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The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Poets and Poetry
Family History
Shelley at Eton
Taste for the Gothic
Shelley’s Juvenilia
Queen Mab
Shelley at Oxford
First Marriage
Death of Harriet
Chancery Suit
Switzerland: 1814
Alastor; Geneva: 1816
Byron and Claire
At Marlow: 1817
Italy: 1818
Naples, Rome: 1819
The Cenci
Florence: 1819
Vol I Appendix
Vol II Front Matter
Pisa: 1820
‣ Poets and Poetry
Pisa: 1821
Shelley and Keats
Williams, Hunt, Byron
Shelley and Byron
Poetry and Politics
Byron and his Friends
The Pisan Circle
Casa Magni
Death of Shelley
Lerici: 1822
Burial in Rome
Character of Shelley
Vol II Appendix
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During this winter, he translated to me the Prometheus of Æschylus, reading it as fluently as if written in French or Italian; and if there be any merit in my own version of that wonderful drama, it is much due to the recollection of his words, which often flowed on line after line in blank verse, into which very harmonious prose resolves itself naturally. His friends, the Gisbornes, had, two summers before, taught him also Spanish, which I had studied in India from a Spanish Gil Blas, pretended to be the original—Le Sage’s the copy; and we luxuriated in what Shelley calls “the golden and starry Autos,” or Mysteries,—except the Greek Choruses, perhaps among the most difficult poems to comprehend—and very rare; so much so, that they are scarcely to be obtained in Spain, though found by Shelley accidentally in an old book-stall at Leghorn. It may be well said, that every new language is a new sense; Shelley profited much by his mastery of Calderon. The splendid passage (truly Salvator-Rosesque,) descriptive of the Pass lead-
ing to Petrella, is almost a version from the Auto of
El Purgatorio di San Patricio; and Shelley, has left some scenes of Cyprian that give the original in all its spirit. But we also read a tragedy of Calderon’s, which, though it cannot compete with Shakspeare’s Henry the VIII. contains more poetry—the Cisma D’Ingalaterra. Shelley was much struck with the characteristic Fool, who plays a part in it, and deals in fables, but more so with the octave stanzas (a strange metre in a drama, to choose,) spoken by Carlos, Enamorado di Anna Bolena, whom he had met at Paris, during her father’s embassy. So much did Shelley admire these stanzas, that he copied them out into one of his letters to Mrs. Gisborne, of the two last of which I append a translation, marking in Italics, the lines corrected by Shelley:—
Hast thou not seen, officious with delight,
Move through the illumined air about the flower,
The Bee, that fears to drink its purple light,
Lest danger lurk within that Rose’s bower?
Hast thou not marked the moth’s enamoured flight,
About the Taper’s flame at evening hour,
Till kindle in that monumental fire
His sunflower wings their own funereal pyre?
My heart its wishes trembling to unfold,
Thus round the Rose and Taper hovering came,
And Passion’s slave, Distrust, in ashes cold,
Smothered awhile, but could not quench the flame,
Till Love, that grows by disappointment bold,
And Opportunity, had conquered Shame,
And like the Bee and Moth, in act to close,
I burnt my wings, and settled on the Rose.

I had also the advantage of reading Dante with him; he lamented that no adequate translation existed of the Divina Comedia, and though he thought highly of Carey’s work, with which he said he had for the first time studied the original, praising the fidelity of the version—it by no means satisfied him. What he meant by an adequate translation, was, one in terza rima; for in Shelley’s own words, he held it an essential justice to an author, to render him in the same form. I asked him if he had never attempted
this, and looking among his papers, he shewed, and gave me to copy, the following fragment from the
Purgatorio, which leaves on the mind an inextinguishable regret, that he had not completed—nay, more, that he did not employ himself in rendering other of the finest passages. In no language has inspiration gone beyond this picture of exquisite beauty, which undoubtedly suggested to Tennyson his “Vision of Fair Women.”

