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Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
Shelley's Vegetarianism

Full text of "Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Monograph"





Pisa soon became to Shelley in Italy what Marlow had been to him in England. He came there out of health and out of spirits, depressed by the apparent failure of his literary hopes, and disgusted by the coldness or insolence of the Englishmen he met abroad. Hitherto he and Mary had been leading a solitary and cheerless life among people with whom they were wholly out of sympathy; being, in fact, as Shelley had himself described it, "like a family of Wahabee Arabs, pitching their tent in the midst of London "; but at Pisa they found health and repose, and gradually gathered around them quite a circle of congenial and sympathetic friends. They stayed there during the whole of 1820 and 1821, with the exception of visits occasionally made to Leghorn, and more frequently to the baths of San Giuliano — a village distant about four miles; so that there was truth in Shelley's words when he wrote on a later occasion to Mary, " Our roots never struck so deeply as at Pisa, and the transplanted tree flourishes not."

The manner of Shelley's life at Pisa was much the same as at Marlow. He was up early, and was busily engaged in reading or writing till two o'clock, with a hunk of dry bread beside him for food, and water for drink. Among his favourite books were Plato, the Greek dramatists, the Bible, Dante, Petrarch, Calderon, Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare, Lord Bacon, Spinoza, and Milton. In the afternoon he would sail in his skif on the Arno, or go off, book in hand, to the solitary pine-forests by the shore. In the evening he would again read, or devote the time to conversing with friends. Next to his books and his boat, Shelley's chief source of delight was, perhaps, in the numerous plants which he and Mary gathered round them in their Pisan home, and which throve well in that mild and equable climate; hence, perhaps, originated the idea of " The Sensitive Plant," which was written at this date.

To society, in the conventional sense of the word, he was still as averse as ever, finding "saloons and compliments "too great bores to be endurable, and having the same horror as at Marlow of the wearisome and officious visits of "idle ladies and gentlemen." "The few people we see," so he informed Medwin, "are those who suit us — and, I believe, nobody but us." He was also equally disinclined to dress in the approved fashion of society, declaring a hat to be little better than "a crown of thorns," and a stiff collar a halter. "I bear what I can, and suffer what I must," he groaned on one occasion, when compliance was absolutely demanded of him ; but the Ariel in his nature could not often be induced thus to shackle itself in the prison-house of decorous costume.

At the beginning of their residence at Pisa, the only families with which the Shelleys were intimate were the Gisbornes, who had a house at Leghorn, and the Tighes, who lived at Pisa under the assumed name of Mr, and Mrs. Mason; in both of which households Shelley found enlightened views and opinions to a great extent in accordance with his own. Maria Gisborne, once the intimate friend of Godwin and Mary Wolstonecraft, was a woman of quick intelligence and keen sensibility, in whose society and conversation Shelley took much pleasure, and by whom he was first introduced to the study of the Spanish language, and especially the works of Calderon. Mrs. Mason was a still more remarkable character. As a girl she had been the pupil of Mary Wolstonecraft, and had then become the wife of Lord Mount-cashell, from whom she was afterwards separated; she was famous also as being an ardent democrat, although a countess, and a thoroughly patriotic Irishwoman, until all her hopes were dashed by the disastrous Act of Union in 1800. It is no wonder that Shelley and Mary spent much time at the Masons' house at Pisa, and that they valued the society of such friends with whom they could freely exchange opinions on social and political topics without being looked on with aversion or mistrust. The correspondence with the Gisbornes was also a pleasure to Shelley, and he took great interest in a scheme originated by Henry Reveley, Mrs. Gisborne's son by a former marriage, for starting a steamer to ply between Leghorn and Marseilles.

In the autumn of 1820 Claire Clairmont ceased to be a regular inmate of Shelley's family, her misunderstandings with Mary rendering a change advisable. Sisters by connection and not by birth, and differing widely in character and temperament, Mary and Claire were not likely to be drawn so closely together as to make it possible that they should always share the same home. Claire was excitable, quick-tempered, and prone to take offence on slight provocation ; and this accorded ill with Mary's calm, sedate, and somewhat exacting habit of mind. It was agreed, therefore, that Claire should take the post of governess in a family at Florence. Shelley, who was better able than Mary to sympathize with Claire, and who was full of pity for her on account of the harsh treatment she received from Byron, and the prolonged separation from her child Allegra, did all he could to cheer and comfort her in her new position. Friendly correspondence was also maintained with Mary, and it was not long before Claire again visited the Shelleys at Pisa.

We have seen how, in the preceding year, Shelley's interest had been specially aroused by the social condition of the English working classes ; it was now to be arrested by the movements in favour of national independence, by which the South of Europe was agitated in 1820 and 1821, Spain was in arms against the tyranny of Ferdinand VII.; there was an insurrection at Naples against the dynasty of the Bourbons; and Greece was already on the point of proclaiming its independence of Turkish misrule. Shelley, the determined and consistent enemy of oppression in all its forms and phases, was, of course, deeply interested in the cause of these rising nationalities, and it was his good fortune at this time to number among his friends some sincere and earnest-minded patriots. Yacca, his medical adviser at Pisa, was not only a skilful and eminent physician, but an enthusiastic advocate of Italian freedom, and his professional visits to his friend and patient were the more helpful and beneficial alike to body and mind, since he wisely forbore to afflict Shelley with drugs, but was always ready to engage in a "profound and atheistical" conversation. Still more stimulating to Shelley's zeal was his friendship with Mavrocordato, the exiled Greek prince who afterwards became a leader in the Greek revolution, and who even now, under the inspiration of Shelley's prophetic spirit, was plotting revolt, and looking forward to the emancipation of his fellow-country-men.

