Shelley, by John Addington Symonds

Chapter 7.

Last Days.

The advance of spring made the climate of Pisa too hot for comfort; and early in April Trelawny and Williams rode off to find a suitable lodging for themselves and the Shelleys on the Gulf of Spezia. They pitched upon a house called the Villa Magni, between Lerici and San Terenzio, which “looked more like a boat or bathing-house than a place to live in. It consisted of a terrace or ground-floor un-paved, and used for storing boat-gear and fishing-tackle, and of a single storey over it, divided into a hall or saloon and four small rooms, which had once been white-washed; there was one chimney for cooking. This place we thought the Shelleys might put up with for the summer. The only good thing about it was a verandah facing the sea, and almost over it.” When it came to be inhabited, the central hall was used for the living and eating room of the whole party. The Shelleys occupied two rooms facing each other; the Williamses had one of the remaining chambers, and Trelawny another. Access to these smaller apartments could only be got through the saloon; and this circumstance once gave rise to a ludicrous incident, when Shelley, having lost his clothes out bathing, had to cross, in puris naturalibus, not undetected, though covered in his retreat by the clever Italian handmaiden, through a luncheon party assembled in the dining-room. The horror of the ladies at the poet’s unexpected apparition and his innocent self-defence are well described by Trelawny. Life in the villa was of the simplest description. To get food was no easy matter; and the style of the furniture may be guessed by Trelawny’s laconic remark that the sea was his only washing-basin.

They settled at Villa Magni on the 1st of May, and began a course of life which was not interrupted till the final catastrophe of July 8. These few weeks were in many respects the happiest of Shelley’s life. We seem to discern in his last letter of importance, recently edited by Dr. Garnett, that he was now conscious of having reached a platform from which he could survey his past achievement, and whence he would probably have risen to a loftier altitude, by the firmer and more equable exercise of powers which had been ripening during the last three years of life in Italy. Meanwhile, “I am content,” he writes, “if the heaven above me is calm for the passing moment.” And this tranquillity was perfect, with none of the oppressive sense of coming danger, which distinguishes the calm before a storm. He was far away from the distractions of the world he hated, in a scene of indescribable beauty, among a population little removed from the state of savages, who enjoyed the primitive pleasures of a race at one with nature, and toiled with hardy perseverance on the element he loved so well. His company was thoroughly congenial and well mixed. He spent his days in excursions on the water with Williams, or in solitary musings in his cranky little skiff, floating upon the shallows in shore, or putting out to sea and waiting for the landward breeze to bring him home. The evenings were passed upon the terrace, listening to Jane’s guitar, conversing with Trelawny, or reading his favourite poets aloud to the assembled party.

In this delightful solitude, this round of simple occupations, this uninterrupted communion with nature, Shelley’s enthusiasms and inspirations revived with their old strength. He began a poem, which, if we may judge of its scale by the fragment we possess, ought to have been one of the longest, as it certainly is one of the loftiest of his masterpieces. The Triumph of Life is composed in no strain of compliment to the powers of this world, which quell untameable spirits, and enslave the noblest by the operation of blind passions and inordinate ambitions. It is rather a pageant of the spirit dragged in chains, led captive to the world, the flesh, and the devil. The sonorous march and sultry splendour of the terza rima stanzas, bearing on their tide of song those multitudes of forms, processionally grand, yet misty with the dust of their own tramplings, and half-shrouded in a lurid robe of light, affect the imagination so powerfully that we are fain to abandon criticism and acknowledge only the dæmonic fascinations of this solemn mystery. Some have compared the Triumph of Life to a Panathenaic pomp: others have found in it a reflex of the burning summer heat, and blazing sea, and onward undulations of interminable waves, which were the cradle of its maker as he wrote. The imagery of Dante plays a part, and Dante has controlled the structure. The genius of the Revolution passes by: Napoleon is there, and Rousseau serves for guide. The great of all ages are arraigned, and the spirit of the world is brought before us, while its heroes pass, unveil their faces for a moment, and are swallowed in the throng that has no ending. But how Shelley meant to solve the problems he has raised, by what sublime philosophy he purposed to resolve the discords of this revelation more soul-shattering than Daniel’s Mene, we cannot even guess. The poem, as we have it, breaks abruptly with these words: “Then what is Life? I cried”— a sentence of profoundest import, when we remember that the questioner was now about to seek its answer in the halls of Death.

To separate any single passage from a poem which owes so much of its splendour to the continuity of music and the succession of visionary images, does it cruel wrong. Yet this must be attempted; for Shelley is the only English poet who has successfully handled that most difficult of metres, terza rima. His power over complicated versification cannot be appreciated except by duly noticing the method he employed in treating a structure alien, perhaps, to the genius of our literature, and even in Italian used with perfect mastery by none but Dante. To select the introduction and part of the first paragraph will inflict less violence upon the Triumph of Life as a whole, than to detach one of its episodes.

