LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Italy: 1818
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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He reached Milan on the 22d of March, 1818, and gave an interesting account of his excursion to Como, in a letter to his friend Mr. Peacock. “Since I last wrote to you, we have been at Como, looking for a house. This lake exceeds any thing I ever beheld of beauty, with the exception of the arbutus-islands of Killarney. It is long and narrow, and has the appearance of a mighty river winding among the mountains and the forests. We sailed from the town of Como to a tract of country called the Tremezina, and saw the various aspects presented by that part of the lake. The mountains between Como and that village, are covered with chesnut forests, which sometimes descend to the very verge of the lake, overhanging it with their hoary branches. But usually the immediate border of the shore is composed of laurel trees, and bay and
myrtle, and wild fig-trees, and olives, which grow in the crevices of rocks, and overhang the caverns, and shadow the deep glens, which are filled with the flashing light of the waterfalls.”

I have been thus minute in the description of this lake, because he here lays the scene of Rosalind and Helen. I was mistaken in supposing he had past the summer at Como; in fact his stay there was confined to two days, for he found the villas far too expensive for him.

Regrets that so few of Shelley’s letters should have been saved, will be awakened by the perusal of those which during his first visit to Italy he addressed to Mr. Peacock. These letters are very valuable, nor do more splendid specimens of writing exist in any language. It is true that (as confessed by Mrs. Shelley) his early impressions regarding the Italians were formed in ignorance and precipitation, and became altogether altered after a longer stay in the country; and that his knowledge of painting, though he exhibits a high feeling of art, was a very limited
one; and his criticisms on the works of particular masters, shew but a very superficial acquaintance with the subject. He used to say that he understood statuary, and there he was right—but not painting; not meaning that he was in any way insensible to the merits of pictures—of the divine
Raphael’s, for instance, whom I have often thought Shelley resembled in expression, (I allude to the portrait in the Louvre) as well as genius, though it took a different direction,—but that he did not know the styles of different masters—a knowledge which is only to be acquired by a retentive memory, and the faculty of comparison. Of his appreciation of the ancient sculptures, I shall have to speak hereafter,—there he was at home.

After sojourning at Milan for nearly a month, during which he appears to have received but one letter from England, on the 1st May he proceeded towards Pisa. He was much struck with the well irrigated, rich plain of the Milanese, and the sight of the vineyards about Parma revived
all his classical recollections—his memories of the
Georgics. “The vines,” he says, “here, are particularly picturesque. They are trelissed on immense stakes, and the trunks of them are moss-grown and hoary with age. Unlike the French vines, which creep lowly along the ground, they form rows of intertwined bowers, which when the leaves are green, and the red grapes hanging among their branches, will afford a delightful shadow to those who sit upon the moss beneath.”

From Pisa he proceeded to Leghorn, where he staid a month. There he made acquaintance with Mr. and Mrs. Gisborne, the latter of whom, he says, was very amiable and accomplished, and by the former of whom he was initiated in the beauties of Calderon, and purchased some odd volumes of his plays, and Autos, which were ever after his constant companions. He now retreated from the summer heats to the baths of Lucca, posted in umbrageous chesnut forests. He did not there
forget to visit the Prato fiorito, a spot on the mountain, carpeted with jonquils, from which the place takes the name of the Meadow of Flowers. So powerful is their odour, that many persons have fainted with their excess of sweetness, and
Shelley has described to me, that they were nearly producing on him the same effect.

Some time in August, leaving his family at the baths, he set out for Florence. The view from the Boboli gardens, in a note which he shewed me—a view almost unparalleled—inspired him with the following burst of poetry: “You see below Florence, a smokeless city, with its domes and spires occupying the vale, and beyond to the right, the Apennines, whose base extends even to the walls. The green valleys of the mountains which gently unfold themselves upon the plains, and the intervening hills, covered with vineyards and olive plantations, are occupied by the villas, which are, as it were, another city—a Babylon of palaces and gardens. In the midst of the picture rolls the Arno, through woods, and
bounded by the aerial snowy heights of the Apennines. On the right a magnificent buttress of craggy hills, overgrown with wilderness, juts out in many shapes over a lovely valley, and approaches the walls of the city. Cascini and other villages occupy the pinnacles and abutments of those hills, over which are seen at intervals the aerial mountains, hoary with snow, and intersected with clouds. The valley below is covered with cypress groves, whose obeliskine forms of intense green, pierce the grey shadow of the wintry hill that overlooks them. The cypresses too of the garden form a magnificent foreground of accumulated verdure, pyramids of dark green rising out of a mass, between which are cut, like caverns, recesses, conducting into walks.”

His present visit to Florence was a short one. He was anxious to reach Venice. There he found Lord Byron domiciliated. Julian and Madalo, which he calls a Conversation, from its familiar style, gives a very valuable, and, no doubt,
faithful picture of the manner of life led there by the noble poet, and the sketch of him in the preface is highly valuable.
Shelley says, that without mixing much in the society of his countrymen, he resides chiefly in his magnificent palace in that city. “He is,” he adds, “a person of most consummate genius, and capable, if he would direct his energies to such an end, of becoming the redeemer of his degraded country.” In his sketch, he does not spare his friend, and winds it up with,—“Madalo is proud, because I can find no word to express the concentered and impatient feelings which consume him; but it is on his own hopes and affections only that he seems to trample, for in social life no person can be more gentle, patient, and unassuming. He is cheerful, frank, and witty.”

