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Volume I
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Douglas Shields Dix

Last Man Editions

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e Eternal Return
Copyright 2010 by Douglas Shields Dix

is is one of a Limited Edition of 50 hardbound copies


No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever, without
written permission, from the author, except in the case of brief quotations
embodied in critical articles and reviews.

First published in 2010 by

Last Man Editions

Berlínská 7
102 00 Prague 10 - Hostivař
Czech Republic
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For Mary & Claire

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“Wenn jener Gedanke über dich Gewalt bekäme, er würde dich, wie du bist,
verwandeln und vielleicht zermalmen; die Frage bei Allem und Jedem
‘willst du diess noch einmal und noch unzählige Male?’ würde als das grösste
Schwergewicht auf deinem Handeln liegen! Oder wie müsstest du dir selber
und dem Leben gut werden, um nach Nichts mehr zu verlangen als nach
dieser letzten ewigen Bestätigung und Besiegelung?”

“If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are
or perhaps crush you. e question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire
this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions
as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to
yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal
confirmation and seal?”

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Fröhliche Wissenscha, 1882

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Everything that happened was selected, desired, willed. . .eternally. Despite

the endurance of interminable longing and loss, despite the intensities of
rapture and abjection, despite the moments circling around their own
obliteration, despite the convergence of loves of an uncompromising and
unremitting nature: I willed the eternal return of what happened, and I will
the eternal return of what is happening still. . .

e eternal return: what cannot be spoken of. . .the dwarf whispering in

Zarathustra’s ear, the leap of faith to something unseen, something beyond the
daily movements of rising and falling, something within the moment that we fear
as it resonates within the void. To will eternally this here, this now, this time and
place, this person I am, these persons to whom I am bonded, everything that fills
this moment. . .to say “yes” to this moment as if it would come back again
and again in an eternal repetition, is, finally, to realize that this moment
will not return. Never. e fear of this recognition breeds habits, plans, goals,
orders, systems. . .entire universes – all in a vain, enzied rush to escape the
grasp of such singularity and the mortality that aches within it. To face it
carries us to a realm where each moment rings with its vibrations,
transforming the very shape of our lives: the rhythms of our days, the patterns
of our nights, the faces we see in the mirror each morning. . .
To will the eternal return is to will the fullness of each moment against the
certainty that such a moment will never return again, for what returns is not
this moment, but the absolute singularity of another moment, another
willing, leading us moment by moment to our ends. To abandon ourselves
to the eternal return is to live in the awareness of our mortality, and to accept
this awareness as a task to be taken up as we go forward across the limited
time that is ours, and ours only. All of tenderness springs om there, and to
love is to affirm life in another in the face of this annihilation. . .
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Volume I
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y mid-morning a shimmering gauze of blue haze was already gathering
B above Emilia-Romagna to the south. ey had le Padova at 9:30
on an ordinario heading southwest, and within twenty minutes the first
verdant clusters of the Colli Euganei came into view – protuding
mounds of calcareous rock rising abruptly from the low scrub of the Po
plain. Was of air pungent with the smells of the countryside – heath,
broom, ilex, and turpentine trees – buffets the worn curtains of the
cabin. e man, dressed in a short-sleeved, black linen shirt and black
slacks, stands holding the handle of the train window, taking in the land-
scape rushing by. e woman accompanying him sits languidly on the
worn, straight-backed train seat opposite. She takes an occasional sip
from a bottle of mineral water, and intermittently adjusts her loose,
black cotton dress as she crosses or uncrosses her slender legs. She has
decided to give herself over completely to the journey, taking a position
of measured calm inversely proportional to his state of heightened
expectancy. He sits down facing her and pats her gently on the knee, and
she smiles at him.
“. . .we’ll be there soon. . .just look at those hills!”
“. . .they’re so strange. . .”
“. . .the landscape’s not what I imagined it would be like when I was
looking at the map in Prague: I imagined a series of rolling hills, but these
hills seem more like some sort of chthonian creatures ready to lurch out of
nether region. . .”
“. . .I was thinking the same thing. ey’re beautiful – I’ve never seen
anything like it. . .so, do you think they came this way from Venice?”
“. . .they must have come this way – there were no trains then, of course,
but this is the direct route, so they saw exactly these hills, these plains. . .”
“. . .how long do you think the journey would have taken them back
“It’s about sixty kilometers or so from Venice directly, so probably
seventy kilometers by road, and, in this heat, a carriage traveling at, say,
ten kilometers an hour, maybe less. . .perhaps nine or ten hours, if you
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add additional time for resting and the time spent crossing the lagoon by
boat – aer all, there was no causeway back then. . .”
“. . .the heat must have been terrible in their carriage – at least we have
the breeze from the train. . .”
“. . .yes, and they had not only the heat and the length of time to
contend with, but also poor road conditions, plus the lack of any ameni-
ties. . .”
“. . .what?”
“. . .oh, sorry – it’s an American euphemism for public toilets. . .”
“. . .yes, I can see how that would add to their difficulties!”
“. . .I’ve always been amazed by their itineraries – they traveled consid-
erable distances, especially during their four years here in Italy. ey
probably took it for granted – as much as we do the train, but still, it
must have been difficult. . .and then, when Mary was later forced to
come so quickly with the children across the Apennines from Bagni di
Lucca – the heat must have been terrible. . .”
“. . .didn’t you go to the Bagni di Lucca with Michael?”
“. . .yes, it was beautiful – an entirely different landscape – high hills
lush with chestnut and plain trees. . .”
“. . .did you find the house?”
“. . .it took us a little while – it wasn’t obvious, because it was unmarked.
Michael asked for directions in Italian at a grocery where we were buying
our lunch, and the owner responded, ‘Casa P.B. Shelley?’ Michael hadn’t
heard Shelley referred to by his initials before, so he thought the man was
saying something about ‘Casa pipistrelli’ – the Italian word for ‘bats’. . .”
“. . .what?”
“. . .let me think. . .in Czech I think it’s ‘netopýr,’ isn’t it? – the mouse with
“. . .that’s right – ‘netopýři,’ plural. . .”
“. . .anyway, I was startled when I heard his name – it was such
a surprise!”
“. . .did the man know where the house was?”
“. . .no, but then we went to the magistrate, and they told us how to get
there – it was up a hill a ways, near a house where Montaigne had stayed. . .”
“. . .it must have been a popular place. . .”
“. . .it was a well-known spa town back then – Heinrich Heine also
stayed there in the mid 19th century, but, in 1818, Shelley complained
that they only heard English voices everywhere. We found another villa

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with a plaque there, and it turned out to be a house where Byron had
stayed later – probably on Shelley’s advice. At first I thought they had
confused the two poets, Byron being the more ‘tourist-worthy’ of the
two, but right next door we found Shelley’s house, the Casa Bertini –
now called the Villa dei Chiappa. . .”
“. . .did it have a plaque?”
“. . .no. . .it’s situated so you can only see it from an angle – it’s right at
the top of some steps where the walk curves towards the Byron villa. . .”
“. . .did you go inside?”
“. . .no, it’s a private residence now, so we thought there was no point in
disturbing anyone, although now I wish we had. . .we went around the
back to try to see the garden, but it was hidden by the overgrowth. We
were tired and hungry, so we settled for having our lunch on the stone
ledge fronting the Byron villa, in sight of the Casa Bertini. . .”
She takes another sip of water, hands him the bottle, and gazes out the
window at the passing hills.
“. . .here’s Monsélice now, so we’re almost there – it’s the next town. . .”
Sun-bleached railway buildings slip gradually into view as the train
shudders to a halt, creaking and squealing before coming to a full stop.
The heat immediately pours in through the window – a tangible pres-
ence, enveloping the few people getting off the train, retarding their
movements as if they were held back by an invisible net. The harsh
sunlight gives a vibrating intensity to even the most neutral of colors,
making the drab, concrete station waver in the heat like a mirage. After
a short pause there’s a groaning of metal and the train reluctantly
lurches forward. They scan every crag, tree, and building they pass,
searching for some sign that they have arrived at their destination. She
leans forward in her seat and looks intently out the window, infected
by his excitement. After a few minutes the train passes a blue and
white sign labeled “Este” and comes slowly to a halt. They are the only
ones disembarking at the small station, and in the mid-morning heat
they seem like figures from a de Chirico painting. A man at the ticket
window glances at them as they walk through the station, stopping
briefly to check the train schedules for the return trains. Outside the
station they hesitate, facing the station cul-de-sac and the street into
the town, lined with a few small businesses and one restaurant. She
wipes her brow with a handkerchief, and looks at him tentatively.
“. . .it doesn’t look promising. . .”

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“. . .this can’t be the town yet – the station must be a little way out of
the center. It should only be a short walk from here. . .”
“. . .well, there’s only one way to go. . .”
“. . .let’s take it easy. . .”
Aer a short walk the town center gradually unfolds around them:
houses, small shops, cafes, and finally a small central square with porti-
coed sidewalks. ey walk slowly across the square, turning on to the
main street leading to the castle grounds.
“. . .there’s the castle!”
“. . .let’s cross over. . .”
ey hasten their steps to the intersection across from the castle
grounds, crossing over to the pebbled frontage outside the castle walls –
now reconstructed and enclosing a city park. ey walk around the
perimeter on the two most accessible sides – the streets are modern,
paved, and fronted by small businesses and houses.
“. . .the garden of their villa was supposed to have come quite close to the
castle walls, with only a small ravine and road between them, but it was
nothing like this. . .it may have been destroyed, if it was on either of these
two sides. Let’s walk through the grounds and look on the far side – over
there, through that gate. . .”
ey enter the castle grounds: trimly-landscaped gardens, well-tended
trees, and smooth, pebbled paths. ere is no keep – only outer walls,
their crenellations reconstructed with red bricks outlined against the
mottled black and gray stone of the original walls. Old men and women,
and an occasional mother and child, stroll slowly down the paths or
recline on the benches in the shade of the intense, late morning sun. ey
walk across the grounds to the opposite side and through a portal in the
walls: the road turns away from the castle walls, and only a dirt lane skirts
the wall as it rises up a hill, finally obscured by trees and overgrowth. e
only dwelling in sight is across the road a distance from the walls: a small
albergo, backed by a line of trees and dense bushes.
“. . .it doesn’t look like any buildings were ever here on this side, and it
looks like a wilderness up that way. . .”
“. . .that leaves only the far side. . .”
“. . .let’s get some water first – this heat is exhausting me. . .”
“. . .do you want to build up the suspense?”
“. . .perhaps – or to stave off disappointment. . .in any case, if I don’t
drink something now, I’ll drop from the heat. . .”

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ey walk back to the main square and sit at a sidewalk table of a small
café. A waitress takes their order, and returns with two glasses and a large
bottle of mineral water. ey pour the water into the glasses, drink, and
fill their glasses again. He places his sunglasses on the table and wipes the
perspiration off his forehead with a dark blue handkerchief, then pulls
a black notebook out of his shoulder bag and begins reading. She lights
a cigarette, and then touches his hand.
“. . .maybe we can ask in the museum near the castle gate. . .”
“. . .we’ll find it – if it still exists. . .”
“. . .so what was it that brought them here, anyway?”
“e villa here was a summer house included with the lease of the Villa
Mocenigo – the villa Byron was renting in Venice. It was called the villa
I Cappucini because it was built on the ruins of a Capuchin monastery. It
wasn’t being used, so Byron invited them to stay here. It was a way for
Claire to see her daughter, Allegra, without disturbing Byron, who
couldn’t stand the sight of her by then. . .”
“. . .and Claire and Shelley came here alone at first?”
“. . .yes, Mary was still in Bagni di Lucca when they arrived in Este. One
of the reasons they came to Italy in the first place was to deliver Allegra to
Byron. She had been sent with their servant, Elise, in April, 1818, from
Como to Venice – just aer they arrived in Italy. . .”
“. . .it must have been horrible for her – to have to send her own
daughter away, and not even to see where she was to live. . .”
“. . .it was – Claire was tormented by Allegra’s departure, even though
she had chosen it, and even more tormented when Byron, aer Allegra
arrived in Venice, sent a letter that spoke of Allegra as if Claire were never
to see her again. . .”
“. . .was that their agreement? I thought Claire was expected simply to
leave Byron alone, but would be able to see Allegra whenever she
“. . .the terms were interpreted differently by both sides. Byron had
agreed to acknowledge the child as his own, meaning its economic future
and social status would be secured, but only if Claire would relinquish
any hope of their coming together – in matrimony or otherwise, and
would give up the child to his guardianship, from that point on seeing
Allegra only by agreement, and only under the cover of being known as
her ‘aunt’. . .”
“. . .that’s horrible – how could she have agreed to it?”

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“. . .Shelley thought so as well, and later he reproached her for her orig-
inal decision in a letter, reminding her that he had spoken against it. For
Claire, it was a choice about her daughter’s future: a child born out of
wedlock and unacknowledged by its father during that period had little
hope at all, while a child that would be acknowledged as Lord Byron’s
would have had the whole world open to it. . .”
“. . .so when they came here was she going to Venice to try to take her
“. . .no, only to visit her. Aer a few weeks at Bagni di Lucca, Claire’s
anguish over Allegra’s welfare suddenly intensified when she received
two letters from Elise in Venice. . .”
“. . .what did they say?”
“ey’re lost, so we only have a description of them: they were mostly illeg-
ible and apparently quite disturbing where they were legible. Years later, in
her dotage, Claire wrote to Trelawny – one of the members of their circle in
the final years – that Elise had reported in one letter that one day Byron had
come into the nursery, and aer watching Allegra playing for a while,
announced, suddenly, that Allegra would grow into a very pretty woman. . .
and that he would then take her for his mistress!”
“. . .that sounds just like him. . .”
“. . .Elise’s horrified response was that the joke was improper given he
was the child’s father. Byron replied that he wasn’t joking at all – that
he could and would do it, because ‘the child was Mr. Shelley’s.’ Elise
wrote Claire the next day, and upon reading the letter, Claire was
suddenly confronted with Byron’s evil and wanted to go to Venice
immediately. In order to calm Claire’s fears, Shelley decided to go
directly to Venice with her and appeal to Byron to allow her to see
Allegra. Shelley hadn’t seen Byron since Geneva, two years earlier, so
for him the trip had the double motivation of assuaging Claire’s fears
and reestablishing contact with Byron. He and Claire left for Venice,
leaving Mary in Tuscany with their children – Clara and William, and
some friends. . .”
“. . .how long had it been since Claire had seen Allegra?”
“. . .they had sent Allegra to Byron in April, 1818, and they arrived here
in late August – so, it had been four months. . .”
“. . .she should never have given her up, it seems to me. . .”
“. . .she may have thought she could still find a way to win Byron –
her letters certainly continued to hint at the possibility, although in

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a rather resigned way. . .perhaps she hoped that the child would become
a lasting bond between them – indeed it was, which affected Byron in
a way exactly opposite than she hoped. . .”
“. . .I hate Byron for forcing her to make such a choice. . .”
“. . .Byron saw her as an irritant at best: she came into his life at a rather
unfortunate time, and she forced her attentions upon him. He had no
desire for any further entanglements; indeed, part of his reason for
leaving England was to cut himself off from many of the connections he
still had there. He thought so well of himself and his own status that he
didn’t wish to share himself with anyone who wasn’t of his own aristo-
cratic class, while simultaneously isolating himself because he despised
almost all the members of his own class. Shelley critiqued his snobbish-
ness in the prologue to the poem Julian and Maddalo, which he wrote
here in Este. He never stopped insisting on his class status to Shelley in
one way or another. . .”
“. . .I thought Shelley came from the upper classes as well, didn’t he?”
“. . .he was the son of a country squire with a landed estate, but still, that
was not high enough for Lord Byron. In some regard Byron’s attitude
must have been a combination of self doubt and a psychological
distancing mechanism – he told Edward Trelawny, once, that he had no
intimates. . .”
“. . .so, if Byron hated Claire so much, how was she able to see Allegra in
“. . .when they arrived in Venice they went to where Allegra was living in
the care of the Hoppners – a British diplomat and his wife. Claire remained
there with Allegra while Shelley went to see Byron – that’s how Shelley was
able to arrange the stay here in Este. Shelley lied and told Byron that he,
Mary, and Claire had been visiting Padua, and that he had come alone to
Venice, leaving the women in Padua. Byron, who was extremely happy to
see Shelley again, was in a particularly obliging frame of mind just then –
at first he agreed to send the child to them for a visit, then he suggested that
they take the house in Este as a way to prolong Shelley’s stay, but keep
Claire at a distance. It seemed perfect: to be complete, the plan simply
needed Mary to come so quickly from the Bagni di Lucca to cover Shelley’s
lie to Byron. He wrote her a letter in the early hours of the same morning
following his day with Byron. In the end, it was about ten days between the
time Claire, Shelley, Allegra, and their maid Elise arrived here in Este, and
when Mary arrived with the children – William and Clara. . .”

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“. . .he was trying to please everyone, it seems. . .”

“. . .yes, but his primary virtue – what everyone referred to as his ‘good-
ness’ – was also his worst fault, and it was here at Este that this emerged
most clearly. . .”
“. . .because of the conflict between Mary and Claire?”
“. . .because of how he wasn’t managing the situation with Mary and
Claire. . .”
“. . .but what were his relations to them? I’ve never been clear about it. . .”
“. . .it’s not clear – that’s what I want to work through while we’re here
in Italy. One thing that’s certainly a myth is that Shelley’s belief in ‘free
love’ meant promiscuity: Mary, Claire, and Shelley never shared the same
bed, as they are shown doing in Ivan Passer’s film Haunted Summer, and
it certainly wasn’t the ongoing love-fest depicted by Ken Russell’s over-
the-top film Gothic. It wasn’t a ménage à trois, but a parallel intimacy,
with Shelley in the middle. Mary and Claire were, aer all, step-sisters,
and Godwin had always stood as a dominant figure for them, so their
sibling rivalry as children must have been intense: the two women lived
in kind of symbiotic love-hate relationship, exacerbated by the differences
in their temperaments. Mary was cool and calm, while Claire was fiery
and temperamental; Mary was intellectual while Claire was sensual;
Mary was to a certain degree passive, prone to melancholy, and sensitive
to the point of hyper-sensitivity, while Claire was active, vivacious and
impulsive to the point of being impetuous. e two intimacies, for
Shelley, meant twice as much conflict to be borne, and it took all that
much more energy for him to address their oen conflicting needs and
desires. . .”
“. . .but Mary knew about his relations to Claire, didn’t she?”
“. . .he seems to have told Mary only as much truth as she was able or
willing to bear, and given the hiatus in Shelley and Claire’s relations,
which seems to have lasted from the period of her first liaison with Byron
until their time here in Este, there had been heretofore little to hide. . .of
course, once their intimacy resumed again, disaster followed almost
immediately. . .”
“. . .Clara’s death?”
“. . .and much more. Let’s pay, and I can tell you more while we’re
walking. . .”
ey buy another mineral water, and walk slowly back to the main
gates of the castle. e castle grounds are now almost entirely empty.

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“. . .are you sure you don’t want to ask someone at the museum?”
“. . .let’s check up this street first, and come back if we can’t find it up
there. . .”
ey walk past the museum and on up the road until they reach a side-
street. She suddenly grasps his arm and points to the street sign.
“. . .look! ‘Via Cappucini’! It was at the site of a Capuchin monastery,
wasn’t it?”
“. . .yes it was. . .I’m sure we’ll find it now. . .”
ey walk slowly down the street in silence, considering the location
and appearance of each of the houses as they go: most have been built in
the 0th Century. e street becomes a dirt lane aer an intersection with
a gravel road: beyond are vineyards stretching to the summit of the hill.
She walks a few meters down the gravel road, and suddenly calls to him
“. . .I think it’s. . .yes, it’s here!”
She is standing opposite a brick and stucco boundary wall with rusted
iron gates – the corner of a large estate. To the le of the gates is a worn
marble plaque. e villa is about fiy meters down a tree-lined path from
the gate, visible only from the front, the boundary wall extending thirty
meters across the front of the property. e main entrance – a spiked,
wrought-iron gate with a signet in its center – has meter wide stone steps,
cracked in the middle and buckled downwards. On the le side of the
wall are two low gates for coaches opening on the front of a coach house
on the le perimeter of the property. From the main gates a path extends
to the villa – a meter’s width of slate in the middle of a wide dirt path
bordered by oak trees filtering and dappling the strong mid-day sunlight.
e house is obscured by trees and lush overgrowth – all they can see
from their vantage point is an arched wooden door down the path, and
an adjoining low wing shaded in front by a pergola leading to the main
villa. e villa itself is partially obscured by the trees. Across the lane from
where they are standing there is a depression forming a natural dry moat,
and fieen meters on the other side of it are the castle walls. e road
dips downwards towards the albergo they had seen earlier from the other
side, bordered by the high wall and the overgrown hedge that had
prevented them from seeing the villa’s perimeter walls.
“. . .‘In questa villa tra il 1817 e il 1818 soggiornarono i poeti GEORGE
“. . .we couldn’t see it from the castle because of all of this overgrowth. . .”

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“. . .the sign’s not quite correct. Byron never saw this villa, to my knowl-
edge, and Shelley was here only from the end of August, 1818, until
October of the same year – that’s typical: they exaggerate its significance
in one regard, while obscuring its real significance. . .but I suppose that’s
understandable; aer all, they couldn’t very well put up a plaque that
said, ‘Here Percy Bysshe Shelley began writing two of his greatest poems
and set in motion a series of traumatic events that would ultimately lead
to his self-destruction and to the partial destruction of the people he
most loved.’ e various myths make it all safe for human consumption
– practically making their lives seem conventional in their unconven-
tionality, when compared to the truth of what happened. . .”
“. . .but I wish we could go in – it’s maddening to be so close. Do you
think anyone is living here now?”
“. . .probably some caretaker drops by from time to time, at least. . .”
She sits down on the top step and takes a long drink of mineral water,
then offers the bottle to him. Taking it, he sits down beside her, and sips
it while gazing at the sky to the south. e heat haze over the south
obscures the horizon. Only the rustle of a few birds and the soughing of
the branches overhead in the hot summer breeze animates the scene. She
brushes the hair from her eyes, and turns to look back through the
wrought-iron gate.
“. . .so what is the truth – what really happened here? Tell me from the begin-
ning. . .”
He takes another sip of water, wipes his brow with his handkerchief,
and turns around to face the villa behind them.
“. . .Este represents an intersection of so many different forces in
Shelley’s life – in all of their lives. It’s not entirely clear what actually
happened here, and there’s considerable disagreement over it – it’s really
a mystery, so there’s only theories and hypotheses. . .”
“. . .is it about his relationship to Claire?”
“. . .partially, but there’s so much more to it than that – so little atten-
tion has been paid to this period in the popular mythology about the
Shelleys and Byron, and what came aer it in their lives. e focus has
always been on the Geneva period – their summer with Byron at the Villa
Diodati; however, I firmly believe that the time they spent in Italy, later,
was the most important part of their lives. e ‘Byron summer’ in Geneva,
in 181, was merely a vacation, but when they came to Italy to stay they
were true exiles. Shelley’s most mature writing would come during this

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period – the period from 1818 to 18. at’s when he threw off his
romantic idealism for a sophistication that stretched the limits of thought
and literature. Even more, I’m interested in how they lived, coped,
suffered, and managed their Enlightenment experiment in living – espe-
cially in the face of the enormous losses they incurred. It’s as much about
how they lived and endured as it is about what they managed to write. . .”
“. . .but it’s also about us in a way, isn’t it?”
“. . .yes. . .”
“. . .do you think we can avoid their mistakes?”
“. . .I hope we can. ey made serious mistakes, but they le behind
a legacy of a different way of living and loving. I felt that we needed to
come here, to this precise place, as an inspiration. . .but perhaps we can
learn something that will help us in our own experiment. . .”
“. . .I hope so, because it isn’t easy. . .”
“. . .the easy way is always to follow one’s times. . .”
“. . .we’re in no danger of doing that. . .so, from what I remember from
before, I only know that when Mary arrived here in Este, the baby was ill
and died in Venice when they were trying to take her to the doctor there
– she blamed Shelley and Claire for what happened, didn’t she?”
“. . .yes, although it’s a little more complicated than that. . .in a way, it
was the beginning of the end of a certain kind of closeness between Mary
and Shelley, or at least the end of the naive kind of intimate closeness
where one feels one can communicate everything to the other – every
thought, feeling, or emotion. Such intimacy, such imaginary comple-
mentarity, cannot last – if it ever really begins, which I doubt. . .”
“. . .do you think she stopped loving him?”
“. . .no, I don’t think so. Something always remained – a deep attach-
ment, despite everything. . .you can see it in how his death affected her
later. I don’t agree with the critics who try to make it all black and white,
as if love could only exist within one dominant inflection. It was the end
of the first major phase of their relations – something died, certainly, but
something else began. . .”
“. . .so was Shelley to blame? He couldn’t have known what would
happen, could he? He was trying to please Claire by bringing her together
with Allegra again. . .”
“. . .there were so many demands on him – he was the center of the
community that formed around him. I don’t think some people, like
Byron, realized that fact until after his death. It was exactly because of

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what everyone called his ‘goodness’ that he wanted to meet the various
demands of those closest to him: not only those of Claire, Allegra, and
Mary, but Byron as well – at least in the Este period. His ‘goodness’ was
primarily his sensitivity to the needs of others, his lack of guile and
possessiveness, his high spirits, his hopes for humanity. . .finally,
I suppose, his energy, or his capacity for affirming life. People forget
that long before Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Shelley was advancing
a strangely affirmative nihilism that didn’t culminate in existential
despair, but opened outwards towards life and mystery. Of course all
the dangers of his life came from this mode of existence – existence
beyond the reactionary norms of his society. His experiments some-
times ended in disaster – for example what happened here. . .”
“. . .which was what?”
“. . .when he and Claire first arrived in Venice, he went with Byron
riding on the Lido for hours – in fact, his idea for the long poem Julian
and Maddalo came from that ride. . .but, in reality, all the while Claire
was anxiously awaiting the outcome at the Hoppners’. Clearly he was
trying to please Byron, but he wrote to Mary that he would have
preferred telling Claire about the arrangement immediately. When the
possibility of staying in Este was brought up, he seized the chance of
making Claire happy, as well as strengthening his friendship with Byron,
but, carried away, he wrote his letter to Mary in the middle of the night,
begging her to depart as soon as possible in order to cover over his
previous lie to Byron about their all being already present in Padua. . .”
“. . .and that’s what caused the tragedy?”
“. . .regrettably, yes. . .and you know the outcome: by the time Mary
arrived ten days or so later in September, the heat had exacerbated a fever
that little Clara had been suffering since she was in Bagni di Lucca. . .”
“. . .but Shelley couldn’t have known that, could he?”
“. . .no, but given it was his own impetuosity that caused the situation, he
probably should have traveled back to Bagni di Lucca to help her pack, or he
ought to have given her more time to manage things. In any event, aer her
arrival they all stayed here in Este for another ten days, with Clara’s situa-
tion worsening by the minute. When they finally saw the necessity of
bringing her to a doctor, he decided to forego the doctor in Padua for one in
Venice, thus making it a journey of over twelve hours rather than six – part
of which were in the heat of the day. en, when they reached the lagoon, he
realized he had forgotten their passports. . .”

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“. . .they needed passports to enter Venice?”

“. . .Italy wasn’t unified until mid-century – it was a collection of city-
states and principalities, many under the control of Austria following the
Napoleonic wars. . .”
“. . .so what did they do?”
“. . .they were detained crossing the lagoon, but Shelley managed to
convince the officials to let them cross anyway. ey arrived by gondola,
he put Mary and the baby in an inn, and he set out to look for Byron’s
doctor. Meanwhile Mary, understandably hysterical with fear, had
another local doctor summoned, but nothing could be done, and Shelley
returned just in time to witness Clara’s last convulsions – she died in
Mary’s arms. . .”
“. . .Mary must have been devastated by it. . .it’s difficult to imagine. . .”
“. . .the next day she began her journal entry with the sentence, ‘is is
the journal of misfortune.’ She didn’t even begin to emerge from her grief
until their son Percy was born over a year later, and by then she had
become a very different woman – far more driven by the need for security
and stability than she had been. . .”
“. . .I can sympathize with her – she must have been grasping for some
secure foundation. . .how did it affect their relationship?”
“. . .Mary withdrew from Shelley emotionally: Shelley no longer shared
every thought and feeling with her as he had done in the past; perhaps
that’s inevitable in any relationship, but in their relationship, the breach
was intensified by the tragedy. Understandably, he turned even more fully
to Claire to make up for the understanding and sympathy he was lacking
from Mary. . .”
“. . .so, is that the story – Mary’s despair and withdrawal, and Shelley’s
turn towards Claire? at would be enough, really, but somehow
I suspect that’s not all there is to it. . .”
“. . .it’s not so easy to recount the rest of what happened – even if we did
have all the facts. e biographers and critics, even when they admit that
the evidence is not available to ascertain the truth, oen act as if there is
a bedrock of truth that could be reached if the facts were finally available.
I’m not so certain. In fact, I tend to believe the opposite is the case: there are
layers of truth, endless layers, but no bedrock. Facts need to be organized,
and that’s where the facts become interpretations – more or less plausible
or interesting interpretations, but interpretations nonetheless. Interpreters
can never fully transcend their biases: their moralities, beliefs, ideologies –

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their histories and cultures. It’s difficult enough to suspend the beliefs one
consciously holds about the world, but that’s just a beginning, as then there
are all the forms of belief one holds on to unconsciously. . .”
“. . .what do you mean?”
“. . .anything from whether one sees one’s actions as self-determined or
as connected to fate, socialization, or a specific historical process; or
whether one sees the self as largely conscious and rational, or unconscious
and irrational. For example, I never really realized how much of a self-
determinist I was until I began living in Prague: it was only aer being
abroad a while that I realized how American I was, despite my protesta-
tions to the contrary. At first I saw only the socio-historically-
determined fatalism of Czechs, but aer a while I realized how socio-
historically-determined my own sense of freedom was – and I wasn’t
exactly a libertarian before, which made it all the more disconcerting. . .”
“. . .but you’ve changed a great deal since you’ve been living in Prague
– I can see the contrast when you’re with other Americans. So many of
them see themselves as individualists, and supposedly so free from their
history. . .”
“. . .people never know what it is they take for granted until something
removes them from their social context – they’re already largely determined
in regard to what and how they think about their lives, their selves. . .at least
until something significant intervenes – like how the Velvet Revolution
affected our lives, or, just the fact of living in another culture for a longer
period of time, or some traumatic event. . .”
“. . .but if it’s so difficult to step outside one’s frame of reference, how
can biographers or historians even hope to approach their subject?”
“. . .many biographers are quite conservative: most are traditional
humanists, and haven’t absorbed the insights of 0th century thought –
a greater theoretical complexity, a greater skepticism towards what consti-
tutes a fact, or what constitutes human subjectivity. . .for example, I have
yet to see a biography informed by Heidegger or Lacan, let alone by
Deleuze and Guattari!”
“. . .actually, it seems to me that even the idea of a ‘definitive biography’
is peculiarly Anglo-American – I haven’t seen the same kind of claims to
completeness in biographies from biographers in other countries. . .”
“. . .I think you’re right – it says something about Anglo-American
positivism and empiricism. I look at it this way: there are events, and
layers of facts surrounding the events – facts recorded in one way or

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another, but almost all textual, in any case. But even with these facts there
are immense problems: whose records, whose facts, do we believe, and
how much or how little? ere are the various versions and interpreta-
tions of the events by contemporaries, then add to that the critics and
biographers between then and now, with all of their various agendas.
at the Victorian, the Modern, and the Postmodern periods separate us
from Shelley’s period is not an unimportant point: three entirely
different epochs with their particular ways of thinking and perceiving.
Look at the biographies and accounts of Shelley, Mary, or Claire by those
who actually knew them: can we trust omas Hogg’s biographical
account – a man who only knew Shelley before his exile, and who later
maintained that poetry was an utterly useless activity? From what we
know, Shelley shouldn’t have trusted Hogg at all – he was like a character
out of a Henry James novel, desiring to live a different kind of life than
the norm, but in the end too cowardly to maintain it, and instead living
vicariously through Shelley. . .when he wasn’t making fun of him. . .”
“. . .it reminds me of several people we know. . .”
“. . .they exist in every period. Hogg was even more radical than Shelley
when they met at Oxford, and they were expelled together for not admit-
ting the authorship of Shelley’s e Necessity of Atheism pamphlet;
however, he later became a solid member of the establishment –
a barrister, I believe. He tried to seduce Shelley’s first wife Harriet, totally
misconstruing what Shelley meant by ‘free love’ in a sort of block-headed,
literal manner, then apparently had some kind of relationship with Mary
that ultimately came to a bad end as well. . .and, even then, aer Shelley’s
death, he ended up marrying Jane Williams, the last woman Shelley was
inspired by. . .”
“. . .I know the type: they’re like – what do you call those big birds that
eat dead animals?”
“. . .bald, with a hooked beak?”
“. . .yes. . .”
“. . .‘vultures,’ or sometimes ‘buzzards,’ depending upon where they’re
found. . .”
“. . .yes – men like that are like vultures. . .”
“. . .what is it in Czech?”
“. . .‘sup’ – the plural is ‘supi’. . .”
“. . .Shelley had many strange birds around him. omas Love Peacock
was another one: his surname fit him also, for he seems to have strutted

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about like a peacock. What’s ‘peacock’ in Czech – the bird with the beau-
tiful tail who sounds like it’s crying?”
“. . .it’s páv in the singular, pávi in the plural. . .”
“. . .‘páv’. . .does Czech have the association between peacocks and
pride? In English there is the saying ‘proud as a peacock’. . .”
“. . .Czech has it also: ‘Pyšný jako páv’ – but who was Peacock, anyway?
I don’t remember hearing about him. . .”
“. . .he was another so-called friend of Shelley’s, but he caricatured
Shelley and his circle in a comic novel he wrote called Nightmare Abbey,
and his later memoirs of Shelley, published long aer Shelley’s death,
were not so much different from his novel: he made of Shelley a rather
humorous figure. . .”
“. . .another vulture. . .”
“. . .yes, a new hybrid I suppose – the ‘peacock-vulture’: ‘Páv sup’ –
would that be how you would say it?”
“. . .you have to make it into an adjective in Czech – it would be pávovitý
sup. . .”
“. . .that’s nice – I like that about Czech: qualities can be communicated
more easily than in English. Anyway, Peacock, like Hogg, also gave up his
radicalism quite early, and made a career in the India House, which was just
then becoming a vanguard to the quickly consolidating British Empire. . .”
“. . .not exactly a trustworthy account. . .”
“. . .not at all. . .”
“. . .did Shelley have any real friends?”
“. . .none that le any realistic and sympathetic accounts. Byron had the
necessary skill, but not the sensitivity to do what Shelley did when he
wrote the poem Adonaïs as a tribute to Keats aer his death – and Shelley
hardly even knew Keats! Edward Trelawny, who knew Shelley only in the
last year of his life, was quite favorable to Shelley in his memoirs, but they
were obviously distorted by his own character. Trelawny was so full of
himself at the time he knew Shelley that there’s a good deal he couldn’t
see, or distorted. His gravestone is typical: he had himself buried next to
Shelley in Rome, the inscription on his tomb claiming their lives had
been ‘undivided’ – rather an overstatement, given they knew each other
for only a year! He seems to have desperately wanted to make himself the
epitome of the late romantic poets, and his memoirs of them seem to
have been an attempt to make his own life of exploits an active extension
of their lives and works. . .”

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“. . .what kind of exploits?”

“. . .he tried to live up to the popular image of the romantic hero but
he became almost a caricature in the process. After Byron’s death he
continued to be involved with the Greek struggle: he was actually shot
during an assassination attempt, and he was shot again during a duel in
Italy. He would do stunts like swimming Niagara Falls above the falls.
Later he used to mingle with London high society, walking about
without socks on, posing as the ‘aged romantic hero’ and perhaps not
realizing that ‘aged’ was never part of the definition. . .”
“. . .without socks?”
“. . .I suppose he had some idea that ‘real adventurers don’t wear socks.’
Actually Claire, who met him in London at that time, made fun of his lack
of socks and his posing, and offered to knit him a few pairs as a joke.
Trelawny was hurt, and taunted her via letter for not being exciting any
more – he called her an ‘old aunt’ in response. He played his pose so well
that when he was quite old he was asked to sit as the model of the old
seafarer in Millais’ painting e North West Passage. . .”
“. . .without socks?”
“. . .with socks! In his memoirs he stressed throughout that Byron
couldn’t compete with his own real-life exploits, although he was consid-
erably more humble when discussing Shelley, whose poetry and life he
seems to have genuinely revered. . .but even reverence – perhaps especially
reverence – can distort the facts terribly. . .”
“. . .how did Trelawny describe Mary and Claire?”
“. . .perhaps I should first mention that he proposed to both of them. . .”
“. . .proposed what?”
“. . .marriage. . .”
“. . .did he dare? Another vulture!”
“. . .yes, but both women turned him down, although Claire had a brief
encounter with him of some sort aer Shelley died, and she flirted with
him for years by letter. . .”
“. . .I thought she was devastated by Shelley’s death?”
“. . .she was, certainly. I don’t think she was ever serious about Trelawny:
he was someone there for her in the aermath, but that’s not exactly a point
of attraction. . .in the end, nothing came of it, and she expressed no regrets
about it. . .”
“. . .and what about Mary?”
“. . .Trelawny’s memoirs expressed quite a bit of anger towards Mary. . .”

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“. . .because she turned him down?”

“. . .partially perhaps, but I think really because she tried to remake
Shelley into an angelic figure for the Victorians: she passed over his
involvement with Claire, and avoided that part of him that fought against
tyranny and injustice. . .and also that part of him that went out shooting,
riding, and sailing. . .”
“. . .you mean the parts of him that she refused to accept. . .”
“. . .yes. . .”
“. . .so how did Trelawny deal with Mary in his memoirs?”
“. . .he described her as someone who was always trying to drag Shelley
back to convention – someone who caused him a good deal of pain due
to the stalemate in their marriage. . .”
“. . .do you believe him?”
“. . .partially – it’s important to balance the various versions, especially
against a few recent accounts that have tried to make of Mary merely the
poor, put-upon victim of her philandering husband. . .”
“. . .and what about Claire?”
“. . .Trelawny didn’t even mention her name in his memoirs, but that
was because Claire specifically asked him not to. . .”
“. . .why? Didn’t she want the facts to emerge?”
“. . .that’s exactly the problem: the journals and letters of those closest
to Shelley give an incredible amount of information not given elsewhere,
but in certain ways they are even worse than the ‘vultures’ – at least in
regard to the presentation of certain facts. Both Mary and Claire lived
long enough to see the romantic period pass into the Victorian period,
and both responded to the changes around them by burying and
distorting what they had lived through with Shelley. . .”
“. . .both? I thought Mary was the one who was the most guilty of distor-
tions. . .”
“. . .yes, that’s true: Mary comes out looking far worse than Claire – espe-
cially when the motives for their distortions are considered. At first there
had been an understandable reason for her to be more subdued about
accounts of their lives: Shelley’s father, Sir Timothy, didn’t want to see the
name ‘Shelley’ in print, and he would have cut her off entirely if she
published anything by or about Shelley. When Shelley died, Mary felt very
guilty about the part she had played in their difficulties, and she began to
compensate by idealizing Shelley, shaping his image retrospectively into
that of the ethereal, unworldly being that he became for the Victorians.