Swift as a spirit hastening to his task

Of glory and of good, the Sun sprang forth

Rejoicing in his splendour, and the mask

Of darkness fell from the awakened Earth.

The smokeless altars of the mountain snows

Flamed above crimson clouds, and at the birth

Of light, the Ocean’s orison arose,

To which the birds tempered their matin lay.

All flowers in field or forest which unclose

Their trembling eyelids to the kiss of day,

Swinging their censers in the element,

With orient incense lit by the new ray

Burned slow and inconsumably, and sent

Their odorous sighs up to the smiling air;

And, in succession due, did continent,

Isle, ocean, and all things that in them wear

The form and character of mortal mould,

Rise as the Sun their father rose, to bear

Their portion of the toil, which he of old

Took as his own, and then imposed on them.

But I, whom thoughts which must remain untold

Had kept as wakeful as the stars that gem

The cone of night, now they were laid asleep,

Stretched my faint limbs beneath the hoary stem

Which an old chesnut flung athwart the steep

Of a green Apennine. Before me fled

The night; behind me rose the day; the deep

Was at my feet, and Heaven above my head —

When a strange trance over my fancy grew

Which was not slumber, for the shade it spread

Was so transparent that the scene came through

As clear as, when a veil of light is drawn

O’er evening hills, they glimmer; and I knew

That I had felt the freshness of that dawn

Bathe in the same cold dew my brow and hair,

And sate as thus upon that slope of lawn

Under the self-same bough, and heard as there

The birds, the fountains, and the ocean, hold

Sweet talk in music through the enamoured air.

And then a vision on my brain was rolled.

Such is the exordium of the poem. It will be noticed that at this point one series of the interwoven triplets is concluded. The Triumph of Life itself begins with a new series of rhymes, describing the vision for which preparation has been made in the preceding prelude. It is not without perplexity that an ear unaccustomed to the windings of the terza rima, feels its way among them. Entangled and impeded by the labyrinthine sounds, the reader might be compared to one who, swimming in his dreams, is carried down the course of a swift river clogged with clinging and retarding water-weeds. He moves; but not without labour: yet after a while the very obstacles add fascination to his movement.

As in that trance of wondrous thought I lay,

This was the tenour of my waking dream:—

Methought I sate beside a public way

Thick strewn with summer dust, and a great stream

Of people there was hurrying to and fro,

Numerous as gnats upon the evening gleam,

All hastening onward, yet none seemed to know

Whither he went, or whence he came, or why

He made one of the multitude, and so

Was borne amid the crowd, as through the sky

One of the million leaves of summer’s bier;

Old age and youth, manhood and infancy,

Mixed in one mighty torrent did appear:

Some flying from the thing they feared, and some

Seeking the object, of another’s fear;

And others, as with steps towards the tomb,

Pored on the trodden worms that crawled beneath,

And others mournfully within the gloom

Of their own shadow walked and called it death;

And some fled from it as it were a ghost,

Half fainting in the affliction of vain breath

But more, with motions which each other crossed,

Pursued or spurned the shadows the clouds threw,

Or birds within the noon-day ether lost,

Upon that path where flowers never grew —

And weary with vain toil and faint for thirst,

Heard not the fountains, whose melodious dew

Out of their mossy cells for ever burst;

Nor felt the breeze which from the forest told

Of grassy paths, and wood lawn-interspersed,

With over-arching elms, and caverns cold,

And violet banks where sweet dreams brood; — but they

Pursued their serious folly as of old.

Here let us break the chain of rhymes that are unbroken in the text, to notice the extraordinary skill with which the rhythm has been woven in one paragraph, suggesting by recurrences of sound the passing of a multitude, which is presented at the same time to the eye of fancy by accumulated images. The next eleven triplets introduce the presiding genius of the pageant. Students of Petrarch’s Trionfi will not fail to note what Shelley owes to that poet, and how he has transmuted the definite imagery of mediæval symbolism into something metaphysical and mystic.

And as I gazed, methought that in the way

The throng grew wilder, as the woods of June

When the south wind shakes the extinguished day;

And a cold glare, intenser than the noon

But icy cold, obscured with blinding light

The sun, as he the stars. Like the young moon —

When on the sunlit limits of the night

Her white shell trembles amid crimson air,

And whilst the sleeping tempest gathers might —

Doth, as the herald of its coming, bear

The ghost of its dead mother, whose dim form

Bends in dark ether from her infant’s chair;

So came a chariot on the silent storm

Of its own rushing splendour, and a Shape

So sate within, as one whom years deform,

Beneath a dusky hood and double cape,

Crouching within the shadow of a tomb.

