LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

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

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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So as we rode, we talked; the swift thought,
Winging itself with laughter, lingered not,
But flew from brain to brain.

One day I drove the poet to Leghorn. In answer to my questions, Shelley said, “In writing the Cenci my object was to see how I could succeed in describing passions I have never felt, and to tell the most dreadful story in pure and refined language. The image of Beatrice haunted me after seeing her portrait. The story is well authenticated, and the details far more horrible than I have painted them. The Cenci is a work of art; it is not coloured by my feelings, nor obscured by my metaphysics. I don’t think much of it. It gave me less trouble than anything I have written of the same length.

“I am now writing a play for the stage. It is
affectation to say we write a play for any other purpose. The subject is from English history; in style and manner I shall approach as near our great dramatist as my feeble powers will permit.
King Lear is my model, for that is nearly perfect. I am amazed at my presumption. Poets should be modest. My audacity savours of madness.

“Considering the labour requisite to excel in composition, I think it would be better to stick to one style. The clamour for novelty is leading us all astray. Yet, at Ravenna, I urged Byron to come out of the dismal ‘wood of error’ into the sun, to write something new and cheerful. Don Juan is the result. The poetry is superior to Childe Harold, and the plan, or rather want of plan, gives scope to his astonishing natural powers.

“My friends say my Prometheus is too wild, ideal, and perplexed with imagery. It may be so. It has no resemblance to the Greek drama. It is original; and cost me severe mental labour. Authors, like mothers, prefer the children who have given them most trouble. Milton preferred his Paradise Regained, Petrarch his Africa, and Byron his Doge of Venice.


“I have the vanity to write only for poetical minds, and must be satisfied with few readers. Byron is ambitious; he writes for all, and all read his works.

“With regard to the great question, the System of the Universe, I have no curiosity on the subject. I am content to see no farther into futurity than Plato and Bacon. My mind is tranquil; I have no fears and some hopes. In our present gross material state our faculties are clouded;—when Death removes our clay coverings the mystery will be solved.”

He thought a play founded on Shakespeare’sTimon’ would be an excellent mode of discussing our present social and political evils dramatically, and of descanting on them.

After we had done our business, I called on a Scotch family and lured my companion in. He abhorred forcing himself on strangers—so I did not mention his name, merely observing,

“As you said you wanted information about Italy, here is a friend of mine can give it you—for I cannot.”

The ladies—for there was no man there—were capital specimens of Scotchwomen, fresh from the land of cakes,—frank, fair, intelligent, and of
course, pious. After a long and earnest talk we left them, but not without difficulty, so pressing were they for us to stop to dinner.

When I next visited them, they were disappointed at the absence of my companion; and when I told them it was Shelley, the young and handsome mother clasped her hands, and exclaimed,

Shelley! That bright-eyed youth;—so gentle, so intelligent—so thoughtful for us. Oh, why did you not name him?”

“Because he thought you would have been shocked.”

“Shocked!—why I would have knelt to him in penitence for having wronged him even in my thoughts. If he is not pure and good—then there is no truth and goodness in this world. His looks reminded me of my own blessed baby,—so innocent—so full of love and sweetness.”

“So is the serpent that tempted Eve described,” I said.

“Oh, you wicked scoffer!” she continued, “But I know you love him. I shall have no peace of mind until you bring him here. You remember, sister, I said his young face had lines of care and
sorrow on it—when he was showing us the road to Rome on the map and the sun shone on it;—poor boy! Oh, tell us about his wife,—is she worthy of him? She must love him dearly—and so must all who know him.”

To palliate the warm-hearted lady’s admiration of the Poet—as well as my own—I must observe, that all on knowing him sang the same song; and as I have before observed, even Byron in his most moody and cynical vein, joined in the chorus, echoing my monotonous notes. The reason was, that after having heard or read the rancorous abuse heaped on Shelley by the mercenary literature of the day,—in which he was described as a monster more hideous than Caliban,—the revulsion of feeling on seeing the man was so great, that he seemed as gentle a spirit as Ariel. There never has been nor can be any true likeness of him. Desdemona says, “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,” and Shelley’s “visage” as well as his mind are to be seen in his works.

