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Byron and Shelley: Radical Incompatibles

  • Peter Cochran

…plus d’informations

  • Peter Cochran
    Independent scholar

Corps de l’article

BYRON: [Hamlet] is weak; so miserably weak as even to complain of his own weakness. He says,

“The time is out of joint – O cruel spite,
That ever I was born to set it right.”

And yet he is always boasting and bragging of his own powers, and scorning every one else, and he swears he will sweep to his revenge, “with wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love.” For revenge was his love. But in truth he loved it, Shelley, after your own heart, most platonically; for his heart is too faint to win it fairly, and he contents himself with laughing at himself, mocking his own conscious cowardice, and venting his spleen in names, instead of doing anything like a man. So irresolute is he, that he envies the players, he envies Fortinbras, Laertes, any one that can do any thing. Weak, irresolute, a talking sophist. Yet – O I am sick of this most lame and impotent hero!

SHELLEY: And yet we recognise in him something that we cannot but love and sympathise with, and a grandeur of tone which we instinctively reverence. [1]

If this conversation did not take place, it should have. Is Byron, in talking of Hamlet, holding the mirror up to Shelley, up to himself, or up to them both? Whichever of the two, and whether Shelley senses what he’s implying or no, Shelley will have none of it. With “And yet …” he seems to concede all Byron’s points, but is still convinced that Byron has got Hamlet wrong. Their two worlds run parallel, never meeting.

By the end of the dialogue, Shelley having talked for pages in defence of Hamlet, Byron has fallen asleep.


Shelley held two views of Byron. Firstly an ideal, versifiable though not verifiable, which he tried to will Byron into living, and secondly one taken from the life, fit for prose only.

The one is man that shall hereafter be;
The other, man as vice has made him now.

Queen Mab IV.166-7; PoS 1: 306.

Here he is writing to Peacock in mid-December 1818, from Venice, about the prose Byron:

[...] the Italian women are perhaps the most contemptible of all who exist under the moon; the most ignorant the most disgusting, the most bigotted, the most filthy. Countesses smell so of garlick that an ordinary Englishman cannot approach them. Well, L[ord] B[yron] is familiar with the lowest sort of these women, the people his gondolieri pick up in the streets. He allows fathers & mothers to bargain with him for their daughters, & though this is common enough in Italy, yet for an Englishman to encourage such sickening vice is a melancholy thing. He associates with wretches who seem almost to have lost the gait & phisiognomy [sic] of man, & do not scruple to avow practices which are not only not named but I believe seldom even conceived in England. He says he dissaproves, [sic] but he endures. He is not yet an Italian & is heartily & deeply discontented with himself, & contemplating in the distorted mirror of his own thoughts, the nature & the destiny of man, what can he behold but objects of contempt & despair?

LPBS 2: 57

Shelley, a bit out of character, assumes here the role of morally fastidious patriot, chiding his fellow-countryman for letting the side down. If ever Byron became an Italian, Shelley would confine him to the realm of prose for ever. That would be a Byron about whom he would not be able to write poetry.

But here is part of Lines written among the Euganean Hills, a poem dating from only two months earlier. It is addressed to Venice, and the “tempest-cleaving swan” in the eighth line is Byron, that city’s most famous expatriate:

Perish – let there only be
Floating o’er thy hearthless sea
As the garment of thy sky
Clothes the world immortally,
One remembrance, more sublime
Than the tattered pall of time
Which scarce hides thy visage wan; –
That a tempest-cleaving Swan
Of the songs of Albion,
Driven from his ancestral streams
By the might of evil dreams,
Found a nest in thee; and Ocean
Welcomed him with such emotion
That its joy grew his, and sprung
From his lips like music flung
O’er a mighty thunder-fit
Chastening terror: – what though yet
Poesy’s unfailing River,
Which through Albion’s winds forever
Lashing with melodious wave
Many a sacred Poet’s grave,
Mourn its latest nursling fled?
What though thou with all thy dead
Scarce can for this fame repay
Aught thine own? oh, rather say
Though thy sins and slaveries foul
Overcloud a sunlike soul?
As the ghost of Homer clings
Round Scamander’s wasting springs;
As divinest Shakespeare’s might
Fills Avon and the world with light
Like Omniscient power which he
Imaged ’mid mortality;
As the love from Petrarch’s urn
Yet amid yon hills doth burn,
A quenchless lamp by which the heart
Sees things unearthly; – so thou art,
Mighty Spirit – so shall be
The City that did refuge thee.

lines 168-205; PoS 2: 436-7

Shelley creates here an idealising vocabulary, through which his prose Byron may be viewed from a safe distance. Driven from his ancestral streams / By the might of evil dreams is a poetic way of saying that Byron had been beastly to his wife, and had felt the scandal to be bad enough to force him out of England. Though thy sins and slaveries foul / Overcloud a sunlike soul means Byron’s life in Venice is a non-stop sex orgy. That which sprung / From his lips like music flung / O’er a mighty thunder-fit, / Chastening terror is Childe Harold IV (it hardly describes Beppo). But when on May 30th 1818 Peacock had written to him, “I have almost finished Nightmare Abbey. I think it necessary to ‘make a stand’ against the encroachments of black bile. The fourth canto of Childe Harold is really too bad. I cannot consent to be auditor tantum of this systematical ‘poisoning’ of the ‘mind’ of the ‘Reading Public’ (Letters 1: 123), Shelley had replied, on December 17th or 18th of the same year:

I entirely agree with what you say about Childe Harold. The spirit in which it is written is, if insane, the most wicked & mischievous insanity that ever was given forth. It is a kind of obstinate & selfwilled folly in which he hardens himself. I remonstrated with him in vain on the tone of mind from which such a view of things alone arises. For its real root is very different from its apparent one, & nothing can be less sublime than the true source of these expressions of contempt & desperation.

LPBS 2: 57-8

The passage quoted above, about Byron’s debauches, now follows. The Byron who wrote Childe Harold IV was far from Shelley’s ideal Byron: among other things, he’d borrowed ideas – indeed, ideals – from Shelley, and perverted them into their opposites. Here is a passage about the sublime disinterestedness of Nature, from Queen Mab (1811):

Spirit of Nature! all-sufficing Power,
Necessity! thou mother of the world!
Unlike the God of human error, thou
Requirest no prayers or praises; the caprice
Of man’s weak will belongs no more to thee
Than do the changeful passions of his breast
To thy unvarying harmony; the slave,
Whose horrible lusts spread misery o’er the world,
And the good man, who lifts with virtuous pride,
His being, in the sight of happiness
That springs from his own works; the poison-tree,
Beneath whose shade all life is withered up,
And the fair oak, whose leafy dome affords
A temple where the vows of happy love
Are registered, are equal in thy sight:
No love, no hate thou cherishest; revenge
And favouritism, and worst desire of fame
Thou knowest not: all that the wide world contains
Are but thy passive instruments, and thou
Regard’st them all with an impartial eye,
Whose joy or pain thy nature cannot feel,
Because thou hast not human sense,
Because thou art not human mind.

VI.197-219; PoS 2: 329-30

Human love, and human destiny, may be ruled by an unfair circumstance, but superhuman Nature remains above and beyond all: the poison-tree and the oak are equal in her sight. Here is what Byron changes the idea into in Childe Harold IV:

 Few – none – find what they love or could have loved,
 Though accident, blind Contact, and the strong
 Necessity of loving, have removed
 Antipathies – but to recur, ere long,
 Envenomed with irrevocable wrong;
 And Circumstance, that unspiritual God
 And Miscreator, makes and helps along
 Our coming evils with a crutch-like rod,
Whose touch turns Hope to dust – the dust we all have trod.
 Our life is a false Nature – ’tis not in
 The harmony of things – this hard decree,
 This uneradicable taint of Sin,
 This boundless Upas, this all-blasting tree,
 Whose root is Earth – whose leaves and branches be
 The skies which rain their plagues on men like dew –
 Disease, death, bondage – all the woes we see,
 And worse, the woes we see not – which throb through
The immedicable Soul, with heart-aches ever new.

CHP IV.125-6

Byron’s idea that only unfairness and poison rain on men from on high, from the unspiritual God Circumstance, is quite opposed to Shelley’s interpretation of life’s ultimate calm. For Byron there is no oak to balance the picture – only the Upas, the poison-tree. The sins and slaveries foul of which trigger this pessimism come, Shelley hints, from depths too horrid in Byron the tempest-cleaving swan to be written about. The metaphor of Byron as swan must have been hard to reconcile in his mind with such contortions and corruptions, but he had faith. For Shelley the poet, Byron was one in whom “The sense that he was greater than his kind/ Had struck, methinks, his eagle spirit blind/ By gazing on its own exceeding light” (Julian and Maddalo, lines 50-2; PoS 2: 666).

... and this was not insincere flattery on Shelley’s part. Byron was, Shelley thought, greater than his kind, and ought to control himself more successfully. He writes politely, in the three-line fragment which is all we have of his poem To Byron:

O mighty mind, in whose deep stream this age
Shakes like a reed in the unheeding storm,
Why dost thou curb not thine own sacred rage?

Shelley, Complete 569

With him, Shelley, present, perhaps Byron might realise his true potential. After all, the wicked, mischievous, and insane Childe Harold IV was a very different poem from the love-suffused Childe Harold III, in the genesis of which he, not the gross and despairing sensualist Hobhouse (see below), had assisted.

Shelley admired much of Byron’s other poetry, and seems to have imagined a proprietorial relationship with some of it. On April 26th 1821, Byron wrote to him, aware of his idealising tendency:

You want me to undertake a great Poem – I have not the inclination nor the power. As I grow older, the indifference – not to life, for we love it by instinct – but to the stimuli of life, increases. Besides, this late failure of the Italians has latterly disappointed me for many reasons, – some public, some personal.

BLJ 8: 104

Byron claims that he, too, is a disappointed idealist. Would he have written “a great Poem” if the Italians had been more worthy of his ideals? Would he have fucked fewer Venetians? Does he think The Prophecy of Dante (discontinued, he asserts, because of the failure of the Neapolitan revolution of early 1821, and because of the caution shown about it by his friends the Gambas), to be the “great Poem” he might have written?

Shelley answered, on July 16th 1821, urging him still further:

I still feel impressed with the persuasion that you ought – and if there is prophecy in hope, that you will write a great and connected poem, which shall bear the same relation to this age as the “Iliad”, the “Divina Commedia”, and “Paradise Lost” did to theirs; not that you will imitate the structure, or borrow from the subjects, of any of these, or in any degree assume them as your models. You know the enthusiasm of my admiration for what you have already done; but these are “disjecti membra poetae” [2] to what you may do, and will never, like that, place your memory on a level with those great poets. Such is an ambition (excuse the baseness of the word) alone worthy of you. You say that you feel indifferent to the stimuli of life. But this is a good rather than an evil augury. Long after the man is dead, the immortal spirit may survive, and speak like one belonging to a higher world. But I shall talk bombast, when I mean only to tell a plain truth in plain words.

LPBS 2: 310

William Gifford could not have expressed it better.

Two years earlier Byron had protested to Murray, hearing that Ugo Foscolo had made the same pretentious demand on him, that he was already writing a great poem – Don Juan (Don Juan III, IV and V were not yet out when Shelley wrote the above) (BLJ 5: 105 [letter to Murray, April 6th 1819]). On August 10th of the same year, at Ravenna with his friend, Shelley wrote to his wife as if Byron were at last doing as he wished:

He has read me one of the unpublished cantos of Don Juan, [this seems to be Canto V] which is astonishingly fine. – It sets him not above but far above all poets of the day: every word has the stamp of immortality. – I despair of rivalling Lord Byron, as well I may: and there is no other with whom it is worth contending. This canto is in style, but totally, & sustained with incredible ease & power, like the end of the second canto: there is not a word which the most rigid assertor of the dignity of human nature could desire to be cancelled: it fulfills in a certain degree what I have long preached of producing something wholly new & relative to the age – and yet surpassingly beautiful. It may be vanity, but I think I see the trace of my earnest exhortations to him to create something wholly new.

LPBS 2: 322-5

There are more jokes in Don Juan V than there are in all of Shelley’s writing, but you would not know from this letter there were any in it at all: Shelley may be deceiving himself. His admiration seems genuine, but is it based on an understanding of the poem he praises? Could Shelley actually read Byron? His reported attitude to comedy – that its spirit was “perverted” (see below) – must surely have intervened between him and a full appreciation of Don Juan, at least.


Byron, by contrast, rarely praised Shelley’s poetry, and never betrayed any inkling that he had an ideal Shelley in his mind, moral, poetical, or social, which was perpetually betrayed by the reality. Byron took people as they came. Medwin reports his high opinion of Shelley: “There’s Shelley has more poetry in him than any man living; and if he were not so mystical, and would not write Utopias and set himself up as a Reformer, his right to rank as a poet, and very highly too, could not fail of being acknowledged” (235). But he diverted the energy he might have spent on promoting his friend’s poetry into defending his moral reputation – a reputation which in private he, however, held in no high regard.