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As she grew older, and as the Victorian age and its hypocritical morality
progressed, she began increasingly to distort the facts. It goes without
saying that Shelley’s relationship with Claire was totally submerged. . .”
“. . .what did Claire say about all of it – why didn’t she write her own
version of what happened to set the record straight?”
“. . .Trelawny, Hogg, and others were very angry with Mary for
distorting the facts, but Claire didn’t want her relation to Shelley publi-
cized. She wanted to protect her anonymity. . .”
“. . .to protect it from what – Victorian morality?”
“. . .among other things, but as she lived abroad, she had other, more
important reasons to downplay her relations with Shelley. Aer Shelley
died, Mary had far fewer problems, given she was his legal wife: she went
back to England with her son, Percy Florence, and entered society again.
Aer all, she was the well-known author of Frankenstein by then:
a dramatized version of the novel was already playing at the opera when
she returned to England. Meanwhile, for Claire, life wasn’t so easy,
although it was considerably more adventurous. She traveled to Vienna
to live with her brother, Charles Clairmont, and was immediately caught
in the web of Metternich’s secret police. ey had found out about her
connection to Shelley’s circle and tried to deport her and her brother for
‘subversive activities’; at the time, he was doing nothing more subversive
than teaching English, and she being a governess. . .”
“. . .that’s terrible – it’s like under communism. . .”
“. . .the communists didn’t invent the secret police – in fact, the Hapsburg
Empire under Metternich had one of the most extensive spy networks in
the world at that point in history – the communists just perfected what
was more or less already an established tradition. . .”
“. . .so what did they do?”
“. . .her brother had enough well-placed Viennese friends to clear
their names, but, given she had almost cost him his position, she
decided to move on to Moscow to take a position there as a governess.
A few years later she was refused a position in a good family because an
English professor there reported her former connections to Shelley
and Byron to her prospective employers. So, you can see her problem:
she couldn’t hold positions where she cared for children if she were
known as the ‘notorious Claire Clairmont, Byron and Shelley’s secret
lover.’ Until 18, when Shelley’s father finally died and she received
an inheritance Shelley had arranged for her from the estate, she wasn’t

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in a position, as a single woman, to take the risk of letting her true

identity be known. . .”
“. . .but why didn’t she leave some memoirs that would tell her view of
the events aer she died?”
“. . .Trelawny, in their last flurry of letters to each other before she died,
tried to push her to do just that – to recount her life with Shelley. . .”
“. . .did she?”
“. . .she wavered back and forth between admission and total denial.
She told Trelawny that she was very angry that William Rossetti’s biog-
raphy had even mentioned her; in fact, she had asked Rossetti when he
had come to speak to her to suppress her relations to Shelley and Byron,
and not to mention anything about Allegra. She told Trelawny that her
actions ‘had nothing to do with the poet’ – of course that’s a way to admit
and deny it simultaneously, as perhaps she felt her actions had only to do
with the man. . .”
“. . .what was she afraid of by that time?”
“. . .what she told Trelawny, and what the truth actually was, are obvi-
ously quite different: She told him she was afraid of how it might affect
her niece, Pauline, who was living with her at the time. . .”
“. . .what did she mean by that?”
“. . .Claire feared her niece would be blamed for living with a ‘disgraced
woman’ – but her niece was a spinster of fiy years old by that time!”
“. . .hardly someone whose reputation would have been ruined solely
by her association with Claire Clairmont. . .”
“. . .yes, her reputation was either already ruined or confirmed by then,
I should think. . .”
“. . .do you think she really saw herself that way – as a ‘disgraced
“. . .one can imagine that in the midst of the Victorian period to be
known as the secret lover of Byron or Shelley would have been difficult to
deal with, especially for a woman in her position – single, living in Florence
with her niece and her grandniece from a small inheritance. One has to
keep several things in mind when considering her replies to Trelawny, not
the least of which was that she was almost eighty years old during an age
that did not officially approve of sexual relations at all, let alone the kind
of ménage she had had with the Shelleys. Gossip and scandals were as
common then as they are now, and by that time there were already several
books written with titles like ‘Byron: His Life, Loves, and Secret Amours’

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– Claire didn’t want to be merely a chapter in such a book. Besides,

Trelawny, although he was sympathetic, didn’t exactly ask Claire for the
information in a manner that would be likely to get a response: he asked
her to recount ‘Shelley’s follies,’ no doubt hoping that she would reveal
something about her own relations with Shelley. . .”
“. . .I would guess she didn’t even respond to his question. . .”
“. . .we’ll never know whether she did or didn’t: in her response she first
refused, then she began to recount some of her memories, but there are
four pages missing right aer a reference to his phrase ‘Shelley’s follies.’
ere are similar gaps in many of the journals and letters, so even if the
facts were there, they’re missing now. It’s not an easy matter to see where
the truth ends and the distortions begin – perhaps it’s impossible due to
the clutter, the layers of facts, the layers of interpretation: there’s no pene-
trating through to clarity, for that would be to assume there was clarity
for them when they were all alive, and I doubt that very much. Is there
such clarity in our lives?”
“. . .that’s true – I only know a few people who think they have clarity, and
they’re usually boring. . .and, in any case, in the end they turn out to have
been wrong. . .”
“. . .it’s difficult to form a narrative, even a fragmented narrative, out of
what happened. Este was a place of beginnings and endings for Shelley
and those around him, and, as with any life, it flows at different velocities,
directions, and depths: beginnings that were endings, and endings that
were beginnings. ere is no clarity, beyond certain privileged moments –
for him in his present, for us in ours. . .”
“. . .but you must believe some knowledge is possible, some way of
reaching back to what happened then – aer all, why did we come here?
Otherwise, we may as well be lying on the beach right now at some resort,
soaking up the sun. . .”
“. . .you know why we came. . .”
“. . .yes – we came to try to get closer to them, closer to what happened,
for the sake of our attempts to live differently, and so we can learn some-
thing in order to help us avoid the same mistakes. . .”
“. . .precisely. Something does connect – whether we can reach the past
or not, whether we can know we have reached the past or not. Coming
to, seeing a place like this – perhaps it’s cliché, but a true cliché for all that
– helps connect the ideal and the real, words and things. e words are
permanent, infinitely reproducible, while these stone steps are already

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cracked and disintegrating. . .and yet, all the same, they’re so astonish-
ingly here. . .”
“. . .yes, I feel something too. is is not simply an old villa like the
next one down the road: Claire, Shelley, Mary, Allegra, Clara, and
William were all really here. . .and now they’re gone, just as we are here
now and will be gone, too. . .”
“. . .I think that when people live with a certain intensity, there’s an
overflow – an excess of energy or will. Some people have more life, dead,
than many who are living. We were attracted to that energy in these
people, and we’re consequently touched by all of this – even implicated
in it. Certainly we are separate beings, with a different story, but some-
thing about their lives attracted us because of how we live – even if the
circumstances are different. History flows on, and we are in it and of it,
and by our choice to come here, to focus on their lives, we bring ourselves
into a certain proximity to those events. To read their words – in poems,
novels, letters, journals – is, in a certain sense, to give over to those ener-
gies, those combinations of meaning, intensity, and affect. . .”
“. . .it’s as if the present were being haunted by the past, the way you are
speaking of it. . .”
“. . .yes, as well as the past being haunted by the present. We, also, are
ghosts here: if there are such things as ghosts, than we, the living, must be
ghosts as well: we are just as indeterminate, fleeting, dissoluble, as any of
our ideas of ghosts. is house will still be here aer we leave today. . .we
are haunting it now. We’re so attached to our sense of being embodied
individuals that we refuse to admit what we really are: self-reflective ener-
gies in the midst of a temporal flux that has a determinate beginning and
ending as an organic life form, and a less determinate existence as a non-
organic life form aer that ending. . .”
“. . .what do you mean by ‘non-organic life form’?”
“. . .I’m borrowing the term from the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze,
who used it to describe the unbound energies produced by what were once
living humans. e most obvious example is a book like Shelley’s poetry,
which, when it sits on a shelf, is merely a dead object, but when it comes
into contact with a mind, releases new energies, and, in certain cases like
my own, or now yours, produces something like a mutation or intensifica-
tion of energies. On a less complex level, any memory trace we have of
a dead or even absent person is similarly a non-organic life form – how that
person lives on inside of us in dream, reverie, or memory. . .”

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“. . .yes, I’ve oen thought that with the dead it’s really more we who
have died in them, for they are still in us, haunting us, while they’ve taken
all their memories of us with them to the grave. . .but isn’t that just
“. . .yes, memory traces – even a book is just a formalized memory
tracing, and if it’s imaginative, it’s a recording of that imagination. . .but,
still, that doesn’t really answer the question, what is memory?
Individually, at the most fundamental biological level, it is a highly
complex process of burning pathways through our synapses.
Collectively, it is a matter of the formal manipulation and recording
of symbols – but that doesn’t seem to account for it fully. We are, it
seems to me, intensifications of energy, but the boundaries are not so
clear, and when we die, while the center and origin of the intensity
ceases being, the leftover energy continues on in those we have
touched in our lives, and, in certain cases, can actually multiply and
transmute itself into new forms – a primary example being the artist or
writer who is misunderstood during their own lifetime, but who
acquires an even more intense existence posthumously. Their exis-
tences aren’t bounded by anything more than the formal permanence
of the work – the fixed characters on the page, or strokes of paint on
a canvas, but, paradoxically enough, this leads to infinite interpreta-
tion, infinite transmutation of energy, as the energy that is there is
taken up by new energies contained within embodied life-forms. The
more something affects you, the more it speaks to what is there inside
you, and also the more it intensifies it, opens it to a different inflec-
tion, causes something else to be born between you and what you are
being affected by. Although we were drawn here because we felt
ourselves akin to them, we’re a different story – something else
inevitably happens, but something else is born of the connection. . .”
“. . .something else? Something different, I hope. . .at least in regard to
the difficulties. . .”
“. . .I hope we can learn something from them – to see farther down the
same path, to avoid some of the reefs they foundered upon. . .”
“. . .and discover new ones?”
“. . .it’s inevitable – it comes with trying to imagine new ways to live in
our own epoch, with trying to enact those imaginings. . .”
She gets up, brushes herself off, turns and looks through the gate at the
villa beyond, gathered in its own stillness.

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“. . .so there’s more to what happened here?”

“. . .yes, much more. Not until later would what happened, here, be
fully over. . .perhaps it’s not even over now – it brought us here, didn’t
“. . .so, go on telling me about it. . .”
“. . .I will – but first, let’s go have lunch. We’ll come back aerwards –
if anyone’s here, they won’t be around now in this noonday heat. ey’ll
be eating or sleeping. . .”
He stands up, stretches, and places his hands on the bars to the gate.
e heat is intense even in the shade, the air thick and heavy. She hands
him the mineral water, now almost empty.
“. . .yes, I’m dying of hunger – I really will become a non-organic life
form if we don’t have something to eat soon. . .”
“. . .so let’s try that albergo down the road, and complete our circuit
around the castle. I’ll tell you more over lunch. . .”

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ere are certain moments that we will never escape, that will never take
their proper order within the succession of our days: they resonate within
time, set apart om the moments unfurling behind and before us, opening
us to an outside beyond the flow of time. Such moments, when encountered,
press their weight against the balance of time, and even when the days give
way to months and years such moments stubbornly remain – unmoving,
seizing us in our dreams even as we silently rebel against their awesome force.
What I sought was found in such moments, and only in such moments:
I have been falling ever since – falling through a void that leaves me bere
of words. I thought I knew who I was when such a moment first struck me
with its singularity: I thought I was a man with a certain name, a certain
purpose, a certain mode of life. Now I do not even know what my name
stands for, except as a container to fix me within an identity – an identity
drawn around a wandering center encompassing each moment, and each
The will that was released through me came from somewhere else, and
I was riven through as if hit by a bolt of lightning. I speak of my beginning
to will: there was no beginning, but simply the gradual releasing of myself
into a current I could not resist. The feeling was not one of choice, but of
a coming into coincidence with a will that could not be discerned, but only
followed; that could not be seized, but which seized me with a ferocity re-
moving me from any lingering illusion of wholeness.
Is this a narrative I am trying to write? Perhaps the unfolding of its own
untelling – spaces piled around words that seek to come to rest within the very
act of creating recognitions: this paradox leads these words to scatter like sand,
but perhaps there is a hope being drawn here that for a fleeting instant a shape
will be cast, or the shadow of a shape – enough, perhaps, to trace a dim recog-
nition of the path I have forged as I sought to cross the farther reaches of
a wilderness towards the vision that held me transfixed.
I did not will these events; rather they willed me, and my own anguish
could not tear om me a joy that seized me even as I faced the possibility of
irrevocable loss, and what was to be, for me, the end of at least one life. I am
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searching for something, and I would not dare say that I have found it in
these lines, which lead me on away om one world towards a darkness which
envelopes me as I go forward, girded only by the certainty that I am
responding fully to my destiny. I am searching – advancing and departing
simultaneously, and I would not even pretend to say that where I have been
is a haven now made safe for others, for I know assuredly that it is not.
I was once told not to write these lines by someone who was not quite
a iend, and yet someone I would not say bore me any enmity: someone who
knew to some degree where I was determined to go. His words were a kind of
admonition, or perhaps a reproach or even a warning, but there remained
to me only the echo of the moments passing, and of those echoes, only, was
I certain. ey reverberated in my mind at every step of the way, drawing
me onwards so that the shape of my life took on a certain symmetry: in these
moments I breathed, felt, hungered, loved, and longed for the presence of
those who would never be brought to this existence again, and that is why
I willed my bond to them as if they were the absolute fate life yielded to me.
When I maintain I did not will these events, I do not mean to say that
I did not desire them or even play a direct role in bringing them about: these
events willed me to the shape of their affirmations and catastrophes as much
as I had willed the shape of my own arrivals and departures. I came to
a rising strength, knowing that under my feet resided the crushing weight of
the earth, a weight that would one day draw me under as assuredly as it
spins its way through the rhythms of its seasons, bearing us along with its
burden of torments and joys.
I return always to certain moments: I wonder if I have ever le them.
Everything I would like to recount revolves around these moments –
moments that brought together all whom I have ever loved, all that I was
ever to grasp, and all that I was ever to lose. I was brought to an opening
through which I saw the scene of sacrifice not as myth, ritual, image or
symbol, but as an act moving beyond itself towards something indefinable.
With these words I seek to come closer to this opening, but only through
a degree of deflection: nothing ever submits itself to the kind of scrutiny
I wish to bring to bear upon it. My words and the vague outlines they aspire
to draw are like a shroud as it is removed om a corpse for burial – but here
there is no body, only the indistinct impression le by something that existed
once, but is there no longer. . .
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At the restaurant they are the only guests. ey sit at a small table on
a shaded terrace and order a carafe of white wine, mineral water, and two
caprese salads. e drinks are brought immediately: they quickly drink
the first glassful of water, pouring out more from the sweating bottle.
“. . .what really amazes me about it all is how the myths so easily take
over from the reality. . .”
“. . .the myths are not only in many ways false, but they also detract
from what is essential. ey started almost immediately aer Shelley’s
death in 18, and accelerated greatly aer Byron’s in 18. at’s when
the memoirs and biographies began to be written, and when the distor-
tions began in earnest. . .”
“. . .you said more than the pages from the letters were missing. . .”
“. . .there were entries destroyed in all of their journals, but especially
those connected to Claire: over three years of entries in Claire’s diaries
from 181 to 1818 disappeared. Letters disappeared – including almost
the entire secret correspondence between Claire and Shelley, written
when Claire had moved to Florence following the Hoppner scandal. . .”
“. . .were those the letters Henry James wrote about in e Aspern Papers
– did they actually exist?”
“. . .yes. We know that in addition to the normal correspondence
between Shelley and Claire that would have been seen by Mary, there
were secret letters that Shelley and Claire exchanged from the time
she lived alone in Florence onwards, using false names and third-party
addresses: given their secrecy, I think we can assume their contents
were intimate. Actually, the biographer in James’ story is based on
someone who existed in real life: his name was Edward Silsbee, and
he tried to get the letters from Claire when she was in Florence – not
Venice, as in the story. Whether or not she had already destroyed
them we’ll never know. If they contained such intimate contents that
they had to be sent secretly, it’s possible they were disposed of imme-
diately after they read them – or I would imagine at least Shelley did
so, to avoid Mary seeing them. . .”

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“. . .was Silsbee as awful as he was portrayed in e Aspern Papers?”

“. . .in some ways he was worse. It’s true that he would have done
anything to get the letters, and apparently he did insinuate himself into
Claire Clairmont’s household in Florence when she was an old woman –
even having an affair with Claire’s niece, Pauline, who was forty-seven at
the time, and all in order to obtain the manuscripts and letters. . .”
“. . .who exactly was Pauline?”
“. . .she was the daughter of Claire’s half-brother Charles. She had
evidently been quite in love with Silsbee, and wanted him to marry her,
but he refused, so she settled for taking him as a lover. His notes barely
mention her except in relation to Claire Clairmont. ere’s a rumor that
aer Claire’s death he actually proposed marriage to Pauline in exchange
for Claire’s letters which she had supposedly inherited, but she refused
him, and wanted money instead – I guess she had learned her lesson.
ere are some accounts of his having boasted about his trickery to
others, which is how James heard about him. . .”
“. . .why did he do it – did he think that the truth was in the missing docu-
“. . .I would assume so, because their existence probably seemed to hold
out the promise of a definitive answer to the secret of their relationship,
but I would guess even if we had them, they would only touch upon the
truth. What kind of reality do you think someone could construct from
our letters or journals? ere’s so much there, but there’s so much missing
– a moment’s self-reflection is so limited, especially when one is writing
to, or about, another person. . .”
“. . .that’s true: one always projects an image of the one being written to
at the time one is writing; and anyway, I dislike my writing, so there’s little
in my journals that would amount to anything I feel that would adequately
represent me. . .there’s so much that’s not there. . .”
“. . .and my journals and letters would fill volumes, but I find it embar-
rassing to read them, even to myself. Whenever I come upon a new real-
ization, it’s contradicted by something else later on – it’s never adequate to
who or what I was at the time. It’s more like making a sketch, taking notes,
making an index for a library that will never exist. On the other hand, my
journal entries do bring something back to me when I reread them – some-
thing real, or at least real in feeling. . .”
“. . .so how would one arrive at a decision about the truth – with
Shelley, for example: how does one sort through the myth to obtain, well,

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not the truth, but, then, what would it be. . .a provisional or speculative
“. . .I don’t think one can ever finally fully arrive at the truth, but one
can see through all the layers of myth, lies, and distortions, even if no final
layer of truth emerges. Take Claire, for example: the myths would have
it that she was kind of a ‘hanger-on’ – a silly fool who had no place better
to be, and who was madly trying to find her way back to Byron. e facts
don’t match this picture, or, rather, they only portray a small portion of
the truth. She was anything but a silly fool, and she was perhaps the
strongest and most independent of the three – at least in the end: she had
the strength to live quite an intense life aer Shelley’s death as a single
woman on the continent – living in Vienna, Moscow, Dresden, London,
Paris, and finally Florence. Of course, she was a bit of an extra when she,
Shelley and Mary first ran away to the continent in 181 when both
women were only seventeen, but when her mother came aer them and
implored her to come back home, she made a fateful decision to stay on,
without having any claim to Shelley’s affections. It was an amazing thing
to have done, especially given that, as step-sisters, they did not get along
very well, and considering their age. . .”
“. . .but why did whoever destroyed the journals and diaries especially focus
on Claire – to protect the myth of Shelley and Mary as the perfect couple?”
“. . .I think mostly because it detracted from the image of the ‘angelic’
Shelley ‘too good for this earth’ – the image that Mary was instrumental
in creating aer his death. . .”
“. . .so do you think it was Mary who might have done it?”
“. . .perhaps some of it – especially Shelley’s journals and letters that
were in her possession, but I doubt she destroyed much, as it would have
been too much like destroying a part of Shelley, and she couldn’t have
stood that. She tended to omit what she couldn’t face, and to rewrite
their history in her own image: when she edited Shelley’s collected works
she wrote introductions that distorted the facts considerably – so much
so, that, as I mentioned earlier, Claire, Trelawny, and Hunt were quite
justifiably angry at her. Claire pointed out to Silsbee that one poem enti-
tled ‘To Mary’ in the 189 edition was actually about Claire, and
evidence suggests she was right. . .”
“. . .she did it intentionally?”
“. . .in some cases it was conscious intention, but I think there was an
element of repression and denial in what she did: she seems to have

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wanted to erase her behavior during their last years together, which she
felt very guilty about. . .”
“. . .his loss must have been devastating to her aer all the others they
had endured together. . .but if Mary was only responsible for some of the
distortions and deletions, who else could have been responsible?”
“. . .I think the Victorians en masse are largely to blame: one age oblit-
erating the truth of another age. e circle around Shelley and Byron had
become legends by mid-century, and there were plenty of suspects –
indeed anyone who came into contact with the materials, which were
closely controlled by one definite culprit: Lady Jane Shelley. . .”
“. . .who was she?”
“. . .the wife of Shelley’s son, Percy Florence. She ended up being the admin-
istrator of a good deal of the remaining literary estate, but I also don’t rule
out the Victorian critics and scholars, who probably thought they were
performing the sacred mission of rescuing the truth of the poetry from the
‘scandal’ of their lives. . .”
“. . .as if it needed to be rescued. . .”
“. . .it happens all the time – the more innovative the writer, the more
likely a critical apparatus is set up around him or her that seizes interpre-
tive control – of the texts and the lives. Critics today don’t seem any less
likely to succumb to their biases, but the biases change – bias is bias,
whatever its ideology. I think critics today have been quite correct in
redressing the tendency traditional scholars have had for hero-worshipping
Shelley at the expense of Mary, but at times there’s something tendentious
about how some of them simply turn it around, raising Mary at the expense
of Shelley – one feminist critic even argued that Mary’s mourning for him
was in bad faith, given his supposed male chauvinism. . .and even worse in
my mind, some have added to the usual denigration and exclusion of
Claire, who, of the two women, was far more independent and strong-
willed. . .”
“. . .yes, Mary seems almost passive in comparison to Claire, although
aer the death of her children, it’s understandable. . .”
“. . .Lady Jane Shelley went so far as to have made a statue of Shelley
and Mary as a pieta. Mary was posed as the Virgin Mary, and Shelley
as a drowned Christ – of course Claire is nowhere to be seen. She had
it commissioned after Mary’s death – not even Mary would have gone
that far. Claire was simply forgotten – after all, how many pietàs have
you seen that include Mary Magdalene?”

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“. . .actually, there’s one on the Charles Bridge: the Virgin Mary and
Mary Magdalene, and someone else, I think. . .maybe it’s an angel, or an
effeminate-looking evangelist. . .”
“. . .really? I’ve never noticed it – I’ll take a look the next time I cross
the bridge. . .”
“. . .there’s one thing I really don’t understand: from what I know,
Byron was promiscuous, bi-sexual, incestuous, and had illegitimate chil-
dren; he was a scandal during his own age, but, despite everything, his
poetry sold incredibly well in England all the while, and to the present
day his excesses are largely forgiven. Shelley, on the other hand, had
intimate relationships with – how many women in his life?”
“. . .no more than four that we know of for certain – two of whom were
his wives. . .”
“. . .and if I understand it, his intimacies almost always took place
within the context of love, right?”
“. . .love and inspiration. . .with perhaps a single brief exception, yes. . .”
“. . .but Shelley was hardly published at all in his own lifetime, was
considered more or less a monster by his own countrymen, and he still
seems the object of a certain form of direct suppression. . .why? Was it
because Byron was a Lord?”
“. . .that’s certainly a part of it. Byron critiqued his class, but he never
gave up its privileges, while Shelley wrote political poetry that deeply
questioned his class and its values, and worst of all, gave up his right to
inherit his father’s estate, breaking the patrimonial pattern: this was
a very dangerous precedent for most of English society, while Byron
was merely an amusing aberration appealing to their deepest desires.
Debauchery and decadence are perfectly acceptable if they ultimately
uphold, even inversely, the established social norms. . .”
“. . .what about Shelley’s attitude towards religion – certainly that
couldn’t have helped his reception?”
“. . .Byron wasn’t exactly a regular churchgoer but he more or less le the
matter alone, while Shelley spoke out openly against the church – any
church. When he toured Switzerland he wrote the words, ‘Democrat,
Philanthropist, Atheist’ in Greek in the registers of various inns, and Byron,
coming across one, even crossed it out for Shelley’s protection. . .but it
caused a scandal anyway – it was noticed, and reported back in England. . .”
“. . .but why cover up the relation to Claire? It doesn’t connect to class,
and only peripherally to religion – was it his espousal of free love?”

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“. . .if Shelley had meant by ‘free love’ something more or less like
Byron’s libertinage, while he still probably would have caused a scandal,
I believe he wouldn’t have been as thoroughly condemned as he actu-
ally was in the end. People can deal with almost any form of immorality
if it’s merely the inverse of the moral norm, but Shelley went beyond
the dichotomy moral/immoral by breaking the unspoken rule against
loving more than one person at a time – a rule that was crucial for the
reproduction of the social hierarchy – and it still is. . .despite the 0th
century claims of freedom and individualism in post-industrial society,
society still interferes with our private lives, which are never as private
as we believe them to be: I’m not sure we’re all that more free today in
regard to who and how we can love, although we flatter ourselves that
we are. . .”
“. . .but it’s so hypocritical! What’s designated officially ‘immoral’ ends
up being more acceptable than something that doesn’t fit any of the
normal categories. . .”
“. . .it’s totally hypocritical – as hypocritical now as it was then.
Victorian critics suppressed Claire’s role in his life for supposedly
‘moral’ reasons, but even now critics who see Shelley as a chauvinist
follow as moral a model when they critique him, extol Mary, and forget
about Claire except as one of Shelley’s ‘other women.’ By the standards
of the time, or even now, he was hardly a chauvinist – quite the oppo-
site. If one begins by condemning his relations to Claire as a slight to
Mary without seeing those relations as equally legitimate, then of course
he looks bad. If, on the other hand, you see him as related to both
women equally but in differing ways, as I believe he was, a different story
emerges. Certainly he was capricious; idealistic to excess at times –
perhaps most of the time; ungrounded, and perhaps even dangerous in
his youthful naiveté – all of which shouldn’t be understated; but he
wasn’t possessive or jealous, and was tolerant and nurturing of the inde-
pendence of both Mary and Claire to a degree unheard of then, and
which is still extremely rare even today. He provided them a life they
could never have lived if they remained in England. ey were both
emotionally devastated by his death and never married again, even
though they both received several offers. at doesn’t make him an ideal
by any means – like everyone, he had his demons, and like all men, he
had the evils that are particular to his sex. e way he abandoned his
first wife, Harriet, was heartless and ultimately tragic, and Shelley

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suffered desperately from the ultimate outcome of it – her suicide.

ere’s always room for criticism, as long as it’s qualified by a sense of
the particular reality, and not clouded over by some abstract ideal of
pure, normative behavior, which is never attained by anyone, anyway.
at he had a second partner is, by some critics, attributed to his male
dominance – an exercise of masculine prerogative, but it forgets that
Claire also exercised her prerogative with Byron, as apparently Mary may
also have done with Hogg. . .”
“. . .when did their relationship actually develop – I mean Shelley and
“. . .in a way it was there from the very beginning – aer all, when they ran
away to the continent the first time, all three le together even though only
Shelley and Mary were lovers at that time. I believe it became more intimate
when Mary was pregnant with their first child, in London in 181, although
it isn’t clear, as the pages from their journals are missing for large portions
of the period. Whoever was trying to cover it up perhaps revealed more than
they concealed by their censorship. . .”
“. . .so how did it happen?”
“. . .Mary was confined to her bed from the fih month of her pregnancy
onwards, leaving Shelley and Claire to themselves. ey would go out for
long walks together: in the Kensington Gardens, along the Serpentine –
where Shelley indulged his fondness for floating paper boats. . .”
“. . .a strange occupation, given how his life ended. . .”
“. . .and a stranger location, given it was in the Serpentine where
Harriet’s body would later be found. His life was full of self-referential
symbols – at least in retrospect. One of the most characteristic was his
penchant for launching fire balloons: you know – a bit of wood, string,
a candle, and a cloth balloon. It would slowly rise, and would either
collapse when it hit the first current of air, or burst into flames and fall
to the earth. . .”
“. . .that’s certainly symbolic of Shelley. . .but did Mary mind his walks
with Claire?”
“. . .there’s no evidence she did in the beginning: she knew that walking
was something Shelley loved, and was something she herself rarely did
with as much enthusiasm even when she was healthy enough to do it.
Claire stressed to Silsbee at the end of her life that it was during their
walks that she got to really know Shelley – she claimed she knew him
even better than Mary knew him. . . ”

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“. . .do you think it was during one of their walks that they made love
for the first time?”
“. . .I’ve wondered about that – perhaps, but it’s more likely that it
would have been late at night after Mary was asleep: they would stay
up long after Mary went to bed – she retired early at that point –
talking about philosophy and radical politics. Shelley liked to create
moods, frightening himself and those around him with his stories,
which were terrifying precisely because he believed them himself, and
reacted to them so intensely. It’s something that can be traced back to
his childhood, when he would frighten his little sisters with stories of
the ‘Old Tortoise’ living in the pond on their estate, or of an old magi-
cian hidden in a secret room in the attic. There was a hysterical side
to his nature, and he would put himself into a nervous frenzy at times
– the stories became a way of heightening the intensity and the
tension. . .”
“. . .sexual tension?”
“. . .yes, that too. It reached a certain crisis during a scene described
in all of their diaries: Claire had returned to her room after one of
these sessions and suddenly found her pillow had mysteriously moved
when her back was turned to the bed: she burst into the bedroom of
Mary and Shelley in a hysterical fit, and he spent the rest of the night
talking with her, trying to calm her down. . .”
“. . .trying?”
“. . .you get a sense of what was really happening in his journal: he took
precisely that moment to tell Claire that Mary was pregnant, and
although he doesn’t link the events – aer all, he shared his journal with
Mary – I suspect that was the reason Claire became so hysterical. She
actually started having convulsions. . .”
“. . .if she was in love with him, finding out about the pregnancy would
have been devastating. . .”
“. . .yes – clearly there was some kind of displacement of jealousy and
sexuality going on in these sessions. . .”
“. . .was Shelley in love with Claire by then?”
“. . .he was certainly drawn to her, and the situation seemed to promote
it as a possibility, plus there was some precedent: he formerly had very
close relations with two of his own sisters, relations that became
forbidden aer the fight with his father that cut him off from his estate.
Aer all, Mary and Claire were step-sisters, so there was even a degree of

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incest involved – at least symbolically. . .incest plays a role in several of

his poems and dramas. . .”
“. . .and there’s no direct evidence from that period le?”
“. . .large chunks of Shelley and Mary’s journal are missing from the
period, and Claire’s journal has been torn away from November,
181, until 1818!”
“. . .someone did a rather good job of destroying the evidence. . .”
“. . .but there is one piece of remaining evidence. . .”
“. . .what is it?”
“. . .it’s a poem from the period – if that can be taken as evidence. It was
entitled, due to Mary’s editing, ‘To Mary Wollstonecra Godwin,’ but
it’s quite clearly written for Claire. . .”
“. . .is it the one that Silsbee mentioned?”
“. . .yes. She said that the poem was a result of a fight she had had with
Shelley: there was considerable conflict during the period following the
scene I just mentioned, and clearly they were trying to sort out,
consciously and unconsciously, how it would be between them all, or at
least how it would be between Claire and Shelley. We do know the
sessions continued, and were rather intense – to the point that they were
afraid to enter the house, and they actually moved to another residence
due to their fear over the strange happenings. We do know that the
tension between Claire and Shelley finally reached the point of a major
quarrel in October, as we have their journals for that period. . .”
“. . .what did they quarrel about?”
“. . .it’s unclear. e aermath was that Claire was quite contrite, and
accepted her faults, while Shelley came to a new understanding and
partial acceptance of her impetuous nature, and. . .”
“. . .and what?”
“. . .I have no evidence, but I believe it was some time during this period,
perhaps when they made up aer this argument, that they made love for
the first time. . .”
“. . .you get that from the poem?”
“. . .yes – as much as a poem can function as a kind of evidence. e
poem has to be about Claire, not Mary: clearly some argument has
occurred, and as a result it’s clear from the poem that they reached a new
stage of intimacy. Mary dates the poem in June of that year, but in her
notes she admits she’s only guessing, especially about the shorter ones.
I think it must have been written at some point aer their argument. . .”

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“. . .do you have it?

“. . .yes. . .here it is. . .”
“. . .can you read it to me?”
“. . .it was never completed, just like many of his short lyrics written in
response to some crisis. . .

Mine eyes were dim with tears unshed;

Yes, I was firm – thus wert not thou; –
My baffled looks did fear yet dread
To meet thy looks – I could not know
How anxiously they sought to shine
With soothing pity upon mine.

To sit and curb the soul’s mute rage

Which preys upon itself alone;
To curse the life which is the cage
Of fettered grief that dares not groan,
Hiding from many a careless eye
e scornèd load of agony.

Whilst thou alone, then not regarded,

e . . . thou alone should be,
To spend years thus, and be re-warded,
As thou, sweet love, requited me
When none were near – Oh! I did wake
From torture for that moment’s sake.

Upon my heart thy accents sweet

Of peace and pity fell like dew
On flowers half dead; – thy lips did meet
Mine tremblingly; thy dark eyes threw
eir so persuasion on my brain,
Charming away its dream of pain.

We are not happy, sweet! our state

Is strange and full of doubt and fear;
More need of words that ills abate; –
Reserve or censure come not near

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Our sacred friendship, lest there be

No solace le for thee and me.

Gentle and good and mild thou art,

Nor can I live if thou appear
Aught by thyself, or turn thine heart
Away from me, or stoop to wear
e mask of scorn, although it be
To hide the love thou feel’st for me.

. . .I think it’s clearly about Claire – from the mentioning of her ‘dark
eyes’ to the parts about their ‘strange state’ and ‘sacred friendship,’ to the
need to hide her love behind a mask of scorn. ey reached a peak of
conflict, and then. . .something must have happened. I know that it may
seem strange to get evidence from a poem, but Shelley’s short lyrics were
almost exclusively responses to events in his life, especially those written
to or for someone. . .”
“. . .yes, it seems clear to me as well – it simply couldn’t have been
written as a response to Mary. Did the crisis continue?”
“. . .other events reached their peak, too, at that point. Before their rela-
tions could develop further Shelley was on the run: someone, perhaps
Godwin, had contacted the authorities about some of his bad debts, and
he had to go into hiding – it was really quite terrible for a while, for it
meant he could only meet Mary and Claire secretly, and at the worst
point he even begged his former wife, Harriet, for money. . .”
“. . .she didn’t give it, I assume. . .”
“. . .of course not – Mary chided him for even trying. In any case, the crisis
ended when he secured a loan and they all moved to a new address. . .”
“. . .so there were no further conflicts between Claire and Shelley?”
“. . .yes, there were conflicts – the period at the new address coincided
with the period when Claire’s journal was deleted. is was the period,
I believe, when their love was fully achieved, but only aer one more trial.
Somehow the Godwins had gotten word that Claire wasn’t entirely
happy, and they managed to get her to come visit them. ey made one
last attempt to retrieve her from Shelley’s grasp. . .”
“. . .did she consider it?”
“. . .according to their account, they suggested she take a job as
a governess outside of London, and she told them she would only agree

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if she could still publicly maintain her radical principles, and have
freedom to write and visit Mary and Shelley – something she must have
known they would never consent to. . .”
“. . .so she returned to Shelley?”
“. . .yes, but only aer she first discussed it with Shelley. . .of course we
have no record of what they actually discussed together, but clearly, given
we know he was greatly upset by her absence, he must have convinced her
to stay by persuading her that their bond was deeply meaningful to him
– that was when she changed her name: first from Jane to Clara, then to
Clare, and, finally, Claire, to symbolize her transformation – her passage
away from her family. . .”
“. . .and perhaps also that she joined her life to Shelley’s: she would only
have returned to him if she was sure of his love. . .”
“. . .I agree – in fact, it was Shelley who gave her the new name. Claire
told Silsbee that he named her Claire because it meant ‘transparent’ –
a reference to her temperament, and how she couldn’t hide her feelings. . .”
“. . .given the situation, it was very courageous of her – especially given
the period. . .but what was Mary’s response to all of this – I mean to
Claire’s decision whether to stay or not? Certainly she must have known
about it?”
“. . .she knew about it, but she was ill from her pregnancy at the time
and had little say in it – although we do know she had a long talk with
Shelley. She was probably against it – he could be remarkably convincing:
he probably told her that to keep Claire with them was ‘striking a blow
against tyranny,’ or something like that, and, in a way, he was right –
but he certainly didn’t mention the intimate side of his relations with
Claire. . .”
“. . .how could Mary have failed to notice?”
“. . .partially due to the pregnancy, and partially because this was the
period when Thomas Hogg reappeared in Shelley’s life, dominating
Mary’s attention. . .”
“. . .the ‘vulture’?”
“. . .that’s him. He entered their lives with his typical lack of tact: the
first thing he asked Shelley was how were his ‘two wives.’ Gradually,
Shelley steered Hogg towards Mary, and Hogg, as usual, was only too
willing. . .”
“. . .why did Shelley do it – to compensate for his guilt over his rela-
tionship with Claire?”

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“. . .partially no doubt, but Shelley at that time believed in the possi-

bility of creating a radical community based on free love. Mary’s journal
entries suggest there was something like a developing love relationship
between herself and Hogg, although, given her pregnancy, she seems to
have been holding him off in regard to physical intimacy. . .”
“. . .seems?”
“. . .we don’t really know – once again, the pages are torn out of all the
journals and diaries at that point. . .”
“. . .do you have any idea what happened?”
“. . .certainly there were problems, and omas Hogg was one of the
biggest problems – that’s for certain. Shelley overestimated him, and
didn’t realize it until later. Hogg was a friend from his Oxford days: they
were both expelled for writing and distributing the pamphlet e
Necessity of Atheism. Shelley had first tried to pair up Hogg with his sister,
and then later, when Shelley eloped with his first wife, Harriet
Westbrook, and her older sister, Eliza, came along. . .”
“. . .Shelley eloped with two women before Mary and Claire?”
“. . .he never intended to elope with two women – there just happened
to always be an extra woman coming along! Eliza had come along as a sort
of chaperon, but the relations between Shelley and Harriet soured before
anything ever developed between himself and Eliza – if anything ever
could have developed, which I doubt, as she was a bit of a ‘stick-in-the-
mud’. . .”
“. . .what’s that?”
“. . .another idiom – it means someone who refuses to come along. . .anyway,
Hogg came aerwards to rendezvous with them and misconstrued the
whole situation, presumably interpreting Shelley’s more or less naive
notion of a community of liked-minded spirits and free love as an invi-
tation to freely take what he could for himself: he apparently tried to
seduce Harriet, with the result that Shelley fled to the Lake District with
the horrified sisters. He wrote Hogg an angry, admonishing letter. . .”
“. . .and Shelley forgave him aer that?”
“. . .it wasn’t because of his jealousy that they fled, but because Harriet
was so upset by what had happened. . .”
“. . .he was still a friend later, when he started coming to see Mary?”
“. . .Shelley forgave him, and trusted his intentions: as Byron once told
him, his greatest virtue was his greatest fault – that he was ‘too good.’
I don’t think Shelley realized, at that time, the complexity of human rela-

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tions, and he was clearly still in the thrall of his own vision of the
perfectibility of the human race – an idea he partially received from
Godwin. He was quite extraordinary in regard to his own lack of guile
and possessiveness, but he was quite foolish to think that others could so
easily rid themselves of such emotions. . .”
“. . .do you think that such a community is possible? I have my doubts. . .”
“. . .if by ‘community’ you mean a shared intimacy that extends in all
directions like a commune, then I have my doubts – unless it’s celibate
like a monastery, and even then I wonder: if the people are together all
the time. . .well, drives will find an outlet! e problem is that one
doubles and redoubles the intensity of emotions within such a circle,
especially if it is creative rather than ascetic, and by doing so you increase
geometrically the pressure on the various thresholds of the people
involved. It seems inevitable that such circles become increasingly
unstable with each additional member, and even if physical intimacy is
not involved at all, they inevitably break up – of course not without first
reaching certain intensities. I would never deny that certain circles or
groups were intensely productive, but I don’t believe it can last. . .”
“. . .communism began with a similar intention to break down class
barriers, but it certainly didn’t bring people together – quite the oppo-
site: in the social sphere it was a disaster, breeding a culture of envy,
loathing and suspicion. . .”
“. . .all of which is there in capitalism too, but they know how to hide
it better! But back to intimate relations, a connection between two
people is difficult enough to maintain; a three-way connection may be
possible, but is inherently unstable – the sociologist Georg Simmel
wrote about it in his work on dyads and triads. Any larger group
becomes deeply unstable, for it keeps breaking apart into twos and
threes. Still, it doesn’t mean we can’t connect to others serially. . .”
“. . .what do you mean, ‘serially’?”
“. . .for example, person ‘A’ might have an intimate relation with
persons ‘B’ and ‘C,’ but one is asking a bit much to expect persons ‘B’ and
‘C’ to have an intimate relation with each other as well. . .”
“. . .unlikely, or impossible?”
“. . .I wouldn’t say impossible, but more difficult. Even if it’s only an
intimate friendship, it would take hard work and great sensitivity on
everyone’s part. If you add sexuality to the mix, it makes it even harder,
for it assumes bi-sexuality can be maintained by at least two of the part-

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ners, plus the tolerance of the third. Of course, it all depends on the
thresholds of the persons involved, but, as you know, even with serial
connections there’s considerable stress on the person in the middle: one
has to have a special need for such relations. . .”
“. . .but it’s mostly men who have the need for more than one partner,
isn’t it?”
“. . .not necessarily. I can think of several examples of women: Virginia
Woolf if you consider non-sexual versions, and Anaïs Nin or Marguerite
Duras, for example, if you have a sexual component. It’s unusual, but prob-
ably happens more oen than anyone suspects: the average affaire de cœur
begins with this impulse, but usually either fizzles out in the end due to jeal-
ousy or possessiveness, or simply replaces the old relationship, due to the
stress it causes – and perhaps a lack of capacity, or imagination. . .”
“. . .what do you think Shelley was thinking when he brought Hogg
into it? It seems to me a terrible lapse in judgment on his part, given what
Hogg had done in the past. . .”
“. . .I agree. I think the problem was he didn’t imagine anything: his
tendency was to see the dangers of stasis within the traditional forms of
relationship, and he advocated a disruption of those forms. . .”
“. . .so what happened to their community?”
“. . .from what we know, Hogg and Mary became quite intimate during
those months: she appears to have been promising him sexual intimacy in
her letters to him, but putting him off until aer she gave birth. . .”
“. . .and Shelley really encouraged it?”
“. . .it seems so, although he soon realized he needed to guide Hogg to
the appropriately ‘purified’ emotions: at that time he actually wrote
a review of one of Hogg’s novels – Hogg was an amateur writer – where
he subtly suggested that Hogg’s vision of the relations between the sexes
was too coarse, and needed to be tempered. . .”
“. . .but what did he expect? What did Shelley mean exactly by ‘free
“. . .Shelley was more or less a neo-Platonist at that point, and a bit of
a Puritan as well, believe it or not. . .I think he had no problem with Hogg
loving Mary or Mary loving Hogg – he was just, well, a bit naive about
the appetites of others. He felt a purified love was possible that would
purify sexuality along with it, and he expected that whatever he was
feeling towards Mary and Claire would be felt by Hogg as well: physical
intimacy was part of it, but it had to be a ‘higher’ sense of it. . .”

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“. . .and so Hogg blundered in again and couldn’t manage it, I suppose?”