When I was at Leghorn with Shelley, I drew him towards the docks, saying,

“As we have a spare hour let’s see if we can’t
put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes.” In these docks are living specimens of all the nationalities of the world; thus we can go round it, and visit and examine any particular nation we like, observing their peculiar habits, manners, dress, language, food, productions, arts, and naval architecture; for see how varied are the shapes, build, rigging, and decoration of the different vessels. There lies an English cutter, a French chasse marée, an American clipper, a Spanish tartan, an Austrian trabacolo, a Genoese felucca, a Sardinian zebeck, a Neapolitan brig, a Sicilian sparanza, a Dutch galleot, a Danish snow, a Russian hermaphrodite, a Turkish sackalever, a Greek bombard. I don’t see a Persian Dow, an Arab grab, or a Chinese junk; but there are enough for our purpose and to spare. As you are writing a poem, ‘
Hellas,’ about the modern Greeks, would it not be as well to take a look at them amidst all the din of the docks? I hear their shrill nasal voices, and should like to know if you can trace in the language or lineaments of these Greeks of the nineteenth century, a.d., the faintest resemblance to the lofty and sublime spirits who lived in the fourth century b.c. An English mer-
chant who has dealings with them, told me he thought these modern Greeks were, if judged by their actions, a cross between the Jews and gypsies;—but here comes the Capitano Zarita; I know him.”

So dragging Shelley with me I introduced him, and asking to see the vessel, we crossed the plank from the quay and stood on the deck of the San Spiridione in the midst of her chattering irascible crew. They took little heed of the skipper, for in these trading vessels each individual of the crew is part owner, and has some share in the cargo; so they are all interested in the speculation—having no wages. They squatted about the decks in small knots, shrieking, gesticulating, smoking, eating, and gambling like savages.

“Does this realise your idea of Hellenism, Shelley?” I said.

“No! but it does of Hell,” he replied.

The captain insisted on giving us pipes and coffee in his cabin, so I dragged Shelley down. Over the rudder-head facing us, there was a gilt box enshrining a flaming gaudy daub of a saint, with a lamp burning before it; this was Il Padre Santo Spiridione, the ship’s godfather. The skipper
crossed himself and squatted on the dirty divan. Shelley talked to him about the Greek revolution that was taking place, but from its interrupting trade the captain was opposed to it.

“Come away!” said Shelley. “There is not a drop of the old Hellenic blood here. These are not the men to rekindle the ancient Greek fire; their souls are extinguished by traffic and superstition. Come away!”—and away we went.

“It is but a step,” I said, “from these ruins of worn-out Greece to the New World, let’s board the American clipper.”

“I had rather not have any more of my hopes and illusions mocked by sad realities,” said Shelley.

“You must allow,” I answered, “that graceful craft was designed by a man who had a poet’s feeling for things beautiful; let’s get a model and build a boat like her.”

The idea so pleased the Poet that he followed me on board her. The Americans are a social, free-and-easy people, accustomed to take their own way, and to readily yield the same privilege to all others, so that our coming on board, and
examination of the vessel, fore and aft, were not considered as intrusion. The captain was on shore, so I talked to the mate, a smart specimen of a Yankee. When I commended her beauty, he said,

“I do expect, now we have our new copper on, she has a look of the brass sarpent, she has as slick a run, and her bearings are just where they should be.”

I said we wished to build a boat after her model.

“Then I calculate you must go to Baltimore or Boston to get one; there is no one on this side the water can do the job. We have our freight all ready, and are homeward-bound; we have elegant accommodation, and you will be across before your young friend’s beard is ripe for a razor. Come down, and take an observation of the state cabin.”

It was about seven and a-half feet by five; “plenty of room to live or die comfortably in,” he observed, and then pressed us to have a chaw of real old Virginian cake, i. e. tobacco, and a cool drink of peach brandy. I made some observation to him about the Greek vessel we had visited.

“Crank as an eggshell,” he said; “too many sticks
and top hamper, she looks like a bundle of chips going to hell to be burnt.”

I seduced Shelley into drinking a wine-glass of weak grog, the first and last he ever drank. The Yankee would not let us go until we had drunk, under the star-spangled banner, to the memory of Washington, and the prosperity of the American commonwealth.

“As a warrior and statesman,” said Shelley, “he was righteous in all he did, unlike all who lived before or since; he never used his power but for the benefit of his fellow-creatures,
‘He fought,
For truth and wisdom, foremost of the brave;
Him glory’s idle glances dazzled not;
’Twas his ambition, generous and great,
A life to life’s great end to consecrate.’”