There is comedy in the double face he had to keep up, on the one hand in correspondence with Shelley, and on the other with Shelley’s enemies. He was forced into a strange hypocrisy, by the need, on the one hand to keep in with Shelley, and on the other to keep in with his more conservative London friends. The problem surfaced early in the matter of who was to read the proofs of Childe Harold III. Byron seems to have told Shelley that he wanted him to read the proofs: evidence is in a letter from Shelley to Murray of October 30th 1816:

Dear Sir / I observe with surprise that you have announced the appearance of Childe Harold & the Prisoner of Chillon for so early a day as the 23d of November. I should not do my duty to Lord Byron who entrusted me with the Mss. of his Poems, if I did not remind you, that it was his particular desire that I should revise the proofs before publication. – When I had the pleasure of seeing you in London, I think I stated his Lordship’s wishes on this subject to you, remarking at the same time that his wishes did not arise from a persuasion that I should pay more attention to its accuracy than any person whom you might select; but because he communicated it to me immediately after composition; & did me the honor to entrust to my discretion, as to whether certain particular expressions should be retained or changed. All that was required, was that I should see the proofs before they were finally committed to the press. – I wrote to you, some weeks since, to this purpose. I have received no answer. –

Some mistake must have arisen, in what manner I cannot well conceive. You must have forgotten or misunderstood my explanations; by some accident you cannot have received my letter. – Do me the favor of writing by return of post; & informing me what intelligence I am to give Lord Byron respecting the commission with which I was entrusted.

LPBS 1: 511

Shelley’s frustration, as part-inspirer of the poem, is clear. Reading between the lines one can tell he knew that Murray had received his letter, and that he was being frozen out by the Tories at Albemarle Street. What would he have felt, in this early stage of their acquaintance, had he known that on August 28th 1816 Byron had actually written to Murray in the following shuffling terms:

Dear Sir – The manuscript (containing the third Canto of Childe Harold – the Castle of Chillon &c. &c.) is consigned to the care of my friend Mr. Shelley – who will deliver this letter along with it. – Mr. Gifford will perhaps be kind enough to read it over; – I know not well to whom to consign the correction of the proofs – nor indeed who would be good natured enough to overlook it in its progress – as I feel very anxious that it should be published with as few errata as possible. – – Perhaps – my friend Mr. Moore (if in town) would do this. – – If not – Mr. S[helley] will take it upon himself, – and in any case – he is authorized to act for me in treating with you &c. &c. on this subject.

BLJ 5: 90

Contrary to what he has assured Shelley, he lays all three possible editors before Murray in a seemingly random way, and appears to be “leaving the choice to him”. But Moore had never been given such a job before, and his name is thrown in thus casually, firstly to make the publisher’s choice seem wider, thereby laying less stress on Shelley, and secondly, in reality, to narrow the choice down – for if the hitherto-unused Shelley is equal with the hitherto-unused Moore, Murray will instinctively turn to Gifford, who had proof-read all of Byron’s work up to this point.

On October 15th 1816 he had further written to Murray: “If I recollect rightly – you told me that Mr. Gifford had kindly undertaken to correct the press (at my request) during my absence – at least I hope so – it will add to my many obligations to that Gentleman” (BLJ 5: 119). It’s clear, in fact, that he’d intended to have Gifford correct the proofs all the time, and that to Shelley he was just being polite.


In 1820, Byron wrote to Hoppner:

I regret that you have such a bad opinion of Shiloh – you used to have a good one. – Surely he has talent – honour – but is crazy against religion and morality. – His tragedy [The Cenci] is sad work – but the subject renders it so. – His Islam had much poetry. – You seem lately to have got some notion against him.

BLJ 6: 174 [letter of September 10th 1820]

“His Islam had much poetry” implies it to be a pity that one cannot devote similar praise to the poem’s plot, characterisation, or allegory. The need to keep on the good side of all one’s friends was as hard then as it is now, particularly when one of them had written something as strange as The Revolt of Islam. On November 24th 1818 he had written to Murray:

I have read his [Southey’s supposed] review of Hunt, where he has attacked Shelley in an oblique and shabby manner. Does he know what that review has done? I will tell you. It has sold an edition of the Revolt of Islam, which, otherwise, nobody would have thought of reading, and few who read can understand – I for one.

BLJ 6: 83

To Shelley he later wrote, referring first to Keats:

You know my opinion of that second-hand school of poetry. You also know my high opinion of your own poetry, – because it is of no school. I read Cenci – but, besides that I think the subject essentially un-dramatic, I am not an admirer of our old dramatists as models. I deny that the English have hitherto had a drama at all. Your Cenci, however, was a work of power, and poetry. As to my drama, [Marino Faliero] pray revenge yourself upon it, by being as free as I have been with yours.

I have not yet got your Prometheus, which I long to see.

BLJ 8: 103 [letter of April 26th 1821]

Denying, by clear implication, that Marlowe, Shakespeare, Wycherley, Goldsmith and Sheridan were dramatists, is a hard hole to dig yourself out of. But to cushion the effect of revealing his dislike of The Cenci, Byron is prepared to dig it. What he felt about Prometheus Unbound when he did get it we do not know – this is the only reference to it in all of his letters – though see below for evidence (LPBS 345) that Shelley said he had been “loud in his praise of it”. This praise must have been spoken.

Later he wrote: “Shelley is truth itself – and honour itself – notwithstanding his out-of-the-way notions about religion” (BLJ 8: 132 [letter to Kinnaird, June 2nd 1821]). To the Catholic Moore, who disapproved of the connection, he was guarded:

As to poor Shelley, who is another bugbear to you and the world, he is, to my knowledge, the least selfish and the mildest of men – a man who has made more sacrifices of his fortune and feelings for others than any I ever heard of. With his speculative opinions have nothing in common, nor desire to have.

BLJ 9: 119 [letter to Moore of March 4th 1822]

After Shelley had drowned he wrote to Moore, his adverbs betraying his anger with Shelley’s enemies:

You will have heard by this time that Shelley and another gentleman (Captain Williams) were drowned about a month ago (a month yesterday), in a squall off the Gulf of Spezia. There is another man gone, about whom the world was ill-naturedly, and ignorantly, and brutally mistaken. It will, perhaps, do him justice now, when he can be no better for it.

BLJ 9: 190 [letter to Moore, August 8th 1822]

To Murray he wrote, after the same event:

Alas! poor Shelley – how he would have laughed – had he lived, and how we used to laugh now & then – at various things – which are grave in the Suburbs. – You are all mistaken about Shelley – – you do not know – how mild – how tolerant – how good he was in Society – and as perfect a Gentleman as ever crossed a drawing room; – when he liked & where he liked.

BLJ 10: 69 [letter to Murray, December 25th 1822]

A perfect Gentleman was one thing which the atheist, republican, vegetarian and democrat Shelley emphatically was not, despite Horace Smith’s “it was impossible to doubt even for a moment that you were gazing upon a gentleman” (Blunden 145). It was because the Shelleys were atheists that Byron did not want his daughter brought up in their society. But Byron, as usual, writes to disturb, and to afflict the comfortable. Attacking cant had paramountcy over defending strayers from its carnivorous, Tory, Anglican norms.


Finding borrowings, correspondences, and influences between two writers so different is hard, but fascinating. There seems little doubt that each studied the other’s work with absorption; though I think Byron learned more from Shelley than vice versa – and what he found were negative lessons: what to avoid. Shelley, by contrast, was not, I think, able to see Byron’s work very clearly. I have made an attempt to trace some of the cross-currents which can be found. In general we find Byron rejecting Shelley’s “idealism” (if that is not too polite a word for it, in the case, for instance, of Alastor), and recreating Shelley’s naïve universe or universes within the framework of something more this-worldly and, in the case of Adonais and The Vision of Judgement, amusing. Some of Shelley’s writing is “anti-Byron” in that he strives in it to correct Byron’s misanthropy and pessimism by taking a similar subject and reworking it in his own perspective. But finally he despairs of making any impact.

We must not expect to find in print all the conversations on poetry between two men, who were for such long periods in one another’s company. Much must have passed between them of which no written record remains.


Alastor and Manfred

It has been suggested [3] that Thomas Taylor’s work on the later neo-Platonist Proclus may form one subtext to Prometheus Unbound, which Shelley did not start until September 1818, but which contains several lines corresponding to, and answering ideas from, Manfred (Robinson 125-134 and nn.) (see below). This is apt, for it seems clear that Manfred had been, in addition to everything else, a creative riposte to Alastor.

Shelley sent Byron Queen Mab in 1816. Claire Claremont may have sent Byron a copy of Alastor, which contained The Daemon of the World, a section from Mab. In either March or April 1816, she wrote to him, as it seems, to answer some questions he’d asked, and to acknowledge an “approbation” he’d given to Shelley’s work so far:

The “Demon of the World” is an extract from the poem entitled “Queen Mab.” The latter was composed at the early age of twenty; although it bears marks of genius, yet the style is so unpoetical & unpolished that I could never admire it. Shelley is now turned three & twenty & interested as I am in all he does it is with the greatest pleasure I receive your approbation. “Alastor” is a most evident proof of improvement; but I think his merit lies in translation – the sonnets from the Greek of Moschus & from Dante are the best. If you think ill of his compositions I hope you will speak – he may improve by your remarks. It was Shelley who sent you “Queen Mab” – I know not wherefore.

Clairmont 1: 29-31

Byron may have spoken, but Shelley did not improve.

No-one as far as I know has ever wondered why Byron chose to put Manfred into dramatic form (it is his first full-scale attempt at drama), or what themes were in his mind, which demanded the sort of objectification which the shifting perspectives of drama could provide, and for which narrative verse was less well equipped.

On June 8 1816 Polidori wrote in his diary, “Up at 9; went to Geneva on horseback, and then to Diodati to see Shelley; back; dined; into the new boat – Shelley’s, – and talked, till the ladies’ brains whizzed with giddiness, about idealism. Back; rain, puffs of wind; mistake” (121). The following day he wrote: “Up by 1: breakfasted. Read Lucian. Dined. Did the same: tea’d. Went to Hentsch: came home. Looked at the moon, and ordered packing-up” (121). Are we to understand from the first entry that it had been a mistake to take the boat out in the rain, or a mistake to talk about idealism? Was it merely the ladies’ brains that whizzed, or did Polidori’s get a bit disorientated too? Did he look at the moon as an idealistically necessary prelude to packing up, or did he pack up in order to escape from the idealist associations of the moon? Like Lucian – to whom Polidori may have turned as a relief from all the idealism – Byron would seem to have been an instinctive foe to transcendentalist thought of most kinds, and to have been interested above all in fleshing out its abstractions with a view to bringing them down to earth: that is to say, to devaluing the very notion of transcendentalism itself. Most of his early epistolary references to Plato, for example, use the philosopher’s name simply as a synonym for sex (BLJ 4: 135) or for the avoidance of sex (BLJ 3: 136) and some of his later poetical references are couched in similar terms – either of ignorance or scepticism: see Don Juan I stanza 116, or XIV stanza 92. His admission at Don Juan IX stanza 76, that “The noblest kind of Love is Love Platonical” is, in the context of the court of Catherine the Great, just another way of expressing doubt about the whole idea.

However, when in a boat with Shelley in June 1816, one would have temporarily to take Platonism – or idealism, at any rate – seriously, for one of the only two major poems of Shelley then in print was the deeply “idealistic” Alastor, published earlier in the year. Byron never refers to it, but it is hard to believe that either Clare or Shelley did not show him it, that he did not read it, and that it was not on his mind during the writing of Manfred. Drama and idealism make poor bedfellows, for drama is unhappy with the abstract. When, at I.ii.27-36, Manfred sees an eagle passing, he speaks thus to it:

 [...] I have ceased
To justify my deeds unto myself –
The last infirmity of evil. [an Eagle passes.
Thou winged and cloud-cleaving minister,
Whose happy flight is highest into heaven,
Well may’st thou swoop so near me – I should be
Thy prey, and gorge thine Eaglets; thou art gone
Where the eye cannot follow thee; but thine
Yet pierces downward, onward, or above
With a pervading vision [...]

The eagle might at first glance appear open to an idealist interpretation, an emblem of the clear-sighted perfection beyond; and it is natural to compare the passage with the Poet’s address to the swan (seen “upon the lone Chorasmian shore”) at Alastor, 280-91:

 “Thou hast a home,
Beautiful bird; thou voyagest to thine home,
Where thy sweet mate will twine her downy neck
With thine, and welcome thy return with eyes
Bright in the lustre of her own fond joy.
And what am I that I should linger here,
With voice far sweeter than thy dying notes,
Spirit more vast than thine, frame more attuned
To beauty, wasting these surpassing powers
In the deaf air, to the blind earth, and heaven
That echoes not my thoughts?” A gloomy smile
Of desperate hope wrinkled his quivering lips.

lines 280-91; PoS 1: 474-5

The contrast, however, is striking. Manfred feels himself altogether inferior to the eagle. In the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus (lines 1020-5) the protagonist is warned by Hermes that he will become the prey of eagles, and Manfred would welcome the same fate; where Shelley’s Poet sees the swan as a reminder of his own wasted genius, Manfred sees the eagle as a reminder of his own insignificance and mortality. Byron’s bird is ornithologically (and thus dramatically) convincing, in that it is only interested in food for its young; the “lustre” in the eyes of Shelley’s bird is anthropomorphic: it is not a bird, but a poetic convenience. Byron would have felt birds to have an independent being which poetry should honour. He had in his time shot an eagle and decapitated a goose, and experienced guilt (at least over the first).