“. . .Hogg wasn’t Shelley by any means – he lived vicariously through him,
but could never live up to his ideals. I think he was a little too insistent – or
at least Mary’s letters from the period seem to suggest he was. . .”
“. . .so did Hogg and Mary ever consummate their relationship?”
“. . .I think it’s possible that they did, briefly, based on a few of the
remaining letters, but their relations ended as quickly as they began. . .”
“. . .what happened – did Mary become frightened and withdraw from
“. . .it’s more complicated, and more tragic, than that: Mary gave birth
to a baby prematurely – that was in February, 181 – but two weeks later
she woke up and found it dead. . .”
“. . .that’s terrible! Poor Mary. . .”
“. . .yes, it ravaged her. She turned to Hogg in her grief; in fact, he
moved in with them a few days later, and it seems that this was when they
must have become physically intimate, as a reaction to her loss. is is
known because Shelley wrote a note to Hogg aer a short trip to the
Berkshires with Mary in April, and he suggested he was both aware and
approving of their intimacy – but it didn’t last. . .”
“. . .it couldn’t last, I would guess: Hogg’s presence could only have
reminded her of her loss – a loss of what would have been a permanent
bond to Shelley. . .it must have been too much for her to stand. . .”
“. . .I agree. . .it was the beginning of a very stormy period for all of
them. Mary recoiled from it all. Hogg was ultimately banished – he with-
drew from their circle soon aer he started his law school term, and then
he seems to have simply disappeared for a long while. Mary almost imme-
diately began to feel Claire as a burden, and her journal entries from the
period show her being increasingly sarcastic about her, referring to her as
‘the lady,’ or Shelley’s ‘friend.’ She wanted to withdraw with Shelley
alone, with Claire out of their lives. . .”
“. . .it’s an understandable reaction – postnatal depression is difficult
enough, but then to have lost the baby? She must have felt she was losing
everything, and clung to Shelley as her only bond, seeing Claire as the
primary threat to that bond. . .”
“. . .exactly. . .her irritation grew until, in early May, Claire was forced by
the situation to move to Lynmouth – near the sea in Devon. Mary wrote
– I think a bit callously – in her journal, ‘the business is finished’ – as if
it had been some terrible trial for her. She ends that volume of the journal

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declaring that her new journal begins with ‘our regeneration,’ so she must
have felt, as you said, that something between herself and Shelley needed
bridging – without Hogg or Claire in the way. . .”
“. . .where did Shelley and Mary go?”
“. . .it’s all a mystery because their journals are missing from this period,
and there are so few letters. Clearly they all needed to sort things out –
especially Shelley. Shelley toured the west of England with Mary in May
and June, and at one point they were staying in Torquay, so perhaps they
visited Claire; but then Shelley le Mary in Clion in late June, disap-
pearing until August – supposedly house-hunting. My guess is that he
also went to see Claire in order to talk things over with her – at least
Mary was aaid he had gone to see her, because she asked him rather
nervously in a letter whether or not he was ‘with Clairy.’ e only real
evidence is a poem from the period. . .”
“. . .Shelley’s poems seem very good evidence to me. . .”
“. . .the shorter ones he wrote, then, concerned his disillusions with love
and with his ideals of what was possible for people seeking new modes of
existence. . .”
“. . .read one to me. . .”
“. . .here – this is the one beginning ‘Oh! there are spirits of the air’. . .”
“. . .oh, that one – yes, it’s beautiful, but I didn’t know the biographical
context when I read it before. . .”
“. . .he’s clearly leaving his neo-Platonic, idealized vision of love behind
and facing its realities, although the poem doesn’t really reach any reso-
lution – he merely seems tormented at the end. It’s actually entitled ‘To
– ,’ although it’s usually referred to by its first line. In her editorial notes,
Mary said that it was written to Coleridge ‘in idea,’ but this seems
another example of her bad faith aer his death. She couldn’t stand to
look back and see his disillusion with love occurring so early in their rela-
tionship. Some critics, also in bad faith – or so it seems to me, have
assumed it was written to himself, as he addresses himself in the poem,
but oen his poems with such titles refer not to who is addressed within
the poem, but to who is addressed by the poem. I believe it was for Claire,
for why else wouldn’t he have written the name if it was for Mary, as he
did with several other poems addressed to Mary?”
“. . .read it for me, please. . .”
“. . .here it is:

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Oh! there are spirits of the air,

And genii of the evening breeze,
And gentle ghosts, with eyes as fair
As star-beams among twilight trees: –
Such lovely ministers to meet
O hast thou turned from men thy lonely feet.

With mountain winds, and babbling springs,

And moonlight seas, that are the voice
Of these inexplicable things,
ou didst hold commune, and rejoice
When they did answer thee; but they
Cast, like a worthless boon, thy love away.

And thou hast sought in starry eyes

Beams that were never meant for thine,
Another’s wealth: – tame sacrifice
To a fond faith! still dost thou pine?
Still dost thou hope that greeting hands,
Voice, looks, or lips, may answer thy demands?

Ah! wherefore didst thou build thine hope

On the false earth’s inconstancy?
Did thine own mind afford no scope
Of love, or moving thoughts to thee?
at natural scenes or human smiles
Could steal the power to wind thee in their wiles?

Yes, all the faithless smiles are fled

Whose falsehood le thee broken-hearted;
e glory of the moon is dead;
Night’s ghosts and dreams have now departed;
ine own soul still is true to thee,
But changed to a foul fiend through misery.

is fiend, whose ghastly presence ever

Beside thee like thy shadow hangs,
Dream not to chase;—the mad endeavour

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Would scourge thee to severer pangs.

Be as thou art. y settled fate,
Dark as it is, all change would aggravate.

. . .he sounds resigned – like a much older man, but he was only twenty-
three when he wrote it. . .”
“. . .it’s quite bleak. Do you think he really meant it when he wrote
‘faithless smiles’?”
“. . .one has to consider his position at that point in his life. It refers to
all the disappointments in love and friendship he had suffered by then,
which would definitely include his family, his relation to his first wife
Harriet, his friendships with Hogg and Godwin, and, to some degree, his
disenchantment with Claire and Mary as well – or at least with his images
of them. ey were tearing him in different directions, and his resolve
was simply to live with his grief over the loss of his ideals about love. He
wrote his short essay, ‘On Love,’ around that time, and you can see there
the change in his vision. It opens with a less-than-ideal summation of the
gap of understanding between lovers: ‘I found my language misunder-
stood like one in a distant and savage land.’ It’s a strange essay, for he
seems to be trying to hold on to his idealism about love, but beyond any
attempt to actually realize it in the world. He defines love as ‘. . .that
powerful attraction towards all that we conceive, or fear, or hope beyond
ourselves, when we find within our own thoughts the chasm of an insuffi-
cient void and seek to awaken in all things that are, a community with
what we experience in ourselves. . .’ ”
“. . .but wasn’t his seeking a community an attempt to realize his
“. . .he’s only speaking of the symptoms of love, not anything about its real-
ization; in fact, the essay is more or less an analysis of love as what Freud
would call a drive. He describes something curiously like the psychoanalytic
conception of an ego-image – a kind of limited core-self which contains our
positive image of ourselves: ‘the ideal prototype of everything excellent or
lovely that we are capable of conceiving as belonging to the nature of man,’
but it’s stripped of the non-ideal – ‘everything we condemn or despise.’ is
ideal self, then, seeks an ‘anti-type’. . .he writes,

. . .the meeting with an understanding capable of clearly esti-

mating our own; an imagination which should enter into and

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seize upon the subtle and delicate peculiarities which we have

delighted to cherish and unfold in secret; with a frame whose
nerves, like the chords of two exquisite lyres, strung to the
accompaniment of one delightful voice, vibrate with the vibra-
tions of our own; and of a combination of all of these in such
proportion as the types within demands. . .

. . .”
“. . .in other words, one perfect person with whom we would merge. . .”
“. . .yes, but he realizes, at least by that point, that it was impossible. e
next line states, ‘this is the invisible and unattainable point to which love
tends,’ and he claims that it even operates without a human object, which
is why it’s closer to a drive. . .”
“. . .what did he conclude? Did he suggest a way beyond such idealiza-
“. . .not in this essay, although in Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude – his
second major long poem completed in the autumn of that year – he
suggested the dangers of seeking one’s anti-type, and there he at least
implies another way. . .”
“. . .what is it about?”
“. . .it’s rather strange – it’s more or less an allegorical dramatization
of the dangers of seeking the embodiment of one’s anti-type, the specific
danger being that of drowning in the well of one’s narcissism. e
protagonist, simply called ‘the Poet,’ begins life quite content with the
beauties surrounding him in nature, but later begins to seek a human
embodiment of his desires. e crucial moment for him comes when he
has what seems to be a kind of poetic wet dream: he dreams about
a woman who comes to him and seduces him – the seduction scene is
quite erotic. . .”
“. . .read it to me!”
“. . .I won’t be responsible for the consequences. . .”
“. . .I think you can handle it. . .”
“. . .it’s not the how that disturbs me right now, it’s the where. . .anyway,
here it is. . .

Sudden she rose,

As if her heart impatiently endured
Its bursting burthen: at the sound he turned,

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And saw by the warm light of their own life

Her glowing limbs beneath the sinuous veil
Of woven wind, her outspread arms now bare,
Her dark locks floating in the breath of night,
Her beamy bending eyes, her parted lips
Outstretched, and pale, and quivering eagerly.
His strong heart sunk and sickened with excess
Of love. He reared his shuddering limbs and quelled
His gasping breath, and spread his arms to meet
Her panting bosom:. . .she drew back a while,
en, yielding to the irresistible joy,
With frantic gesture and short breathless cry
Folded his frame in her dissolving arms.
Now blackness veiled his dizzy eyes, and night
Involved and swallowed up the vision; sleep,
Like a dark flood suspended in its course,
Rolled back its impulse on his vacant brain.

. . .”
“. . .that is rather erotic – I could share some ‘short, breathless cries’
right now. . .if only it weren’t so hot. . .”
“. . .the heat makes my brain a bit vacant also, even without the erotic
frenzy. . .”
“. . .so then what happens in the poem – I assume he goes to seek the
woman, his anti-type?”
“. . .yes. When he awakens, he’s seized by the image he’s had of the
woman. He decides to pursue her – or ‘it,’ and in the rest of the poem he
passes through increasingly bizarre landscapes, symbolic of his enflamed
mind, as he travels by a small boat up a river in search of her. . .”
“. . .I assume he doesn’t find her?”
“. . .the word ‘vacant’ in the passage says it all: the image is empty, as it’s
only his obsessive projection. During one moment, quite a ways into his
journey, he experiences a faint repetition of the dream when he gazes at
his own image in a pool and senses the figure of the woman again – of
course indicating the dream’s narcissistic nature, but this time she’s only
two eyes hanging ‘in the gloom of thought.’ is simply sets him off on
his futile search again, but as Shelley suggested in ‘On Love,’ to seek the
anti-type is only to return to oneself – the prototype. . .”

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“. . .does he at least become aware of the futility of his search?”

“. . .there’s no real climax to the poem, either negative or positive, for the
persona within the poem simply dies – and it’s a strangely passive death:
he rests, and his heart and breathing slowly cease while he watches the
setting moon. However, for Shelley himself, there’s clearly a new awareness
that can be seen in the preface to the poem; in fact, it says a great deal about
what he had learned by then: ‘e intellectual faculties, the imagination,
the functions of sense, have their respective requisitions. . .’”
“. . .wait – what’s a ‘requisition’?”
“. . .it’s a strange use of the word here: normally, a ‘requisition’ is
a formal request – it tends to be used today in government or military
parlance. Shelley means something like a demand, requirement, or need
– there was no psychoanalytic terminology in existence then. . .”
“. . .I understand – it’s probably nároky in Czech. . .go on. . .”
“. . .‘have their respective requisitions on the sympathy of correspon-
ding powers in other human beings. e Poet is represented as uniting
these requisitions, and attaching them to a single image. He seeks in vain
for a prototype for his conception. Blasted by his disappointment, he
descends to an untimely grave’. . .while he doesn’t really spell it out
directly, there are the rudiments of a new vision. . .at least inversely. . .”
“. . .if he’s wrong to unite these requisitions to a single image, then
I suppose he’s implying that one ought not expect completion through
a single other human being, as he had discovered again with Mary. . .”
“. . .and Claire as well – two different women, two different modes of
being: one more intellectual and sensible, the other more sensual and
emotional; both dynamic, enchanting beings, but neither, of course,
the non-existent ‘anti-type’. . .as the French psychoanalyst Jacques
Lacan said, we can expect ‘supplementarity’ in our love relations, but
not ‘complementarity’ – we can expect some fulfillment of our needs
and desires, but not complete fulfillment. . .”
“. . .but did Shelley really accept these limits?”
“. . .I think he did: in the preface Shelley goes on to critique those
who do not love, and it’s clear this critique concerns as much those
incapable or refusing to love, as those, like the poet in the poem, who
do not love because they’re seeking only their anti-type. Given he
accepts the anti-type as impossible, and yet sees not loving as the
greater offense, I assume he decided to settle for simply loving those
he loved as best as he could, despite all the difficulties. . .”

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“. . .but he seems to be rather critical in certain parts of the poem. Who

do you think he had in mind – Mary?”
“. . .yes, to an extent – aer all, ‘On Love’ does seem to have a specific
listener as its audience. It’s not that she didn’t love him, it’s that her love
refused to accept large parts of his being – and I’m not only speaking
about Claire, which would be understandable given the circumstances.
Because of her upbringing by Godwin, I think she held to the belief that
Shelley was her anti-type, which was difficult for him to live up to. . .”
“. . .but what about Claire? Didn’t she also believe she could be his anti-
“. . .Claire had the advantages specific to the position of the ‘other
woman,’ in that she knew her situation was shared to begin with. . .”
“. . .but that didn’t stop her from believing that she would become the
woman in Shelley’s life, did it?”
“. . .it never does – she probably hoped for precisely that. . .I doubt
Shelley would have le Mary for so long in Clion if he was certain about
his decision to remain with her. Clearly he had to work things out with
Claire. . .”
“. . .what was the result?”
“. . .it’s speculation, but I would guess that he chose to maintain the
status quo, but with the difference that Claire became an imperceptible
bond. . .”
“. . .and Mary the perceptible bond?”
“. . .it was the easiest way, given the stresses they had all been through. . .”
“. . .so what did they do?”
“. . .finally, aer what seems to have been some wavering, he took
a house in Bishopsgate near Windsor that Peacock had found for him –
Mary joined him there in mid-August. . .”
“. . .and where did Claire go?”
“. . .I assume she stayed the summer in Lynmouth, but it’s somewhat
unclear what happened to her. Shelley, Mary, and Claire’s half-brother
Charles went on a boating expedition in September and we know Claire
wasn’t with them, because Charles was writing to her. She visited Ireland
with her brother later in the autumn, and the trip seems to have been
funded by Shelley. e next direct evidence she was with them is
Godwin’s mentioning her spending the New Year’s holidays with Shelley
and Mary at Bishopsgate, but there are checks from Shelley written to
her from October onwards, so clearly Shelley was taking full responsi-

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bility for her, wherever she was – perhaps back in Lynmouth, and then
later in London. She mentioned something about it to Silsbee. . .”
“. . .how do you think they managed it? I doubt Mary would have been
very happy about either his supporting Claire, or her coming to
Bishopsgate to live with them. . .”
“. . .as I said, Shelley seems to have taken up a position of impercepti-
bility from that point onwards in regard to Claire. I doubt he mentioned
to Mary the funds going to Claire, and for a considerable period he seems
to have had a separate life with her, hidden from Mary. In any case, Mary
was pregnant again – probably since July, based on when she gave birth.
By the time of Claire’s return in January, 181, she would have been in
the final trimester, so, once again, she had the physical evidence of her
bond with Shelley that she needed, and that seems to have helped change
her attitude towards Claire a bit – at least enough to tolerate visits from
her. . .”
“. . .Claire must have felt le out again, didn’t she?”
“. . .oh, without doubt. Mary gave birth to William Shelley on January
, 181, and I think that it’s not coincidental that this was the same
period when Claire began her pursuit of Byron. She told Silsbee, later,
that she was very angry at both Mary and Shelley: she must have real-
ized that she would never fully replace Mary in Shelley’s affections, and
that her presence would always be contentious. If she wanted a poet all
to herself, she realized she would have to look elsewhere: her first and
last attempt was her relationship with Byron. . .”
“. . .she was aiming rather high, wasn’t she – given Byron’s reputation?”
“. . .she was young – eighteen at the time – and she mistakenly believed
that Byron would accept her as a fellow outcast and ‘free spirit.’ Claire
had sent a series of coquettish letters to Byron, introducing herself at first
as a woman who wanted advice about an acting career, and then later as
a budding author wanting advice. She ridiculed social mores – Byron
wrote to someone later that she introduced herself by proclaiming, ‘I am
an atheist,’ and flaunted her own connections to Shelley, who was then
known in certain circles because of his radical poem Queen Mab. Shelley
had sent Byron a copy of it two years earlier, and Claire sent a copy of
Alastor. She also cited her connections to Mary, who, although unknown
herself, was the daughter of the infamous Godwin and Mary
Wollstonecra. Finally, she offered herself sexually to Byron, who, by
then, had gained his reputation as someone who was – in Lady Caroline

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Lamb’s o-quoted words, ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’. . .”

“. . .and he accepted, no doubt. . .”
“. . .not immediately, but she was persistent. He was rather skittish due
to his recent separation from his wife, and the fact that the newspapers
were ready to report even the slightest rumor about him. . .”
“. . .so how was Claire able to overcome his defenses?”
“. . .at one point she actually included, in a letter to him, an assessment
of her personality written by Shelley, who had no idea how it would be
used. . .”
“. . .what did it say?”
“. . .let me find it. . .here it is – apparently she was already beginning to
grate a bit on Byron’s nerves:

My dear Lord Byron you call me a ‘little fiend’ – I thought it

so criminal to doubt anything you said that I was much
impressed by this appellation. In the course of the Evening
I asked Shelley if he thought I was of a gentle disposition. I give
you his exact words. ‘My sweet Child, there are two Clare’s –
one of them I should call irritable if it were not for the nervous
disorder, the effects of which you still retain; the nervous Clare
is reserved & melancholy & more sarcastic than violent; the
good Clare is gentle yet cheerful; & to me the most engaging
of human creatures; one thing I will say for you that you are as
easily managed by the person you love as the reed is by the
wind; it is your weak side.’ I do not report this through vanity;
I know Shelley is too fond of me not to be indulgent, yet
I think it is an honorable testimony to that part of my character
you have accused that the man whom I have loved & for whom
I have suffered much should report this of me.

. . .”
“. . .what was the ‘nervous disorder’?”
“. . .there’s none that I know of – I think it was Shelley’s way of referring
to her moods and her temper. . .”
“. . .what did she tell Byron about her relations with Shelley?”
“. . .what would you assume?”
“. . .it’s clear that she and Shelley had been lovers in the past – at least
given the references. . .”

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“. . .it seems obvious to me as well, but critics have discounted it. . .that
she was a lover of Shelley is quite clear: when Shelley writes that she is
‘easily managed by the person she loves,’ how could he have known this
if he weren’t referring to himself – and who else could he be referring to?
Claire had no other men in her life before Shelley, and anyway, an edito-
rial bracket here shows that she first wrote ‘easily managed by the person
she loves,’ and then deleted the words ‘and I’. . .”
“. . .it seems obvious to me – she wrote it the first time to hide her rela-
tions with Shelley because she was afraid Byron might be jealous, and
then she changed her mind and let it stand. . .”
“. . .I agree, but it’s little details like this that allow the interpretation to
be bent whichever way the biographer wishes. . .”
“. . .but how can they deny it when she writes ‘the man whom I have
loved & for whom I have suffered much. . .’”
“. . .it’s clear for anyone with an honest instinct, but for the kind of critic
who wants to camouflage realities they don’t want to accept, anything’s
possible. . .”
“. . .so what did Byron think?”
“. . .when he considered, later, whether or not he was the father of
Allegra, he didn’t conclude it was quite probable because Shelley was not
Claire’s lover, but only because she hadn’t been living with him at the
time she began seeing Byron; of course, his reasoning was actually faulty:
Claire wasn’t living with Shelley and Mary, but there’s evidence that at
the time Shelley and she were passing nights together in an apartment
they were renting in London. In any case, I’m not making a point about
the facts, but rather a point about what he thought were the facts, and, by
the time he was in Venice, he had some doubts about his own paternity,
although we’ll never know if they were real doubts, or merely cruelty. . .”
“. . .so when did Claire finally make love to Byron?”
“. . .that’s unclear as well. According to one version of the story, they
met several times without making love in Byron’s private rooms at the
Drury Lane eatre, but consummated their relationship at an inn
outside of London on April 0th, based on the fact that Claire’s letters
have an urgency about the meeting: they stress the need for secrecy, and
seem to indicate the consummation of their relations; however, if it’s
true, then Allegra must have been conceived precisely at that meeting,
and only there, for Byron departed for the continent on April , and
during the intervening days Claire was sending him letters imploring

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him to see her again and he clearly wasn’t granting her wish: on April
 she addressed a letter to him that ended with the postscript, ‘Please
write. I shall die if you don’t write’ – we have no indication that he did,
and he was gone the next day. . .”
“. . .couldn’t the child have been conceived in Geneva?”
“. . .the child was born on January 1 – exactly nine months aer their
meeting on April 0. We know Claire didn’t see him again until May ,
which would have been too short a time before the birth. . .”
“. . .so that was a rather lucky encounter, or I suppose unlucky, in retro-
spect. . .”
“. . .I’m inclined to believe she planned it that way, but still, it seems too
lucky, so I think there’s another way to read the events. ey may have had
any number of trysts in Byron’s rooms at the theater or his house, as one of
Claire’s letters is ambiguous: she’s either complaining about meeting him
at his house because she fears they will be interrupted, or fears it because
they had been interrupted – that would account for her desire to meet
somewhere they could have their leisure, and it would also give a wider
margin for the conception to have taken place. . .”
“. . .plus, from what I know about Byron, he probably preferred brief
interludes, and a meeting out of town gave her more time with him. . .but,
you don’t think there’s any chance it was Shelley’s child?”
“. . .we’ll never have any way of knowing that for certain either way, but,
instinctively, I believe it must have been Byron’s. Claire may have been
spending some time with Shelley, but she was genuinely in pursuit of
Byron, then, and her letters show her as trying to strike out on her own in
order to gain her independence. I don’t think she would’ve risked giving
up the child to Byron if she wasn’t sure it was his child. . .”
“. . .how much did Mary and Shelley know about their relations?”
“. . .Claire made a point of bringing Mary to meet Byron at the theater,
but she also instructed Byron to avoid using Claire’s familiar name, as she
didn’t want Mary to know there was a degree of intimacy between them,
so Mary didn’t know about the intimacy until they reached Geneva, and
seems not to have known about the pregnancy until a good part of the
summer was over. . .”
“. . .and Shelley?”
“. . .that’s more difficult to know: clearly he knew as much as Mary did
at first, which is very little, but then he must have known much more to
agree with Claire’s desire to go to Geneva. . .”

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“. . .but wasn’t Shelley jealous of Claire – how could he stand knowing

she was in love with Byron?”
“. . .Shelley was remarkable for his lack of possessiveness, but, yes,
I imagine there was some jealousy – there must have been. . .”
“. . .you would be jealous in the same situation, wouldn’t you?”
“. . .I admit I’d be jealous, although I can imagine it partially being
mitigated by whoever the other writer was – if they were of the caliber
of Byron, then perhaps not. Shelley was interested in Byron as
a prospective colleague for whom he felt great sympathy – for both
poetical and political reasons. That Byron was going into exile mirrored
Shelley’s own sense of self at the time, and he must have identified with
Byron’s flight from society, seeing him as a potential ally. . .”
“. . .why did Shelley feel so driven towards exile just then?”
“. . .first of all because he felt he was totally unappreciated in England:
while Queen Mab had received some good notices in the radical small
presses, Alastor was widely ridiculed as being incomprehensible. en,
there was the matter of Godwin, who had been pressing Shelley for
money all that winter. . .”
“. . .why – as compensation for losing his daughters?”
“. . .Shelley had initially helped Godwin financially out of a sense of
being ‘brothers in the cause of liberty,’ but aer Shelley eloped with Mary
and Claire, Godwin seems to have expected something like reparations
for the loss of his two daughters, although it was never said explicitly.
Shelley helped him for a while – probably both out of guilt and because
Mary pressed him to help, but Godwin’s demands only increased, and by
that time Shelley was feeling increasingly bitter about the whole thing:
he was clearly being used by Godwin, who seemed like a bottomless pit.
It was in that period when the whole issue came to a head, and Shelley,
who was staying in London without Mary’s mediating presence, wrote
Godwin a letter unleashing his fury towards him. He charged him with
hypocrisy in regard to the fact that he had refused to deal with Shelley
following Mary’s departure on moral grounds, but when it came to
needing money, Godwin was suddenly willing to bend his principles. . .”
“. . .I suppose that didn’t make Godwin very happy. . .”
“. . .they could hear his shouting, by letter, all the way to Italy. However,
the final blow driving Shelley into self-imposed exile came with the end
of a legal proceeding regarding his father’s estate: Shelley had hoped that
he would find a way to profit from some complex dealings about the

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property, but the suit went against him, and he continued to receive only
the thousand pounds annually he had already been receiving. At that
point he simply wanted to leave England, and Claire’s proposal gave
some shape to his plans. Aer a rather quick decision, they departed for
Geneva. . .”
“. . .here’s the waiter – do you want anything more. . .?”
“. . .I’m not so hungry because of the heat – but will you share a pasta
with me?”
“. . .yes, which one?”
“. . .whichever – you choose. . .”
“. . .so something light – how about the spaghetti al pesto?”
“. . .fine. . .”
“. . .and more wine?”
“. . .I don’t know, we’ll pass out with this heat if we have more, but
perché no?”
“. . .uno spaghetti al pesto, e ancora mezzo litro di vino bianco, per favore. . .”
e waiter takes their order, returns with another carafe of wine, and
then disappears into a back room, where a television can be heard
“. . .it’s all so good – I could live here forever. . .”
“. . .I could too – but I wonder if I would ever get anything done. . .”
“. . .maybe you wouldn’t need to get anything done. . .”
“. . .that’s possible, but on the other hand, you know what Goethe
wrote: ‘Alles in der Welt lässt sich ertragen, Nur nicht eine Reihe von
schönen Tagen’. . .”
“. . .translation?”
“. . .paraphrased, ‘nothing is harder to bear than a succession of beautiful
days’. . .”
“. . .oh, I don’t know about that – I’m really enjoying this particular
succession of sunny days!”
“. . .I remember when I came to Italy with Michael: I was supposed to
teach him the thought of Deleuze and Guattari in exchange for him
teaching me the thought of Niklas Luhmann. We ended up doing hardly
any work at all: instead, we ate fresh fish at seaside restaurants, admired
the scenery, and spent a good deal of time staring out to sea. We
concluded that the cisalpine environment isn’t conducive to social
theory: we found we were too content! It’s no wonder one of the few
Italian thinkers to get anything done in the 0th Century was Gramsci,

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who was in prison, locked away from all this distracting beauty. A certain
kind of angst is necessary for high theory, it seems, provided only by the
inclement environment of places like northern European cities, such as
Paris, Berlin, and Frankfurt. My guess is contemporary Italian thinkers
like Eco, Vattimo, Negri, and Agamben get their dosage of angst from
their various travels, because if they were ‘stuck’ here, they be overcome
with the beauty – and, anyway, with the exception of Agamben they are
all from the north. . .”
“. . .maybe if you live in a country like this, you don’t need theory!”
“. . .or perhaps the ideal would be eight to ten months in a northern
European capital like Prague to get one’s work done, and a few months
a year here – preferably in early spring and late autumn in order to cut
the long winters off at either end. . .”
“. . .I’m agreeable to that – so when do we start?”
“. . .there’s no time like the present: this will be our first year on the
plan, which we will undertake incrementally, adding a week each year
until we reach our goal. . .”
“. . .that’s fine with me. . .”
“. . .now if we could only find a way to pay for it!”
“. . .not to mention finding time off from our jobs. . .”
“. . .details, mere details. . .”
“. . .so, getting back to our story, what do you think Claire was really
expecting from Byron? Did she think he would fall in love and stay with
“. . .she may have hoped so, but by the time they were on the continent
heading for Geneva she realized that the odds were against it – look at this
passage from a letter she sent ahead to Byron: ‘I know not how to address
you; I cannot call you friend for though I love you yet you do not feel even
interest for me; fate has ordained that the slightest accident that should befall
you should be agony to me; but were I to float by your window drowned, all
you would say would be “Ah voila!” ’. . .”
“. . .then Byron never had any feelings for her – even at the beginning?”
“. . .perhaps for a single moment he had a fondness for her – in late
March he did, aer all, write the stanzas ‘ere be none of Beauty’s
daughters’ with her in mind. e truth, however, is that his capacity for
attachment had been worn out aer a long series of affairs, plus he had
reason to fear any woman in pursuit of him – aer all, he already had had
his famous, disastrous affair with Lady Caroline Lamb. I think by that

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point he only truly loved his half-sister Augusta: that, of course, was
already the scandal being whispered about, adding to the more open
scandal of his separation from Lady Byron. He was in terrible spirits as
he entered his period of self-imposed exile: it was the worst possible time
for Claire to have made a play for him. . .”
“. . .what about Geneva? Both the Russell film and the Passer film show
Claire and Byron making love there. . .”
“. . .Byron seems to have unthawed enough to sleep with her again – at
least at the beginning of the summer. He wrote to Augusta a short while
aerwards, ‘I was not in love, nor have any love le for any, but I could
not exactly play the role of stoic with a woman who had scrambled eight
hundred miles to unphilosophize me.’ eir relations continued for
a while, but at some point they stopped – I suspect it was in late June aer
Byron returned from his trip on the lake with Shelley. . .”
“. . .aer he found out about the pregnancy. . .”
“. . .no doubt. . .there’s no hard evidence, but there’s a piece of circum-
stantial evidence: Byron and Shelley le for a week-long tour of the lake
by boat on June rd. On June th, Shelley draed a will in which, among
other bequests, he le twelve thousand pounds from his future estate to
Claire – six thousand for herself, and six thousand for another to be
chosen by her, so clearly Shelley knew about the pregnancy by then.
I would guess Shelley told Byron, Byron reacted negatively, and when
Shelley saw his reaction he realized he needed to create some sort of secu-
rity for Claire and her child – it’s typical of him. Also, their boat was
almost swamped during a sudden summer storm, and, because Shelley
couldn’t swim, he was undoubtedly frightened for his life: he must have
realized that only Mary and William would have been legally taken care
of in the event of his death, and he wanted to be sure that everyone
connected to him would be taken care of if the worst ever happened – as
he also le bequests to Harriet and their two children. . .”
“. . .and how did Byron treat Claire when they returned?”
“. . .her pregnancy seems to have immediately become an issue. Claire
sent a note to him in early July begging him to send for her, or for Byron
to come visit them at the Maison Chapuis – the small villa below the Villa
Diodati they were renting on the lake. He apparently refused. . .”
“. . .a note? ey only lived a few hundred meters apart!”
“. . .it seems that by mid-July Byron decided that he would no longer
tolerate Claire’s presence at the Villa Diodati. The trip to the Alps that

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Shelley, Claire, and Mary took at that time must have been partially
intended as a kind of pressure-release valve for the situation. They left
on July 1st, and returned on the th, when Byron deigned to see them
all together. It’s highly likely that the decision about the child was made
on August nd, when Shelley and Claire went up to the Villa Diodati
alone. . .”
“. . .Mary didn’t go?”
“No. Her journal indicates Byron didn’t wish her to be there. I would
guess it was because he knew there would be a scene, and he didn’t want
to reveal the more cruel part of his temperament in Mary’s presence. . .”
“. . .so what changed Byron’s mind, in the end, about taking care of the
“. . .it must have been the influence of Shelley – and perhaps also Mary
as a mute witness in the background. You know the rest: the arrangement
was made – the child would have Byron’s name and protection in
exchange for Claire’s giving up any further claim on it, save for visiting it
in the guise of an aunt. At first Byron suggested he would turn the child
over to the care of his half-sister Augusta, but Claire vehemently refused,
demanding it should be under the care of one of its parents until it was
seven years of age. Byron agreed. Shelley offered that he would support
Claire during the time of her pregnancy – a fact which in itself reveals
the closeness of their bond, for it could only harm Shelley’s reputation
further if it were to become known, and it called for their being extremely
clandestine. Claire didn’t fully acknowledge what Shelley had done for
her by agreeing to this arrangement until much later, when she realized
Byron’s true intentions. . .”
“. . .when did they agree Byron would receive the child?”
“. . .there was no specific arrangement: the child was to be turned over
to Byron when it would be possible to do so without harming it. . .”
“. . .as if that were possible! Losing its mother could only be harmful to it!”
“. . .Shelley argued the same point to Claire, and, of course, Claire lived
to regret her decision. . .perhaps she felt that Byron might still relent. For
a considerable time she seems to have been quite deluded about the possi-
bility of Byron still having some feeling for her, and over the next half year
or so she faced a dreadful awakening to the truth – that he had no feeling
for her at all, except contempt. . .”
“. . .didn’t she realize it when he forbade her to see him alone at the
Villa Diodati?”

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“. . .Claire was in a kind of hormonal daze, it seems: the truth simply

wouldn’t penetrate. She seems to have taken Byron’s refusal to see her as
merely his paranoia about inviting further scandal – you can see that in
the fact that she was still happily willing, throughout the rest of August,
to fair copy some of Byron’s poems from the lake tour. . .”
“. . .fair copy?”
“. . .the age of mechanical reproduction was yet to come: copying was
an arduous process, and for exiles like Shelley and Byron, a risky process
as well. We take for granted typewriters and computers, but back then
a final draft would have been full of erasures, lines crossed out and
inserted lengthwise – a real mess. The fair copy sent to the publishers
had to be fully copied out in legible handwriting, which took weeks.
Claire fair-copied the third canto of Childe Harold earlier in the
summer, and now The Prisoner of Chillon and some shorter lyrics.
Shelley agreed to hand-deliver these copies to Murray, Byron’s
publisher, upon their arrival in England. They were the only extant
clean copies, so there was always a risk of their loss. Actually, it turned
out to be rather disturbing for him: Murray immediately agreed to pay
Byron two thousand guineas – over twice Shelley’s annual income –
for the canto of Childe Harold alone, while he had rejected Shelley’s
Alastor the previous January. It’s no wonder that Shelley’s output
always dwindled when he was in Byron’s proximity. . .”
“. . .what did they write in Geneva?”
“. . .Byron’s stay in Geneva was quite fertile – aside from the canto
of Childe Harold and The Prisoner of Chillon, he wrote several signif-
icant lyrics, such as ‘Darkness,’ ‘The Dream,’ and he even wrote a lyric
entitled ‘Prometheus’ – a theme Mary had taken up in Frankenstein.
Shelley, meanwhile, wrote just two medium-length lyrics: ‘Hymn to
Intellectual Beauty’ and ‘Mont Blanc’ – exceptional poems to be sure,
but compared to his usual output, he was blocked. In the notebooks
he kept during his lake tour with Byron he was able to only write
a fragment of a lyric. . .”
“. . .on what?”
“. . .on the topic of his inability to write – here, I’ll read it. . .

My thoughts arise and fade in solitude,

e verse that would invest them melts away
Like moonlight in the heaven of spreading day:

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How beautiful they were, how firm they stood,

Flecking the starry sky like woven pearl!

. . .meanwhile Byron, on the same trip, was elegizing the lake one moment,
personifying one of the prisoners in the dungeon of Chillon the next –
pouring forth a torrent of verse. . .”
“. . .why was Shelley so inhibited by his presence – was it because Byron
was so much better known then?”
“. . .certainly that was part of it, but it was more than that, as Shelley
was always inhibited by Byron. eir personalities were very different:
Byron was insufferably haughty, and his airs were something Shelley
could barely tolerate, especially because Byron held to ideas that were
retrograde in Shelley’s opinion: his class status, his ideas about the treat-
ment of women, and, while hardly religious, Byron wasn’t the type to
attack organized religion the way Shelley did. Shelley wrote to Peacock
that summer, ‘Lord Byron is an exceedingly interesting person, and as
such is it not to be regretted that he is a slave to the vilest and most vulgar
prejudices, and as mad as the winds’. . .”
“. . .but what do you think about Byron’s poetry – in comparison to
Shelley’s, I mean?”
“Byron was by far the better ‘versifier’. . .he seemed to have an incredible
facility to work within a closed system of rhyme and meter. . .”
“. . .but not a better poet?”
“. . .it all depends on how one defines poetry. For their period he
certainly had a better grasp of the fundamentals. He was able to
consistently write verse that was harmonious and elegant, which is all
the more remarkable given at the same time his themes were often so
scornful and even cynical: indeed, I believe the tension between the
beauty of the verse and his irony and wit is where his artistry prima-
rily resides. . .”
“. . .and Shelley?”
“. . .Shelley, judged from the same criteria of what a poet was ‘supposed’
to be then, could occasionally write verse that contained lines of aston-
ishing beauty, but his over-all effect could run to obfuscation one
moment and to a kind of preciousness or even hysteria the next; Shelley,
aer all, almost patented the motif of the swooning poet reaching the
point of inexpressibility. . .”
“. . .how do you mean, exactly?”

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“. . .ok, look at this line from ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,’ which is

typical: ‘Sudden, the shadow fell on me; I shrieked, and clasped my hands
in ecstasy!’ A bit strident, don’t you think?”
“. . .but it’s Shelley. . .”
“. . .yes, it all goes together. His obfuscation is the primary difficulty
about his poetry – reading a Shelley poem is oen an exercise of
suspended meaning that can be far more arduous than the longer
passages of writers like Marcel Proust or Henry James: clause is
embedded within clause, so that one oen has the feeling of reading
a long periodic sentence that keeps opening and opening – and the
opening doesn’t only occur on the level of the subordination of clauses,
but also on the level between the metaphor’s tenor and its vehicle. . .”
“. . .in plain English?”
“. . .the complexity is increased both in terms of the thoughts embedded
within thoughts, but also in the stretching and breaking of the link
between the metaphor and what it’s expressing. . .to be honest, on the
purely poetic level taken alone, I sometimes find myself surprised at how
bad a ‘great poet’ Shelley can be at times. . .”
“. . .then what do you find so great about him?”
“. . .it’s in the same effects, but considered from a different perspec-
tive. My bias is towards literature that moves towards creating new
forms of meaning, not that which perfects existing forms – towards
what Jean Paulhan in Les fleurs de Tarbes referred to as literary ‘terror-
ists’ as opposed to ‘rhetoricians.’ The German romantic critic Friedrich
Schlegel claimed that the merging of poetry and philosophy produced
‘prophecy’ or ‘vision’: one would never use these words to describe
what Byron was doing, but in Shelley’s best poetry, he’s clearly
emerging as what Rimbaud would later term a ‘voyant’ or ‘seer’. . .a new
language is being created – or as Gilles Deleuze has put it, a foreign
language emerges from within the native language, with new meanings,
new forms of perception and feeling. Shelley’s poetry is an exploration
of the limits of representation: he was attempting to work out a mode
of being that was able to sustain itself in the face of the void opened in
representation by the Enlightenment – he began his writing career
closer to Rousseau, and ended as a poetic Kantian. . .”
“. . .you’ll have to explain that. . .”
“. . .the two major lyrics he wrote during that summer show precisely
what I mean: ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ is an attempt to express

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a hidden force that refuses to reveal itself except in the fleeting moments
when beauty is manifested in the world. Like Kant, he’s aware that it may
not only be the mysteriousness of the force that renders it invisible, but
also the mind’s incapacity to comprehend it. You can see it in the opening
stanza of the poem:

e awful shadow of some unseen Power

Floats through unseen amongst us, – visiting
is various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower, –
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening, –
Like clouds in starlight widely spread, –
Like memory of music fled, –
Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.

. . .he makes it clear that this power is a mystery, although the single
aspect revealed by this mystery is beauty. e second stanza becomes
a question, asked directly of this ‘Spirit of Beauty,’ as to why this spirit is
so transient, and, consequently, human life so full of desolation when the
spirit is absent:

Spirit of Beauty, that dost consecrate

With thine own hues all thou does shine upon
Of human thought or form, – where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
is dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
Ask why the sunlight not for ever
Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain-river,
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
Why fear and dream and death and birth
Cast on the daylight of this earth
Such gloom, – why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?

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. . .in the third stanza, my favorite, he takes the question further, saying
that this mystery has never given any real answer – that consequently
men have tried to fill in the answer with futile attempts to represent
the mystery with some religion or philosophy, but the mystery always
evades them, and uncertainty always breaks through any attempts to
represent the meaning of life, or the nature of God:

No voice from some sublimer world hath ever

To sage or poet these responses given –
erefore the names of Demon, Ghost, and Heaven,
Remain the records of their vain endeavour,
Frail spells – whose uttered charm might not avail to sever,
From all we hear and all we see,
Doubt, chance, and mutability.
y light alone – like mist o’er mountains driven,
Or music by the night-wind sent
rough strings of some still instrument,
Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.

. . .I especially like the last line – typically Shelleyean. . .”

“. . .it’s beautiful – it reminds me of the lines at the end of Passer’s film. . .”
“. . .yes, they’re very similar. . .”
“. . .where does the poem go from there?”
“. . .he goes on to describe how inconstant the lives of men are, and to
suggest that if this power remained constant, human life would be
Godlike – immortal and omnipotent, but because it obviously doesn’t
remain constant, he addresses this mysterious power directly, imploring
it to remain, and explaining that without its presence, life is meaningless:

Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart

And come, for some uncertain moments lent.
Man were immortal, and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.
ou messenger of sympathies,
at wax and wane in lover’s eyes –
ou – that to human thought art nourishment,

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Like darkness to a dying flame!

Depart not as thy shadow came,
Depart not – lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.

. . .it’s slightly ambiguous here – you have to read ‘were’ in the third
line as ‘would be,’ and ‘didst’ in the fourth line as ‘if’. . .otherwise, the
poet is setting up a kind of continuum: at one extreme, this spirit
would be present always, and man would be immortal, while at the
other extreme, this spirit is absolutely contingent and temporal,
leaving us to an absolute mortality – nothing but the grave. The poet
hopes that through the lastingness of beauty we have at least some
kind of hold on immortality, although he clearly fears the worst. . .”
“. . .the line ‘Like darkness to a dying flame’ is interesting: it’s a strange
way to speak of nourishment – it’s the blackness of the background, an
absence, that nourishes, and not a positive presence. . .”
“. . .exactly – it continues the idea of this power as a negative affirma-
tion – very similar to Kant’s conception of the ‘supersensible substrate
of being’. . .”
“. . .where does he go from there?”
“. . .the next stanzas deal with Shelley’s boyhood, and his first encounter
with this spirit: he first says he sought spirits but didn’t encounter any,
and then the spirit of beauty’s shadow – again not its positive presence
– ‘fell’ on him, followed by the line I read, where he seems overcome with
ecstasy. . .”
“. . .it seems almost sexual. . .”
“. . .I think it was, in a way – Shelley tended to conflate the various forms
of ecstasy and bliss in a way that made sex spiritual, and spirit sexual: it’s
quite overt in the next stanza, where he expresses how he dedicated
himself to this spirit. . .look at how he expresses this dedication:

I vowed that I would dedicate my powers

To thee and thine – have I not kept my vow?
With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantom’s of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave: they have in visioned bowers
Of studious zeal or love’s delight
Outwatched with me the envious night –

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ey know that never joy illumed my brow

Unlinked with hope that thou wouldst free
is world from its dark slavery,
at thou – O awful LOVELINESS
Wouldst give whate’er these words cannot express.

