LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron
Chapter VII.

Chapter I.
Chapter II.
Chapter III.
Chapter IV.
Chapter V.
Chapter VI.
‣ Chapter VII.
Chapter VIII.
Chapter IX.
Chapter X.
Chapter XI.
Chapter XII.
Chapter XIII.
Chapter XIV.
Chapter XV.
Chapter XVI.
Chapter XVII.
Chapter XVIII.
Chapter XIX.
Chapter XX.
Chapter XXI.
Chapter XXII.
Chapter XXIII.
Chapter XXIV.
Chapter XXV.
Chapter XXVI.
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O thou, who plumed with strong desire
Would’st float above the earth, beware!
A shadow tracks thy flight of fire—
Night is coming!

In the annals of authors I cannot find one who wrote under so many discouragements as Shelley; for even Bunyan’s dungeon walls echoed the cheers of hosts of zealous disciples on the outside, whereas Shelley could number his readers on his fingers. He said, “I can only print my writings by stinting myself in food!” Published, or sold openly, they were not.

The utter loneliness in which he was condemned to pass the largest portion of his life would have paralysed any brains less subtilised by genius than his were. Yet he was social and cheerful, and, although frugal himself, most liberal
to others, while to serve a friend he was ever ready to make any sacrifice. It was, perhaps, fortunate he was known to so few, for those few kept him close shorn. He went to Ravenna in 1821 on
Byron’s business, and, writing to his wife, makes this comment on the Pilgrim’s asking him to execute a delicate commission:—“But it seems destined that I am always to have some active part in the affairs of everybody whom I approach.” And so he had.

Shelley, in his elegy on the death of Keats, gives this picture of himself:
“’Midst others of less note, came one frail Form,
A phantom amongst 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,
Actæon-like, and now he fled astray
With feeble steps o’er the world’s wilderness,
And his own thoughts, along that rugged way,
Pursued, like raging hounds, their father and their prey.”

Every day I passed some hours with Byron, and very often my evenings with Shelley and Williams, so that when my memory summons one of them to appear, the others are sure to follow in his wake.
If Byron’s reckless frankness and apparent cordiality warmed your feelings, his sensitiveness, irritability, and the perverseness of his temper, cooled them. I was not then thirty, and the exigences of my now full-blown vanities were unsated, and my credulity unexhausted. I believed in many things then, and believe in some, now; I could not sympathise with Byron, who believed in nothing.

“As for love, friendship, and your entummusy,” said he, “they must run their course. If you are not hanged or drowned before you are forty, you will wonder at all the foolish things they have made you say and do,—as I do now.”

“I will go over to the Shelleys,” I answered, “and hear their opinions on the subject.”

“Ay, the Snake has fascinated you; I am for making a man of the world of you; they will mould you into a Frankenstein monster: so good-night!”

Goëthe’s Mephistopheles calls the serpent that tempted Eve, “My Aunt—the renowned snake;” and as Shelley translated and repeated passages of ‘Faust’—to, as he said, impregnate Byron’s brain,—when he came to that passage, “My Aunt,
the renowned snake,” Byron said, “Then you are her nephew,” and henceforth he often called Shelley, the Snake; his bright eyes, slim figure, and noiseless movements, strengthened, if it did not suggest, the comparison. Byron was the real snake—a dangerous mischief-maker; his wit or humour might force a grim smile, or hollow laugh, from the standers by, but they savoured more of pain than playfulness, and made you dissatisfied with yourself and him. When I left his gloomy hall, and the echoes of the heavy iron-plated door died away, I could hardly refrain from shouting with joy as I hurried along the broad-flagged terrace which overhangs the pleasant river, cheered on my course by the cloudless sky, soft air, and fading light, which close an Italian day.

After a hasty dinner at my albergo, I hastened along the Arno to the hospitable and cheerful abode of the Shelleys. There I found those sympathies and sentiments which the Pilgrim denounced as illusions believed in as the only realities.

Shelley’s mental activity was infectious; he kept your brain in constant action. Its effect on his comrade was very striking. Williams gave up all
his accustomed sports for books, and the bettering of his mind; he had excellent natural ability; and the Poet delighted to see the seeds he had sown, germinating. Shelley said he was the sparrow educating the young of the cuckoo. After a protracted labour, Ned was delivered of a five-act play. Shelley was sanguine that his pupil would succeed as a dramatic writer. One morning I was in
Mrs. Williams’s drawing-room, by appointment, to hear Ned read an act of his drama. I sat with an aspect as caustic as a critic who was to decide his fate. Whilst thus intent Shelley stood before us with a most woeful expression.