And earnest to explore within—around
That divine wood, whose thick green living woof
Tempered the young day to the sight, I wound
Up a green slope, beneath the starry roof,
With slow—slow steps—leaving the mountain’s steep,
And sought those leafy labyrinths, motion-proof
Against the air, that in that stillness, deep
And solemn, struck upon my forehead bare,
Like a sweet breathing of a child in sleep*.
* * * * * *

* Canto 28, Purgatorio. —“Vago di cercar,” down to “Soave vento.”

*Already had I lost myself so far,
Amid that tangled wilderness, that I
Perceived not where I entered—but no fear
Of wandering from my way disturbed, when nigh,
A little stream appeared; the grass that grew
Thick on its banks, impeded suddenly
My going on. Water of purest dew
On earth, would appear turbid and impure,
Compared with this—whose unconcealing hue,
Dark—dark—yet clear, moved under the obscure
Of the close boughs, whose interwoven looms
No ray of moon or sunshine would endure.
My feet were motionless, but mid the glooms
Darted my charmed eyes, contemplating
The mighty multitude of fresh May-blooms
That starred that night; when even as a thing
That suddenly for blank astonishment
Charms every sense, and makes all thought take wing,
Appeared a solitary maid—she went
Singing, and gathering flower after flower,
With which her way was painted and besprent.

* Gia m’avean transportato i lenti passi.

Bright lady! who if looks had ever power
To bear true witness of the heart within,
Dost bask under the beams of love, come lower
Unto this bank—prithee O! let me win
This much of thee—O come! that I may hear
Thy song: like Proserpine, in Enna’s glen,
Thou seemest to my fancy,—singing here,
And gathering flowers, as that fair maiden, when
She lost the spring, and Ceres her more dear.

Another of the canons of Shelley, was, that translations are intended for those who do not understand the originals, and that they should be purely English. He was of all translators, to my mind, the best; and I have often read with delight as a specimen of a perfect version, his Εις αλα of Theocritus, beginning,—
“When winds that move not the calm surface,” &c.

Lord Byron has left a translation of the Rimini’s story from the Inferno, which affords as poor an idea of the passage in Dante, as an
easel copy does of an old fresco of
Giotto’s. It is a hard, cold, rough, cast-iron impress, dry and bald, and in many parts unfaithfully rendered; and at Shelley’s request, and with his assistance, I attempted to give the Ugolino, which is valuable to the admirers of Shelley, on account of his numerous corrections, which almost indeed make it his own.

Now had the loophole of that dungeon, still
Which bears the name of Famine’s Tower from me,
And where ’tis fit that many another will
Be doomed to linger in captivity,
Shown through its narrow opening in my cell,
Moon after moon slow waning, when a sleep,
That of the future burst the veil, in dream
Visited me—it was a slumber deep
And evil—for I saw, or I did seem
To see, that tyrant Lord his revels keep,
The leader of the cruel hunt to them,
Chasing the wolf and wolf-cubs up the steep
Ascent, that from the Pisan is the screen
Of Lucca; with him Gualandi came,
Sismondi, and Lanfranchi, bloodhounds lean,
Trained to the sport and eager for the game,
Wide ranging in his front; but soon were seen,
Though by so short a course, with spirits tame,
The father and his whelps to flag at once,
And then the sharp fangs gored their bosoms deep.
Ere morn I roused myself, and heard my sons,
For they were with me, moaning in their sleep,
And begging bread. Ah for those darling ones!
Right cruel art thou, if thou dost not weep,
In thinking of my soul’s sad augury;
And if thou weepest not now, weep never more!
They were already waked, as wont drew nigh
The allotted hour for food, and in that hour
Each drew a presage from his dream. When I
Heard locked beneath me, of that horrible tower
The outlet, then into their eyes alone
I looked to read myself, without a sign
Or word. I wept not—turned within to stone.
They wept aloud, and little Anselm mine,
Said,—’twas my youngest, dearest little one,—
“What ails thee, father! why look so at thine?
In all that day, and all the following night,
I wept not, nor replied; but when to shine
Upon the world, not us, came forth the light
Of the new sun, and thwart my prison thrown,
Gleamed thro’ its narrow chink—a doleful sight,—
Three faces, each the reflex of my own,
Were imaged by its faint and ghastly ray;
Then I, of either hand unto the bone,
Gnawed, in my agony; and thinking they
’Twas done from hunger pangs in their excess,
All of a sudden raise themselves, and say,
“Father! our woes so great, were not the less
Would you but eat of us,—’twas you who clad
Our bodies in these weeds of wretchedness,
Despoil them.” Not to make their hearts more sad,
I hushed myself. That day is at its close,—
Another—still we were all mute. Oh had
The obdurate earth opened to end our woes!
The fourth day dawned, and when the new sun shone,
Outstretched himself before me as it rose,
My Gaddo, saying, “Help, father! hast thou none
For thine own child—is there no help from thee?”
He died—there at my feet—and one by one,
I saw them fall, plainly as you see me.
Between the fifth and sixth day, ere ’twas dawn,
I found myself blind-groping o’er the three.
Three days I called them after they were gone.
Famine, of grief can get the mastery.

