The Complete Poetical Works, by Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Witch of Atlas.

[Composed at the Baths of San Giuliano, near Pisa, August 14-16, 1820; published in Posthumous Poems, edition Mrs. Shelley, 1824. The dedication To Mas-y first appeared in the Poetical Works, 1839, 1st edition Sources of the text are (1) the editio princeps, 1824; (2) editions 1839 (which agree, and, save in two instances, follow edition 1824); (3) an early and incomplete manuscript in Shelley’s handwriting (now at the Bodleian, here, as throughout, cited as B.), carefully collated by Mr. C.D. Locock, who printed the results in his Examination of the Shelley manuscripts, etc., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1903; (4) a later, yet intermediate, transcript by Mrs. Shelley, the variations of which are noted by Mr. H. Buxton Forman. The original text is modified in many places by variants from the manuscripts, but the readings of edition 1824 are, in every instance, given in the footnotes.]

Table of Contents

To Mary (On Her Objecting to the Following Poem, Upon the Score of its Containing No Human Interest).

The Witch of Atlas.

Note on the Witch of Atlas, by Mrs. Shelley.

To Mary (On Her Objecting to the Following Poem, Upon the Score of its Containing No Human Interest).


How, my dear Mary — are you critic-bitten

(For vipers kill, though dead) by some review,

That you condemn these verses I have written,

Because they tell no story, false or true?


What, though no mice are caught by a young kitten,

May it not leap and play as grown cats do,

Till its claws come? Prithee, for this one time,

Content thee with a visionary rhyme.


What hand would crush the silken-winged fly,


The youngest of inconstant April’s minions,

Because it cannot climb the purest sky,

Where the swan sings, amid the sun’s dominions?

Not thine. Thou knowest ’tis its doom to die,

When Day shall hide within her twilight pinions


The lucent eyes, and the eternal smile,

Serene as thine, which lent it life awhile.


To thy fair feet a winged Vision came,

Whose date should have been longer than a day,

And o’er thy head did beat its wings for fame,


And in thy sight its fading plumes display;

The watery bow burned in the evening flame.

But the shower fell, the swift Sun went his way —

And that is dead. — O, let me not believe

That anything of mine is fit to live!


Wordsworth informs us he was nineteen years

Considering and retouching Peter Bell;

Watering his laurels with the killing tears

Of slow, dull care, so that their roots to Hell

Might pierce, and their wide branches blot the spheres


Of Heaven, with dewy leaves and flowers; this well

May be, for Heaven and Earth conspire to foil

The over-busy gardener’s blundering toil.


My Witch indeed is not so sweet a creature

As Ruth or Lucy, whom his graceful praise


Clothes for our grandsons — but she matches Peter,

Though he took nineteen years, and she three days

In dressing. Light the vest of flowing metre

She wears; he, proud as dandy with his stays,

Has hung upon his wiry limbs a dress


Like King Lear’s ‘looped and windowed raggedness.’


If you strip Peter, you will see a fellow

Scorched by Hell’s hyperequatorial climate

Into a kind of a sulphureous yellow:

A lean mark, hardly fit to fling a rhyme at;


In shape a Scaramouch, in hue Othello.

If you unveil my Witch, no priest nor primate

Can shrive you of that sin — if sin there be

In love, when it becomes idolatry.

The Witch of Atlas.


Before those cruel Twins, whom at one birth


Incestuous Change bore to her father Time,

Error and Truth, had hunted from the Earth

All those bright natures which adorned its prime,

And left us nothing to believe in, worth

The pains of putting into learned rhyme,


A lady-witch there lived on Atlas’ mountain

Within a cavern, by a secret fountain.


Her mother was one of the Atlantides:

The all-beholding Sun had ne’er beholden

In his wide voyage o’er continents and seas


So fair a creature, as she lay enfolden

In the warm shadow of her loveliness; —

He kissed her with his beams, and made all golden

The chamber of gray rock in which she lay —

She, in that dream of joy, dissolved away.


’Tis said, she first was changed into a vapour,

And then into a cloud, such clouds as flit,

Like splendour-winged moths about a taper,

Round the red west when the sun dies in it:

And then into a meteor, such as caper


On hill-tops when the moon is in a fit:

Then, into one of those mysterious stars

Which hide themselves between the Earth and Mars.