When in II.i.90-2 the Chamois Hunter sees Manfred on the mountain, about to kill himself, the first thought that occurs to him (he being a realistically-dramatised Alpine inhabitant) is practical: “I must approach him cautiously; if near,/ A sudden step will startle him, and he/ Seems tottering already.” Compare Alastor, lines 257-62:

 The mountaineer,
Encountering on some dizzy precipice
That spectral form, deemed that the Spirit of wind
With lightning eyes, and eager breath, and feet
Disturbing not the drifted snow, had paused
In its career [...]

PoS 1: 473-4

Byron’s “mountaineer” is guilty of no such misapprehension, and would not think in terms of “the Spirit of wind” anyway.

As with birds and mountaineers, so with geography. There are editors who would compute the precise direction of Shelley’s Poet’s wanderings: “The Poet flees from Kashmir to the northwest into what is now Afghanistan and then into the central Asian areas that in classical times (whose geographical terms Shelley employs) were Persian provinces; some of these areas are now parts of the U.S.S.R.” (RaP 76n.)

Even Shelley might have been surprised by such flattery of his apparent intention: but one can imagine Byron wondering how the Poet travelled, how he kept warm at nights, how many of the local “savage men” really looked upon and heard his “sweet voice and eyes” with sufficient favour to feed him (lines 81-2). Manfred moves around a relatively small area of Europe which Byron had recently got to know well. Taking his cue, perhaps, from Goethe, who carefully places his drunken orgy in the historical Auerbach’s Cellar in Leipzig (where he had studied) and his Walpurgisnacht on the Harz, Byron not only names his mountains precisely, but attempts, via notes, to convince us that, for example, the rainbow, out of which Manfred conjures the Witch of the Alps at the start of II.ii., was one he had seen. It is a rhetorical device, for although we know Byron went and inspected the rainbow (BLJ 5: 101). we do not know that he conjured a witch from out of it; but he imposes a convincing local habitation, and thus a convincing modesty, on his airy nothings, which Shelley would eschew.

The figure of Astarte shows Byron learning most clearly from the example of Alastor. Shelley’s Poet has two women, one “real”, in the adoring Arab maiden at 129-39, the other “ideal”, in that of the Veiled Maiden of whom the Poet dreams at 151-91. Their close juxtaposition has obvious implications for Shelley’s theme of wilful and doomed isolation, for the Poet ignores the one, and the other exists only in his dreams – a fact which ultimately destroys his happiness and his life. In creating Astarte, once living, but now dead, and, though her spirit may still be approached, almost inaccessibly cryptic, Byron economically combines the reality of the Arab maiden with the dream-quality of the Veiled Maiden – giving the whole creation a characteristically Byronic aura of guilt and horror which would be equally out of place in Alastor. Byron’s piece being dramatic, we are also invited empathetically to imagine Manfred in Astarte’s critical perspective, and their entire relationship, fleetingly, via a third party’s perspective, in the interrupted words of Manuel at III.iii. 43-7: whereas Shelley’s depiction of the two maidens in Alastor remains open to the criticism that neither is really seen in much of a perspective at all, certainly not one critical of the Poet. This may be part of Shelley’s intention; but Byron would have seen in it a lesson about what to avoid.

Shelley’s Poet, we find from lines 121-8, possesses an enviable capacity to learn via simple, ecstatic contemplation:

He lingered, poring on memorials
Of the world’s youth, through the long burning day
Gazed on those speechless shapes, nor, when the moon
Filled the mysterious halls with floating shades
Suspended he that task, but ever gazed
And gazed, till meaning on his vacant mind
Flashed like strong inspiration, and he saw
The thrilling secrets of the birth of time.

lines 121-8; PoS 1: 469

Really? what were they? we may imagine Byron asking eagerly, but with no hope of an answer, for Shelley does not say. The secrets do his protagonist no good, at any rate, for he continues his flight to greater and greater loneliness and death despite knowing them. Manfred has to work much harder to obtain his secrets:

 [...] then I dived,
In my lone wanderings, to the caves of death,
Searching its cause in its effect; and drew
From withered bones, and skulls, and heaped up dust,
Conclusions most forbidden. Then I passed
The nights of years in sciences untaught,
Save in the old time; and with time and toil,
And weary vigils, and unbroken fasts,
And terrible ordeal, and such penance
As in itself has power upon the air,
And spirits that do compass air and earth,
Space, and the peopled infinite, I made
Mine eyes familiar with Eternity,
Such as before me did the Magi, and
He who from out their fountain dwellings raised
Eros and Anteros at Gadara,
As I do thee; – and with my knowledge grew
The thirst of knowledge, and the power and joy
Of this most bright intelligence, until ... [4]

II.ii.79-97, including a new line 86

Some self-denial, hard work and suffering is involved in the acquisition of most knowledge, and Manfred clearly had his fair share of it, where Shelley’s Poet seems to have been vouchsafed infinite and incommunicable wisdom after a few days’ gazing. It is true that Manfred is no less dead by the end of his poem than the Poet is by the end of his: but he at least has something to show for his life of isolation and guilt (some self-knowledge, real power over spirits, a human beloved who has, no matter what the consequences, returned his love, and a reputation locally which causes those who know him to grieve for him) where Shelley’s Poet has nothing. He has not even written any poetry (though one feels, in saying this, that one may have missed the point).

Shelley initially felt very confident about Alastor; on March 7th 1816 he wrote to Southey, presenting him with a copy:

I cannot refrain from presenting you with a little poem, the product of a few serene hours of the last beautiful autumn [...] regarding you with admiration as a poet, and with respect as a man, I send you, as an intimation of those sentiments, my first serious attempt to interest the best feelings of the human heart [...]

LPBS 2: 461-2

But by December 8th 1818 he was writing to Leigh Hunt:

[...] I do not say that I am unjustly neglected, the oblivion which overtook my little attempt of Alastor I am ready to acknowledge was sufficiently merited in itself; but then it was not accorded in the correct proportion considering the success of the most contemptible drivellings. I am undec[e]ived in the belief that I have powers deeply to interest, or substantially to improve, mankind.

LPBS 1: 517

The cause of his despondency may have lain partly in the failure of Alastor to stir any impulse of praise in either Byron or Southey, partly in the creative use – and the implicitly critical use – to which Byron had put Alastor in Manfred. In his three references to Byron’s play (LPBS 1: 546-7, 557; 2: 283; letters to Byron of July 9th and September 24th 1817, and April 16th 1821) he makes no allusion to any borrowing or critique (contrast Goethe’s instantaneous assumption of plagiarism from Faust) but it is hard to imagine him being blind to it. When, in 1821, reading Don Juan III Stanza 98 (see LPBS 2: 332, 357-8), he found, “He wishes for “a boat” to sail the deeps –/ Of Ocean? No, of Air, and then he makes/ Another outcry for “a little boat”,/ And drivels Seas to set it well afloat. –” and (just conceivably) remembered the boat in which he, Byron, Polidori and the ladies had discussed idealism until their heads whizzed, might he not have felt a slight twinge as he reflected, in addition, that the second phrase which Byron advertises in inverted commas was not merely from Wordsworth’s Peter Bell, but that it occurred twice (lines 344 and 363) in Alastor? [5]

There have been attempts to politicise Alastor. Nigel Leask writes that it “could be read as an unmasking of Britain’s desire for its Indian Other” (123); Michael Rossington writes of it in terms of “Shelley’s response to wider contemporary arguments about the search for a ‘cradle of civilization’” (20). If either is true, neither the Indian Other nor the ‘cradle of civilization’ has anything to fear.


Childe Harold III, love, Wordsworth, Rousseau, Hobhouse, and the burden of Byron’s mobility

The different ways in which Byron listened to and was influenced by whoever was with him at the time has been underestimated. He was an excellent listener, and an empathetic chameleon, and it affected his work in a way which would have amazed those who saw him as proud, independent and original. Writing in 1823, with Childe Harold well behind him, he defines the quality, which he calls “mobility,” thus:

In French, Mobilité. I am not sure that mobility is English — but it is expressive of a quality which rather belongs to other climates — though it is sometimes seen to a great extent in our own. It may be defined as an excessive susceptibility of immediate impressions, at the same time without losing the past, and is — though sometimes apparently useful to the possessor — a most painful and unhappy attribute. — — —

DJ XVI.97.4, Byron’s note

His excessive susceptibility of the immediate impression of Shelley during the composition of Childe Harold III has been well-documented, not least by himself, speaking to Medwin:

“You are accused of owing a great deal to Wordsworth. Certainly there are some stanzas in the Third Canto of ‘Childe Harold’ that smell strongly of the Lakes: for instance —

 I live not in myself, but I become
Portion of that around me; – and to me
High mountains are a feeling!”

“Very possibly,” replied he. “Shelley, when I was in Switzerland, used to dose me with Wordsworth even to nausea; and I do remember then reading some things of his with pleasure. He had once a feeling for Nature, which he carried almost to a deification of it: – that’s why Shelley liked his poetry.”

Medwin 194

What has not been documented is his excessive susceptibility of the immediate impression of John Cam Hobhouse during the composition of Childe Harold I, II, and IV. The unspiritual Hobhouse (“Hobhouse [...] is a Cynic after my own heart”; BLJ 3: 47 [letter to Lady Melbourne, May 7 1813]) disliked Childe Harold III:

Mem: Byron has given me before another Canto of Childe Harold to read. It is very fine in parts, but I doubt whether I like it so much as his first Cantos – there is an air of mystery and metaphysics about it.”

It comes as no surprise to find that Hobhouse refers to Shelley as infrequently as possible in his diary. On the date (August 30th 1816) when we know that Byron, he, and Scrope Davies, found Shelley’s “Atheist” signature in the Alpine hotel visitors’ book, he does not mention it. On arriving at Diodati on Tuesday August 27th 1816, all he writes is this: “Walked with S.B.Davies to Geneva – ugly town. Bazaars with high wooden domes. Went to Hentsch, to the post office. Found letter from my mother. Wrote one to her – came home – dined – went on water – wet and sick – Mr. Shelley.” On September 15th 1822, visiting Byron in Pisa, all he records is this:

“Leigh Hunt was brought out here by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mr Shelley was lately drowned in going from Leghorn to La Spezzia, and Lord Byron considered Leigh Hunt as a legacy left to him.”

We may perhaps deduce something of Shelley’s attitude to Hobhouse from the following, which is part of a letter from Claire Claremont to Byron of January 12th 1818:

Alone I study Plutarch’s lives wherein I find nothing but excitements to virtue & abstinence: with Mary & Shelley the scene changes but from the contemplation of the virtues of the dead to those of the living. I have no Hobhouse by my side to dispirit me with an easy & impudent declaration of “the villany of all mankind” which I can construe into nothing but an attempt to cover his conscious unworthiness.

Clairmont 1: 109-11

She finds that from the innocent Mary and Shelley one imbibed an optimistic idea of mankind: from the depraved and Mephistophelean Hobhouse, the reverse. Along with Annabella and Augusta, Claire seems to have found Byron’s best friend detestable. Shelley dismissed John Cam economically. A P.S. to a letter to Byron goes, “Make my remembrances to Hobhouse – as also to Mr. Davies. I hope that the former has destroyed whatever scruples you have felt, in dismissing Polidori. The anecdote which he recounted to me the evening before I left Geneva made my blood run cold.” (LPBS 1: 504 [letter to Byron of September 8th 1816]). “Of Hobhouse,” he writes to Peacock on January 23rd-24th 1819, “I have a very slight opinion” (LPBS 2: 75). There are few other references to Hobhouse in his letters.

Hobhouse was present throughout the composition of the first two cantos of Childe Harold; he arrived in Venice from Rome in time to be one of the first to read the rough version of the fourth: he was present throughout that canto’s revision, and became intimate enough with it to try his hand at a four-stanza imitation, and to write an elaborate commentary on it – Historical Illustrations. The idea that for one canto he had been displaced by as weird a person as Shelley must have rankled. [6]

Love and all that went with it was a subject with which Hobhouse was unhappy. On December 12th 1816 Byron wrote to him, referring to Mariana Segati, and perhaps gloating: “My own amours go on very tranquilly – she plagues me less than any woman I ever met with – and I am indebted to her for the pleasantest month I can reckon this many a day. – I know you hate that sort of thing – so I will say no more about love & the like [...]” (BLJ 5: 143). Hobhouse experienced the occasional crush, but found the experience humiliating, for few women found him attractive; and he could normally think himself out of a passion within twenty-four hours. All his sexual experience was with prostitutes. Scarcely a bold lover, he may have had an affair with his sisters’ governess, late in 1815; but it was furtive. “Mlle Butler sits up with me till one and I make no use of this opportunity, no thanks to my virtue neither,” he writes in shame. “I’m afraid of repulse first, and discovery afterwards.” Love plays little part in the three cantos of Childe Harold written with him around. Shelley, contrariwise, knew love to be the mainspring of the universe:

Love is like understanding that grows bright,
Gazing on many truths; ’tis like thy light,
Imagination! which from earth and sky,
And from the depths of human phantasy,
As from a thousand prisms and mirrors, fills
The Universe with glorious beams, and kills
Error, the worm, with many a sun-like arrow
Of its reverberated lightning.