. . .he seems to be suggesting that whatever he does, from his studies to

his love-making, has been done with the hope of being invested with and
ennobled by the spirit of beauty. . .”
“. . .why ‘awful loveliness’?”
“. . .he means something closer to ‘awesome’ – it’s a Kantian distinc-
tion between beauty, which is positive and joyful, and the sublime,
which is negative in the sense of being unrepresentable: ‘awful’ in this
sense means ‘inspiring awe’ – the affective force transfixes, or even
overwhelms, rather than delights. Look at the next stanza – what the
poet hopes to gain from the spirit is ‘calm,’ and, after the restlessness
of the poem, this last stanza is actually very tranquilizing. . .

e day becomes more solemn and serene

When noon is past – there is a harmony
In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
us let thy power, which like the truth
Of nature on my passive youth
Descended, to my onward life supply
Its calm – to one who worships thee,
And every form containing thee,
Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind.

. . .through the metaphor he connects his desire to a need for solemnity,

serenity, harmony – what the autumn gives to the day, he wishes to be
given to replace the intensities of youth. . .”
“. . .the last line isn’t clear to me – why ‘to fear himself’?”
“. . .I’m not sure – I can only speculate that by now Shelley himself
realized the dangers of his quest: Mary realized it when she subtitled
Frankenstein the ‘New Prometheus,’ signifying the creation of the new

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Enlightened man. She certainly saw the dangers – and not merely the
dangers of living with a professed radical whose life was in perpetual
crisis. Shelley was at risk, and she sensed it. . .”
“. . .it’s clear in Frankenstein – the monster pursuing its creator. . .but
what was the real danger for Shelley?”
“. . .there’s a strange relationship in the romantics between the asser-
tion of freedom from the social order and an increase in fears and anxi-
eties. . .it’s understandable, as whatever one calls it – evil, the will to
power, aggressivity, chthonian energies, or drives, these forces don’t
disappear merely because an old world-view is discarded. . .quite the
contrary! e social system plays a role in diffusing and sublimating these
forces, and without the structure set up by the system, both creative and
destructive energies become more free-ranging – more difficult to
contain, or even identify. Shelley questioned everything, but unlike the
rationalists or empiricists, he saw that there was something uncontrol-
lable and absolutely mysterious in nature, and he questioned man’s ability
to master it or act rationally in accord with it – you can see this already
in Alastor and ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,’ which are both about
uncontrollable forces. . .indeed, one might read the end of the ‘Hymn’ as
the poet’s recognition that he had to bring his life into accord with this
mysterious spirit, or else. . .”
“. . .or else what?”
“. . .he’s uncertain, but he recognizes the danger. Look at his only other
completed poem of that summer, ‘Mont Blanc,’ written during the excur-
sion he went on with Mary and Claire to Chamonix – it was on the
glacier near Chamonix that Mary set the encounter between
Frankenstein and his monster. Shelley’s poem seems almost a reply to
Wordsworth, and especially the Wordsworth of the ‘Intimations of
Immortality’ ode: where Wordsworth received confirmation of an
immortal world, Shelley’s ‘trance sublime and strange’ brings an experi-
ence of inaccessible otherness. . .I can’t help thinking that the ‘some’ he
begins the third section with was a nod to Wordsworth. . .

Some say that gleams of a remoter world

Visit the soul in sleep, – that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live. – I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled

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e veil of life and death? or do I lie

In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
Spread far around and inaccessibly
Its circles? For the very spirit fails,
Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep
at vanishes among the viewless gales!
Far, far above piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears, – still, snowy, and serene. . .

. . .Shelley doesn’t offer an antithesis, but counters with his actual, affec-
tive experience of the mountain. He’s uncertain about what is being
unveiled, and sleep seems to him not to open onto something else, but is
‘inaccessible’ – somehow his mind gains no hold on the scene before him.
He’s not le cold, but he certainly experiences nothing that would assure
him about God – quite the opposite. He attributes the power of
dissolving traditional faith to the mountain, and it’s replaced by
a different sort of reverence – a reverence of feeling, an experience of
sublimity in the face of the unknown:

e wilderness has a mysterious tongue

Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild
So solemn, so serene, that man may be,
But for such faith, with nature reconciled;
ou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.

. . .again, he emphasizes feeling against any religious system. . .”

“. . .and serenity again, like in the ‘Hymn’ when he sought ‘calm’ – he
seems to have been seeking peace, more than anything else. . .”
“. . .it’s a strange sort of serenity, though, as it’s not the serenity of faith,
but rather of unknowing, or of a letting go to it. Shelley moves in the
direction of uncertainty, rather than certainty, as the last lines show:

e secret Strength of things

Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!

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And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?

. . .it seems to me that he posits a mysterious force, but at the same time,
with his last question, opens up the possibility of there being only
vacancy. . .”
“. . .how does he reconcile his atheism with things like a ‘spirit of
beauty,’ or the ‘secret strength of things’?”
“. . .that’s what both Byron and Monk Lewis – who had arrived at the
Villa Diodati for a visit in August – wondered. . .”
“. . .who is Monk Lewis?”
“. . .he wrote the gothic novel The Monk, and some other gothic
romances. He and Byron both maintained that one couldn’t be both
an atheist and a believer in ghosts, spirits, or forces, but I think they
missed the point of Shelley’s form of skepticism. Shelley’s argument
against religion was primarily socio-political – he was against the
certainties that led to restrictive social behavior or moralism, and
against how Christianity was used to uphold a certain form of life. Like
Nietzsche, I’m guessing he would have held the idea that there was only
one true Christian – and he died on the cross. Behind the use of reli-
gion in England – to uphold a class-based society with all of its contra-
dictions and hypocrisies – was a sense of certainty: certainty about
what God’s plan for man entailed. Shelley rightly recognized the crux
of the Enlightenment challenge to traditional Christian society.
Shelley’s ‘atheism’ was against religious certainty, but he didn’t want
to replace this certainty with the negative certainty of atheism; rather,
he wanted to leave it open as a mystery or force, which was how he had
experienced it in his own life, with the result that he was open to enter-
taining supernatural phenomena. . .”
“. . .so, to go back to my question, what was the danger Mary was seeing
– the lack of limitations, the danger of over-stepping. . .of a Prometheus
or Faust?”
“. . .yes. Although Mary became increasingly conservative and timid
over time, she was right in her fears. It’s rather easy to reveal the arbi-
trariness underlying all social forms, but it’s quite another matter to
depart from those forms at will in search of a truer or at least different
form of life. . .”

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“. . .and I assume especially when Shelley was so skeptical of reaching

the truth. . .”
“. . .that’s the paradox – the same skepticism that had allowed Shelley to
doubt his society and its truths prevented him from merely adopting new
truths. To give him credit, Shelley increasingly became aware of the
dangers. Shelley’s shiing attitude to Rousseau is a good index, for it
reveals the level of his self-awareness. During that summer they all were
reading Rousseau’s novel Julie, set on Lake Leman, and Shelley brought
the novel along on his boat trip with Byron; in fact, they visited sites asso-
ciated with Rousseau, and Shelley reveled in it. Although he wrote to
Hogg that he found the novel ‘absurd & prejudiced,’ he could still declare,
then, that Rousseau was the greatest human mind since Milton.
Rousseau’s dependence on fine feeling, his belief in innate human good-
ness, and the exile he underwent due to his ideas – all these things brought
Shelley to a high degree of identification with Rousseau. . .however, there’s
another Rousseau, who became increasingly paranoid, self-obsessed, and
prone to blanket-condemnations of society. . .”
“. . .but Shelley seems to have avoided those dangers, didn’t he?”
“. . .oh, not entirely. He never reached the extremes of pessimism that
Rousseau was prone to towards the end of his life, but that may have been
because he didn’t live nearly as long. Certainly by the time he was writing
his last major work, e Triumph of Life, Rousseau had become a prob-
lematic figure for him, which is why he used him as a figure in the poem:
he saw the contradictions in Rousseau’s life, and by that time he saw quite
clearly the problems he had experienced in his own life through his own
modified Rousseauism – his belief in freedom and human perfectibility.
In fact, one of the more frightening incidents that occurred that summer
was just such a lesson. . .”
“. . .the hysterical fit he had when they were telling ghost stories?”
“. . .yes. . .”
“. . .I only know what the Ken Russell film shows – that it was some
sort of drug-induced frenzy. What really happened?”
“. . .it probably was partially drug-induced, but it touched on some
real issues in Shelley’s life then. What happened was that late at night
at the Villa Diodati Byron had been reciting some lines by heart from
Coleridge’s poem Christabel. . .”
“. . .what’s the poem about?”
“. . .it’s unfinished, but the plot follows Christabel, a young maiden,

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and her enchantment by a woman who’s some sort of lesbian vampire

figure. . .”
“. . .a lesbian vampire? Sounds interesting. . .”
“. . .it’s a curious poem. While Christabel is wandering in a forest near
her house thinking about her betrothed, she comes upon a beautiful
woman named Geraldine who’s been kidnapped by five knights and
deposited there to await their return – presumably to rape her.
Unbeknown to Christabel, Geraldine is really a kind of sorceress who
seeks access to her chamber to gain power over her body and soul. e
scene Byron recited was when she finally enters the chamber, casts a spell
on Christabel with her eyes, tells her to undress and get into bed while
she prays, and then, while Christabel watches, Geraldine disrobes,
revealing. . .well, the narrator doesn’t say. . .”
“. . .what do you mean?”
“. . .it’s unclear – the narrator mentions her ‘bosom’ and ‘side,’ but
describes nothing, saying only that it’s ‘a sight to dream of, not to tell’ –
somehow the lack of specificity makes it even worse, not to mention that
the narrator himself becomes hysterical as well, shrieking ‘Oh shield her!
Shield sweet Christabel!’”
“. . .what happens then?”
“. . .she gets into bed with her, and some sort of spell overcomes
Christabel at the touch of Geraldine’s bosom. . .otherwise, nothing is
stated clearly – some kind of lesbian vampirism is implied, but, you know,
Coleridge had his problems with women, so it’s hard to know what he
was thinking when he wrote the poem. . .”
“. . .why do you think it affected Shelley so intensely?”
“. . .Shelley apparently bolted right aer the part where the narrator
shrieks. He was most likely under the influence of laudanum at the time:
he had been listening to the poem, looking at Mary, and for some reason
thinking of a woman he had heard of who had eyes in her breasts rather
than nipples – that part, at least, Ken Russell got right in his film,
although he put the eyes in Claire’s breasts, rather than Mary’s. Shelley
then ran from the room, shrieking hysterically. Dr. Polidori followed him,
threw water in his face, and applied ether. It must have been the
vampirism, for Polidori reported that Shelley raved on hysterically about
a whole series of incidents in his life when others had wanted something
from him – about a friend’s attempt to seduce his wife, about other
friends drawing upon him as if he were a bank. All of these things were

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verifiable incidents in his life, and some of them were quite recent. . .”
“. . .the first incident was about Hogg, right?”
“. . .right. . .”
“. . .but I thought the whole thing with Hogg was forgiven and
forgotten. . .”
“. . .the whole thing was a hysterical return of the repressed. Everyone
spoke of Shelley’s ‘goodness’ – but he had been too good, or too naive,
to realize how much he had been taken advantage of by those who
claimed to be friends, and it all seems to have hit him squarely then.
But it wasn’t merely a past matter: when they were leaving England for
Geneva, apparently there had been some talk of Hogg’s joining them,
and Shelley had been forced to write a quick note to Hogg explaining
why they had left without him. In mid-July, a month after this scene,
Shelley wrote a diplomatic and rather duplicitous letter to Hogg
explaining why he shouldn’t join them for the summer, so it must have
been pressing on his mind. . .”
“. . .why didn’t he want Hogg to join them? – because of Claire’s preg-
“. . .that’s the reason Shelley intimated, but I’m not so sure. I think it
was partially because they weren’t in the mood to be reminded of the past
– especially Mary, who was finished for good with ‘free love.’ Shelley may
also have wanted to keep Byron to himself – Byron certainly wouldn’t
have had much patience for Hogg, in any case. However, I think he
simply didn’t want to deal with Hogg. . .”
“. . .why did Shelley put up with him so long?”
“. . .I think it was an effect of the trauma of his family life: he had lost
his whole family by the time he was twenty years old, and Hogg had been
the replacement. For a period he was the only person Shelley really was
close to, but later he outgrew him, and it was probably too painful for
him to admit it to himself. . .”
“. . .and what about the other incidents he mentioned to Polidori –
Godwin, I assume, was the one drawing on him like a bank?”
“. . .yes, and Peacock too: Shelley sent Peacock a bank draft from Italy
– ostensibly to cover the costs of liquidating the house at Bishopsgate,
but I think more of a bribe to get Peacock to act on their behalf to find
another house in the area. . .”
“. . .all the vultures closing in – and the image of the vampire-woman
must have stood for it all. . .”

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“. . .yes – Shelley, like Rousseau, had been naive about the human race,
assuming that others acted with the same unselfish motivations he usually
acted from, and the truth suddenly emerged into full consciousness. . .”
“. . .but was there a reason for it to all to emerge now?”
“. . .it may have been partially caused by being around Byron’s super-
cilious and cynical attitude: even though Shelley radically disagreed with
Byron, he couldn’t help being affected by him, and perhaps it also
stemmed from his distance from England, and his feelings about his new
state of exile. . .”
“. . .but why breasts with eyeballs?”
“. . .consider: the poem is about a devouring vampire-like woman.
Shelley was looking at Mary at the onset of his hysterical act – or at least
Polidori said so. In June, 181, when the summer with Byron
commenced, Mary was the mother of a five month old infant, and her
breasts undoubtedly had enlarged in recent months. Shelley had found
out about Claire’s pregnancy precisely in those days when they were
telling the ghost stories. Finally, we know that the first time Mary was
pregnant he had totally displaced his anxiety onto Claire, who became
his intimate as a result. Here we have the same anxiety, but doubled. . .”
“. . .so he felt trapped?”
“. . .he felt immersed in the maternal, with nowhere to turn – perhaps like
any man with a pregnant partner, if they’re honest with themselves. Aer all,
a child suckling at the breast is a bit like a vampire, and that doesn’t even begin
to touch on the emotional needs of children and what they drag out of their
parents – and especially their mothers. . .and beyond maternal vampirism
there’s emotional vampirism: Mary came to him with a psyche that was
deeply insecure and needy. Among all those who were drawing energy from
him at that time, Mary was by far the neediest: Shelley was only just realizing
that the same compulsion to merge that allowed him to forge such a close
intimacy with Mary led to an emotional bondage. . .”
“. . .but he must have been attracted to her for precisely that reason. . .”
“. . .fair enough. . .what he first saw in her was a woman who was ready
to worship him as the liberator of humankind he was attempting to be;
what he didn’t see was the needy woman whose mother had died a few
months aer her birth, who had lived in an emotionally incestuous rela-
tionship with her father, and whose need for security probably could
never be fully answeredby anyone. Even without Claire there, Shelley
would have had difficulties, and these, of course, were made more intense

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by his own guilt at having abandoned his first wife, Harriet. In a way,
I think he eventually learned how to manage – he gradually ceased
expecting to have all his needs answered by one person, and this lessened
the threat of Mary’s demands. . .”
“. . .so you think his hysterical attack was due to the pressure of her
“. . .partially, at least – he needed to stop thinking he could be every-
thing to everybody. . .”
“. . .you mean he had to become more like Byron. . .”
“. . .perhaps, but Shelley never came anything close to being like Byron
– I’m not sure Byron ever managed to handle the needs of others, so he
just ran away from them. Shelley stayed, and learned how to be with
others without feeling that he was being drained or limited by them, or
at least he learned how to deal with itusually by seeking solitude when he
needed re-charging. . .”
“. . .what got us started on his hysterical fit was my question about the
dangers they faced – about what Mary was afraid of, when she subtitled
Frankenstein, ‘e Modern Prometheus’. . .Shelley found a way to cope
with his intimates, but did he also find a way to cope with the dangers of
being beyond the norms of his society?”
“. . .the question he continued to face was how to go beyond his
society’s norms without falling into a black hole. . .”
“. . .did he succeed?”
“. . .he acknowledged the difficulties, and made an attempt to sur-
mount them. To do so without destroying oneself, it seems one must
create flexible defenses that both allow the movement beyond social
norms while protecting against the dangers of being so exposed. I believe
it’s a very thin threshold indeed between what allows and what stops
this movement on the one side, and what allows movement and what
becomes self-destructive on the other side. One has to always be
watching, analyzing, locating the point where the quest stops and the
old fears begin, bringing on reactivity in the name of security, or, the
point where the movement beyond is in danger of spilling over into the
abyss. . .”
“. . .so Mary’s danger was the former, Shelley’s the latter?”
“. . .in a way, yes – it was one of the most crucial questions brought
about by the Enlightenment, in my opinion: how to be an autonomous,
self-reflective being. How to assess the possibilities of action, individu-

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ally and socially, intensively and extensively, when the normative social
structures previously taken as natural come to be seen as socio-histori-
cally determined. . .”
“. . .I understand the dangers of reactivity, but what about the dangers
on Shelley’s side – of going too far?”
“. . .the dangers are implicit in any movement away from fixed social
structures. Creative writing from the romantics onward became an
activity of considerable risk for those who would come to be known as
the avant-garde. If you consider the late romantics, it was deadly: among
the British, Keats, Shelley, and Byron all died as young men, Coleridge
was lost to his addiction, and Blake was a bit mad; and, among the
Germans, Novalis died young, Hölderlin went mad, and Kleist
committed double suicide. . .”
“. . .and for Czechs, there was Mácha – dead at twenty-six, and don’t
forget Pushkin, dead at thirty-eight, although given it was during a duel,
perhaps that doesn’t count. . .”
“. . .I think it counts, for it was his romantic sensibility that predisposed
him to dueling, just as Shelley’s predisposition for a certain riskiness in
his boating led to his death as well. Romanticism is far too complex and
varied a phenomena to define easily, but certainly it was in contrast to
the mode of neo-Classicism – Classicism was a matter of the creation
and consolidation of forms, as if the artist were a God, while
Romanticism was more of a process – a heroic process in defiance of the
Gods, hence such figures as Prometheus and Faust. For poets, the process
was oen as important as the product, which is the reason for the
emphasis on the lyrical expression of the self at a given moment, and as it
changed over time. One of the results was the fragmentary nature of
many Romantic works, as they approached and reached the limits of
representation, or perhaps just the premature end of a lyrical outburst.
According to Deleuze and Guattari, Romanticism involved summoning
forces from the Earth, and the burgeoning and breaking out of those
energies towards a beyond – a dynamic becoming. If you consider late
Romanticism, it already anticipated modernism – it hadn’t yet discov-
ered the full force of abstraction, but it was close, sensing its imminent
arrival: in the fragments, in the complexity of metaphor, and in the inten-
sities and movement towards a pure dynamics of energy you find in long
poems like Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Blake’s e Four Zoas,
Goethe’s Faust, or Keats’ Hyperion. . .”

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“. . .I wonder what it felt like for Mary – what she sensed when she was
writing Frankenstein that summer, observing Shelley and Byron together,
witnessing Shelley’s hysterical fit. . .”
“. . .what does her novel tell you about what she saw?”
“. . .that she saw two men of genius possibly being drawn to their own
self-destruction at the hands of their own creations – or at least she feared
that possibility. . .”
“. . .yes – Frankenstein is that fear made tangible. It’s one of those
books that hit a raw nerve – then and now: the simple fact it has
survived in our consciousness, living through all its permutations –
from the play version put on in London five years after she published
it, to the various film versions, says something about how its deeper
themes continue to haunt us, and for the same reasons she was
haunted. The creation of life in the novel is really an extended
metaphor for the Enlightenment vision of life-as-creation, and
whether or not we can truly take on our own lives as such creations,
and the possible consequences of attempting it. It’s a cautionary tale,
and still quite relevant. . .”
“. . .so she finished it that summer?”
“. . .she worked out the general idea that summer, and finished a good
deal of it aer their return to England. . .”
“. . .how long did they stay on in Geneva aer the arrangements about
Claire and her child were made?”
“. . .they remained until almost the last day of August. Mary’s journal
shows that Byron and Shelley went out boating together every day, and
they apparently went up to the Villa Diodati almost every evening,
although it’s not clear if Claire went or not – certainly she never went
alone. Several times Byron came down to their house to visit, but when two
of Byron’s friends, Hobhouse and Scrope Davies, arrived, Shelley must have
decided it was time to depart, and they le on August 9th. . .”
“. . .did Byron say anything to Claire, as he does in the Passer film?”
“. . .she referred to his having said he will write to her. . .”
“. . .did he?”
“. . .never. He only wrote to Shelley, although Claire held on to her
hopes for a good while. Her behavior during the period after they
returned is rather irritating : she stupidly doted on a man that
despised her, and ignored the sacrifice Shelley had made on her
behalf. . .”

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“. . .but she was pregnant with Byron’s child – she would have been
even worse off if she didn’t cling to some kind of hope, no matter how
hopeless the situation really was. . .”
“. . .that doesn’t make it any less stupid, or blind. Look at this letter she
wrote the day they le – it’s the letter of a lovesick girl, who seems to have
no idea to whom she is writing, or how this letter would infuriate him:

My dearest friend,
When you receive this I shall be many miles away don’t be
impatient then with me. I don’t know why I write unless it is
because it seems like speaking to you. Indeed I would have been
happier to have seen & kissed you once before I went; it would
have made me quite happy but now I feel as if we parted ill
friends. You say you will write to me dearest; do pray; & be
kind in your letters. ere is nothing in the world I love or care
about but yourself & and though you may love others better
there are none more faithfully and disinterestedly attached to
you than myself. My dreadful fear is lest you quite forget me.
I shall pine through all the wretched winter months while you
I hope may never have one uneasy thought. One thing I do
entreat you to remember & beware of any excess in wine; my
dearest dear friend pray take care of yourself. If there is
anything you may want in England pray let me do it for you.
I shall feel so happy in procuring or gratifying any of your
wishes. I am ashamed to say how much I love you for fear of
being troublesome & yet I think you would be kinder to me if
you could but know how wretched this going makes me.
Sometimes I feel as if you were dead and I make no account of
Mary and Shelley’s friendship so much more do I love you.
ink sometimes of me dearest will you. Write to me soon &
let me hear of your happiness and health. May you have every
thing you like, hear nothing but good news & enjoy the
greatest health. Farewell my dearest Lord Byron. Now don’t
laugh or smile in your little proud way for it is very wrong for
you to read this merrily which I write in tears. I am fearful of
death yet I do not exaggerate when I declare I would die to
please or serve you with the greatest pleasure nay I should feel
as happy in so doing as I now feel miserable. Farewell then

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dearest. I shall love you to the end of my life & nobody else,
think of me as one whose affection you can count on & never
pray, never forget to mention your health in your letters. May
every good & every happiness be yours.

Your own affectionate Clare

. . .”
“. . .it’s sad. . .”
“. . .it’s pathetic! She had no idea to whom she was writing, and how
much he would have hated her every word. . .”
“. . .yes, but I understand what made her write it – in a way it says it
all: it’s quite clear that she was both hoping for the best and expecting
the worst. She was totally distraught – she must have felt she was
leaving everything behind. . .”
“. . .can you see yourself writing such a letter?”
“. . .once I could have – when I was a romantic fool, believing in true
love and complementarity, and confusing hormones with actual relations
. . .and, if you ever le me? I don’t know what I would write, but it might
well look something like that. . .”
“. . .it seems to me those are your hormones speaking now. . .”
“. . .of course, but it doesn’t make a difference. I try to do everything
I can to distinguish my real feelings from my hormones, but in the end
they can’t be entirely separated. . .”
“. . .but you do see how Byron would have reacted to it, don’t you?”
“. . .it would have been unbearable to him – it’s so impossibly sweet,
and guilt-provoking as well. . .”
“. . .there’s a perfect English word for what it is: ‘cloying’ – her letter is
a perfect example of it. . .”
“. . .he would have hated it, I can see that, but he was a bastard in any
case, so that doesn’t say anything. . .and yet there’s something he also
must have liked about it: I think he must have enjoyed watching the
women in his life tortured – plus there’s the fact he kept it. . .”
“. . .Trelawny said he kept every little scrap of paper sent to him. . .”
“. . .aha! A closet sentimentalist! I would have guessed it. He probably
thought he would gloat over all the women who loved him in his old age. . .”
“. . .but what about the game she was playing – pretending to love him
the most of anyone?”

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“. . .she was writing to Byron, the man whose baby she was carrying –
even if she did love Shelley, she wasn’t going to remind Byron of it. . .”
“. . .in English one would say she was ‘hedging her bets’ or playing it
safe: she must have guessed that he wondered about her relation to
Shelley, but simply the fact she lumped Mary and Shelley together says
a great deal, for her relations to each were entirely different. In a certain
sense I believe she really did love Byron in a way that she never loved
Shelley: she was in love with him, hormones and all, and if she ever was
in love with Shelley, it was only in the beginning – in a clandestine way
that she never avowed. She had the good luck to have been able to live
with him and dissolve all her illusions before their intimate relations
started for real. . .”
“. . .have some more wine. . .”
She pours him another glass of wine from the carafe, and then pours
the remaining wine into her own glass.
“. . .thanks – na zdraví. . .”
“. . .na zdraví. . .”
“. . .so where did they go when they returned to England, and how did
they manage to hide Claire’s pregnancy – weren’t there any questions
about it?”
“. . .they traveled via Portsmouth in order to avoid London, and then
traveled on to Bath, where they took some rooms while Shelley went on
to London to deal with some business. . .”
“. . .aer Geneva Mary could stand the proximity of Claire again?”
“. . .in the beginning, at least – it seems that Claire’s pregnancy and her
continued infatuation with Byron reassured Mary that her own bond to
Shelley was exclusive; however, they very quickly obtained separate lodg-
ings, partly in order to be imperceptible to the outside world, but perhaps
also to relieve the friction of the situation. Shelley addressed letters from
both addresses, so he was clearly moving back and forth between them. . .”
“. . .you said that you think Shelley and Claire’s relations weren’t phys-
ically intimate then?”
“. . .at least not until Allegra was born – largely because of Claire’s
hopes for Byron, which she continued to express through letters to him
during the autumn. e letters became increasingly forlorn and pathetic
– she slowly realized that he would never write to her, and Mary and
Shelley bore the brunt of her disappointment, on top of all the other
major disasters from that period. . .”

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“. . .what disasters?”
“. . .the first came quickly – in early October, a month aer their return
from England: Fanny Godwin, Mary’s half-sister and Claire’s stepsister,
committed suicide in Swansea. . .”
“. . .who was she? I didn’t realize they had another sister. . .”
“. . .Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecra, came into her marriage to
Godwin with a three year old daughter, Fanny – an illegitimate child she
had had with an American named Gilbert Imlay: he had abandoned her
when she got pregnant, and she had attempted suicide – not a very good
omen for her daughter. Mary, her only child with Godwin, was born soon
aer, but Wollstonecra died almost immediately, and Godwin was le
with both Mary and Fanny. He then married Mrs. Clairmont, who came
into the marriage with Charles and Claire. Apparently Claire and Charles
always thought they were full brother and sister, but research has shown
that Charles’ father actually died before Claire was born, and so Claire’s
true father is a mystery. . .”
“. . .a complicated set of relations. . .”
“. . .very. . .”
“. . .but why did Fanny commit suicide?”
“. . .that’s been a matter of some speculation. She seems to have been
a little pathetic. She always tried to make everyone happy, so she ended up
emotionally stretched between Godwin’s household and Shelley’s and not
really at home in either. You can see from her letters that she really wanted
to be like her sisters, but couldn’t manage the necessary break from her
family. Towards the end she was about to embark upon a plan that would
take her to Dublin to be a schoolteacher. She was to live with her aunts
there, but about two weeks before her suicide they had refused to take her
in – for what reason, it’s not clear, but probably because she would have
been seen as an illegitimate child. She may have made some last-minute
appeal to join Shelley’s entourage, but the evidence isn’t certain. In her
late letters to Mary she discusses having met Shelley during one of his trips
to London, and in several letters she complains that Shelley never wrote to
her, which indicates a certain kind of interest. All we know for certain is
that she went to Swansea, via Bath and Bristol, and that she might have
met Shelley in Bath for a few hours the day before her suicide. If so, given
they were hiding Claire’s pregnancy, he probably didn’t even allow her the
possibility of a casual visit, and he may not have taken her distress seriously
– which at that point was a terrible mistake. . .”

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“. . .how did they find out about it?”

“. . .he was at Claire’s when he received her note: Claire told Trelawny
later that Fanny’s note said ‘come bury me,’ but she didn’t know what else
it said, as he threw it into the fire upon reading it. He jumped up and le
immediately for Bristol. He returned that night at :00 A.M. with no news,
and set out again in the morning when he discovered some indication that
she had gone on to Swansea. It was there that he discovered what had
happened: she had checked into an inn and had committed suicide by
drinking a bottle of laudanum. Her name was torn off the suicide note. . .”
“. . .do you think Shelley did it?”
“. . .I don’t know: if so, it would probably have been to save the family
any further social scandal – in any event, Godwin would have
concurred: he turned back to London when he discovered what
happened, and it became a family secret – Charles Clairmont still
didn’t know about Fanny’s death a year later. . .”
“. . .do you think she was really in love with Shelley?”
“. . .Godwin thought she had been in love with Shelley from the
beginning, but he’s not a reliable witness. More tellingly, Claire told
Silsbee that Fanny was in love with Shelley: why would Claire have
done so if it wasn’t true? It seems to have been a kind of infatuation –
she was always gushing in her letters about Shelley and Byron: she did
meet Shelley when he was in London in September, but in a letter to
Mary she mentioned Shelley had been ill. It sounds like she was more of
a bother to him than anything else – to all of them. . .”
“. . .how did he respond to it?”
“. . .he was deeply disturbed by it – there’s a lyric fragment about it. . .here
it is:

Her voice did quiver as we parted,

Yet knew I not that heart was broken
From which it came, and I departed
Heeding not the words then spoken.
Misery – O Misery
is world is all too wide for thee.

. . .actually, this is based on the 189 edition, where Mary edited out
another line at the beginning: ‘Friend, had I known thy secret grief,’ and
a whole second stanza. . .”

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“. . .why would Mary have censored it – to cover over the possibility

that they could have somehow stopped her?”
“. . .Mary probably felt guilty: there’s a journal entry a week or so before
the suicide where she responds to a letter from Fanny with the words,
‘Stupid letter from Fanny.’ I think they all were feeling some responsi-
bility for the suicide; however, aside from the poem, only Claire’s letter
to Byron indicates how it affected them. She wrote that it made Shelley
deeply ill, and made her think of suicide herself, as no one so close to her
had ever died. . .”
“. . .you said there was more than one disaster. . .”
“. . .the worst blow was yet to come: in December, authorities discov-
ered the body of Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, in the Serpentine – she had
been missing for almost a month, although Shelley had not been aware of
it at the time. . .”
“. . .what happened to her – was it a suicide?”
“. . .yes. . .”
“. . .because Shelley had abandoned her?”
“. . .certainly Shelley’s actions in abandoning her played a major role in
it, as otherwise she would not have been led into the dire straits in which
she found herself. . .”
“. . .what happened?”
“. . .from the evidence I’ve looked at, it seems to me the most trust-
worthy account was given by Claire in a letter to Trelawny when she was
in her 0s – and even so there’s some room for doubt due to the passage
of time. Claire told Trelawny that Harriet had formed a liaison with an
army officer who had been sent abroad. She had become pregnant, didn’t
want her family or Shelley to know about it, and, with help from her sister,
had taken rooms elsewhere in London. Having received no letters from
her lover, she feared that yet another man had abandoned her, and so she
threw herself into the Serpentine. In her suicide note she blamed both
herself and Shelley, telling him that if he had never le her, she might still
be alive, or words to that effect, but this may have been partially to camou-
flage the pregnancy, and to provoke guilt so that her final wishes would
be obeyed. . .”
“. . .which were?”
“. . .she then wrote him that it was her wish that their daughter Ianthe
remain with Harriet’s sister Eliza, and that their son Charles would go to
him. . .”

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“. . .it must have been devastating for him – what did he do?”
“. . .I don’t think he had the maturity yet to face it, because in the begin-
ning he brought himself to believe in a version of events which saw the
story in an even more terrible light in regard to both Harriet and her
sister Eliza: he wrote to Mary that Harriet had been driven from her
house, had fallen into prostitution, that she had fallen in love with a horse
groom named Smith – who actually was merely the landlord of the
rooms she was renting, and that, having been deserted by him, she took
her life. He added that he thought Eliza’s plan was for the children to
gain Shelley’s estate. . .”
“. . .it’s clear what he was doing was to cast blame in every direction but
his own. . .”
“. . .yes, and what made it worse was that he refused to honor Harriet’s
last wish – to allow Ianthe to stay with Eliza. . .”
“. . .did he want both the children?”
“. . .he wrote to Eliza that he has been ‘awakened to his duties as a father’
by the tragedy, which may have been partially true, but I think he also was
looking for a way to assuage his guilt – he was determined not to be like
Rousseau, who supposedly abandoned his children; consequently, a custody
battle commenced – the Westbrooks fighting for both children in response
to Shelley’s claims for both. . .”
“. . .did he ever accept any responsibility for what happened?”
“. . .of course – I think many of his actions at the time were merely
public posing, covering over the real grief and guilt he was feeling. Claire
told Trelawny, decades later, that she felt it had been ‘good’ for him – that
he had become far less confident in himself as a result, and consequently
‘less wild.’ You can see what he felt in a lyric he wrote about both suicides,
entitled ‘Death’:

ey die – the dead return not – Misery

Sits near an open grave and calls them over,
A youth with hoary hair and haggard eye –
ey are the names of kindred, friend and lover,
Which he so feebly calls – they all are gone –
Fond wretch, all dead! those vacant names alone,
is most familiar scene, my pain –
ese tombs – alone remain.

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Misery, my sweetest friend – oh, weep no more!

ou wilt not be consoled – I wonder not!
For I have seen thee from thy dwelling’s door
Watch the calm sunset with them, and this spot
Was even as bright and calm, but transitory,
And now they hopes are gone, thy hair is hoary;
is most familiar scene, my pain –
ese tombs – alone remain.

. . .you can see that he was deeply distraught. He later wrote to Byron that
Harriet’s suicide caused him a shock ‘which I know not how I have
survived.’ e shock had more than emotional effects: I think it was this
shock that drove Shelley to get married to Mary, which in the end was
a mistake – a disservice to his relationship with Claire. . .”
“. . .but I thought he was against marriage?”
“. . .he was against it, and, from accounts he gave to Byron and Claire,
he continued to be; it was the external events that pressed upon him,
although we’ll never be sure exactly what happened. . .”
“. . .what external events?”
“. . .at the very least there was the custody case: it appears that his lawyer
told him that he would have no problems acquiring custody of his children
if he were married to Mary – this, anyway, is what he wrote to Mary. . .”
“. . .and Claire? Claire must have been in despair, now that Mary would
be seen as the legitimate partner in the eyes of society – didn’t he think
of how Claire would have felt?”
“. . .I agree, I agree – in fact this whole series of events represents Shelley
at his worst. I don’t think he should have done it precisely because of
Claire. . .still, I think there’s a bit more to it all. On the day he was
married, he wrote Claire a letter that was rather ironic about the whole
event – look: ‘ank you too, my kind girl, for not expressing much of
what you must feel – the loneliness and the low spirits which arise from
being entirely le. Nothing could be more provoking than to find all this
unnecessary. However, they will now be satisfied and quiet.’ What
follows was some ironic mention of the attention Godwin was now
paying to him as the legitimate husband of his daughter and some discus-
sion of Claire’s mother, who continued to treat him badly. . .but, look
what he says here: ‘Her sweet daughter is very dear to me’ – by no means
is he speaking about Mary. . .”

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“. . .he’s clearly trying to soen the blow. . .”

“. . .yes, but he himself saw the marriage as being based on appearance’s
sake in regard to the custody situation, and Shelley wanted Claire not to
feel too put out by it. What’s unclear is exactly how much pressure was
put on Shelley by Godwin – and perhaps Mary. . .”
“. . .I don’t follow – what pressure?”
“. . .clearly from his letter to Claire a degree of irony towards it all
can be seen, but the question is whether and how much Shelley was
pressured to marry her. Clearly he wouldn’t have bowed to pressure
from Godwin alone – he never had before; however, in a letter to
Byron he mentioned that the marriage had principally Mary’s feel-
ings in respect to Godwin as its object. . .”
“. . .what? Mary wanted to be the ‘good’ daughter to her father by
marrying Shelley?”
“. . .perhaps. He does go on to write, ‘I need not inform you that this is
simply with us a measure of convenience, and that our opinions as to the
importance of this pretended sanction, and all the prejudices connected
with it, remain the same’ – but I sense that was his feeling, not Mary’s. . .”
“. . .but would he really have done it if Mary had been pressing him only
for Godwin’s sake?”
“. . .certainly not in principle, which is why I give at least passing
credence to a story later given out by Claire’s mother, who must have
been a witness to whatever happened. Claire’s mother had written to
a friend years later that during one meeting when Godwin was pressing
Shelley to marry, Mary suddenly reminded him that both Harriet as well
as Fanny had been in the same room once, and that she would also
commit suicide if he refused to marry her – he supposedly turned pale,
but then agreed to it. . .”
“. . .do you believe the story?”
“. . .the letter was from Claire’s mother, who’s known to be unreliable
in many other cases – it seems she was a vindictive busybody. On the
other hand, Claire believed it – but Claire was not so charitable in her
old age either, especially towards Mary. . .”
“. . .what does your instinct tell you?”
“. . .my instinct tells me that it’s an exaggeration of the facts, but not
of the general feelings. Shelley had received an extreme shock from the
deaths of Fanny and Harriet, and he would have wanted to do what-
ever was possible to gain some equilibrium, given the circumstances –

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after all, he was only twenty-four, and he suddenly was facing the
consequences of his actions, realizing that no amount of good inten-
tions or even good deeds could shield him from evil, his own included.
I would guess that he initially entered into the arrangement willingly
in order to gain custody – what other reason would he have had for
speaking to Godwin? That he may have wavered due to Godwin’s
pressure is highly possible, and that Godwin would have then been
backed up by Mary makes perfect sense. Not only did Shelley have
a shock from the suicide, but also, when he realized that the
Westbrooks would be bringing the case to court and trying to prove
him ineligible as a father, he realized he might actually face a criminal
trial for sedition, which, if prosecuted successfully, would result in not
only his losing the case with the Westbrooks, but possibly even losing
his children by Mary. I think he was against the marriage, but fright-
ened into it, and certainly, given what we know about Mary, it all
suited her very well – she would be legally ‘his woman’. . .”
“. . .so what was the result of the court case?”
“. . .the worst thing that could have happened, in regard to the children:
when the judgment was reached in March neither the Westbrook family
nor Shelley received custody of the children – the children went to
legally-appointed guardians. . .but this was aer a long, drawn-out
process. . .”
“. . .what? ey could do that then?”
“. . .they can do it now, if they deem it necessary. . .”
“. . .poor Shelley – it must have turned him entirely against England. . .”
“. . .when the verdict came through, finally, it was the last straw. . .but it
didn’t happen quite yet. . .”
“. . .and what were the results in regard to the relations between Mary
and Claire – the marriage, I mean? Didn’t it intensify the rivalry between
“. . .no, actually. e marriage occurred on December 0, 181, and
Claire’s baby was born two weeks later, on January 1, 181. On Mary’s
side, these two events, together, must have given her some false hope that
she had ‘won’ – that she was the only woman in Shelley’s life, but she was
still uncertain enough to keep asking for ‘absentia Clariæ.’ On Claire’s
side, the baby must have taken the greatest amount of her attention: she
had a little life to take care of, and it must have taken her mind off the
marriage. In March they moved into Albion House in Marlow, to the

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west of London, and Claire rejoined the household with her new-born
daughter, at first named ‘Alba’ aer their nickname for Byron – ‘Albe,’
and then, upon Byron’s instructions, ‘Allegra’. . .”
“. . .was the name because of Claire’s musical interests, or because of
how rapidly the child was conceived?”
“. . .I don’t know – a bit of both, I would guess. Shelley took consider-
able trouble to fit Claire into the household: he had a portrait of Byron
framed for her, he had a piano installed to accompany her singing, and
in the garden they had their gardener plant seeds from alpine wildflowers
they had brought from Switzerland. . .”
“. . .a gardener? I thought they had massive debts!”
“. . .they did, and the debts grew even worse in this period, but Shelley
wanted them to be comfortable, and racking up debt was one of
Shelley’s specialties. . .”
“. . .and yours. . .”
“. . .yes, alas. . .actually, I’ve come to realize that most of the writers
I admire were terrible with money: Coleridge, Hölderlin, Baudelaire,
Mallarmé, Joyce, Robert Musil, D.H. Lawrence, Djuna Barnes, Lawrence
Durrell, Malcolm Lowry. . .I don’t know what it is, but I suppose writers
see themselves as an unrecognized aristocracy of sorts – aer all, it’s
a hard life, and one needs some comforts. Shelley also had two servants –
Elise and Milly Shields – primarily for the children, which freed Mary
and Claire more for their own pursuits. ey weren’t exactly destitute,
but the bills kept piling up. ey lived happily enough at Marlow – in
the beginning, anyway. Here’s what Shelley wrote to Byron in late April:
‘We spend our time here in that tranquil uniformity which presents
much to enjoy and leaves nothing to record. I have my books, and
a garden with a lawn, enclosed by high hedges, and overshadowed with
firs and cypresses intermixed with apple trees now in blossom. We have
a boat on the river, in which, when the days are sunny and serene, such
as we have had of late, we sail. . .’”
“. . .it sounds ideal. . .”
“. . .it was, in those green moments. Mary was happy with the garden,
Claire with the piano, and Shelley with the large library in the house,
which he immediately furnished with books and statues of Apollo and
Venus. They were about a five minute walk from the Thames, where
Shelley moored his small boat – he would often spend time lying in it
reading. On the other side of the river was Bisham Woods, where

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Shelley would walk and read – he dedicated an altar to Pan there.