Mrs. Williams started up, exclaiming, “What’s the matter, Percy?”

Mary has threatened me.”

“Threatened you with what?”

He looked mysterious and too agitated to reply.

Mrs. Williams repeated, “With what? to box your ears?”

“Oh, much worse than that; Mary says she will have a party; there are English singers here, the Sinclairs, and she will ask them, and everyone she or you know—oh, the horror!”


We all burst into a laugh except his friend Ned.

“It will kill me.”

“Music, kill you!” said Mrs. Williams. “Why, you have told me, you flatterer, that you loved music.”

“So I do. It’s the company terrifies me. For pity go to Mary and intercede for me; I will submit to any other species of torture than that of being bored to death by idle ladies and gentlemen.”

After various devices it was resolved that Ned Williams should wait upon the lady,—he being gifted with a silvery tongue, and sympathising with the Poet in his dislike of fine ladies,—and see what he could do to avert the threatened invasion of the Poet’s solitude. Meanwhile, Shelley remained in a state of restless ecstacy; he could not even read or sit. Ned returned with a grave face; the Poet stood as a criminal stands at the bar, whilst the solemn arbitrator of his fate decides it. “The lady,” commenced Ned, has “set her heart on having a party, and will not be baulked;” but, seeing the Poet’s despair, he added, “It is to be limited to those here assembled, and some of Count Gamba’s family; and instead of a musical feast—as we have no souls—we are to
have a dinner.” The Poet hopped off, rejoicing, making a noise I should have thought whistling, but that he was ignorant of that accomplishment.

I have seen Shelley and Byron in society, and the contrast was as marked as their characters. The former, not thinking of himself, was as much at ease as in his own home, omitting no occasion of obliging those whom he came in contact with, readily conversing with all or any who addressed him, irrespective of age or rank, dress or address. To the first party I went with Byron, as we were on our road, he said,

“It’s so long since I have been in English society, you must tell me what are their present customs. Does rank lead the way, or does the ambassadress pair us off into the dining-room? Do they ask people to wine? Do we exit with the women, or stick to our claret?”

On arriving, he was flushed, fussy, embarrassed, over ceremonious, and ill at ease, evidently thinking a great deal of himself and very little of others. He had learnt his manners, as I have said, during the Regency, when society was more exclusive than even now, and consequently more vulgar.


To know an author, personally, is too often but to destroy the illusion created by his works; if you withdraw the veil of your idol’s sanctuary, and see him in his night-cap, you discover a querulous old crone, a sour pedant, a supercilious coxcomb, a servile tuft-hunter, a saucy snob, or, at best, an ordinary mortal. Instead of the high-minded seeker after truth and abstract knowledge, with a nature too refined to bear the vulgarities of life, as we had imagined, we find him full of egotism and vanity, and eternally fretting and fuming about trifles. As a general rule, therefore, it is wise to avoid writers whose works amuse or delight you, for when you see them they will delight you no more. Shelley was a grand exception to this rule. To form a just idea of his poetry, you should have witnessed his daily life; his words and actions best illustrated his writings. If his glorious conception of Gods and men constituted an atheist, I am afraid all that listened were little better. Sometimes he would run through a great work on science, condense the author’s laboured exposition, and by substituting simple words for the jargon of the schools, make the most abstruse subject trans-
parent. The cynic
Byron acknowledged him to be the best and ablest man he had ever known. The truth was, Shelley loved everything better than himself. Self-preservation is, they say, the first law of nature, with him it was the last; and the only pain he ever gave his friends arose from the utter indifference with which he treated everything concerning himself. I was bathing one day in a deep pool in the Arno, and astonished the Poet by performing a series of aquatic gymnastics, which I had learnt from the natives of the South Seas. On my coming out, whilst dressing, Shelley said, mournfully,

“Why can’t I swim, it seems so very easy?”

I answered, “Because you think you can’t. If you determine, you will; take a header off this bank, and when you rise turn on your back, you will float like a duck; but you must reverse the arch in your spine, for it’s now bent the wrong way.”

