Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Note on Poems of 1822

BY MRS. SHELLEY.

This morn thy gallant bark
Sailed on a sunny sea:
'Tis noon, and tempests dark
Have wrecked it on the lee.
Ah woe! ah woe!
By Spirits of the deep
Thou'rt cradled on the billow
To thy eternal sleep.

Thou sleep'st upon the shore
Beside the knelling surge,
And Sea-nymphs evermore
Shall sadly chant thy dirge.
They come, they come,
The Spirits of the deep,--
While near thy seaweed pillow
My lonely watch I keep.

From far across the sea
I hear a loud lament,
By Echo's voice for thee
From Ocean's caverns sent.
O list! O list!
The Spirits of the deep!
They raise a wail of sorrow,
While I forever weep.

With this last year of the life of Shelley these Notes end. They are
not what I intended them to be. I began with energy, and a burning
desire to impart to the world, in worthy language, the sense I have of
the virtues and genius of the beloved and the lost; my strength has
failed under the task. Recurrence to the past, full of its own deep and
unforgotten joys and sorrows, contrasted with succeeding years of
painful and solitary struggle, has shaken my health. Days of great
suffering have followed my attempts to write, and these again produced
a weakness and languor that spread their sinister influence over these
notes. I dislike speaking of myself, but cannot help apologizing to the
dead, and to the public, for not having executed in the manner I
desired the history I engaged to give of Shelley's writings. (I at one
time feared that the correction of the press might be less exact
through my illness; but I believe that it is nearly free from error.
Some asterisks occur in a few pages, as they did in the volume of
"Posthumous Poems", either because they refer to private concerns, or
because the original manuscript was left imperfect. Did any one see the
papers from which I drew that volume, the wonder would be how any eyes
or patience were capable of extracting it from so confused a mass,
interlined and broken into fragments, so that the sense could only be
deciphered and joined by guesses which might seem rather intuitive than
founded on reasoning. Yet I believe no mistake was made.)

The winter of 1822 was passed in Pisa, if we might call that season
winter in which autumn merged into spring after the interval of but few
days of bleaker weather. Spring sprang up early, and with extreme
beauty. Shelley had conceived the idea of writing a tragedy on the
subject of Charles I. It was one that he believed adapted for a drama;
full of intense interest, contrasted character, and busy passion. He
had recommended it long before, when he encouraged me to attempt a
play. Whether the subject proved more difficult than he anticipated, or
whether in fact he could not bend his mind away from the broodings and
wanderings of thought, divested from human interest, which he best
loved, I cannot tell; but he proceeded slowly, and threw it aside for
one of the most mystical of his poems, the "Triumph of Life", on which
he was employed at the last.

His passion for boating was fostered at this time by having among our
friends several sailors. His favourite companion, Edward Ellerker
Williams, of the 8th Light Dragoons, had begun his life in the navy,
and had afterwards entered the army; he had spent several years in
India, and his love for adventure and manly exercises accorded with
Shelley's taste. It was their favourite plan to build a boat such as
they could manage themselves, and, living on the sea-coast, to enjoy at
every hour and season the pleasure they loved best. Captain Roberts,
R.N., undertook to build the boat at Genoa, where he was also occupied
in building the "Bolivar" for Lord Byron. Ours was to be an open boat,
on a model taken from one of the royal dockyards. I have since heard
that there was a defect in this model, and that it was never seaworthy.
In the month of February, Shelley and his friend went to Spezia to seek
for houses for us. Only one was to be found at all suitable; however, a
trifle such as not finding a house could not stop Shelley; the one
found was to serve for all. It was unfurnished; we sent our furniture
by sea, and with a good deal of precipitation, arising from his
impatience, made our removal. We left Pisa on the 26th of April.

The Bay of Spezia is of considerable extent, and divided by a rocky
promontory into a larger and smaller one. The town of Lerici is
situated on the eastern point, and in the depth of the smaller bay,
which bears the name of this town, is the village of San Terenzo. Our
house, Casa Magni, was close to this village; the sea came up to the
door, a steep hill sheltered it behind. The proprietor of the estate on
which it was situated was insane; he had begun to erect a large house
at the summit of the hill behind, but his malady prevented its being
finished, and it was falling into ruin. He had (and this to the
Italians had seemed a glaring symptom of very decided madness) rooted
up the olives on the hillside, and planted forest trees. These were
mostly young, but the plantation was more in English taste than I ever
elsewhere saw in Italy; some fine walnut and ilex trees intermingled
their dark massy foliage, and formed groups which still haunt my
memory, as then they satiated the eye with a sense of loveliness. The
scene was indeed of unimaginable beauty. The blue extent of waters, the
almost landlocked bay, the near castle of Lerici shutting it in to the
east, and distant Porto Venere to the west; the varied forms of the
precipitous rocks that bound in the beach, over which there was only a
winding rugged footpath towards Lerici, and none on the other side; the
tideless sea leaving no sands nor shingle, formed a picture such as one
sees in Salvator Rosa's landscapes only. Sometimes the sunshine
vanished when the sirocco raged--the 'ponente' the wind was called on
that shore. The gales and squalls that hailed our first arrival
surrounded the bay with foam; the howling wind swept round our exposed
house, and the sea roared unremittingly, so that we almost fancied
ourselves on board ship. At other times sunshine and calm invested sea
and sky, and the rich tints of Italian heaven bathed the scene in
bright and ever-varying tints.