Ten times the Mother of the Months had bent

Her bow beside the folding-star, and bidden


With that bright sign the billows to indent

The sea-deserted sand — like children chidden,

At her command they ever came and went —

Since in that cave a dewy splendour hidden

Took shape and motion: with the living form


Of this embodied Power, the cave grew warm.


A lovely lady garmented in light

From her own beauty — deep her eyes, as are

Two openings of unfathomable night

Seen through a Temple’s cloven roof — her hair


Dark — the dim brain whirls dizzy with delight.

Picturing her form; her soft smiles shone afar,

And her low voice was heard like love, and drew

All living things towards this wonder new.


And first the spotted cameleopard came,


And then the wise and fearless elephant;

Then the sly serpent, in the golden flame

Of his own volumes intervolved; — all gaunt

And sanguine beasts her gentle looks made tame.

They drank before her at her sacred fount;


And every beast of beating heart grew bold,

Such gentleness and power even to behold.


The brinded lioness led forth her young,

That she might teach them how they should forego

Their inborn thirst of death; the pard unstrung


His sinews at her feet, and sought to know

With looks whose motions spoke without a tongue

How he might be as gentle as the doe.

The magic circle of her voice and eyes

All savage natures did imparadise.


And old Silenus, shaking a green stick

Of lilies, and the wood-gods in a crew

Came, blithe, as in the olive copses thick

Cicadae are, drunk with the noonday dew:

And Dryope and Faunus followed quick,


Teasing the God to sing them something new;

Till in this cave they found the lady lone,

Sitting upon a seat of emerald stone.


And universal Pan, ’tis said, was there,

And though none saw him — through the adamant


Of the deep mountains, through the trackless air,

And through those living spirits, like a want,

He passed out of his everlasting lair

Where the quick heart of the great world doth pant,

And felt that wondrous lady all alone —


And she felt him, upon her emerald throne.


And every nymph of stream and spreading tree,

And every shepherdess of Ocean’s flocks,

Who drives her white waves over the green sea,

And Ocean with the brine on his gray locks,


And quaint Priapus with his company,

All came, much wondering how the enwombed rocks

Could have brought forth so beautiful a birth; —

Her love subdued their wonder and their mirth.


The herdsmen and the mountain maidens came,


And the rude kings of pastoral Garamant —

Their spirits shook within them, as a flame

Stirred by the air under a cavern gaunt:

Pigmies, and Polyphemes, by many a name,

Centaurs, and Satyrs, and such shapes as haunt


Wet clefts — and lumps neither alive nor dead,

Dog-headed, bosom-eyed, and bird-footed.


For she was beautiful — her beauty made

The bright world dim, and everything beside

Seemed like the fleeting image of a shade:


No thought of living spirit could abide,

Which to her looks had ever been betrayed,

On any object in the world so wide,

On any hope within the circling skies,

But on her form, and in her inmost eyes.


Which when the lady knew, she took her spindle

And twined three threads of fleecy mist, and three

Long lines of light, such as the dawn may kindle

The clouds and waves and mountains with; and she

As many star-beams, ere their lamps could dwindle


In the belated moon, wound skilfully;

And with these threads a subtle veil she wove —

A shadow for the splendour of her love.


The deep recesses of her odorous dwelling

Were stored with magic treasures — sounds of air,


Which had the power all spirits of compelling,

Folded in cells of crystal silence there;

Such as we hear in youth, and think the feeling

Will never die — yet ere we are aware,

The feeling and the sound are fled and gone,


And the regret they leave remains alone.


And there lay Visions swift, and sweet, and quaint,

Each in its thin sheath, like a chrysalis,

Some eager to burst forth, some weak and faint

With the soft burthen of intensest bliss.


It was its work to bear to many a saint

Whose heart adores the shrine which holiest is,

Even Love’s:— and others white, green, gray, and black,

And of all shapes — and each was at her beck.