This translation I shewed afterwards to Byron, and remember his saying, that he interpreted the last words, Piu che dolor potè il diguiunó to mean (an interpretation in which Shelley by no means agreed with him) that Ugolino actually did feed on his children after their deaths, and which Lord Byron thought was clearly borne out by the nature of the retribution of his tormentor, as well as the offer of the children to make themselves a sacrifice for their father. “The story,” observed Shelley, “is horrible enough without such a comment,”—and he added, “that Byron had deeply studied this death of Ugolino, and perhaps but for it, would n ever have written the Prisoner of Chillon.”


And speaking of Dante, among Shelley’s acquaintances at Pisa, was a Mr. Taafe, of whom Byron makes mention in his letters, and whom Shelley used to call Τοφος, as he did Leigh Hunt, Leontius, &c.

Mr. Taafe had the monomania that he could translate the Divina Comedia, and we were much amused by his version, which he brought from time to time, of some of the cantos of the Inferno, which he had rendered in octosyllabics; one of the strangest metres to adopt for a serious drama, and a metre that did not admit even of fidelity, for though our own language is extremely monosyllabic, to squeeze three hexameter terza rimas into short ones, was an utter impossibility and despair. Mr. Taafe told Shelley that a brother of his in the Austrian service was occupied in a similar pursuit, and Shelley remarked that it was hard upon poor Dante, that his spirit, after a lapse of six centuries, could not be allowed to remain at rest, but must be disquieted by two Milesians.


Let not Mr. Taafe take ill these remarks—he was an amiable and clever man, and his commentary on Dante appeared to me excellent,—as well as to Byron, who recommended Murray to publish it.

I found one of the great remedies for my bodily sufferings this winter, in Shelley’s reading. No one ever gave such emphasis to poetry. His voice, it is true, was a cracked soprano, but in the variety of its tones, and the intensity of feeling which he displayed in the finest passages, produced an effect almost electric. He had just completed the Witch of Atlas, which in lyrical harmony and fancy, must be considered as a masterpiece. It may be called, if you will, an ignis fatuus of the imagination, and was objected to by Mrs. Shelley as such,—a censure that hurt Shelley, and called forth his lines to her, in which he compares it with Peter Bell, which according to Wordsworth, cost him nineteen years in composing and retouching—Shelley’s Witch of Atlas, not so many hours. How well does he,
in these exculpatory verses, characterise the difference between her and Ruth, or Lucy, the first “in a light vest of flowing metre,” and Peter, “proud as a dandy with his stays hanging on his wiry limbs, a dress,
Like King Lear’s looped and windowed raggedness.”

Shelley used to chuckle, with his peculiar hysterical cachination, over this Nursery Tale of Wordsworth’s, and to repeat the stanza which forms the motto of his own Peter Bell, with tears running down his laughing eyes, as he gave utterance to,—
This is Hell, and in this smother,
All are damnable and damned,
Each one damning, damns the other,
They are damned by one another,
By no other are they damned.

