Page images
PDF
EPUB

tenance of man since I passed the Alps. The women in enslaved countries are always better than the men ; but they have tight-laced figures, and figures and mien which express (oh how unlike the French !) a mixture of the coquette and prude, which reminds me of the worst characteristics of the English.” To the above remarks Mrs. Shelley * appends a note :-“ These impressions of Shelley with regard to the Italians, formed in ignorance and with precipitation, became altogether altered after a longer stay in Italy. He quickly discovered the extraordinary intelligence and genius of this wonderful people, amidst the ignorance in which they are carefully kept by their rulers, and the vices fostered by a religious system which these same rulers have used as their most successful engine.” One must accept (and I should be the last to wish attenuated) this testimony of Mrs. Shelley's : yet I confess that the published letters of her husband hardly bear it out. The following passages may be noted. “The modern Italians seem a miserable people—without sensibility, or imagination, or understanding. Their outside is polished : and an intercourse with them seems to proceed with much facility, though it ends in nothing, and produces nothing. The women are particularly empty, and, though possessed of the same sort of superficial grace, are devoid of every cultivation and refinement” (Bagni di Lucca, 25th July 1818). “I had no conception of the excess to which avarice, cowardice, superstition, ignorance, passionless lust, and all the inexpressible brutalities which degrade human nature, could be carried, until I had passed a few days at Venice” (Venice, 8th October 1818). “The common Italians are so sullen and stupid it's impossible to get information from them : at Rome . . . . the people seem superior to any in Italy (Naples, 26th January 1819). The next extract does certainly show some progression. “We see something of Italian society. The Romans please me much, especially the women; who, though totally devoid of every kind of information, or culture of the imagination or affections or understanding, and in this respect a kind of gentle savages, yet contrive to be interesting. Their extreme innocence and naïveté, the freedom and gentleness of their manners, the total absence of affectation, make an intercourse with them very like an intercourse with uncorrupted children, whom they resemble in loveliness as well as simplicity.

Essays and Letters, vol. ii., p. 96.

[ocr errors]

I have seen two women in society here of the highest beauty : their brows and lips, and the moulding of the face, modelled with sculptural exactness, and the dark luxuriance of their hair floating over their fine complexions; and the lips-you must hear the commonplaces which escape from them, before they cease to be dangerous. The only inferior part are the eyes ; which, though good and gentle, want the mazy depth of colour behind colour with which the intellectual women of England and Germany entangle the heart in soul-enwoven labyrinths.” (Rome, 6th April 1819). But in the next almost contemporary extract we again relapse—“ The Italian character does not improve upon us” (Rome, 26th April 1819): and this identical expression is used in a letter of the same date written by Mrs. Shelley to Mrs. Gisborne. All these remarks, it is true, belong to the first thirteen months of Shelley's sojourn in Italy : yet, even as late as 15th February 1821, he could term Emilia Viviani “the only Italian for whom I ever felt any interest.”

Mrs. Shelley considered that the removal to and sojourn in Italy were advantageous to her husband in almost all respects; and this was probably his own predominant feeling as well. We find, however, in some of his letters, the expressions that he would some day return to England through pure weakness of heart; that he would like to be back there but for his restricted means, and would wish to dwell near London ; and that England is the most free and refined of countries. Yet the climate, had there been no other objection, would have been a very serious one. In the first letter (April 1818) which Shelley wrote to Peacock from Milan, he had said—“In the chilling fogs and rains of our own country, I can scarcely be said to live ;” and an entry in Mrs. Shelley’s diary of 14th May 1824 (long after her husband's death) says, speaking of England: “Mine own Shelley! what a horror you had of returning to this miserable country!”

In Naples the Shelleys lodged near the Royal Gardens, facing the Bay: they were very solitary, the poet's health was bad, and he was often gloomy. Still, he had days of great enjoyment from the scenery, which he naturally enough thought the most beautiful to be found within the bounds of civilization, and from visits to Pompeii and Vesuvius ; the latter he regarded as, “after the glaciers, the most impressive exhibition of the energies of nature I ever saw.” The family returned to Rome VOL. I.

h

in March, intending to go back to Naples for the second half of the year 1819, but this purpose remained unfulfilled.

According to the account which Shelley gave to Byron and Medwin, he re-encountered in Naples the married lady who had proffered him her love in 1816. She had arrived in that city on the same day as himself; and, when they met, she informed him of the persistent though hopeless affection with which she had tracked his footsteps. Here also she now died; and Shelley said that he had left Naples the earlier on that account. Unless Medwin has indulged his invention in a very unjustifiable way in this matter, or unless Shelley himself did the like, we have before us this alternative ; either that the poet narrated a strange tissue of delusions, or that the allegations were substantially true. I have no wish to uphold the latter (contrary to the conviction of better-informed persons) as the only admissible solution : but I think that a few symptoms of collateral evidence deserve careful attention. That Shelley became unusually melancholy at Naples is an acknowledged fact ; and that ill health was not the sole cause of this is also recognized. In his Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples we find a remarkable expression :

Alas! I have nor hope nor health,

within nor calm around;

