LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Poetry and Politics
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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I must now speak of his Charles the First. He had designed to write a tragedy on this ungrateful subject as far back as 1818, and had begun it at the end of the following year, when he asked me to obtain for him that well-known pamphlet, which was in my father’s library,—“Killing no murder.” He was, however, in limine diverted at that time to more attractive subjects, and now resumed his abandoned labours, of which he has left a very unsatisfactory, though valuable Bozzo. The task seemed to him an irksome one. His progress was slow;
one day he expunged what he had written the day before. He occasionally shewed and read to me his MS., which was lined and interlined and interworded, so as to render it almost illegible. The scenes were disconnected, and intended to be interwoven in the tissue of the drama. He did not thus compose the
Cenci. He seemed tangled in an inextricable web of difficulties, as to the treatment of his subject; and it was clear that he had formed no definite plan in his own mind, how to connect the links of the complicated yarn of events that led to that frightful catastrophe, or to justify it. There is in the Uffizzii gallery, at Florence, an unfinished bust by Michael Angelo, of Brutus, on which is written an epigram, the point of which is, that the great sculptor wisely abstained from the task from disgust at the traitor; might not similar influences have raised an obstacle in the mind of Shelley, to the completion of his unwelcome undertaking? The poet, deeply versed as he was in ancient history, strange to say, as he
owns himself, was imperfectly read in that of his own country. He had no means of procuring, or had failed to procure, necessary books of reference as to the times. If
Godwin’s History of the Commonwealth, or Carlisle’s Cromwell had then appeared, he would have had better data than those supplied by Hume; not that either of the two first authors are perhaps more impartial, or implicitly to be relied on as authorities.

Shelley could not reconcile his mind to the beheading of Charles. He looked upon him as the slave of circumstances, as the purest in morals, the most exemplary of husbands and fathers,—great in misfortune, a martyr in death; and could not help contrasting his character and motives with those of the low-minded, counterfeit patriots, the crafty, canting, bad men, who hatched that murderous conspiracy,—much less could he make a hero of that arch-hypocrite, Cromwell, or forgive him for aiming at the royal sceptre. He was not blind to the energy of
Cromwell’s foreign policy, nor insensible to the greatness to which he raised England, but reprobated his unconstitutional use of power, his trampling on all law, by a military despotism more odious than the worst acts of his predecessor. He hated the Puritans,—not their tenets so much as their intolerance. He abominated the atrocities which, on the plea of religion, were perpetrated on the devoted Irish Catholics, and he might have considered as the adder-slime which the Commonwealth spawned, those fit instruments of the vengeance of that sanguinary coward
Charles the Second, Scroggs and Guildford, and the still more infamous Jefferys, who sentenced to a death of lingering torture, Algernon Sidney. There was a similarity in the destinies of Shelley and his kinsman; one was condemned on the doubtful evidences of a MS., the other, on-that of an unpublished poem, was doomed to have his character blackened, and his children torn from him by the decree of another times-serving judge,
whose biographer should not have forgotten to record this damnatory act among the records of life. It is singular, also, that the two Lord Chancellors should have had one trait in common: they could shed at will “millstone tears.”

Shelley meant to have made the last of king’s fools, Archy, a more than subordinate among his dramatis personæ, as Calderon has done in his Cisma de L’Ingalaterra, a fool sui generis, who talks in fable, “weaving a world of mirth out of the wreck of all around.”

