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The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Alastor; Geneva: 1816
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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In the summer of this year, after a tour along the southern coast of Devonshire, and a visit to Clifton, Shelley rented a house on Bishopsgate Heath, on the borders of Windsor Forest, where he enjoyed several months of comparative health and tranquil happiness; accompanied by a few friends, he visited the source of the Thames, making a voyage from Windsor to Crickdale; on which occasion his Stanzas in the churchyard of Lichdale were written, that breathe a solemn harmony in unison with his own feelings; and conclude with the following aspiration,—
“Here could I hope, like an enquiring child,
Sporting on graves, that Death did hide from human sight
Sweet secrets, or beside its breathless sleep,
That loveliest dreams perpetual watch did keep.”

On his return from this excursion, Alastor was composed. He spent, while writing it, his
days in the Great Park. It is a reflex of all the wild, and wonderful, and lovely scenes drawn with a master hand, which he had witnessed. The savage crags of Caernarvonshire—the Alps, and glaciers, and ravines, and falls, and torrent-like streams of Switzerland—the majesty of the lordly Rhine, and impetuous Rheuss—the Thames winding beneath banks of mossy slope, and meadows enamelled with flowers; and in its tranquil wanderings,
“Reflecting every herb and drooping bud
That overhang its quietness.”
But above all, the magnificent woodland of Windsor Forest, where
“the oak,
Expanding its immense and knotty arms,
Embraces the light beech;”
“the pyramids
Of the tail cedar, overarching, frame
Most solemn domes within; and far below,
Like clouds suspended in an emerald sky,
The ash and the acacia floating hang,
Tremulous and pale,—”
were the sources from which he drew his inspiration.

It has been said of a great German author, I believe Herder, that he had but one thought, and that was the Universe. May it not be observed of Shelley, that he had but one thought, and that was Love—Love in its most comprehensive sense,—Love, the sole law that should govern the moral world, as it does the universe. Love was his very essence. He worshipped Love. He saw personified in all things animate and inanimate, the love that was his being and his bane. He, under the idealism of the spirit of Solitude, in Alastor, paints his longing after the discovery of his antetype, the meeting with an understanding capable of clearly estimating the deductions of his own; an imagination which could enter upon, and seize the subtle and delicate peculiarities which he had delighted to cherish and unfold in secret; with a frame, whose
nerves, like the chords of two exquisite lyres, strung to the accompaniment of one delightful voice, should vibrate with the vibration of his own, and a combination of all these in such proportion as the type within demands. He thirsted after his likeness—and he found it not,—no bosom that could dive into the fountains of his soul’s deep stores, hold intercourse or communion with his soul; the language of all in whom he had expected to meet with these qualities, seemed as of a distant and a savage land,—unintelligible sounds, that could make no music to his ear, could awaken no chord of music in his thoughts; when he spoke, words of mute and motionless ice replied to words quivering and burning with the heart’s best food. It was with this feeling of despair and disappointment, that he sought in Nature what it had been a vain and fruitless hope to discover among his kind. Yet in Nature, in the solitude of Nature,—in the trees, the flowers, the grass, the waters and the sky, in every motion of the green leaves of
spring, there was heard, inaudible to others, a voice that gave back the echo of his own; insensible to others, there was felt a secret correspondence with his self. There was an eloquence in the tongueless wind,
“And in the breezes, whether low or loud,
And in the forms of every passing cloud,”—
in the blue depth of noon, and in the starry night, that bore a mysterious relation to something within him, awakened his spirits to a dance of breathless rapture, and filled his eyes with tears of tenderness. But a time came when the
“Mother of this unfathomable world,”
as he calls Nature, no longer sufficed to satiate the cravings of her favourite son.
“A spirit seemed
To stand beside him, clothed in no bright robes
Of shadowy silver, or enshrining light,
Borrowed from aught the visible world affords,
But undulating woods, and silent well,
Now deepening the dark shades, for speech assuming,
Hold commune with him, as if he and it
Were all that was,—only, when his regard
Was raised by intense pensiveness, two eyes,
Two starry eyes, hung in the gloom of thought,
And seemed with their serene and azure smiles
To beckon him.”