Epipsychidion lines 162-9; RaP 378

The context here, in Epipsychidion, makes it clear, indeed, that he thought the more love there was, the better. The idea that love often encourages Error, and has tragic consequences, never appears to have occurred to him. If he had read The Giaour, or Parisina, he never betrayed having done so.

The opening of Childe Harold III, expressing Byron’s love for his daughter Ada, was written, if he is to be believed, on the cross-Channel packet, before he met Shelley. The Castled Crag of Drachenfels, expressing his love for Augusta, was written, according to the manuscript, on the spot on May 11th – also before he met Shelley. But we can be sure that the concluding stanzas, which revert to the subject of Ada, were written with Shelley in the vicinity. Here is part of stanza 115, and all of 116:

 [...] My voice shall with thy future visions blend,
 And reach into thy heart, – when mine is cold, –
A token and a tone, even from thy father’s mould.

 To aid thy Mind’s development, – to watch
 Thy dawn of little joys – to sit and see
 Almost thy very Growth – to view thee catch
 Knowledge of objects – wonders yet to thee!
 To hold thee lightly on a gentle knee,
 And print on thy soft cheek a parent’s kiss, –
 This, it should seem, was not reserved for me;
 Yet this was in my Nature – as it is,
I know not what is there, yet something like to this.

lines 1073-1084

Whether Byron really would have been an affectionate father, or whether he’s here indulging a posture, knowing that his bluff is unlikely ever to be called, is an issue. I am impressed by the knowledge that when his other daughter, Allegra, died, he had not visited her for fourteen months. The irony of Byron writing about love, Byron who had recently rejected, with some brutality, the love of a good woman (one with a considerable sexual appetite, if he is to be believed), and had left his parental responsibility well behind, has been insufficiently noted.

On June 27th 1816, he writes to Murray: “I have traversed all Rousseau’s ground – with the Heloise before me – & am struck to a degree with the force & accuracy of his descriptions – & the beauty of their reality: – Meillerie – Clarens & Vevey – & the Chateau de Chillon are places of which I shall say little – because all I could say must fall short of the impressions they stamp” (BLJ 5: 82). Rousseau’s epistolary novel Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), with its unprecedented depiction of love, had a huge impact on its readers, who included Byron and, especially, Shelley. It chimed in more naturally with Shelley’s temperament than it did with Byron’s. When they toured Lake Geneva (without their womenfolk), and came at its eastern end to the scenes described by Rousseau, the two poets seem to have had a copy of the novel open all the time, and to have been both impressed by the fidelity of Rousseau’s descriptions, and still more overwhelmed than they had previously been by the feelings of love and despair it depicted:

 His love was Passion’s Essence – as a tree
 On fire by lightning, with ethereal flame
 Kindled he was, and blasted; for to be
 Thus, and enamoured, were in him the same.
 But his was not the love of living dame,
 Nor of the dead who rise upon our dreams,
 But of ideal Beauty, which became
 In him existence, and o’erflowing teems
Along his burning page – distempered though it seems.

 This breathed itself to life in Julie; this
 Invested her with all that’s wild and sweet;
 This hallowed, too, the memorable kiss
 Which every morn his fevered lip would greet
 From hers, who but with friendship his would meet;
 But to that gentle touch through brain and breast
 Flashed the thrilled Spirit’s love-devouring heat;
 In that absorbing sigh perchance more blest
Than vulgar Minds may be with all they seek possest.

CHP III.78-9.734-751

“[...] distempered though it seems” is a critical glance sideways, and the slur on “vulgar minds” satiated is his (and Shelley’s) self-reassurance: both they and Rousseau belong to an exclusive club. He outgrew the influence of Shelley’s reading of Rousseau’s novel, and also outgrew – at some speed – the influence of Shelley’s reading of Wordsworth. He normally despised Wordsworth as a time-serving feudalistic sycophant and a poet of tedium and triviality. But Shelley’s persuasive personality, or his own “openness to impressions” – or both – converted him briefly to the opposite viewpoint. The influence on him of Shelley’s Wordsworth did not last. On September 28th 1816, Shelley having gone and Hobhouse having returned, Byron wrote the following in his Alpine Journal:

I was disposed to be pleased – I am a lover of Nature – and an Admirer of Beauty – I can bear fatigue – & welcome privation – and have seen some of the noblest views in the world. – But in all this – the recollections of bitterness – & more especially of recent & more home desolation – which must accompany me through life – have preyed upon me here – and neither the music of the Shepherd – the crashing of the Avalanche – nor the torrent – the mountain – the Glacier – the Forest – nor the Cloud – have for one moment – lightened the weight upon my heart – nor enabled me to lose my own wretched identity in the majesty & the power and the Glory – around – above – & beneath me. – I am past reproaches – and there is a time for all things – I am past the wish of vengeance – and I know of none like for what I have suffered – but the hour will come – when what I feel must be felt – & the – – but enough.

BLJ 5: 104-5

His reading of Wordsworth is, in Childe Harold III, perverse in any case. Wordsworth would have Nature as an Other, a thing mightier than man, a teacher of humility, of patience and submission. Here are the famous lines from Tintern Abbey:

 And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

lines 94-103

But here is Byron:

 Sky – Mountains – River – Winds – Lake – Lightnings! Ye
 With night, and clouds, and thunder, and a Soul
 To make these felt and feeling, well may be
 Things that have made me watchful; the far roll
 Of your departing voices is the knoll
 Of what in me is sleepless – if I rest;
 But where of ye, oh tempests – is the goal?
 Are ye like those within the human breast?
Or do ye find, at length, like Eagles, some high Nest?

CHP III.96.896-904

For Byron, Nature is another self – or rather, a reflection of his own ego, another way of rendering himself, not patient and philosophical, but more volcanic, alienated, and dramatic in the eyes of the world. How much of this misinterpretation is indeed a consequence of Shelley’s “dosing,” we shall never know. Wordsworth was dismissive, but was not interested enough in Byron to make a detailed parallel:

I have not, nor ever had a single poem of Lord Byron’s by me, except the Lara, given me by Mr Rogers, & therefore could not quote any thing illustrative of his poetic obligations to me: as far as I am acquainted with his works, they are <much> {the} most apparent in the 3d Canto of Childe Harold; not so much in particular expressions, tho’ there is no want of these, as in the tone (assumed rather than natural) of enthusiastic admiration of Nature, & a sensibility to her influences. Of my writings you need not read more than the blank verse poem on the river Wye [7] to be convinced of this. [8]


Manfred and Prometheus Unbound

If Manfred mocks Alastor, Prometheus Unbound reproaches Manfred. In The Snake and Eagle Wreathed in Fight, Charles Robinson writes:

[...] the “forms” that “modified” Prometheus Unbound were Byron’s Prometheus and Manfred. But true to his distinction between “spirit” and “form” and to his previous ironic uses of Byron’s poetry, Shelley borrowed from Byron’s Prometheus poems only to subvert their metaphysics and simultaneously assert the superiority of his own judgments about man’s internal nature.


Later he quotes Earl Wasserman: “In many ways, Prometheus Unbound is a reply to Manfred.” He adds, however, that Wasserman does not pursue the argument (125).

Two letters of Shelley to Ollier, written in July and August 1817, perhaps indicate a sequel to Byron’s indebtedness to Thomas Taylor’s notes to Pausanias, which had led in part to the construction of the demonology in Manfred[9]

Be so good as to send me “Tasso’s Lament” a Poem just published; & Taylors Translation of Pausanias. You will oblige me by sending them without delay, as I have immediate need for them.

LPBS 2: 548 [letter of July 24th 1817]

Do you know is Taylors Pausanias to be procured & at what price.

LPBS 2: 549 [P.S. to a letter of August 3rd 1817]

Prometheus Unbound and Manfred have similar spirit-hierarchies, both deriving from Taylor’s notes to his translation of Pausanias:

The following Platonic dogma, which belongs to the greatest arcana of ancient Wisdom, solves all that appears to be so absurd and ridiculous to the atheistical and superficial in such-like historical relations as the present. Every deity beginning from on high, produces his own proper series to the last of things; and this series comprehends in itself many essences differing from each other. Thus, for instance, the Sun produces Angelical, Daemoniacal, Heroical, Nymphical, Panical, and such-like powers, each of which subsists according to a solar characteristic: and the same reasoning must be applied to every other divinity. All these powers are the perpetual attendants of the Gods, but they have not all of them an essence wholly superior to man. For after essential Heroes an order of souls follows, who proximately govern the affairs of men, and are daemoniacal κατα σχεσιν, according to habitude or alliance, but not essentially. Of this kind are the Nymphs that sympathize with waters, Pans with the feet of goats, and the like: and they differ from those powers that are essentially of a daemoniacal characteristic, in this, that they assume a variety of shapes (each of the others immutably preserving one form), are subject to various passions, and are the causes of all-various deception to mankind.

2: 235

On the highest level of this Pantheon is the Demiurgus, Zeus, the Creator, “the over-ruling Infinite – the Maker”, as Manfred calls him at II.iv.47: he is Intellect, above earthly things, and incorporeal (one of the “Powers deeper still beyond” to which Manfred refers at II.iv.76). He may be confused with the Sun, to whom Manfred addresses his speech in III.ii. In Prometheus “the overruling Infinite” is Demogorgon.

Next, in Byron’s play, come a trinity of mixed supra-mundane and mundane deities – “Angelical [...] Powers” – represented by Arimanes, Nemesis and the three Destinies. Byron does not want to be thought of as too whole-hearted a neo-Platonist, so, to confuse us, he gives them names and titles from both Zoroastrian dualism and classical European myth. They are Soul, but may interfere materially in earthly matters – see their speeches in Manfred II.iii. Shelley’s equivalent is Jupiter, who punishes Prometheus. No-one, divine or hellish, punishes Manfred: he has made himself the equal of all gods and spirits, and punishes himself. Astarte and Manfred may be of the race of “essential Heroes” to whom Taylor refers, overlapping with demons in the neo-Platonic hierarchy: Shelley’s most important “essential heroes” are Prometheus and Asia – a much happier pair, by the end of the piece, than Manfred and Astarte.

Lastly is a hierarchy of demons – “Nymphical, Panical, and such-like powers”: the Seven Spirits in I.i., the Voices in the Incantation (perhaps those of the Seven) and the Witch of the Alps in I.ii. Given that Manfred converses with these as their equal, if not master, he may be said to be one of them: “[...] they have not all of them an essence wholly superior to man”. So may Astarte, who has to answer the call of Nemesis at II.iv.84-97, although Nemesis cannot force her to speak. Shelley also has (inter alia) Mercury, Ione and Panthea, Ocean, and Apollo, plus the Five ministering Spirits, the Three Voices, the Echoes, the Fauns, and the Three Furies. We listen in vain for distinct tones of voice amongst this profusion.

Shelley adds Earth, mother to Prometheus and to Zoroaster – Manfred refers to no parents, and never refers to Zoroaster, though Zoroastriansim is as important to his system as it is to Shelley’s, for the relationship between Jupiter and Prometheus is identical to that between Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, gods of Light and Dark in the Persian religion:

MERCURY: Oh, that we might be spared – I to inflict,
 And thou to suffer! Once more answer me:
 Thou knowest not the period of Jove’s power?
PROMETHEUS: I know but this, that it must come.
 Thou canst not count thy years to come of pain?
PROMETHEUS: They last while Jove must reign: nor more, nor less
 Do I desire or fear.

I.i.410-16; PoS 2: 501-2

In the same way, Ahura Mazda, the Persian light-bringer, must give way to Ahriman, lover of darkness, for an apparent aeon, but will finally replace him. [10]

The landscape of Prometheus Unbound is that of a poetical Shangri-La. Here is Asia describing the approach to Demogorgon’s cave in II.iii.:

Look Sister – ere the vapor dim thy brain:
Beneath is a wide plain of billowy mist,
As a lake, paving in the morning sky,
With azure waves which burst in silver light,
Some Indian vale ... Behold it, rolling on
Under the curdling winds, and islanding
The peak whereon we stand – midway, around
Encinctured by the dark and blooming forests,
Dim twilight-lawns, and stream-illuminèd caves,
And wind-enchanted shapes of wandering mist;
And far on high the keen sky-cleaving mountains
From icy spires of sunlike radiance fling
The dawn, as lifted Ocean’s dazzling spray,
From some Atlantic islet scattered up,
Spangles the wind with lamp-like water-drops.

lines 18-32

For “Indian,” read “imaginary, non-geographical.” Here is Manfred in the Alps in I.ii.:

Manfred: Hark! the note,
 [The Shepherd’s pipe in the distance is heard.
The natural music of the mountain reed –
For here the patriarchal days are not
A pastoral fable – pipes in the liberal air,
Mixed with the sweet bells of the sauntering herd;
My Soul would drink those echoes. Oh, that I were
The viewless Spirit of a lovely sound,
A living voice, a breathing harmony,
A bodiless enjoyment, born and dying
With the blest tone which made me!