The poet was not so great a republican at heart as Mrs. Shelley makes him out. No one was a truer admirer of our triune constitution. He did not love a democracy, and was in some respects as aristocratic as Byron, and was far from despising the advantages of birth and station; being proud even of his connection, though not by blood, with the Sidneys. It is true that “his hatred of a despotism that looked upon the people as not to be consulted, or protected from want or ignorance, was extreme; and the hews of
the Manchester Massacre roused in him violent emotions of indignation and compassion; and made him long to teach his injured countrymen how to resist;” which feeling inspired his “
Masque of Anarchy,” his “Ode to the Assertors of Liberty,” his “Similies” (for Sidmouth and Castlereagh), his “Lines during the Castlereagh Administration,” his “Song to the Men of England,” and his “God save the Queen,” meaning Liberty. But it was not over complimentary to the people, his making the swinish multitude in Swellfoot the Tyrant, the Chorus. His ideas had become much modified since he wrote in his boyhood a panegyric on Margaret Nicholson, his notes to Queen Mab, and the Revolt of Islam, where he calls the French revolution, “the last hope of trampled France,” “a brief dream of unremaining glory,” and “a voice of despair;” and he would not have called Coleridge’s Ode to Switzerland the most perfect of compositions,—the most faultless in spirit and truth in our language,—had he
not entertained latterly, similar opinions with that author on the Revolution, and its “Bacchanals of blood.” More than once I have heard
Shelley declaim that sublime Ode, to which I have already made allusion.

Shelley used to say, that a republic was the best form of government, with disinterestedness; abnegation of self, and a Spartan virtue; but to produce which required the black bread and soup of the Lacedemonians, an equality of fortunes unattainable in the present factitious state of society, and only to be brought about by an agrarian law, and a consequent baptism of blood; and quoted the sentiment of the amiable Rousseau, that he had rather behold the then state of things, than the shedding a single drop. With which coincidence of sentiment, Shelley used strongly to reprobate Wordsworth’s
Yes, Slaughter
Is God’s daughter.


Plato’s was a republic of which certainly Shelley could not have approved, for from that, poets were to be excluded. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia was, and is a bye-word. He was by no means in love with a republic, from his acquaintance with the Swiss; and had he lived to see the anarchy and confusion, and intolerance and bloodshed that have desolated many Cantons, he would have still less advocated a renewal of the experiment. And as to America, I remember an observation of his, “that it was easier to form than unform or reform, and that even the United States were too young for us to judge of their duration; that the President had more power than the head of a constitutional government ought to have; a power too dangerous,—a wider field for corruption;” and Shelley hated slavery too sincerely in all its forms, not. to reprobate the existence of that crying evil, a disgrace to humanity, and the eighteenth century.

Shelley frequently used to inveigh against the political economists; whose object is to stop
the progress of mankind, and to keep up the uti possedetis. He thought that
Godwin’s answer to Malthus’s Essay on Population, was incontrovertible; and that the latter, who from certain hypothetical calculations, which he conceived were confirmed by the returns of North America, drew the conclusion, that “Population, where it is unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five years, or increases in a geometrical ratio, whilst the means of subsistence, under circumstances the most favourable to human industry, could not possibly increase faster than in an arithmetical ratio,” was negatived by the census of all nations; and that instead of every married pair having twelve children, four, or four and a half was the result. The returns of North America being no criterion, owing to the immigration.

I have heard Shelley strongly reprobate an axiom of Malthus, that in a well-regulated state, no one should relieve the necessity of his neighbour. It must be remarked, however, that
Shelley seems to have afterwards taken a more favourable view of Malthus’s writings in general, for he says,—“Malthus is a clever man, and the world would be a great gainer, if it would seriously take his lessons into consideration,—if it were capable of attending seriously to anything but mischief. But what on earth does he mean by some of his inferences?” What those are, I need not explain,
Cobbett afterwards developed them.

But to return to Charles I. Other causes besides doubt as to the manner of treating the subject, operated to impede its progress. The ever growing fastidiousness of his taste, had, I have often thought, begun to cramp his genius. The opinion of the world too, at times shook his confidence in himself. I have often been shewn the scenes of this tragedy on which he was engaged; like the MSS. of Tasso’s Jerusalemme Liberata, in the library of Ferrara, his were larded with word on word, till they were scarcely decipherable. I remember a printed copy of his
Revolt of Islam, that was similarly interlined. The Queen Mab in the possession of Mr. Brooks, which I have spoken of, had innumerable pentimenti; and when I one day objected to this self-hypercriticism, he replied,—“The source of poetry is native and involuntary, but requires severe labour in its development.”