Peacock had helped them find the house: he lived nearby, and was
a frequent visitor – frequent enough that he was able to gain enough
material to write a parodic gothic novel about the household, entitled
Nightmare Abbey. . .”
“. . .what did Shelley think of it – was he insulted?”
“. . .it fortunately didn’t reach them until they were in Italy two years
later – when enough time and life had passed to lessen any insult it
might have caused. . .”
“. . .was it that insulting?”
“. . .more embarrassing than insulting, actually: I doubt Shelley was
disturbed too much by the comic portrayal of himself as Scythrop –
a radical out to change the world although his pamphlets only sell a few
copies, but there’s a faint hint of truth in all the hyperbole about his plot-
tings and paranoias. I think the fact he’s portrayed as having two women
– the intellectual Stella and the musical Marionetta, crude pictures of
Mary and Claire – would have been the difficult part to face, given they
were all reading it; however, even in this, Peacock portrayed some truth –
for example, when he describes the dismay of Scythrop as he discovers that
Stella is radically anti-marriage, but nonetheless monogamous. . .”
“. . .did Shelley react to it?”
“. . .he claimed to have been delighted by it, although he omitted to say
anything about it specifically. I don’t know – I suppose a person needs
a few fools around to offset one’s own foolishness a bit. . .”
“. . .perhaps, but vultures who live off of one’s life?”
“. . .speaking of vultures, Hogg was also around again. . .”
“. . .Mary stood for it?”
“. . .she found him insufferable by then: negative, loud and boorish –
he was confined to staying with Peacock when he was visiting. She
referred to the two as ‘the menagerie,’ and I suppose to an extent they
were. I don’t know the ultimate source, but there are several references
that suggest both of them proposed to Claire about that time. . .”
“. . .both?”
“. . .Claire was apparently taking rather good care of herself in this
period: several commentators mention that, while not beautiful, she had
a certain vivacity and was dressing rather well, while Mary seems to have
been moving in the opposite direction, towards becoming a ‘nature girl’
– letting her hair grow a bit wild, neglecting her dress in a rustic way.

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Apparently Shelley was letting himself go as well: in one letter Mary begs
him to get a haircut. . .”
“. . .how was Shelley dealing with both of them in such proximity – do
you think Shelley resumed his physical relations with Claire at Marlow?”
“. . .in lieu of any certain evidence, there’s only a poem or two from the
period which are known for certain to have been written for Claire: she
mentioned the most important one, ‘To Constantia, Singing,’ to Silsbee
decades later, and on the copy she gave him she noted that Mary was
prevented from seeing it. It was published the year aer under the pseu-
donym ‘Pleyel,’ which itself says a good deal, as Pleyel was the lover of
a woman named Clara in a novel by Charles Brockden Brown, which
they all had read. . .”
“. . .was there any special reason for her being addressed by him as
“. . .as far as I can guess, just the connotations of ‘constancy’: when
Claire entered the Catholic Church as an old woman, she actually had
herself christened ‘Clara Mary Constantia Jane Clairmont,’ so while she
wasn’t faithful to Shelley’s anti-religious spirit, she was faithful to their
clandestine relations. . .”
“. . .what’s the poem about?”
“. . .you know at least part of it – it’s the poem Shelley recites in the
Passer film. . .”
“. . .I thought that was written in Geneva as part of the contest with
Byron. . .”
“. . .that’s a myth – something Passer put into his film to remind the
audience that ‘these men are poets’; it was actually written in Marlow as
a private response Shelley had had to one of the singing recitals Claire
gave there. . .”
“. . .read it to me now. . .”
“. . .all four stanzas?”
“. . .I want to think about it in this context. . .”
“. . .here it is – or at least what has come down to us. . .

y voice, slow rising like a Spirit, lingers

O’ershadowing me with so and lulling wings;
e blood and life within thy snowy fingers
Teach witchcra to the instrumental strings.
My brain is wild, my breath comes quick,

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e blood is listening in my frame,

And thronging shadows, fast and thick,
Fall on my overflowing eyes,
My heart is quivering like a flame;
As morning dew, that in the sunbeam dies,
I am dissolved in these consuming ecstasies.

I have no life, Constantia, but in thee;

Whilst, like the world-surrounding air, thy song
Flows on, and fills all things with melody:
Now is thy voice a tempest, swi and strong,
On which, as one in trance, upborne
Secure o’er woods and waves I sweep
Rejoicing, like a cloud of morn;
Now ‘tis the breath of summer’s night,
Which, where the starry waters sleep
Round western isles with incense-blossoms bright,
Lingering, suspends my soul in its voluptuous flight.

A deep and breathless awe, like the swi change

Of dreams unseen, but felt in youthful slumbers,
Wild, sweet, but uncommunicably strange,
ou breathest now, in fast ascending numbers:
e cope of heaven seems rent and cloven
By the enchantment of thy strain,
And on my shoulders wings are woven
To follow its sublime career,
Beyond the mighty moons that wane
Upon the verge of Nature’s utmost sphere,
Till the world’s shadowy walls are past, and disappear.

Cease, cease – for such wild lessons madmen learn:

Long thus to sink, – thus to be lost and die
Perhaps is death indeed – Constantia, turn!
Yes! In thine eyes a power like light doth lie,
Even though the sounds, its voice that were,

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Between thy lips, are laid to sleep –

Within thy breath, and on thy hair
Like odour, it is lingering yet –
And from thy touch like fire doth leap:
Even while I write my burning cheeks are wet –
Such things the heart can feel and learn, but not forget!

. . .”
“. . .do you think he really meant the line, ‘I have no life, Constantia,
but in thee’?”
“. . .it’s modified by the next line: while she’s singing he has no other life
– but still, it has a certain degree of ambiguity, and the whole poem is
rather rapturous in a way that goes beyond merely referring to her
singing. Aer all, he’s comparing the effect of her singing to something
like a wet dream, a rapture, and the effect culminates in a sexual climax –
her ‘ascending’ breath leading to the ‘consuming ecstasies’. . .”
“. . .she must have been quite flattered by it. . .”
“. . .he wrote several poems to Mary, but nothing ever quite so flattering. . .”
“. . .and this one is specific enough that Mary couldn’t retitle it for the
Complete Poems. . .”
“. . .yes. e other poem he wrote at the time entitled, ‘To Constantia,’
doesn’t reflect well on Mary at all. . .”
“. . .what is it about?”
“. . .it’s just a fragment – the first stanza is about how Mary’s presence
affected Claire negatively: clearly Mary is the ‘moon’ he’s referring to –
this poem is the earliest reference to her as the moon, a figure he would
use several times later. . .”
“. . .why the moon?”
“. . .in reference to her coldness, or perhaps her moods. It breaks off aer
the second stanza, but it seems to be referring to Claire’s relations to Byron:

e rose that drinks the fountain dew

In the pleasant air of noon,
Grows pale and blue with altered hue –
In the gaze of the nightly moon;
For the planet of frost, so cold and bright,
Makes it wan with her borrowed light.

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uch is my heart – roses are fair,

And that at best a withered blossom;
But thy false care did idly wear
Its withered leaves in a faithless bosom;
And fed with love, like air and dew,
Its growth –

. . .as far as I can tell, he could be referring to how Claire placed herself
carelessly within Byron’s ‘faithless bosom,’ but the result was it somehow
fed her with love – although it’s not clear if the growth isn’t her belly with
Allegra, or her blossoming into a woman aer Allegra’s birth. . .perhaps
Shelley wasn’t clear whether he was pleased or not, which may have been
why the poem was abandoned. . .”
“. . .but I thought Mary was better about Claire then. . .”
“. . .she complained about Claire’s sullen moods in a letter, although
Claire probably had reason for them: it was finally beginning to sink in,
aer the birth, that Byron would not change his mind about her. He
seems not to have given her much thought at all – something that would
become an issue by mid-summer, for it seemed he was going back on his
offer. . .”
“. . .was Allegra’s parentage common knowledge in their community?”
“. . .their friends knew, but they created a somewhat elaborate ruse for
the servants and for other visitors like Godwin: they had had their
friends, the Hunts, bring Allegra to Marlow and introduce her to the
household as the daughter of a friend who had come to see them. is
wore thin as time went on, of course, and by July, Shelley, probably at
Mary’s instigation, was writing Byron letters trying to find out what his
plans were concerning the child, but the problem wasn’t solved until the
following spring. . .”
“. . .who were the Hunts?”
“. . .Leigh Hunt was a poet and the editor of The Examiner, a liberal
review that had actually given Shelley some positive press from time to
time. Hunt had spent some time in jail for criticizing the Prince Regent
– something Shelley couldn’t help but admire. His prison time wasn’t
so severe, as he was allowed to have his family and children with him.
He had his cell walls painted as a trellis with roses and the ceiling
painted as the sky, and he spent his time there translating Italian poetry.
He and Shelley had become friends the previous winter in London, and

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Shelley had attended a number of his social gatherings; in fact, he met

Keats several times in Hunt’s presence. Hunt was more a conversa-
tionalist and editor than a poet, although both Keats and Shelley were
influenced a bit by Hunt’s poetry, which was not a very good thing at
all, as they both acquired from Hunt his tendency to make adverbs
from participles – words like ‘tremblingly,’ ‘lingeringly,’ ‘crushingly,’
and so on, although Keats caught that particular disease a bit more,
because he was younger and more impressionable. . .”
“. . .how did Keats and Shelley get along?”
“. . .Keats and Shelley never really got on that well, due partially to the
difference in their class background – Keats was solidly middle class.
Also, when they met Shelley had just come through the period when he
had dealt with Harriet’s death and the chancery case, so he tended to be
rather stridently anti-government in public as a consequence – or that’s
what Keats remembered. Most of all, Shelley, at that time, tended to
look down at Keats as a something of a younger colleague still in his
apprenticeship – an attitude that would change later in Italy aer
Shelley received the volume of Keats’ poems containing Hyperion, but
by then it was already too late: Keats died before they met again. But
Shelley’s relations with Hunt were always very warm. Although Hunt
was older, he tended to look up to Shelley as a kind of superhuman
being, and, of all of Shelley’s friends over the years, he came closest to
having been a real friend: he received some financial help from Shelley,
but he seems to have always kept the balance-sheet between them equal
– publishing reviews of his work, hosting him at his Hampstead home,
introducing him to other writers and intellectuals. . .”
“. . .so he wasn’t a vulture. . .”
“. . .no, not at all. He, his wife Marianne, and their four children spent
most of May and June with the Shelleys; in fact, their son, ornton, who
was seven at the time, remembered the time quite vividly: he wrote about
how Shelley would ‘do the horn’ – he would twist his long hair into
a horn, get on his hands and knees, and then charge the children snuffling
and growling as if he were a wild beast. He was always doing things like
that – sliding down a chalk bank behind the house raising a cloud of
chalk dust, or pushing the tables around with the children on them.
ornton remembers that he was able to see things from a child’s
perspective. ere were – let me think. . .yes, seven children there:
Allegra, William, the four Hunt children, and part of the time there was

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a little local girl named Polly Rose, who Shelley decided to ‘educate’ on
the spur of the moment as a sort of experiment based on Rousseau’s
Émile. She was there a few hours every day – she also le memoirs of
Shelley. . .”
“. . .the house must have been full of life. . .”
“. . .full to the brim. Although Shelley signed the two political pamphlets
he wrote in Marlow as ‘e Hermit of Marlow,’ as you can see he was
living amidst quite a crowd. He even had to escape to the woods or to the
river to get his writing and studying done. . .”
“. . .was he writing anything important, then?”
“. . .he began writing his longest poem, e Revolt of Islam, at the end of
April, and finished all twelve cantos by September. Much of it was
written in his boat on the river: he would escape from their little commu-
nity and float down the river, or simply anchor it near an island, or at an
abbey down the river a bit. . .”
“. . .what does the title refer to?”
“. . .initially it had been called Laon and Cyntha aer the names of the
two protagonists, but aer he edited it for his publisher, Ollier, he
changed the title to e Revolt of Islam. e title is a mere orientalism –
a way to write a poem about revolution in a more imperceptible way: the
poem was Shelley’s way of thinking through the possibilities of struggling
against tyranny via revolution, analyzing what went wrong with the
French Revolution, and trying to correct it with the idea of setting up
something like a blueprint for a future revolution. e poem is specula-
tive, although Shelley hated didactic poetry, and stressed in his preface
to the poem that he was writing a narrative. . .”
“. . .I know he was trying to incite feelings against tyranny, but isn’t
there a certain danger in what he was doing?”
“. . .insofar as the poem handles directly political topics, there’s not only
the danger of a kind of ideological fanaticism emerging from it, but
there’s perhaps an even greater danger emerging – at least for literature:
boredom. I have to admit that e Revolt of Islam is, for me, one of
Shelley’s most insufferable poetic creations. ere’s some beautiful
poetry in it, but it keeps being betrayed by the end it’s being put to – or
rather not the end, but his sense of the means to that end. I think where
he went wrong was not his analysis of the political problems, which is
incisive enough – especially for that time, but in his motivations and feel-
ings when writing the poem. He correctly assessed the problem of the

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French Revolution as being a result of the unreadiness of the citizens for

the results of the revolution, in that they lacked the education to deal
with a democratic situation. . .”
“. . .it reminds me of another country to the north we both know so
well. . .”
“. . .to be sure. . .”
“. . .go on. . .”
“. . .I think he was blinded by the events of the previous year: there was
tyranny in England, and certainly England’s resistance to reform due to
its fear of the French Revolution was creating an intolerable situation, but
Shelley’s writing was fueled more by the chancery court ruling which he
took as a particular instance of that tyranny. He wrote two poems about
it – one addressed to the Lord Chancellor, the other addressed to his son
William – where he quite clearly associates what happened to him with
the tyranny present in England. While there’s certainly some truth to his
charges, in that the court did take his political opinions and mode of life
into account when they were considering the case, I can see a court in any
country reaching the same conclusion looking only at the evidence
pertaining to the case: he did abandon his family, and from that time
onwards he didn’t even try to see his children, as far as we know. He claims
he had been ‘awakened to his duties as a father,’ but even when the court
had given him monthly visiting rights, he never availed himself of them
during his last year in England. . .”
“. . .so he never saw his children by Harriet again?”
“. . .no. . .”
“. . .that’s terrible. . .”
“. . .Shelley was unable to face his own role in Harriet’s death, and,
rather than facing his own evil, his own ‘fiend,’ as he called it, his psyche
simply displaced his guilt by linking the events to the terrible political
conditions in England – at least at that time. . .”
“. . .did he ever come to realize the enormity of what he had done?”
“. . .I think he finally did turn around and face himself aer the events
that happened here in Este and in Naples, but during his time at Marlow
he wasn’t yet able to deal with it – indeed, all the evidence indicates that
he was dosing himself with laudanum during the period, which brought
on painful attacks in his side in June of that year, and again in the
autumn. . .”
“. . .laudanum is like opium, isn’t it?”

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“. . .it’s a liquefied tincture of opium – extremely addictive. Shelley’s

first experience with laudanum seems to have been in 1811, aer he had
eloped with Harriet and they had fled to the Lake District. It’s taken
orally, and tends to have a rather nasty effect over time on the stomach
and liver – that may be why Shelley suffered such spasms in his side. . .”
“. . .was that his only vice?”
“. . .yes, as far as I know. He only drank on occasion – usually wine. He
didn’t smoke, and he was a vegetarian. . .”
“. . .that’s not so bad. . .”
“. . .he didn’t need much with his somewhat manic temperament, which
at that point was apparently rather irritating. e people who met him at
Hunt’s house – Keats and others – saw him as provocative and ungoverned:
I can imagine that he was very irritating then for a certain kind of person –
taking every chance to attack the views of others, prodding and provoking
them. You know the type: the irritating, young radical who thinks he has
the answer to everything. I suspect that much of what is wrong with e
Revolt of Islam is due to his unrestrained radicalism. Shelley wrote other
poems later that also demanded a considerable amount from the reader, but
with poems like Prometheus Unbound, which I see as the antidote to this
poem, I feel there’s some return on the investment of energy in it, whereas
with e Revolt of Islam I felt I was mostly reading it for the insights it gave
me into the development of the more mature poet. . .”
“. . .what is it actually about?”
“. . .briefly, it follows the unsuccessful exploits of a revolutionary
couple – Laon and Cyntha, in their attempts to overthrow tyranny. In
the first cantos we are given the story of how Laon and Cyntha grew
up together – in the original poem as brother and sister. She starts the
revolution against tyranny, is captured, imprisoned, and escapes, while
meanwhile Laon captures the city with a revolutionary army. Cyntha
returns disguised as Laone, and lectures the revolutionary army on
atheism, freedom, and free love. The tyrant’s troops make a counter-
attack in the sixth canto, and all of Laon’s army is killed, but Laon is
rescued by Cyntha, riding in on her horse. In the next cantos, Cyntha
tells Laon the story of her own capture, imprisonment, insanity, and
final escape via friendly mariners, who she converts to the principle of
free love – oh, I forgot to mention she’s raped, and gives birth to
a child. . .”
“. . .not by the ‘friendly’ mariners, I hope!”

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“. . .that would have been a strange twist in the plot – but no, by the
tyrant’s troops. . .”
“. . .I thought perhaps the mariners were like Hogg, and became a little
too friendly. . .”
“. . .I know, I know – the whole poem is all rather silly. . .”
“. . .so then what happens?”
“. . .next, at the city, Cyntha stirs up an insurrection, Laon arrives, the
insurrection is put down, and they escape. Laon rides down to see the
state of the city: there are long descriptions of the people under tyranny
– of plague, famine, and decadence. Laon agrees to give up his life in
return for Cyntha’s escape to America, and just as he’s about to be burned
at the stake, Cyntha arrives, dismounts, and takes a place on the bier next
to him. ey die, and in the epilogue they are taken away by a moonstone
and pearl boat, piloted by her child, towards a sunlit ocean. at’s it. . .”
“. . .it all sounds rather baroque. I wonder why he ended it that way. . .”
“. . .it was meant to be a poetic representation of tyranny and the need
for revolution, diagnosing the dangers of the revolution in regard to its
coming too fast and too soon: that they die in the end is meant to signify
that the time is not yet right. Some of its poetry is really quite beautiful,
but as I said, the content of much of it makes it quite tedious. . .”
“. . .can you see anything in it that reflects their life at Marlow?”
“. . .not really, except that the love between the protagonists is vaguely
illicit, and might represent the relations Shelley had with Mary and
Claire in an indirect way. . .”
“. . .illicit how?”
“. . .Cyntha and Laon at one point seal their bond by their love-making,
which in the original version is clearly an incestuous act. In the preface
of the original version, Shelley wrote that he wanted to ‘break through
the crust of those outworn opinions on which established institutions
depend,’ but evidently he broke through a little too far, as Ollier refused
to publish it. Finally, he removed all the direct references to their rela-
tions as brother and sister; however, the theme is still clearly there in the
text. . .”
“. . .what was the point of the incest? I don’t understand what he was
trying to do with it. . .”
“. . .incest comes up several times in his poetry. I wouldn’t push the
psychoanalytic explanation too far, but clearly his early experiences with
his favorite sisters and his mother carries on in his relations with Mary

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and Claire, not to mention the quasi-incestuous overtones of their being

step-sisters; but, ultimately, I think it’s something else, as he clearly has
a horror of biological incest – such as that he portrayed later in his drama
e Cenci. In getting rid of the marriage bond, Shelley wasn’t desiring
promiscuity, but rather what he thought was a deeper kind of bonding
that didn’t need external social supports. If there’s anything new in the
poem, it’s in Shelley’s portrayal of the relations between the sexes – sexual
union and bonding not as a pre-given social construct and norm, but as
a process discovered and created between particular people, and when
those bonds go deep enough, flesh and blood are somehow symbolically
shared, creating a familial tie without the aid of church or state in a kind
of quasi-incest. . .”
“. . .like Dracula – a blood tie?”
“. . .that’s right – but mutual. . .”
“. . .how did people in his time react to it?”
“. . .he completed it in late September, and it was finally released in early
January, 1818: the reviews were scathing – in fact, that was one of the key
factors that ultimately pushed Shelley into exile. Leigh Hunt reviewed it
favorably, but when a copy finally reached Byron, he couldn’t make
anything out of it. It’s a pity, really, for Shelley was earnest and sincere in
his revolutionary attitudes, and not just a poseur: during his time in
Marlow, for example, he arranged to buy blankets for the poor people in
the neighborhood. One day he met a woman walking in her bare feet and
he immediately gave her his shoes! He was always doing such acts of
generosity, not to mention all the financial support he had given to
Godwin, Hunt, Peacock, and the others. . .”
“. . .but could he afford it?”
“. . .no, which is all the more reason it’s remarkable. As summer gave way
to autumn, he found himself increasingly in difficult financial straits: Hunt,
Peacock, and the others outside of his intimate circle – his so-called
‘friends’ – hadn’t the slightest inkling that he was suffering from such anxi-
eties. . .of course, Mary’s pregnancy didn’t help relieve the tension. . .”
“. . .she was already pregnant with another child?”
“. . .yes, she gave birth in early September – a year and a half had gone
by since William was born. . .”
“. . .I keep forgetting that everything happened so quickly. . .”
“. . .they were all together only eight years total – the last four years in
Italy. . .”

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“. . .it’s difficult to grasp it – their peaceful periods must have only been
a few months at most. . .”
“. . .the time in Bath had been relatively quiet, and also the spring and
summer at Marlow, but aer that the problems mounted again: the pains
in his side had returned partly in response to the dampness of the house –
they discovered the house was so damp that some kind of blue fungus or
mold was creeping over many of his books. I suppose there were psycho-
somatic reasons for his pains as well. He must have felt things were closing
in on him – there were their debts, the responsibility of Allegra, William,
and now a baby girl they named Clara. . .”
“. . .it’s interesting that they chose to name her aer Claire – as if Mary
had soened her attitude. . .”
“. . .yes, but if she had soened her attitude any, it only got worse aer
the birth. . .”
“. . .why?”
“. . .it seems there was a good degree of territoriality on Mary’s part aer
Clara was born on September nd. Within three weeks, Shelley went to
London with Claire – ostensibly to take care of financial matters and to
bring the completed manuscripts of e Revolt of Islam and Frankenstein
to the publisher, but I think it was also, among other things, Shelley
putting distance between himself, Mary, and the newborn baby. . .”
“. . .and running away to be with Claire?”
“. . .perhaps partially, although Claire was with him only three days,
aer which she returned to Marlow with the bad news that Shelley was
to be liable for Harriet’s debts. Mary was frantic: she wrote Shelley letters
nagging him about everything – about their debts, about Claire, about
Peacock’s visits, about their future plans. He wrote back that they had to
go to Italy – for both his health and to deliver Allegra to Byron, but she
couldn’t see how they could afford it, and her fears were worsened when
Shelley was actually arrested and imprisoned for two days in mid-
October. . .”
“. . .had he been in London the whole time?”
“. . .he had come to Marlow the weekend before, and le again, finally
returning the last week of October and departing again in early
November – this time taking Mary with him to town while Claire stayed
with the children. ey stayed two weeks, and then Claire came to town
and Mary went back to take care of the children. Shelley returned with
Claire to Marlow at the end of November. . .”

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“. . .that they were able to share the childcare seems hopeful, doesn’t it?
e problems between them must not have been that bad. . .”
“. . .Mary’s problems were deeper than jealousy: while she was surely
jealous and possessive, and the situation made her even more so, she had
insecurities rooted far deeper in her psyche, undoubtedly connected to
her mother’s early death and her relation to her father. e same is true of
Shelley: it wasn’t just his debts or his problems balancing his relations to
Mary and Claire that were bothering him, it was also something else,
something deeper. . .”
“. . .what?”
“. . .look at what he wrote to Godwin on December th:

My health has been materially worse. My feelings at intervals

are of a deadly & torpid kind, or awakened to a state of such
unnatural & keen excitement that only to instance the organ
of sight, I find the very blades of grass & the boughs of the
distant trees present themselves to me with microscopical
distinctness. Towards evening I sink into a state of lethargy &
inanimation, & oen remain for hours on the sofa between
sleep & waking, a prey to the most painful irritability of
thought. Such with little intermission is my condition. e
hours devoted to study are selected with vigilant caution from
among these periods of endurance. It is not for this that I think
of traveling to Italy, even if I knew that Italy would relieve me.
But I have experienced a decisive pulmonary attack, &
although at present it has passed away without any consider-
able vestige of its existence, yet this symptom sufficiently shows
the true nature of my disease to be consumptive. It is to my
advantage that this malady is in its nature slow, & if one is suffi-
ciently alive to its advances is susceptible of cure from a warm
climate. In the event of its assuming any decided shape, it would
be my duty to go to Italy without delay, & it is only when that
measure becomes an indispensable duty, that, contrary both to
Mary’s feelings & to mine as they regard you, I shall go to Italy.
I need not remind you, beside the mere pain endured by my
survivors, of the train of evil consequences which my death
would cause to ensue. I am thus circumstantial & explicit
because you seem to have misunderstood me. It is not health

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but life that I should seek in Italy, & that not for my own sake
– I feel I am capable of trampling on all such weakness – but
for the sake of those to whom my life may be a source of happi-
ness utility security & honour – & to some of whom my death
might be all that in reverse.

. . .how does it seem to you?”

“. . .the force of it seems to be a veiled threat – as if Godwin had the power
to stop him. I take it Godwin wasn’t happy about the Italian plan?”
“. . .not at all – he would not only lose direct contact with his
daughter and step-daughter, but he must have also suspected he would
lose any chance of gaining financial help from Shelley. Shelley had
treated Godwin as a surrogate father for quite a while, and that, plus
the fact Mary was so deeply connected to him, accounts for the diffi-
culty Shelley had in simply cutting him off when he started demanding
more money. . .”
“. . .I understand that, but otherwise the letter seems rather hysterical:
did he actually have tuberculosis?”
“. . .I doubt it – there’s no later evidence of the disease. I do think he
was ailing, and even ailing seriously, but rather from a combination of
anxiety, depression, and perhaps from laudanum abuse. . .”
“. . .he seems like a cornered animal – especially when he writes, ‘It is
not health but life that I should seek in Italy. . .’”
“. . .he was cornered, although by what, he didn’t know. In December
he tried to write about it in an unfinished poem entitled Prince
Athanase: it turned out to be a poem about his inability to write a poem
about his problem. . .”
“. . .but surely he must have had some idea about what was troubling him?”
“. . .you be the judge. He begins by suggesting there is some problem, but
he lists a series of possibilities that are precisely not what’s bothering him:

ere was a youth, who, as with toil and travel,

Had grown quite weak and gray before his time;
Nor any could the restless griefs unravel

Which burned within him, withering up his prime

And goading him, like fiends, from land to land.
Not his the load of any secret crime,

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For nought of ill his heart could understand,

But pity and wild sorrow for the same; –
Not his the thirst for glory or command,

Baffled with blast of hope-consuming shame;

Nor evil joys which fire the vulgar breast,
And quench in speedy smoke its feeble flame,

Had le within his soul their dark unrest:

Nor what religion fables of the grave
Feared he, – Philosophy’s accepted guest.

For none than he a purer heart could have,

Or that loved good more for itself alone;
Of nought in heaven or earth was he the slave.

What sorrow, strange, and shadowy, and unknown,

Sent him, a hopeless wanderer, through mankind? –

. . .he goes on to establish that the Prince is a liberal and a do-gooder –

of course like Shelley himself, and he again asks the cause of his sadness,
characterizing his symptoms:

What sadness made that vernal spirit sere? –

He knew not. ough his life, day aer day,

Was falling like an unreplenished stream,
ough in his eyes a cloud and burthen lay,

rough which his soul, like Vesper’s serene beam

Piercing the chasms of ever rising clouds,
Shone, soly burning; though his lips did seem

Like reeds which quiver in impetuous floods;

And through his sleep, and o’er each waking hour,
oughts aer thoughts, unresting multitudes,

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Were driven within him like some secret power,

Which bade them blaze, and live, and roll afar,
Like lights and sounds, from haunted tower to tower

O’er castled mountains borne, when tempest’s war

Is levied by the night-contending winds,
And the pale dalesmen watch with eager ear; –

ough such were in his spirit, as the fiends

Which wake and feed an everliving woe, –
What was this grief, which ne’er in other minds

A mirror found, – he knew not – none could know;

But on whoe’er might question him he turned
e light of his frank eyes, as if to show

He knew not of the grief within that burned,

But asked forbearance with a mournful look;
Or spoke in words from which none ever learned

e cause of his disquietude; or shook

With spasms of silent passion; or turned pale:
So that his friends soon rarely undertook

To stir his secret pain without avail; –

For all who knew and loved him then perceived
at there was drawn an adamantine veil

Between his heart and mind, – both unrelieved

Wrought in his brain and bosom separate strife.

. . .that’s a clear clue – the separation between heart and mind, which
suggests some unconscious grief. e poem goes on to pose some
hypotheses by his friends, and the first fragment ends with the statement
that the grief remains unspoken:

For like an eyeless nightmare grief did sit

Upon his being; a snake which fold by fold

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Pressed out the life of life, a clinging fiend

Which clenched him if he stirred with deadlier hold; –
And so his grief remained – let it remain – untold.

. . .at that point he actually footnoted his own poem, admitting his inca-
pacity to reach some conclusion: ‘e author was pursuing a fuller devel-
opment of the ideal character of Athanase, when it struck him that in an
attempt at extreme refinement and analysis, his conception might be
betrayed into assuming a morbid character. e reader will judge whether
he is a loser or gainer by this difference. . .’”
“. . .I don’t know what to think about it. . .the poetry is brilliant – it
gives an vivid portrayal of his symptoms – he seems to have been
searching for something, and not finding it. . .”
“. . .I think he had repressed a great deal: he was writing this poem
exactly one year aer the discovery of Harriet’s suicide, and that grief and
his guilt has a great deal to do with his problem. . .but more than that,
more than even the problems he was facing with his debts, with three
children and both mothers dependent upon him for their well-being,
I think he was facing a crisis in his vision. is mysterious ‘grief’ he
mentions, while certainly a realization of his own guilt, his own evil – in
the sense of not being able to purge all the negative motivations from his
psyche, or the negative results of his positive motivations – was more
than simply this, and more than simply the psychoanalytic leovers of
his childhood. . .”
“. . .is it what you spoke of before as the ‘fiend’? – I noticed he mentions
it several times in the passage you just read. . .”
“. . .yes, or what Freud would call the death drive. e drives are usually
sublimated by social structures, but for the writer or artist who seeks
freedom from such restrictions, the sublimative effect is diminished, or
even cancelled. Some degree of sublimation is possible through work, but
creative energy is very volatile – creative and destructive energy are
perhaps the same drive energy in two different inflections: in one inflec-
tion, bound, directed, and focused, and in the other, chaotic, explosive,
and dangerous when it overflows its bounds. It’s very difficult to simply
turn off or contain the flow of this energy, once it’s been released. . .”
“. . .Frankenstein again. . .”
“. . .exactly. Shelley was actively stepping outside the bounds of social
norms in the social experiment that was his life, and in his writing

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pursuing new imaginative forms – but he underestimated the dangers

of these unbound energies. . .”
“. . .could he have done anything to be safer – short of putting limits
on his life and his writing?”
“. . .he shouldn’t have taken the dangers for granted: at that time in his
life, Shelley felt good intentions were enough. Like Rousseau, he saw
nature as benevolent, and failed to see its malevolent aspect, and this
went doubly for the forces of nature operating inside himself. . .”
“. . .but is recognizing the malevolence enough?”
“. . .I think once one recognizes the dangers, one must take further
precautions for every step beyond the limits. . .that’s somewhat more
difficult. For every step out and beyond, one must create new micro-
rules, as every step beyond moves one step away from the safety-net of
normative structures and into the realm where creative energy blurs over
into its destructive forms. Shelley should have paid a bit more attention
to his reading of Spinoza – he seems to have known the Tractatus-
eologico-Politicus well enough, but as far as I know, not the Ethics: it’s
the Ethics that gives a detailed account of these energies and affects, using
somewhat different terms, but I think the result is the same. Shelley’s
problem was precisely that he didn’t see the necessity of any strategy: he
was too influenced by the idea that liberation itself would lead to neces-
sarily positive benefits – unlike someone like William Blake, who saw the
necessity for ‘arming oneself for intellectual strife,’ and whose visions and
mode of life contained the dangers far more effectively. . .”
“. . .but, then again, perhaps the beauty of Shelley is the danger he
confronted. . .”
“. . .yes, I admit that’s true – he was a flame that flared up and
exhausted itself in a moment of incandescence. . .but I think he hoped
for a new approach, somewhere in-between the two extremes, and
I believe his decision for exile – to seek an entirely new context, was
the positive step he needed to create such a new approach, both inten-
tionally and unintentionally. . .”
“. . .so, what was the final factor in his decision to leave?”
“. . .aside from these more abstract motives, which I’m not sure he
could have articulated at that time, his whole life seems to have been
headed towards exile, starting with his estrangement from his family,
and then later from his society. Shelley’s various failures to reach anyone
in his writing must have been terribly difficult for him to take; however,

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deciding to leave – even if they were partly using the pretext of the
warmer Italian weather and the need to deliver Allegra to Byron – must
have been incredibly difficult: aer all, he was limiting the audience for
his writing significantly more than it was already limited, which was
a great deal, and as a poet, what else was there for him? But exile was the
trajectory of his life from the very beginning – there was no place for
him in the England of his time, as England was girding itself against the
revolutionary impulses sweeping the continent, and consolidating its
gains from the Napoleonic wars in order to become the dominant
empire of the 19th century, if it wasn’t already. Empires have no choice
but to be reactionary in their move towards consolidation, while
Shelley’s very being, right down to his affects, emotions and feelings,
was the opposite of the society around him – there was nowhere le to
go but away. . .”
“. . .how quickly did they leave, once the decision was made?”
“. . .the final decision was made in late January, and it must have been
the right one, as it immediately brought an end to his period of depres-
sion. Two economic considerations played a role in the decision: first,
they found a buyer for the lease on their house in Marlow; second,
Shelley was able to conclude a reasonably large post-obit loan, by means
of insuring his own life against the chance of his death occurring prior to
his father’s death. It was a decent amount of money – at least four thou-
sand pounds or more, which would have been something like one
hundred thousand dollars or more now, given it was four times his annual
stipend from the estate. . .”
“. . .but if the estate was to be entailed to Shelley’s eldest son rather than
Shelley, how could Shelley get the loan?”
“. . .I don’t really know. I imagine that when his father died, the assump-
tion may have been that all outstanding loans would be paid even if Shelley
didn’t take over the estate. Shelley basically was selling the future at a loss
to pay for the present, which I suppose made sense given that he didn’t
stand to inherit anything, and in retrospect was very lucky, as Sir Timothy
outlived him by a long while. By the time he took this last loan, his credi-
tors evidently caught on that his position in regard to his father was uncer-
tain, to say the least, and it seems they realized that if Shelley were to die
first, they might not see their loans repaid. e net result was that Shelley
raised money insuring his own life against his possible early death – the
creditors were simply hedging their bets against that possibility. . .”

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“. . .it’s a bit ironic, considering what happened. . .”

“. . .very ironic. I would have hated to be the lawyers who settled his
estate – I think a whole book could be written about Shelley’s finances
alone. . .”
“. . .and yours. . .”
“. . .no comment – it gives me a headache to think about it. In any
case, the outcome was that Shelley had enough to set them up in Italy
– provided the one thousand pound allowance from his father
continued. . .”
“. . .did he give any of it to Godwin?”
“. . .Shelley had learned his lesson by then. Godwin suggested he leave
the whole amount in England under an account that would need both
their signatures to release it as a way of ensuring Shelley’s return at some
point, but Shelley refused to, and aer an exchange of letters, Shelley
refused to correspond with him any more. . .”
“. . .did they leave right away?”
“. . .no, not until March. In February they moved to an apartment on
Great Russell Street in London, and spent the month preparing and
socializing. Shelley couldn’t have realized it then, but it was the last time
he would see most of his friends – except for Hunt. ey attended the
theater, the ballet, and the opera, seeing Mozart’s Don Giovanni several
times, and visiting the newly acquired Elgin Marbles at the British
Museum – British colonialism was entering its triumphal stage at that
point. Hogg and Peacock came to dinner throughout the month, and
they went to dinner at the Hunts’ several times. Almost the last thing
they did, which was rather out of character for Shelley, was they had all
three children christened – Claire’s daughter was christened Clara
Allegra. . .”
“. . .what did Claire think about taking Allegra to Byron? By then she
must have been very bonded to her. . .”
“. . .she wrote a letter to Byron on Allegra’s birthday, January 1, where
she expresses all her doubts and fears about it – you can see how deeply
she had become attached to her:

My affections are few & therefore strong – the extreme soli-

tude in which I live has concentrated them to one point and
that point is my lovely child. I study her pleasure all day long
– she is so fond of me that I hold her in my arms till I am

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nearly falling to delight her. We sleep together and if you

knew the extreme happiness I feel when she nestles closer to
me, when in listening to our regular breathing together,
I could tear my flesh in twenty thousand different directions
to ensure her good and when I fear for her residing with you
it is not the dread I have to commence the long series of
painful anxieties I know I shall have to endure it is lest
I should behold her sickly & wasted with improper manage-
ment lest I should live to hear that you neglected her.

. . .Claire was rightly concerned about her, but when she was writing this
letter the final decision hadn’t yet been made, so the reality hadn’t set in.
I think the period prior to their arrival in Italy was like a dream for them
– the time must have flown by in that kind of dizzy unreality that comes
from unmooring oneself from the known. When everything was finally
ready, they le for the continent at dawn on March 1, 1818. For Shelley
it was for the third and last time: he would never set foot in his native
land again. . .”
They take a last swallow from their wine glasses, pay, gather their
things, and leave. They are the only figures walking down the road
through the undulations of heat rising from the asphalt. The town is
“. . .the wine is getting to me – and the story as well. So, what shall we
do – go back to the villa now?”
“. . .I don’t know – I want to go back to the villa eventually, even if just
to look at it again, but maybe we can find someone there a bit later. . .”
“. . .if they feel like I do, they’re probably sleeping now. . .”
“. . .yes, I’m also sleepy. We can take a sonnellino on the grass in the castle
park, under a tree. . .”
“. . .that sounds wonderful, but you’ll have to carry me. . .”
“. . .one step in front of the other – we’ll be there soon, and you can
collapse in the shade. . .”
“. . .and then you can tell me more about what happened here. . .”
“. . .there’s so much more to tell – if it even can be told! I’m only putting
it all together myself for the first time. . .there are so many gaping holes,
so many mysteries, that I wonder if even a fraction of the truth can be
reached. . .as Shelley wrote in one of his short lyrics,

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We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;

How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! — yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost for ever. . .

. . .”

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I have abandoned any desire for a return to the illusion of a secured, settled
existence, for I know now that it is only an illusion: there is for me now only
the return of the vertiginous moment of willing, and within that moment
the opening, interminably, of the void before me. I do not hold myself over
or above those who cling to the illusions of the day – of the stability and
certainty of purposeful activity, but this possibility is no longer available to
me. e point beyond which one cannot return has been reached: what
initially appeared as a malquiescent dawn has taken on the refulgent
glimmer of a black sun, and night has become a blinding radiance that
beckons me in its proximity.
is benighting began as a process of enfolding – first of the layers of my
present existence, then of layer upon layer of the past: periods of time,
sequences of events, even distinct moments became detached like crystals om
the flow of my life, combining and recombining, gaining meanings that they
lacked in the original moments of their occurrence, meanings that resonate
against other temporal sequences, other events and moments. When
I departed, leaving everything behind, this process accelerated, so that each
moment became haunted by the shadow tracings of the same action occur-
ring in another place, another time, and the purity of events themselves
shimmered within the interstices of these simulacra.
is multiplicity was disconcerting at the outset: I felt I was losing a great
deal, for it was not only the devastating loss of certainty about where I had
been and the people I had known and loved there, it was also the loss of any
distinct, singular memory of that past, which now became multiplied like
an image reflected in a shattered mirror. What disturbed me most of all was
the dawning realization that there was no foundation for my memory: that
memory was built through accretion, taking as much om the present as
om the past – perhaps even om the future, or our anticipation of it.
Initially I sensed something was being lost, but this feeling was replaced by
a deeper sense that nothing was ever lost – that it became embedded in
a labyrinth of time that could never be fully reclaimed, but nor could it be
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In these early moments the glare of this night was too bright to be borne,
and I tried to hide in the day: avoiding the shadows, avoiding the voices
(even my own) that summoned me back to the darkness. I tried to live like
others, oblivious to the night surrounding me. I tried to live as if being
thrown into existence on this planet were to be interpreted merely as
“earning a living” – strange phrase, and how easily it expands to encompass
the entirety of human life within the banality of its deadening necessity: the
space that money occupies and controls – a space that expands to become
everything when this phrase is allowed to conquer and colonize existence.
I tried to live like this in the full light of day, but whatever that will was
which was gathering within me, it would not allow me this escape: like
a grayness that suddenly enshrouds a sunny day in spring reminding us that
the universe can take other forms, I would find myself drawn away om the
succession of moments into a timeless realm where each moment became the
core of infinite reverberations. e night was inescapable: in retrospect, I can
see that every attempt I made to evade its grasp only brought me more deeply
within its embrace, every attempt to assert my will only brought me into
conjunction with what was willing itself through me. . .

Was Odysseus blown off course for ten years, or, rather, was he blown
towards his own destiny? Were the wayward meanderings of his return
voyage mere contingencies, or were they the embodiment of fate itself ? And
who was the man who finally did return to the rock of Ithaca, dropped there
as if om the mist of a dream? Was return possible for one whose fate had
transformed him into the timeless image of the wanderer, despite the lasting
bonds that drew him inevitably back? Why did he then depart Ithaca again,
walking landward, oar upon his shoulder, until no man recognize it? To
what inner necessity was he responding? e same will that had mastered
every adversity in his struggle to return home became that which drove him
outward again – and what must he have felt as he gazed upon the sea for
the last time?

. . .on a foreign shore, a crisp wind in his hair – a solitude, a sovereignty

. . .beholding alassa – the mother of all, for the last time: here, now, this
place, this moment. . .eternally. . .
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e two figures, alone in the castle precincts, seek cover from the fierce
mid-aernoon sun under the shade of a plane tree. e man lies down,
resting his head on his shoulder bag, while the woman reclines perpen-
dicularly to him, resting her head on his hip. She lights a cigarette, and
smokes it with closed eyes – the tendrils of smoke coiling up from her
hand where it lay in the grass.
“. . .tell me a nap-time story – tell me what happened to them next. . .”
“. . .the full treatment?”
“. . .yes – I want to hear it all. . .”
“. . .I thought you wanted to sleep. . .”
“. . .I’ll tell you when I do – just a little while longer. . .”
“. . .then I’ll have to get out my notebook – just a minute. . .”
He pulls the bag from behind his head, rummages through it, and pulls
out a black notebook.
“. . .ready?”
“. . .yes. . .”
“. . .so, they arrived in Calais where they bought a coach, and then,
avoiding Paris, traveled on through Rheims and Dijon, reaching Lyon by
the first day of spring. Shelley’s letters to England detailed the journey –
he wrote to Hunt,

We have journeyed towards the spring that has been hastening

to meet us from the south; and though our weather was at first
abominable, we have now warm sunny days, and so winds, and
a sky of deep azure, the most serene I ever saw. e heat in this
city today is like that of London in the midst of summer. My
spirits and health sympathize with the change. Indeed, before
I le London my spirits were as feeble as my health, and I had
demands upon them which I found difficult to supply.

