Mrs Shelley (Rossetti 1890)/Chapter 15
The writing of these novels, with other literary work we must refer to, passed over the many years of Mrs. Shelley's life until 1837, and saved her from the ennui of a quiet life in London with few friends. Certainly in Mary's case there had been a reason for the neglect of "Society/' which at times she bitterly deplored; and as she had little other than intellectual and amiable qualities to recommend her for many years, she was naturally not sought after by the more successful of her contemporaries. There are instances even of her being cruelly mortified by marked rudeness at some receptions she attended; in one case years later, when her fidelity to her husband and his memory might have appeased the sternest moralist. During these early years, which she writes of afterwards as years of privation which caused her to shed many bitter tears at the time, though they were frequently gilded by imagination, Mrs. Shelley was cheered by seeing her son grow up entirely to her satisfaction, passing through the child's stage and the school-boy's at Harrow, from which place he proceeded to Cambridge; and many and substantially happy years must have been passed, during which Claire was not forgotten. Poor Claire, who passed through much severe servitude, from which Mary would fain have spared her, as she wrote once to Mr. Trelawny that this was one of her chief reasons for wishing fori ndependence ; hut "Old Time," or "Eternity," as she called Sir Timothy, who certainly had no reason to claim her affection, was long in passing; and though a small allowance before 1831 of three hundred pounds a year had increased to four hundred pounds a year when her only child reached his majority in 1841, for this, on Sir Timothy's death, she had to repay thirteen thousand pounds. It had enabled her to make a tour in Germany with her son; of this journey we will speak after referring to her Lives of Eminent Literary Men.
These lives, written for Lardner's Cyclopedia, and published in 1835, are a most interesting series of biographies written by a woman who could appreciate the poet's character, and enter into the injustices and sorrows from which few poets have been exempt. They show careful study, her knowledge of various countries gives local colour to her descriptions, and her love of poetry makes her an admirable critic. She is said to have written all the Italian and Spanish lives with the exception of Galileo and Tasso and certainly her writing contrasts most favourably with the life of Tasso, to whomever this may have been assigned. Mary was much disappointed at not having this particular sketch to write.
To her life of Dante she affixes Byron's lines from The Prophecy of Dante—
'Tis the doom
Of spirits of my order to be racked
In life ; to wear their hearts out, and consume
Their days in endless strife, and die alone.
Then future thousands crowd around their tomb,
And pilgrims, come from climes where they have known
The name of him who now is but a name,
Spread his, by him unheard, unheeded fame.
Mary felt how these beautiful lines were appropriate to more than one poet. Freedom from affectation, and a genuine love of her subject, make her biographies most readable, and for the ordinary reader there is a fund of information. The next life—that of Petrarch—is equally attractive; in fact, there is little that can exceed the interest of lives of these immortal beings when written with the comprehension here displayed. Even the complicated history of the period is made clear, and the poet, whose tortures came from the heart, is as feelingly touched on as he who suffered from the political factions of the Bianchi and the Neri, and who felt the steepness of other's stairs and the salt savour of other's bread. Petrarch's banishment through love is not less feelingly described, and we are taken to the life and the homes of the time in the living descriptions given by Mary. One passage ought in fairness to be given to show her enthusiastic understanding and appreciation of the poet she writes of:—
Dante, as hath been already intimated, is the hero of his own poem; and the Divina Commedia is the only example of an attempt triumphantly achieved, and placed beyond the reach of scorn or neglect, wherein from beginning to end the author discourses concerning himself individually. Had this been done in any other way than the consummately simple, delicate, and unobtrusive one which he has adopted, the whole would have been insufferable egotism, disgusting coxcombry, or oppressive dulness. Whereas, this personal identity is the charm, the strength, the soul of the book; he lives, he breathes, he moves through it; his pulse beats or stands still, his eye kindles or fades, 'his cheek grows pale with horror, colours with shame, or burns with indignation; we hear his voice, his step, in every page; we see his shape by the flame of hell; his shadow in the land where there is no other shadow (Purgatorio) and his countenance gaining angelic elevation from "colloquy sublime" with glorified intelligence in the paradise above Nor does he ever go out of his natural character. He is, indeed, the lover from infancy of Beatrice, the aristocratic magistrate of a fierce democracy, the valiant soldier in the field of Campaldino, the fervent patriot in the feuds of Guelphs and Ghibellines, the eloquent and subtle disputant in the school of theology, the melancholy exile wandering from court to court, depending for bread and shelter on petty princes who knew not his worth, except as a splendid captive in their train; and above all, he is the poet anticipating his own assured renown (though not obtrusively so), and dispensing at his will honour er infamy to others, whom he need but to name, and the sound must be heard to the end of time and echoed from all regions of the globe. Dante in his vision is Dante as he lived, as he died, and as he expected to live in both worlds beyond death an immortal spirit in the one, an unforgotten poet in the other.