And odours in a kind of aviary


Of ever-blooming Eden-trees she kept,

Clipped in a floating net, a love-sick Fairy

Had woven from dew-beams while the moon yet slept;

As bats at the wired window of a dairy,

They beat their vans; and each was an adept,


When loosed and missioned, making wings of winds,

To stir sweet thoughts or sad, in destined minds.


And liquors clear and sweet, whose healthful might

Could medicine the sick soul to happy sleep,

And change eternal death into a night


Of glorious dreams — or if eyes needs must weep,

Could make their tears all wonder and delight,

She in her crystal vials did closely keep:

If men could drink of those clear vials, ’tis said

The living were not envied of the dead.


Her cave was stored with scrolls of strange device,

The works of some Saturnian Archimage,

Which taught the expiations at whose price

Men from the Gods might win that happy age

Too lightly lost, redeeming native vice;


And which might quench the Earth-consuming rage

Of gold and blood — till men should live and move

Harmonious as the sacred stars above;


And how all things that seem untameable,

Not to be checked and not to be confined,


Obey the spells of Wisdom’s wizard skill;

Time, earth, and fire — the ocean and the wind,

And all their shapes — and man’s imperial will;

And other scrolls whose writings did unbind

The inmost lore of Love — let the profane


Tremble to ask what secrets they contain.


And wondrous works of substances unknown,

To which the enchantment of her father’s power

Had changed those ragged blocks of savage stone,

Were heaped in the recesses of her bower;


Carved lamps and chalices, and vials which shone

In their own golden beams — each like a flower,

Out of whose depth a fire-fly shakes his light

Under a cypress in a starless night.


At first she lived alone in this wild home,


And her own thoughts were each a minister,

Clothing themselves, or with the ocean foam,

Or with the wind, or with the speed of fire,

To work whatever purposes might come

Into her mind; such power her mighty Sire


Had girt them with, whether to fly or run,

Through all the regions which he shines upon.


The Ocean-nymphs and Hamadryades,

Oreads and Naiads, with long weedy locks,

Offered to do her bidding through the seas,


Under the earth, and in the hollow rocks,

And far beneath the matted roots of trees,

And in the gnarled heart of stubborn oaks,

So they might live for ever in the light

Of her sweet presence — each a satellite.


‘This may not be,’ the wizard maid replied;

‘The fountains where the Naiades bedew

Their shining hair, at length are drained and dried;

The solid oaks forget their strength, and strew

Their latest leaf upon the mountains wide;


The boundless ocean like a drop of dew

Will be consumed — the stubborn centre must

Be scattered, like a cloud of summer dust.


‘And ye with them will perish, one by one; —

If I must sigh to think that this shall be,


If I must weep when the surviving Sun

Shall smile on your decay — oh, ask not me

To love you till your little race is run;

I cannot die as ye must — over me

Your leaves shall glance — the streams in which ye dwell


Shall be my paths henceforth, and so — farewell!’—


She spoke and wept:— the dark and azure well

Sparkled beneath the shower of her bright tears,

And every little circlet where they fell

Flung to the cavern-roof inconstant spheres


And intertangled lines of light:— a knell

Of sobbing voices came upon her ears

From those departing Forms, o’er the serene

Of the white streams and of the forest green.


All day the wizard lady sate aloof,


Spelling out scrolls of dread antiquity,

Under the cavern’s fountain-lighted roof;

Or broidering the pictured poesy

Of some high tale upon her growing woof,

Which the sweet splendour of her smiles could dye


In hues outshining heaven — and ever she

Added some grace to the wrought poesy.


While on her hearth lay blazing many a piece

Of sandal wood, rare gums, and cinnamon;

Men scarcely know how beautiful fire is —


Each flame of it is as a precious stone

Dissolved in ever-moving light, and this

Belongs to each and all who gaze upon.

The Witch beheld it not, for in her hand

She held a woof that dimmed the burning brand.


This lady never slept, but lay in trance

All night within the fountain — as in sleep.

Its emerald crags glowed in her beauty’s glance;

Through the green splendour of the water deep

She saw the constellations reel and dance


Like fire-flies — and withal did ever keep

The tenour of her contemplations calm,

With open eyes, closed feet, and folded palm.