 [Enter from below a Chamois Hunter.

Chamois Hunter: Even so –
This way the Chamois leapt – her nimble feet
Have baffled me – my gains today will scarce
Repay my breakneck travail.

lines 47-59

Shelley is not interested in pipes or hunters, still less in Byron’s sauntering herds (which derive from Gray’s “lowing herd”). Sauntering herds drop cow-pats, for which there might just be space in Manfred, were one dramatically necessary. To ask Shelley to be more mundane seems cruel. His characters really are “living voices” and “breathing harmonies” – it’s as if he’s taken Manfred’s dream of being a “viewless spirit” (which Manfred, for all his encounters with the supernatural and for all his thoughts about the patriarchal days, knows to be a dream), and, ignoring the protagonist’s self-awareness, has granted his wish, and created the world about which Manfred fantasises – this not with a view to satire, but to a confirmation of the dream’s legitimacy; with a view to indulging it. Byron, with the ultra-normal (perhaps slightly sub-normal) Hobhouse for company, really had seen the landscape about which he writes. No-one has ever seen the one about which Shelley writes: although that may of course be the point.

Manfred could have been a Prometheus (he is persecuted by no-one, having done mankind no favours, and having injured only himself and Astarte). He has the Promethean wisdom, he has the Promethean resource – but lacks the Promethean benevolence. He resembles Byron’s own Prometheus in some ways:

What was thy pity’s recompense?
A silent suffering, and intense;
The rock, the vulture, and the chain,
All that the proud can feel of pain,
The agony they do not show,
The suffocating sense of woe,
 Which speaks but in its loneliness,
And then is jealous lest the sky
Should have a listener, nor will sigh
Until its voice is echoless.

lines 5-14

Manfred is proud, like this: like this, he does not care to share his suffering with others, though circumstances sometimes force him to, as with the Chamois Hunter, and as with the devils when he pleads with Astarte. But he is not refused “the gift to die” (Prometheus line 22) nor can it be said of him that “Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,/ To render with thy precepts less/ The sum of human wretchedness,/ And strengthen Man with his own mind [...] (lines 35-38).

Instead, he defines himself by what he does not share with his kind, by an unwillingness to admit that he is one of them. His arrogance, Byron being an instinctive dramatist and an ironical manipulator of perspectives, can rebound against him comically:

Manfred: Patience, and Patience! Hence! that word was made
 For brutes of burthen – not for birds of prey;
 Preach it to mortals of a dust like thine –
 I am not of thine order.

Chamois Hunter: Thanks to heaven!
 I would not be of thine, for the free fame
 Of William Tell [...]


... though Manfred is unswayed by such rustic ironies (rustic, too, in the most unWordsworthian tone (McGann 25): imagine the Leech Gatherer talking back like this). He tells the Witch of the Alps:

 From my youth upwards,
My Spirit walked not with the souls of men,
Nor looked upon the earth with human eyes.
The thirst of their Ambition was not mine –
The aim of their existence was not mine –
My joys – my griefs – my passions and my powers
Made me a stranger, though I wore the form
I had no sympathy with breathing flesh [...]

lines 50-57

Shelley’s Prometheus, on the other hand, has plenty of sympathy with breathing flesh; and is uninhibited about sharing his agony with the universe:

 [...] these are mine empire.
More glorious far than that which thou surveyest
From thine unenvied throne, O Mighty God!
Almighty, had I deigned to share the shame
Of thine ill tyranny, and hung not here
Nailed to this wall of eagle-baffling mountain,
Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured; without herb,
Insect, or beast, or shape or sound of life –
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, forever!

I.i.15-23; PoS 2: 478

No stoic he. But the play – if play it is – will not allow us any ironical perspective on him (compare O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman, where one of the two protagonists iterates Prometheus’ last line here so often that we get sick of it). Prometheus has no Chamois Hunter to contextualise him in the midst of ordinary humanity, no Witch or Astarte to whom he can unburden an “awful” vision of himself (Jupiter describes Prometheus as “an awful spirit” at III.i.23; see McGann 29-33) and no Abbot to give us an opposing viewpoint on his plight. All his hearers and interlocutors are sympathetic towards him. This is part of Shelley’s scheme, for Prometheus, unlike Manfred, is mankind’s benefactor: however, we have to admit that celebrating what is, in the consensus of most of your characters, goodness, is harder than portraying bad deeds and self-defeat. Especially if you disdain plot, and especially, as with Shelley, you have a limited perspective on what you are writing:

The only imaginary being, resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement, which, in the hero of Paradise Lost, interfere with the interest. The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs, and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure. In the minds of those who consider that magnificent fiction with a religious feeling it engenders something worse. But Prometheus is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.

PoS 2: 472-3

Ambition and a desire for personal aggrandizement are, in Manfred’s idiom, what Manfred is guilty of. But if Milton is guilty of the “most pernicious casuistry” in depicting Satan, how much more pernicious is Shakespeare’s casuistry in depicting Macbeth – or the infinitely controversial Hamlet? When Byron rejects Shakespearean multi-dimensionality, as in his apology for not liking The Cenci, it may in part be sincere, in part envious, in part tactical; when Shelley does so, as he does by implication here, he really means it. It is an innocent (perhaps) but fatal error; for if Prometheus were permitted a few modest faults, more people might read the poem. But ...

 [...] I hate no more
As then, ere misery made me wise. The Curse
Once breathed on thee I would recall.

I.i.57-9; PoS 2: 481

I wish no living thing to suffer pain.

I.i.305; PoS 2: 465

Where the protagonist has no moral faults, and is fastened to a rock, there can not be much drama. But I do not think Shelley was interested in drama when he wrote Prometheus Unbound. He thought he had all his conceptual problems solved, and thus had no interest in dramatic conflicts.

Commentators have a wonderful way of describing the style of Prometheus accurately and with apparent approbation, while pointing in fact to its greatest weaknesses:

It is, then, the ability of the shadow world to resist our desire for unequivocal meaning which makes it an apt emblem of the imaginative openness of mind that Shelley wishes to encourage.

O’Neill 95

Promethean voice is always reclaiming speech from a language of reference, where words are assumed to have stronger relations to the objects and thoughts they represent than to one another.

Brisman 51-86

Such passages reinforce one’s deepest suspicion about much of Shelley’s poetry: that for a lot of the time it is not about anything at all. It was Matthew Arnold who had had the temerity to write that “[...] all the personal charm of Shelley cannot hinder us from at last discovering in his poetry the incurable want, in general, of a sound subject-matter” (Arnold 98).

Byron – of whom no-one could say that he lacked subject-matter – mistrusted the imagination as a way of creating one: “But I hate things all fiction & therefore the Merchant & Othello have no great associations for me – but Pierre has – there should always be some foundation of fact for the most airy fabric – and pure invention is but the talent of a liar [...]” (BLJ 5: 203 [letter to Murray, April 2 1817]). This overstatement, with its characteristically desperate putting-down of Shakespeare, was written in April 1817, before he’d read any major works by Shelley other than Alastor: how much more strongly would he have put it having read Prometheus Unbound? His reliance, during the writing of Don Juan, of prose sources such as Dalyell’s Shipwrecks and Disasters, “Tully’s Tripoli”, Castelnau’s Histoire de la Nouvelle Russie, and Ude’s cookbook, may be a reaction against the distance between Shelley’s works of “pure invention” and any reliable repositories of reality such as the books listed.

Byron underpins Manfred with massive Shakespearean subtexts, which, by his own theory, should have had no “great associations” for him. But Manfred is at once Macbeth, Prospero, and Coriolanus. [11] Thereby Byron gives his protagonist humanity even in his inhumanity. Shelley has no such subtexts (now and then Prometheus Unbound echoes A Midsummer Night’s Dream), but humour and humanity are both absent from it. It’s not a dramatic event – not a performance text. The fact that he cast it in dramatic form seems evidence that he was trying to correct what he considered the unacceptable pessimism of Manfred; but in avoiding human interest (“quotidian human emergencies” [McGann 59]) and concentrating on spirit and idea, he appears not to understand the arena in which he’s combating. Again we ask, was Shelley able to read Byron? Worse, was he able to read Milton, or Shakespeare?

If part of his intention was to give Byron an alternative view of Prometheus, and thus perhaps of a poet’s relationship to his kind, Shelley demonstrates, in Prometheus Unbound, an inability to work in the same dimensions as his friend and adversary – an inability – an unwillingness – to work in the dimensions in which most of what readers he had (and has), lived and live.

I wonder if this criticism would bother him. In A Defence of Poetry he writes: “The story of particular facts is as a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful: Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted” (RaP 485). Or, more plainly, in a letter to John Gisborne: “As to real flesh & blood, you know that I do not deal in those articles, – you might as well go to a ginshop for a leg of mutton, as expect any thing human or earthly from me” (LPBS 2: 363 [letter of October 12th 1821]). The specific poem to which he refers here is Epipsychidion; but the statement, parodying his critics (who include many of his friends), is a general one.

With Prometheus Unbound Shelley published To a Skylark. One can imagine Byron becoming impatient with it at once: “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!/ Bird thou never wert –” (lines 1-2). For Byron, eagles were eagles and geese were geese. To tell a skylark that it never was a bird was to offend his most elementary standard of commonsense. He never mentions the poem.



On May 6th 1820 Shelley wrote to Byron:

I have read your “Don Juan” in print, and I observe that the murrain has killed some of the finest of the flock, i.e., that your bookseller has omitted certain passages. The personal ones, however, though I thought them wonderfully strong, I do not regret. What a strange and terrible storm is that at sea, and the two fathers, how true, yet how strong a contrast! Dante hardly exceeds it. With what flashes of divine beauty have you not illuminated the familiarity of your subject towards the end! The love letter, and the account of its being written, is altogether a masterpiece of portraiture; of human nature laid with the eternal colours of the feelings of humanity. Where did you learn all these secrets? I should like to go to school there. I cannot say I equally approve of the service to which this letter was appropriated; or that I altogether think the bitter mockery of our common nature, of which this is one of the expressions, quite worthy of your genius. The power and the beauty and the wit, indeed, redeem all this – chiefly because they belie and refute it. Perhaps it is foolish to wish that there had been nothing to redeem.

LPBS 2: 198

He admires the poem; but wishes that there was less humour in it. Its “bitter mockery of our common nature” reminds him too much of Childe Harold IV, that least humorous of all poems. For Byron, humour was of the essence (he wrote Beppo before Childe Harold IV was finished, and with no help from Hobhouse), and he was well able to laugh at himself. There are even jokes in Manfred – though not, I think, where Professor McGann finds them. I quote the Chamois Hunter, on William Tell, above. Here is Manfred, in III.iv., warning the Abbot to go away:

Manfred: I say to thee – retire –
Abbot: And I reply –
 Never – till I have battled with this fiend –
 What doth he here?
Manfred: Why – aye – what doth he here?
 I did not send for him – he is unbidden.

lines 69-73

The panic of both men, the Abbot’s from supernatural dread and Manfred’s from sudden puzzlement at the idea of one spirit, at last, not summoned by him, is economically done. But we have to agree with Shelley that some of the jokes in Don Juan II are a bit much:

And if Pedrillo’s fate should Shocking be,
 Remember Ugolino condescends
To eat the head of his Arch-Enemy
 The moment after he politely ends
His tale; if foes be food in Hell, at Sea
 ’Tis surely fair to dine upon our friends,
When Shipwreck’s short allowance grows too Scanty,
Without being much more horrible than Dante.

DJ II.83.657-664

Shelley never joked about eating one’s friends, which is perhaps a metaphor for borrowing from one’s fellow-poets: Pedrillo, the one eaten here, is in one analysis Hobhouse. Shelley was able to joke, at least in life. In fact, he laughed a lot. On August 10th 1821 he wrote to Peacock:

Lord B.’s establishment consists, beside servants, of ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon; and all these, except the horses, walk about the house, which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were the masters of it … After I have sealed my letter, I find that my enumeration of the animals in this Circean Palace was defective, and that in a material point. I have just met on the grand staircase five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian crane. I wonder who all these animals were before they were changed into these shapes.

LPBS 2: 330-1

However, as a general rule he disliked comedy in supposedly serious situations. The same Peacock reports:

He had a prejudice against theatres which I took some pains to overcome. I induced him one evening to accompany me to a representation of The School for Scandal. When, after the scenes which exhibited Charles Surface in his jollity, the scene returned, Shelley said to me: ‘I see the purpose of this comedy. It is to associate virtue with bottles and glasses, and villainy with books’. I had great difficulty to make him stay to the end. He often talked of ‘the withering and perverted spirit of comedy’. I do not think he ever went to another.

