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Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron
The Death of Shelley

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IN THE YEARS 1821 AND 1822.




William Jerdan?, in Literary Gazette
Leigh Hunt, Byron & his Contemporaries

18th August, 1822.—On the occasion of Shelley’s melancholy fate I revisited Pisa, and on the day of my arrival learnt that Lord Byron was gone to the sea-shore, to assist in performing the last offices to his friend.* We came to a spot marked by an old and withered trunk of a fir-tree; and near it, on the beach, stood a solitary hut covered with reeds. The situation was well calculated for a poet’s

* It is hoped that the following memoir, as it relates to Lord Byron, may not be deemed misplaced here.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was removed from a private school at thirteen, and sent to Eton. He there shewed a character of great eccentricity, mixed in none of the amusements natural to his age, was of a melancholy and reserved disposition, fond of solitude, and made few friends. Neither did he distinguish himself much at Eton, for he had a great contempt for modern Latin verses, and his studies were directed to any thing rather than the exercises of his class. It was from an early acquaintance with German writers that he probably imbibed a romantic turn of mind; at least, we find him before fifteen publishing two Rosa-Matilda-like novels, called ‘Justrozzi’ and ‘The Rosicrucian,’ that bore no marks of being the productions of a boy, and were much talked of, and reprobated as immoral by the journalists of the day. He also made great progress in chemistry. He used to say, that nothing ever delighted him so much as the discovery that there

grave. A few weeks before I had ridden with him and Lord Byron to this very spot, which I afterwards visited

were no elements of earth, fire, or water: but before he left school he nearly lost his life by being blown up in one of his experiments, and gave up the pursuit. He now turned his mind to metaphysics, and became infected with the materialism of the French school. Even before he was sent to University College, Oxford, he had entered into an epistolary theological controversy with a dignitary of the Church, under the feigned name of a woman; and, after the second term, he printed a pamphlet with a most extravagant title, ‘The Necessity of Atheism.’ This silly work, which was only a recapitulation of some of the arguments of Voltaire and the philosophers of the day, he had the madness to circulate among the bench of Bishops, not even disguising his name. The consequence was an obvious one:—he was summoned before the heads of the College, and, refusing to retract his opinions, on the contrary preparing to argue them with the examining Masters, was expelled the University. This disgrace in itself affected Shelley but little at the time, but was fatal to all his hopes of happiness and prospects in life; for it deprived him of his first love, and was the eventual means of alienating him for ever from his family. For some weeks after this expulsion his father refused to receive him under his roof; and when he did, treated him with such marked coldness, that he soon quitted what he no longer considered his home, went to London privately, and

more than once. In front was a magnificent extent of the blue and windless Mediterranean, with the Isles of Elba

thence eloped to Gretna Green with a Miss Westbrook,—their united ages amounting to thirty-three. This last act exasperated his father to such a degree, that he now broke off all communication with Shelley. After some stay in Edinburgh, we trace him into Ireland; and, that country being in a disturbed state, find him publishing a pamphlet, which had a great sale, and the object of which was to soothe the minds of the people, telling them that moderate firmness, and not open rebellion, would most tend to conciliate, and to give them their liberties.

He also spoke at some of their public meetings with great fluency and eloquence. Returning to England the latter end of 1812, and being at that time an admirer of Mr. Southey’s poems, he paid a visit to the Lakes, where himself and his wife passed several days, at Keswick. He now became devoted to poetry, and after imbuing himself with ‘The Age of Reason,’ ‘Spinosa,’ and ‘The Political Justice,’ composed his ‘Queen Mab,’ and presented it to most of the literary characters of the day—among the rest to Lord Byron, who speaks of it in his note to ‘The Two Foscari’ thus:—“I shewed it to Mr. Sotheby as a poem of great power and imagination. I never wrote a line of the Notes, nor ever saw them except in their published form. No one knows better than the real author, that his opinions

and Gorgona,—Lord Byron’s yacht at anchor in the offing: on the other side an almost boundless extent of sandy

and mine differ materially upon the metaphysical portion of that work; though, in common with all who are not blinded by baseness and bigotry, I highly admire the poetry of that and his other productions.” It is to be remarked here, that ‘Queen Mab’ eight or ten years afterwards fell into the hands of a knavish bookseller, who published it on his own account; and on its publication and subsequent prosecution Shelley disclaimed the opinions contained in that work, as being the crude notions of his youth.

