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

Full text of "Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Monograph"




LIFE AT PISA (continued).

In the autumn of 1821, after a pleasant summer spent chiefly at the baths of San Giuliano, where they had a boat on the canal that united the streams of the Arno and the Serchio, the Shelleys once more found themselves settled at Pisa, again surrounded by a considerable circle of friends. Claire, it is true, was no longer of their party; and Prince Mavrocordato had already sailed for Greece, to take part in the war of independence which was even now commencing; while Emilia Viviani had exchanged her Pisan convent, or was just about to exchange it, for a love-less union with the husband whom her father and step-mother had selected. But the Masons were still living at Pisa, and Medwin returned there towards the close of the year ; more important actors had also begun to appear on the scene.

Byron, to whom Shelley had paid a visit at Ravenna in August, had now transferred his household to Pisa for the winter months, and the friendly intercourse between the two poets was continued, until a coldness sprang up between them owing to the indignation felt by Shelley at Byron's conduct to Claire, whose daughter Allegra had been left, against the mother's wishes, in a convent near Ravenna. In the meantime a scheme had been started for the establishment of a new liberal periodical, to which Byron, Shelley, and Leigh Hunt should be the joint contributors; and in order to carry out this idea, it was arranged that Leigh Hunt should shortly set out with his family and take up his abode at Pisa. Vague hopes also floated through Shelley's mind of forming a still larger colony of select spirits in his Italian home; he would be like Lucifer, and seduce a third part of the starry flock," "I wish you, and Hogg, and Hunt," — so he had written to Peacock in the preceding year, — "and I know not who besides, would come and spend some months with me together in this wonderful land." These wishes, however, were not fated to be realized. Peacock, who was now married, showed no inclination to leave his native country; and though a visit from Hogg was talked of, it was never carried out; while Horace Smith, a true friend, for whom Shelley always had a deep regard, was compelled to give up his intended journey on account of his wife's health; and Keats, another old acquaintance whom Shelley had earnestly hoped to see at Pisa, had died at Rome early in 1821, a loss commemorated by Shelley in the splendid elegy of the "Adonais."

But, as a set-off against these losses and disappointments, Shelley and Mary had lately formed the closest and most intimate friendship of their married life, a friendship which was of special value to Shelley as affording him the solace of congenial companionship in his fits of dejection, and stimulating that passion for lyric composition to which his mind was now chiefly directed. It was by Medwin that the long-promised introduction was given; but when Shelley, writing in 1820, before Medwin's visit to Pisa, had expressed the hope of seeing "the lovely lady'* and her husband on their arrival in Italy, and the conviction that such society would be of more benefit to his health than any medical treatment, he little thought how amply his words would be fulfilled. Who could have anticipated that the outcast poet, in his distant place of sojourn, would find a devoted friend and admirer in a retired lieutenant of the 8th Dragoons, who, sixteen years before this time, had been his school fellow at Eton, and possibly a witness of the "Shelley-baits" that were then in vogue ; and, further, that the wife of this friend would be discovered by Shelley to be the "exact antitype "of the guardian spirit of his own" Sensitive Plant "; "A lad J, the wonder of her kind, Whose form was upborne by a lovely mind."

Yet so in reality it turned out ; for none of Shelley's friends — Leigh Hunt perhaps alone excepted — proved to be so true and sympathetic as Edward Williams; while Jane, with, her sweet voice and gentle manner, soon became to the Pisan company, and to Shelley in particular, "a sort of embodied peace in the midst of their circle of tempests." They had spent the summer of 1821 in a village in the neighbourhood of San Giuliano, where Williams and Shelley had been constantly together on the waters of the Serchio Canal, and they were now living in the same house with the Shelleys at Pisa, opposite the mansion occupied by Byron on the Lung'Arno.

Thither came also, before the winter was far advanced, the latest, but not least memorable, of Shelley's friends, a man "of savage, but noble, nature" — the tall, dark, handsome Trelawny, whose contempt for orthodox opinions and conventional habits, together with the adventurous sea-faring experiences of his eariy manhood, seemed to indicate a mixture in his nature of pagan and pirate. Like all who were brought into close connection with Shelley, he soon became conscious of the indefinable charm of the poet's character and genius.