And when the whirlwinds and the clouds descended

From the white pinnacles of that cold hill,


She passed at dewfall to a space extended,

Where in a lawn of flowering asphodel

Amid a wood of pines and cedars blended,

There yawned an inextinguishable well

Of crimson fire — full even to the brim,


And overflowing all the margin trim.


Within the which she lay when the fierce war

Of wintry winds shook that innocuous liquor

In many a mimic moon and bearded star

O’er woods and lawns; — the serpent heard it flicker


In sleep, and dreaming still, he crept afar —

And when the windless snow descended thicker

Than autumn leaves, she watched it as it came

Melt on the surface of the level flame.


She had a boat, which some say Vulcan wrought


For Venus, as the chariot of her star;

But it was found too feeble to be fraught

With all the ardours in that sphere which are,

And so she sold it, and Apollo bought

And gave it to this daughter: from a car


Changed to the fairest and the lightest boat

Which ever upon mortal stream did float.


And others say, that, when but three hours old,

The first-born Love out of his cradle lept,

And clove dun Chaos with his wings of gold,


And like a horticultural adept,

Stole a strange seed, and wrapped it up in mould,

And sowed it in his mother’s star, and kept

Watering it all the summer with sweet dew,

And with his wings fanning it as it grew.


The plant grew strong and green, the snowy flower

Fell, and the long and gourd-like fruit began

To turn the light and dew by inward power

To its own substance; woven tracery ran

Of light firm texture, ribbed and branching, o’er


The solid rind, like a leaf’s veined fan —

Of which Love scooped this boat — and with soft motion

Piloted it round the circumfluous ocean.


This boat she moored upon her fount, and lit

A living spirit within all its frame,


Breathing the soul of swiftness into it.

Couched on the fountain like a panther tame,

One of the twain at Evan’s feet that sit —

Or as on Vesta’s sceptre a swift flame —

Or on blind Homer’s heart a winged thought —


In joyous expectation lay the boat.


Then by strange art she kneaded fire and snow

Together, tempering the repugnant mass

With liquid love — all things together grow

Through which the harmony of love can pass;


And a fair Shape out of her hands did flow —

A living Image, which did far surpass

In beauty that bright shape of vital stone

Which drew the heart out of Pygmalion.


A sexless thing it was, and in its growth


It seemed to have developed no defect

Of either sex, yet all the grace of both —

In gentleness and strength its limbs were decked;

The bosom swelled lightly with its full youth,

The countenance was such as might select


Some artist that his skill should never die,

Imaging forth such perfect purity.


From its smooth shoulders hung two rapid wings,

Fit to have borne it to the seventh sphere,

Tipped with the speed of liquid lightenings,


Dyed in the ardours of the atmosphere:

She led her creature to the boiling springs

Where the light boat was moored, and said: ‘Sit here!’

And pointed to the prow, and took her seat

Beside the rudder, with opposing feet.


And down the streams which clove those mountains vast,

Around their inland islets, and amid

The panther-peopled forests whose shade cast

Darkness and odours, and a pleasure hid

In melancholy gloom, the pinnace passed;


By many a star-surrounded pyramid

Of icy crag cleaving the purple sky,

And caverns yawning round unfathomably.


The silver noon into that winding dell,

With slanted gleam athwart the forest tops,


Tempered like golden evening, feebly fell;

A green and glowing light, like that which drops

From folded lilies in which glow-worms dwell,

When Earth over her face Night’s mantle wraps;

Between the severed mountains lay on high,


Over the stream, a narrow rift of sky.


And ever as she went, the Image lay

With folded wings and unawakened eyes;

And o’er its gentle countenance did play

The busy dreams, as thick as summer flies,


Chasing the rapid smiles that would not stay,

And drinking the warm tears, and the sweet sighs

Inhaling, which, with busy murmur vain,

They had aroused from that full heart and brain.


And ever down the prone vale, like a cloud


Upon a stream of wind, the pinnace went:

Now lingering on the pools, in which abode

The calm and darkness of the deep content

In which they paused; now o’er the shallow road

Of white and dancing waters, all besprent


With sand and polished pebbles:— mortal boat

In such a shallow rapid could not float.