In a poem entitled Ahasuerus, I endeavoured, in the character of Julian, adopting often his own language and sentiments, to shadow out this yearning of Shelley’s after the ideal; and a few of the lines yet recur to my memory. It is to be hoped the reader will pardon their insertion here.
“And momently, by day and night,
The vision of that heavenly maid
Stood ever by his side, arrayed
In forms and hues most fair and bright—
The embodied soul of all that’s best
In Nature, fairest, loveliest,—
A thing of woods and hills and streams,
Of plants, and flowers, and rainbow beams,
‘A radiant sister of the day:’
He saw her when the daylight breaks
From out the sea’s marmoreal bosom;
He saw her when the sunset streaks
With lines of gold, leaf, bud, and blossom;
He saw her in the clouds of even;
He saw her smile in that of Heaven.
The lightest breeze, on gentle wing,
Amid the leaves it scarcely stirs,
Most musically whispering,
Recalled that eloquent voice of hers;
In that divinest solitude,
He heard it in the murmuring wood;
And in the rippling of the flood.”
And thereto might be added his own exquisite
“There seemed, from the remotest seat
Of the wide ocean’s waste,
To the soft flower beneath his feet,
A magic circle traced,
A spirit interfused around,
A thrilling, silent life:
To momentary peace it bound
His mortal spirit’s strife;
And still he felt the centre of
The magic circle there,
Was one fair form that filled with love
The lifeless atmosphere.”

A review* which has, with a liberality that is unique at the present day, ever stood forward to do justice to the merits of contemporary authors,—disregarding, in so doing, their politics,—says

* Frazer’s Magazine.

Alastor:—“The imagery of the poem is chequered with lights and shades, which to the uninitiated seem capriciously painted in a studio, without regard to the real nature of things; for there is not apparent ‘a system of divine philosophy, like a sun reflecting order on his landscape.’” If I might be allowed to illustrate this clever remark, I should add,—resembling one of Salvator Rosa’s, which near to the eye appears a confused chaos of rocks and trees and water, the most singularly and indiscriminately massed and mingled, but which viewed from a proper point of view, forms an harmonious whole in entire keeping with art and with nature. “This poem,” continues the critic, “contains infinite sadness. It is the morbid expression of ‘a soul desperate,’ to use the beautiful words of Jeremy Taylor, ‘by a quick sense of constant infelicity.’ As one who has returned from the valley of the dolorous abyss, the reader hears the voice of lamentation wailing for the world’s wrong, in accents wild and sweat, but incommunicably
strange. It is the outpouring of his own emotions embodied in the purest form he could conceive, painted in the ideal hues which his brilliant imagination inspired, and softened by the anticipation of a near and approaching death.”

Early in the spring of 1816, in company with the two ladies who had been sharers in the joys and sorrows of his former wanderings on the continent, he again took leave of the white cliffs of Albion, and passing through Paris, where he made no stay, followed the same line of country they had traversed nearly two years before, as far as Troyes. There they left the route leading to Neufchatel, and by that which led through Dijon and Dole, arrived at Poligny, and after resting at Champagnolles, a little village situate in the depth of the mountains, entered Switzerland for the second time, by the pass of Les Rousses. Such was the state of the road then, that it required the aid of ten men to support the carriage in its descent.

Who that has traversed one of the most unin-
teresting tracts in Southern Europe, if we take its extent, La belle France as it has been complimentarily styled, from Paris to the Jura, knows not the delight with which the traveller looks upon the glorious landscape that lies below him, diversified as it is by the crescent of Lake Leman, its viney shores and cheerful towns, and framed in by the gigantic outline of the Alps, surmounted by the domes and pinnacles of their eternal snows? We may imagine, then, the transport with which
Shelley hailed the approach of Geneva. The party took up their quarters at Dejean’s, Secheron, then the best hotel, though since eclipsed by the Bourg and so many others in that key to Italy, and yet in position equalled by none, for it lies immediately under the eye of Mont Blanc. “From the meadows,” says Shelley, “we see the lovely lake blue as the heavens which it reflects, and sparkling with golden beams. The opposite shore is sloping and covered with vines. Gentlemen’s seats are scattered over these banks, behind which rise
ridges of black mountains, and towering far above in the midst of the snowy Alps, the highest and queen of all. Such is the view reflected by the Lake. It is a bright summer scene, without any of that sacred solitude and deep seclusion that delighted us at Lucerne.”

