On This Day in 1818: Shelley approaches Italy

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Prof Alan Weinberg (University of South Africa) has produced this post to mark 200 years since P B Shelley’s journey to Italy – a crucial turning point in his life, and his writing. He and Mary Shelley had left England on 12 March 1818 accompanied by Claire Clairmont, three children, and two female servants. Percy Shelley, who was 25 years old at the time of the journey, was never to return and would drown off the coast of Tuscany four years later in 1822.

On this day in 1818, just before his arrival in Italy, he writes from Lyons, France, to Leigh Hunt, in an affectionate letter full of hope:


Lyons, March 22  1818.––

My dear friend,

Why did you not wake me the night before we left England, you & Marianne  I take this as rather an unkind piece of kindness in you, but which in consideration of the 600 miles between us I forgive. ––

We have journeyed towards the spring that has been hastening to meet us from the South–– & though our weather was at first abominable, we have now warm sunny days & soft winds & a sky of deep azure, the most serene I ever saw. The heat in this city to day, is like that of London in the middle of summer–  My spirits & health sympathise in the change. Indeed before I left London my spirits were as feeble as my health – and I had demands on them which I found  difficult to supply.

I have read Foliage–– With most of the poems I was already familiar. What a delightful poem the Nymphs is, & especially the second part. It is truly poetical in the intense & emphatic sense of the word. If 600 miles were not between us, I should say what pity that glib is not omitted & that the poem is not as faultless as it is beautiful! But for fear I should spoil your next poem I will not let slip a word upon the subject––––  Give my love to Marianne & her sister & tell Marianne she defrauded me of a kiss by not waking me when she went away, & that as I have no better mode of conveying it I must take the best, & ask you to pay the debt. When shall I see you all again ? O, that it might b<e> in Italy! I confess that the thought of how long we may be divided make<s> me very melancholy:– Adieu –my d<ear> friends––  write soon–  ever most affectionately Yours

[Shelley & his Circle VI: 523-4.]


Prof. Weinberg contextualises Shelley in Italy for us:

In the first 8 months of their residence in Italy (April to December 1818) the Shelleys crossed the length and breadth of Italy (excluding Sicily) and resided in or stopped by at a great number of places including (more importantly, and in something like chronological sequence), Turin, Milan, Como, Pisa, Livorno, Bagni di Lucca, Florence, Padua, Este, Venice, Ferrara, Bologna, Spoleto, Terni, Rome, Naples and its environs including Vesuvius. Visits were usually accompanied by sightseeing in regard to architecture and landscape or visits to palaces, prisons or picture galleries.  There were periods of calm and some of frenetic travelling by carriage in circumstances which would be a trial for the modern tourist. The Shelleys had few acquaintances and had two small children to look after, William and Clara, as well as assist with Claire and Byron’s daughter, Allegra, and in September, endured the severe illness and loss of their daughter Clara. It is not generally recognized that in these early months, Shelley wrote only one major poem, and it is one of his neglected Italianate pieces in iambic tetrameter and trimeter, Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills. It was largely inspired by Petrarch. Several other compositions, like Prometheus Unbound and ‘Julian and Maddalo’, were begun and only completed in 1819, or were eventually aborted, like ‘Prince Athanase’, a redaction of which appeared in press copy in 1819 as ‘Athanase: A Fragment’ (but was not published).  One prose essay,  ‘Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks’ was finished in draft, the translation from the Symposium nearly completed, and a few other prose works, such as a Preface to The Banquet (Symposium), ‘The Coliseum’ (begun December 1818) and ‘A Future State’, were left unfinished in manuscript.

Shelley’s residence in Italy is a turning point in his career: it follows a period of intense creativity which saw the composition of AlastorMont BlancHymn to Intellectual Beauty, Laon and Cythna (re-named The Revolt of Islam), Rosalind and Helen, as well as a History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, prefaces, reviews, political pamphlets, essays (like the sketch ‘On Christianity’ (more specifically Christ’s teachings), and brief, mostly unfinished political or philosophical sketches. Laon and Cythna was meant to be the crowning piece in which Shelley encompassed much of what he understood to be his task as poet and seer, and was written in the belief that he was suffering from consumption and thus had not long to live. He put his heart and soul into this composition but it didn’t win much favour. The early residence in Italy was clearly a period of settling in, of recuperation, of reconfiguration, and of adventure, but Shelley also felt the frustration of a loss of creativity. He began a play on ‘Tasso’ but soon abandoned it, turning to Greek translation as a means of compensation – but producing an outstandingly eloquent and fluent rendering of The Symposium which had a formative influence on subsequent works. While 1818 has little to show for itself in terms of finished products, it was effectively a period of conception and regeneration, and of great receptivity to the classical world as it suggested itself in the remains of antiquity and in the emulation of classical styles in modern architecture. In this regard Shelley was a classicist and not a romanticist, and was always aiming to reach beyond Christianity, much as he admired the ethics of Jesus, whom he regarded as a reformer and not a divine redeemer, and whose tortured representation in Italian painting, and that of his followers, filled him with anguish and disbelief. It was pagan and classical Italy that largely inspired Shelley, and this made an immediate impact in scenes which reminded him of Virgil’s eclogues or the famed scenes at Delphi and Mt Helicon.

Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Baths of Caracalla, Joseph Severn 1845