And down the earthquaking cataracts which shiver

Their snow-like waters into golden air,

Or under chasms unfathomable ever


Sepulchre them, till in their rage they tear

A subterranean portal for the river,

It fled — the circling sunbows did upbear

Its fall down the hoar precipice of spray,

Lighting it far upon its lampless way.


And when the wizard lady would ascend

The labyrinths of some many-winding vale,

Which to the inmost mountain upward tend —

She called ‘Hermaphroditus!’— and the pale

And heavy hue which slumber could extend


Over its lips and eyes, as on the gale

A rapid shadow from a slope of grass,

Into the darkness of the stream did pass.


And it unfurled its heaven-coloured pinions,

With stars of fire spotting the stream below;


And from above into the Sun’s dominions

Flinging a glory, like the golden glow

In which Spring clothes her emerald-winged minions,

All interwoven with fine feathery snow

And moonlight splendour of intensest rime,


With which frost paints the pines in winter time.


And then it winnowed the Elysian air

Which ever hung about that lady bright,

With its aethereal vans — and speeding there,

Like a star up the torrent of the night,


Or a swift eagle in the morning glare

Breasting the whirlwind with impetuous flight,

The pinnace, oared by those enchanted wings,

Clove the fierce streams towards their upper springs.


The water flashed, like sunlight by the prow


Of a noon-wandering meteor flung to Heaven;

The still air seemed as if its waves did flow

In tempest down the mountains; loosely driven

The lady’s radiant hair streamed to and fro:

Beneath, the billows having vainly striven


Indignant and impetuous, roared to feel

The swift and steady motion of the keel.


Or, when the weary moon was in the wane,

Or in the noon of interlunar night,

The lady-witch in visions could not chain


Her spirit; but sailed forth under the light

Of shooting stars, and bade extend amain

Its storm-outspeeding wings, the Hermaphrodite;

She to the Austral waters took her way,

Beyond the fabulous Thamondocana —


Where, like a meadow which no scythe has shaven,

Which rain could never bend, or whirl-blast shake,

With the Antarctic constellations paven,

Canopus and his crew, lay the Austral lake —

There she would build herself a windless haven


Out of the clouds whose moving turrets make

The bastions of the storm, when through the sky

The spirits of the tempest thundered by:


A haven beneath whose translucent floor

The tremulous stars sparkled unfathomably,


And around which the solid vapours hoar,

Based on the level waters, to the sky

Lifted their dreadful crags, and like a shore

Of wintry mountains, inaccessibly

Hemmed in with rifts and precipices gray,


And hanging crags, many a cove and bay.


And whilst the outer lake beneath the lash

Of the wind’s scourge, foamed like a wounded thing,

And the incessant hail with stony clash

Ploughed up the waters, and the flagging wing


Of the roused cormorant in the lightning flash

Looked like the wreck of some wind-wandering

Fragment of inky thunder-smoke — this haven

Was as a gem to copy Heaven engraven —


On which that lady played her many pranks,


Circling the image of a shooting star,

Even as a tiger on Hydaspes’ banks

Outspeeds the antelopes which speediest are,

In her light boat; and many quips and cranks

She played upon the water, till the car


Of the late moon, like a sick matron wan,

To journey from the misty east began.


And then she called out of the hollow turrets

Of those high clouds, white, golden and vermilion,

The armies of her ministering spirits —


In mighty legions, million after million,

They came, each troop emblazoning its merits

On meteor flags; and many a proud pavilion

Of the intertexture of the atmosphere

They pitched upon the plain of the calm mere.


They framed the imperial tent of their great Queen

Of woven exhalations, underlaid

With lambent lightning-fire, as may be seen

A dome of thin and open ivory inlaid

With crimson silk — cressets from the serene


Hung there, and on the water for her tread

A tapestry of fleece-like mist was strewn,

Dyed in the beams of the ascending moon.


And on a throne o’erlaid with starlight, caught

Upon those wandering isles of aery dew,


Which highest shoals of mountain shipwreck not,

She sate, and heard all that had happened new

Between the earth and moon, since they had brought

The last intelligence — and now she grew

Pale as that moon, lost in the watery night —


And now she wept, and now she laughed outright.