Lord Byron, attended by his young physician Polidori, was already arrived. The two poets had never met, but were not altogether strangers, for Shelley had sent the author of Childe Harold a copy of Queen Mab in 1812, soon after its publication; who showed it, he says, “to Mr. Southeby, as a work of great power;” but the letter accompanying it, strangely enough miscarried.

Shelley, soon after his arrival, wrote a note to the noble lord, detailing at some length the accusations which had been laid against his character, and adding, that if Lord Byron thought those charges were not true, it would make him happy to have the honour of paying him a visit. The answer was such as might be anticipated. There
was, in their present meeting at Geneva, no want of disposition towards a friendly acquaintance on both sides.

After a fortnight’s residence at Dejean’s, Shelley and his female friends removed to the Campagne Mont Allegre, on the opposite side of the lake; and shortly after, Lord Byron took that of Diodati. This villa had probably been chosen from its association, for the Diodati from whom it derived its name, was a friend of Milton; and the author of Paradise Lost had himself, in his way to and from Italy, hallowed it by his abode. The Campagne Mont Allegre, or Chapuis, as it was sometimes called, lay immediately at the foot of Diodati, being only separated from it by a vineyard, and having no other communication but a very tortuous, hedged in, and narrow lane, scarcely admitting of a char-a-banc. The spot was one of the most sequestered on the lake, and almost hidden by a grove of umbrageous forest trees, as is a bird’s nest among leaves, and invisible from the main road. At the
extremity of the terrace, is a secure little port, belonging to the larger villa, and here was moored the boat which formed so much the mutual delight and recreation of the two poets. It was keeled and clinker-built, the only one of the kind on the lake; and which, although
Mr. Moore says it “was fitted to stand the usual squalls of the climate,” was to my mind ill-adapted for the navigation, for it drew too much water and was narrow and crank. I saw it two years after lying a wreck, and half submerged, though (like Voltaire’s pen, of which hundreds have been sold as original to Englishmen at Ferney) there was at that time a chaloupe at Geneva that went by the name of Byron’s. The real boat was the joint property of the two poets, and in this frail vessel, Shelley used to brave at all hours, Bises which none of the barques could face. These north-easters are terrific; they follow the course of the lake, and increasing in violence as they drive along in blackening gusts, spread themselves at last on the devoted town to which they are
real pestilences. Maurice, their Batellier, although a Westminster reviewer denies that they had one, speaking of Shelley, said that “he was in the habit of lying down at the bottom of the vessel, and gazing at Heaven, where he would never enter.” I should not have given credit to a Genevese for so much poetry. Byron, Moore says, “would often lean abstracted over the side, and surrender himself up in silence to the absorbing task of moulding his thronging thoughts into shape.”

Of these water excursions, Shelley used often to speak. To watch the sunset—to see it long after it sunk beneath the horizon of the Jura, glowing in roses on the palaces of snow—to gaze on their portraiture in the blue mirror, till they assumed the paleness of death, and left a melancholy like we feel in parting, though with a certainty of meeting again, with some object of our idolatry—these were some of his delights. The thunder-storms too, that visited them, were grand and terrific in the extreme. “We watch them,”
Mrs. Shelley, “as they approach from the opposite side of the lake, observing the lightning play among the clouds in various parts of the heavens, and dart in jagged fissures upon the piney heights of Jura, dark with the shadow of the overhanging cloud, whilst perhaps the sun is shining cheerily on us.” “One night,” Shelley adds, “we enjoyed a finer storm than I had ever before beheld. The lake was lit up; the pines in Jura made visible, and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful gusts over our heads amid the darkness.”

