined when he undertook his Irish campaign. The heroine,
Cythna, is the helpmate he had always dreamed, the woman exquisitely
feminine, yet capable of being fired with male enthusiasms, and of
grappling the real problems of our nature with a man's firm grasp. In
the first edition of the poem he made Laon and Cythna brother and
sister, not because he believed in the desirability of incest, but
because he wished to throw a glove down to society, and to attack the
intolerance of custom in its stronghold. In the preface, he tells us
that it was his purpose to kindle in the bosoms of his readers "a
virtuous enthusiasm for those doctrines of liberty and justice, that
faith and hope in something good, which neither violence nor
misrepresentation, nor prejudice, can ever wholly extinguish among
mankind;" to illustrate "the growth and progress of individual mind
aspiring after excellence, and devoted to the love of mankind;" and to
celebrate Love "as the sole law which should govern the moral world."
The wild romantic treatment of this didactic motive makes the poem
highly characteristic of its author. It is written in Spenserian
stanzas, with a rapidity of movement and a dazzling brilliance that are
Shelley's own. The story relates the kindling of a nation to freedom at
the cry of a young poet-prophet, the temporary triumph of the good
cause, the final victory of despotic force, and the martyrdom of the
hero, together with whom the heroine falls a willing victim. It is full
of thrilling incidents and lovely pictures; yet the tale is the least
part of the poem; and few readers have probably been able either to
sympathize with its visionary characters, or to follow the narrative
without weariness. As in the case of other poems by Shelley--especially
those in which he attempted to tell a story, for which kind of art his
genius was not well suited--the central motive of "Laon and Cythna" is
surrounded by so radiant a photosphere of imagery and eloquence that it
is difficult to fix our gaze upon it, blinded as we are by the excess of
splendour. Yet no one now can read the terrible tenth canto, or the
lovely fifth, without feeling that a young eagle of poetry had here
tried the full strength of his pinions in their flight. This truth was
by no means recognized when "Laon and Cythna" first appeared before the
public. Hooted down, derided, stigmatized, and howled at, it only served
to intensify the prejudice with which the author of "Queen Mab" had come
to be regarded.

I have spoken of this poem under its first name of "Laon and Cythna". A
certain number of copies were issued with this title (How many copies
were put in circulation is not known. There must certainly have been
many more than the traditional three; for when I was a boy at Harrow, I
picked up two uncut copies in boards at a Bristol bookshop, for the
price of 2 shillings and 6 pence a piece.); but the publisher, Ollier,
not without reason dreaded the effect the book would make; he therefore
induced Shelley to alter the relationship between the hero and his
bride, and issued the old sheets with certain cancelled pages under the
title of "Revolt of Islam". It was published in January, 1818. While
still resident at Marlow, Shelley began two autobiographical poems--the
one "Prince Athanase," which he abandoned as too introspective and
morbidly self-analytical, the other, "Rosalind and Helen", which he
finished afterwards in Italy. Of the second of these compositions he
entertained a poor opinion; nor will it bear comparison with his best
work. To his biographer its chief interest consists in the character of
Lionel, drawn less perhaps exactly from himself than as an ideal of the
man he would have wished to be. The poet in "Alastor", Laon in the
"Revolt of Islam", Lionel in "Rosalind and Helen", and Prince Athanase,
are in fact a remarkable row of self-portraits, varying in the tone and
scale of idealistic treatment bestowed upon them. Later on in life,
Shelley outgrew this preoccupation with his idealized self, and directed
his genius to more objective themes. Yet the autobiographic tendency, as
befitted a poet of the highest lyric type, remained to the end a
powerful characteristic.

Before quitting the first period of Shelley's development, it may be
well to set before the reader a specimen of that self-delineative poetry
which characterized it; and since it is difficult to detach a single
passage from the continuous stanzas of "Laon and Cythna", I have chosen
the lines in "Rosalind and Helen" which describe young Lionel:

To Lionel,
Though of great wealth and lineage high,
Yet through those dungeon walls there came
Thy thrilling light, O Liberty!
And as the meteor's midnight flame
Startles the dreamer, sun-like truth
Flashed on his visionary youth,
And filled him, not with love, but faith.
And hope, and courage mute in death;
For love and life in him were twins,
Born at one birth: in every other
First life, then love its course begins,
Though they be children of one mother;
And so through this dark world they fleet
Divided, till in death they meet:
But he loved all things ever. Then
He past amid the strife of men,
And stood at the throne of armed power
Pleading for a world of woe:
Secure as one on a rock-built tower
O'er the wrecks which the surge trails to and fro,
'Mid the passions wild of human kind
He stood, like a spirit calming them;
For, it was said, his words could find
Like music the lulled crowd, and stem
That torrent of unquiet dream,
Which mortals truth and reason deem,
But IS revenge and fear and pride.
Joyous he was; and hope and peace
On all who heard him did abide,
Raining like dew from his sweet talk,
As where the evening star may walk
Along the brink of the gloomy seas,
Liquid mists of splendour quiver.
His very gestures touch'd to tears
The unpersuaded tyrant, never
So moved before: his presence stung
The torturers with their victim's pain,
And none knew how; and through their ears,
The subtle witchcraft of his tongue
Unlocked the hearts of those who keep
Gold, the world's bond of slavery.
Men wondered, and some sneer'd to see
One sow what he could never reap:
For he is rich, they said, and young,
And might drink from the depths of luxury.
If he seeks Fame, Fame never crown'd
The champion of a trampled creed:
If he seeks Power, Power is enthroned
'Mid ancient rights and wrongs, to feed
Which hungry wolves with praise and spoil,
Those who would sit near Power must toil;
And such, there sitting, all may see.