. . .from there they crossed the frontier at Les Échelles, then on to Chambéry,
reaching Turin on April 1st and Milan by April th. ey stayed there for

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a while, visiting the opera and seeing the sights. While they were near it, they
went to Lake Como, and looked at the Villa Pliniana – a villa they were
considering renting for the summer. . .”
“. . .did he have any second thoughts about leaving?”
“. . .from Milan he wrote to Peacock expressing how he missed the
times in Marlow, revealing, indirectly, the loss he was feeling:

I oen revisit Marlow in thought. e curse of this life is that

whatever is once known can never be unknown. You inhabit
a spot which before you inhabit it is as indifferent to you as any
other spot upon the earth, & when, persuaded by some necessity
you think to leave it, you leave it not, – it clings to you & with
memories of things which in your experience of them gave no
such promise, revenges your desertion. Time flows on, places are
changed, friends who were with us are no longer with us, but what
has been seems yet to be, but barren & stript of life. . .

. . .but this was only an inkling of what was to come – I don’t think any
of them fully realized what their self-imposed exile meant until aer they
had experienced significant losses. e first came immediately. . .”
“. . .Allegra?”
“. . .yes. Shelley wrote to Byron from Milan that they had arrived in
Italy, and suggested to him that he might pick up Allegra during a visit
in the summer. Byron’s answer was lost, but what it expressed is clear
enough from the responses Claire and Shelley sent back to him on April
: there’s no doubt that he wrote to them as if Allegra would never see
Claire again. Claire’s letter set out her demands in no uncertain terms:
when she wrote it, a certain Mr. Merryweather had already arrived to pick
up the child. . .”
“. . .what a horrible name – considering the circumstances!”
“. . .yes, one can imagine the sort of lugubrious character he must have been!
Claire refused to release Allegra to him until her demands were met. . .”
“. . .good for her! Do you have the letter?”
“. . .yes. She wrote,

My dear friend,
Your messenger will remain here at my request until I hear
from you again. I cannot send my Child under the impression

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produced by your letter of the 1th to Shelley and the

messenger has been told that her health which is not perfectly
good makes it necessary that we should write & hear from you
before she can depart. Pardon me but I cannot part with my
Child never to see her again – Only write me one word of
Consolation – Tell me that you will come and see Shelley in
the Summer or that I may then be somewhere near her – Say
this and I will send her instantly. I cannot describe to you the
anguish with which I bring myself to contradict your expec-
tations or in any manner to oppose your will but on this point
I am firm – If you will not regard me as her mother, she shall
never be divided from me. I had hoped that your intimacy
with Shelley would have stood in lieu of all these conditions
which it is so painful to urge. But you say you will not visit
him while I am there.
I do not wish to tease you with my presence if I might only
see my Child. Yet my dear friend why should my presence
tease you? Why might not the father & mother of a child
whom both so tenderly love meet as friends? I cannot think
it is your intention to let her grow up without knowing her
mother. I entreat you to write & say that this is not the case –
Do not take this as a menace or condition imposed upon you
but pity the anxiety of a mother whose child is her only good.
Only set my mind at peace on this point & hope I shall never
again have to annoy you as I fear this does. My God! if you
did but know what happiness you would confer in visiting
Shelley this summer and letting me see my Child. But do what
you please with regard to everything else but indeed I cannot
part on the terms you insinuate in your letter to Shelley. Pray
send me all my letters back again if you have not destroyed
them since you can not value them for what they are the
expressions of a sincere & disinterested attachment. It would
be a satisfaction for me to know whether you return to
England this Spring or not. One thing more. Remember my
dearest friend my life as it were lies with you. Remember what
you felt at my age & think if it is not a lamentable sight to see
one human creature beg from another a little mercy and
forbearance. You must know that you have all the power in

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your hands. My dearest friend I entreat you to spare me.

Whatever you do I still pray for your happiness & health.
Whatever my fate may yours still be great & glorious as it has

. . .you can see the problem – she’s still confusing the issue of the child
and the possibility of her still having some relation with Byron. at
would have driven Byron mad. . .”
“. . .but she does ask for her letters back – she must have realized it was
hopeless. . .”
“. . .yes, but, on the other hand, she makes a good point when she asks
him why her presence ‘teases’ him so much: in a letter Byron wrote to
Hobhouse he mentioned once that he refused to see her to prevent
another addition to the family – it’s a rather strange statement, almost as
if he feared being near her because he couldn’t control himself. . .”
“. . .if that was truly the case, he would have never let her near him
again. . .”
“. . .well, yes – he never did, actually. . .”
“. . .he never saw her again?”
“. . .once – from a distance, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself in
the story. . .”
“. . .ok – so go on. . .”
“. . .Shelley’s letter to Byron worked considerably better. When Shelley
wrote his letter, Merryweather had not yet arrived, and so he didn’t feel
the urgency that made her letter so frantic, yet he understood how to
appeal to what did matter to Byron – his esteem and reputation in the
world. . .”
“. . .do you have it here?”
“. . .yes. . .

My dear Lord Byron

Clare will write to you herself a detail of her motives and feel-
ings relating to Allegra’s being sent as you desire. Her inter-
ference as the mother of course supersedes mine, which was
never undertaken but from the deep interest I have ever felt
for all the parties concerned. Here my letter might well close,
but that I would not the affair should finish so. You write as

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if from the instant of its departure all future intercourse were

to cease between Clare and her child. is I cannot think you
ought to have expected, or even to have desired. Let us esti-
mate our own sensations, and consider, if those of a father be
acute, what must be those of a mother? What should we think
of a woman who should resign her infant child with no
prospect of ever seeing it again, even to a father in whose
tenderness she entirely confided? If she forces herself to such
a sacrifice for the sake of her child’s welfare, there is something
heroically great in thus trampling upon the strongest affec-
tions, and even the most unappeasable instincts of our nature.
But the world will not judge so; she would be despised as an
unnatural mother, even by those who might see little to
condemn in her becoming a mother without the formalities
of marriage. She would thus resign her only good, and take to
herself, in its stead, contempt on every hand. Besides, she
might say, ‘What assurance have I of the tenderness of the
father for his child, if he treats the feelings of the mother with
so little consideration?’ Not to mention, that the child itself
would, on this supposition, grow up either in ignorance, or in
contempt of one of its parents; a state of things full of danger.
I know the arguments present in your mind on this subject;
but surely, rank and reputation, and prudence are as nothing
in comparison to a mother’s claims. If it should be recorded
that you had sought to violate these, the opinion of the world
might indeed be fixed on you, with such blame as your friends
could not justify; and wholly unlike those ridiculous and
unfounded tales which are told of every person of eminent
powers, and which make your friends so many in England, at
the expense of those who fabricated them.
I assure you, my dear lord Byron, I speak earnestly, and
sincerely. It is not that I wish to make out a case for Clare; my
interest, as you must be aware, is entirely on the opposite side.
Nor have I in any manner influenced her. I have esteemed it
a duty to leave her to the impulse of her own feelings in a case
where, if she has no feeling, she has no claim. But in truth, if
she is to be brought to part with her child, she requires reas-
surance and tenderness. A tie so near the heart should not be

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rudely snapt. It was in this persuasion that I hoped (I had

a thousand other reasons for wishing to see you) that you
would have accepted our invitation to Pliniana. Clare’s pain
would then have been mitigated by the prospect of seeing her
child with you, and she would have been reassured of the fears
which your letter has just confirmed, by the idea of a repeti-
tion of the visit. Your conduct must at present wear the aspect
of great cruelty, however you justify it to yourself. Surely it is
better if we err, to err on the side of kindness, than of rigour.

. . .he went on to ask for reassurances for Claire’s sake, and he stated that
if the messenger arrived he would be detained until Byron sent further
orders. It seems that Byron offered to reimburse Shelley for any costs of
taking care of the child – Shelley refused, of course, and suggested it was
offensive for him even to offer. . .”
“. . .but did it work?”
“. . .apparently it did: a letter from Byron arrived on April th – Claire’s
twentieth birthday, by the way – and, from Shelley’s letter in return, it seems
as if Byron must have tried to be conciliatory, as Shelley apologized for
having misunderstood his letter. It also seems Byron assured her that she
would be able to visit the child that summer. Consequently, the child was
released with Merryweather on the following day, along with Elise. . .still,
it was a terribly difficult thing to have to do. . .”
“. . .even with Byron’s reassurance it must have been deeply traumatic
for her – regardless of whether she thought she was doing the right thing.
I can’t imagine doing it. . .”
“. . .in a letter she wrote to Byron before sending Allegra she reiterated
her reasons: ‘I have sent you my child because I love her too well to keep
her. With you who are powerful and noble and the admiration of the
world she will be happy but I am miserable and neglected. . .’”
“. . .I still don’t know how she could have done it – she must have been
devastated. . .”
“. . .she was – she wrote in the same letter, ‘I assure you I have wept so
much tonight that now my eyes seem to drop hot & burning blood. . . .’
Byron’s coldness and cruelty towards her from that point onwards
removed any of her remaining illusions about his ever having a relation-
ship with her, and in the loss of this illusion and the loss of Allegra, she
was shattered – barely able to drag herself from one moment to the next.

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Shelley tried to mediate somewhat, and in his letter you can see him
trying to temper Byron’s worst tendencies:

Clare, as you may imagine, is dreadfully unhappy. As you have

not written to her, it has been a kind of custom that she should
see your letters; and I daresay you know that you have some-
times said things which I do not think you would have
addressed to her. It could not in any way compromise you to
be cautious in this respect, as, unless you write to her, I cannot
well refuse to let her see your letters. I have not seen any of
those which she has written to you; nor even have I oen
known when they were sent.

. . .one can well-guess Byron’s reaction. Shelley went on to explain that

the reason they were going south to Pisa was to take Claire’s mind off of
her loss. He implored Byron to send a letter assuring them of Allegra’s

. . .I shall attempt to divert Clare’s melancholy by availing

myself of some introductions at Pisa. Clare is wretchedly
disconsolate, and I know not how I should calm her, until the
return of post. I ought to say that we shall be at Pisa long before
the return of post – when we expect (pray don’t disappoint us)
a letter from you to assure us of the safe arrival of our little
favourite. . .

. . .they le Milan three days later for Pisa. . .”

“. . .did Byron write to them?”
“. . .Elise wrote them a letter, and Byron added a few lines. is was
enough to reassure Claire – at least for the time being. She seems to have
been a little better by mid-May, when she wrote again to Byron, trying to
get him to tell her something about Allegra. She wrote, ‘My dearest
friend you cannot think how unhappy I have been but I am now better.
I know you will let me see my Chick again soon and for the rest I can
only hope when you see how good I am that you will be kinder to one
who can never forget you,’ but she changes her tone back to the half-
fawning, half-gloating tone he must have hated: ‘My dear Lord Byron
now don’t expect too much of me. I begin to feel uneasy to hear again of

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my darling. I am very proud of her and I wish to know whether you think
her pretty & particularly her eyes. She has some looks very like yours. If
anything is taken from her, the surprise and astonishment she expresses at
your extreme audacity is yourself all over. . .’”
“. . .what did Byron think of Allegra?”
“. . .you can imagine – a fieen month old child – to Lord Byron? He
did grow fonder of her when she was a bit older, but at this point he
seems to have been projecting his own problems with women on to her:
by August of that summer he was writing his sister Augusta that Allegra
actually looked more like Lady Byron than Claire – which speaks for
itself, and he was comparing her more ‘capricious’ nature to his own. . .”
“. . .at least he was honest about himself. . .”
“. . .up to a point. In any case, once they had received the letter from
Elise, they moved on to Pisa. eir first impression of Pisa was rather
negative, so they only stayed long enough to wait for the arrival of the
letter before moving on a few days later. . .”
“. . .so where did they go?”
“. . .they traveled on to Livorno, where they stayed for much of May.
It’s a town they never did get to like – I can’t say I like it much either.
Shelley referred to it as ‘this most unattractive of cities,’ while Mary
simply wrote in her journal ‘stupid town’ – but they made some impor-
tant friends there: the Gisbornes. . .”
“. . .English friends?”
“. . .yes. Livorno was a kind of English colony – in fact, the English had
typically anglicized its name as ‘Leghorn’. . .”
“. . .who were the Gisbornes?”
“. . .Maria Gisborne had been married to an English architect named
Willey Reveley and had borne him two sons – one died, and the second,
Henry, was about four years older than Shelley and still living with her
in Livorno when they met. As Mrs. Reveley, she had helped Godwin by
nursing Mary aer her mother, Mary Wollstonecra, died. Her own
husband died soon aer, Godwin proposed marriage to her, but she
married a merchant named John Gisborne instead. He was an unsuc-
cessful businessman who had come to Livorno in 181 with the idea of
working in some English business there, but it never came through, so
they were living off of his estate. Shelley considered him, at least in the
beginning, an insufferable bore, but all of them were delighted by Mrs.
Gisborne, who had been brought up by her father in Constantinople as

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a free-thinker. e son, Henry, was an engineer – then busy designing

a steamship which later Shelley would help finance. . .”
“. . .they were lucky to find them – how did they know about them?”
“. . .I think they had an address from Godwin. e value of their friend-
ship, at least then, was primarily as a guide to expatriate life in Italy – in
fact, they were the ones who directed Shelley to look for a house in Bagni
di Lucca, where they moved in June. . .”
“. . .where exactly is that?”
“. . .Livorno is right on the sea, just northwest of it is Pisa, and then
about the same distance beyond is Lucca: up the river valley about thirty
kilometers or so is the Bagni di Lucca. I was there about the same time
in June that they moved there: the ridges there rise up quite steeply from
the town, and it’s all very lush and overgrown with chestnut and plane
trees – it’s quite beautiful. But it was also a bit of an English colony back
then: Mary complained in a letter that all they heard there were English
voices. Shelley was always escaping the town to the hills and streams
beyond. Shelley wrote this letter to Peacock about their lives there aer
they had settled in a bit:

Our life here is as unvaried by any external events as if we were

at Marlow, where a sail up the river or a journey to London
makes an epoch. Since I last wrote to you, I have ridden over to
Lucca, once with Claire, and once alone; and we have been over
to the Casino, where I cannot say there is anything remarkable,
the women being far removed from anything which the most
liberal annotator could interpret into beauty or grace, and
apparently possessing no intellectual excellences to compensate
the deficiency. I assure you that it is well that it is so, for the
dances, especially the waltz, are so exquisitely beautiful that it
would be a little dangerous to the newly unfrozen senses and
imaginations of us migrators from the neighborhood of the
pole. As it is – except in the dark – there could be no peril. . .

. . .”
“. . .he’s rather critical of the Italians – I wouldn’t have expected that
from him. . .”
“. . .I think it’s one of the phases of culture shock – at least as far as
I have experienced it: first one is a tourist, and the natives seem like so

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much local color, blending in with the scenery. en, if one stays a few
months, one becomes an expatriate, constantly comparing and
contrasting one’s own culture to the host culture – with one’s own
culture, at first, always gaining the upper hand: the natives end up
seeming like demons sent to torment one. . .”
“. . .and then what happens – one finally gets used to it?”
“. . .some people remain in this state of expatriation, especially if they
are connected to a country that has the power to colonize – back then
the British Empire, now the American Empire. Others either assimilate
to the host culture as émigrés – sometimes becoming more nationalist
than the locals. . .”
“. . .oh, like those in Prague who speak colloquial Czech and hang out
in pubs. . .”
“. . .that’s what I mean. . .or there are those, like Shelley, who enter
a state of ‘positive expatriation’ – accepting a permanent state of being
neither here nor there, of being an ‘outsider’ or ‘foreigner’ – in the
sense that Simmel or Kristeva meant it. . .or, what I call becoming
‘sovereign’. . .”
“. . .‘sovereign’?”
“. . .a term I borrowed from Georges Bataille and adapted to suit my
own purposes. For Bataille, sovereignty was a state of freedom beyond
utility, where one’s time was one’s own. According to Bataille, it’s
encountered most intensely in what he called ‘miraculous moments’
where reason was swept aside – laughter, tears, or rapture, and it resem-
bles something like a mystical vision, although what one experiences is
the negativity of the abyss, making of it an affirmation. I agree with
him, but I think that a certain state of affirmative foreignness can also
produce the same result – provided one allows it to happen, and
doesn’t either cling to one’s own cultural background and sense of
home, like negative expatriates, or entirely assimilate into the foreign
culture surrounding one. It produces a state of detachment or discon-
nection from the usual socialized qualities of a nation or people – the
‘-ness’ of people: the ‘American-ness’ of Americans, the ‘Czech-ness’ of
Czechs, and so on. In any case, Shelley was at this stage of his life only
a negative expatriate – even if he did explicitly reject much of the polit-
ical and social life of England. Increasingly, though, he would move
towards becoming a foreigner – towards becoming sovereign. . .”
“. . .what about Mary and Claire?”

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“. . .aer his death Mary collapsed back into Britishness, while Claire
became largely sovereign – she attained experientially what Shelley spent
his short life working through primarily conceptually. . .”
“. . .but that takes us ahead of the story quite a ways, doesn’t it? Getting
back to it, what about Shelley’s letter – he wrote that he and Claire went
to Lucca together. . .”
“. . .they stayed over-night there, but Mary could hardly complain:
while she enjoyed walking in the woods near the Bagni di Lucca, she
didn’t like the longer trips, which were rather rugged – on one of their
trips Claire fell off her horse, and returned home alone while Shelley
went on. It wasn’t the kind of thing Mary wanted any part of. . .”
“. . .what about the casino he mentioned in his letter?”
“. . .it was new – the one in Bagni di Lucca was one of the earliest
licensed casinos in Europe. I think they only went a couple of times –
Shelley wrote Godwin that Mary and Claire refused to dance, and he
didn’t know whether it was from ‘philosophy or Protestantism’. . .”
“. . .is it still there?”
“. . .the building is still there, but I don’t know if they use it as a casino
anymore. In any case, most of their recreation was quiet reading – they
read Ariosto and Tasso in order to learn Italian, but they also went for
rides and walks around the area, and Shelley, especially, liked to go to the
river during the heat of the day and sit in the pools of water. He described
it in one of his travel letters:

e atmosphere here, unlike that of the rest of Italy, is diversi-

fied with clouds, which grow in the middle of the day, and
sometimes bring thunder and lightning, and hail about the size
of a pigeon’s egg, and decrease towards the evening, leaving
only those finely woven webs of vapour which we see in
English skies, and flocks of fleecy and slowly moving clouds,
which all vanish before sunset; and the nights are forever
serene, and we see a star in the east at sunset – I think it is
Jupiter – almost as fine as Venus was last summer; but it wants
a certain silver and aerial radiance, and so yet piercing splen-
dour, which belongs, I suppose, to the latter planet by virtue of
its once divine and female nature. I have forgotten to ask the
ladies if Jupiter produces on them the same effect. I take great
delight in watching the changes of the atmosphere. In the

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evening, Mary and I oen take a ride, for horses are cheap in
this country. In the middle of the day, I bathe in a pool or foun-
tain, formed in the middle of the forests by a torrent. It is
surrounded on all sides by precipitous rocks, and the waterfall
of the stream which forms it falls into it on one side with
perpetual dashing. Close to it, on the top of the rocks, are
alders, and above the great chestnut trees, whose long and
pointed leaves pierce the deep blue sky in strong relief. e
water of this pool, which, to venture an unrhythmical para-
phrase, is ‘sixteen feet long and ten feet wide’, is as transparent
as the air, so that the stones and sand at the bottom seem, as it
were, trembling in the light of noonday. It is exceedingly cold
also. My custom is to undress and sit on the rocks, reading
Herodotus, until the perspiration has subsided, and then to
leap from the edge of the rock into this fountain – a practice
in the hot weather exceedingly refreshing. is torrent is
composed, as it were, of a succession of pools and waterfalls,
up which I sometimes amuse myself by climbing when I bathe,
and receiving the spray over all my body, whilst I clamber up
the moist crags with difficulty.

. . .”
“. . .it sounds perfect just now – did you see the pools when you were
“. . .no – we probably would have had to stay there for a week
wandering about the woods to find it – I wish we could have, but the
time, the expense. . .it was enough to see the house, the landscape, the
casino. . .”
“. . .that’s the trouble – I wish we had time to stay here longer, and get
a feel for it at different times of the day and night, but there’s never
enough time. . .”
“. . .but in a way there was never enough time for them either: they
arrived in June, and by mid-August Shelley and Claire were already gone,
and Mary le at the end of August. is rare period of tranquility lasted
eight or nine weeks, at the most. . .”
“. . .what brought it to an end?”
“. . .it was when the two letters from Elise arrived – on the 1th and 1th
of August. ey le the 1th, so you can see how upset Claire was: the

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letters frightened Claire enough for her to want to immediately set out
for Venice, aer not having seen Allegra for three and a half months.
Shelley decided to escort her for safety’s sake, but perhaps also to prevent
the possibility of some rash action on her part, knowing what was likely
to happen if Claire and Byron were to meet without a mediator. . .”
“. . .when was the last time they had had a chance to be alone together
like this? I assume not since they arrived on the continent. . .”
“. . .it was at least since they were in London the previous autumn. Even
more, it threw them together in a common cause, and that, in concert
with Claire’s despair, was enough to produce an intense renewal of their
intimacy. I doubt it was initially planned as a time to be alone. . .”
“. . .how long were they together, exactly?”
“. . .let’s see – there was the journey itself, which took a week, and then
they had ten days alone here in Este with just Allegra and Elise present,
making for a total of three weeks. . .”
“. . .so that finally brings us up to their time here: you said earlier that it
was a crucial period of transition in Shelley’s life. . .”
“. . .absolutely: for Shelley, his days here were the beginning of the
mature phase of his work. He conceived and began Prometheus
Unbound here, writing the entire first act and sketching out the rest.
He completed the whole play by the time they reached Florence in
1819, when some of the worst disasters had already happened. He also
virtually completed the first draft of Julian and Maddalo here. There
was a small summer house at the villa where Shelley would spend the
mornings writing, which is what I would really like to see – if it still
exists. . .”
“. . .but what about the mystery you spoke of – is it that their intimacy
began again in full here?”
“. . .for me, the fact that they were intimate is no mystery, but keep in
mind that I have a minority view: very few biographers or critics believe
there was a physically intimate relation between Shelley and Claire. In
fact, I’ve read a recent biography of Claire that entirely dismisses the
possibility, and an even more recent biography of Trelawny that fails to
even mention it! e mystery I mentioned didn’t actually unfold until
later, in Naples, where, the following December – to get to the crucial
point – Shelley was registered as the father of Elena Adelaide Shelley, and
Mary was registered as the mother. . .”
“. . .a-ha. . .I assume she wasn’t the real mother. . .”

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“. . .there’s every indication that Mary didn’t even know her name was
being used on the birth certificate. . .”
“. . .so, was it Claire’s child?”
“. . .wait, it’s all very complicated. . .”
“. . .but who could be the mother, if not Claire?”
“. . .it’s more complicated than that. . .”
“. . .how can it be? Aer all, one can’t be a little bit pregnant. . .”
“. . .well it is, trust me – it’s difficult to explain, precisely because it’s
a real mystery. I can only tell you the various bits and pieces of evidence,
and what conclusions I’ve drawn from the evidence. . .”
“. . .but you can at least tell me that it wasn’t Claire, for certain, can’t
you? How could Mary have avoided seeing her pregnancy if they were
traveling and living together?”
“. . .that’s an important point, so keep it in mind. . .what I can tell you
now is that, in my opinion, Claire probably was not the mother – or at
least not the mother of the child baptized Elena Adelaide Shelley. . .”
“. . .what does that mean?”
“. . .I can give you several versions – or suppositions, rather – about
what happened, and various fragments of evidence. . .”
“. . .don’t keep me in suspense. . .”
“. . .ok, to begin with, one thing scholars do know is that there was
a scandal later about the whole matter, when simultaneously Elise went
to the Hoppners, while Paolo tried to blackmail Shelley. . .”
“. . .who was Paolo?”
“. . .Paolo was a coachman and all-purpose servant that they hired at
Bagni di Lucca. When Shelley summoned Mary to Este, Paolo brought her
and the children. Paolo met Elise – Allegra’s governess – for the first time
here in early September, which is important in regard to the mystery. We
know that some time between their meeting and the whole party’s arrival
in Naples, these two formed what Mary euphemistically called, in a letter,
‘an attachment’ – that Elise was perhaps pregnant as a result, and that Mary
arranged their marriage, aer which they le their service. It was later that
the blackmail began, when Paolo approached Shelley for money not to
disclose the secret of the existence of Elena Adelaide Shelley: it was aer
her death by fever, a little over a year later, that the blackmail began. . .”
“. . .wait, this is going a little too fast. . .”
“. . .sorry – I don’t know any other logical way to tell it. Anyway, Elise,
while Paolo was blackmailing Shelley, went straight to the Hoppners to

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disclose, if not the story, than a story – a fact which is, in itself, quite
curious, as the whole point of blackmail is to threaten the disclosure of
something, and if it is already disclosed, there’s no longer any point to
the blackmail. . .”
“. . .but why did she do it – what was her story?”
“. . .that question is close to the center of the mystery – at least in
regard to her motivations. We do know her story, or at least the story
she told the Hoppners, via an extant letter from Hoppner to Byron,
although due to the fact that the Hoppners were currying his favor and
knew he despised Claire, there’s room for considerable misrepresenta-
tion in their account, just as there is room for misrepresentation in
Elise’s telling of it. Even Byron wrote to Hoppner to say that he didn’t
exactly trust her evidence, which he described as merely ‘Queen’s
evidence’. . .”
“. . .what did he mean by that?”
“. . .I forget the specific reference, but the sense it carries is about the
queen being able to summon whatever evidence she wants to fit her
version of the events – a bit like the queen in Alice in Wonderland. In this
case, Byron pointed out to Hoppner that Elise had been removed from
their service, and had been trying to get back to them; therefore, she had
ulterior motives, and certainly things were not as bad as she indicated if
she did want to go back. . .”
“. . .so what was her story?”
“. . .for what it’s worth, she claimed that Claire had been pregnant with
Shelley’s child, that she had tried to abort the child when they were in
Padua, that she had been brought to term in Naples, that the child had
been named Elena Adelaide Shelley, and that the child had been given
up to a foundling hospital and the doctor paid off to keep it quiet. . .”
“. . .all without Mary’s knowledge?”
“. . .Elise claimed that somehow Mary had been kept from knowing,
that Claire had been urging Shelley to leave her, and that the two treated
Mary horribly. . .”
“. . .that’s incredible – I can’t believe it! You don’t think it’s true, do
you? I can’t believe Claire would give up a child, especially aer she lost
Allegra, or that either Claire or Shelley would intentionally treat Mary
so terribly. . .”
“. . .I think it has a few small grains of truth in it, woven through with
falsehoods. . .”

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“. . .what did Byron think?”

“. . .well, you first have to take into account that, aside from his skepti-
cism towards Elise, there’s some indication that he himself may have
seduced her – it’s possible he got her pregnant. . .”
“. . .what? is is all becoming more complicated than I imagined. . .”
“. . .I’ll come back to that. . .anyway, he did write to Hoppner that while
he didn’t trust the details of the story in full, it was ‘just like them’
– a judgment that was rather unfair for someone who claimed to be
Shelley’s friend, but he may have been concerned with appearing to have
the ‘right’ moral attitude in front of the Hoppners, who by then he had
realized were shameless busybodies. In any case, his judgment didn’t
prevent Byron from later moving to Pisa to be closer to Shelley and his
entourage, so he couldn’t have been so scandalized by it, even if he
believed it. . .”
“. . .so you doubt Elise’s story?”
“. . .in many of its aspects. e account that’s closest to what I’ve come
to believe is the truth is that of Holmes, one of Shelley’s more recent
biographers. . .”
“. . .Sherlock Holmes?”
“. . .given the mystery it’s appropriate, but no, his name is Richard
Holmes. Holmes weighed all the evidence for and against Elise’s account
being correct, and decided against the story. . .in part. First of all, for
Claire to have given birth in December to a viable child – which Elena
Adelaide Shelley definitely was as she lived for over a year aer her birth
– it would have meant that she was conceived in late winter or early
spring at the latest, which is possible, but seems unlikely from what we
know, given they were all traveling together and Claire was terribly
distraught about Allegra at the time. Second, Mary’s letters and journals
do not seem to reveal any knowledge of the pregnancy and birth, and it’s
unlikely Claire could have been in the last trimester of pregnancy without
Mary having known about it; aer all, they were together the whole time,
and they all climbed Mount Vesuvius together a couple of weeks before
the birth – although it’s true Claire was carried most of the way, like
a courtesan, because she was ill. In any case, I doubt she would have made
the ascent if she were in the last month of pregnancy, even as a cover-up.
Later, when Mary wrote to deny the story to Mrs. Hoppner in order to
clear the scandal, she swore on the death of her living child that Claire
was not the mother of any child by Shelley, something I doubt she would

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have done untruthfully, given the losses she had already suffered. ird,
and perhaps most telling of all, Claire would not have abandoned her
child, given her grief over Allegra. Later, when the news arrived that the
mystery-child had died of fever, her diary shows that Claire was
unmoved, even oblivious, whereas Shelley was deeply affected, and that
seems the most decisive evidence to me. . .”
“. . .so is there any truth to Elise’s account?”
“. . .Claire was sick in Padua, and went to a physician: Holmes advances
the possibility that she was trying to provoke or procure an abortion.
en, Mary’s journal mentions Claire being unwell and bed-ridden on
the same day that the child was born. . .”
“. . .but what else could have happened?”
“. . .considering all the evidence, Holmes’ belief, which he admits is
based on the available evidence only, is that the person who gave birth
on that day to Elena Adelaide Shelley was the Swiss servant Elise. . .”
“. . .Elise? Are you joking? So why did Paolo marry her? Perhaps it was his
child – they did have an affair, aer all, and Mary said she was pregnant. . .”
“. . .Holmes points out quite correctly that Paolo met Elise for the first
time in early September, and the child was born in December, so it
couldn’t possibly have been his child, if Elise was indeed the mother. . .”
“. . .but then why would Paolo marry her if he knew she was pregnant?”
“. . .according to Holmes – and his case is a very good one, it seems to
me, and still worth considering in its details – for Elise to have given birth
in December she must have conceived when they were in Como. Holmes
points out that two incidents there might suggest that Mary had discov-
ered a tryst between Elise and Shelley: first, Shelley was caught by the
police in the forest with a loaded pistol – they said he was acting
‘strangely,’ but he said he was just going to discharge it safely, as it had
been loaded during the whole journey. . .”
“. . .so, a possible suicide attempt – if Mary had found out about an affair?”
“. . .exactly. Second, the normal servant for Allegra was their other
servant, Milly Shields, but when the time came to send someone with
Allegra, Elise was sent, which Holmes suggests could have been Mary’s
attempt to prevent any further relations between them – although she
may have been sent as the older and more experienced woman, given she
was going to Byron’s residence: Elise was thirty, aer all, the oldest of all
of them, and she has been described as having been rather haughty, seeing
herself on the same level as her employers. . .”

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“. . .but why the blackmail – certainly it would only turn against her if
the truth about her being the actual mother came out, wouldn’t it? Why
would she turn it into a story about Claire, when it could be so clearly
turned against her if it was revealed that it was her own child?”
“. . .that’s a crucial point speaking against Holmes’ story. Holmes
suggested that Shelley supported the child with a cash allowance, and
there’s evidence of him arranging money to be sent to Naples. Given the
allowance would have been cut off when the child died, that would have
been the likely time for the blackmail to have begun. Holmes’ guess is
that if there was some truth in her story about Shelley she used it to shield
her own story, and given that they both were guilty, when she was cut off
from the Shelleys she wanted revenge on Claire: as I mentioned before,
she wanted to return to them, and later was at least somewhat friendly
with Claire in Florence. . .”
“. . .wait, what are you saying? What was the truth in her story?”
“. . .that Claire had sexual relations with Shelley in Este, and possibly
even became pregnant and tried to have an abortion at Padua. . .”
“. . .so are you suggesting they were both pregnant by Shelley?”
“. . .Holmes thinks it’s possible. Holmes believes there was a possi-
bility that Elise was pregnant and gave birth to Elena Adelaide Shelley
at the same time that Claire was three months pregnant, and that Claire
miscarried or aborted the same night Elena was born. He cites Shelley’s
play The Cenci, written soon afterwards, as a kind of literary evidence:
Count Cenci’s two sons die on the same night, and the night chosen
in the play is precisely the night Elena’s birth was registered. I would
add, to support his version, that perhaps Mary would have known
about Elise, but the doctor’s coming could have been a cover for
a miscarriage or abortion by Claire that Mary wouldn’t have known
about. . .”
“. . .do you believe it?”
“. . .no. I did for a while, but I don’t now. I believe that the mystery lies
elsewhere, although I believe that due to the nature of Elise’s story, it’s
entirely possible that Claire was three months pregnant and did have
a miscarriage or an abortion. But I don’t believe Elena was her child, and
I also don’t believe that Elise fully knew what was really happening:
I believe that her story was a patchwork of truth and lies, all told as a way
to get back at them for her dismissal. . .”
“. . .but what’s wrong with his version of events?”

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“. . .even Holmes states that he believes his version is true only as

a hypothesis. Due to his uncertainty, he placed it in an appendix to the
chapter, apart from the rest of his biography, and in a later book he
returned to his own story and decided against it, even going so far as to
consider the possibility suggested by Newman Ivey White, Shelley’s first
supposedly ‘definitive’ biographer, that Elena was a child adopted by
Shelley in Naples. . .”
“. . .what?”
“. . .yes, I know. . .people will go to great lengths in order to protect their
heroes, and I believe White was doing just that. He discounted the child’s
being Claire’s or Elise’s, and because he was still le with the direct
evidence of there actually being a child, he concocted this story, using the
little girl Shelley had educated at Marlow as a precedent. . .”
“. . .so tell me – what do you think?”
“. . .it seems to me that if Elise had been involved – if she had conceived
a child with Shelley at Como, she had too much to lose if the blackmail
plans backfired. Aer all, the worst part of her story was that Claire did
have a child, and it turned precisely on the fact that, if Holmes is right, it
was actually Elise’s child, and thus Elise’s scandal. Holmes argues that she
was projecting her own guilt onto Claire – that she was jealous of Claire,
rather than Mary. It’s possible, but I instinctively feel that while Paolo may
have cooked up the blackmail, it seems unlikely Elise would have had
anything to gain from telling the Hoppners – if she were indeed the
mother of the child. However, Mary did explicitly say that she forced them
to marry because Elise was pregnant and that she was in danger of
a miscarriage, so there’s still her pregnancy to account for: the outcome
was never made clear, as far as I know. ere’s mention of a child in a letter
to Mary in July, 181, that was six months old, but that child would have
been conceived in May, 180, so it was probably Paolo’s child, but there’s
no mention of an earlier child. Holmes argues she couldn’t have been
pregnant enough to have caused this concern if it had been a child with
Paolo, given they met in early September and the birth was late December,
as their affair wasn’t discovered until they were on their way to Rome, in
late October, which may have been too early to even be concerned about
a miscarriage, but it’s still possible, it seems to me. . .”
“. . .it’s possible they formed their connection right away, and Mary just
didn’t notice it – she was rather distracted at the time with her grief over
Clara. . .”

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“. . .yes – or, I still think it may have been a child of Byron’s. From what
we know, he tended to treat servants as chattel. Much of what Elise had
said in her letters was not legible, but she was clearly hysterical, and, being
alone in his household with no other women around, she clearly felt
threatened. Claire mentioned to Silsbee that there were rumors that Elise
had become Byron’s lover. . .”
“. . .so, hold on. . .if I follow you correctly, you think that the child that
lived – Elena Adelaide Shelley – was neither Mary’s, nor Claire’s, nor
Elise’s. . .right?”
“. . .right. . .”
“. . .and I suppose I can assume, can’t I, that it wasn’t a child of the other
“. . .no, it wasn’t Milly Shields’ child. . .”
“. . .therefore you think there was another woman involved?”
“. . .Holmes’ argument convinced me for a long time, even though it
was the most outlandish of all of the possibilities in terms of proprieties,
given that Shelley. . .how to say it? I suppose it’s only possible with some
terribly convoluted verb tense: he would have had to have had sexual rela-
tions with all three women – Mary, Claire, and Elise – in a short space of
time. While anything is possible, it doesn’t strike me as in keeping with
Shelley’s character: free love aside, he tended to go through seasonal shis
with the women in his life. When Mary was indisposed, he was with
Claire, and when Claire was indisposed, or distant, he was with Mary –
and so on. In any case, many critics have either tried to reduce the possi-
bilities to two women – Mary and Elise, or Mary and Claire, unless, like
White, they were inventing fables. My assumption was also, at first, that
if it wasn’t as Holmes had said – involving three women in their
entourage, then it was either just Shelley and Elise, or Shelley and Claire,
not something more complex, and I leaned towards believing that it was
Claire’s child one moment, Elise’s child the next. . .”
“. . .has the mystery been uncovered – has someone found out?”
“. . .not for certain, but there’s been some additional evidence uncov-
ered. I found a new possibility suggested by the editor of Claire’s corre-
spondence. at this editor should have been the one to point to the
truth is somewhat ironic, for she’s one of the group of scholars who cate-
gorically denied Shelley had any sexual relationship with Claire. . .”
“. . .why would it matter so much – aren’t biographers and critics
seeking the truth?”

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“. . .I’m not even sure I believe in biography any more, or at least

‘definitive biography.’ I think it’s a historically and culturally delim-
ited genre that came into existence initially during the Renaissance,
and in its current form with the rationalism and empiricism of the
Enlightenment, which is why the majority of biographies are written
in English, as in the Anglo-American world positivism reigns supreme.
One must believe in unified selves in order to write a classical biog-
raphy, and that’s becoming increasingly difficult in our epoch, when
the self is de-centered – by language on the one hand, by society and
history on the other. One can sense the problem in Holmes’ biog-
raphy: I think in a way it is as good as the traditional form of literary
biography can get, and I like it very much, especially the sense I get
that Holmes wasn’t at first entirely sympathetic to his subject, but
then Shelley grows on him, gets under his skin – it’s really quite
extraordinary. However, you can see the problem: he wants to specu-
late, and yet sees his ‘duty’ to positivistic biography intervening – duty
to the genre, to the belief in an arrived-at final truth lurking out there
somewhere. So, he decided to place his speculations in an appendix,
but even that wasn’t enough, so in a later book about his work as
a biographer he returned to the subject with a greater freedom to spec-
ulate, and the strange thing was that he backed away a bit from his
earlier position. . .”
“. . .so do you think biographies shouldn’t be written?”
“. . .certainly not – they’re very helpful resources. I would merely
redraw the definition of what ‘definitive’ means, placing a skeptical
frame around it. While the current form of biography avoids theoret-
ical speculation, or diverging from the designated facts, no critic or
biographer would dare lie about the truth, or withhold facts, so in the
gaps where they interpret, or weigh certain facts more heavily than
others, we can find other possibilities of interpretation that fit the
same facts. In the case of this particular editor, it may well have been
due to her desire to take the focus off of Shelley’s relation to Claire
Clairmont that she actually uncovered the truth, or another fragment
of it. . .”
“. . .but I don’t understand her motivation in the first place: you’re
implying she couldn’t tolerate the idea that Shelley had two women in
his life. . .”
“. . .yes, I think so. . .”

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“. . .it’s as if she was jealous. . .”

“. . .I don’t think that can be underestimated as a motivation – but not
really jealousy per se – rather a kind of protectiveness towards his repu-
tation, or perhaps more towards hers. . .”
“. . .was his life really so scandalous? Like you said, Byron’s life seems
far more scandalous, in comparison. . .”
“. . .society determines what is considered immoral as strictly as it
determines what is considered moral: the creation of concepts like
‘lover,’ ‘mistress,’ and ‘kept woman’ seem like ways to moralistically
prevent such breaches of fidelity through threatening social ostracism
for the women who inhabit these categories, but I believe they operate
the opposite way – they channel behavior into defined modes of being
that, even though ‘officially’ scandalous, maintain a certain order and
hierarchy, and consequently inversely prop up the social order.
I believe for Shelley’s society morality was a cover for the building
blocks of the social order – the class system, private property, patri-
mony, inheritance. . .”
“. . .you sound like a Marxist. . .”
“. . .hardly – one needn’t be a Marxist to accept that these structures
played a significant role in Shelley’s society. A mistress, courtesan, or
prostitute was not a true threat to the social order – indeed, she was oen
a status symbol, as only men of the higher classes could afford them, and,
in some cases women. . .”
“. . .women?”
“. . .certainly. For example, Byron would soon become involved with
Teresa Guiccioli, a married woman. Italian society of that time tolerated
upper-class woman to have a sort of courtly lover called a ‘cavalier
servente’ – but their affairs, unlike the French courtly lovers, were not
expected to be chaste. e husband had full knowledge of it, and clearly
it was only women of the upper classes who could afford to do it, or
perhaps their husbands could afford to allow them do it. . .”
“. . .so, you’re saying that if Claire had been merely Shelley’s mistress,
she wouldn’t have been so threatening. . .”
“. . .precisely, and, as I said before, it was partly due to class reasons,
partly due to questions of patrimony – and the whole social schema that
supported it. Shelley’s greatest scandal, remember, was the giving up of
his rights of inheritance, and his threatening to break up his father’s
estate. . .”

