The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

III. Shelley

§ 2. Laon and Cythna

The state of England during the winter which followed (1816–17) offered little support to this optimism. The overthrow of Napoleon had brought about, for the English working class, a period of intense and widespread misery. Reaction had triumphed, but the country had never been nearer to revolution. Shelley, settled with Mary at Marlow on Thames, coped energetically and generously with the need around him, pouring out his thoughts, meantime, in a great revolutionary epic. Laon and Cythna (later renamed The Revolt of Islam), the work of these summer months, is a brilliant dream-woof of poetry, in which are wrought figures, now purely allegoric, like the eagle and the snake—the evil and the noble cause—now symbolic, like the hero and the heroine themselves, who wage the eternal war of love and truth against tyranny. Shelley’s boundless faith in the might of spiritual forces permeates and suffuses the whole poem, and to such a degree that the opposing and resisting powers remain shadowy and incredible. In vain the most savage tortures and, finally, death at the stake are inflicted upon Laon and Cythna; we seem to be onlookers at a visionary spectacle in which hate is impotent and pain dissolved in ecstasy. Not till The Cenci did Shelley, handling a real story, imagine with corresponding power the antagonist of his heroic spirit, and thus attain true and great drama. The Faerie Queene, which he read to Mary during these months, counted for something in the substance as well as in the form. Cythna is the woman warrior, a Britomart of heroic valour and impassioned purity; but her ideals are those of a more modern time; she seeks, like Mary Wollstonecraft, the intellectual liberation of her sex, and she is mated with Laon in a comradeship of sister spirits such as now bound Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter to Shelley. The tenderly intimate dedication to his wife nobly commemorates, also, her mother and her father.

Kindred impulses inspired the fragment Prince Athanase, written, likewise, at Marlow. Athanase is a Laon transposed—so far as the unfinished poem discloses—in a quieter key. The eternal warfare of the idealist must, in some sort, have been its theme, and the triumph of love its climax; but its most distinct pictures are not of bridal rapture or martyr ecstasy, but of philosophic converse between a young disciple and a “divine old man” who has nurtured him in the “soul-sustaining songs” of ancient Hellas and in the wisdom of the Symposium.

Yet, Shelley’s personal history during these months would have excused a note of more unequivocal tragedy, a confidence less exalted in the final triumph of love. The chancery suit brought by the Westbrooks for the custody of his and Harriet’s children threw him into an agony of apprehension. The threatened loss of the children touched him less acutely than the consequent ruin, as he deemed it, of their souls. Harriet’s suicide towards the close of 1816 had affected him little. He had long ceased to love her, and the pathos of her miserable end failed to touch the springs of his flowing compassion. The cruelty of his situation makes the fierce stanzas To the Lord Chancellor impressive; but they are hardly great poetry. Before Lord Eldon’s decree was pronounced, Shelley and Mary had resolved to leave the country. In March, 1818, they set out for Italy. The stanzas To William Shelley, though probably written before, breathe the exultant joy and the ideal hope which qualified for them the regrets of exile.

Rosalind and Helen, begun at Marlow and finished next summer at the baths of Lucca has caught little of this afflatus. It is a Shelleyan essay in the romantic tale to which Scott and Byron had lent a vogue. The influence of Christabel is often felt in the rhythm, but there is no archaism of style. Shelley calls it, indeed, “a modern eclogue,” and he experiments, fitfully and somewhat awkwardly, with the familiar, colloquial manner which he was to make consonant with poetry in Julian and Maddalo and the Gisborne letter. In Italy, this manner grew steadily stronger and richer. The incidents of Rosalind and Helen, however, read like a bad dream of the Marlow days: Rosalind’s child is ravished from her, Helen’s lover fades and dies as Shelley and Mary believed was soon to be his own destiny. And the close, with its air of mellowed and assuaged suffering, and its sudden opulence of style, reads like an awakening amidst the radiance and the security of Italy.

  • “Lo, where red morning thro’ the wood
  • Is burning o’er the dew!”
  • says Rosalind, symbolically.

    But the spell of Italy first becomes fully apparent in the poems written during this summer at Byron’s villa near Este—a nest, after Shelley’s own heart, on the jutting brink of a ravine commanding the Lombard plain, the Adriatic, the towers of Venice and Padua, the far-off Alps and Apennines and the flame-like Euganean peaks close at hand. Nature had here, at length, gone out to meet him, creating visibly before him a scene which might have been a projection of his imagination. Lines written among the Euganean Hills express the rapt mood of a mind “wedded,” as Wordsworth’s habitually, as Shelley’s rarely, was, with “this goodly universe”; his soul,

  • which so long
  • Darkened this swift stream of song,
  • grows one with the glowing noontide sky and with the flower glimmering at his feet. The experience is still strange to him and he half questions whether it be more than the visionary fancy of his mind “peopling” a “lone” and empty world. He stands in “a flowering island” of the spirit; but round it surge “the waters of wide Agony,” and he is soon to be adrift upon these waters again. In misery, he, like Tennyson, woos sorrow “as a bride,” but with a half-playful sadness wholly his own. And even the “unspeakable beauty of Naples,” deeply as it impressed him, could not exorcise the moods of deep dejection which found utterance in the poignant Stanzas written there. At Venice, on the other hand, where he renewed his old comradeship with Byron, the bitter cynicism of the elder poet called out in protest all Shelley’s faith and hope for men. Julian and Maddalo gives a fascinating account, undoubtedly true in substance, of their intimate talk; and the memories of real debate which underlie it helped Shelley to a speech unwontedly natural and familiar, and to verse which gives full play to the free movement of conversational sentences, yet turns its freedom into ever fresh occasions for rhythmic beauty. In the maniac’s story, recounted to the two poets, conversation, naturally, gives way to narrative; but, with the conversational tone, the easy grace also passes from the style, and the delicate variety of pause from the verse. In the previous year, Byron had made his first essay in the poetic-familiar, and his, too, was a Venetian story; but there is little affinity between the cynical and ironic gaiety of Beppo and Shelley’s high-bred ease and charm, or between its smart metallic ringing rimes and Shelley’s undulating music.