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Possibly the narrator, Medwin, is more abroad in the auxiliary than in the leading circumstances of the case.
This gentleman*—" Captain Medwin, of the 24th Light Dragoons”—Shelley's second cousin and old schoolfellow, was now in Italy on his return from Bombay, and the poet invited him to his house at the Bagni di Pisa. It may have been towards the end of October that he arrived. A few days afterwards the Serchio river and a connecting canal overflowed their banks, flooded the neighbouring houses, including the Shelley's, and dictated a rapid retreat. They and Medwin returned accordingly to Pisa, which, of all the cities visited by the poet, was on the whole the one that suited his health best. He lived on the south side of the Arno, next door to the marble palace which stands inscribed “ Alla Giornata.” Medwin had a severe attack of illness here, and Shelley tended him for six weeks with unremitting and minute carefulness.
It was soon afterwards that Shelley became acquainted with the beautiful Contessina Emilia Viviani, with whom he had a long-memorable affaire de cæur-as it may perhaps be most appropriately termed. He knew a certain Professor or ex-Professor P., an ecclesiastic, and confessor in the family of the Conte Viviani. The “ Professore” is amusingly sketched by Medwin, and seems to have been a scamp of the impurest water -at any rate a very talented, accomplished, and learned scamp, and a first-rate talker.t He spoke to Shelley of the two daughters of the Conte, who, in consequence of the dislike of a young stepmother, had been shut up in convents—the elder, Emilia, in the Convent of St Anne, in the suburbs of Pisa : and he proposed to introduce Shelley to her. I do not find the exact date given, but presume it to have been late in the autumn of 1820. Shelley visited Emilia, and was enraptured with her : her dreary seclusion, under which she pined miserably, the beauty equally of her mind and person, excited his tenderest sympathies. He made unsuccessful efforts to obtain her liberation from the convent, and exchanged locks of hair with her. Many of her letters to Shelley are still extant. Mostly she addresses him as “ Caro Fratello,” but in at least one instance she
• He died at an advanced age this summer, 1869. + The ton-mot which is said to have cost him his professorial chair is too neat to be omitted. He was out at night in the streets of Pisa in company not strictly eccleBastic or academic; and, being challenged by the patrol, replied “Son un uomo pubblico, in una strada pubblica, con una donna pubblica."
uses the startling term “Adorato Sposo."*
“ Emilia,” says Medwin,“ was indeed lovely and interesting. Her profuse black hair, tied in the most simple knot, after the manner of a Greek Muse in the Florence Gallery, displayed to its full height her brow, fair as that of the marble of which I speak. She was also of about the same height as the antique. Her features possessed a rare faultlessness and almost Grecian † contour, the nose and forehead making a straight line. Her eyes had the sleepy voluptuousness, if not the colour, of Beatrice Cenci's. They had indeed no definite colour; changing with the changing feelings to dark or light, as the soul animated them. Her cheek was pale too, as of marble-owing to her confinement and want of air, or perhaps' to thought.'” Emilia Viviani was soon after visited by Mrs. Shelley, as well as her husband, and in the carnival was allowed to pay them visits in return. Some further particulars concerning her will be found in my notes to Epipsychidion.
The one thing which it is important to know about her now is that she inspired that subtle and astonishing poem. I am not aware that even
“A scandal-monger beyond all belief" has ever said or insinuated that Shelley's love for Emilia (for love, in a certain sense, it may clearly be called) was other than “ Platonic :" if anybody has said so, the statement is presumably as unworthy of attention as it is incapable of mathematical disproof. The reader who observes that Epipsychidion is the only one of Shelley's long poems to which his widow appended no word of comment may perhaps infer that the Platonization was not absolutely to her mind : but that is neither here nor there. The poem-to take it on its own showing-reveals a state of feeling which most people have never experienced ; and this moreover it describes in terms which they cannot understand. As a pure outpouring of poetry, a brimming and bubbling foun. tain of freshness and music, magical with its own spray-rainbows, Epipsychidion is beyond praise, and beyond description. I may confess, however, to doubting whether it is quite a justifiable sort of poem to write. Its very mood of mind tends to
* The passage, I am informed, is much to the following effect. Emilia is comparing herself to flowers at dawn-time, which have all the freshness of the dew upon them, and whose honey has been robbed as yet by no bee : “You alone have been my bee, O adorato sposo."
+ The word is printed "German" in Medwin's book; but one cannot doubt that it ought to be "Grecian."
wards the intangible; and its framework of imagery or symbol remains to this day an enigma to students of the poetry and the life of Shelley—and this as a framework, not to speak of difficulties of detail or diction. But Shelley, like Zeus, was a cloudcompeller; and, of his clouds, even the most vaporous refuses to disperse.
The poem was written before the beginning of 1821, and was sent in February to London, and there published, semi-published, or nominally published, without Shelley's name. There was a small edition to be had for the buying, and no buyer applied. Shortly after this, Shelley wrote his noble Defence of Poitry, in reply to an article by Peacock in Ollier's Literary Miscellany. The Defence is an incomplete treatise, as two other parts were to have been written, but they never got done.