I tried in vain to reconcile him to comedy. I repeated to him one day, as an admirable specimen of diction and imagery, Michael Perez’s soliloquy in his miserable lodgings, from Rule a Wife and Have a Wife. When I came to the passage:

There’s an old woman that’s now grown to marble,
Dried in this brick-kiln: and she sits i’ the chimney
(Which is but three tiles, raised like a house of cards),
The true proportion of an old smoked Sibyl.
There is a young thing too, that Nature meant
For a maid-servant, but ’tis now a monster:
She has a husk about her like a chestnut,
With laziness, and living under the line here:
And these two make a hollow sound together,
Like frogs, or winds between two doors that murmur -

he said: ‘There is comedy in its perfection. Society grinds down poor wretches into the dust of abject poverty, till they are scarcely recognizable as human beings; and then, instead of being treated as what they really are, subjects of the deepest pity, they are brought forward as grotesque monstrosities to be laughed at’. I said: ‘You must admit the fineness of the sentiment’. ‘It is true,’ he answered; ‘but the finer it is the worse it is, with such a perversion of sentiment.’  [12]

Letters 2: 330-31

Giles Fletcher, author of the passage, may have agreed with him on the pathos and degradation of the old smoked Sibyl and the chestnut-toned girl: however, it was not he who mocked the two women, but a character in a play he’d written. Shelley appears (unless he was trying to get a rise out of the humorous Peacock), not to have grasped this elementary critical distinction. Drama must not reflect life. Plato would not have approved:

“But you will know that the only poetry that should be allowed in a state is hymns to the gods and paeans in praise of good men; once you go beyond that and admit the sweet lyric or epic muse, pleasure and pain become your rulers instead of law and the principles commonly accepted as best.”

“Quite true.”

Republic 384-5

There is pain, but very little pleasure, to be derived from reading Prometheus Unbound.


Adonais and The Vision of Judgement [13]

I now want to develop the seventh and eighth chapters of Charles E. Robinson’s Shelley and Byron: The Snake and Eagle Wreathed in Fight[14] in which he examines the year 1821, when Shelley wrote Adonais, and when Byron, during his break from Don Juan, wrote The Vision of Judgement.

Shelley is the first person recorded as reading The Vision of Judgement aloud; he did so at Pisa on Friday November 9th 1821, from the proof, to an audience which included Edward Williams, and, we may presume, Mary Shelley and Jane Williams – perhaps even Byron himself (Williams 25; Gisbourne and Williams 11). Mary mentions reading it the same day (Letters 1: 382); and Shelley writes the poem’s title, with a question mark (378) into Mary’s diary entry for September 1st of the same year, as if wondering, after his own reading, whether Byron had started the poem then. [15] What he did not know was that, Southey’s A Vision of Judgement having been published on April 11th 1821, Byron had actually started his own riposte on May 7th, stopped, and restarted it on September 20th.

Shelley visited Byron in Ravenna on August 6th in answer to an invitation extended on May 26th (LPBS 2: 316, 199; BLJ 8: 104). Byron had not at that date read Prometheus Unbound, though he had read The Cenci, about which, in a letter to Shelley of April 26th 1821 (quoted above, BLJ 8: 103) he was guardedly polite. Shelley wrote enthusiastic letters to Mary (LPBS 2: 320-5) and to Peacock (LPBS 2: 330) describing his time at Ravenna, even though Byron had relayed there Elise Foggi’s rumour about his supposed liaison with Claire Claremont which so upset him and Mary (LPBS 2: 317-20; BLJ 7: 191, 8: 97, 98) . He wrote to Teresa Guiccioli in Florence on August 17th (BLJ 8: 183) and succeeded in persuading her and the Gambas to join him in Pisa (LPBS 2: 325-9, BLJ 8: 176 and n.) where he obtained for Byron the lease of the Casa Lanfranchi (LPBS 2: 343; BLJ 8: 189-90). Later in the month he helped organise the move to Pisa. (LPBS 2: 346; BLJ 8: 202-3).

Both men had been shocked by the death of Keats in Rome, on February 23rd. Shelley told Byron of it on April 17th (LPBS 2: 284) ascribing its immediate cause to “[...] the consequences of breaking a blood-vessel, in paroxysms of despair at the contemptuous attack on his book in the Quarterly Review”; and Byron reacted on April 26th with simultaneous letters to Murray and to Shelley himself which made clear that he believed Shelley’s diagnosis (BLJ 8: 102, 103). Perhaps it reminded him of the death of Haidee – see Don Juan IV.59.465, and his own note. He repeated the story to Moore on May 14th (BLJ 8: 117). A further response to Shelley’s judgement caused him, when reading Hyperion, to modify his opinion of Keats to the extent of instructing Murray on August 4th to remove all hostile references to the dead man from the Second Letter to Bowles (BLJ 8: 166). He wrote to Shelley about Hyperion on July 30th or 31st, quoting a phrase of Southey’s which was to appear in The Vision:

 [First page missing] [...] omitted. The impression of Hyperion upon my mind was – that it was the best of his works. – Who is to be his editor? It is strange that Southey who attacks the reviewers so sharply in his Kirk White – calling theirs “the ungentle craft” – should be perhaps the killer of Keats. – Kirke White was nearly extinguished in the same way – by a paragraph or two in “the Monthly” – Such inordinate sense of censure is surely incompatible with great exertion – have not all known writers been the subject thereof? –
 yrs. ever & truly

 P.S. – If moving at present should be inconvenient to you – let me settle that – draw upon me for what you think necessary – I should do so myself on you without ceremony – if I found it expedient. – Write directly. –

BLJ 8: 163

The two men were thus on intimate terms throughout most of 1821; Moore later worried about Shelley’s anti-religious influence on Byron, but on April 11th 1822 Shelley wrote to Horace Smith denying that he had any: “Pray assure him [Moore] that I have not the smallest influence over Lord Byron in this particular; and if I had I certainly should employ it to eradicate from his great mind the delusions of Christianity which, in spite of his reason, seem perpetually to recur, & to lay in ambush for the hours of sickness & distress [...]” (LPBS 2: 412). Try as he might, the quotidian Byron would not metamorphose into his ideal Byron.

In poetry, however, Shelley felt his influence on Byron was stronger. On August 10th, as we have seen, Byron read to him at least the fifth canto of Don Juan (LPBS 2: 323, 330, 332); it had been published, with the third and fourth, in London forty-eight hours earlier. What he wrote to Mary, in part enviously and in part proudly, has been quoted. And on August 22nd he wrote to Thomas Medwin: “I am just returned from a visit to Lord Byron at Ravenna, whom I have succeeded in rousing to attack the Quarterly – I believe he is about to migrate to this part of the world” (LPBS 2: 342).

It was not immediately clear what shape Byron’s assault on the Quarterly was taking: but Shelley’s grief over Keats’ death had quickly resulted in a poem, in which he had attacked it. On July 30th, perhaps on the same day that he wrote the letter to Shelley printed above (its first page, with date, is missing) Byron asked Murray gleefully:

Are you aware that Shelley has written an elegy on Keats – and accuses the Quarterly of killing him? –

Who killed John Keats?
I, says the Quarterly
So savage & Tartarly
’Twas one of my feats –
Who <drew the <[pen?]> shot the arrow?
The poet-priest Milman
(So ready to kill man)
Or Southey or Barrow. –

BLJ 8: 162

Shelley had completed Adonais on June 8th, sent it to a printer in Pisa on June 16th and distributed copies to all his friends, including Byron, to whom he dispatched it on July 16th (LPBS 2: 297, 300, 308) Its preface had, in draft, included an attack naming both Gifford and Southey as powerful literary men, the license of whose subordinates “has destroyed one of the noblest specimens of the workmanship of God.” [16] In the printed version the names of Southey and Gifford are dropped, but the phrasing is still more outraged: “Are these the men, who in their venal good nature, presume to draw a parallel between the Rev. Mr. Milman and Lord Byron? What gnat did they strain at here, after having swallowed all those camels? Against what woman taken in adultery, dares the foremost of these literary prostitutes to cast his opprobrious stone?” (RaP 391). The New Testament allusion echoes a letter he had written to the uncharitable Southey on August 17th of the previous year:

Instead [...] of refraining from ‘judging that you be not judged’, you not only judge but condemn, and that to a punishment which its victim must be either among the meanest or the loftiest not to regard as bitterer than death. But you are such a pure one as Jesus Christ found not in all Judea to throw the first stone against the woman taken in adultery!

LPBS 2: 230

Both Shelley and Byron had been influenced by Southey’s verse earlier in their careers. Both had known him – Shelley very well: he had fallen asleep under the table at Keswick, as Southey read aloud from The Curse of Kehama. Both the exiled poets now loathed him, for political reasons, and for rumours they had spread (relating to the “League of Incest”) when in Switzerland in 1816. It suited them to assume that he had written the review of Endymion which had, in their private myth, killed Keats – whom Byron had never met, Shelley had not known well, and about whose death neither was well-informed. And in fact, Southey had not written the review; it was by John Wilson Croker. Thus private myths develop, and are believed in; and thus poems are written.

Byron knew the effect a bad review could have on a young writer, from what the Edinburgh Review critique of Hours of Idleness had done to him in 1808. He remained convinced that Jeffrey had written it (BLJ 8: 102) – not Brougham, the real author, whom he now hated anyway, as deeply as he did Southey. At line 728 in The Vision he was to quote Horace’s words, about the inability of men, gods, or booksellers to tolerate indifferent verse, with which the Edinburgh article had opened. Shelley also knew what bad reviews could do; in 1819 he had suffered from the damning Quarterly article, the work, as he supposed, of Southey, on The Revolt of Islam (LPBS 2: 126-8) and his correspondence late in 1821 was sprinkled with anxious demands to know what the reviewers had to say about Adonais (LPBS 2: 365, 372, 382). What he did not learn until March 1822 was that Charles Ollier, his publisher, was playing the same game with him that John Murray would play with Byron over The Vision, and was not publishing it at all (LPBS 2: 395-6).

Shelley wrote to Leigh Hunt on August 26th, saying that “Lord Byron, I suppose from modesty on account of his being mentioned in it, did not say a word of ‘Adonais’, though he was loud in his praise of ‘Prometheus’ [...]” (LPBS 2: 345) (this must have been either in conversation, or in a letter which we lack). Byron, “The Pythian of the age” and “The Pilgrim of Eternity” (lines 250 and 264) is not the only one of Shelley’s associates “mentioned” in the poem. It also contains small, idealised versions of Moore (lines 268-70) of Leigh Hunt (lines 312-15) and a more elaborate one of Shelley himself:

 All stood aloof, and at his partial moan
 Smiled through their tears; well knew that gentle band
 Who in another’s fate now wept his own;
 As in the accents of an unknown land,
 He sung new sorrow; sad Urania scanned
 The Stranger’s mien, and murmured: “who art thou?”
 He answered not, but with a sudden hand
 Made bare his branded and ensanguined brow,
Which was like Cain’s or Christ’s – Oh! that it should be so!

lines 298-306, RaP 400

Byron’s silence on the subject of the poem was perhaps motivated by embarrassment. Certainly The Catholic John Taaffe was moved to protest at line 306, and received a polite rejoinder (LPBS 2: 306) defending the line, but agreeing to tone down the preface.

Another interesting reaction came on August 30th, from Horace Smith:

He [John Gisborne] handed me, also, your poem on Keats’ death, which I like, with the exception of the ‘Cenci’, better than anything you have written, finding in it a great deal of fancy, feeling, and beautiful language, with none of the metaphysical abstraction, which is so apt to puzzle the uninitiated in your productions. It reminded me of ‘Lycidas’, more from the similarity of the subject than anything in the mode of treatment.

You must expect a fresh stab from Southey whenever he has an opportunity.

LPBS 2: 348

Although Southey is not depicted in Adonais, as the supposed slayer of Adonais, he is naturally addressed:

 Live thou, whose infamy is not thy fame!
 Live! fear no heavier chastisement from me,
 Thou noteless blot on a remembered name!
 But be thyself, and know thyself to be!
 And ever at thy season be thou free
 To spill the venom when thy fangs o’erflow:
 Remorse and Self-contempt shall cling to thee;
 Hot Shame shall burn upon thy secret brow,
And like a beaten hound tremble thou shalt – as now.

 Nor let us weep that our delight is fled
 Far from these carrion kites that scream below;
 He wakes or sleeps with the enduring dead;
 Thou canst not soar where he is sitting now. –
 Dust to the dust! but the pure spirit shall flow
 Back to the burning fountain whence it came,
 A portion of the Eternal, which must glow
 Through time and change, unquenchably the same,
Whilst thy cold embers choke the sordid hearth of shame.

lines 325-342, RaP 401

One good curse is much like another: it is the tone here, more than the imagery, which reminds us both of Kehama’s curse to Ladurlad in Book II of Southey’s epic, and of Eve’s speech to her son at Cain III.i.419-43, to which Shelley refers at line 151 – he also echoes Troilus and Cressida V.x.33-4, and Richard III IV.iv.183-95. “Thou canst not soar where he is sitting now” may even be an echo of the flying-fish joke in the Don Juan Dedication (Shelley quotes his line in an unsent 1820 letter to Gifford; LPBS 2: 251). But Horace Smith may not only have had these sections of Adonais in mind when he warned Shelley to expect retribution. A skilful parodist (co-author, with his brother James, of the Rejected Addresses) he may have seen that Southey might resent more than just these personal touches.