He sometimes used to say, that he looked to Germany and America for his appreciation after his death, and he judged rightly. Gutzkow, the first dramatic, and one of the most spiritual writers in the first of these countries, in a treatise entitled, “Gods, Demigods, and Don Quixotes,” places Shelley at the head of this category. Two translations of Shelley’s works have already appeared, and a third is far advanced by the talented Madame de Ploennies, well known from the admirable translations contained in her Britannia. The poets of the new world have taken Shelley as their model, as may be seen by the works of Bryant, Willis, and others. His poems are widely circulated in the Union, and are
found even in the far West. Would that Shelley had had a prescience of all his posthumous fame! it would have rejoiced his spirit. At times, however, he, like the great object of his admiration,
Milton, had a foreboding of his coming greatness, and would quote the prophetic words of our English Mæonides: “This I know, that whether in prosing or in versing, there is something in my writings that shall live for ever.”

“Yes.” (I quoted, and this is taken from the note of a conversation I had with Shelley,)
That sire of an immortal strain,
Blind, old, and lonely, when his country’s pride,
The priest, the slave, and the liberticide
Trampled, and mocked with many a loathed rite
Of lust and blood; he went unterrified
Into the gulph of death; but his clear sprite
Yet reigns on earth, the third among the sons of light.
Shakspeare, was he well treated by his contemporaries? But he wrote ‘for all time’
and not his own. He, too, lives for ever in his land’s language.”

“And a glorious language it is!” said Shelley.

“What, ‘that guttural, sputter-all’ language,—you do not mean to compare it with German, or even with Italian?”

“Doubtless,” replied Shelley, “there is no medium for poetry superior to our own. Its numerous monosyllables, for which we are indebted to the Saxons, enable us to squeeze into a line more matter than can be included in German, Italian, or French. The Portuguese is perhaps an exception, as you found in the vain attempt of putting the octave stanza of the Lousiada into our own. I suspect also,” he added, “that it is the most musical of all languages, in spite of what Byron says, and the most sonorous, though it does not admit of so many poetical licences as the Italian, and is poor in rhymes, especially double rhymes,—at least for serious poetry. Hudibras and Don Juan
prove that for comic there is no want of such. German is indeed a mighty tongue, but harsh and consonantal. German hexameters I cannot, and never could endure. For rendering Greek it is unapproachable, admitting of a coinage of compound words on which we cannot venture,—that would be hostile to the spirit of our language, if carried to excess.”

“That I can hardly admit,” I replied, “when I read your Prometheus Unbound. You have there combined and compounded, not two, but frequently more words; and you have fabricated some which I should scarcely hold to be legitimate; for instance, interpenetrate.”

“I did not make it,” he rejoined. “It is used by Coleridge—quite authority enough.” “But,” he added, “I can make words, which you cannot.”

There was in this observation a sense of his power—a consciousness of that fame, of which with a prophetic eye he saw the dawn.

There arose out of the conversation to which
I have above referred, on languages, a view of their comparative merits. I quoted Latin as instances of its terseness in rendering
Voltaire’s epigram—
Qui que to sois, voici ton maitre,
Il est, il fut, ou il doit etre.*
Quisquis es en Dominum, Dominus fuit, aut erit, aut est;
and added,—“You will perceive that the Dominus was, though unnecessary, obliged to be introduced to make the verse.”

Plato’s epigram on Aster, which Shelley had applied to Keats, happened to be mentioned,—
Αστηρ τριν μεν ελαμτις, ενι ζωοισιν Εωος,
Νυν δε θανων λαμπεις, Εσπιρος εν θιμεροις,—
and I asked Shelley if he could render it. He took up the pen and improvised:

* It appears that Byron has thus rendered this epigram verbatim,—

Whoever you are your master see,
He is, or was, or ought to be.
Thou wert a morning star among the living,
Ere thy fair light was fled;
Now, having died, thou art as Hesperus, giving
New splendour to the dead.
I said, the version was too paraphrastic, and suggested the following:—
Thou wert a morning star to us,
And dying art our Hesperus.
and in Latin, which I have taken as one of the epigraphs of these volumes,—
Tu, vivens, vivis, fers lucem, ut stella diei,
At nunc heu moriens! Hesperus, Aster eris.

