LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Lerici: 1822
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
Creative Commons License

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH

I heard from my friends, that Shelley had been subject during this Villagiatura, at the Casa Magni, to strange hallucinations, and from the description of the place, which I had afterwards an opportunity of verifying, it is scarcely to be wondered that his imagination, as happened in Carnarvonshire, naturally given to the marvellous, should have been strangely excited, and grown familiar with the Unreal. The extreme isolation of St. Arenzo—its almost magical and supernatural beauty—the continual beating of the sea-waves against the walls of that solitary villa—the sort of reading in which he indulged there, and a mind ever on the rack with profound metaphysical speculations, dreamy and vague, engendered in him a nervousness, that produced extraordinary waking dreams. Williams
records in his interesting journal, the following anecdote:—“After tea, walking with Shelley on the terrace, and observing the effect of moonshine on the water, he complained of being unusually nervous—he grasped me violently by the arm, and stared steadfastly on the white surf, that broke upon the beach under our feet. Observing him sensibly affected, I demanded of him if he were in pain, but he only answered, by saying,—“There it is again—There!” He recovered after some time, and declared that he saw, as plainly as he saw me, a naked child (the child of a friend who had lately died,—meaning his
own child) rise from the sea, and clap its hands as in joy, smiling at him. This was a trance that it required some reasoning and philosophy entirely to awaken him from; so forcibly had the vision operated on his mind.” But this was not the only illusion to which he had been a prey at St. Arenzo. Byron, the most superstitious of human beings, related the following story, which I afterwards heard confirmed by Mrs. Williams.
Shelley, soon after he arrived at the Casa Magni, one night alarmed all the house with loud and piercing cries. The Williams’s rushed out of their rooms, and
Mrs. Shelley, who had miscarried a few days before, got at the same time as far as the door, and fainted. They found Shelley in the saloon, with his eyes wide open, and gazing on vacancy, with a horror as though he saw some spectre. He was in a deep trance, a sort of somnambulism. On waking him, he related to them that he had had a vision. He thought that a figure wrapped in a mantle, came to his bedside, and beckoned him. He got up, and followed, and when in the drawing-room, the phantom lifted up the hood of his cloak, and said, “Siete sodisfatto” and vanished.

He had been reading a strange drama, attributed to Calderon, entitled the El Encapotado. It is so rare, that Washington Irving told me he had hunted for it, but without success, in several of the public libraries of Spain. The story is, that a sort of Cypriano, or Faust, is through life thwarted
in his plans for the acquisition of wealth or honour or happiness, by a mysterious stranger, who stands in his way like some evil spirit. The hero is at length in love—we know it is the master-passion in Spaniards. The day is fixed for his nuptials, when the unknown contrives to sow dissension between him and his bride elect, and to break off the match. Infuriate with his wrongs, he breathes nothing but revenge; but for a time all attempts to hunt out his mantled foe prove abortive; at length he presents himself of his own accord. When about to fight, the embocado unmasks, and discovers the Fetch of himself—his double, saying, “Are you satisfied?” The catastrophe is the death of the victim from horror.

The play, which would have made a most admirable subject for Hoffman, worked strongly on Shelley’s imagination, and accounts for the midnight scene.

Mr. Moore says that “the melancholy death of poor Shelley, affected Lord Byron’s mind much
less with grief for the actual loss of his friend, than with bitter indignation against those who had through life so grossly misinterpreted him; and never certainly was there an instance where the expressed absence of all religion in an individual was assumed so eagerly as an excuse for the absence of all charity in judging him.” He adds, that, “though never personally acquainted with Mr. Shelley, I can fully join with those who much loved him, in admiring the various excellences of his heart and genius, and lamenting the too early doom that robbed us of the maturer fruits of both. His short life,” he goes on to say, “had been, like his poetry, a sort of bright, erroneous dream! false in the general principles on which it proceeded, though beautiful and attractive in some of its details! Had full time been allowed for the over-light of his imagination, to be tempered by the judgment which in time was still in reserve, the world at large would have been taught to pay that homage to his genius which those only who saw what he
was capable of, (what does Moore mean by this?) can now be expected to accord to it.”

Faint praise, and coming from the quarter it does, and from one totally unable to estimate anything but the actual and material, not much to be regarded.

Returning to Lord Byron’s superstition, I will cite as a proof thereof, the following anecdote from “the Page of Moore.” “Mr. Cowell, paying a visit to Lord Byron at Genoa, was told by him, that some friends of Shelley sitting together one evening, had seen that gentleman distinctly, as they thought, walk into a little wood at Lerici; when at the same moment, as they afterwards discovered, he was far away, in quite a different direction. ‘This,’ added Lord Byron, in a low, awestruck tone of voice, ‘was but ten days before Shelley died!’”

I believe Lord Byron felt severely the loss of Shelley, though it must be confessed that his observation at the pyre,—“Why this rag of a black handkerchief retains its form better
than that human body;” and his saying on the contest that took place between
Mrs. Shelley and Leigh Hunt, respecting the possession of Shelley’s heart, which would not consume with his ashes, (and which amiable dispute he compared to that of Ajax and Ulysses for the arms of Achilles,) and his remark,—“What does Hunt want with the heart? he’ll only put it in a glass-case, and make sonnets on it”—savoured strongly of Don Juan. I believe, I say, that he really did lament the loss of Shelley. He knew well his superiority over his other correspondents,—knew that his friendship for him, so often proved, was pure and disinterested, and free from all worldly considerations, and that the sundering of that tie left him without a real friend in the world.