It is interesting to read Adonais as, among other things, a creative response to Southey’s A Vision of Judgement, inverting all Southey’s values, as Byron does in The Vision of Judgement. Early in his elegy, Shelley refers to a blind and despised old man:

 He died,
Who was the Sire of an immortal strain,
Blind, old, and lonely, when his country’s pride,
The priest, the slave, and the liberticide,
Trampled and mocked with many a loathed rite
Of lust and blood [...]

lines 29-34, RaP 393

The echoes of his own sonnet England in 1819 might cause us to think momentarily of George III: but the king was not sire of anything immortal, and is being confounded here with Milton (compare also the Dedication of Don Juan, stanzas 10 and 11).

Adonais himself is at first depicted in a beautiful but metaphysical death-house:

To that high Capital, where kingly Death
Keeps his pale court in beauty and decay,
He came; and bought, with price of purest breath,
A grave among the eternal. – Come away!
Haste, while the vault of blue Italian day
Is yet his fitting charnel-roof!

lines 55-60, RaP 394

This echoes the description of George’s first resting-place in Southey:

 That low and subterranean chamber
Saw not the living ray, nor felt the breeze; but for ever
Closely immured, was seal’d in perpetual silence and darkness.
Whence then this lovely light, calm, pure, soft and cerulean,
Such as the sapphire sheds?

A Vision of Judgment, II.68-72

“Cerulean” sets off another multitude of echoes, from Madoc to The Excursion to Don Juan IV and beyond; [17] Southey’s chamber has an aptly damp feeling to it, suiting the second-hand nature of its inspiration. Next, where George III is greeted by Spencer Perceval, who gives him an economical account of post-Waterloo politics, Adonais is more gently tended by dreams, “Desires and Adorations, / Winged Persuasions and veiled Destinies, / Spendours and Glooms” (stanza 13). Southey is further rebuked in stanza 15, where “Lost Echo sits amid the voiceless mountains” and will no more reply to “bell at closing day”; a sombre answer to his own Part I, where he stands at twilight listening to the voice of the Greta and the bell of Crosthwaite Church, tolling for the departed king. Poets, Shelley counter-asserts, are worth more tears than monarchs.

In A Vision of Judgement Part IV the vault evaporates, the New Jerusalem is seen in the distance, “a body of splendour / Gather’d before the gate, and veil’d the ineffable presence,” and the King, resurrected, stands before his maker (“on the cerulean floor” – Part V). In his own last stanza Shelley has Adonais’ soul “burning through the inmost veil of Heaven [...] like a star”, as a sign, contrariwise, of its equality with the Godhead. He now evokes, instead of George’s conventional resurrection, a joyous springtime awakening (stanzas 18-20) which, though it touches “The leprous corpse” (line 172) yet it cannot, tragically, affect Adonais (at Don Juan III.97.868 Byron has his own facetious version of this vision of life’s renewal, in the idea of “an Epic from Bob Southey every spring”). George is favoured by God the Father, but Adonais (or rather his dead body) receives the attention of Urania, who arises “like an autumnal Night” (line 199) and momentarily shames Death (stanza 25) into uncharacteristic compassion. Though the atheist Shelley will not admit of a Christian eschatology, he contrives an imaginative pagan one which, though less complacent, is just as comforting.

In A Vision, George is challenged by “the multifaced Demon,” his “impotent” troop with their “wings and truculent faces”, and by the tastefully anonymous Junius and Wilkes. But Urania, by her lament over her child, dead at the hands of “the unpastured dragon” (line 238) “the herded wolves [...] the obscene ravens” and “The vultures [...] whose wings rain contagion” (stanza 28) cunningly inverts the values of Southey’s poem, turning his subversive villains into radical heroes, and his conservative heroes into reactionary villains. The triumph of Byron (who would himself describe Southey at The Vision, line 746 as “A good deal like a Vulture in the face”) is next described. In his role as “The Pythian of the age”, he put these desolators to flight with “one arrow” from “his golden bow” – English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, from which, as Robinson points out, Shelley has borrowed some of his own monstrous imagery (165-6). Byron adds his voice to Urania’s, “veiling all the lightnings of his song / In sorrow” (lines 267-8) and is followed by Moore, “The sweetest lyrist of her” [“Ierne”’s] “saddest song”.

Shelley now brings himself confidently into the narrative, much more intimately in communion with the dead than Southey portrayed himself as being. Shelley and his fellow poets are to Adonais what Chaucer, Elizabeth I, the reconstructed Milton (“no longer here to kings and hierarchs hostile”), Hogarth, Wesley and company had been to the resurrected George III. But Shelley creates a very different pageant-context for his hero: where George had been depicted as both inheritor and transmitter of a popular, conservative tradition of political rule, the poet’s friends in Adonais (Shelley’s less literal, more pantheistic framework releases him from the need to use only the dead in this capacity) are a small, sorrowful band, grieving over the death of one of their number at the hands of Southey’s élite. They are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, mourning the temporary success of its pretended legislators. Politically radical material is poured into a poetically traditional mould, derived from Sidney, Milton and the Greek pastoral poets. Southey has no respectable verse precedents for his own Vision.

Unlike Southey’s George, who undergoes a bodily resurrection, Adonais remains as unrelentingly dead as ever, but Shelley celebrates how he is “made one with Nature” (line 370) and is now “a portion of the loveliness / Which once he made more lovely” (lines 379-80). Then, in direct defiance of Southey, who included Chatterton in Part XI as one of his Young Spirits (along with Henry Kirk White, who gives the author a pleased smile of recognition) Shelley introduces him too. He also brings on Sidney, who, as the object of Spenser’s Astrophel, one of Keats’ poetic predecessors, is not included by Southey among George III’s welcomers. He also also Lucan, unincludable by Southey, who has no classical worthies in his pageant; Lucan was forced to kill himself by a Rome as tyrannous, and as inimical to poetic flowering, as George’s England. These are fellows of Adonais, the “inheritors of unfulfilled renown” (line 397):

 And many more, whose names on Earth are dark
 But whose transmitted effluence cannot die
 So long as fire outlives the parent spark,
 Rose, robed in dazzling immortality.
 “Thou art become as one of us,” they cry,
 “It was for thee yon kingless sphere has long
 “Swung blind in unascended majesty,
 “Silent alone amid an Heaven of song.
“Assume thy winged throne, thou Vesper of our throng!”

lines 406-414, RaP 403

Not for nothing is it a “kingless sphere”. Adonais begins his eternal career singing, not in a Heavenly choir, as does George III, but in a Ptolemaic sphere. See, however, Byron’s own note to The Vision, line 807, about King Alfonso and his estimate of Ptolemy’s spheres: “Had he been consulted at the Creation of the World, he would have spared the Maker some absurdities”.

Adonais has been analysed as a vegetation myth, as a variation on ideas from Greek pastoral laments, from Spenser, and from Milton. It has been hailed as an anti-Derridian, anti-deconstruction thesis before its time, “a commentary on its own intentional artifice” which restores legitimacy to the immortal voice of the dead, “the voice of unfailing inspiration” (Leighton 160, 162). Commentators have referred to Shelley’s apocalyptic rejection in it of both materialism and mutability (Woodman) and to his acknowledgement that art, though “wholly destructive of human life,” leads paradoxically to “a secular resurrection” (Curran 178). I think that Byron would not have been much interested in any of these approaches. It is incidentally noticeable that only one of them mentions Southey, the Quarterly, and the “curse” stanzas, 37-8, analysed above. For Byron, Adonais would have been his friend’s riposte to Southey and his Vision: he would have read it both as a goad to continue writing his own, and as a model of how not to do it. It seems possible to me – see quotation from Shelley’s letter to Medwin, above – that he and Shelley had discussed how to reply to A Vision, or how to commemorate Keats’ death, or attack the Quarterly, or all three – that Shelley went ahead while Byron worked at Cain and Sardanapalus, and that Byron looked at the result with close interest, aware that The Vision of Judgement was started already, a fact which Shelley may or may not have known. When he told Shelley, at the end of July, “draw upon me for what you think necessary – I should do so myself on you without ceremony – if I found it expedient”, the implications were more than financial (BLJ 8: 163). Byron would have found in Adonais a number of lessons to draw upon. He may not have needed them, but he found them anyway, and they would not have lessened his confidence.

He would have seen that a travesty must be quite different in implicit self-assessment from that of its model or target. Adonais takes itself very seriously indeed – and so does A Vision of Judgement. He would have seen how unwise it is to depict yourself solemnly in a travesty if you do not wish to look as silly as the writer you are travestying. Shelley’s simultaneous self-identification with Cain and Christ would have irritated Byron as surely as it did Taaffe, and Byron would have seen that it was even more ridiculous than Southey’s self-identification with Dante. He solved the problem by cheerfully admitting damnable companionship with the sinning Cain in stanza 15 of The Vision:

God help us all! God help me too! I am
 God knows as helpless as the Devil can wish –
And not a whit more difficult to damn
 Than is to bring to land a late-hooked fish,
Or to the butcher to purvey the lamb –
 Not that I’m fit for such a noble dish –
As one day will be that immortal Fry
Of almost every body born to die. –

lines 113-120

He also allows Southey to be identified blasphemously with the Suffering Christ in stanzas 104-6 (at the moment Southey gets ducked into Derwent Water, George enters Heaven). He would have seen how a travesty of something pseudo-transcendent cannot safely offer an attempt at real transcendence without serious risks. Humour is often at odds with transcendentalism. Thus Byron delights in the kinds of mundane detail which neither Shelley, whose celestial regions are purely transcendent, nor Southey, whose celestial and infernal regions are merely unconvincing, could have allowed themselves. Taking the Inferno as his model rather than, as Shelley does, the Paradiso, he sets Michael’s teeth on edge (line 824) and stresses Southey’s hook nose (line 747) and Jack Wilkes’ cock-eye (line 521). He also makes his dead protagonist speak and look as the real one had, a path followed by neither Southey nor Shelley. We should be naive to search in Adonais for the John Keats who stood five feet and three-quarters-of-an-inch in his socks, and who wrote boldly to Shelley, “the thought of [...] discipline must fall like cold chains upon you, who perhaps never sat with your wings furl’d for six Months together” (Keats 2: 323). [18]

Lastly (Shelley should have been especially chastened here) Byron would have seen how a pseudo-Christian poem, parading piety and embodying hatred, needed a real Christian poem to answer it. Despite the joke about the Atonement at its climax, The Vision of Judgement offers – what Adonais certainly does not – humility, charity, and a deep sense of fellow-feeling and oneness, even with Southey. It answers his arrogance and cant with humour and tolerance, where Adonais offers an inversion of the same kind of moral elitism that Southey’s Vision embodies. Shelley had turned into his own target – Byron – not entirely free from “the delusions of Christianity” – was determined to do otherwise. Both men were struggling with the Southey within them; Shelley’s poem, which echoes Southey’s own intolerance, would teach Byron the way to externalise him more effectively.

The way Shelley identified with the ostracised and neglected Keats (see line 300, quoted above) became terribly accurate with his own death only a year and a half later. “Is not Adonais his own Elegy,” wrote Mary Shelley to Maria Gisborne, shortly after he drowned (Letters 1: 254). The irony has perhaps blinded readers to the complex interest of the context in which it was written.


Ozymandias and Don Juan I stanzas 218 and 219

Shelley would have been pleased to know how famous, and much-recited, Ozmandias was to become:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said – ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart ... near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away’ [19]

PoS 2: 310-11

The physical details of the statue’s face, and of the desert, the understatement, the calm disinterest, and the way the poem lets you do most of the thinking, is not characteristic of Shelley – hence perhaps its success relative to the rest of his work. It seems a definitive utterance (except, what is “an antique land” – is it “India”? – and how could a modern traveller come from one?). However, in Don Juan Byron provided it, if not with an answer, at with least a corollary, much more characteristic of him in its unanswerable manliness, in his “Horatian manner of urbane poetic talk”, as Earl Wasserman, anxious to pigeon-hole it, characterises the ottava rima style (57):

What is the end of Fame? ’tis but to fill
 A certain portion of uncertain paper;
Some liken it to climbing up a hill,
 Whose Summit, like all hills’, is lost in vapour;
For this Men write, speak, preach, and Heroes kill;
 And Bards burn what they call their “Midnight taper,”
To have, when the Original is dust,
A Name, a wretched picture, and worse bust.

What are the hopes of Man? Old Aegypt’s King
 Cheops erected the first Pyramid
And largest, thinking it was just the thing
 To keep his Memory whole, and Mummy hid,
But Somebody or Other rummaging
 Burglariously broke his Coffin’s lid;
Let not a Monument give you or me hopes,
Since not a pinch of dust remains of Cheops. –

DJ 1.218-219.1737-1752

For Shelley, the fate of Ozymandias is a lesson to tyrants – to Napoleon, to George IV, to Metternich, to Tsar Alexander and the Emperor Francis, and to Castlereagh: their systems and monuments will all come to this (that such knowledge might encourage them to enjoy their systems and monuments as much as possible, now, while they last, does not occur to him). He, the poet, is above them. He is their chronicler, their commentator, their Chorus.