That Shelley should have written but little during the winter, independent of the causes I have assigned, may also be accounted for by his being too much broken in upon and distracted by society, to concentrate his mind on any one subject. His muse admitted of no coquetry—she was exigeante, and demanded his whole soul and affections. Solitude and isolation were indispensable to him, for the developement of his profound and metaphysical ideas; but “en-
” he read as wont seven or eight hours a-day. He had received a quarto edition of Lord Bacon’s works, which he devoured with avidity, and we read together some parts of Spinosa, of which volume he told an excellent story. On entering Rome, the Doganieri laid hands on his books, among which was the very Spinosa, and the Bible. “Which do you suppose,” said he, with one of his peculiar laughs, “they confiscated?—the Bible!” We seldom read new works of fiction, but made an exception in favour of Antar, which we borrowed from Byron, and found greatly interesting. This Jack-the-Giant-Killer romance, abounds with vivid and picturesque, but overcharged descriptions of the scenery and manners of the tribes of the Desert, and his “Lines from the Arabic” were almost a translation from a translation in that Oriental fiction. Antar is a straw that floated for a moment on the stream, and has been engulphed—forgotten. It is an oblivious world. I often asked Shelley if he had never attempted to write like Matthias,
in Italian, and he showed me a sort of serenade which I give as a curiosity,—but proving that he had not made a profound study of the language, which, like Spanish, he had acquired without a grammar,—trusting to his fine ear and memory, rather than to rules.

Buona notte.
Buona notte! buona notte! come mai
La notte sia buona senza te.
Non dirmi buona notte,—che tu sai,
La notte sa star buona da per se.
Solinga, scura, cupa, senza speme
La notte, quando Lilla m’abandona,
Pei cuori, chi si batton insieme,
Ogni notte senza dirla, sara buona.
Come male buona notte si suona,
Con sospiri, e parole interrotte,
Il modo di aver la notte buona,
E mai non di dir la buona notte.

To which I made a version that pleased him better, he said, than the one he had himself written, and which I never saw till it appeared
Mrs. Shelley’s edition of his poems. Excuse, reader, my giving my own.
Good night! good night! oh say not so—
Where thou art not, can night be good?
Say not good night—night’s good, you know,
Whether we would not, or we would.
Dark, silent, hopeless, drear, and lone,
Night seems when thou withdraw’st thy light.
To hearts, that only beat as one,
There needs no voice to say Good night
Good night’s a sound ill understood,
In sighs and murmurs of delight;
The only way night can be good,
Is never, love, to say Good night.

Shelley had also begun at this time “The Triumph of Life,” of which we have a fragment. It advanced very slowly, and in its present form it is impossible to know how he intended to treat the subject; the lines are of a gorgeous magnificence. Singularly enough, this vision of Shelley’s, by a coincidence (for I am convinced it was one, and that he had never read Cardon’s
works,) was nearly the same as that eccentric writer’s, as may be seen by the following comparative extracts:—

Illuscenti Aurorâ, visus sum toto humano genere, maxima que turba mulierum, non solum ac virorum, sed puerorum, atque infantium, juxta radicem montis, qui mihi a dextera erat, currere. Cum admiratione captus, unum a turbâ interrogarem, quonam omnes tam precipiti cursu tenderemus. Ad mortem respondit.

Thus Shelley:
Methought I sate beside a public way,
Thick strewn with summer dust, and a great stream
Of people there was hurrying to and fro,
Numerous as gnats upon the evening gleam,
All hastening onward, but none seemed to know
Whither he went, and whence he came, or why
He made one of the multitude, and so
Was borne amid the crowd, as through the sky,
One of the million leaves of summer’s bier,
Old age and youth, manhood and infancy,
Mixed in one mighty torrent did appear;
Some flying from the thing they feared, and some
Seeking the object of another’s fear,
And others with swift steps towards the tomb
Pored on the trodden worms that crawled beneath,
And others mournfully within the gloom
Of their own shadows walked—and called it death.