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

Full text of "Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Monograph"





Before the commencement of the hot weather in 1822, Shelley and Mary had moved their household from Pisa to the neighbourhood of Lerici, a small town on the Gulf of Spezzia, where they purposed spending the summer months. Edward and Jane Williams were again of the party, and Claire Clairmont, saddened now and subdued by the recent death of her child Allegra, was a visitor from time to time; but Trelawny still remained at Pisa in Byron's company, and with Byron Shelley henceforth held but little communication, being desirous to withdraw himself as much as possible from a society in which he had ceased to take pleasure.

The Casa Magni, the house occupied by the Shelleys and Williamses, was a solitary and desolate-looking building, standing amid the wildest scenery of the Gulf of Spezzia, with a precipitous wooded slope behind it, and the sea in front. So close was it to the shore that the plash and moan of the waves could be heard in all the rooms, so that the inmates almost fancied themselves to be on board a ship in mid - sea, rather than housed in a durable dwelling. At the very door of the house, or even within the large unpaved entrance hall, was kept the light skiff, made of canvas and reeds, in which Shelley, fond as ever of the paper boats of his boyhood, delighted to float on the waters of the bay, to the no slight apprehension of his friends and neighbours. In addition to this fragile toy-boat, he was now the possessor of a small undecked yacht, the Ariel lately built for him at Genoa, in which he and Edward Williams could sail to Leghorn and other neighbouring ports, and even meditated still longer voyages along the Mediterranean coasts.

It was a pleasant change to Shelley — this relapse into wild, unconventional life, after the comparatively large demands made on his time by his acquaintances at Pisa; and he was never happier than when sailing in his Ariel under the blazing Italian sun, or listening to the music of Jane's guitar on the terrace of the Gasa Magni by moonlight. He was in no mood at this time for any great creative work, or for any close co-operation in the joint literary enterprise, for which Leigh Hunt was already on his way to meet Byron at Pisa. To Mary, who was in weak health when they came to Lerici, there was something ominous and disquieting in the "unearthly beauty " of the place, and the savage wildness of its scenery; but Shelley only felt the influence of these surroundings in a sense of temporary suspension and mental passiveness. "I stand, as it were, upon a precipice," — so he wrote in June, — "which I have ascended with great, and cannot descend without greater, peril ; and I am content if the heaven above me is calm for the passing moment."

For the moment the heaven was calm, but the calmness was of that kind which too often precedes and prognosticates the storm. The droughts of the early summer were followed by a period of fierce heat and sultry splendour; day after day the sun blazed down with unabated fury on sea and land, while prayers were offered up in churches for the rain that was still withheld. There was something expectant and portentous in the season, and this, perhaps, awoke a similar feeling in the minds of the two families at the Gasa Magni. Shelley himself, though he did not share Mary's vague apprehensions and distrust of Lerici and its wild neighbourhood, was haunted by strange visions, which surprised those to whom he told them at the time, and were afterwards recalled with increased interest and attention. On one occasion it was the face of his former child-friend, Allegra, that looked forth and smiled on him from the waves; on another it was his own wraith that met him, cloaked and hooded, on the terrace of the Casa Magni ; on a third it was the figure of Edward Williams, pale and dying, that appeared to him in a dream, with the tidings that the sea was even then flooding the house in which they were sleeping. Nor was it only the vivid imagination of the poet that was thus disturbed, for Jane Williams was also troubled with the apparition of what she took to be Shelley, at times when Shelley himself was far absent and out of sight ; while, in addition to these mysterious day-dreams and midnight panics, there was always present to the minds of Shelley's friends the real fear that his life might some day be the penalty paid for the rashness with which he ventured on the element which he loved so well, but which had so often threatened to engulf him.

But still the heaven remained calm, and still Shelley was happy while he basked in the full heat of the Italian summer, writing his poem on "The Triumph of Life " as lie cruised in his yacht along the picturesque windings of the coast, or drifted in the little skiff across the land-locked waters of the bay. In " The Triumph of Life," which caught its tone and colour as much from the scenery and season in which it was written as from the transient mood of its author, we have a mystical description of the pomp and pageantry of that triumphal procession in which the spirit of Man is dragged captive behind the chariot of Life. It is no recantation of idealism, — as some readers, misled by the despondent spirit of the poem, have been too quick to assume, — but rather, like "Alastor," a recognition of the price that even the greatest idealists must pay to reality; it is the cost, not the failure, of the ideal philosophy that is here allegorically represented; and it is probable that if the poem, which was left a fragment, had been completed by Shelley, it would have dealt with the saving influence and regenerating power of love.

It is scarcely credible that Shelley could have given up his ideal faith without his friends noticing and recording so momentous a change ; indeed, the evidence of his biographers, so far as it goes, points to exactly the opposite conclusion. Speaking of his writings of the previous autumn, Mary Shelley afterwards recorded that his opinions then remained unchanged. "By those opinions," she said, " carried even to their utmost extent, he wished to live and die, as being in his conviction not only true, but such as alone would conduce to the moral improvement and happiness of mankind." But though Shelley's ideal faith in love and liberty was still unshaken, he had learnt by long and bitter experience that it can only be upheld at the cost of much personal error and painful collision with the established system of- society. Now, as at previous periods of his life, the ill-will and hostility of his calumniators had wrought a temporary discouragement — a disposition to look on the darker rather than the brighter aspect of his fortunes, to contemplate the loss incurred rather than the success achieved.