No one was more sensible to the merits of Wordsworth than himself, but he no longer, as proved by his sonnet, looked upon him as his ideal. He was still an enthusiastic admirer
of his early productions, and particularly of his inimitable lines in blank verse to his sister, which satiate with excess of sweetness; but these, he said, were written in the golden time of his genius, and he held with Byron, as Nursery Rhymes,
the Idiot Boy, and many others. The Excursion I never heard him mention; and he thought that Wordsworth had left no perfect specimen of an Ode,—that he always broke down when he attempted one. Collins he thought a cold, artificial writer; and of all the Odes in our language, he most preferred Coleridge’s on the French Revolution, beginning, “Ye Clouds,” which he used to thunder out with marvellous energy, as well as the Ancient Mariner. But to return to the Witch of Atlas. As to the objection of its not having human interest, one might as well make the same to Shakspeare’s Queen Mab. But I even deny that such is the case; like its prototype, he carries the spirit of dream through the chambers of the great—to the perfumed couch of beauty, the paradise of love; nor this alone,—
But she would write strange dreams upon the brain
Of those who were less beautiful,—
to soldiers, and priests, and kings; interweaving in the texture of the poem, his own philosophy, and drawing many a charming moral from the witch’s pranks among the cities of mortal men, and sprites and gods. What a subject for
Retch to have illustrated! a second Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I must speak of other and higher strains.

Spain had given the signal to Italy—Piedmont asserted her freedom—Genoa threw off the yoke—Sardinia and the little state of Messa Carrara, in imitation of the Swiss Cantons, formed itself into a republic—Naples followed in extorting a constitution. These events, in which Shelley took a breathless interest, aroused all those sympathies which had already been displayed in the lines on “The Manchester Massacre,” and “The Masque of Anarchy.” His odes To liberty, and Naples, have nothing in our language that can compete with them. They have the merit
of being—what few or none of our modern odes (miscalled) are—odes constructed on the models left us by
Pindar and Horace, and worthy of the best times of Greece and Rome; and have only one fault, that, alas! they were not prophetic,—that his aspirations were unfulfilled, that bloodshed and anarchy have followed in the train of the Spanish revolution, and that that of Naples was soon put down by Austrian bayonets. A vain attempt to snap the chain only renders it more irrefragable. Shelley felt deeply the resubjugation of Naples, and used to inveigh against Moore’s lines, beginning,—
Yes, down to the dust with them, slaves as they are!
suggested by a failure which he deemed ignominious; and Shelley said that they were written in a spirit unworthy of himself and an Irishman, and whether merited or not, were cruel and ungenerous.

In August, 1820, he had also written his Mock Play; or Comic Drama of Œdipus
SwellFoot), and a copy of which, given me by Shelley, I had in my possession more than twenty years before it was published by Mrs. Shelley. He told me that on the first day of its being exposed for sale in the City, the then Lord Mayor of London, who was a friend of the gentleman who corrected the proof sheets, advised him to withdraw it. There was nothing in it to call for the animadversion of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, nor do I think that a Crown prosecution would have been its fate, for it was perfectly harmless as regards the public, who could not possibly understand it. Œdipus, (George the Fourth,) Iona Taurina, (Queen Caroline,) Laoctonos, (Wellington,) Purganax, (Castlereagh,) Dacrus—from his lachrymatory propensities (Lord Eldon,) form the dramatis personse. The derivation of John Bull is very witty.

The Minotaur speaks.

I am the old traditional man Bull,
And from my ancestors have been called Ionian;
I am called Ion, which by interpretation
Is John,—in plain Theban, that is to say,
I am John Bull.

The Green Bag is most happily hit off, and the Chorusses are very fine, particularly that of the Gad-fly. It is indeed a satirical drama, quite in the spirit of Aristophanes.