His marriage, by which he had two children, soon turned out (as might have been expected) an unhappy one, and a separation ensuing in 1816, he went abroad, and passed the summer of that year in Switzerland, where the scenery of that romantic country tended to make Nature a passion and an enjoyment; and at Geneva he formed a friendship for Lord Byron, which was destined to last for life. It has been said that the perfection of every thing Lord Byron wrote at Diodati, (his Third Canto of ‘Childe Harold,’ his ‘Manfred,’ and ‘Prisoner of Chillon,’) owed something to the critical judgment that Shelley exercised over those works, and to his dosing him (as he used to say) with Wordsworth. In the autumn of this year we find the subject of this Memoir at Como, where he wrote ‘Rosalind and Helen,’ an eclogue, and an ode to the

wilderness, uncultivated and uninhabited, here and there interspersed in tufts with underwood curved by the sea-

Euganean Hills, marked with great pathos and beauty. His first visit to Italy was short, for he was soon called to England by his wife’s melancholy fate, which ever after threw a cloud over his own. The year subsequent to this event he married Mary Wolstonecraft Godwin, daughter of the celebrated Mary Wolstonecraft and Godwin; and shortly before this period, heir to an income of many thousands a-year and a baronetage, he was in such pecuniary distress that he was nearly dying of hunger in the streets! Finding, soon after his coming of age, that he was entitled to some reversionary property in fee, he sold it to his father for an annuity of 1000l. a-year, and took a house at Marlow, where he persevered more than ever in his poetical and classical studies. It was during his residence in Buckinghamshire that he wrote his ‘Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude;’ perhaps one of the most perfect specimens of harmony in blank verse that our language possesses, and full of the wild scenes which his imagination had treasured up in his Alpine excursions. In this poem he deifies Nature much in the same way that Wordsworth did in his earlier productions.

Inattentive to pecuniary matters, and generous to excess, he soon found that he could not live on his income; and, still unforgiven by his family, he came to a resolution of quitting his native country, and never returning to it. There was another circumstance also that tended to disgust him with England: his children were taken from him

breeze, and stunted by the barren and dry nature of the soil in which it grew. At equal distances along the coast

by the Lord Chancellor, on the ground of his Atheism. He again crossed the Alps, and took up his residence at Venice. There he strengthened his intimacy with Lord Byron, and wrote his ‘Revolt of Islam,’ an allegorical poem in the Spenser stanza. Noticed very favourably in Blackwood’s Magazine, it fell under the lash of ‘The Quarterly,’ which indulged itself in much personal abuse of the author, both openly in the review of that work, and insidiously under the critique of Hunt’sFoliage.’ Perhaps little can be said for the philosophy of ‘The Loves of Laon and Cythra.’ Like Mr. Owen of Lanark, he believed in the perfectibility of human nature, and looked forward to a period when a new golden age would return to earth,—when all the different creeds and systems of the world would be amalgamated into one,—crime disappear,—and man, freed from shackles civil and religious, bow before the throne “of his own aweless soul,” or “of the Power unknown.”

Wild and visionary as such a speculation must be confessed to be in the present state of society, it sprang from a mind enthusiastic in its wishes for the good of the species, and the amelioration of mankind and of society: and however mistaken the means of bringing about this reform or “revolt” may be considered, the object of his whole life and writings seems to have been to develope them. This is particularly observable in his next work ‘The Prometheus Unbound,’ a bold

stood high square towers, for the double purpose of guarding the coast from smuggling, and enforcing the quaran-

attempt to revive a lost play of Æschylus. This drama shews an acquaintance with the Greek tragedy-writers which perhaps no other person possessed in an equal degree, and was written at Rome amid the flower-covered ruins of the Baths of Caracalla. At Rome also he formed the story of ‘The Cenci’ into a tragedy, which, but for the harrowing nature of the subject, and the prejudice against any thing bearing his name, could not have failed to have had the greatest success,—if riot on the stage, at least in the closet. Lord Byron was of opinion that it was the best play the age had produced, and not unworthy of the immediate followers of Shakspeare.

After passing several months at Naples, he finally settled with his lovely and amiable wife in Tuscany, where he passed the last four years in domestic retirement and intense application to study.