It was this very tempest, in all probability, that inspired Lord Byron with the magnificent description so well known in the third canto of Childe Harold.

The poets were not always singly, or but companioned by each other, in the boat. Their water excursions were enlivened by the presence of the
ladies, and
Polidori sometimes made one of the party.

The similarity of the destinies of Shelley and Byron, contributed to cement this their friendship. Both were parted from their children. Both were marks for the world’s obloquy; one was self-exiled for ever, the other soon about to be so. Their pursuits were congenial, they had
“Been cradled into poetry by wrong,
And learnt by suffering what they taught in song.”
They both sought and found in solitude and nature a balm for their wounded spirits. No wonder, then, that in this absolute retirement, they were so seldom apart. They spent their mornings on the lake, their evenings in their own intellectual circle; and thus, as Byron said, he passed that summer more rationally than at any period of his life. That he profited by the superior reading and refined taste of Shelley, is evident from all he wrote in Switzerland. He
had before written for fame—he here was inspired by a nobler sentiment. There is a higher strain of inspiration—a depth of thought and feeling—“a natural piety,” in the
third canto of Childe Harold, which we do not find in any of his previous works, and which may be accounted for partly, also, by his being drenched with Wordsworth, now become one of Shelley’s chief favourites; and whom he addresses in a Sonnet as “Poet of Nature.” This peaceful quietude—this haven after the storm—this retreat, was more than once disturbed by the physician. He was, Mr. Moore, says, “the son of the secretary to Alfieri,” better known as the author of the Italian Grammar in England, where he taught his own language. Dr. Polidori not only conducted himself to his patron in a way that it required all his forbearance to brook, by his ill-timed and sarcastic remarks, but his intemperance shewed itself in a still more overbearing manner to Shelley, which was continually breaking out; and on one occasion, deeming,
wrongfully, that Shelley had treated him with contempt, he went so far as to proffer him a sort of challenge, at which Shelley, as might be expected, only laughed. Lord Byron, however, perceiving that the vivacious physician might take further advantage of his friend’s known sentiments against duelling, said—“Recollect that though Shelley has scruples about duelling, I have none, and shall be at all times ready to take his place.”

But if Polidori was jealous of the daily increasing intimacy between the two poets, he was not less envious of their having assigned to them by the world, superior talents to his own; and which judgment, he endeavoured to prove was unjust, by perpetrating a tragedy. Mr. Moore gives a humorous account of the reading of the production, (of which I have heard Shelley speak,) at Diodati; which Byron, for he was the reader, constantly interlarded with,—“I assure you, when I was on the Drury Lane Committee, much worse things were offered to me;” and yet
in a letter to
Murray, he afterwards recommends him to publish this tragedy, with the remark, “I have never read it.” So much for his memory! In opening the Life of Lord Byron, everywhere similar instances of its treacherousness, or his love of mystification, may be traced; to which I shall not now refer, but return to the would be dramatist; and as Mr. Moore, so practised a biographer, has given on many occasions, the histories of those with whom the noble poet had intercourse, I shall here dispose of the doctor.

Dr. Polidori was a tall, handsome man, with a marked Italian cast of countenance, which bore the impress of profound melancholy,—a good address and manners, more retiring than forward in general society. He had, after quitting Lord Byron, come to settle at Norwich, in the neighbourhood of which, resided several old Catholic families of distinction, from whom he expected encouragement in his profession; but although he was well received in their houses, he was disappointed in getting practice, and
scarcely obtained a fee. Who would have liked to trust their lives in the hands of an M.D. of twenty-two years of age? Perhaps, also, his being a foreigner, and having been a friend of Byron, were no great recommendations in a country town, where bigotry and prejudice (though the Diocesan was free from both, and par parenthese, occasionally received him at his hospitable table,) are nowhere more prevalent,—so that he confirmed Byron’s prognostic:
“I fear the Doctor’s skill at Norwich,
Will never warm the Doctor’s porridge.”

