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The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Pisa: 1821
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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The life Shelley led at Pisa was one of much isolation, but not so complete as it had been. Prince Mavrocordato was his constant visitor; with him he read the Paradise Lost, and as both were great linguists, the task was rendered the easier. Speaking of this, Shelley used to say that “in interpreting a foreign tongue, it was a great mutual advantage to know several; for that hence synonymes, which failed in one, could be found in another;” and thus he would often give the exact meaning of a word in Italian, or Spanish, or Latin, or still more frequently in Greek, which he found the best medium as regarded the Paradise Lost,—perhaps the most difficult of all poems to explain. Let him who doubts it make the experiment. In return, the prince read with us the Agamemnon, though Shelley little approved of his emendations, and would not admit that a modern Greek was a better scholiast than an English scholar. He admitted, “that he might know better the names of plants and flowers, but had no advantage over
a foreigner in correcting the faults, or supplying the hiatuses in the text; the best proof of which was, that with a solitary exception,
Mustoxidi, modern Greece has produced no great philologist.” Nor could Shelley’s ears, accustomed to our pronunciation, endure Mavrocordato’s, which the latter contended was the only right one.

Shelley would as little adopt the Italian mode as to Latin, and used to say, “that if we were wrong, we erred with Erasmus.” I remember pointing out to him in Plautus, a play on the words arca and arce, which latter must have been pronounced arke. Shelley told me he never read Latin, and looked on the Romans as pale copyists of the Greeks; not that he was insensible to the beauty of Virgil, but thought his Eclogues poor and artificial compared with the Pastorals of Theocritus. “Greek,” said he, “is as superior to Latin, as German is to French; and the Augustan age bears the same relation to that of Lucretius, as Queen Anne’s did to the Elizabethean.”


But to return to Mavrocordato. There was at that time little prospect of a Greek revolution, though the subject frequently formed part of our conversation. It was a favourite speculation of Shelley’s, and with a prophetic spirit he anticipated the emancipation of that oppressed race; and Mavrocordato, warmed by these aspirations for the independence of his country, which indeed filled the hearts of so many of his countrymen, half resolved to believe, almost against reason, that an insurrection in Greece was possible; but had no idea it was so near at hand. Shelley entertained a sincere regard for Prince Mavrocordato, who had very enlarged and enlightened views of the state of Europe. He says of him,—“I know one Greek of the highest qualities, both of courage and conduct, the Prince Mavrocordato, and if the rest be like him, all will go well.” Whether Shelley’s opinion of this statesman has been confirmed by his career, it remains for some future Thucydides to decide. The prince was at that time
occupied in compiling a dictionary of modern and ancient Greek. Whether he completed it I know not. From time to time he used to shew us a modern Greek translation of the
Iliad, then publishing in monthly numbers in Paris; but Shelley’s knowledge of the language as at present spoken, was very superficial. They used also occasionally to play at chess, but as neither Napoleon nor Charles XII. shone at that game, it is less to be wondered that a poet and politician should not be great proficients in such tactics.

Among his other guests, Rosini (the author of that episode to the Promesse Spose, the “Monoca di Monza,”) made occasionally one; but no intimacy subsisted between them. Sgricci also passed some evenings at his house. He was perhaps the greatest of improvisatores that existed, and gave us more than one specimen of his talent. He used to say that “the God when invoked was always propitious.” He was on his way to Lucca, there to give a tragedy
on the stage, as he had done at Paris, where his improvisations were taken down in shorthand, and published; but they did not bear strict criticism, though they abound in passages of great beauty.
Shelley went to Lucca, to be present at his acting, and came back wonder-struck; of several subjects proposed at random, he selected the Iphigenia in Tauris, and I remember Shelley’s admiring greatly his comparing Orestes to one high column, all that remained for the support of a house. Shelley said that “his appearance on the stage, his manner of acting, the intonations of his voice, varied to suit the characters he impersonated, had a magical effect, and that his Chorusses in the most intricate metres, were worthy of the Greeks.” This was, I believe, the last time Sgricci appeared on the boards of a theatre. He soon after obtained a pension from the Grand-duke of Tuscany, and his pension extinguished his genius. There is a proverb, that singing birds must not be too well fed! He died in 1826 or 1827, still young.


Vacca, whose medical celebrity was the least of his merits, for he was an ardent lover of his country, and enthusiastical for the emancipation of Italy, was also Shelley’s particular friend; but his great practice left him little leisure for visits, besides that the state of his health, that shortly after brought him to an untimely grave, made his professional fatigues require a repose, that even conversation in his leisure hours would have disturbed. He died of consumption—a gradual decay.

Two other persons among my oldest and best friends, Mr. and Mrs. Williams, so often mentioned or alluded to in Shelley’s Works, and Mrs. Shelley’s Notes, and of whom I shall have somewhat to speak hereafter, added in the spring to their circle.

It was under the idea that their enlightened society and sympathy would tend to chase Shelley’s melancholy, that I allured them to Pisa.