The natives were wilder than the place. Our near neighbours of San
Terenzo were more like savages than any people I ever before lived
among. Many a night they passed on the beach, singing, or rather
howling; the women dancing about among the waves that broke at their
feet, the men leaning against the rocks and joining in their loud wild
chorus. We could get no provisions nearer than Sarzana, at a distance
of three miles and a half off, with the torrent of the Magra between;
and even there the supply was very deficient. Had we been wrecked on an
island of the South Seas, we could scarcely have felt ourselves farther
from civilisation and comfort; but, where the sun shines, the latter
becomes an unnecessary luxury, and we had enough society among
ourselves. Yet I confess housekeeping became rather a toilsome task,
especially as I was suffering in my health, and could not exert myself
actively.

At first the fatal boat had not arrived, and was expected with great
impatience. On Monday, 12th May, it came. Williams records the
long-wished-for fact in his journal: 'Cloudy and threatening weather.
M. Maglian called; and after dinner, and while walking with him on the
terrace, we discovered a strange sail coming round the point of Porto
Venere, which proved at length to be Shelley's boat. She had left Genoa
on Thursday last, but had been driven back by the prevailing bad winds.
A Mr. Heslop and two English seamen brought her round, and they speak
most highly of her performances. She does indeed excite my surprise and
admiration. Shelley and I walked to Lerici, and made a stretch off the
land to try her: and I find she fetches whatever she looks at. In
short, we have now a perfect plaything for the summer.'--It was thus
that short-sighted mortals welcomed Death, he having disguised his grim
form in a pleasing mask! The time of the friends was now spent on the
sea; the weather became fine, and our whole party often passed the
evenings on the water when the wind promised pleasant sailing. Shelley
and Williams made longer excursions; they sailed several times to
Massa. They had engaged one of the seamen who brought her round, a boy,
by name Charles Vivian; and they had not the slightest apprehension of
danger. When the weather was unfavourable, they employed themselves
with alterations in the rigging, and by building a boat of canvas and
reeds, as light as possible, to have on board the other for the
convenience of landing in waters too shallow for the larger vessel.
When Shelley was on board, he had his papers with him; and much of the
"Triumph of Life" was written as he sailed or weltered on that sea
which was soon to engulf him.

The heats set in in the middle of June; the days became excessively
hot. But the sea-breeze cooled the air at noon, and extreme heat always
put Shelley in spirits. A long drought had preceded the heat; and
prayers for rain were being put up in the churches, and processions of
relics for the same effect took place in every town. At this time we
received letters announcing the arrival of Leigh Hunt at Genoa. Shelley
was very eager to see him. I was confined to my room by severe illness,
and could not move; it was agreed that Shelley and Williams should go
to Leghorn in the boat. Strange that no fear of danger crossed our
minds! Living on the sea-shore, the ocean became as a plaything: as a
child may sport with a lighted stick, till a spark inflames a forest,
and spreads destruction over all, so did we fearlessly and blindly
tamper with danger, and make a game of the terrors of the ocean. Our
Italian neighbours, even, trusted themselves as far as Massa in the
skiff; and the running down the line of coast to Leghorn gave no more
notion of peril than a fair-weather inland navigation would have done
to those who had never seen the sea. Once, some months before, Trelawny
had raised a warning voice as to the difference of our calm bay and the
open sea beyond; but Shelley and his friend, with their one sailor-boy,
thought themselves a match for the storms of the Mediterranean, in a
boat which they looked upon as equal to all it was put to do.

On the 1st of July they left us. If ever shadow of future ill darkened
the present hour, such was over my mind when they went. During the
whole of our stay at Lerici, an intense presentiment of coming evil
brooded over my mind, and covered this beautiful place and genial
summer with the shadow of coming misery. I had vainly struggled with
these emotions--they seemed accounted for by my illness; but at this
hour of separation they recurred with renewed violence. I did not
anticipate danger for them, but a vague expectation of evil shook me to
agony, and I could scarcely bring myself to let them go. The day was
calm and clear; and, a fine breeze rising at twelve, they weighed for
Leghorn. They made the run of about fifty miles in seven hours and a
half. The "Bolivar" was in port; and, the regulations of the
Health-office not permitting them to go on shore after sunset, they
borrowed cushions from the larger vessel, and slept on board their
boat.