Can it be wondered that so sensitive a nature as Shelley's should at times have shrunk instinctively from further contact with this world of men by whom he seemed destined to be for ever misunderstood, even as their motives were to him unintelligible? Some months before the time of which I speak, his eager fancy had pictured the relief of retiring with those he loved to some solitary island, — a Greek island, perhaps, and part of a free Hellas redeemed from the Turkish oppressor, — and there dwelling in blissful seclusion, far from the miserable jealousies and contagion of the world. Then the dream had taken the still stranger form of a desire to obtain political employment at the court of some Indian potentate, such as those of whom lie had heard Williams and Medwin discourse; he would be an Avatar, and dispense his blessings in the far regions of the East, instead of casting his poems before the cold, ungrateful West, as "jingling food for the hunger of oblivion." And now, at Lerici, when the balance of the season and of his own destiny seemed to be hanging in suspense, the thought even of suicide was not wholly absent from his mind as a dim possibility of the future; at any rate, it comforted him to feel that he might possess this " golden key to the chamber of perpetual rest."

Yet it must not be supposed that these despondent meditations had made Shelley morbid in his habits or less helpful and kindly to those around him ; on the contrary, he impressed those who saw him at this time with the belief that he was now physically and intellectually as strong and healthy as at any other period of his life; and the visits and assistance which he rendered to his poverty-stricken neighbours in the cottages near the Casa Magni were long gratefully remembered. The gentleness and benevolence of this supposed enemy of mankind were still written very legibly in his features. " If he is not pure and good," said a lady who had met Shelley at Pisa, " then there is no truth and goodness in this world ; " and even a hostile reviewer in a London periodical was fain to admit that it was not in his outer semblance, but in his inner man, that the explicit demon was seen." To his intimate friends no traces of this "explicit demon'* were discoverable; but they did feel that there was something in Shelley's nature too subtle and spiritual to be gauged by the ordinary estimate of humanity ; and their feelings found expression in such nicknames as "Ariel" and "The Snake," as he came and went like a spirit, with glittering eyes and noiseless step, an enigma and a mystery even to those who were nearest and dearest to him. In the meantime no calmness of sky or sea could allay Mary Shelley's unaccountable but persistent anxiety. "During the whole of our stay at Lerici," — so she afterwards wrote, — " an intense presentiment of coming evil brooded over my mind, and covered this beautiful place and genial summer with the shadow of coming misery."

Constitutionally prone to fits of despondency and dejection, she had meditated long before on the solemn and pathetic subject of the flight of time, how swiftly the future becomes the present, and the present the past, and how in the last moment of life all is found to be but a dream. Her life with Shelley had now extended over almost eight years — years full of strange vicissitudes and mingled happiness and sorrow, but cheered throughout by the sense of the mutual love and respect that existed between them.

For, in spite of the natural dissimilarity in character between the most enthusiastic of idealists and one who, in manner and sentiment, was, above all things, the daughter of William Grodwin, that calmest and most passionless of philosophers ; in spite of Mary's occasional coldness of bearing, and her greater regard for conventionalities and the opinion of society —"that mythical monster, Everybody," as Shelley called it; and, finally, in spite of temporary misunderstandings caused between them by the presence in their household of Olaire Clairmont, a domestic firebrand idealized in Shelley's "Epipsychidion" as a "comet, beautiful but fierce," — the union of Shelley and Mary had been a true union of hearts. What if this bond, that had survived the shock and strain of so many troubles and calamities, were now about to be severed?

Such was the dim, unformed thought that darkened Mary's mind when, on the 1st of July, Shelley left Lerici in company with Edward Williams, and sailed in the Ariel to Leghorn, in order to greet Leigh Hunt, who had now arrived in Italy.

Very cordial and affectionate was the meeting between the two friends, who had not seen each other for more than four years, and had much to talk over and communicate. The next few days were spent by Shelley at Pisa, and were devoted chiefly to arranging Leigh Hunt's affairs and negotiating with Byron on his friend's behalf respecting the forthcoming periodical. On the following Sunday, these affairs being settled, Shelley and Leigh Hunt visited the chief buildings of Pisa, among them the cathedral, where, as they listened to the rolling tones of the organ, Shelley warmly assented to Leigh Hunt's remark that the world might yet see a divine religion, of which the principle would be sought, not in faith, but in love. The same evening he bid farewell to the Hunts, Mrs. Mason, and other friends in Pisa, and returned to Leghorn, in order to sail homewards with Edward Williams on the following day.

It was the early afternoon of Monday, the 8th of July, when the Ariel sailed out of Leghorn harbour on its computed journey of seven or eight hours. On the same afternoon the long tension of the oppressive summer weather was relaxed; the sultry spell was at last broken; and the dull, ominous calm of the preceding weeks found voice and spoke its secret in a single burst of sudden and irresistible storm. That night the thunder pealed loudly along the Italian coast, and the din of winds and waves and rain carried doubt and terror to several anxious English hearts. In the lonely house by the Grulf of Spezzia the two wives were eagerly expecting their husbands' return; at Pisa, Mrs. Mason dreamed that Shelley was dead, and awoke weeping bitterly; while at Leghorn, Trelawny was awaiting the dawn with grave anxiety, for tlie last that had been seen of Shelley's boat was its entry into the dense sea-fog that preceded the rushiing tempest.

''The massy earth and sphered skies are riven ; I am borne darkly, fearfully afar."

So Shelley had written, as if by some prophetic instinct, in the concluding stanza of his "Adonais"; and who shall say that so swift and mysterious a death was not the fittest ending to a life so full of wonder and mystery? The elf-child's task on earth was now accomplished ; his message of love was now delivered ; and the pure spirit, purged of the last dross of mortality, was now summoned " back to the burning fountain whence it came."

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