His acquirements were great. He was, perhaps, the first classic in Europe. The books he considered the models of style for prose and poetry were Plato and the Greek dramatists. He had made himself equally master of the modern languages. Calderon in Spanish, Petrarch and Dante in Italian, and Goëthe and Schiller in German, were his favourite authors. French he never read, and said he never could understand the beauty of Racine.

tine laws. This view was bounded by an immense extent of the Italian Alps, which are here particularly picturesque

Discouraged by the ill success of his writings—persecuted by the malice of his enemies—hated by the world, an outcast from his family, and a martyr to a painful complaint,—he was subject to occasional fits of melancholy and dejection. For the last four years, though he continued to write, he had given up publishing. There were two occasions, however, that induced him to break through his resolution. His ardent love of liberty inspired him to write ‘Hellas, or the Triumph of Greece,’ a drama, since translated into Greek, and which he inscribed to his friend Prince Maurocordato; and his attachment to Keats led him to publish an elegy, which he entitled ‘Adonais.’

This last is perhaps the most perfect of all his compositions, and the one he himself considered so. Among the mourners at the funeral of his poet-friend he draws this portrait of himself; (the stanzas were afterwards expunged from the Elegy:)

“’Mid others of less note came one frail form,—
A phantom among men,—companionless
As the last cloud of an expiring storm,
Whose thunder is its knell. He, as I guess,
Had gazed on Nature’s naked loveliness
from their volcanic and manifold appearances, and which being composed of white marble, give their summits the resemblance of snow.
Actæon-like; and now he fled astray
With feeble steps on the world’s wilderness,
And his own thoughts along that rugged way
Pursued, like raging hounds, their father and their prey.
His head was bound with pansies overblown,
And faded violets, white and pied and blue;
And a light spear, topp’d with a cypress cone,
(Round whose rough stem dark ivy tresses shone,
Yet dripping with the forest’s noonday dew,)
Vibrated, as the ever-beating heart
Shook the weak hand that grasp’d it. Of that crew
He came the last, neglected and apart,—
A herd-abandon’d deer, struck by the hunter’s dart!”

The last eighteen months of Shelley’s life were passed in daily intercourse with Lord Byron, to whom the amiability, gentleness, and elegance of his manners, and his great talents and acquirements, had endeared him. Like his friend, he wished to die young: he perished in the twenty-ninth year of his age, in the Mediterranean, between Leghorn and Lerici, from the upsetting of an open boat. The sea had been to him,

As a foreground to this picture appeared as extraordinary a group. Lord Byron and
Trelawney were seen standing
over the burning pile, with some of the soldiers of the guard; and
Leigh Hunt, whose feelings and nerves could not carry him through the scene of horror, lying back in the carriage,—the four post-horses ready to drop with the intensity of the noonday sun. The stillness of all around was yet more felt by the shrill scream of a solitary curlew, which, perhaps attracted by the body, wheeled in such narrow circles round the pile that it might have been struck with the hand, and was so fearless that it could not be driven away. Looking at the corpse, Lord Byron said,

“Why, that old black silk handkerchief retains its form better than that human body!”

Scarcely was the ceremony concluded, when Lord Byron, agitated by the spectacle he had witnessed, tried to dissipate, in some degree, the impression of it by his favourite recreation. He took off his clothes therefore, and swam off to his yacht, which was riding a few miles distant. The heat of the sun and checked perspiration threw him into a fever, which he felt coming on before he left the water,

ground near Caius Cestus’s Pyramid;—“a spot so beautiful,” said he, “that it might almost make one in love with death.”

and which became more violent before he reached Pisa. On his return he immediately ordered a warm bath.

“I have been very subject to fevers,” said he, “and am not in the least alarmed at this. It will yield to my usual remedy, the bath.”

The next morning he was perfectly recovered. When I called, I found him sitting in the garden under the shade of some orange-trees, with the Countess. They are now always together, and he is become quite domestic. He calls her Piccinina, and bestows on her all the pretty diminutive epithets that are so sweet in Italian. His kindness and attention to the Guiccioli have been invariable. A three years’ constancy proves that he is not altogether so unmanageable by a sensible woman as might be supposed. In fact no man is so easily led: but he is not to be driven. His spirits are good, except when he speaks of Shelley and Williams. He tells me he has not made one voyage in his yacht since their loss, and has taken a disgust to sailing.