These were tame pleasures; she would often climb

The steepest ladder of the crudded rack

Up to some beaked cape of cloud sublime,

And like Arion on the dolphin’s back


Ride singing through the shoreless air; — oft-time

Following the serpent lightning’s winding track,

She ran upon the platforms of the wind,

And laughed to bear the fire-balls roar behind.


And sometimes to those streams of upper air


Which whirl the earth in its diurnal round,

She would ascend, and win the spirits there

To let her join their chorus. Mortals found

That on those days the sky was calm and fair,

And mystic snatches of harmonious sound


Wandered upon the earth where’er she passed,

And happy thoughts of hope, too sweet to last.


But her choice sport was, in the hours of sleep,

To glide adown old Nilus, where he threads

Egypt and Aethiopia, from the steep


Of utmost Axume, until he spreads,

Like a calm flock of silver-fleeced sheep,

His waters on the plain: and crested heads

Of cities and proud temples gleam amid,

And many a vapour-belted pyramid.


By Moeris and the Mareotid lakes,

Strewn with faint blooms like bridal chamber floors,

Where naked boys bridling tame water-snakes,

Or charioteering ghastly alligators,

Had left on the sweet waters mighty wakes


Of those huge forms — within the brazen doors

Of the great Labyrinth slept both boy and beast,

Tired with the pomp of their Osirian feast.


And where within the surface of the river

The shadows of the massy temples lie,


And never are erased — but tremble ever

Like things which every cloud can doom to die,

Through lotus-paven canals, and wheresoever

The works of man pierced that serenest sky

With tombs, and towers, and fanes, ’twas her delight


To wander in the shadow of the night.


With motion like the spirit of that wind

Whose soft step deepens slumber, her light feet

Passed through the peopled haunts of humankind.

Scattering sweet visions from her presence sweet,


Through fane, and palace-court, and labyrinth mined

With many a dark and subterranean street

Under the Nile, through chambers high and deep

She passed, observing mortals in their sleep.


A pleasure sweet doubtless it was to see


Mortals subdued in all the shapes of sleep.

Here lay two sister twins in infancy;

There, a lone youth who in his dreams did weep;

Within, two lovers linked innocently

In their loose locks which over both did creep


Like ivy from one stem; — and there lay calm

Old age with snow-bright hair and folded palm.


But other troubled forms of sleep she saw,

Not to be mirrored in a holy song —

Distortions foul of supernatural awe,


And pale imaginings of visioned wrong;

And all the code of Custom’s lawless law

Written upon the brows of old and young:

‘This,’ said the wizard maiden, ‘is the strife

Which stirs the liquid surface of man’s life.’


And little did the sight disturb her soul. —

We, the weak mariners of that wide lake

Where’er its shores extend or billows roll,

Our course unpiloted and starless make

O’er its wild surface to an unknown goal:—


But she in the calm depths her way could take,

Where in bright bowers immortal forms abide

Beneath the weltering of the restless tide.


And she saw princes couched under the glow

Of sunlike gems; and round each temple-court


In dormitories ranged, row after row,

She saw the priests asleep — all of one sort —

For all were educated to be so. —

The peasants in their huts, and in the port

The sailors she saw cradled on the waves,


And the dead lulled within their dreamless graves.


And all the forms in which those spirits lay

Were to her sight like the diaphanous

Veils, in which those sweet ladies oft array

Their delicate limbs, who would conceal from us


Only their scorn of all concealment: they

Move in the light of their own beauty thus.

But these and all now lay with sleep upon them,

And little thought a Witch was looking on them.


She, all those human figures breathing there,


Beheld as living spirits — to her eyes

The naked beauty of the soul lay bare,

And often through a rude and worn disguise

She saw the inner form most bright and fair —

And then she had a charm of strange device,


Which, murmured on mute lips with tender tone,

Could make that spirit mingle with her own.


Alas! Aurora, what wouldst thou have given

For such a charm when Tithon became gray?

Or how much, Venus, of thy silver heaven


Wouldst thou have yielded, ere Proserpina

Had half (oh! why not all?) the debt forgiven

Which dear Adonis had been doomed to pay,

To any witch who would have taught you it?