Early in 1821 Medwin brought Shelley acquainted with Edward Ellerker Williams, formerly a lieutenant in the 8th Dragoons, and his wife Jane. Lieutenant Williams had at first been in the navy, and then some years in India : he was just about the same age as Shelley, or in his thirtieth year, with something of a consumptive tendency, lately come upon him.* Medwin says that he was a lineal descendant of a daughter of Cromwell. The Williamses were in the enjoyment of fairly competent means, and had two children. This acquaintance, which soon ripened into friendship, proved eminently pleasing to all concerned. Williams was gentle, generous, and fearless, fond of the water and manly exercises, with some faculty for drawing, and (it would seem) for poetry as well. Of Mrs. Williams, whose musical proficiency and taste were a great delight to Shelley, we know from himself that she realized his antecedent conception of the Lady in The Sensitive Plant: could any more be said? The warmth of Shelley's feelings for Mrs. Williams, as disclosed in the various exquisite poems he addressed to hert -and which all passed through her husband's hands-may indeed be said to hover on the confine between friendship and love; a love as refined and delicate as it was tender, and such as the true husband of Mary and genuinely attached friend of Williams could without blame both entertain and avow. Such a sentiment is one of the purest as well as most beautiful known to man.
Aledwin mentions this, with confirmatory details: I found Mr. Trelawny both unaware and sceptical of the alleged fact. + See the poems, Remembrance (vol. ii. p. 274) &c., and my notes upon them. VOL. I.
These were years of revolution : and indeed what years, since the great disintegration of 1789-93, have not been so ? and how many more are we not destined to see until the work of those mighty days shall be in some approximate degree openly accepted and firmly constituted ? Spain and Naples had risen in 1820, and had been welcomed by the noble enthusiasm and the not less noble strains of Shelley : now, in 1821, it was the turn of Greece. On the ist of April Prince Alexander Mavrocordato, whose acquaintance the poet had made at Pisa, called upon him, produced a proclamation issued by his cousin Prince Ypsilanti, and declared that Greece—the Holy Land of Shelley's heart and intellect—would once again be free. The result was the drama of Hellas, of which more anon.
The Shelleys were now no longer leading the secluded-sometimes solitary-life which had mostly been their lot in Italy, and which (as the reader may have already noted) was likely to be little to the taste of Mary, nor entirely so to her husband's, though it must be regarded as reasonably congenial, in the long run, to his real and deeper requirements. At present Medwin was in their house, and had been studying Arabic with the poet: Mavrocordato was the most constant visitor, and used to play at chess with Shelley, who was not a good hand at the game : the Williamses were on terms of increasing intimacy ;-and he already saw something in private of Sgricci, the famous improvisatore, whose faculty filled Shelley with admiring wonder.* Towards the end of this year, the circle of his acquaintances in Pisa enlarged greatly. Shelley and Williams did a good deal of boating together on the Arno, the Serchio, and its canal; recorded in the beautiful fragment The Boat on the Serchio, and in the note of Mrs. Shelley (which the reader should consult for details) to the poems of 1821. By July she and her husband were again at the Bagni di Pisa.
Hence Shelley went to pay Byron a visit at Ravenna, which he reached on the evening of the 6th of August. One would think ” (he wrote to his wife on that day, while at Bologna en route) “ that I were the spaniel of Destiny; for, the more she knocks me about, the more I fawn on her. I had an overturn about daybreak; the old horse stumbled, and threw me and the
The MS. book by Shelley which has passed through my hands contains a longish criticism by the English poet, written in Italian, of the improvisation of the tragedy of Ettore by Sgricci. It appears to have been done for publication in some review. Sgricci was born near Arezzo in 1788, and died in 1836.
fat vetturino into a slope of meadow, over the hedge. My angular figure stuck where it was pitched; but my vetturino's spherical form rolled fairly to the bottom of the hill, and that with so few symptoms of reluctance in the life that animated it that my ridicule (for it was the drollest sight in the world) was suppressed by my fear that the poor devil had been hurt. But he was very well."
XXVI.—THE WITCH OF ATLAS, ADONAIS, HELLAS. For convenience sake, I link here these three poems, the last compositions of some length (excluding Epipsychidion, already mentioned, and Charles the First and the Triumph of Life, both unfinished) that the thaumaturgic hand of Shelley was destined to indite. In strictness, however, we have already overpassed the date of the Witch of Atlas, and not quite reached that of Hellas.
The former was written in August 1820, in three days following a pedestrian excursion which Shelley had made alone up the Monte San Pellegrino, starting from the Bagni di Pisa. He sent it off to Mr. Ollier on the 20th of January 1821, but it was not published till after the poet's death. Neither Shelley nor any one else tells us who or what the Witch of Atlas is; and I am surprised not to find the subject so much as debated in any book of biography or elucidation. It appears to me that, if we understand the Witch to be the Spirit (or a Spirit) of Beauty, in the most unrestricted sense of that word, we shall find significant many passages in the poem which otherwise read as mere brilliant fantasies : not that I perceive this clue to lead into every intricate recess and twilight cranny of the maze. If it fails in delicate hands, we may perhaps assume that, along with the symbolism or intention of the poem, Shelley mixed up some elements of what may be called a “fairy tale,” equally enchanting, imperishable, and arbitrary. However this may be, he never, or scarcely at all, did anything more splendid than the Witch of Atlas: from first to last, it is consummate in imagination and workmanship. To some extent it pairs with EpiPsychidion; and I decidedly think it the finer product of the two.
Keats died on the 23d of February 1821 at Rome : Shelley (who had some months before invited his brother poet to stay with him in Italy, but without any direct result) did not know of