Mrs. Shelley gives the following account of the origin of the idea, which is curious. “We were at the baths of St. Julian, and a friend came to visit us, when a fair was held in the square beneath our windows. Shelley read to us his Ode to Liberty, and was riotously accompanied by the grunting of a quantity of pigs, brought for sale. He compared it to the chorus of frogs in the Batrachæ, and it being an hour of merriment, and one ludicrous association suggesting another, he imagined a political drama on the circumstance of the day, the forthcoming trial of Queen Caroline.”—She adds, “that like everything he wrote, it breathes that deep sympathy for the sorrows of humanity, and indigna-
tion against its oppressors, which make it worthy of his name.”

Shelley’s library was a very limited one. He used to say that a good library consisted not of many books, but a few chosen ones; and asking him what he considered such, he said, “I’ll give you my list—catalogue it can’t be called:—The Greek Plays, Plato, Lord Bacon’s Works, Shakspeare, The Old Dramatists, Milton, Göthe and Schiller, Dante, Petrarch and Boccacio, and Machiavelli and Guicciardini,—not forgetting Calderon; and last, yet first, the Bible.” I do not mean that this was all his collection. He had read few English works of the day—scarcely a novel except Walter Scott’s, for whose genius he had a sovereign respect, and Anastasius, by which he thought Lord Byron profited in his Don Juan; and the Promessi Sposi. He in speaking of Hope and Manzoni, said, “that one good novel was enough for any man to write, and thought both judicious in not risking their fame by a second attempt.”
I read with him the greater part of the Betrothed Lovers. He admired their being made the hero and heroine; said it was an original conception, finely worked out, to make them peasants; that Don Aboddio was a piece of life-like drawing, and did not wonder that an Italian, so different is the spirit of our language from his own, should call Shakspeare a barbarian. He pointed out to me the scene in the Innominate’s Castle, when he is first attacked with the plague—and looked upon the description of that pestilence at Milan, as far superior to those in
De Foe or Thucydides.

One of the plays we read this winter was Schiller’s Maid of Orleans; he thought it bold to have treated the Christian religion as a mythology in that drama, and said that a hundred years hence it would be more admired than now. He deemed it still bolder, making Mary Queen of Scots receive the Sacrament on the stage.

Among English plays, he was a great admirer of the Duchess of Malfy, and thought the dun-
geon scene, where she takes her executioners for allegorical personages, of Torture and Murder, or some such grim personifications, as equal to anything in

I have already spoken of Shelley’s opinion Of some of his contemporaries, it may not be uninteresting to know what he thought of the merits of others of them. He had, as I have said, been in early life a great admirer of Southey, and took him as his metrical model, but he told me that when his taste became more fastidious, he looked upon him in the light of an improvisatore. “What do you mean by that, Shelley?” I asked. “I mean,” he replied, “that he has fancy, imagination, taste,—that he is facile and flowing in his versification,—most musical, if you will,—but he is too smooth and level, he seldom or ever rises with his subject; he will stand criticism as far as words go, but no further; he moves, but does not touch the heart. One reads him with delight once, but never takes him up a second time; besides, his subjects possess
no interest that bears upon the times.” Of
Rogers and Campbell, whom he called the bepetted and spoiled children of fortune, I shall have something to say in another place. Moore’s Irish Melodies were great favourites with him, especially “The Irish Peasant to his Mistress,” meaning England and Ireland; of Byron’s Childe Harold he has recorded, in a letter to Mr. P., his sentiments.—“The spirit in which it is written, is the most wicked and mischievous insanity that ever was given forth. It is a kind of obdurate and self-willed folly, in which he hardens himself;” and adds, “I remonstrated with him in vain on the tone of mind from which such a view of things arises,” and concludes with, “He is heartily and deeply discontented with himself; and contemplating in the disturbed mirror of his own thoughts, the nature and duty of man, what can he behold but objects of contempt and despair?” These remarks apply to the tenor of the poem,—its tendency, rather than to the poem itself; that he thought Byron a great
poet, is proved by a
sonnet, of which I forget two of the lines, but which Byron never saw.—
If I esteemed thee less, Envy would kill
Pleasure, and leave to Wonder and Despair
The ministration of the thoughts that fill
My soul, which even as a worm may share
A portion of the Unapproachable,
Marks thy creations rise as fast and fair
As perfect worlds at the Creator’s will;
But not the blessings of thy happier lot,
* * * * * * *
Nor thy well-won prosperity and fame,
* * * * * * *
Move one regret for his unhonoured name,
Who dares these words—the worm beneath the sod
May lift itself in homage of the God.