Shelley had indeed during that winter been subject to a prostration, physical and psychical,
the most cruel to witness, though he was never querulous or out of temper, never by an irritable word hurt the feelings of those about him. I have accounted already for the causes of his dejection and despondency. His imagination was his greatest enemy—that poetical temperament which those who possess it not, cannot comprehend, is no enviable gift. So sensitive was he of external impressions, so magnetic, that I have seen him, after threading the crowd in the Lung’ Arno Corsos, throw himself half fainting into a chair, overpowered by the atmosphere of evil passions, as he used to say, in that sensual and unintellectual crowd. In order to shelter himself from this feeling, he would fly to his pen or books. He was indeed ever engaged in composition or reading, scarcely allowing himself time for exercise or air; a book was his companion the first thing in the morning, the last thing at night. He told me he always read himself to sleep. Even when he walked on the Argine, his favourite winter walk, he read—sometimes through
the streets, and generally had a book on the table by his side at dinner, if his abstemious meal could be called one. So little impression did that which contributes one of the main delights of ordinary mortals, make on him, that he sometimes asked, “
Mary, have I dined?” Wine he never drank; water, which as I have said, is super-excellent at Pisa, being his chief beverage. Not but he was a lover of tea, calling himself sometimes humorously a Théist. Let not, however, my readers imagine that he was always dejected or despondent,—at times he was as sportive as his child, (with whom he would play by the hour on the floor,) and his wit flowed in a continuous stream,—not that broad humour which is so much in vogue at the present day, but a genuine wit, classical I might say, and refined, that caused a smile rather than a laugh.

I have alluded to his physical sufferings—they, if they did not produce, tended to aggravate his mental ones. He was a martyr to the most painful complaint, Nephritis, for which he had,
though with no alleviation, consulted the most eminent medical men, at home and abroad, and now was trying Scott’s vitriolic acid baths, much in vogue. This malady constantly menaced to end fatally. During its paroxysms he would roll on the floor in agony. I had seen animal magnetism practised in India—had myself benefited by it at Geneva, and at his earnest request, consented to try its efficacy on him during his next attack. One of them affected him during an evening, when two ladies, one of whom was
Mrs. Shelley, were present. The imposition of my hand on hie forehead, instantly put a stop to his spasms, and threw him into a deep slumber, which for want of a better name has been called somnambulism. He slept with his eyes open. During the continuance of it, I led him from one part of the room to the sofa in the other end; and when the trance was overpast, after the manner of all somnambulists, he would not admit that he had slept, or that he had made any replies, which I elicited from him by questioning;
those replies being pitched in the same tone of voice as my own. He also during a second experiment improvised some Italian verses, which were faultless, although he had at that time never written one.
Shelley had never previously heard of Mesmerism, and I shewed him a treatise I composed, embodying most of the facts recorded by its adepts, and he was particularly struck by a passage in Tacitus, no credulous historian, who seriously related two cases (witnessed he says by many living) in Egypt, that might stagger the most sceptical. “Does it lead to materialism or immaterialism?” Shelley thought to the latter—“that a separation from the mind and body took place”—the one being most active and the other an inert mass of matter. He deduced from this phenomenon an additional argumen for the immortality of the soul, of which no man was more fully persuaded.

After my departure from Pisa, he was magnetised by a lady, which gave rise to the beautiful stanzas entitled “The Magnetic Lady to
her Patient
,” and during which operation, he made the same reply to an inquiry as to his disease, and its cure, as he had done to me,—“What would cure me would kill me,”—meaning lithotomy. Mrs. Shelley also magnetised him, but soon discontinued the practice, from finding that he got up in his sleep, and went one night to the window, (fortunately barred,) having taken to his old habit of sleep-walking, which I mentioned, in his boyhood, and also in London.

Shelley showed me a treatise he had written, of some length, on the Life of Christ, and which Mrs. Shelley should give to the world. In this work he differs little from Paulus, Strauss, and the Rationalists of Germany. The first of these has been for fifty years professor of divinity in the university of Heidelberg, and is venerated with honours due to his talents and exemplary virtues; the latter once filled the theological chair at Zurich, from which he was ousted by the Jesuits.


The new sect which has lately sprung up, with Ronge at its head, whose doctrines were running like wildfire through the Confederation, but are now at the ebb-tide,—this New Catholicism which it was once proposed by the Baden Chamber to make one of the religions of the state, proves the wide dissemination which Rationalism has had, and the revolution in men’s minds in Germany. Rongeism is only a more extended form of Unitarianism.

But the Rongeists go far beyond the Unitarians or Rationalists, and have so refined away the tenets of our religion, discarding prophecy, miracles, the divinity of our Saviour, and the atonement, that they can scarcely be denominated Christians.

Shelley, in this treatise, does no more than Strauss, Paulus, and Ronge; he indeed treats the subject with more respect than either, and although he may reduce Christianity to a code of morals, how does he differ in so doing from the
Unitarians, though I am aware that this by some casuistry they do not admit?

But without entering on this discussion, which might lead me too far out of the track, I can say, with reference to Shelley, that whatever his early opinions might have been, he on becoming a Platonist, firmly believed in a future state. He used to say, that “no man who reflected could be a Materialist long;” and in his Essay on Poetry, (though he seems in Mrs. Shelley’s transcript of the MS. to have made a considerable alteration in the passage afterwards from that originally written, which he shewed to me,) the words ran thus, verbatim: “The persons in whom this power (poetry) abides, may often, as regards many parts of their nature, be Atheists; but though they may deny and abjure, they are compelled to serve, which is seated in the throne of their own soul;” and in his Essay on a Future State, unfortunately a fragment, he says, “The destiny of man can hardly be so degraded
that he was born to die.” His poems abound with the noblest conceptions of a Deity and of Heaven, witness his ode, so entitled, where, after
Glorious shapes have life in thee,
Heaven, and all Heaven’s company,
he in the next stanza adds,—
Thou art the abode
Of that Power, which is the glass
Where man his image sees.
Generations as they pass,
Worship thee on bended knees;
Their unreturning gods and they
Like a river pass away;
Thou remainest such alway.
And in the
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

Let these passages suffice, though I might multiply them ad infinitum.

Return we to life and its realities.