During the year he spent at Marlow, Shelley was a frequent visitor at
Leigh Hunt's Hampstead house, where he made acquaintance with Keats, and
the brothers Smith, authors of "Rejected Addresses". Hunt's
recollections supply some interesting details, which, since Hogg and
Peacock fail us at this period, may be profitably used. Describing the
manner of his life at Marlow, Hunt writes as follows: "He rose early in
the morning, walked and read before breakfast, took that meal sparingly,
wrote and studied the greater part of the morning, walked and read
again, dined on vegetables (for he took neither meat nor wine),
conversed with his friends (to whom his house was ever open) again
walked out, and usually finished with reading to his wife till ten
o'clock, when he went to bed. This was his daily existence. His book was
generally Plato, or Homer, or one of the Greek tragedians, or the Bible,
in which last he took a great, though peculiar, and often admiring
interest. One of his favourite parts was the book of Job." Mrs. Shelley,
in her note on the "Revolt of Islam", confirms this account of his Bible
studies; and indeed the influence of the Old Testament upon his style
may be traced in several of his poems. In the same paragraph from which
I have just quoted, Leigh Hunt gives a just notion of his relation to
Christianity, pointing out that he drew a distinction between the
Pauline presentation of the Christian creeds, and the spirit of the
Gospels. "His want of faith in the letter, and his exceeding faith in
the spirit of Christianity, formed a comment, the one on the other, very
formidable to those who chose to forget what Scripture itself observes
on that point." We have only to read Shelley's "Essay on Christianity",
in order to perceive what reverent admiration he felt for Jesus, and how
profoundly he understood the true character of his teaching. That work,
brief as it is, forms one of the most valuable extant contributions to a
sound theology, and is morally far in advance of the opinions expressed
by many who regard themselves as specially qualified to speak on the
subject. It is certain that, as Christianity passes beyond its mediaeval
phase, and casts aside the husk of outworn dogmas, it will more and more
approximate to Shelley's exposition. Here and here only is a vital
faith, adapted to the conditions of modern thought, indestructible
because essential, and fitted to unite instead of separating minds of
divers quality. It may sound paradoxical to claim for Shelley of all men
a clear insight into the enduring element of the Christian creed; but it
was precisely his detachment from all its accidents which enabled him to
discern its spiritual purity, and placed him in a true relation to its
Founder. For those who would neither on the one hand relinquish what is
permanent in religion, nor yet on the other deny the inevitable
conclusions of modern thought, his teaching is indubitably valuable. His
fierce tirades against historic Christianity must be taken as directed
against an ecclesiastical system of spiritual tyranny, hypocrisy, and
superstition, which in his opinion had retarded the growth of free
institutions, and fettered the human intellect. Like Campanella, he
distinguished between Christ, who sealed the gospel of charity with his
blood, and those Christians, who would be the first to crucify their
Lord if he returned to earth.

That Shelley lived up to his religious creed is amply proved. To help
the needy and to relieve the sick, seemed to him a simple duty, which he
cheerfully discharged. "His charity, though liberal, was not weak. He
inquired personally into the circumstances of his petitioners, visited
the sick in their beds,....and kept a regular list of industrious poor,
whom he assisted with small sums to make up their accounts." At Marlow,
the miserable condition of the lace-makers called forth all his
energies; and Mrs. Shelley tells us that an acute ophthalmia, from which
he twice suffered, was contracted in a visit to their cottages. A story
told by Leigh Hunt about his finding a woman ill on Hampstead Heath, and
carrying her from door to door in the vain hopes of meeting with a man
as charitable as himself, until he had to house the poor creature with
his friends the Hunts, reads like a practical illustration of Christ's
parable about the Good Samaritan. Nor was it merely to the so-called
poor that Shelley showed his generosity. His purse was always open to
his friends. Peacock received from him an annual allowance of 100
pounds. He gave Leigh Hunt, on one occasion, 1400 pounds; and he
discharged debts of Godwin, amounting, it is said, to about 6000 pounds.
In his pamphlet on "Putting Reform to the Vote", he offered to subscribe
100 pounds for the purpose of founding an association; and we have
already seen that he headed the Tremadoc subscription with a sum of 500
pounds. These instances of his generosity might be easily multiplied;
and when we remember that his present income was 1000 pounds, out of
which 200 pounds went to the support of his children, it will be
understood not only that he could not live luxuriously, but also that he
was in frequent money difficulties through the necessity of raising
funds upon his expectations. His self-denial in all minor matters of
expenditure was conspicuous. Without a murmur, without ostentation, this
heir of the richest baronet in Sussex illustrated by his own conduct
those principles of democratic simplicity and of fraternal charity which
formed his political and social creed.

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:--

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

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

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

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



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.
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

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

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