On the 22nd of August, I took leave of Mrs. Shelley, Mrs. Williams, and Lord Byron, to return to Genoa.

I performed this journey in a caratella, with relays of one horse, a mode of conveyance,
Mathews, the invalid, had reason for recommending, for it enabled me to make much more progress than I could have done by regularly posting with two. I shall not enter into my feelings during this mournful pilgrimage to the sites of my friends’ funeral pyres, at some distance apart, easily discoverable by their ashes. I had another duty to perform, to visit the country house where they had passed their villegiatura.

From Sarzana to Lerici there is only a cross (and that a narrow) carriage road. After a somewhat difficult ascent of three miles, the caleche set me down at a bye footpath, which conducts to St. Arenzo. The sky was perfectly cloudless, and not a breath of air relieved the intense heat of an Italian August sun. The day had been unusually oppressive, and there was a mistiness in the atmosphere, or rather a glow which softened down the distances into those mellow tints, in which Claude delighted to bathe his landscapes. I was little in a mood to enjoy
the beauties which increased every moment during this walk. I followed mechanically a pathway overhung with trellised vines, and bordered with olive trees, contrasted here and there with the massy broad dark foliage of the fig-tree. For a mile or two, I continued to ascend, till on a sudden a picture burst on my view, that no pen could describe. Before me was the broad expanse of the Mediterranean, studded with islands, and a few fishing boats with their lattine sails, the sun’s broad disc just dipping in the waves.

Thick groves of fruit trees, interspersed with cottages and villas, sloped down to the shores of the gulf of Spezia; and safely land-locked, a little to the left Lerici, with its white flat-roofed houses almost in the sea, stood in the centre, and followed the curve of this bay; the two promontories projecting from which, were surmounted with castles, for the protection of the coast, and the enforcement of the quarantine laws. The descent, now become rapid and broken, and deeply worn into the rock, only offered occasional
glimpses of the sea, the two islets in front, and the varied cost of Porto Venere to the right. I now came in sight of St. Arenzo, a village, or rather a miserable collection of windowless black huts, piled one above the other, inclosed within and imbedded, like swallows’ nests, in the rocks that overhang and encircle it. The place is inhabited solely by fishermen and their families, on the female part of whom devolves (as is common in Italy) the principal labours. However ungraceful in itself, the peasantry of most parts of Italy have some peculiarity of costume, but the women of St. Arenzo are in a savage state of nature, perfect Ichthyophagæ; their long, coal-black hair trails in greasy strings, unwashed and uncombed over their faces; and some of these fiendish looking creatures had not even fastened it in a knot behind the head, but suffered it to hang half way down their backs. They had neither shoes nor stockings, and the rags which scarcely hid their deformity, were strongly impregnated with the effluvia of the fish they were
carrying on their bare heads to the neighbouring markets. Their children were just such meagre yellow imps, as from such mothers and filth and poverty of food, might be supposed. The men I did not see; they were most probably following the occupation of fishing.

Between this village and Lerici, but nearer the former, was pointed out to me the solitary villa, or palazzo as it is called, which was about to waken in me so many bitter recollections. It is built immediately upon the beach, and consists of one story; the ground floor, when the Libeccio set strongly in, must have been washed by the waves.

A deaf, unfeeling old wretch, a woman who had the care of the house, and had either witnessed or heard of all the desolation of which it had been the scene, with a savage unconcern, and much garrulity, gave a dry narrative of the story, as she led me through the apartment.

Below was a large unpaved sort of entrance-hall, without doors or windows, where lay the
small flat-bottomed boat, or skiff, much shattered, of which I have already spoken. It was the same my poor friends had on the Serchio. Against the wall, and scattered about the floor, were oars and fragments of spars,—they told too well the tale of woe.

A dark and somewhat perpendicular staircase now led us to the only floor that remained. It reminded me somewhat in its arrangement, of an Indian bungolow; the walls whitewashed. The rooms, now without furniture, consisted of a saloon and four chambers at the four corners; this, with the exception of a terrace in front, was the whole apartment. The verandah, which ran the entire length of the villa, was of considerable width, and the view from it of a magical and supernatural beauty.

There was now a calm desolation in the unrippled marble of the sea, that reminded me in its contrast, of the days and nights of tempest and horror which Mrs. Shelley and Mrs. Williams experienced, balanced between hope and
fear for the fate of their beloved husbands—fancying that every sail would bring them to their homes, and now that in the roaring of every wave they could distinguish their drowning cries, I could picture to myself the ghastly smile with which
Trelawney related the finding of the corpses,—the torpor and unconsciousness of Mrs. Williams,—the sublime firmness of Mrs. Shelley, contrasted with her frame worn out with sickness,—their children, too young to be sensible of their loss, clasped in their despairing and widowed mothers’ arms. All this rushed upon my imagination, and insensible to the heat, or fatigue of the ascent, I found myself, scarcely knowing how, where my caleche was waiting for me; and it was midnight, and after a twenty-two hours’ journey, more harassing in mind and body than I had ever experienced, when I reached the inn at Spezia.