XI. SHELLEY: ZENITH, 1819–21

Between his arrival in Rome (1819) and his reunion with Byron in Pisa (1821) the great events in Shelley’s life were his poems. There had been flashes of high excellence before, as here and there in Queen Mab, and latterly as in “Ozymandias” (1817) —a sonnet of compact thought and startling force. The “Lines Written in the Euganean Hills” (1818) lack such concentration of thought and chiseled form; and the “Lines Written in Dejection near Naples” (1818) are too self-pitying to invite condolence; a man should not wear his grievances on his sleeve. But now, in three years, came Prometheus Unbound, “Ode to the West Wind,” “To a Skylark,” “The Cloud,” Epipsychidion, and Adonais. We pass by The Cenci (1819), in which Shelley, with some success, tried to rival John Webster and other Elizabethan-Jacobean dramatists in a dark and bloody story of incest and murder.

Prometheus Unbound, according to the author’s preface, was written atop the Baths of Caracalla in Rome in 1820. He had challenged the Elizabethans with The Cenci; now he risked the farthest grasp of his ambition by challenging the Greeks. In Prometheus Bound Aeschylus had shown the “Foreknower” as a rebellious Titan chained to a rock in the Caucasus for revealing to mankind too much of the tree of knowledge. In the lost remainder of the trilogy, according to tradition, Zeus had relented and had freed Prometheus from the rock, and from the eagle which, by divine command, had continually pecked at the hero’s liver, like doubt at a rebel’s certainties. Shelley’s “lyrical drama” (as he called it) pictures Zeus as a crusty old Bourbon cruelly responsible for the misfortunes of mankind and the misbehavior of the earth; Prometheus blasts him with all the ardor of an Oxford undergraduate summoning bishops to the obsequies of God. Then the Titan regrets the intensity of his curse: “I wish no living thing to suffer pain.”89He returns to his chosen task—to bring wisdom and love to all mankind. The Spirit of the Earth, rejoicing, hails him: “Thou art more than God, being wise and kind.”90

Through Act I the speeches are bearable, and the lyrics of the attendant spirits rumble with elemental power, sparkle with ambrosial metaphors, and ride on melodious rhymes. But speeches, theological or atheological, are not the lightning of poetry; odes become odious and lyrics lose their lure when they fall upon the reader with confusing profusion; beauty unending becomes a bore. Too much of Shelley’s poetry is emotion remembered without tranquillity. As we proceed we sense something of weakness in these verses, too many sentiments for too few deeds; too many moods and lines of hearts and flowers (”I am as a drop of dew that dies,” says the Spirit of the Earth91). It is a style that can adorn a lyric but slows a drama—which, by its name, should move with action; a “lyrical drama” is a contradiction in terms.

By contrast the “Ode to the West Wind” (1819) stirs us throughout, for its powerful inspiration is compressed into seventy lines. Here Shelley’s richness of rhymes has no time to cloy; the emotion is not spread thin, but is centered on one idea—that the winter of our discontent may hopefully be followed by some spring of growth. This time-honored metaphor repeatedly occurs in Shelley; it sustained him when his world of hopes and dreams seemed to fall in ruins before the onset of experience. He prayed that his ideas, like fallen leaves before the wind, might be preserved and spread through the “airy incantation of his verse.” They were.

That ode, which touches the peaks of poetry, was “conceived and chiefly written” (Shelley tells us) “in a wood that skirts the Arno near Florence, and on a day when that tempestuous wind … was collecting the vapours which pour down the autumnal rains.”92Why had he left Rome? Partly because he had either to seclude himself or to bear the nearness of British tourists who thought of him not as a great poet but as an adulterous atheist. More keenly he and Mary felt the death of their child William (June 7, 1819), after only four years of life. Neither parent ever fully recovered from the loss of both their children within nine months. Gray hairs appeared among Shelley’s brown, though he was only twenty-seven.

After burying William in the English cemetery at Rome, the family moved north to Livorno, Anglice Leghorn. Wandering in a garden there, Shelley felt hurt, as any poet might, at the frightened flight of birds on his approach. One especially fascinated him by its singing as it soared. Going back to his room, he composed the first form of “To a Skylark,” with its haunting, brooding hexameters. Those airy stanzas offend not with their rhymes, for every line is warm with feeling and solid with thought.