The disavowal by the noble poet, (with the remark that he would be responsible for no man’s dulness but his own,) of the Vampire, which in order to obtain a sale for it, Polidori had given out as his late patron’s, placed him in a false position, and disgusted him with himself; or rather, as his friends said, with the world; and in a fit of misanthropy, he published a pamphlet not devoid of talent, entitled,
An Essay on Positive Pleasure.” In this treatise he took a gloomy view of life, and endeavoured to prove, a la Rochefaucauld, that friendship and love were mere names, and totally unable to supply the void in the human heart.

The ladies were especially offended at the tenor of the work, which was anything but complimentary to the sex. Soon after its appearance, might be read, and were very extensively read in a Norwich paper, the following lines, written by the son of no mean poet—nor are they deficient in point—under the signature, though the initials are inaccurately transposed, of “S. W.”
“When gifted Harold left his ruined home,
With mourning lyre through foreign realms to roam;
When he, the giant genius, stalked abroad,
Blasting the flowers that blossomed on his road;
Confessed no joy in hope—no light in life,
But all was darkness, vanity, and strife:
Yet would his better feeling sometimes move
That icy bosom with one touch of love:
None could, like him, with glowing verse essay
To fix the spark of Beauty’s heavenly ray;
None could, like him, so warmly—deeply feel,
How female softness moulds a heart of steel.
But thou—weak follower of a soulless school!
Whose stoic feelings vacillate by rule,
Doomed through a joyless wilderness to rove,
Uncheered by friendship, and unwarmed by love.
Dull, satiate spirit! ere thy prime’s begun,
Accurst with hating what thou canst not shun;
Man shall despise thee for thy mean attempt,
And woman spurn thee with deserved contempt;
Thy pride and apathy, thy folly see,
And what we hate in Harold—loathe in thee.”

Then followed an intemperate reply by Polidori to this severe, though not altogether unmerited satire, for he was the very ape of Byron, addressed to the author, with false supposition of the authorship, which in the next Journal was contradicted by the aspersed individual. This caused a long letter from some friend of Polidori’s, ending with, “Doff your lion’s skin, &c.” This last effusion occasioned an answer from the young poet, in which he expresses a doubt which most to admire, the aptness of
the quotation, the shrewdness of the conjecture, the eloquence of the rhetoric, or the amiable forbearance of the writer. W. S., however, preserved his incognito, and being a stranger on a short visit to Norwich—a young man about to enter into orders—the mystery was strictly kept.

Whether this satire was calculated, or not, to injure Polidori’s prospects, is a question; but that it led to the well-known result, which ended his career, is not probable. He made an attempt to destroy himself at Diodati, and as Lord Byron said, was always compounding poisons with a view of having at hand the most subtile and speedy means of extinguishing life. Suicide seems with him to have been an idée fixe. It is also said, that, like most Italians, he was very susceptible of the tender passion; that he had fallen desperately and hopelessly in love. The object of his passion was the beautiful and accomplished daughter of a catholic gentleman of rank, and there was some romance in the story, for
which, however, I will not vouch. Polidori upset his gig at the entrance of the Park, and broke his leg, and being unable to be removed further than the house, remained there during his illness. This attachment was a preposterous one, and could but lead to disappointment; but that it preyed upon his mind, and brought about the fatal catastrophe, I cannot credit. He had an ill-regulated mind, which if properly directed, might have rendered him a useful member of his profession, and society. Such was at least the opinion of Lord Byron.
Shelley, I have heard often speak of Polidori, but without any feeling of ill-will.

A friend of mine, who occasionally made a morning call at Diodati, says that he met one day there a youth apparently not seventeen,—such was his boyish exterior,—but in whose conversation there was nothing of the boy. He was surprised as he compared his words and looks together, at the contrast,—astonished at the subtilty of his remarks, the depth of his information,
and the deference
Lord Byron seemed to pay to him. It was Shelley. This juvenile appearance he never lost.