And o’er what seemed the head a cloud-like crape

Was bent, a dun and faint ethereal gloom

Tempering the light. Upon the chariot beam

A Janus-visaged Shadow did assume

The guidance of that wonder-wingèd team;

The shapes which drew it in thick lightnings

Were lost:— I heard alone on the air’s soft stream

The music of their ever-moving wings.

All the four faces of that charioteer

Had their eyes banded; little profit brings

Speed in the van and blindness in the rear,

Nor then avail the beams that quench the sun,

Or that with banded eyes could pierce the sphere

Of all that is, has been, or will be done.

So ill was the car guided — but it past

With solemn speed majestically on.

The intense stirring of his imagination implied by this supreme poetic effort, the solitude of Villa Magni, and the elemental fervour of Italian heat to which he recklessly exposed himself, contributed to make Shelley more than usually nervous. His somnambulism returned, and he saw visions. On one occasion he thought that the dead Allegra rose from the sea, and clapped her hands, and laughed, and beckoned to him. On another he roused the whole house at night by his screams, and remained terror-frozen in the trance produced by an appalling vision. This mood he communicated, in some measure, to his friends. One of them saw what she afterwards believed to have been his phantom, and another dreamed that he was dead. They talked much of death, and it is noticeable that the last words written to him by Jane were these:—“Are you going to join your friend Plato?”

The Leigh Hunts at last arrived in Genoa, whence they again sailed for Leghorn. Shelley heard the news upon the 20th of June. He immediately prepared to join them; and on the 1st of July set off with Williams in the Don Juan, for Leghorn, where he rushed into the arms of his old friend. Leigh Hunt, in his autobiography, writes, “I will not dwell upon the moment.” From Leghorn he drove with the Hunts to Pisa, and established them in the ground-floor of Byron’s Palazzo Lanfranchi, as comfortably as was consistent with his lordship’s variable moods. The negotiations which had preceded Hunt’s visit to Italy, raised forebodings in Shelley’s mind as to the reception he would meet from Byron; nor were these destined to be unfulfilled. Trelawny tells us how irksome the poet found it to have “a man with a sick wife, and seven disorderly children,” established in his palace. To Mrs. Hunt he was positively brutal; nor could he tolerate her self-complacent husband, who, while he had voyaged far and wide in literature, had never wholly cast the slough of Cockneyism. Hunt was himself hardly powerful enough to understand the true magnitude of Shelley, though he loved him; and the tender solicitude of the great, unselfish Shelley, for the smaller, harmlessly conceited Hunt, is pathetic. They spent a pleasant day or two together, Shelley showing the Campo Santo and other sights of Pisa to his English friend. Hunt thought him somewhat less hopeful than he used to be, but improved in health and strength and spirits. One little touch relating to their last conversation, deserves to be recorded:—“He assented warmly to an opinion I expressed in the cathedral at Pisa, while the organ was playing, that a truly divine religion might yet be established, if charity were really made the principle of it, instead of faith.”

On the night following that day of rest, Shelley took a postchaise for Leghorn; and early in the afternoon of the next day he set sail, with Williams, on his return voyage to Lerici. The sailor-boy, Charles Vivian, was their only companion. Trelawny, who was detained on board the Bolivar, in the Leghorn harbour, watched them start. The weather for some time had been unusually hot and dry. “Processions of priests and religiosi have been for several days past praying for rain;” so runs the last entry in Williams’s diary: “but the gods are either angry or nature too powerful.” Trelawny’s Genoese mate observed, as the Don Juan stood out to sea, that they ought to have started at three a.m. instead of twelve hours later; adding “the devil is brewing mischief.” Then a sea-fog withdrew the Don Juan from their sight. It was an oppressively sultry afternoon. Trelawny went down into his cabin, and slept; but was soon roused by the noise of the ships’ crews in the harbour making all ready for a gale. In a short time the tempest was upon them, with wind, rain, and thunder. It did not last more than twenty minutes; and at its end Trelawny looked out anxiously for Shelley’s boat. She was nowhere to be seen, and nothing could be heard of her. In fact, though Trelawny could not then be absolutely sure of the catastrophe, she had sunk, struck in all probability by the prow of a felucca, but whether by accident or with the intention of running her down, is still uncertain.