The Heliad doth not know its value yet.


’Tis said in after times her spirit free

Knew what love was, and felt itself alone —

But holy Dian could not chaster be

Before she stooped to kiss Endymion,

Than now this lady — like a sexless bee


Tasting all blossoms, and confined to none,

Among those mortal forms, the wizard-maiden

Passed with an eye serene and heart unladen.


To those she saw most beautiful, she gave

Strange panacea in a crystal bowl:—


They drank in their deep sleep of that sweet wave,

And lived thenceforward as if some control,

Mightier than life, were in them; and the grave

Of such, when death oppressed the weary soul,

Was as a green and overarching bower


Lit by the gems of many a starry flower.


For on the night when they were buried, she

Restored the embalmers’ ruining, and shook

The light out of the funeral lamps, to be

A mimic day within that deathy nook;


And she unwound the woven imagery

Of second childhood’s swaddling bands, and took

The coffin, its last cradle, from its niche,

And threw it with contempt into a ditch.


And there the body lay, age after age.


Mute, breathing, beating, warm, and undecaying,

Like one asleep in a green hermitage,

With gentle smiles about its eyelids playing,

And living in its dreams beyond the rage

Of death or life; while they were still arraying


In liveries ever new, the rapid, blind

And fleeting generations of mankind.


And she would write strange dreams upon the brain

Of those who were less beautiful, and make

All harsh and crooked purposes more vain


Than in the desert is the serpent’s wake

Which the sand covers — all his evil gain

The miser in such dreams would rise and shake

Into a beggar’s lap; — the lying scribe

Would his own lies betray without a bribe.


The priests would write an explanation full,

Translating hieroglyphics into Greek,

How the God Apis really was a bull,

And nothing more; and bid the herald stick

The same against the temple doors, and pull


The old cant down; they licensed all to speak

Whate’er they thought of hawks, and cats, and geese,

By pastoral letters to each diocese.


The king would dress an ape up in his crown

And robes, and seat him on his glorious seat,


And on the right hand of the sunlike throne

Would place a gaudy mock-bird to repeat

The chatterings of the monkey. — Every one

Of the prone courtiers crawled to kiss the feet

Of their great Emperor, when the morning came,


And kissed — alas, how many kiss the same!


The soldiers dreamed that they were blacksmiths, and

Walked out of quarters in somnambulism;

Round the red anvils you might see them stand

Like Cyclopses in Vulcan’s sooty abysm,


Beating their swords to ploughshares; — in a band

The gaolers sent those of the liberal schism

Free through the streets of Memphis, much, I wis,

To the annoyance of king Amasis.


And timid lovers who had been so coy,


They hardly knew whether they loved or not,

Would rise out of their rest, and take sweet joy,

To the fulfilment of their inmost thought;

And when next day the maiden and the boy

Met one another, both, like sinners caught,


Blushed at the thing which each believed was done

Only in fancy — till the tenth moon shone;


And then the Witch would let them take no ill:

Of many thousand schemes which lovers find,

The Witch found one — and so they took their fill


Of happiness in marriage warm and kind.

Friends who, by practice of some envious skill,

Were torn apart — a wide wound, mind from mind! —

She did unite again with visions clear

Of deep affection and of truth sincere.


These were the pranks she played among the cities

Of mortal men, and what she did to Sprites

And Gods, entangling them in her sweet ditties

To do her will, and show their subtle sleights,

I will declare another time; for it is


A tale more fit for the weird winter nights

Than for these garish summer days, when we

Scarcely believe much more than we can see.

_2 dead]deaf cj. A.C. Bradley, who cps. “Adonais” 317.

_65 first was transcript, B.; was first edition 1824.

_84 Temple’s transcript, B.; tempest’s edition 1824.

_165 was its transcript, B.; is its edition 1824.

_184 envied so all manuscripts and editions; envious cj. James Thomson (‘B. V.’).

_262 upon so all manuscripts and editions: thereon cj. Rossetti.

_333 swelled lightly edition 1824, B.; lightly swelled editions 1839; swelling lightly with its full growth transcript.

_339 lightenings B., editions 1839; lightnings edition 1824, transcript.