You feel this is written from the heart of the woman who herself felt as she wrote. We would fain go through her different biographies, tracing her feelings, her appreciation, and poetic enthusiasm throughout, but that is impossible. She takes us through Boccaccio's life, and, as by the reflection of a sunset from a mirror, we are warmed with the glow and mirth from distant and long-past times in Italy. One feels through her works the innate delicacy of her mind. Through Boccaccio's life, as through all the others, the history of the times and the noteworthy facts concerning the poets are brought forward such as the sums of money Boccaccio spent, though poor, to promote the study of Greek, so long before the taking of Constantinople by the Turks. In the friendship of Petrarch and Boccaccio, she shows how great souls can love, and makes you love them in return, and you feel the riches of the meetings of such people, these dictators of mankind—not of a factiontossed country or continent. How paltry do the triumphs of conquerors which end with the night, the feasts of princes which leave still hungry, appear beside the triumphs of intellect, the symposium of souls.
After Boccaccio, Mary rapidly ran over the careers of Lorenzo de' Medici, Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Politiau, and the Pulci, exhibiting again, after the lapse of a century, the study in Italy of the Greek language. The story of the truly great prince with his circle of poet friends, one of whom, Politian, died of a broken heart at the death of his beloved patron, is well told. From these she passes on to the followers of the romantic style begun by Pulci, Cieco da Ferrara, Burchiello, Bojardo; then Berni, born at the end of the fifteenth century, who carried on or recast Bojardo's Orlando Innamorato, which was followed by Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, the delight of Italy. In Ariosto's life Mary, as ever, delights in showing the filial affection and fine traits of the poet's nature. She quotes his lines—
Our mother's years with pity fill my heart,
For without infamy she could not be
By all of us at once forsaken.
Through the intricacies of Machiavelli Mary's clear head and conscientious treatment lead the reader till light appears to gleam. The many-sided character of the man comes out, the difficulties of the time he wrote in, while advising Princes how to act in times of danger, and so admonishing the people how to resist. Did he not foresee tyranny worked out and resistance complete, and his own favourite republic succeeding to the death of tyrants? One remark of Mary's with regard to the time when Machiavelli considered himself most neglected is worth recording: "He bitterly laments the inaction of his life, and expresses an ardent desire to be employed. Meanwhile he created occupation for himself, and it is one of the lessons that we may derive from becoming acquainted with the feelings and actions of celebrated men, to learn that this very period during which Machiavelli repined at the neglect of his contemporaries, and the tranquillity of his life, was that during which his fame took root, and which brought his name down to us. He occupied his leisure in writing those works which have occasioned his immortality."