On the morning of the third day alter the storm, Trelawny rode to Pisa, and communicated his tears to Hunt. “I then went upstairs to Byron. When I told him, his lip quivered, and his voice faltered as he questioned me.” Couriers were despatched to search the sea coast, and to bring the Bolivar from Leghorn. Trelawny rode in person toward Via Reggio, and there found a punt, a water-keg, and some bottles, which had been in Shelley’s boat. A week passed, Trelawny patrolling the shore with the coast-guardsmen, but hearing of no new discovery, until at last two bodies were cast upon the sand. One found near Via Reggio, on the 18th of July, was Shelley’s. It had his jacket, “with the volume of Sophocles in one pocket, and Keats’s poems in the other, doubled back, as if the reader, in the act of reading, had hastily thrust it away.” The other, found near the tower of Migliarino, at about four miles’ distance, was that of Williams. The sailor-boy, Charles Vivian, though cast up on the same day, the 18th of July, near Massa, was not heard of by Trelawny till the 29th.

Nothing now remained but to tell the whole dreadful truth to the two widowed women, who had spent the last days in an agony of alternate despair and hope at Villa Magni. This duty Trelawny discharged faithfully and firmly. “The next day I prevailed on them,” he says, “to return with me to Pisa. The misery of that night and the journey of the next day, and of many days and nights that followed, I can neither describe nor forget.” It was decided that Shelley should be buried at Rome, near his friend Keats and his son William, and that Williams’s remains should be taken to England. But first the bodies had to be burned; and for permission to do this, Trelawny, who all through had taken the lead, applied to the English Embassy at Florence. After some difficulty it was granted.

What remains to be said concerning the cremation of Shelley’s body on the 16th of August, must be told in Trelawny’s own words. Williams, it may be stated, had been burned on the preceding day.

“Three white wands had been stuck in the sand to mark the poet’s grave, but as they were at some distance from each other, we had to cut a trench thirty yards in length, in the line of the sticks, to ascertain the exact spot, and it was nearly an hour before we came upon the grave.

“In the meantime Byron and Leigh Hunt arrived in the carriage, attended by soldiers, and the Health Officer, as before. The lonely and grand scenery that surrounded us, so exactly harmonized with Shelley’s genius, that I could imagine his spirit soaring over us. The sea, with the islands of Gorgona, Capraja, and Elba, was before us; old battlemented watch-towers stretched along the coast, backed by the marble-crested Apennines glistening in the sun, picturesque from their diversified outlines, and not a human dwelling was in sight.

“As I thought of the delight Shelley felt in such scenes of loneliness and grandeur whilst living, I felt we were no better than a herd of wolves or a pack of wild dogs, in tearing out his battered and naked body from the pure yellow sand that lay so lightly over it, to drag him back to the light of day; but the dead have no voice, nor had I power to check the sacrilege — the work went on silently in the deep and unresisting sand, not a word was spoken, for the Italians have a touch of sentiment, and their feelings are easily excited into sympathy. Byron was silent and thoughtful. We were startled and drawn together by a dull, hollow sound that followed the blow of a mattock; the iron had struck a skull, and the body was soon uncovered. . . . After the fire was well kindled we repeated the ceremony of the previous day; and more wine was poured over Shelley’s dead body than he had consumed during his life. This with the oil and salt made the yellow flames glisten and quiver. The heat from the sun and fire was so intense that the atmosphere was tremulous and wavy. . . . The fire was so fierce as to produce a white heat on the iron, and to reduce its contents to grey ashes. The only portions that were not consumed were some fragments of bones, the jaw, and the skull; but what surprised us all was that the heart remained entire. In snatching this relic from the fiery furnace, my hand was severely burnt; and had any one seen me do the act, I should have been put into quarantine.”

Shelley’s heart was given to Hunt, who subsequently, not without reluctance and unseemly dispute, resigned it to Mrs. Shelley. It is now at Boscombe. His ashes were sent by Trelawny to Rome and buried in the Protestant cemetery, so touchingly described by him in his letter to Peacock, and afterwards so sublimely in Adonais. The epitaph, composed by Hunt, ran thus: “Percy Bysshe Shelley, Cor Cordium, Natus iv. Aug. mdccxcii. Obiit viii Jul. mdcccxxii.” To the Latin words Trelawny, faithfullest and most devoted of friends, added three lines from Ariel’s song, much loved in life by Shelley:

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

“And so,” writes Lady Shelley, “the sea and the earth closed over one who was great as a poet, and still greater as a philanthropist; and of whom it may be said, that his wild spiritual character seems to have prepared him for being thus snatched from life under circumstances of mingled terror and beauty, while his powers were yet in their spring freshness, and age had not come to render the ethereal body decrepit, or to wither the heart which could not be consumed by fire.”

Last updated Friday, December 26, 2014 at 14:34