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“. . .but it’s terrible – it’s so hypocritical: certain supposedly immoral

relations were considered officially wrong, but were rightly wrong, while
Claire was not condemned for being Byron’s mistress and the mother of
his illegitimate child, but for being one of Shelley’s two women. . .”
“. . .she would have been condemned for it if biographers even admitted
it as a possibility! You can add to that another taboo – the fact that Mary
and Claire were step-sisters: two step-sisters connected intimately with
a third party ended up being far more scandalous to English morality
than the lesser scandal of Byron having intimate relations with his half-
sister Augusta, not to mention hundreds of other lovers, so one cannot
simply attribute the scandal to the incest taboo. No, the point is that Lord
Byron maintained the hierarchy and social order, while Shelley ques-
tioned it and even attempted to dismantle it. . .”
“. . .that explains the reaction then, but why should critics today, like
this editor, still cling to the story that Claire was never Shelley’s lover, let
alone not one of his partners?”
“. . .why indeed? e most immediate answer is wanting to shield
Shelley from his many detractors, but this begs the question as to why his
having been involved with two women was so especially scandalous.
Many of the same people who accept homosexual relations as a matter of
course tend to lump a relational configuration like Shelley’s in the same
category as Muslims or Mormons having multiple wives, which is a cate-
gory confusion, I think, between a conservative ideology and something
considerably more radical and open. . .”
“. . .but why the double-standard between homosexuals and. . .what
should one call this?”
“. . .perhaps ‘plural relations’ – I think the emerging term is ‘polyamory,’
to distinguish it from the connotations of polygamy. . .”
“. . .so weren’t Shelley’s ‘plural relations’ freely chosen and entered into
as. . .what is the term used in America?”
“. . .‘consenting adults’. . .”
“. . .yes, weren’t they all ‘consenting adults’?”
“. . .of course, but that’s precisely the point: I think that even if one does
imagine such relations freely entered into by intelligent, responsible
human beings, there’s still something taboo about them to most people
– even those who would accept homosexuality on the one hand, or
promiscuity on the other. e first point to remember is that they’re
extremely rare, and, if we use Shelley as a male example, and someone like

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Anaïs Nin or Marguerite Duras as the female examples, one can see why
they’re rare: they’re difficult to maintain and manage, and clearly the
reason this difficulty was endured by the people involved was some
absolutely singular need. Anything singular is unusual, and society has
never quietly endured the unusual – it unsettles things. . .”
“. . .unsettles things? How? What was being unsettled?”
“. . .I think Duras gets to the point in her book, Détruire, dit-elle –
Destroy, She Said in English, where her protagonists, with their strange
multi-relations, are described as ‘mutants.’ At the time it was published,
she gave an interview that was influenced by the times – the events of May,
198, in Paris, where she discusses a real ‘communism’ of human relations.
Although her terminology is somewhat dated and perhaps unfortunate,
I think she grasps something, in that what her protagonists threaten is
a mutation away from a strictly demarcated individualism. . .or, rather,
their mutation is perspectival, in that they simply notice and act on what
is already and always the case – that we are not the unified selves that
modern western society takes for granted. . .”
“. . .I understand why it’s so unusual, but why does something beyond
the usual couple relation necessarily produce such a threatening muta-
“. . .perhaps not necessarily. One can imagine a society with stable, fixed
relations – such as the polygamy I mentioned before in certain conser-
vative religious formations like Islam and Mormonism, but even the stan-
dard love affair in contemporary western society tends towards stability,
or what Georges Bataille called an ‘oppressive conjugality’. . .”
“. . .how do you mean?”
“. . .certainly love affairs begin as a destabilizing dri away from the
social norm – that’s why they can be so delicious, and risky, but how long
is it before the settling process takes over, leading, usually, to either the
abandonment of the affair and a return to the original couple, or the
abandonment of the original couple and the establishment of a new
“. . .so you doubt the openness can be maintained?”
“. . .it’s not that I doubt that it can be maintained, it’s that I doubt many
people really want it maintained, at the deepest level. Proust wrote, ‘We
live only with what we do not love, with what we have brought to live with
us only in order to kill the intolerable love. . . .’ Western literature is full
of cautionary tales about the dangers of unbridled passion – Romeo and

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Juliet, Tristan and Isolde – when the sex drive merges into the death drive
– perhaps they’re only a difference in intensity of the same drive. . .”
“. . .so the danger in Shelley’s mode of relation was this intensity?”
“. . .the reason the mode of someone like Shelley is different from the
norm is that they are moving towards a destabilizing mutation, and
there’s a direct relation between their writings and their lives, in regard to
this variability. . .”
“. . .what do you mean by ‘variability’?”
“. . .I’m mixing the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann with the
philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari: by variability I mean the social
equivalent to natural selection – the experimental aspect of human life
that attempts new ways of adapting successfully to the environment –
and in the case of humans, this is largely the social environment. The
force of mutation or adaptive selection is countered or restricted by the
stabilizing force of the social system, which takes up these adaptations
when they’re deemed useful by society, watering them down in the
process. It’s a dialectical process, endlessly agonistic or conflicted, as
both the forces of variability and stabilization tend towards excess, and
in a sense need each other to disrupt their respective processes, for if
stabilization becomes too strong, the system can no longer adapt
quickly enough to its environment, but if variability becomes too
strong, chaos ensues – a cancerous mutation. . .”
“. . .so the former case – too much stabilization – would be like Czecho-
slovakia under communism, when the country began to fall apart
economically in the 1980s under the weight of its own lack of
momentum. . .”
“. . .precisely. Like Luhmann, I believe the role of the artist or writer,
as it has developed since Romanticism, has been to communicate the
changes in the environment to the society, which was something
Shelley anticipated when he spoke of poets as ‘hierophants of unap-
prehended inspiration’ and ‘the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which
futurity casts upon the present.’ They’re like human antennae, who
relay their ideas and images and experiments to the more conforming,
cautious majority, who then take up their adaptations in more domes-
ticated, safer forms. . .”
“. . .but what about Shelley? He was ostracized by his social system, and,
from what you tell me, his poetry and ideas continue to be ignored or
distorted – wasn’t he a failed experiment?”

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“. . .the more radical the experiment, the longer it takes to be tested and
adapted by society; however, the experiments that took the longest to be
adapted have oen turned out to be the most fruitful. at Shelley’s life
was just such an experiment I haven’t a doubt. . .”
“. . .but what aspects of his experiment have been taken up by society?”
“. . .there were many aspects of his experiment, but, just taking his
experiment in intimate relations by itself, one must look at the wider
context. I think every human experiment begins with an idea or concept,
which is then applied practically. First of all, the idea that we are free, and
therefore free to determine our lives, was an Enlightenment belief –
implied by Kant, Locke, Rousseau, and others. Within that horizon, the
belief that love relations could take a different form than they had previ-
ously taken was first advanced by Rousseau in his novel Julie. Today it’s
difficult even to recognize what was so new in the novel, for we take its
concept for granted, but, for that moment in history, the idea that love
could be based on the open, mutual sharing of equal selves was new. . .”
“. . .surely people fell in love and shared their selves before Rousseau’s
novel, didn’t they?”
“. . .did they? I’m not so sure. Certainly sexual desire has always existed,
and certainly people have fallen in love with one another since ancient
history, but sharing their selves as equal, individualized selves? What
was new was the idea of love defined as a continuous dialogue between
growing, evolving, open, and equal individualities – a free sharing of
interiorities that can be seen in the letters the lovers share in Rousseau’s
novel. What’s significant about the epistolary form of the novel is that
it allowed the reader to see more closely that their love was a sharing of
interior monologues, of selves. at was new – so new, in fact, that it
was revolutionary: I once read that while Rousseau’s political treatises
may have provided a part of the blueprint for the macropolitical side of
the French Revolution, it was his novels that provided the fuel and
passion that spurred the micropolitical side of the revolution – espe-
cially in women. If sales are any consideration, it must have worked, for
Julie swept Europe. . .”
“. . .when was it published?”
“. . .in 11. It was translated into English by 1, and by 181 it had
already gone through fieen editions in English alone. . .”
“. . .really? I would have thought that the English wouldn’t have
allowed his works to even enter the country. . .”

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“. . .they saw it ‘only’ as a novel, when, for the time, it was closer to being
a war machine – a Trojan horse. For example, e Social Contract was
written only a year aer Julie, but it took almost twenty-five years longer
to be translated into English – in 19. Still, ideas need people willing
to be the first experimenters, and those have largely been, since the
Romantic period, the artistic avant-gardes – people like the Jena
Romantics in Germany, or Shelley and his circle. As I mentioned before,
while Shelley thought many of Rousseau’s ideas rather far-fetched, in
Geneva the whole circle passed Julie around to one another to read, and
they visited sites around the lake where events in the novel had taken
place. . .”
“. . .so what we’re doing now with Shelley was first pioneered by Shelley
himself, visiting the sites associated with Rousseau?”
“. . .it’s certainly possible – tourism was just beginning then, and literary
tourism was, if anything, even newer. At any rate, certainly Shelley’s ideas
about love were an extension of what he read in the novel, mixed with
what he had read in Godwin, Mary Wollstonecra, and others in
England. His actions were a practical application of those ideas. e fact
that Mary and Shelley were not married at first is insignificant compared
to the fact that they saw their lives as an open sharing of their evolving
selves. e refusal of the marital bond was only a symptom – the idea
being that the social considerations behind most marriages in regard to
class, status, and family line were trivial in comparison to what was
happening between two selves in relation to one another. . .”
“. . .so if I understand your point, you’re saying that what modern
society takes for granted at the end of the 0th century – that two people
in a love relation evolve both independently and in relation to each
another – was pioneered by people like Shelley?”
“. . .it first had to be conceived in an entirely abstract way by
Enlightenment thinkers who developed conceptions of human
autonomy like Spinoza, Rousseau, and Kant; then it needed to be
thought through and enacted relationally by individuals like Shelley, the
Schlegels, and Hölderlin. e general society resisted it, then slowly tried
it on: it began to be adapted more widely – usually first by artistic circles,
and then by those striving to be modern or progressive, until by the 190s
it became a part of youth culture, and by now it’s generally taken for
granted, at least in postmodern societies. Of course, as society adapted
it, it became increasingly watered-down, so that I would argue few inti-

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mate relations today exhibit the intensity of relation that Shelley had
with Mary or Claire. . .”
“. . .not to mention that society would still consider Shelley having rela-
tions with both women somewhat problematic. . .”
“. . .certainly, but I doubt whether such plural relations ever would or
could catch on – aer all, it’s difficult enough to maintain such an inti-
macy with one person, let alone two. . .”
“. . .but how is it related to the idea of shared intimacies?”
“. . .shared intimacy is strongly connected to the idea that people evolve
individually, and that this evolution is free-flowing and unpredictable –
that love might flow in more than one direction is a possible conse-
quence, but most people find it perverse, unnatural, immoral, or, in prac-
tice, impossible. . .”
“. . .‘immoral’? It seems somewhat hypocritical to me that people today
quite regularly fail in their relationships, replace their partners, and
consider it ‘moral,’ while a person like Shelley is designated ‘immoral’ for
having established and maintained two long-term relationships. . .”
“. . .of course you’re right, but if it were merely a matter of immorality,
they would have stressed what he did as a bad example, rather than
suppressing it. If Shelley’s actions are immoral, they are so only in the
same sense that Galileo was immoral – because he was a dangerous agent
of variability. What is disturbing is the simple fact that he placed the
bond of love between individuals higher than that church, state, or
society, or, as he put, ‘Love is the sole law which shall govern the moral
world’. . .in a way it’s not that different from the lessons taught by another
radical: Jesus. . .”
“. . .but of course Shelley’s ideas involved eros. . .”
“. . .yes, and he went on to try to enact it. . .”
“. . .not always successfully, it seems to me. . .”
“. . .few experiments are ever entirely successful – even Shelley wasn’t
immune from temptation. . .”
“. . .which finally brings us back to the story – you’ve been drawing out
the suspense wonderfully, but now tell me, who was the mother of Elena?”
“. . .it appears there was another woman, who was to Shelley a bit like
Lady Caroline Lamb was to Byron – an upper-class ingénue seeking
a romantic poet of her very own. Byron, as well as Thomas Medwin,
appear to have been told about this mystery woman, and apparently
Claire knew the story as well, and divulged at least a part of it to

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Edward Silsbee. None of them ever mentioned her name, but Medwin,
Shelley’s cousin and first biographer, was told that she claimed she had
renounced her family and friends in order to follow Shelley throughout
the world, living a life of ‘free love and poetry.’ He seems to have
refused her several times, but she followed them to Geneva, and
appears to have been one of the many English tourists spying on Byron
and Shelley via telescope when they went on boating expeditions on
the lake. . .”
“. . .are you joking?”
“. . .not at all – women tourists were said to have fainted upon even
catching a glimpse of Byron. According to Medwin, the mystery woman
followed them to the continent the second time as well. Where we get
closer to the realm of fact again is when Shelley rode down to Naples
from Rome ostensibly to secure their lodgings in advance: there’s vague
evidence from Medwin that during this two day period Shelley lodged
once with this young woman, although whatever Medwin believed or
was told about this incident, he seems to have thought the woman was
still in her mad and fruitless pursuit of the poet. If the editor’s suspicion
is right, this meeting between the two was to inform Shelley of a more
fruitful meeting earlier that had resulted in her pregnancy – or, perhaps
he already knew of it by mail, and they were meeting to decide what to do
about it. Given the recent death of Clara and Mary’s subsequent grief,
this pregnancy obviously would not have come as welcome news, and if
indeed Claire were pregnant as well, then these two events together
would have given him cause for unbearable discomfort and excruciating
psychic pain – the kind he recounted in his ‘Lines Written in Dejection’
ode, written in Naples during that period. . .but here we must look to
Silsbee and Claire for evidence. . .”
“. . .Medwin said nothing more?”
“. . .no – he seems to have been le with the belief that while this
woman did pursue Shelley first to Geneva and then to Italy, he gallantly
held her off the whole time. He believed that the woman died mysteri-
ously in Naples, although Claire, in her dotage, said the woman was still
alive, and found this reason enough not to tell Silsbee of her actual iden-
tity, but what she did tell, according to his notes, roundly confirms that
at the very least there is a very distinct possibility that this other woman
was the mother of the child. . .”
“. . .would Mary have known?”

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“. . .at some point: there are indications that she was told of the plan to
return to Naples later, although whether she knew about Elena is
unknown. Aer his death she certainly wanted to play down that part of
Shelley’s life. . .”
“. . .so, what came from Silsbee?”
“. . .notes – literally scraps of paper he used when he was interviewing
Claire before her death in Florence in the 180s, fiy years later. On one
scrap there’s a note that there was a married woman in Naples, and that
Shelley ‘got into a scrape’ with her. . .”
“. . .are those Claire’s words, or Silsbee’s?”
“. . .Claire’s. e editor of her journals pointed out that in a letter Claire
wrote to Mary she used precisely the same phrase to describe another
woman who had become pregnant out of wedlock. From the notes that
still exist, Silsbee appears to have taken down the points rapidly – or was
even writing them down secretly. . .perhaps Claire didn’t want him to
record anything at all, and he was writing it down when he went to the
bathroom or stepped out for a cigarette – who knows? e notes
mention that Mary knew all about it, which does seem to fit the facts –
at least later, when the blackmail started. Claire also said that the ‘Lines
Written in Dejection’ ode was inspired by this event. . .”
“. . .did Claire give any other clues about her identity?”
“. . .she said she was sworn to secrecy – in an early interview with
Silsbee her secrecy seemed to hinge upon whether the lady was dead or
alive, and Claire didn’t seem to know, although part of the secrecy had
to do precisely with the fact she was a real ‘lady’ – Claire intimates she
might have been a well-known member of the aristocracy. In a later
interview she told him the lady was still alive, and that she wouldn’t
identify her. . .”
“. . .do you believe her?”
“. . .yes I do. . .clearly Silsbee kept coming back to the issue, and she had
some reason for not telling him – she never told anyone else, aer all. It
must have been difficult not to divulge more, as Mary and Lady Jane
Shelley had already gone far in eradicating Claire’s role in Shelley’s life:
it must have been a great temptation to set matters straight, but she main-
tained their imperceptibility to the very end. . .”
“. . .I can imagine how she was pulled between wanting to tell and
wanting to protect Shelley – wanting to be acknowledged as someone so
close to him, and fearing that the world might never shake off its new-

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found Victorian conservatism, and would condemn her, and him, to the
hell of posterity. . .”
“. . .even in telling as much as she did, she wanted to protect him. . .”
“. . .did she tell Silsbee what she thought about his relationship with
“. . .yes, she said that she felt his love for Mary was ‘intellectual’ – that
Mary was ‘cold.’ Of course, that’s partly just Claire speaking, given the
history of the three, although it speaks to a certain paradox: Shelley had
initially fallen in love with Mary, and their relations, over time, became
very deep but strangely frozen. ere’s some truth to what Claire said
about Mary being ‘cold’ – others, from Trelawny to Jane Williams, testi-
fied to her coldness. It was the opposite with Claire: her relation with
Shelley arose from circumstances, not out of initial infatuation or
passion, and it became quite passionate – but in a less tempestuous,
‘falling-in-love’ sort of way. Claire was described in Epipsychidion, written
later, as a ‘comet’ – coming close to him and then traveling away again,
and that image describes their relations well: firmly connected to the
point of fusing, then explosive, then distant – first when she went away
aer the death of Mary’s first child, then later when she pursued Byron,
and then even later when she lived in Florence, while Shelley and Mary
lived in Pisa. ey certainly loved each other deeply, but with a very
different kind of love than Mary and Shelley had for each other. Shelley
was more likely to go on adventures with Claire, and later Shelley was
more likely to share confidences with her, especially given Mary’s
emotional withdrawal following the death of Clara. Claire definitely
knew more of the truth about Shelley than anyone – and not just the
truth of their relations. In her own way she was faithful to that truth,
while Mary tried much more to distort the truth – truths she herself
couldn’t face, and then later wanted to disguise. Claire seems to have
known a good deal more all along. . .”
“. . .so she never told anyone who the mystery woman was?”
“. . .no, just the hints she gave Silsbee, but they were enough, I believe,
to make an educated guess. . .”
“. . .based on what evidence?”
“. . .initially, I noticed that the editor of the letters advanced as a possi-
bility the daughter of one of Queen Caroline’s Ladies-in-Waiting: Lady
Charlotte Campbell Bury. She had married, divorced and then re-
married the Reverend Edward John Bury, the tutor of her children: it

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created a minor scandal because he was fieen years younger than her; in
fact, he had received his baccalaureate from Oxford the same year Shelley
was expelled. Apparently she at some point became a friend of Godwin’s,
which creates another connection, and she was a woman writer – writing
both poetry and melodramatic novels with titles like Flirtation, e
Divorced, and Love. She was also the anonymous author of a scandalous
work entitled Diary of a Lady-in-Waiting – a ‘tell-all’ account of the
secret lives of the aristocracy, and she certainly lived the life she wrote
about: a friend of hers was shocked when Bury’s reaction, upon hearing
that one of her daughters was unhappy with her husband and wanted
a separation, was to suggest that she find a lover as quickly as possible so
she could get a divorce. . .”
“. . .let me guess: that daughter was the one who went to Shelley?”
“. . .possibly. Lady Bury was on the continent precisely during the
period from 1818 – 18 with her daughters, so there’s the coincidence
of time and place, a vague connection to Shelley, plus names like ‘Elena’
and ‘Adelaide’ appear frequently in the family tree. . .”
“. . .so which daughter was it?”
“. . .the editor advanced the one with the closest sounding name:
Adelaide Constance Campbell, and I must admit for a long while
I thought it was her as well. . .”
“. . .and now you don’t?”
“. . .no, because I found more convincing information in a new biog-
raphy of Shelley by a clinical psychologist who seems to have been an
amateur Shelley aficionado. His name is James Bieri: like me, he must
have been obsessed with finding out the truth, and I think he did. He
thinks Adelaide Constance Campbell would have been too young: it’s
difficult to tell, because what I can find out about her is that her birth
date is only listed as ‘before 180’. I do know at the time Shelley would
have come into contact with the family in 1818, two half-sisters, Eliza
Maria Campbell and Eleanora Campbell, were respectively 1 and 19
years of age, so if it was Adelaide Constance Campbell, she’d have to be
at least a year younger than Eleanora. . .”
“. . .18? It’s still possible – even down to 1 or 1. . .”
“. . .yes, but there’s more. Silsbee recorded that the mystery woman was
married already. We do know that Eliza was married to a rather unat-
tractive man, and that her mother and sisters showed no restraint from
committing adultery, seeing themselves as ‘freethinkers’; and a younger

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sister, Harriet, wrote that there had been a family crisis in Naples at the
precise time Shelley was there, involving Eliza and Eleanora. . .”
“. . .both? Perhaps the sister didn’t know the details. . .”
“. . .I would guess the two might have traveled together to Naples – their
Mother was still in Rome. Given Eliza was married, and considering what
Silsbee said, my bet is on Eliza. I think it interesting that Mary and Claire
saw the daughters in Pisa, and that the daughters also visited Emilia
Viviani at her convent – but I don’t know what to make of it all – it seems
the more we know, the more mysterious it all gets! Anyway, going back to
the blackmail plot, Elise may have assumed Elena was Claire’s child, not
knowing about the existence of Eliza if they were really forced to hush it
up. If Holmes is right about Claire having had a miscarriage at about the
same time, the two events could clearly have led Elise into the confusion
she had about the matter. Also, Elise, later in 18, did meet Claire again
in Florence: she confessed her role in the Hoppner scandal, and Claire
had Elise write to both Mr. and Mrs. Hoppner denying the story she had
told them clearly as a way to prevent further blackmail attempts, and to
clear her name. Apparently, aer the initial disturbance, Elise and Claire
became more friendly – it’s doubtful this would have happened if it had
turned out to have been the child of either. . .”
“. . .so, let’s see if I have this straight: you believe the story is this young
woman from an aristocratic family, who married young and who was
already bored, fell in love with Shelley – either due to her stepfather’s
reports of his behavior at Oxford, or perhaps despite her stepfather’s
reports, or merely because he was associated with the infamous Byron;
that she offered herself to him in London, later getting up the nerve to
follow him again to the continent, where probably, just aer they arrived
in Italy, Shelley had given in to her. . .and that they parted, and then the
entourage went on to Bagni di Lucca aer sending Allegra and Elise to
Byron, while Eliza went with her family – where?”
“. . .somewhere else in Italy presumably, certainly to Rome, but even-
tually to Naples: we have no evidence, but just as certainly we don’t
know what drove the Shelley entourage from Rome to Naples after
only a week – especially given they returned and remained in Rome for
much longer after those events transpired. I would guess he told her
they would eventually arrive in Rome, and he found a letter from her
post restante. . .”
“. . .asking him to come to her in Naples?”

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“. . .yes – it’s hardly likely that she was alone – probably her sister was
there with her. In any case, Shelley was forced to deal with it in secrecy
for all their sakes, given they were already attracting scandalous gossip –
and especially for Mary’s sake, given Mary had just lost a child. . .”
“. . .so what happened – why didn’t she keep her child?”
“. . .Medwin’s account says she died, but Shelley probably lied to
Medwin about her death in order to protect the lady in question. I assume
she le the child in Naples to avoid any scandal – she was part of the
peerage, aer all, and destined to become a ‘Lady’ herself – an illegitimate
child just wouldn’t do. If he felt that they could go back later and retrieve
the child at their own discretion – and from the evidence this seems to
have been the case – then it seems unlikely the child would have been with
its mother. Elise told the Hoppners that Shelley paid the midwife to give
the child to a foundling hospital; however, the evening Elise and Claire
met again in Florence in 18, Claire wrote in her journal something
about Elise giving the Naples ‘commission’ to her husband, which was
later crossed out. e editor seems to think that it was some task in the
present tense, but Paolo was not with her then, so I am guessing it was
a mistake in tense and that Claire was possibly making a euphemism for
the fact that the child – the ‘commission’ – was given to Paolo to be taken
away: we know the child was taken to a specific address in Naples. Elise
may have lied to the Hoppners to hide her own connection to what
happened. I would guess that she and Paolo took the child under their
own care with Shelley’s full knowledge. Indeed, given he and Elise le the
Shelley entourage at that precise point – a mid-way point between the
child’s birth in December and its baptism in February – it’s possible that
Shelley’s transfer of money went to Paolo and Elise as a partial severance
payment, and also as a payment for taking care of the child until later when
he planned to send for her. We know that Elise came to see them in
Florence in January, 180 with some disturbing piece of news, and that
by the time they were in Pisa, in March, Shelley was forced to ride to
Livorno to see their friends, the Gisbornes, about giving them the money
to send to his Naples lawyer – to give to someone else. As far as we know,
there was no blackmail attempt yet, so it seems that the money was to
cover the upkeep of Elena, who was then fourteen months old. We know
Elena died on June 9th, and that Paolo started the blackmail attempt on
June 1th – only a few days aer the child died, so he must have been
taking care of the child with Elise, or was in direct contact with whoever

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was. . .”
“. . .this is getting rather complex – just what are you suggesting?”
“. . .I don’t know – I’m just trying to weigh the possibilities. That
Eliza Campbell would willingly give up her child is very possible given
her standing, as despite her youthful idealism in pursuing Shelley, she
was married to an English Lord, Sir William Gordon-Cumming, had
four children with him, and lived on until 18. Also, it’s possible that
Paolo and Elise were kept in the dark about it all: handed a child to
dispose of, or take care of, they would have naturally assumed, given
Elise knew about Shelley and Claire’s connection, that it was Claire’s.
The child was kept at a specific address, as the death certificate was
found by White, so it was either taken care of by Paolo and Elise, or by
foster parents. . .”
“. . .I’m ready to accept that she was the mother – due to the name
mostly, but one thing I don’t understand is why Elise herself would have
gone to the Hoppners – unless it was to make good on the threats of the
blackmail. . .”
“. . .she must have been angry – she and Paolo had been sent away by
Mary because of their connection. She wanted to get back to them, and,
failing that, she wanted to get back at them: the story was told to harm
them, and she extenuated what she knew about their entourage, and told
what she believed to be the truth without knowing what had really
happened. But there are still so many gaps, so much is missing – in fact,
enough missing, as I’ve mentioned, that scholars can and do maintain to
this day that Shelley and Claire had no connection whatsoever, and, in
terms of actual empirical evidence, they are within the bounds of
evidence. . .”
“. . .do you believe your own interpretation?”
“. . .I believe I am near to the truth about Shelley’s relation to Claire.
As far as the mystery of the child goes, I am convinced at moments I am
right, but then just as suddenly thrown into doubt: each possibility –
Claire, Elise, Eliza, has at least one overwhelming fact: with Eliza it’s the
name in conjunction to Claire’s later statements; with Claire it’s Elise’s
report to the Hoppners and the fact of Claire’s illness at the same time
of the birth; with Elise it’s the fact she was reputedly pregnant. I still hold
to Eliza or perhaps her sister Eleanora being the one, possibly in conjunc-
tion with Claire’s pregnancy, which would account for the mix-ups in
Elise’s story – a mixture of Holmes’ theory with the new evidence given

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by Bieri. . .”
“. . .and if your theory were correct, what do you make of it?”
“. . .not much, actually. Whatever the case, I would always have believed
Shelley was intimate with Claire. at Shelley would have surrendered
to an insistent young woman is a little hard to believe at first, but he was
not used to the kind of adulation Byron was receiving, and it must have
been a new experience to him – aer all, Byron was more or less
a celebrity, and their time in Geneva connected Shelley’s name to Byron,
making him a celebrity for the first time in his life as well. . .”
“. . .why were they so popular? Most people today can’t even name their
own country’s contemporary poets. . .”
“. . .in Shelley’s case, his popularity first came more through association
with Byron than by his own poetry, but Byron was riding the wave caused
by Walter Scott’s Waverly novels – his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was
published the same year, 181. Novelists like Samuel Richardson and
Henry Fielding had sold well in the 18th century, but it was nothing like
the sales popular novelists like Scott, or poets like Robert Burns and
Byron, were seeing. A part of it was due to the rise in literacy of the
middle classes, part of it the role literature was beginning to play within
the society as it gained an autonomous position. . .”
“. . .autonomous?”
“. . .as the hierarchically-ordered social system of pre-modernity gave
way to the functional differentiation of modernity, literature acquired
greater autonomy, and consequently became a form of dissemination of
new ways of thinking and living. Many of these novels seem somewhat
tame by today’s standards, but they were the primary source for the new
sensibilities sweeping Europe in the wake of the French Revolution –
despite the European-wide conservative reaction. A young woman like
Eliza Campbell may have had to read her Julie or Waverly or Childe
Harold guardedly, but once she did, if she took it seriously, where were
the aspirants to these new sensibilities to meet her newly awakened
yearnings? I would guess she headed straight to the source – Byron, and,
given he was unavailable, toward his less well-known contemporary,
Shelley. So if a young woman was quoting to his face his own thoughts
on ‘free love’ and offering herself as Claire did to Byron? As Byron said
about Claire, he ‘could hardly have played the stoic.’ Shelley was human,
aer all, he wasn’t perfect, and during the time the brief affair happened
he couldn’t have foreseen the future distress of either Claire in regard to

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Allegra, or Mary in regard to losing Clara. I don’t fault him his one early
dalliance with his own slowly developing fame – not with notorious rakes
like Byron on the same horizon. . .”
“. . .I don’t fault him either, but the consequences were disastrous for
him, given everything else that happened. . .”
“. . .certainly – I’m sure he regretted it bitterly. Nonetheless, it forced
on him a far more complex and mature view of the world. When all is
said and done, what I find fascinating is how here, in Este, life took
a sudden fateful turn for Shelley, toppling him fully from his former
certainties and idealism and irrevocably shiing his outlook and his
writing. In a way, he learned that ‘free love’ wasn’t free at all: that the
truth of being bonded to both Mary and Claire meant a precarious
balance – he was forced to find meaning in the suffering itself, not
through trying to transcend the suffering idealistically. . .”
“. . .you don’t think there’s a way to avoid the suffering?”
“. . .no, I don’t. It must be faced head on, and something inside me tells
me that the amount of meaning in one’s life is somehow crucially related
to how one endures and learns from one’s suffering – what do the stoics
say? ‘To become worthy of one’s suffering.’ Shelley had previously fled
from his sufferings – the sufferings of his youth, the loss of his family, his
country, his first wife and their children. I think the ‘fiend’ that was
pursuing his poetic personae throughout his poetry since Alastor was
founded on this repressed negativity – his refusal to face mutability, loss,
suffering. Shelley only matured when his pride and ideals were shattered,
and he was forced to suffer as a consequence of his actions. He learned
to face rather than run from the inevitability of loss, from what he only
now learned was a part of his own self – his passions, his drives, his nega-
tivity. I think he was changed for the better, becoming a better person –
and certainly a better poet. . .”
“. . .I want you to tell me about the poetry he wrote here – but aer
a nap – I’m so drowsy from this heat, and the wine. . .it’s so strange to be
right here, right now – it’s like a dream. . .”
“. . .so close your eyes – sleep awhile, and dream. . .”

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ere were others: each in her singularity was a living flame, each a move-
ment that came to inhabit me as I advanced into a futurity that these words
can only trace – an opening to presences inhabiting me with desire, longing,
loss, and a savage joy that whispers to me just how soon it will all come to an
end. . .

My ties to each were forged not through a willed possession of the other, but
through an oblique relation to an interior space that would never be reached.
eir existences were hovering instants for me, bearing me through a dark-
ness like two wavering flames. To each in the intricacy of her existence I was
brought to bear witness: perhaps what we desired om each other was
nothing more than this act of bearing witness. We were bound together to
keep watch and in so doing we drew forth something absolutely singular om
each other. e web of connection between us was irrevocable, but this irrev-
ocability was as agile as the passing moments – as agile as our lives. . .

I hadn’t expected I would meet with such a strange and forceful intensity.
What emerged threw me back upon myself again and again, so that even as
I found myself, I lost what I thought I had found almost immediately.
I would not even pretend to know the nature of what willed itself through
me, nor the inflections of desire that would yield moments of bliss as oen as
it would yield moments of agony and anguish. How I found myself outside
the thresholds that transfix the laws of desire is a mystery I find myself
circling around endlessly. . .

Love is not about exchange, security, possession, or certainty: love is

a touch charged with loss – absence in the midst of presence, presence in the
midst of absence. Love is a relinquishment on the threshold of a consum-
mation, an arrival swollen with the anguish of departure. e other ruptures
us, opens us to an outside that pours in, sweeping us away as we recognize in
the other the inevitability of our own dissolution in time. . .
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By the time they awoke within the castle precincts the light had already
soened. In the south thunderheads rise above the plain, brilliant in the
late aernoon sun. e tree branches sough above them in the intermit-
tent breeze. He reaches for the mineral water, and takes several swallows.
She stretches her arms, yawns, and turns to him.
“. . .how long have we been sleeping?”
“. . .over two hours – it’s just aer five. . .”
“. . .really? It seems longer. . .you know, I did dream about them. . .we
were there, or here rather, but they couldn’t see us. . .I don’t remember
anything more. . .”
“. . .I dreamt something about here too, but I can’t remember. . .daytime
dreams are always so strange. Have some water – the wine has probably
dehydrated us a bit. . .”
“. . .thanks. . .”
He lights a panatela, then hands the lighter to the woman, who lights
a cigarette.
“. . .it’s still so hot, but at least the sun is not so intense. . .”
“. . .nobody’s here. . .they have the right idea: go home, sleep, come out
later when it’s cooler. . .”
“. . .it’s just as well – there’s no one to disturb us. Shall we go back to
the villa, to see if anyone is there?”
“. . .let me clear my head a little first. . .”
He slowly rubs his brow with his thumb and middle finger, gazing at
the billowing thunderheads in the distance.
“. . .Shelley was right – the cloudscapes are incredible here. It reminds
me of the sky I used to see when I lived in Colorado, or when I would go
down to Arizona and New Mexico. . .”
“. . .it’s beautiful – do you miss it?”
“. . .I miss the landscape and the sky. . .in the Czechlands you rarely see
clouds reaching the same heights, and by late August it’s oen so hazy you
can hardly distinguish the clouds from the sky – it feels enclosed, the sky is
lower somehow. Maybe it’s also the sense of history – America has natural

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beauty, but it’s as strangely vacant and open as Europe is enclosed. . . it’s
been a long time since I’ve been there. . .”
“. . .I’d like to see it with you some day. . .”
“. . .and I’d like to show it to you. . .it would be so strange – it would
probably be far more foreign for me than it is here in Italy! Like that
Henry James story e Jolly Corner, where the expatriate American imag-
ines the self he would have been if he had stayed in America, and realizes
that he would have been a different person altogether. I feel somehow
closer to Shelley’s world – even though it’s so distant temporally – than
I feel spatially to the landscapes of America, or temporally to the land-
scapes of my own youth. . .”
“. . .what was it that made you interested in Shelley in the first place?”
“. . .I was initially attracted to the myth – the breaking of social norms,
the intensity of their lives, and even the romance of the tragedy of
Shelley’s death. At my university they only taught Wordsworth and
Keats, a little Coleridge, and only later, in graduate school, did I become
interested in Blake – but Shelley was passed over almost entirely, save for
one or two lyrics, and Shelley’s not the kind of poet easily read outside
of his biographical and socio-historical context. I guess I do remember
reading ‘Ozymandias’ much earlier; actually, now that I think of it, it was
the very first poem they taught us in elementary school – beyond nursery
rhymes, of course – in order to show us what poetry was! I must have
been only eight or nine. . .”
“. . .do you remember what you thought?”
“. . .it seemed very deep to me at the time – I saw immediately that the
language was different from normal language. Of course, they told us
nothing about Shelley then or later: it’s one of those poems that works
well merely as an exercise. Until I started reading him seriously a few years
ago, I didn’t even realize that ‘Ozymandias’ was an exercise: it was
a contest he was having with another poet, Horace Smith, on a preset
theme. . .”
“. . .still, that’s better than what I experienced under communism in the
Gymnasium: at my school in Opava we were taught little about the
English or German romantics, and only a bit more about the Czech
romantics like Mácha and Erben: they considered them ‘decadent bour-
geois individualists’ when they even mentioned them at all! Socialist
realism was the officially-approved literature, but mostly we were forced
to do all kinds of mathematics and practical tasks: they wanted us to

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contribute to the industrial state economy and secure the communist

utopia nobody believed in anymore, so most of the humanities were seen
as irrelevant. . .”
“. . .yes, I can imagine. . .the self, the sublime, freedom of self-determi-
nation, the exceeding of limits – all far too dangerous. . .but it was also
true, for different reasons, in the United States, except in small doses –
the ‘greatest hits’ of Romanticism: poems like Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern
Abby’ or ‘Intimations of Immortality,’ Keats ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ or
Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind.’ What about Czech Romanticism –
what is it like?”
“. . .the two most famous poets from the period are Karel Hynek Mácha
and Karel Jaromír Erben. . .”
“. . .when did they live?”
“. . .Mácha lived only until twenty-six years old. . .”
“. . .like Keats. . .”
“. . .he lived from 1810 to 18. I forget when Erben was born, but he
lived much longer – until 180. Mácha is oen compared with Byron – at
least in his tendency towards self-dramatization, and he was very influenced
by Byron’s poetry. Erben reminds me of what you say about Wordsworth,
in the sense that he became increasingly conservative over time. . .”
“. . .tell me more about them. . .”
“. . .Mácha was from Prague – he studied philosophy and law at Charles
University. He was an amateur actor, and was known for being quite
theatrical in his manners and dress – he affected the mannerisms of his
hero, Byron, and wore a long cloak lined in red. He was supposedly quite
handsome – he had a way with women, anyway. ere was a small scandal
when they finally published his uncensored diaries: in his poetry he
would write quite sweetly about ‘Lori,’ his girlfriend, but in his diaries he
was quite vulgar, listing how many times he had sex with her and how –
but the diaries went unpublished for a long time, so as not to spoil the
romantic image for all the teenagers who used to go and lay flowers under
his statue on Petřín hill every first of May. . .”
“. . .really? Poor girls, now they’ll know what really goes on in their
boyfriends’ minds. . .”
“. . .I think they know already! ere are stories about how Mácha went
out drinking and sang all the old Czech folksongs – they were forbidden
then, you know. He was known for going on long walks – to Vienna, and
even to Trieste and Venice. . .”

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“. . .Rimbaud was also quite a walker – he made his way to Vienna and
back. . .”
“. . .Mácha apparently bedded Austrian farm girls along the way, to
make the trip interesting. . .”
“. . .and his poetry – what is it like?”
“. . .Mácha’s most well-known poem is a long poem call Máj – ‘May’ –
that he wrote at the end of his life. I’d say almost every Czech can recite
a few lines of it, or at least the opening. . .”
“. . .so go ahead, let me hear it, if you can remember your lessons well. . .”
“. . .I’ll give it a try:

Byl pozdní večer – první máj –

večerní máj – byl lásky čas.
Hrdliččin zval ku lásce hlas,
kde borový zavánĕl háj.
O lásce šeptal tichý mech;
kvĕtoucí strom lhal lásky žel,
svou lásku slavík růži pĕl,
růžinu jevil vonný vzdech. . .

. . .that’s where my memory fails me. . .”

“. . .it sounds beautiful – something about a beautiful May evening, isn’t
it? Can you translate?”
“. . .well, vaguely. . .it means something like, ‘It was a late evening,
the first of May, a May evening, the time of love. . .a dove’s voice. . .
called to’. . .I don’t know, perhaps ‘rapture’ or ‘bliss’. . .’where scented
pine woods lay. . .of love whispered the silent’ – what’s that stuff that
grows on trees?”
“. . .moss?’
“. . .yes, moss. . .‘a flowering tree lied of love’s sorrows, a nightingale sang
his love to a rose, the rose giving out its sweet fragrance’. . .not very poetic,
but it’s the best I can do quickly. . .”
“. . .what’s the rest of the poem about?”
“. . .it’s about a young man who is abandoned by his family and
becomes the head of a gang of thieves in the forest. . .”
“. . .like Robin Hood?”
“. . .not really – the plot is that the hero, Vilém, kills a man who seduced
his lover. e man turns out to have been his father, so he’s accused of

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patricide, and is publicly executed. . .before he dies he thinks of his fate,

and the endless silence he’s about to enter. . .”
“. . .it sounds quite oedipal. . .”
“. . .oh, I think it’s very oedipal – the killing of the father, the sex
between the father and the would-be daughter-in-law. . .and there’s
a kind of oedipal return to childhood at the end – the idea of lost child-
hood is behind much of his work. . .”
“. . .and what about Erben?”
“. . .in a way, the difference between Mácha and Erben is a matter of
how each saw the changes happening around them – what we’ve been
talking about in regard to Shelley. Mácha celebrates nature but doesn’t
deify it: it has no purpose, and we make our way through life as individ-
uals in the face of darkness and uncertainty, unrelieved by the comfort of
some sort of truth beyond love and passion; whereas for Erben, Mácha’s
individualism was a real problem, and he suggested a kind of passive
humility in the face of truth, which went along with his focus on timeless
myths – in fact for Erben, a return to myth and folk culture was a reac-
tion to the Enlightenment. I prefer Mácha’s passionate nihilism over
Erben’s folk wisdom. . .”
“. . .what are Erben’s poems like?”
“. . .there’s one called ‘Vrba,’ or ‘Willow,’ which is typical: whereas
Mácha’s hero is an individual, Erben’s are always connected to universal
types. In ‘Vrba’ the hero is a man who sits down to breakfast with his wife,
and complains to her that for two years he’s had anxiety during the night,
as somehow the fact that she’s not completely with him is disturbing to
him – this is very vague, but there’s clearly a sexual connotation. His wife
tells him that he should be ‘humble before his destiny,’ but he refuses to
bow down to destiny, and so he decides to cut down a willow tree that
somehow symbolizes his wife to him – or at least that part of her he
cannot gain access to: the wife dies simultaneously with his cutting down
of the tree, somehow living on abstractly as a mother. . .”
“. . .the transformation of the young wife into a mother – oedipus again. . .”
“. . .all his poems are like that: love and death, the child excluding the
life of the parent – all connected to some universal myth which leaves us
in a kind of passivity or fatalism. . .”
“. . .what happened to them?”
“. . .Erben’s fatalism led to a kind of conservatism and cowardice: for
example, he avoided meeting the writer Božena Němcová – the woman

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on the five-hundred crown note, because she was under surveillance by

the Austrian police, and he didn’t want to get into trouble. . .”
“. . .and Mácha?”
“. . .he got his girlfriend pregnant and was supposed to marry her: six
days before the marriage he went into a fit of rage because of her
supposed infidelity to him. He died three days later – I’ve read some-
where it was cholera. . .”
“. . .I like that – he stayed in character until the end, suffering jealous
rage and shitting himself to death! It’s fitting – aer all, his hero Byron
died delirious from swamp fever in Greece. . .”
“. . .the people who make him an icon of Czech culture would be
shocked by your irreverence!”
“. . .really?”
“. . .I’m joking, but it’s true that he became an icon – they even disin-
terred his remains and reburied him at Vyšehrad in 198 aer his home
village fell within the Sudatenlands aer the Munich accords. . .Vyšehrad
is the ‘Westminster Abbey’ of the Czechs. . .”
“. . .Czechs aren’t the only ones who use their national culture as
a support for cultural nationalism – look at how the British used
Shakespeare, or the Germans used Schiller and Goethe. All of them are
probably turning over in their graves. . .”
“. . .who did the Americans use?”
“. . .I suppose if there’s anything like a ‘national poet’ it’s got to be either
Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, or the less salacious side of Walt Whitman.
A good deal of American literary culture has actually been against the
status quo, or, when writers thought they were representing the positive
side of the culture, like Walt Whitman, they were embarrassing in other
ways to those wanting a national poet – Whitman’s erotic poetry, and
especially his homoerotic poetry, is an embarrassment for the puritanical
side of America. . .”
“. . .so what do they do with him?”
“. . .in high school they teach sanitized, domesticated versions of every-
thing – the ‘nicer’ poems of Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman. I was
in graduate school before I realized Whitman’s writing was brilliant, and
the same thing with Dickinson. . .it takes time and effort to penetrate the
myths. . .”
“. . .but to go back to the point, what about the myths regarding

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“. . .I can partially understand why the myths were created – the inten-
sity of their lives, of their writings, are hard enough to represent. . .it’s as
if there needed to be a kind of shorthand; therefore, the myth. . .”
“. . .of the two great poets in exile?”
“. . .the myth varies, but it usually makes too much of the relationship
between Shelley and Byron, as if Mary and Claire were just bystanders,
which isn’t true at all. . .”
“. . .and what does the myth make of Shelley’s idea of free love?”
“. . .it either avoids it altogether, or it makes it seem as if there were
nightly orgies wherever they went – like in Ken Russell’s film, Gothic. In
reality, Mary had sexual relations exclusively with Shelley, aside from
what may have been a very brief period with Hogg, while Claire had rela-
tions with Shelley exclusively, save for the brief liaison with Byron, and
an impassioned embrace by Trelawny aer Shelley died. Shelley and
Byron you know about: Byron was a libertine, which isn’t the same as
free love – at least in the way Shelley conceived of it. . .”
“. . .so what aspects of the myth attracted you?”
“. . .certainly the two great poets in exile, the idea of Shelley’s pursuit of
knowledge and experience at any cost, his guilelessness and goodness – which
was not a myth, but the myth obscures the costs of that goodness. ere’s
also the drama of his tragic end: on the beach near Viareggio, Shelley’s body
being burned as Byron, Hunt, and Trelawny looked on. I remember once,
when I was quite young, seeing that image in some film or docu-drama, and
the power of it swept me away – it seemed to me then, and even now, the
epitome of Romanticism. It’s only partially true, of course: Byron swam out
to his boat, the Bolivar, and became quite sick from it all. . .”
“. . .so all that was before you le America?”
“. . .yes. It was only later, aer I had le, that I began reading them more
closely. eir exile is rarely portrayed – everyone knows only about
Geneva, where they were merely tourists. When I started reading more,
I became obsessed – I began finding other similarities with my own life:
Shelley’s estrangement from his upper-middle class family origins, his
disdain for the milieu of his own upbringing, with its hypocrisies and
shams, his hatred for the schools he attended, his hatred for the essential
conservatism and abuses of power of England, and then his exile. . .”
“. . .but how could it happen? – neither Shelley nor you were born into
a poor family – Shelley was the eldest son, and you were a son in an upper
middle class family. . .”