He doffed his jacket and trowsers, kicked off his shoes and socks, and plunged in; and there he lay stretched out on the bottom like a conger eel, not making the least effort or struggle to save himself. He would have been drowned if I had not instantly
fished him out. When he recovered his breath, he said:

“I always find the bottom of the well, and they say Truth lies there. In another minute I should have found it, and you would have found an empty shell. It is an easy way of getting rid of the body.”

“What would Mrs. Shelley have said to me if I had gone back with your empty cage?”

“Don’t tell Mary—not a word!” he rejoined, and then continued, “It’s a great temptation; in another minute I might have been in another planet.”

“But as you always find the bottom,” I observed, “you might have sunk ‘deeper than did ever plummet sound.’”

“I am quite easy on that subject,” said the Bard. “Death is the veil, which those who live call life: they sleep, and it is lifted. Intelligence should be imperishable; the art of printing has made it so in this planet.”

“Do you believe in the immortality of the spirit?”

He continued, “Certainly not; how can I? We know nothing; we have no evidence; we cannot
express our inmost thoughts. They are incomprehensible even to ourselves.”

“Why,” I asked, “do you call yourself an atheist? it annihilates you in this world.”

“It is a word of abuse to stop discussion, a painted devil to frighten the foolish, a threat to intimidate the wise and good. I used it to express my abhorrence of superstition; I took up the word, as a knight took up a gauntlet, in defiance of injustice. The delusions of Christianity are fatal to genius and originality: they limit thought.”

Shelley’s thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. He set to work on a book, or a pyramid of books; his eyes glistening with an energy as fierce as that of the most sordid gold-digger who works at a rock of quartz, crushing his way through all impediments, no grain of the pure ore escaping his eager scrutiny. I called on him one morning at ten, he was in his study with a German folio open, resting on the broad marble mantel-piece, over an old-fashioned fire-place, and with a dictionary in his hand. He always read standing if possible. He had promised over night to go with me, but now begged me to let him off. I then rode to Leghorn, eleven or twelve
miles distant, and passed the day there; on returning at six in the evening to dine with
Mrs. Shelley and the Williams’s, as I had engaged to do, I went into the Poet’s room and found him exactly in the position in which I had left him in the morning, but looking pale and exhausted.

“Well,” I said, “have you found it?”

Shutting the book and going to the window, he replied, “No, I have lost it:” with a deep sigh: “‘I have lost a day.’”

“Cheer up, my lad, and come to dinner.”

Putting his long fingers through his masses of wild tangled hair, he answered faintly, “You go, I have dined—late eating don’t do for me.”

“What is this?” I asked as I was going out of the room, pointing to one of his bookshelves with a plate containing bread and cold meat on it.

“That,”—colouring,—“why that must be my dinner. It’s very foolish; I thought I had eaten it.”

Saying I was determined that he should for once have a regular meal, I lugged him into the dining-room, but he brought a book with him and read more than he ate. He seldom ate at stated periods,
but only when hungry—and then like the birds, if he saw something edible lying about,—but the cupboards of literary ladies are like Mother Hubbard’s, bare. His drink was water, or tea if he could get it, bread was literally his staff of life; other things he thought superfluous. An Italian who knew his way of life, not believing it possible that any human being would live as
Shelley did, unless compelled by poverty, was astonished when he was told the amount of his income, and thought he was defrauded or grossly ignorant of the value of money. He, therefore, made a proposition which much amused the Poet, that he, the friendly Italian, would undertake for ten thousand crowns a-year to keep Shelley like a grand Seigneur, to provide his table with luxuries, his house with attendants, a carriage and opera box for my lady, besides adorning his person after the most approved Parisian style. Mrs. Shelley’s toilette was not included in the wily Italian’s estimates. The fact was, Shelley stinted himself to bare necessaries, and then often lavished the money, saved by unprecedented self-denial, on selfish fellows who denied themselves nothing; such as the great philosopher
had in his eye, when he said, “It is the nature of extreme self-lovers, as they will set a house on fire, an’ it were only to roast their own eggs.”

Byron on our voyage to Greece, talking of England, after commenting on his own wrongs, said, “And Shelley, too, the best and most benevolent of men; they hooted him out of his country like a mad-dog, for questioning a dogma. Man is the same rancorous beast now that he was from the beginning, and if the Christ they profess to worship re-appeared, they would again crucify him.”