A short life of Guicciardini follows; then Mrs. Shelley comes to the congenial subject of Vittoria Colonna, the noble widow of the Marquis of Pescara, the dear friend in her latter years of Michael Angelo, the woman whose writings, accomplishments, and virtues have made her the pride of Italy. With her Mary Shelley gives a few of the long list of names of women who won fame in Italy from their intellect:—the beautiful daughter of a professor, who lectured behind a veil in Petrarch's time; the mother of Lorenzo de' Medici, Ippolita Sforza; Alessandra Scala; Isotta of Padua; Bianca d'Este; Damigella Torella; Cassandra Fedele. We next pass to the life of Guarini, and missing Tasso, whose life Mary Shelley did not write, we come to Chiabrera, who tried to introduce the form of Greek poetry into Italian. Tassoni, Marini, Filicaja are agreeable, but shortly touched on. Then Metastasio is reached, whose youthful genius as an improvisators early gained him applause, which was followed up by his successful writing of three-act dramas for the opera, and a subsequent calm and prosperous life at Vienna, under the successive protection of the Emperor Charles VI., Maria Theresa, and Joseph II. The contrast of the even prosperity of Metastasio's life with that of some of the great poets is striking. Next Goldoni claims attention, whose comedies of Italian manners throw much light upon the frivolous life in society before the French Revolution, his own career adding to the pictures of the time. Then Alfieri's varied life-story is well told, his sad period of youth, when taken from his mother to suffer much educational and other neglect, the difficulties he passed through owing to his Piedinontese origin and consequent ignorance of the pure Italian language. She closes the modern Italian poets with Monti and Ugo Foscolo, whose sad life in London is exhibited.
Mary's studies in Spanish enabled her to treat equally well the poets of Spain and of Portugal. Her introduction is a good essay on the poetry and poets of Spain, and some of the translations, which are her own, are very happily given. The poetic impulse in Spain is traced from the Iberians through the Romans, Visigoths, Moors, and the early unknown Spanish poets, among whom there were many fine examples. She leads us to Boscan at the commencement of the sixteenth century. Boscan seems to have been one of those rare beings, a poet endowed with all the favours of fortune, including contentment and happiness. His friends Garcilaso di Vega and Mendoza aided greatly in the formation of Spanish poetry, all three having studied the Italian school and Petrarch. This century, rich in poets, gives us also Luis de Leon, Herrera, Saade Miranda, Jorge de Montemayor, Castillejo, the dramatists; and Ercilla, the soldier poet, who, in the expedition for the conquest of Peru went to Arauco, and wrote the poem named Araucana. From him we pass to one of the great men of all time, Cervantes, to one who understood the workings of the human heart, and was so much raised above the common level as to be neglected in the magnitude of his own work. Originally of noble family, and having served his country in war, losing his left hand at the battle of Lepanto, he received no recognition of his services after his return from a cruel captivity among the Moors. Instead of reward, Cervantes seems to have met with every indignity that could be devised by the multitudes of pigmies to lower a great man, were that possible. Mary, as ever, rises with her subject. She remarks: "It is certainly curious that in those days when it was considered part of a noble's duties to protect and patronise men of letters, Cervantes should have been thus passed over ; and thus while his book was passing through Europe with admiration, Cervantes remained poor and neglected. So does the world frequently honour its greatest, as if jealous of the renown to which they can never attain."
From Cervantes we pass on to Lope de Vega, of whose thousand dramas what remains? and yet what honours and fortune were showered upon him during his life ! A more even balance of qualities enabled him to write entertaining plays, and to flatter the weakness of those in power. From Gongora and Quevedo Mary passes to Calderon, whom she justly considers the master of Spanish poetry. She deplores the little that is known of his life, and that after him the fine period of Spanish literature declines, owing to the tyranny and misrule which were crushing and destroying the spirit and intellect of Spain; for, unfortunately, art and poetry require not only the artist and the poet, but congenial atmosphere to survive in.
Writing for this Cyclopaedia was evidently very apposite work for Mrs. Shelley. She wrote also for it lives of some of the French poets. Some stories were also written. In these she was less happy, as likewise in her novel, Perkin Warbeck, a pallid imitation of Walter Scott, which does not call for any special comment.
Shortly after her father's death, Mrs. Shelley wrote from 14 North Bank, Regent's Park, to Moxon, wishing to arrange with him about the publication of Godwin's autobiography, letters, &c. But some ten years later we find her still expressing the wish to do some work of the kind as a solemn duty if her health would permit. Probably the very numerous notes which Mrs. Shelley made about her father and his surroundings were towards this object.
Mrs. Shelley's health caused her at times considerable trouble from this period onwards. Harrow had not suited her, and in 1839 she moved to Putney; and the next year, 1840, she was able to make the tour above mentioned, which we cannot do better than refer to at once.