It was at this time, and under these circumstances, that Shelley wrote his splendid odes "To Liberty" and "To Naples," which were followed, in 1821, by the still loftier and more ambitious " Hellas," a poetic vision of the delivery of Greece, which was to a great extent realized by the result of the war of independence.

It is here worthy of note that Shelley's detestation of tyranny was not of that partial and intermittent kind which has sometimes been exhibited by certain English politicians and poets, who have sympathized warmly with the national aspirations of foreign and remote countries, while they have been hostile or indifferent to the progress of equally important and equally justifiable movements at home. "There is no such thing as a rebellion in Ireland," he wrote, in 1821, "nor anything that looks like it. The people are indeed stung to madness by the oppression of the Irish system, and there is no such thing as getting rents or taxes, even at the point of the bayonet, throughout the southern provinces. But there are no regular bodies of men in opposition to the Government, nor have the people any leaders." If the Irish people had then found leaders, as they have since done, there can be little question where Shelley's sympathies would have been.

"Now has descended a serener hour, And with inconstant fortune friends return."

So wrote Shelley of his Marlow home in 1817, and the same was true to a still greater degree of his residence at Pisa. Immediately after Claire's departure to Florence, who should arrive at Pisa but Shelley's cousin and old school acquaintance, Tom Medwin, whom he had not seen for at least seven years. Since that time Medwin had become a captain in the cavalry, and had travelled in the East; but he still retained his habit of dabbling in poetry, and was soon as eager as ever to resume his joint literary labours with the fellow-poet who had assisted him, nine years before, in such juvenile productions as "The Wandering Jew." After the first pleasure of the reunion was over, Medwin's visit was found to give more gratification to himself than to his host; for, apart from the fact that he fell sick and had to be nursed through a severe illness, during which, as he tells us, Shelley tended him like a brother, his vanity and dilettanteism made his prolonged society somewhat of an infliction.

Yet, in spite of all his shortcomings, and in spite of the literary sins of carelessness and inaccuracy which he committed at a later date as a biographer, Tom Medwin deserves to be kindly thought of by all students of Shelley's life. Vain and self-complacent though he was, he was profoundly impressed by the greatness of Shelley's genius and the nobility of his character, which in many ways he was better qualified to understand than were Hogg and Peacock, since he was at least free from the coldness and cynicism which made them blind to much that far less clever men could perceive and appreciate.

Among other acquaintances who occasionally figured in Shelley's literary circle were Sgricci, the famous Italian improvisatorey whose unpremeditated utterances in the theatre at Pisa greatly surprised and delighted Shelley ; Count Taaffe, an eccentric Irishman, whose poetical pretensions caused much amusement to his audience; and Pacchiani, a disreputable professor, who made himself useful to the Shelleys by introducing them to more worthy friends, — above all, to Emilia Viviani, a name for ever immortalized in English literature by the rapturous verses of the "Epipsychidion."

That was a strange and memorable meeting, in the Pisan convent of St. Anne, between the beautiful and passionate-souled Italian girl, whose life was wasting away under the constraint of her enforced seclusion, and the young English poet, himself not unacquainted with tyranny and misfortune, who had devoted his whole being to the quest after that ideal beauty, which, if it could be embodied in any earthly shape, might most surely, he thought, be found in the form of womanly perfection. It seemed to Shelley that in Emilia Viviani he had at last discovered a visible image and personification of that divine spirit of love, that "dim object of his soul's idolatry," which he had long worshipped by intuition, and to which he had always appealed as the one redeeming power by which a sorrowful world might be regenerated.

Nor was Emilia on her part less affected by the apparition of so strange a visitor on the gloomy threshold of her prison-house. "Yesterday night," she wrote to Mary, when the acquaintance with her English friends had ripened into intimacy, "Claire narrated to me a part of his history. His many misfortunes, his unjust persecutions, and his firm and innate virtue in the midst of these terrible and unmerited sorrows, filled my heart with admiration and affection, and made me think, and perhaps not untruly, that he is not a human creature; he has only a human exterior, but the interior is all divine. The Being of all beings has doubtless sent him to earth to accredit virtue, and to give an exact image of Himself."

So thought Emilia of Shelley, and so thought Shelley of Emilia, and from this spiritualized union of hearts sprang the rhapsody of the "Epipsychidion," a poem ever sacred to the "esoteric few" for whom it was written, while, as Shelley remarked in his Preface, "to a certain other class it must ever remain incomprehensible."

Years later, when Emilia had broken the bonds of an unhappy marriage — that still worse slavery for which she had been compelled to exchange her convent life — Medwin saw her at Florence shortly before her death. "I might fill many a page" he says, "by speaking of the tears she shed over the memory of Shelley."

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