_422 Its transcript; His edition 1824, B.

_424 Thamondocana transcript, B.; Thamondocona edition 1824.

_442 wind’s transcript, B.; winds’ edition 1834.

_493 where transcript, B.; when edition 1824.

_596 thenceforward B.; thence forth edition 1824; henceforward transcript.

_599 Was as a B.; Was a edition 1824.

_601 night when transcript; night that edition 1824, B.

_612 smiles transcript, B.; sleep edition 1824.

Note on the Witch of Atlas, by Mrs. Shelley.

We spent the summer of 1820 at the Baths of San Giuliano, four miles from Pisa. These baths were of great use to Shelley in soothing his nervous irritability. We made several excursions in the neighbourhood. The country around is fertile, and diversified and rendered picturesque by ranges of near hills and more distant mountains. The peasantry are a handsome intelligent race; and there was a gladsome sunny heaven spread over us, that rendered home and every scene we visited cheerful and bright. During some of the hottest days of August, Shelley made a solitary journey on foot to the summit of Monte San Pellegrino — a mountain of some height, on the top of which there is a chapel, the object, during certain days of the year, of many pilgrimages. The excursion delighted him while it lasted; though he exerted himself too much, and the effect was considerable lassitude and weakness on his return. During the expedition he conceived the idea, and wrote, in the three days immediately succeeding to his return, the “Witch of Atlas”. This poem is peculiarly characteristic of his tastes — wildly fanciful, full of brilliant imagery, and discarding human interest and passion, to revel in the fantastic ideas that his imagination suggested.

The surpassing excellence of “The Cenci” had made me greatly desire that Shelley should increase his popularity by adopting subjects that would more suit the popular taste than a poem conceived in the abstract and dreamy spirit of the “Witch of Atlas”. It was not only that I wished him to acquire popularity as redounding to his fame; but I believed that he would obtain a greater mastery over his own powers, and greater happiness in his mind, if public applause crowned his endeavours. The few stanzas that precede the poem were addressed to me on my representing these ideas to him. Even now I believe that I was in the right. Shelley did not expect sympathy and approbation from the public; but the want of it took away a portion of the ardour that ought to have sustained him while writing. He was thrown on his own resources, and on the inspiration of his own soul; and wrote because his mind overflowed, without the hope of being appreciated. I had not the most distant wish that he should truckle in opinion, or submit his lofty aspirations for the human race to the low ambition and pride of the many; but I felt sure that, if his poems were more addressed to the common feelings of men, his proper rank among the writers of the day would be acknowledged, and that popularity as a poet would enable his countrymen to do justice to his character and virtues, which in those days it was the mode to attack with the most flagitious calumnies and insulting abuse. That he felt these things deeply cannot be doubted, though he armed himself with the consciousness of acting from a lofty and heroic sense of right. The truth burst from his heart sometimes in solitude, and he would writes few unfinished verses that showed that he felt the sting; among such I find the following:—

‘Alas! this is not what I thought Life was.

I knew that there were crimes and evil men,

Misery and hate; nor did I hope to pass

Untouched by suffering through the rugged glen.

In mine own heart I saw as in a glass

The hearts of others . . . And, when

I went among my kind, with triple brass

Of calm endurance my weak breast I armed,

To bear scorn, fear, and hate — a woful mass!’

I believed that all this morbid feeling would vanish if the chord of sympathy between him and his countrymen were touched. But my persuasions were vain, the mind could not be bent from its natural inclination. Shelley shrunk instinctively from portraying human passion, with its mixture of good and evil, of disappointment and disquiet. Such opened again the wounds of his own heart; and he loved to shelter himself rather in the airiest flights of fancy, forgetting love and hate, and regret and lost hope, in such imaginations as borrowed their hues from sunrise or sunset, from the yellow moonshine or paly twilight, from the aspect of the far ocean or the shadows of the woods — which celebrated the singing of the winds among the pines, the flow of a murmuring stream, and the thousand harmonious sounds which Nature creates in her solitudes. These are the materials which form the “Witch of Atlas”: it is a brilliant congregation of ideas such as his senses gathered, and his fancy coloured, during his rambles in the sunny land he so much loved.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00