And, indeed, very impressive was the figure of this young man of twenty-nine, who was commonly regarded by those who knew him only by hearsay as a monster of wickedness, while those immediately around him were convinced that he was the gentlest and least selfish of men. His bent and emaciated form, his features, which betrayed signs of acute mental suffering, and his hair, abeady interspersed with grey, gave him at times the appearance of premature age; yet the spirit of triumphant energy and indomitable youth which had sustained him, and still sustained him, through all his misfortunes, was never wholly absent from his countenance and demeanour. He was still the unwearied student, the eager controversialist, and the enthusiastic votary of liberty of speech and action ; yet he was subject now, perhaps, more than in his earlier years, to moods of despondency, which his friends regarded as "a melancholy too sacred to notice."

Nor was it surprising that he was thus affected ; for he had, indeed, "run the gauntlet," to quote his own words. " through a hellish society of men." The religious, ethical, and political speculations which he had advanced in "Queen Mab," "Laon and Oythna," "Prometheus Unbound," and his other writings, had brought down on him a very storm of obloquy and misrepresentation ; he who above all men was filled with love, reverence, and natural piety was branded as a desperate atheist and wanton blasphemer; while the most wild and ludicrous calumnies respecting the conduct of his life were freely circulated and credited.

In 1819 the Quarterly Review in those days the great organ of religious intolerance and social respectability, had published a criticism of "Laon and
Cythna," and the writer had not scrupled to lend himself to the basest and most reckless insinuations on Shelley's private character, assuming the tone of one who was behind the scenes on subjects of which it is now evident that he was almost entirely ignorant, "If we might withdraw the veil of private life," so wrote this pious and conscientious moralist, "and tell what we now know about him, it would be indeed a disgusting picture that* we should exhibit, but it would be an unanswerable comment on our text ; it is not easy for those who read only to conceive how much low pride, how much cold selfishness, how much unmanly cruelty are consistent with the laws of this universal and lawless love." Ridiculous as such assertions as this were seen to be when the true outlines of Shelley's life were published, they constituted at the time a very grave annoyance and even danger, since they were widely disseminated and almost universally believed. It is said that Shelley, during his residence in England, contemplated the possibility of being some day condemned to the public pillory; and who can say that in that age of tyrannical prosecutions such a fear was altogether groundless? In Italy he more than once met with rudeness, or even violent insult, at the hands of his fellow-countrymen, whose minds were vehemently prejudiced against him by the reports published in the. press. "The calumnies, the sources of which are probably deeper than we perceive, have ultimately for object the depriving us of the means of security and subsistence." So Shelley wrote to Mary from Ravenna in 1821, with reference to a newly discovered piece of slander, of which he and Claire were the victims; and though he doubtless deceived himself as to the existence of any concerted and premeditated attack of so serious a nature, he had ample reason for looking with some apprehension both on his present position and his prospects in the future.

But these anxieties, keenly as they were sometimes felt, could not appreciably diminish Shelley's intellectual activity nor his delight in open-air pursuits. After devoting a long morning to that love of study which even the least literary of his friends found to be infectious in his company, he would be off with Edward Williams to breast the current of the Amo in his light skiff, his passion for boating still remaining as strong as ever; or he would join Byron's party in riding or pistol-practice, his skill in the latter pastime giving proof that the imaginative temperament of an idealist is not incompatible with the possession of a steady eye and hand ; or he would walk abroad with Trelawny and other companions, all of whom he could distance by his long stride across broken ground. But his favourite haunts were the solitary sandy flats and the wild pine-forests that bordered the coast near the estuary of the Arno, where, as in the Bisham woods at Marlow, he could sit and write in complete quietude and seclusion, with no fear of human interruption to the visions that passed before him.

Here were written some of the most beautiful poems in that well-known series of lyrics addressed to Jane Williams, which was the chief production of Shelley's genius in the winter of 1821-22. These lyrics, in the directness and simplicity of their style and the predominance of the personal element, reflect faithfully the feelings and workings of the mind of the revolutionary enthusiast, when, after giving expression to the doctrines which he believed to be of vital importance to the welfare of mankind, and reaping the consequent harvest of hatred and misrepresentation, he paused awhile in his "passion for reforming the world," and solaced himself in the sweet assurance of the sympathy and friendship accorded him in all frankness and sincerity by a gentle and tender-hearted woman.

Chapter 12 | Index