I have a note of a conversation I had with Shelley, which arose out of some volumes of Keats’s and Leigh Hunt’s Poems, of which conversation I will here give the substance.—“There are some people whom all the hellebore in the world cannot cure of their madness. It is singular that England and Italy should have almost simultaneously set about the perversion
of their poetry under the crotchet of a reform. We are certainly indebted to the Lakists for a more simple and natural phraseology; but the school that has sprung out of it, have spawned a set of words neither Chaucerian nor Spencerian, words such as “glib,” and “flush,” “whiffling,” “perking up,” “swirling,” “lightsome and brightsome,” and hundreds of others, which never have been, or ought to be, English. But the adoption of such a barbarous jargon in translation from the Greek!” and here he turned to a travesty of
Homer, whilst tears of laughter ran out of his large, prominent eyes, confirming what Byron says in one of his letters to Moore, that he was facetious about what is serious in the suburb, and read,—
Up! thou most overwhelming of mankind!
Pelides—there’s a dreadful roar of men
For thy friend’s body, at the ships;
Off with a plague! you scandalous multitude!
Convicted knaves! &c.,
Be quicker—do—and help me, evil children!
Down-looking set!
Juno, bedfellow of Jove, &c.
And in a version from another Greek Poet,
first having been
With her sweet limbs inside of Hippocrene,
And other sacred waters of the hill.—&c., &c.

Shelley lamented that a man of such talent as Leigh Hunt, and who in prose had so exquisite a taste, should have so distorted his poetry. He added, that “that school hated him worse than Byron.” But had Shelley been, like Keats, subject to the same influences, it is most probable, from here and there a passage in Rosalind and Helen,—“A rock of ocean’s own,” &c., written at the period of his intimacy with his admired friend,—that he would have caught the infection from which his continental abode, his love of the Classics, his cultivation of Italian and Spanish, happily saved him. But even
Keats had lived to see the error of his ways—to all but emancipate himself from the trammels of Cockneyism, in the
Pot of Basil, in the Eve of St. Agnes, and still more in Hyperion, where scarcely a trace of it is left; and which poems Shelley often spoke of with great admiration. “The Italians,” Shelley continued to say, “have carried this affectation of phraseology still farther than the sect at home. The so-called Classicists, have taken to fishing in the rancid pool of the thirteenth century, and become so prostituted and enslaved to antiquity, as to deem no word admissible in their poems, that has not the sanction of Dante or Petrarch; little regarding the obvious truth, that new images and ideas are continually multiplying, or perceiving that the great objection to the use of the obsolete is, that they render the language entirely different from that of the world and society; in fact, it might belong to some other planet. But that school will pass away.

“Of the three rivals, the French have had more
reason for a reformation, (though you know I never read French). The mistermed “golden age” of
Louis XIV. corrupted their literature. Poetry was mown with the scythe, and levelled with the roller, till it became as cold and artificial and monotonous as their ornamental gardening—a language of set phrases and forms of speech. They quitted Montaigne for Voltaire, and abandoned words that never ought to have been abandoned; and much praise is due to the Romanticists for their revival. Thus the Classicists have been driven out of the field. They owe this to an acquaintance with our writers, and something to the Germans.”

Shelley preferred Petrarch to any Italian poet; he had his works constantly in hand, and would often spout his Ode to Italy—“Italia mia.” He was not partial to Tasso or Ariosto, the first he deemed often stilted and full of conceits; and I have seen Mrs. Shelley read him to sleep over the Jerusalemme Liberata. Ariosto he thought “delighted in revenge and cruelty.”