But for Byron, Shelley has missed the point. The lesson of Ozymandias is a lesson not just for the bad guys, but for Shelley, for him, Byron, and for everyone. Poets, whether acknowledged as legislators or not, will, along with kings, all come to this. “I met a bookseller from an antique land ...” And, concerned about the mythology of fact as usual, he chooses a more appropriate tyrant, Cheops (Khufu, who built the largest pyramid), rather than one famous for persecuting the Chosen People (Ozymandias is Ramases II, enemy of Moses). When someone comes to a sticky end in a Byron poem, part of Byron always does so too. Byron possesses charity, the greatest of all Christian virtues. In his enemies, he sees himself. His mode of satire is indeed Horatian, where you are yourself your primary target – not Juvenalian, where you imply yourself to be beyond and above your own jokes, and even, in a way, not an inhabitant of the world to which they relate.

Yet another lesson that Shelley never learned.


We know that Shelley liked Don Juan in a general way – but what did he think of its style? On August 15th 1819, shortly after its first two cantos had been published in London, but before he could have received them (at Livorno), he wrote to Leigh Hunt about the style of Julian and Maddalo:

I have employed a certain familiar style of language to express the actual way in which people talk with each other whom education and a certain refinement of sentiment have placed above the use of vulgar idioms. I use the word vulgar in its most extensive sense; the vulgarity of rank and fashion is as gross in its way as that of Poverty, and its cant terms equally expressive of bare conceptions, and therefore equally unfit for Poetry. Not that the familiar style is to be admitted in the treatment of a subject wholly ideal, or in that part of any subject which relates to common life, where the passion exceeding a certain limit touches the boundaries of that which is ideal. Strong passion expresses itself in metaphor borrowed from objects alike remote or near, and casts over all the shadow of its own greatness. But what am I about. If my grandmother sucks eggs, was it I who taught her.

LPBS 2:507

Don Juan is skilful in the way it avoids the vulgarity of both “rank and fashion”, and of “Poverty”:

’Twas a raw day of Autumn’s bleak beginning,
 When Nights are equal, but not so the days;
The Parcae then cut short the further spinning
 Of Seamen’s fates, and the loud tempests raise
The Waters, and repentance for past sinning
 In all, who o’er the great deep take their ways;
They vow to amend their lives, and yet they don’t;
Because if drowned, they can’t – if spared, they won’t.

DJ 5.6.41-48

It is the tone of an educated gentleman, who sees classical furies in the same dimension as modern seamen, and for whom the hypocrisy of last-minute repentance is a cause for amusement and understanding, not for disgust or contempt. If the narrator were about to be drowned, you are confident, he too would repent and swear to mend his ways, and then go on sinning as before once the danger had passed. The skill lies in the way a prose rhythm accommodates itself to a complex verse-form and vice versa, without inversions, so that we hear a voice speaking, but with the added stress and point of the rhymes, not interrupting its flow, but assisting its expressiveness. The couplet has a rough but Augustan antithesis, without ceasing to sound like someone talking over a drink or a meal.

Here is a passage from Julian and Maddalo, composd in 1818, before Don Juan was published, but while Byron was composing it:

 ‘What we behold
Shall be the madhouse and its belfry tower,’
Said Maddalo, ‘and even at this hour
Those who may cross the water hear that bell
Which calls the maniacs each one from his cell
To vespers.’ – ‘As much skill as need to pray
In thanks or hope for their dark lot have they
To their stern maker,’ I replied. ‘O ho!
You talk as in years past,’ said Maddalo.
‘’Tis strange men change not. You were ever still
Among Christ’s flock a perilous infidel,
A wolf for the meek lambs, – if you can’t swim
Beware of Providence.’ I looked on him,
But the gay smile had faded from his eye.
‘And such, –’ he cried, ‘is our mortality,
And this must be the emblem and the sign
Of what should be eternal and divine! –

lines 106-22; PoS 2: 669-70

It is a different kind of conversation, and despite “O ho!” and “if you can’t swim,” a less convincing one. Shelley cannot avoid inversions, and one – ‘As much skill as need to pray / In thanks or hope for their dark lot have they / To their stern maker’ – is clumsy, and hard to catch at first reading. 115-16 is, in normal English, “You were ever a perilous infidel among Christ’s flock”. What Shelley would call Byron’s “gay smile” is present throughout the Don Juan stanza; but when speaking in a Shelley poem, Byron / Maddalo may only sustain it for passages of banter. We may be in the presence of what I referred to above as Byron the empathetic chameleon: could it be that “The gay smile faded from his eye” because he was talking to Shelley / Julian? If he’d been talking to Hoppner, or Alexander Scott, or any other of his Venetian friends, he’d have gone rattling on facetiously. The serious point, examined lightly in the Don Juan stanza, is man’s ineradicable propensity to sin. The facetious point, examined seriously in the Julian and Maddalo passage, is the idea of a gloomy bell, tolling lunatics to prayer in their madhouse, as a metaphor for Christianity. This metaphor is in fact very funny, but Shelley will not acknowledge that. “[...] the familiar style is [not] to be admitted in the treatment of a subject wholly ideal.” Even things you do not believe in have to be afforded solemnity.


Byron was well aware of Shelley’s criticisms of him. In the Preface to Julian and Maddalo, Count Maddalo, the Byron figure, is described thus: “But it is his weakness to be proud: he derives, from a comparison of his own extraordinary mind with the dwarfish intellects that surround him, an intense apprehension of the nothingness of human life” (PoS 2: 661). But Don Juan VII, stanza 6, runs:

Ecclesiastes said that all is Vanity –
 Most modern Preachers say the same, or show it
By their examples of true Christianity;
 In short, all know, or very soon may know it;
And in this Scene of all-confessed Inanity,
 By Saint, by Sage, by Preacher, and by Poet,
Must I restrain me, through the fear of Strife,
From holding up the Nothingness of Life?

lines 41-48

What is this but a riposte to and rejection of Shelley’s fictional version of him, and a counter-assertion that one does not have to be proud to find life valueless, but indeed that to do so has always been a staple of that traditional religious wisdom upon which Shelley had, with such determination, turned his back? It is not hard to imagine that Byron had said something similar to Shelley’s face, many times.


It was not much long-term fun to be Shelley in Byron’s company. A single edition of The Corsair outsold, with ease, all of Shelley’s poems put together, if we subtract Queen Mab in its pirated forms. Byron was what we would call an international best-seller, all of whose poems were translated, first into French, the lingua franca, and then, slowly but inexorably, into all of the major European languages. He had readers in America. He had hard-working English-language publishers in London (Murray) and in Paris (Galignani); to these were added others, such as Brönner in Frankfurt. But – Queen Mab apart – no-one read Shelley, who paid for the printing, advertising and distribution of most of his works himself (St. Clair 649-51). For Byron, the business of writing and publication was to be treated casually, as something taken for granted:

The Russian batteries were incomplete
 Because they were constructed in a hurry;
Thus the same cause that makes a verse want feet,
 And throws a cloud o’er Longman and John Murray –
When the sale of new books is not so fleet
 As they who print them think is necesary –
May likewise put off for a time what Story
Sometimes calls “Murder,” and at others “Glory.”

DJ VII.26.201-208

Publication may be used as a joke, as a metaphor for the results of hurried planning in fortifying cities. There is nothing special about it. If Byron were deprived of the publishing outlet, he’d be worried – but who will deprive him of it? For Shelley, communication was a desperate need in which he was continuously thwarted: [20]

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth

The triumph of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

“Ode to the West Wind” lines 57-70, RaP 221-3

It is the desperate cry of a failure. Shelley’s leaves are falling and withered; his thoughts are dead; his fire is only ashes and sparks. He needs supernatural / meteorological assistance in his unrealisable ambition to awaken the earth. The terror of the final couplet is that Winter will, for him, not be followed by Spring.

It must, for Shelley, have been dreadful. The knowledge that he had no audience caused him creatively to dry up:

I write little now. It is impossible to compose except under the strong excitement of an assurance of finding sympathy in what you write. Imagine Demosthenes reciting a Philippic to the waves of the Atlantic! Lord Byron is in this respect fortunate. He touched a chord to which a million hearts responded, and the coarse music which he produced to please them disciplined him to the perfection to which he now approaches.

LPBS 2: 434-6 [letter to John Gisborne of June 18th 1822].

On January 17th, 1817 he had written to Byron:

I have no other news to tell you, my dear Lord Byron, unless you think this is news: that I often talk, and oftener think, of you; and that, though I have not seen you for six months, I still feel the burden of my own insignificance and impotence; as they must ever forbid my interest in your welfare from being put to the proof. Adieu.

LPBS 2: 529-30

As the relationship continued, as Byron’s success and wealth increased, and Shelley’s success and wealth lessened, his attitude to Byron deteriorated, as his sense of his own insignificance and impotence waxed. He wrote, perhaps in November 1821, a Sonnet to Byron:

If I esteemed you less, Envy would kill
 Pleasure, and leave to wonder and despair
The ministration of the thoughts that fill
 My mind, which, like a worm whose life may share
A portion of the Unapproachable,
 Marks your creations rise, as fast and fair
And bows itself before the Godhead there.
But such is my regard, that, nor your fame
 Cast on the present by the coming hour
Nor your well-won posterity and power
 Move one regret for his unhonoured name
Who dares these words. – The worm beneath the sod
May lift itself in homage of the God. [21]

Byron does not seem to have known of the poem, which asks to be read through gritted teeth. He does not appear to have known any of Shelley’s later, mature poems, such as The Mask of Anarchy or The Triumph of Life. Shelley seems during the composition of The Triumph of Life (started in May-June 1822, when he had only a short time to live), to have become alienated from Byron. This is a pity, for Byron might have interested by it:

 “Let them pass” –
 I cried – “the world and its mysterious doom

“Is not so much more glorious than it was
 That I desire to worship those who drew
New figures on its false and fragile glass

 “As the old faded.” – “Figures ever new
Rise on the bubble, paint them how you may;
 We have but thrown, as those before us threw,

Our shadows on it as it past away.

lines 243-51, RaP 462

Byron, I am sure, would have admired Shelley’s imitation of Dante, which might have caused him momentarily to regret the different Italian tradition in which he was now writing. Shelley’s terza rima is a lot more understated than his own, with its vulgar self-dramatisation:

 Florence! when thy harsh Sentence razed my roof,
I loved thee, but the vengeance of my verse,
 The hate of injuries which every year
 Makes greater, and accumulates my curse,
Shall live, outliving all thou holdest dear,
 Thy pride, thy wealth, thy freedom, and even that,
 The most infernal of all evils here,
The Sway of petty Tyrants in a State [...]

The Prophecy of Dante IV.111-18

He wrote no poetry to or about Shelley.

“I detest all society,” Shelley wrote to John Gisborne on June 18th 1822; “– almost all, at least – and Lord Byron is the nucleus of all that is hateful and tiresome in it” (LPBS 2: 434-5). He became so far unable to sustain the desire to encourage an ideal Byron as to want, it appears, to call Byron out. In February 1822 he wrote to Claire Claremont from Pisa:

It is of vital importance both to me and to yourself, to Allegra even, that I should put a period to my intimacy with L[ord] B[yron], and that without éclat. No sentiments of honour or justice restrain him (as I strongly suspect) from the basest insinuations, and the only mode in which I could effectually silence him I am reluctant (even if I had proof) to employ during my father’s life. But for your immediate feelings I would suddenly and irrevocably leave this country which he inhabits, nor ever enter it but as an enemy to determine our differences without words. But at all events I shall soon see you, and then we will weigh both your plans and mine.

LPBS 2: 391-2

It sounds as though Shelley has heard that Byron believes the tale about Shelley, Claire, and the baby in the Naples foundling hospital, a tale which he did indeed credit (“Of the facts however there can be little doubt – it is just like them” [BLJ 7: 191], letter to Hoppner of October 1st 1820]), but which so far as is known he did not discuss in correspondence, except with Hoppner. He may have said something in conversation to someone in Pisa (Marchand 3: 108, qtd. in Robinson 218). Byron rarely kept secrets – indeed, often betrayed confidences on principle.

It does not seem probable that Shelley killed himself (that, after all, would have meant killing Williams and Vivian, too); but we cannot doubt that depression made him suicidally-inclined. In Byron’s company for so long, he seems to have undergone, on discovering Byron’s treachery, a process of disillusion analogous to that which Byron’s other sounding-board and fall-guy, Hobhouse, had undergone upon discovering the circulation of My Boy Hobby, O, Byron’s ballad mocking him for his incarceration in Newgate. Hobhouse had written in his diary for April 16th 1820:

[...] for a man to give way to such a mere pruriency and itch of writing, against one who has stood by him in all his battles and never refused a single friendly office is a melancholy proof of want of feeling, and, I fear, of principle. It has at any rate rent asunder the veil through which I have long looked at this singular man, and I know not that it is in the power of any circumstances hereafter to make me think of him again as I thought of him before – sic extorta voluptas.

The Latin is from Horace, Epistles II.ii.139: [...] cui sic extorta voluptas / et demptus per vim mentis gratissimus error”: “[...] thus you have robbed me of a valued pleasure and the dearest illusion of my heart”. The words are imagined as said by a man, wretched at having been cured of the delusion that he has been watching a troupe of superb tragic actors – when in fact the theatre has been empty all the time.

Parties annexes