Nor fame nor power nor love nor leisure.” Considering the deep mutual attachment which undoubtedly subsisted between Shelley and his wife,* it is difficult to infer that he intended this statement to reflect upon her, or upon himself as related to her. It is also clear that he did not make Mary the confidante of any unhappiness which may just now have affected him, of deeper import than his ill health. Her own statement t is conclusive on this point. “Though he pre

Nor

peace

I use this expression with entire confidence, but do not deny that there are some indications here and there that the conjugal happiness of Shelley and his wife was not an absolutely still and glassy stream-there were ripples in it. The poem To Edward Williams (vol. ii. p. 275) can hardly, I think, be understood in any other sense, whatever may be its further purport. This is' dated 1821: so is Ginevra, wherein marriage is characterized as

“life's great cheat-a thing

Bitter to taste, sweet in imagining." This, however, relates rather to the woman's lot in married life. Captain Trelawny's Recollections offer some suggestions to the same general effect; and Mr. Thornton Hunt says that perhaps Mary troubled Shelley

by "little habits of temper, and possibly of a refined and exacting coquettishness." Still, the utmost that can be deduced of this sort from published records makes no substantial difference in the main result that Shelley and Mary were happy in each other, and well matched.

+ Vol. ii. p. 186.

served the appearance of cheerfulness, . yet many hours were passed when his thoughts, shadowed by illness, became gloomy, —and then he escaped to solitude, and in verses, which he hid from fear of wounding me, poured forth morbid but too natural bursts of discontent and sadness. One looks back with unspeakable regret and gnawing remorse to such periods ; fancying that, had one been more alive to the nature of his feelings, and more attentive to soothe them, such would not have existed. And yet, enjoying as he appeared to do every sight or influence of earth or sky, it was difficult to imagine that any melancholy he showed was aught but the effect of the constant pain to which he was a martyr.” Some while afterwards (May 1820) Shelley wrote to Peacock that Italy had done much good to his health, and “but for certain moral causes” would probably have cured it. The “moral causes” thus reticently referred to are neither defined nor distinctly apparent. It may also deserve noting that Shelley, speaking of Julian and Maddalo in a letter of 15th December 1819, expressed his intention “ to write three other poems, the scenes of which will be laid at Rome, Florence, and Naples, but the subjects of which will be all drawn from dreadful or beautiful realities, as that of this was.” If the Naples romance was a myth, of course no affinity can be surmised between it and this statement ; but the latter might not unnaturally suggest that something of moment had come under Shelley's observation at Naples, and, if his story was true, one might conjecture that this was the destined theme of his poem. Finally, I may call attention to Medwin's intimation (not very precisely expressed) that the verses entitled Misery were written in connexion with these same events. He says that the poet gave him to understand as much.

XXI.-DEATH OF WILLIAM SHELLEY, AND BIRTH OF PERCY.

Another sorrow, and one which he felt deeply, befell Shelley soon after his return to Rome. His son William died on the 7th of June,* aged three years and a half, after only a few days' illness. He was a beautiful and engaging child, and obviously the favourite of his father, who watched his deathbed for sixty

So inscribed on the tombstone, and so in a letter of Shelley's to Mr. Peacock, written the following day. Mrs. Shelley says "6th June" (Éssays and Letters, vol. ii. p. 178).

hours, without closing his eyes : several references to the boy are to be found among the poems, more especially after his death. Shelley, the father of four children, was now practically a childless man. The two whom Harriett had brought him were confiscated by an almost unexampled stretch of law; the two whom he must have loved yet more affectionately, if only for the sake of their mother Mary

(“And from thy side two gentle babes are born

To fill our home with smiles")* were now both gathered away into the quiet fold of the great shepherd Death. William was buried in the protestant cemetery at Rome. This Shelley had described (as we have seen) only half a year before to his friend Peacock in terms of tenderness and beauty that now, in retrospection, might almost seem charged with presentiment, and will seem triply so charged before the end of the fourth succeeding year. Over the freshclosed grave, and in all the sadness of loss, Shelley could yet say : “I envy death the body far less than the oppressors the minds of those whom they have torn from me. The one can only kill the body : the other crushes the affections." An inscribed gravestone was placed in the cemetery for William during Shelley's lifetime (not under his personal direction, but seemingly under that of Miss Curran, the friend at Rome who painted the often-engraved portrait of the poet)-and, as it turned out, was wrongly placed : for, when soon afterwards that grave was opened with a view to removing the child's corpse to lie close beside his father's ashes, the bones beneath were found to be those of an adult. William's 'actual burial-place is not now precisely known.

But Nature had some compensation early in store for the bereaved parents. On the 12th of November 1819, at Florence, Mary gave birth to another son, her last child, Percy Florence, the present Baronet. Her sorrow for William had been most poignant; and no doubt the advent of the new baby was a great relief to Shelley, for her sake as well as his own. Percy was a somewhat delicate infant; and we read more than once of projected removals which the parents, both of them enthusiastic travellers, would otherwise have been inclined for, set aside in the interest of his health.

* Revolt of Islam, Dedication,

« PreviousContinue »