Childe Harold and Beppo are not more different characters than were the Byron of Geneva, and the Byron of Venice. Mr. Moore, who has delighted to rake up all the filthy details of his low amours in that degraded city, of which Shel-
ley speaking, says, “he had no conception of the excess to which avarice, cowardice, superstition, ignorance, powerless lust, and all the brutality which degrade human nature, could be carried, till he had passed a few days there.” He has also drawn a portrait of his noble poet friend, which reminds us of what
Chesterfield said of Bolingbroke: “His youth was there distracted by the tumult and storm of pleasures in which he most licentiously triumphed, devoid of all decorum. His fine imagination often heated and exhausted the body in deifying the prostitute of the night, and his convivial joys were pushed to all the extravagance of frantic Bacchanals. His passions injured both his understanding and character.”

But without quoting what Shelley says, in speaking of his dissipations, Julian and Madalo is also precious as a faithful picture of Venice. We seem to sail with the two friends in their gondola—to view with them that gorgeous sunset, from Lido, when—
“They turned, and saw the city, and could mark,
How from its many isles in the broad gleam,
Its temples and its palaces did seem
Like fabrics of enchantment piled to heaven.”

The madhouse, so graphically drawn, on the island, I know well; but whether the harrowing history of the maniac was imaginary, or but the dim shadowing out of his own sufferings, and a prognostic of what might befal himself, I cannot pretend to determine. Who can read it without shedding tears? and how thrilling is the comment of Madalo, on the destinies of himself and Julian!
“Most wretched men
Are cradled into poverty by wrong—
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.”

I have often heard Shelley expatiate on Venice with rapture. It is a city that realised all his fairy visions of happiness. The contrast of its former greatness with its present state of degradation and decay—its once proud independence, when it gave laws to the Mediterranean,
and now abject slavery to the Goth, were fruitful sources of poetic inspiration. He might here “have dreamed away life,” he said, “in that stillness and repose that was a balm to his wounded spirit,—have
“Read in gondolas by day, or night,
Having the little brazen lamp alight,
Unseen, uninterrupted.”
Books, pictures were there. Casts from all the statues that were twin-born with poetry, All
“Men seek in towns, with little to recal
Regrets for the green country.”
And he adds, “that if he had been an unconnected man, he should never have quitted it.” But Venice was not destined to be his dreamland.

Circumstances rendering it eligible that Shelley should remain a few weeks in the neighbourhood of Venice, he sent for Mrs. Shelley and his children from the baths of Lucca, and ac-
cepted the offer of
Lord Byron, to lend him the use of his villa near Este; and here they took up their temporary abode. “I Capuccini, which takes its name from a Capuchin convent suppressed by the French, is picturesquely situate. The house is overhung by the ancient castle of Este, the habitation of owls and bats, but formerly the residence of the Medici family, before they migrated to Florence. From the garden they looked over the wide flat plains of Lombardy, in which they saw the sun and moon rise and set, and all the golden magnificence of autumnal clouds, pleasures which they enjoyed the more after the contrast of the secluded chesnut-overshadowing ravine of the Bagni di Lucca.” Here an anecdote is told of Shelley, that is highly idiosyncratic of him, and marks that “gentleness and firmness which met without destroying each other,” in his character. Their infant girl was seized with one of those disorders prevalent in that season from the heat, and there being no good medical advice nearer than Venice,
they hastened towards it with the child. His firmness and intrepidity must have been indeed great, when they could so far overawe an Austrian guard, as to make them disobey orders. He had no passport, but they allowed him to quit Fusina without one.

The loss of this child—the first misfortune of that kind its parents had to endure—hastened their journey towards Rome, after only a three weeks’ sojourn at Este, and they arrived with their son William at Ferrara on the 8th of November.

Speaking of Tasso, he says, “that his situation was widely different from that of any persecuted being at the present day, for public opinion might now, at length, be awakened to an echo that would startle the oppressor.” Alas! he did not find it so himself. They went afterwards to see the prison in the hospital of Santa Anna. “The dungeon,” he says, “is low and dark, and when I say it is really a very decent dungeon, I speak of one who has seen those in the Doge’s palace
at Venice. But it is a horrible abode for the coarsest and meanest thing that ever wore the shape of man, much more for one of delicate susceptibilities, and elevated fancies. It is low, and has a grated window, and being sunk some feet below the level of the earth, is full of unwholesome damps.”

I shall not trace the journey of the Shelleys through Bologna, Rimini, Foligno, along the Via Flaminia, and Terni. But I cannot resist giving an extract from one of his admirable letters to Mr. Peacock, containing a description of the Cascata di Marmore—the fall of the Vellino. “The glacier of, and the source of the Aveiron is the greatest spectacle I ever saw. This is the second. Imagine a river, sixty feet in breadth, with a vast volume of waters, the outlet of a great lake among the mountains, falling three hundred feet into a sightless gulph of snow-white vapour, which bursts up for ever and for ever from a circle of black crags, and thence leaping downwards, makes five or six other ca-
taracts, each a hundred and fifty feet high, which exhibit, on a smaller scale, and with beautiful and sublime variety, the same appearances. But words, and far less painting, will not express it.”

In reading this, I could not help thinking of Wilson’s enthusiastic exclamation,—“Well done, water!” and excepting Ruysdael, perhaps no one ever represented on canvass what Shelley goes on to depict. “The ever-moving stream, coming in thick and tawney folds, flaking off like solid snow, gliding down a mountain. The imagination is bewildered with it.”