On October 2, 1819, the Shelleys moved to Florence, where Mary gave birth to her third child, soon named Percy. In Florence Claire Clairmont found employment as a governess, and at last freed Shelley from her care. On October 29, 1820, he moved his family to the Hotel Tre Palazzi in Pisa, where he had perhaps the strangest adventure of all.

Despite his repeated illnesses he had not lost his sensitivity to sexual gravitation; and when he found a woman not only beautiful but unfortunate the double attraction overwhelmed him. Emilia Viviani was a girl of high family, who had been, against her will, placed in a convent near Pisa to safeguard her virginity till a financially proper husband could be found for her. Shelley, Mary, and sometimes Claire went to see her, and all were charmed by her classic features, her modest manners, and her confiding simplicity. The poet idealized her, made her the object of his waking dreams, and wrote some of them out in Epipsychidion (”To a soul unique”?), which was published under a pseudonym in 1821. Some surprising lines:

I never thought before my death to see

Youth’s vision thus made perfect. Emily,

I love thee; though the world by no thin name

Will hide that love from its unvalued shame.

Would we two had been twins of the same mother!

Or, that the name my heart lent to another

Could be a sister’s bond for her and thee,

Blending two beams of one eternity!

Yet were one lawful and the other true,

These names, though dear, could paint not, as is due,

How beyond refuge I am thine. Ah me!

I am not thine: I am a part of thee.

And so from ecstasy to ecstasy:

Spouse, Sister! Angel! Pilot of the Fate

Whose course has been so starless! O too late

Belovèd! O too soon adored, by me!

For in the fields of immortality

My spirit should at first have worshipped thine,

A divine presence in a place divine.

Clearly the youth of twenty-eight was in a condition favoring idealization; our laws and morals cannot quite regulate our glands; and if one is a genius or a poet, he must find outlet and relief in act or art. In this case the ailment was cured or redeemed by a poem that oscillates between absurdity and excellence:

The day is come, and thou wilt fly with me….

A ship is floating in the harbour now,

A wind is hovering o’er the mountain’s brow

to take them to an island in the blue Aegean;

It is an isle ‘twixt Heaven, Air, Earth, and Sea,

Cradled, and hung in clear tranquillity …

This isle and house are mine, and I have vowed

Thee to be lady of the solitude.

There she shall be his love, and he be hers:

Our breath shall intermix, our bosoms bound,

And our veins beat together; and our lips

With other eloquence than words, eclipse

The soul that burns between them, and the wells

Which boil under our being’s inmost cells,

The fountains of our deepest life, shall be

Confused in Passion’s golden purity …

I pant, I sink, I tremble, I expire!93

Can this be “Shelley plain”? Poor Mary, left to her baby Percy and her own dreams, did not see these effusions for some time. Meanwhile the vision faded; Emilia married, and (according to Mary) led her husband “a devil of a life”;94 Shelley repented his melodious sin, and Mary nursed his desolation with motherly understanding.

He was roused to better poetry when he heard that Keats had died (February 23, 1821). He may not have cared much for Endymion, but the “savage criticism” with which the Quarterly Review had greeted Keats’s major effort so angered him that he called upon their common Muse to inspire in him a fitting threnody. On June 11 he wrote to his London publisher: “‘Adonais’ is finished, and you will soon receive it. It is little adapted for popularity, but is perhaps the least imperfect of my compositions.”95 He had chosen as its form the difficult Spenserian stanza so recently used with a better font of rhymes by Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage; and he worked on the requiem with all the care of a sculptor carving a monument to a friend; but the demands of the rigid mold gave to some of the fifty-five stanzas an air of artificiality that a less hurried art might have concealed. The theme too hastily assumed that a review had killed Keats, and the mourner asked that “the curse of Cain light on his head who pierced thy innocent breast”;96but the autopsy of Keats showed that he had died of acute tuberculosis.

In the final stanzas Shelley welcomed his own death as a blessed reunion with the undying dead:

The One remains, the many change and pass;

Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,

Stains the white radiance of Eternity,

Until Death tramples it to fragments.—Die,

If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek! …

Why linger, why turn back, why shrink, my Heart?

Thy hopes are gone before; from all things here

They have departed; thou shouldst now depart!…

’Tis Adonais calls! Oh! hasten thither,

No more let Life divide what Death can join together….

I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;

Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,

The soul of Adonais, like a star,

Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.97

Keats might have answered with his unforgettable lines:

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

Whilst thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

In such an ecstasy!98

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