The Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley/Letters from Italy/VIII. To T. L. Peacock, 25 July, 1818
To THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK.
Bagni di Lucca, July 25th, 1818.
My dear Peacock,
I received on the same day your letters marked 5 and 6, the one directed to Pisa, and the other to Livorno, and I can assure you they are most welcome visitors.
Our life here is as unvaried by any external events as if we were at Marlow, where a sail up the river or a journey to London makes an epoch. Since I last wrote to you, I have ridden over to Lucca, once with Claire, and once alone; and we have been over to the Casino, where I cannot say there is anything remarkable, the women being far removed from anything which the most liberal annotator could interpret into beauty or grace, and apparently possessing no intellectual excellences to compensate the deficiency. I assure you it is well that it is so, for these dances, especially the waltz, are so exquisitely beautiful that it would be a little dangerous to the newly unfrozen senses and imaginations of us migrators from the neighbourhood of the pole. As it is—except in the dark—there could be no peril. The atmosphere here, unlike that of the rest of Italy, is diversified with clouds, which grow in the middle of the day, and sometimes bring thunder and lightning, and hail about the size of a pigeon's egg, and decrease towards the evening, leaving only those finely woven webs of vapour which we see in English skies, and flocks of fleecy and slowly moving clouds, which all vanish before sunset; and the nights are for ever serene, and we see a star in the east at sunset—I think it is Jupiter—almost as fine as Venus was last summer; but it wants a certain silver and aërial radiance, and soft yet piercing splendour, which belongs, I suppose, to the latter planet by virtue of its at once divine and female nature. I have forgotten to ask the ladies if Jupiter produces on them the same effect. I take great delight in watching the changes of the atmosphere. In the evening, Mary and I often take a ride, for horses are cheap in this country. In the middle of the day, I bathe in a pool or fountain, formed in the middle of the forests by a torrent. It is surrounded on all sides by precipitous rocks, and the waterfall of the stream which forms it falls into it on one side with perpetual dashing. Close to it, on the top of the rocks, are alders, and above the great chesnut trees, whose long and pointed leaves pierce the deep blue sky in strong relief. The water of this pool, which, to venture an unrhythmical paraphrase, is "sixteen feet long and ten feet wide," is as transparent as the air, so that the stones and sand at the bottom seem, as it were, trembling in the light of noonday. It is exceedingly cold also. My custom is to undress and sit on the rocks, reading Herodotus, until the perspiration has subsided, and then to leap from the edge of the rock into this fountain—a practice in the hot weather excessively refreshing. This torrent is composed, as it were, of a succession of pools and waterfalls, up which I sometimes amuse myself by climbing when I bathe, and receiving the spray over all my body, whilst I clamber up the moist crags with difficulty.
I have lately found myself totally incapable of original composition. I employed my mornings, therefore, in translating the Symposium, which I accomplished in ten days. Mary is now transcribing it, and I am writing a prefatory essay. I have been reading scarcely anything but Greek, and a little Italian poetry with Mary. We have finished Ariosto together—a thing I could not have done again alone.
Frankenstein seems to have been well received; for although the unfriendly criticism of the Quarterly is an evil for it, yet it proves that it is read in some considerable degree, and it would be difficult for them, with any appearance of fairness, to deny it merit altogether. Their notice of me, and their exposure of their true motives for not noticing my book, shews how well understood an hostility must subsist between me and them.
The news of the result of the elections, especially that of the metropolis, is highly inspiriting. I received a letter, of two days' later date, with yours, which announced the unfortunate termination of that of Westmoreland. I wish you had sent me some of the overflowing villany of those apostates. What a beastly and pitiful wretch that Wordsworth! That such a man should be such a poet! I can compare him with no one but Simonides, that flatterer of the Sicilian tyrants, and at the same time the most natural and tender of lyric poets.
What pleasure would it have given me if the wings of imagination could have divided the space which divides us, and I could have been of your party. I have seen nothing so beautiful as Virginia Water in its kind. And my thoughts for ever cling to Windsor Forest, and the copses of Marlow, like the clouds which hang upon the woods of the mountains, low trailing, and though they pass away, leave their best dew when they themselves have faded. You tell me that you have finished Nightmare Abbey. I hope that you have given the enemy no quarter. Remember, it is a sacred war. We have found an excellent quotation in Ben Jonson's Every Man in his Humour. I will transcribe it, as I do not think you have these plays at Marlow.
"Matthew. Oh, it's your only fine humour, sir. Your true melancholy breeds your perfect fine wit, sir. I am melancholy myself divers times, sir; and then do I no more but take pen and paper presently, and overflow you half a score or a dozen of sonnets at a sitting.
"Ed. Knowell. Sure he utters them by the gross.
"Stephen. Truly, sir; and I love such things out of measure.
"Ed. Knowell. I' faith, better than in measure, I'll undertake.
"Matthew. Why, I pray you, sir, make use of my study; it's at your service.
"Stephen. I thank you, sir; I shall be bold, I warrant you. Have you a stool there to be melancholy upon?"—Every Man in his Humour, Act 3, scene i.
The last expression would not make a bad motto.
- The reference is to the third stanza of Wordsworth's beautiful poem The Thorn as printed in the editions current in Shelley's time:—
High on a mountain's highest ridge,
Where oft the stormy winter gale
Cuts like a scythe, while through the clouds
It sweeps from vale to vale;
Not five yards from the mountain path,
This Thorn you on your left espy;
And to the left, three yards beyond,
You see a little muddy pond
Of water, never dry;
I've measured it from side to side:
'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.
The final couplet remained from the time of the Lyrical Ballads till after the year 1815, when the collection in two 8vo. volumes was issued,—precisely how much later I know not; but as early as 1832 it gave place toThough but of compass small, and bare
To thirsty suns and parching air.
- The prominent part taken by Wordsworth in the Westmoreland election appears to have been the act that so excited Shelley's wrath. The curious pamphlet printed at Kendal a few weeks before the date of this letter, Two Addresses to the Freeholders of Westmorland, is now available for any one who likes to con over the case against Wordsworth from Shelley's point of view,—having been at length reprinted in the first volume of Wordsworth's Prose Works (London: Edward Moxon, Son, and Co., 1876. 3 vols.).
- Peacock records that he adopted this passage as a second motto, omitting E. Knowell's interlocutions.