Friday, February 8, 2008

Wormwood and Verdigris

Percy Bysshe Shelley to Thomas Love Peacock.

Este, [8 October, 1818.]
My dear Peacock,

I have not written to you, I think, for six weeks, but I have often felt that I had many things to say; but I have not been without events to disturb and distract me, amongst which is the death of my little girl. She died of a disorder peculiar to the climate. We have all had bad spirits enough, and I, in addition, bad health. I intend to be better soon; there is no malady, bodily or mental, which does not either kill or is killed.

We left the baths of Lucca, I think, the day after I wrote to you, on a visit to Venice, partly for the sake of seeing the city. We made a very delightful acquaintance there with a Mr. and Mrs. Hoppner, the gentleman an Englishman, and the lady a Swissesse, mild and beautiful, and unprejudiced, in the best sense of the word. The kind attentions of these people made our short stay at Venice very pleasant. I saw Lord Byron, and really hardly knew him again : he is changed into the liveliest and happiest-looking man I ever met. He read me the first canto of his Don Juan, a thing in the style of' Beppo, but infinitely better, and dedicated to Southey in ten or a dozen stanzas, more like a mixture of wormwood and verdigris than satire.

Venice is a wonderfully fine city. The approach to it over the Laguna, with its domes and turrets glittering in a long line over the blue waves, is one of the finest architectural delusions in the world. It seems to have, and literally it has, its foundations in the sea. The silent streets are paved with water, and you hear nothing but the dashing of the oars, and the occasional cries of the gondolieri. I heard nothing of Tasso. The gondolas themselves are things of a most romantic and picturesque appearance; I can only compare them to moths, of which a coffin might have been the chrysalis. They are hung with black, and painted black, and carpeted with grey; they curl at the prow and stern, and at the former there is a nondescript beak of shining steel, which glitters at the end of its long black mass.

The Doge's palace, with its library, is a fine monument of aristocratic power. I saw the dungeons, where these scoundrels used to torment their victims. They are of three kinds, one adjoining the place of trial, where the prisoners destined to immediate execution were kept. I could not descend to them, because the day on which I visited it was festa. Another under the leads of the palace, where the sufferers were roasted to death or madness by the ardours of an Italian sun; and others, called the Pozzi--or wells, deep underneath, and communicating with those on the roof by secret passages--where the prisoners were confined sometimes half up to their middles in stinking water. When the French came here they found only one old man in the dungeons, and he could not speak. But Venice, which was once a tyrant, is now the next worse thing, a slave; for, in fact, it ceased to be free, or worth our regret as a nation, from the moment that the oligarchy usurped the rights of the people; yet, I do not imagine that it was ever so degraded as it has been since the French, and especially the Austrian yoke. The Austrians take sixty per cent, in taxes, and impose free quarters on the inhabitants. A horde of German soldiers, as vicious and more disgusting than the Venetians themselves, insult these miserable people. I had no conception of the excess to which avarice, cowardice, superstition, ignorance, passionless lust, and all the inexpressible brutalities which degrade human nature, could be carried, until I had passed a few days at Venice.

We have been living this last month near the little town from which I date this letter, in a very pleasant villa which has been lent to us, and we are now on the point of proceeding to Florence, Rome, and Naples, at which last city we shall spend the winter, and return northwards in the spring. Behind us here are the Euganean Hills,* not so beautiful as those of the Bagni di Lucca, with Arqua, where Petrarch's house and tomb are religiously preserved and visited. At the end of our garden is an extensive gothic castle, now the habitation of owls and bats, where the Medici family resided before they came to Florence. We see before us the wide flat plains of Lombardy, in which we see the sun and moon rise and set, and the evening star, and all the golden magnificence of autumnal clouds. But I reserve wonder for Naples.

I have been writing, and indeed have just finished the first act of, a lyric and classical drama, to be called Prometheus Unbound. Will you tell me what there is in Cicero about a drama supposed to have been written by Aeschylus under this title? I ought to say that I have just read Malthus in a French translation. Malthus is a very clever man, and the world would be a great gainer if it would seriously take his lessons into consideration, if it were capable of attending seriously to anything but mischief-- but what on earth does he mean by some of his inferences!

Yours ever faithfully,
P. B. S.

* A subject for one of Shelley's shorter poems, Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills.

-from Selected Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley edited with an introduction by Richard Garnett (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co., 1882)

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