They spent a week at Pisa and Leghorn. The want of rain was severely
felt in the country. The weather continued sultry and fine. I have
heard that Shelley all this time was in brilliant spirits. Not long
before, talking of presentiment, he had said the only one that he ever
found infallible was the certain advent of some evil fortune when he
felt peculiarly joyous. Yet, if ever fate whispered of coming disaster,
such inaudible but not unfelt prognostics hovered around us. The beauty
of the place seemed unearthly in its excess: the distance we were at
from all signs of civilization, the sea at our feet, its murmurs or its
roaring for ever in our ears,--all these things led the mind to brood
over strange thoughts, and, lifting it from everyday life, caused it to
be familiar with the unreal. A sort of spell surrounded us; and each
day, as the voyagers did not return, we grew restless and disquieted,
and yet, strange to say, we were not fearful of the most apparent
danger.

The spell snapped; it was all over; an interval of agonizing doubt--of
days passed in miserable journeys to gain tidings, of hopes that took
firmer root even as they were more baseless--was changed to the
certainty of the death that eclipsed all happiness for the survivors
for evermore.

There was something in our fate peculiarly harrowing. The remains of
those we lost were cast on shore; but, by the quarantine-laws of the
coast, we were not permitted to have possession of them--the law with
respect to everything cast on land by the sea being that such should be
burned, to prevent the possibility of any remnant bringing the plague
into Italy; and no representation could alter the law. At length,
through the kind and unwearied exertions of Mr. Dawkins, our Charge
d'Affaires at Florence, we gained permission to receive the ashes after
the bodies were consumed. Nothing could equal the zeal of Trelawny in
carrying our wishes into effect. He was indefatigable in his exertions,
and full of forethought and sagacity in his arrangements. It was a
fearful task; he stood before us at last, his hands scorched and
blistered by the flames of the funeral-pyre, and by touching the burnt
relics as he placed them in the receptacles prepared for the purpose.
And there, in compass of that small case, was gathered all that
remained on earth of him whose genius and virtue were a crown of glory
to the world--whose love had been the source of happiness, peace, and
good,--to be buried with him!

The concluding stanzas of the "Adonais" pointed out where the remains
ought to be deposited; in addition to which our beloved child lay
buried in the cemetery at Rome. Thither Shelley's ashes were conveyed;
and they rest beneath one of the antique weed-grown towers that recur
at intervals in the circuit of the massy ancient wall of Rome. He
selected the hallowed place himself; there is

'the sepulchre,
Oh, not of him, but of our joy!--
...
And gray walls moulder round, on which dull Time
Feeds, like slow fire upon a hoary brand;
And one keen pyramid with wedge sublime,
Pavilioning the dust of him who planned
This refuge for his memory, doth stand
Like flame transformed to marble; and beneath,
A field is spread, on which a newer band
Have pitched in Heaven's smile their camp of death,
Welcoming him we lose with scarce extinguished breath.'

Could sorrow for the lost, and shuddering anguish at the vacancy left
behind, be soothed by poetic imaginations, there was something in
Shelley's fate to mitigate pangs which yet, alas! could not be so
mitigated; for hard reality brings too miserably home to the mourner
all that is lost of happiness, all of lonely unsolaced struggle that
remains. Still, though dreams and hues of poetry cannot blunt grief, it
invests his fate with a sublime fitness, which those less nearly allied
may regard with complacency. A year before he had poured into verse all
such ideas about death as give it a glory of its own. He had, as it now
seems, almost anticipated his own destiny; and, when the mind figures
his skiff wrapped from sight by the thunder-storm, as it was last seen
upon the purple sea, and then, as the cloud of the tempest passed away,
no sign remained of where it had been (Captain Roberts watched the
vessel with his glass from the top of the lighthouse of Leghorn, on its
homeward track. They were off Via Reggio, at some distance from shore,
when a storm was driven over the sea. It enveloped them and several
larger vessels in darkness. When the cloud passed onwards, Roberts
looked again, and saw every other vessel sailing on the ocean except
their little schooner, which had vanished. From that time he could
scarcely doubt the fatal truth; yet we fancied that they might have
been driven towards Elba or Corsica, and so be saved. The observation
made as to the spot where the boat disappeared caused it to be found,
through the exertions of Trelawny for that effect. It had gone down in
ten fathom water; it had not capsized, and, except such things as had
floated from her, everything was found on board exactly as it had been
placed when they sailed. The boat itself was uninjured. Roberts
possessed himself of her, and decked her; but she proved not seaworthy,
and her shattered planks now lie rotting on the shore of one of the
Ionian islands, on which she was wrecked.)--who but will regard as a
prophecy the last stanza of the "Adonais"?

'The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit's bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
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.'

Putney, May 1, 1839.


Percy Bysshe Shelley

    Volume 1

    Volume 2 - Early Poems 1814-1815

    Poems Written in 1816

    Poems Written in 1817

    Poems Written in 1818

    Poems Written in 1819

    Poems Written in 1820

    Poems Written in 1821

    Poems Written in 1822

    Volume 3

    Volume 3 - Juvenilia

    Sorry, no summary available yet.