“Stranger,” said the Yankee, “truer words were never spoken; there is dry rot in all the main timbers of the Old World, and none of you will do any good till you are docked, refitted, and annexed to the New. You must log that song you sang; there ain’t many Britishers that will say as much of the man that whipped them; so just set
these lines down in the log, or it won’t go for nothing.”

Shelley wrote some verses in the book, but not those he had quoted; and so we parted.

It was now time to return to Pisa. I never lost an opportunity of thus giving the dreamy bard glimpses of rough life. He disliked it, but could not resist my importunity. He had seen no more of the working-day world than a girl at a boarding-school, and his habit of eternally brooding on his own thoughts, in solitude and silence, damaged his health of mind and body. Like many other oversensitive people, he thought everybody shunned him, whereas it was he who stood aloof. To the few who sought his acquaintance, he was frank, cordial, and, if they appeared worthy, friendly in the extreme; but he shrank like a maiden from making the first advances. At the beginning of his literary life, he believed all authors published their opinions as he did his from a deep conviction of their truth and importance, after due investigation. When a new work appeared, on any subject that interested him, he would write to the authors expressing his opinion of their books,
and giving his reasons for his judgment, always arguing logically, and not for display; and, with his serene and imperturbable temper, variety of knowledge, tenacious memory, command of language, or rather of all the languages of literature, he was a most subtle critic; but, as authors are not the meekest or mildest of men, he occasionally met with rude rebuffs, and retired into his own shell.

In this way he became acquainted with Godwin, in early life; and in his first work, ‘Queen Mab,’ or rather in the notes appended to that poem, the old philosopher’s influence on the beardless boy is strongly marked. For publishing these notes Shelley was punished as the man is stated to have been who committed the first murder: “every man’s hand was against him.” Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and others he had either written to, corresponded with, or personally known; but in their literary guild he found little sympathy; their enthusiasm had burnt out whilst Shelley’s had waxed stronger. Old Rothschild’s sage maxim perhaps influenced them, “Never connect yourself with an unlucky man.” However that may be, all
intercourse had long ceased between Shelley and any of the literary fraternity of the day, with the exception of
Peacock, Keats, Leigh Hunt, and the Brothers Smith, of the ‘Rejected Addresses.’

I will now return to our drive home from visiting the ships in the docks of Leghorn. Shelley was in high glee, and full of fun, as he generally was after these “distractions,” as he called them. The fact was his excessive mental labour impeded, if it did not paralyse, his bodily functions. When his mind was fixed on a subject, his mental powers were strained to the utmost. If not writing or sleeping, he was reading; he read, whilst eating, walking, or travelling—the last thing at night, and the first thing in the morning—not the ephemeral literature of the day, which requires little or no thought, but the works, of the old sages, metaphysicians, logicians, and philosophers, of the Grecian and Roman poets, and of modern scientific men, so that anything that could diversify or relax his overstrained brain was of the utmost benefit to him. Now he talked of nothing but ships, sailors, and the sea; and, although he agreed with Johnson that a man who made a pun would pick
a pocket, yet he made several in Greek, which he at least thought good, for he shrieked with laughter as he uttered them. Fearing his phil-Hellenism would end by making him serious, as it always did, I brought his mind back by repeating some lines of
Sedley’s, beginning
“Love still has something of the sea
From whence his mother rose.”

During the rest of our drive we had nothing but sea yarns. He regretted having wasted his life in Greek and Latin, instead of learning the useful arts of swimming and sailoring. He resolved to have a good-sized boat forthwith. I proposed we should form a colony at the Gulf of Spezzia, and I said—“You get Byron to join us, and with your family and the Williams’, and books, horses, and boats, undisturbed by the botherations of the world, we shall have all that reasonable people require.”

This scheme enchanted him. “Well,” I said, “propose this to Byron to-morrow.”

“No!” he answered, “you must do that. Byron is always influenced by his last acquaintance. You are the last man, so do you pop the question.”


“I understand that feeling,” I observed. “When well known neither men nor women realise our first conception of them, so we transfer our hopes to the new men or women who make a sign of sympathy, only to find them like those who have gone before, or worse.” I quoted his own lines as exemplifying my meaning—
“Where is the beauty, love, and truth we seek,
But in our minds!”