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“. . .that’s right. . .”
“. . .so why would either of you turn against all the privileges of your
position? Most people in his world, and in yours, would have readily
traded places with you, wouldn’t they? What makes certain people finally
turn away from their upbringings, while most stay within them?”
“. . .that’s a difficult question. It would be too easy to say that one simply
sees into the contradictions of one’s society, and decides against them in
order to ‘live in truth,’ as Havel puts it. If it were so easy, everyone would
do it – and you know that wasn’t the case during the communist years. . .”
“. . .or now. . .”
“. . .certainly not. You know, during his childhood Shelley lived in kind
of a familial paradise with his mother and sisters at Field Place – his
father’s estate in Horsham, Sussex; but, because of the rigidity of the
masculine order that he, as eldest son, inhabited, he was forced to leave:
he was sent off to a boarding school at age eleven or so. You can see how
violent his reaction was to it in the fact that the day he was to leave for
school he set his house on fire with some kind of device timed to coin-
cide with his departure. . .”
“. . .is that true?”
“. . .as far as I know, yes. He was born with an incredibly sensitive nature,
and his father was, from all accounts, a quite an obtuse man who more or
less decided to separate him from his sisters and mother in order to prepare
him for his tasks as a man in the social order. e public school he entered
only affirmed his father’s values – a masculine order that was antithetical
to his sensibility, and which he hated fiercely. Aer he was expelled from
Oxford for his pamphlet, ‘e Necessity of Atheism,’ his mother and sisters
bowed to the father’s will and refused to see him. It was the final straw: his
hatred for the authority of his despotic father became a hatred towards all
authority, and finally all cultural restrictions and restraints – and there were
good reasons, too: whenever a culture is in the process of becoming ascen-
dant, as Britain was becoming increasingly in the Napoleonic and post-
Napoleonic period, it becomes reactionary. Britain at that time was under
the Castlereagh administration, which was reacting to the repercussions of
the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, and consequently was
deeply repressive in its fears of internal and external threats and ideologies.
e social order, then, was thoroughly rigid and patriarchal in a way diffi-
cult to imagine now – the pressures on Shelley, the eldest son, were too
much, and Shelley refused them, radically. . .”

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“. . .so what was happening in his family was a microcosm of what was
happening in his society at large?”
“. . .right. I think we tend to see history as something that happens
‘over there’ – somewhere else, unless the events actually interfere in
some direct manner in our daily lives, but it’s only through historical
distance that we can see that the very air we breath in our daily lives is
permeated with our own historical moment. Consider Shelley’s day of
birth – August th, 19: six days later, on August 10th, the French
king’s Swiss guard was massacred when a mob raided the Tuileries.
That moment was probably the decisive one of the French Revolution,
for prior to that event it looked as if it were possible to create and main-
tain a constitutional monarchy; instead, there was the Reign of Terror,
followed by a European-wide cataclysm. But what was happening inside
France didn’t effect Great Britain nearly as much as the twenty-two
years of almost continuous continental warfare that followed, which
was as much a dual between France and Great Britain for world
economic supremacy as it was a war between revolutionary and anti-
revolutionary forces. Until the British defeated the French at Trafalgar
in 180, Britain lived under an almost continuous fear of French inva-
sion, and then, following Trafalgar, Napoleon’s Continental System
attempted to force Britain into economic submission, and it nearly
worked – the subsequent recession was felt throughout Great Britain.
By the time the Third Coalition had defeated Napoleon in April, 181,
Shelley was twenty-two years old – three months later he left for the
continent with Mary and Claire, but they were back in England before
Napoleon’s return from Elba in March, 181, and his defeat at
Waterloo in June. My point is that Shelley’s formative years coincided
almost precisely with these years of pitched military, political and
economic battles, and then, when he came of age, his country was
setting about the business of consolidating its global ascendancy. While
the vast majority of British never even saw a French soldier or ship,
their presence over the horizon must have affected every aspect of their
daily lives – and no society is as rigid as a society at war. The British
had been fighting for both economic and ideological reasons, and you
can imagine what the established order must have thought about
anyone sharing sympathies with the ideology of the enemy. In fact, for
the average person it’s impossible even to consider another reality
outside the one society prescribes for them. . .”

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“. . .and what about your situation? What were you escaping – was
American society so repressive? Few Czechs would understand why you
would want to leave the U.S.A. and come to Prague. . .”
“. . .there are certain similarities between Shelley and myself: Shelley
and I were both born into ascendant empires geared up for wars that were
fought beyond their borders and that led society to become polarized
between reactionary and radical elements. In my case, I was born the year
Kennedy was elected – at the tail end of the baby-boom generation: the
Cold War had already developed into a hot war in Korea, and would
soon become hot again in Vietnam. America had been long-reaping the
benefits of its postwar ascendancy, but the tremors of the 190s were
already rumbling under the surface. e United States practically tore
itself apart during my childhood. Kennedy’s assassination knocked the
first major hole in the wall, and Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ only held it up
for a little while longer, before the whole edifice of Eisenhower-era
normality came tumbling down. . .”
“. . .were you aware of what was happening?”
“. . .up to a certain point everything was terribly vague for me, as it is
for all children; in fact, aside from the first appearance of the Beatles on
television in 19, I have no really distinct memories of any of the histor-
ical events happening around me in the early 0s – sure, I knew about
some of the general events like the war in Vietnam and the race riots, but
not much else; aer all, I was a little boy living in a northern New Jersey
suburb – a town called Westfield. . .it was something like John Cheever’s
‘Shady Hill’ – an outwardly idyllic suburb hiding a cauldron of anguish
and angst. I think the whole town had been blissfully unaware, then
suddenly everything came into focus in 198: I was only eight years old,
but from that point onwards my memory is crystal clear. It began, as far
as my own awareness is concerned, with the assassination of Martin
Luther King, Jr., in April of that year. I remember the school flag was at
half-mast, and they stopped the normal lessons and spent the day
teaching us a new word: ‘prejudice.’ en, a day or so later, my sister
taught me another word: ‘riot.’ We lived less than twenty kilometers from
Newark, where more than twenty people had died during race riots the
summer before, and riots erupted again aer King’s death – across the
whole United States more than forty people were killed, and thousands
injured. . .”
“. . .were you afraid?”

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“. . .I just remember a strange feeling in the air, and we couldn’t go

downtown. . .it all seemed distant, then, but that was only the beginning.
When Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June of ‘8, I distinctly
remember the event, the mood, and even his face on the cover of Time
magazine – in a kind of a Roy Lichtenstein-like illustration. From then
on the news only got worse – from the Chicago Democratic Convention
to Vietnam, the anti-war protests. . .the invasion of Czechoslovakia was
just a distant murmur to most Americans amidst the pandemonium.
I think the culmination of all the chaos came a couple of years later with
the shootings at Kent State. . .”
“. . .what was that?”
“. . .sorry – I forget sometimes that we don’t share contexts and times:
I suppose ‘Kent State’ is to Americans of the ‘0s what ‘Jan Palach’ is to
Czechs. In 190, the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of students
protesting the illegal invasion of Cambodia at Kent State University: they
killed four students, and wounded nine others. . .”
“. . .that’s terrible! We were never told anything about it. . .”
“. . .and we didn’t hear about Jan Palach! To draw out the parallel with
Shelley, I would compare, loosely, the Kent State shootings to the
Peterloo massacres that occurred in Manchester in 1819, which also
occurred at a radical protest meeting, and brought on a massive over-reac-
tion on the part of the local authorities who killed about ten people. Kent
State represented the symbolic end of the 0s; aer that, nothing made
any sense at all any more. . .but that’s all hindsight. . .actually, something
really terrible happened right there in idyllic Westfield, the suburban
utopia, no more than five kilometers or so from my house: for me, it’s
symptomatic of the whole sickness of society, then. . .”
“. . .what was it?”
“. . .the John List killings. . .”
“. . .what happened?”
“. . .in 191, in an upper-middle class neighborhood across town,
a father, John List, slaughtered his whole family – three children, his
mother, his wife. . .”
“. . .my God! – why did he do it?”
“. . .he was this typically American weird mix of moralistic Christian
and materialistic businessman – a real control freak. They had three
children, and the oldest daughter, who was sixteen, had been picked
up by police for being out after midnight a few weeks earlier: she had

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already been influenced by the 0s counter-culture, and was dressing

in mini-skirts and smoking marijuana. She was the generation of my
oldest sister, and went to the same high school. List thought his family
was all going to hell because his wife refused to go to church any more
and was defending the daughter against his authoritarian rigidity. On
top of all that, he couldn’t keep a job, and he was secretly living off his
mother’s money and a second mortgage on his house. He’d dress up
and pretend to go to work in the morning, and then just sit reading at
the train station all day – the same train station from which my father
commuted into Manhattan every day! Finally, List decided to kill his
family. . .”
“. . .did he give a reason?”
“. . .yes actually – he wrote a letter to his church pastor. It was again this
weird fusion of religious and economic nonsense: he told him that he
wasn’t sure he could keep his family ‘pure’ in the future, but also that he
didn’t want them to experience poverty – he felt they’d be better off dead
than not Christian. . .”
“. . .that bastard! So he killed them instead?”
“. . .yes! Only in America can you find such a peculiarly twisted mix of
moralistic religion and materialism. . .”
“. . .did they ever catch him?”
“. . .yes, but it gives me the shivers to think about it. He went to Denver,
Colorado at almost the same time that my own family moved there –
when my father’s company relocated. He took up a new identity, remar-
ried, joined a church, and even taught Sunday school!”
“. . .that’s unbelievable. So when did they catch him?”
“. . .eighteen years later. . .”
“. . .he lived a new life for eighteen years aer doing what he did? How
was he found?”
“. . .they aired his case on one of those true-crime television shows in
1989, and a former neighbor recognized him and tipped off the FBI.
I asked my older brother about it once much later – about how he saw
the whole thing, as he was seven years older and much more aware of
what was happening: he said that most of his friends felt that it might
have happened to any of their fathers! ose were strange times. . .”
“. . .I begin to understand, now. . .”
“. . .but for me, the real trauma of the period was when my family
moved to Colorado in the summer of 19. . .”

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“. . .why Colorado?”
“. . .many companies relocated west, then, and I think one motivation
must have been just to escape the clutter and chaos of the east coast; plus,
I guess they received tax incentives in the conservative west. e move
coincided with the total absurdity of the 0s, but, as I said, it’s difficult to
see where one is, historically – it’s difficult to see that one is in anything
at all, for it seems to be everything: there’s no distance, no temporal or
spatial horizon to view it from. . .”
“. . .it was the same under communism – when it’s the only horizon, it’s
hard to see beyond it. . .”
“. . .looking back, I can see that things were especially terrible, but at
the time I simply thought it was my own personal situation – an alien-
ated adolescent in a strange environment. e whole country was going
through wrenching times: just when it seemed the dislocations of the 0s
were over, suddenly the Watergate scandal came along and disillusioned
anyone who hadn’t been disillusioned already. I survived by just a hair’s
breadth: the American west was an entirely different world, and it was
a nightmare for me. . .”
“. . .why was it so horrible?”
“. . .it was like entering a time warp: I was only an observer of the 0s
because of my age, but it seemed as if the 0s had never reached the
Denver suburbs, or only reached it in some bizarre way. American foot-
ball seemed to be the central activity: you were either a football player,
or cheerleader, or band member, or outside of it totally. I was totally alien-
ated, and immersed myself in nothing but jazz and literature: I had read
a good deal of Hesse, Camus, Beckett and Kaa by the time I was fieen
– almost all hand-me-downs from my older brother’s friends. It was the
only way I could survive in that cultural wasteland. I couldn’t see that
what I was doing, what we were all doing, was just reflecting the self-
immersion and withdrawal of the entirety of American society in the 0s.
Everyone was so concerned with ‘doing their own thing’ – the only
ideology le standing when the debris of the 0s was carted away. ey
called it the ‘me generation’ – that period saw the birth of shopping-
mall culture: ‘shopping’ became an activity in itself. I got my first job at
a chain bookstore in a mall south of Denver, and saw firsthand the micro-
social effects of the totally artificial environment it created: alienation,
a safe anonymity in a crowd, everything channeled towards materialist
desires – creating desires rather than answering needs. . .”

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“. . .I think Czechs would like a little more of that now, aer the end of
the socialist experiment. . .”
“. . .no doubt. . .in moderation it’s not a bad thing, but Americans have
a tendency to always go too far. at was when the spirit of social change,
block by reaction and exhaustion, tipped over into destruction – there
were armed terrorist groups like the Weather Underground and the
Symbionese Liberation Army – they’re the ones who kidnapped the
heiress Patty Hearst: an iconic image from my adolescence is her wielding
a submachine gun at a bank robbery in 19. . .”
“. . .what happened to her?”
“. . .well, it’s a real specimen of the freak show that constitutes American
life! She was kidnapped, but clearly she became involved with it all. Her
defense team was headed by the best lawyer her daddy’s money could buy:
F. Lee Bailey – he’s the guy that helped get O.J. Simpson off the hook. . .”
“. . .did he get her acquitted?”
“. . .no, she was convicted of armed robbery and served until 199 when
her sentence was commuted by Jimmy Carter! Speaking of Carter, he
actually named the sickness of the times in a speech: he called it ‘the
Great Malaise.’ I think a small part of the reason he was hated by many,
then, was that he put his finger on the real issue while everyone else was
trying so hard to forget about it. I realize it was far worse in
Czechoslovakia under the ‘normalization’ period of the 0s and 80s, but
you, at least, knew clearly what the problem was, didn’t you? I think
Americans in the 0s had nary a clue. . .”
“. . .I was a child during the worst of it. We knew the regime was bad, we
despised the Russian soldiers, and there were enough people who incar-
nated the worst of communism in daily life to make it dreadful a good
deal of the time. One couldn’t easily travel to the west, the stores were
without goods, it was impossible to advance along a career path or even
attend university without connections – oen communist connections.
So many people were informers, collaborators, or simply passive cowards
– they did a good job of spreading the net as far as possible. at’s why so
many people want to forget about it all now, because of how they were
implicated in it. We thought we knew, then, what the problems were, but
many of them didn’t become clear until aer 1989, when suddenly we
could only blame ourselves and not the regime. . .”
“. . .and soon aer Czechs couldn’t even blame the Slovaks, aer the
country split in two. . .”

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“. . .that’s right. If you hadn’t come into my life, I’d probably be caught
in the same black hole as so many other people I know are these days –
people are so lost now. ey hardly know how to act, what to do with all
this freedom – the lack of any guidelines or models worth following, and
the stubborn leovers from the past: the nasty shopkeepers, the culture
of envy, the ‘our family and to hell with everyone else,’ the ‘foreigners be
damned’ attitudes. at’s what they did to us. I’m not sure people yet
fully realize what was done to them – it may take several more genera-
tions to sort it all out, but by then, what else may happen? You’re right,
though – we at least thought we knew what was happening then. . .but
now? What to be against, what to be for? In some regards it’s obvious,
but in others, it’s very difficult to tell. I can get a greater distance from it
being with you, seeing it through your eyes. . .”
“. . .an observer’s perspective makes it easier to see a different culture,
and finally to see one’s own, but that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to live
– quite the opposite. Look at Shelley: he went from a repressive situation
that was quite deadening to the total dislocation of self-imposed exile and
all of the suffering it involved. . .”
“. . .but it also gave him freedom. . .”
“. . .that’s true – once one has had a taste of such freedom, it’s difficult,
perhaps impossible, to return to a settled life, but, as Goethe wrote,
‘freedom has to be fought for anew every day.’ Now it’s impossible for me
even to consider living in America – ‘the land of the free’ – as I would find
it impossibly stifling, and yet many Americans think that convenience,
technology and material wealth yield them a kind of absolute freedom. . .”
“. . .it’s ironic that many Czechs used to take you as a representative
American. . .”
“. . .they simply don’t know any better. It’s true that Czechs project
their stereotypes on me, but many Americans I meet in Prague do so even
more – at least Czechs who don’t really know Americans don’t know
what to expect, so they have fewer prejudices, but there’s nothing so
annoying as the type of American who simply assumes that since you are
both Americans abroad you automatically agree with them about how
everything is awful outside of America, and how everything is better
‘back home.’ It’s especially bad at the American Embassy. When they find
out I don’t agree with their attitudes they’re disturbed, and when they
find out I have no plans of going back, some look at me as if I were some
sort of traitor or criminal. . .”

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“. . .really? Why is that? While Czechs tend to dislike Czech émigrés,

I can’t imagine any Czech who would be surprised to find a Czech
abroad who wasn’t intending to return. Do Americans really think it’s
best there?”
“. . .the majority do – that’s what they were brought up to think.
That’s part of the insidiousness of it: I was taught, from my childhood
on, that the United States was the wealthiest and most powerful nation
on earth – which is true enough, but also the most honorable, just and
free nation on earth, which is open to dispute, to say the least. Anything
Americans are not the best at, they downplayed; for example, culture
doesn’t seem to matter so much, and other cultures only matter insofar
as they measure up to, accept, and melt into the Protestantism-without-
the-metaphysics, materialist ethos that is ‘Americanism’ at its middling
best. . .”
“. . .is that why so many Americans are so ignorant about other cultures?”
“. . .I think many Americans tend to travel through the world like astro-
nauts in space suits: it’s all Disneyland to them, and Central Europe is
homogenous. . .”
“. . .but it’s not just Americans who do that. . .”
“. . .yes – citizens of any wealthy and powerful country share the same
tendency towards jingoism. . .”
“. . .Czechs do it too: when I was growing up, my family and my uncle’s
would head off together to somewhere like Yugoslavia or the Black Sea,
eating Czech food we had brought along, and forming a little Czech
community. You can see the same thing, now, with these packaged vaca-
tions – where mostly Czechs get on a plane, fly to a hotel with mostly
Czechs in a foreign country, and then act, well, Czech. . .”
“. . .yes, but Czechs don’t walk into a store in a foreign country, say
‘Dobrý Den,’ and expect to be understood – as Americans do. . .”
“. . .but English is a world language. . .”
“. . .but most American tourists simply assume it’s just like back home
and rarely adapt. For example, for you, what is the single most distin-
guishing feature about a group of Americans you come upon in Prague?”
“. . .they’re very loud. . .”
“. . .exactly. My point is that it wouldn’t occur to most of them that the
culture around them isn’t so loud: in fact, most wouldn’t even notice the
difference, and would wonder why people are staring at them. I believe
the true definition of tourism pure and simple is, ‘to be somewhere

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without having to be touched by it’: to truly know something or some-

where is to be affected, and perhaps changed by it. Tourists need not ever
arrive at their destination – perhaps dare not arrive, or they would have to
stop being tourists. at’s true of American tourists, Czech tourists,
German tourists, Japanese tourists – any tourist. . .still, when a German
tourist arrives in the United States or France, they don’t find a German
film in every cinema, as Americans do. e United States is more than
an affluent nation, even more than a superpower: it’s become an empire,
dedicated to securing and extending the American way of life at all costs,
and it’s the first empire in existence where many of its citizens generally
fail to realize or acknowledge that it is an empire. . .”
“. . .they have to know it – it’s obvious: how could they not know it?”
“. . .when they do know it, it will be too late! I had to be out of the
country for years before I could gain a more objective sense of America’s
place in the world. I knew the rest of the world existed, but all of this –
what was outside of it, beyond it – didn’t become truly real until I was
here for quite a while. It’s difficult to describe the mono-cultural ‘bubble-
effect’ there, where the whole world is merely seen as so many not-yet-
perfected extensions of America; and, because America colonizes
economically and culturally, rather than territorially, it doesn’t fit the
previous description of empires, and can hold on to its innocence and
ignorance. Many Americans remain in their space suits without even real-
izing it – at least until they start expanding geographically!”
“. . .so you finally took off your space suit?”
“. . .yes, and I found out that I could breathe the air aer all; in fact,
I found the air was fresher outside! Even as someone who was university-
educated and well-traveled, who liked foreign literature and films,
I didn’t emerge out of the bubble until I had been gone long enough for
it to become a memory. ere’s an incredible apparatus of normalization
and homogenization in the United States – but I’m not the first to have
noticed it: Alexis de Tocqueville noticed it, Henry Adams did, Henry
James did, Henry Miller did too. . .”
“. . .from propaganda?”
“. . .I think the most effective apparatus of cultural homogenization is
mass media, and the single most important change for me in living
abroad was disconnecting from it – simply unplugging. . .”
“. . .it seems in so many of the Americans films we’re now getting in
Prague there’s some sort of underlying assumption that justice, truth and

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happiness will prevail: ‘poor girl gets wealthy boy,’ or vice versa, no matter
what disaster is happening, from the sinking of the Titanic to the end of
the world – it’s absurd. . .”
“. . .yes, I suppose if I were to coin a word that best describes Americanism
it would be ‘positivity’ – which includes everything from empirical science
and technology to philosophical pragmatism and Hollywood happy
endings. Somehow in the rush to create a society that would alleviate
human inequalities and operate on Enlightenment principles, something
was lost while something was gained. e focus on pragmatic facts, on
concrete projects, side-tracked the complexity of value, and reduced the
unknown to the domain of the ‘what-would-one-day-be-known.’ I think
in the early days they should have done the equivalent of reading more
Kant, or at least Hume, and far less Locke – although I doubt they read
much philosophy at all! Of course they had a country to create, and quite
quickly at that, so that necessitated the focus on pragmatism, but the self-
delimitation of the positivist approach has resulted in a values vacuum, and
that has finally led to the current frantic seeking for ever-renewed, ever-
intensified pleasures and sensations, as if unconsciously there was an acute
awareness of the emptiness at the core of it all. . .”
“. . .I don’t want to stereotype a whole nation, but certainly with many
of the Americans I’ve met – admittedly mostly tourists, but also many
who are working in Prague – I had this feeling they see every problem as
solvable, and their lives as largely controllable. . .”
“. . .American media perpetuates that attitude. . .”
“. . .I know Czechs are hopelessly fatalistic, given their history, and
that’s an opposite extreme, but it always amazes me how convinced
Americans are that they’ll be able to control precisely the direction of
their lives – like automobiles, simply shiing the gears and steering it
wherever they want to go. . .”
“. . .and they are surprised when it breaks down, as all cars and all lives
inevitably do. . .”
“. . .but certainly they must know life isn’t perfectible?”
“. . .I think the phrase ‘the pursuit of happiness’ in the Declaration of
Independence isn’t just a chance phrasing – it indicates the source of the
problem: Americans live in the thrall of the imaginary. Even when prob-
lems are pointed out, it gets swept up into a new synthesis that promises
to solve the problems, and meanwhile people are wondering what’s
missing in their lives, and they start striving aer phantoms to fill the gap

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– Americans are always going on about finding their way back to an ideal
of ‘family’ or ‘community’ or ‘freedom’ that never existed in the way they
imagine it, if it ever existed at all. . .”
“. . .or going forwards towards ‘happiness’ and ‘success’ – the Americans
I’ve met always view their lives as moving forwards to some pre-planned
goal. . .”
“. . .‘running with arms outstretched towards the orgastic future that
year by year recedes before us’. . .”
“. . .what’s that?”
“. . .the end of e Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald had it precisely right, and
Gatsby staring out at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock – his
romantic dream and his catastrophe: it’s the quintessential American
story. . .”
“. . .so what would be the remedy – is there something like ‘negativity’
to balance positivity?”
“. . .well, as I said, philosophical negativity is best represented by the
philosophy of Kant: it starts with the distinction between what can be
known through empirical observation – the positive or phenomenal
realm of scientific facts, which Kant terms synthetic a posteriori judgments
and which are mere syntheses of analytic judgments, and consequently
mere ‘appearances’; and the noumenal realm, which, when it can be repre-
sented at all, can be represented as synthetic a priori judgments which
combine intuitions with speculative concepts – all of which is limited by
our cognitive predispositions anyway, or presentations of the truth
through art and other means, which cannot be represented. . .”
“. . .in plain language?”
“. . .science is useful but cannot reach the purpose or meaning of things;
speculative thought or philosophy helps us grasp value, but it can never
reach anything like the precision of science and is not verifiable; art can
show but cannot tell. . .”
“. . .so ‘negativity’ is the unknown area behind appearances, and what
remains outside the limits of the human mind. . .”
“. . .yes – in Kant’s view. . .”
“. . .but how would you see negativity being manifested in everyday life
– in other words, if positivity in practice produces the pursuit of happi-
ness, pleasure and sensation, what would negativity produce?”
“. . .awe, wonder, mystery – in short, meaning. . .but part of it means
surrendering the belief in the complete controllability of situations – it

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entails a degree of modesty, and giving over to uncertainty, loss, and at

times even suffering. . .to an awareness of one’s mortality – what
Heidegger called a ‘Being-towards-death,’ what Bataille termed the ‘inner
experience’. . .”
“. . .but given there’s so much wealth and power in the United States, it
isn’t likely anyone is going to choose negativity willingly, is it? In the
Czech Republic, and indeed most of Europe, it’s forced upon one by
history. . .”
“. . .yes, that’s the difficulty: no one willingly chooses to face and accept
limitation and loss. Americans have a strong tendency to run away from
their history, tearing it down and paving it over – ‘running orgastically’
towards the future’ as Fitzgerald said . . .”
“. . .so what do you think will happen there, eventually?”
“. . .I think the greatest danger comes from the fact the American
society in the mid-90s is too self-satisfied and too complacent – too
appropriating of any alternative views: in short, it’s in danger of
suppressing variability – but that’s nothing new, as that’s the danger of
any empire. e mind-deadening effect of unquestioned values Nietzsche
inveighed against, or the conformity and ideological fog of the bour-
geoisie that Baudelaire and Marx complained about, are not all that
different from the hypocrisy and ossification of value that Shelley and
Blake raged on against in early 19th century British society – or Jesus or
Jan Hus sought to reform in their societies. Of course, the particulars and
even ideologies are different in every time and place, but the ‘gravitational
pull’ is towards the comfortable, stabilizing norm, whatever it is at a given
historical moment. Norms are needed, of course, but the history of
humanity has been the history of forgetting that we created those norms. . .”
“. . .it was the same under communism – the majority wanting the comfort-
able life: the cottage, the long vacation, the short work hours and minimal
effort, the ‘state pretending to pay, the people pretending to work’. . .commu-
nism in the 0s and 80s was one vast depression that people took for the
normal rather than merely the norm, for there was little to compare it with,
given the borders were closed. Most people sensed something was wrong,
but they projected it onto the communist system – not seeing how they
had become part of the system itself, whether they were in the party or not,
or even if they were dissidents. ere was so little trust, social relations were
so rigidly delimited, so distorted – you know well enough how neurotic
human relations can be there, still. . .”

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“. . .I’ve noticed that even in the most self-assured Czechs I’ve met in
Prague who’ve lived for some time under communism one can detect
some effect of the past – but most oen I’ve encountered a general histor-
ical amnesia about communism. . .”
“. . .I wonder, sometimes, how you can stand living there – and even
more that you do so voluntarily. . .”
“. . .I can choose a bit more than a native how much I want to be
affected by it. I have to admit that it’s why I am so slow to learn the
language: I don’t want to know what the people on the bus are
discussing, as it’s roughly the same in all modern societies – last night‘s
soap opera or the price of cheese; and, as I said, I don’t want to know
what the American expatriates talk about either, so I keep myself
detached and sovereign. Being in a foreign country helps a great deal, and
especially a foreign country with a history, where I can lose myself in the
dimension of time. . .”
“. . .yes, I can see it’s both harder and easier for you to be in Prague –
harder because you’re a foreigner, and must make your own way outside
of the usual channels, and easier because you can ignore so much of the
everyday irritation, and because you were brought up in a country that
at least, ideally, gave you at least a feeling that you have the right to your
freedom – something I still struggle with. . .“
“. . .the ‘feeling of freedom,’ yes, but not as much of the real thing as
Americans constantly claim: I feel much more freedom living abroad
even in a less free society precisely because I’m eed om having to follow
norms, and therefore eed to choose outside the norms. Anyway, I think
freedom is more about intensive than extensive constraints. I’m less
extensively free in Prague due to the negative economic aspects of it, but
far more intensively free because I don’t have the voices in my head. . .
I have this outsider’s position. . .”
“. . .‘outsider’ is a good way of putting it. You’re not really an exile,
because you could go back if you wanted to, and you’re certainly not an
expatriate – all those self-posturing bores who hang around Prague cafes
with other expats posing for the imagined eyes of their friends back
home. . .but that’s really the crucial point, isn’t it? Your lack of a sense of
home, or, rather, your choice of homelessness. Your home isn’t there in
America, and yet it isn’t fully in Prague. You aren’t an émigré, as you
refuse to assimilate. . .as you said before, you’re sovereign – a foreigner
wherever you go. . .”

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“. . .but I didn’t leave America knowing that’s what I would become.

Shelley didn’t know he would stay away either: the reasons he gave
himself for leaving were that he needed a warmer climate for his health,
to escape his creditors, and the practical matter of bringing Allegra to
Byron. On some level he must have known he needed to leave, but he
certainly didn’t articulate it until aer the fact. He was born into an age
of transformation and crisis, like ours, and that had everything to do with
unmooring him from his past. . .but once he set out, it was towards an
unknown. One has to be something like a cartographer, and map Shelley
onto his family, his family onto his culture, his culture onto the age, and
then suddenly you see something beyond his works that gave rise to the
works, and which the works themselves expressed and took further. . .he
found a new life, a new inspiration, and the power to keep going on with
his experiment in living beyond the bounds of his society. . .”
“. . .but Shelley was destroyed in the end. . .perhaps you can avoid some
of the dangers he encountered, but there are still significant dangers,
aren’t there? – especially with people who don’t understand. . .”
“. . .that’s why it’s best to be as imperceptible as possible, to borrow
a term from Deleuze and Guattari; aer all, we can’t expect that others
will ignore us – we’re provocative, just as anything that veers away from
the norm is provocative. . .”
“. . .they can live their own lives. . .”
“. . .look what happened to Shelley and Byron – the shiploads of sight-
seers with telescopes peering into their private lives. . .and look how many
of their so-called ‘friends’ turned out to be more-or-less literary spies,
prying into their lives and reporting their secrets to the outside world, with
its banal moralism and small-minded sensibilities. It’s best to be imper-
ceptible, in order not to be labeled as scandalous, different, or abnormal by
what Strindberg referred to as the ‘right-thinking people’ . . .and to send
any messages to the world in bottles tossed into the sea from a great
distance in time and space. In any case, that may well have been what
Shelley’s writings were, given the few people they reached during his life.
e ‘right-thinking people’ are still with us – you know that even better
than I. . .”
“. . .yes, I’ve lived my life with a nation of them: the secret policeman
was nothing compared to the neighbor, the teacher, the classmate – even
one’s family and friends at times. . .but how can one remain impercep-
tible? How can one remain beyond the perception of those who want to

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see? ey’re everywhere, asking their leading questions, comparing, ques-

tioning, trying to get inside you in order to find out what’s there, and
root it out if it isn’t acceptable to them. . .”
“. . .it takes a large measure of caution and many layers of defense.
I always let people have some of what they want – as much as they can
stand, really, but I don’t advertise about what else is there inside, behind
a few more closed doors and a few more stone walls. at’s usually
enough – they receive what they are able to. . .”
“. . .but how do you decide between those allowed access and those kept
“. . .I don’t decide. . .they decide for themselves – based on whether they
want to understand or not, by their reactions as they get closer. . .in the
end, it isn’t difficult to decide who to let in, who to keep out: the majority
of people I meet place themselves solidly in the latter group within the
first five minutes of meeting them, by their set of fixed assumptions about
life. . .”
“. . .it’s a bit of an aristocratic attitude, isn’t it?”
“. . .as I said, I prefer the word ‘sovereign’ – aristocrats are part of a class,
while I try to be as singular as possible, by just being who I am and not
suppressing it. . .and yet, finally, I don’t think it’s other people who are
the worst problem – the worst of what happened to Shelley came from
himself, and I’m sure the same will be true of us. . .”
“. . .but what about events like the blackmailing? at certainly came
from others. . .”
“. . .of course, but they laid themselves open to it by not taking care to
be imperceptible enough, and I suppose through placing too much trust
in people like Elise and Paolo. . .then, when the blackmail began, I think
they panicked, and over-reacted. . .”
“. . .it’s understandable given the circumstances; but isn’t the point,
really, that there’s a big difference between the ideality and the reality?
In an ideal world Mary would have been more tolerant and accepting of
Claire’s presence, Shelley would have been able to manage the conflicts
between the two women better, and they all would have managed to be
more imperceptible and less open to the manipulations and threats of
others. ey would have all worked together, rowed the boat in the same
direction. . .but is that ideal world even attainable?”
“. . .you’re right, that’s the question. I don’t believe there’s a relational
utopia waiting for anyone out there – a pure state of Hegelian intersub-

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jectivity and mutual recognition is as mythical, to me, as the Marxist

utopian dream of a classless society, but I still believe in some kind of
evolution in human relations – a higher level of being beyond merely the
atavism of primitive, territorial instincts. at’s what I’m wondering
about – whether there’s a way through the impasse they encountered.
Este, for me, represents that impasse, but it’s also what finally knocked
Shelley out of the orbit of his idealizations, and the abjection and despair
he experienced in the aermath accomplished the rest. . .”
“. . .but the results were tragic for him. . .”
“. . .all lives encounter some tragedy, but a half-life lived in fear, reac-
tivity, and pettiness is a different kind of tragedy than a life lived fully
open to love and loss. I find their works beautiful, as their lives were:
there were intense moments, where, if only briefly, everything came
together. . .such moments are worth a whole lifetime of comfort and
security. . .”
“. . .and where do you think our worst dangers reside?”
“. . .also within ourselves – with everything that comes under the term
‘reactivity’: jealousy, possessiveness, anxiety, fear. . .as well as habit, terri-
toriality, insecurity, impatience, insensitivity, inattentiveness – all of
which we’ve been guilty of at one time or another, and will be again,
no doubt. . .”
“. . .but I think we are doing better than they were – we know, accept,
and are trying to make it work. . .”
“. . .yes, but for how long – have we faced any real trials yet?”
“. . .nothing like they faced. . .I hope we never have to, but that’s hoping
too much. . .”
“. . .I’m not thinking of their tragedies. . .I’m thinking about the passage
of time – the problems of equilibrium and disequilibrium that come with
maturing, with facing one’s mortality, with simply facing oneself: life can
never be predicted or planned in advance. . .”
“. . .that’s what bothers me – I always want our lives to be settled, even
though I know it’s impossible. . .”
“. . .still, there are moments – for Shelley and Claire, the ten days they
were here alone were a kind of settled existence. . .”
“. . .with tragedy lurking around the next corner. . .”
“. . .it will always be there ready to strike – if not around the next corner,
then the one aer that. . .”
“. . .that’s not particularly comforting. . .”

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“. . .that’s why one has to learn to live as completely as possible in

moments such as these. . .”
“. . .so let’s make the best of this one – shall we go see the villa again?”
“. . .yes, maybe we’ll find someone there. . .”

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To these others I had tied my destiny: a destiny given over to unremitting
anguish and inevitable loss. Nothing could prevent this loss, and to live the
eternal return meant to love my fate and to accept what was wrought om
these relations. . .

One must be careful not gaze too hard and long into the abyss, or the
abyss will gaze back long and hard into you, invading the foundations
of your being. For her such a threshold had been crossed, had been forced
upon her by circumstances relentless in their intensity. Her face bespoke
a wavering pain that held her just at the limit of her equilibrium: her
tears would flow under the slightest provocation, bringing her near
again, as always, to what had left her forlorn and deserted in the world.
She had been abandoned by the buoyancy of hope life yields to the young,
greenly held within their vanities: night had unexpectedly fallen too
soon, leaving her open and spilt upon the world, mutilated and torn. She
had become a visible symbol of her own sacrifice to some ancient and
angry god, left behind to return alone to the world of the day. For those
around her she was a disconcerting figure, reflecting for others a reality
they wanted to wish away into some other, timeless realm, where one can
believe that what inevitably happens always happens to the other, never
to oneself. . .

I saw in her the burnt offering she had become from that point
onwards, and found her an open wound from which something
absolutely singular was emerging, for she had not constructed any kind of
abode around her but the night, which is the demolition of all structures.
We became a sacrifice for one another: each witness to the other’s steady
advance towards annihilation, each praying for a deliverance that would
never arrive. . .

ere was another. . .

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In the beginning I had simply beckoned her to come: there was an irides-
cence in her eyes, and I was surprised by my desire for her which I had come
upon suddenly in a moment when I hadn’t even suspected its existence. . .

e first time we spoke, words emptied om her as if she had been waiting
her whole life to speak. Immediately I knew I would never find her, and that
there would be nothing like an answer to the question I would ask of her. . .

When she spoke, I sensed a covert destiny hidden within her, enclosing her
in an order of being that drew one in as much as it turned one away – an
evasiveness not unlike a figure come upon suddenly in the darkness of
a dream. e words she chose to encircle her also served to protect her: they
enclosed her within their periphery like a chambered nautilus, a spiraling
enigma that curved beyond my gaze. She was a disembodied instant, held
back just before the advent of her fall – her vertigo at this brink drew me
towards her and pressed her forward towards me within the thrall of an
obsession that was difficult to endure. . .

In the persistence of my fascination I came to see that something held her,

grasping her and imposing there a seemingly immutable order. She was
aaid to lose her world although something within her knew she was losing
it already in every passing moment. . .

She came as if she had no will of her own, and om that moment on she
remained. . .
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Late aernoon light filters through the trees, dappling the ochre walls of
the villa. A dark green Range Rover is parked outside the gates. Under
the pergola fronting the middle wing of the villa are two white plastic
chairs and a white plastic table upon which is a coffee cup and a portable
radio. e man and woman pause in front of the main gate.
“. . .someone’s here. . .”
“. . .what should we do? ere’s not exactly a doorbell. . .”
“. . .we could just call out. . .”
“. . .would you come if some strangers were calling out at your door – and
in a foreign language?”
“. . .it depends – wait, there’s someone coming out. . .”
A man dressed in cream-colored trousers and a sky-blue short-sleeved
shirt steps out of one of the arched doors at the end of the front path,
turns, and continues speaking to someone inside. When he turns toward
them again they gesture to him with a hesitant wave and he walks down
the slate path towards them.
“. . .here’s another chance to try your Italian. . .”
“. . .but I studied it years ago. . .”
e man realizes immediately what they want when they point to the
plaque on the wall. He explains in basic English that he is a businessman
living in Padova, that he has recently bought the villa, and that he intends
to rebuild it as a country home for his family, bringing the vineyard
behind back into production as a hobby. He believes Byron has lived
there, and does not seem to know about Shelley. eir presence seems
evidence to him of the value of his purchase: he gives them a brief tour,
concerned primarily with explaining his plans for the villa. ey follow
him through the door of the coachhouse – the tiled floor is matted in
dirt, the dark wood ornamentation of the stalls coated in thick dust. Dust
floats in a thin sha of sunlight streaming through a small double-paned
window above one of the stalls where the carriage was kept. Although
the building has been stripped of everything but that which was an inte-
gral part of the structure itself, it is largely intact.

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They follow him out and down the path towards the wing that was
invisible from the lane and he points to the upper floor and tells them
Byron’s bed is still inside. There is a well to the side of the courtyard,
and separating the court from the main path is a small, bricked-in
garden with wildflowers and yucca plants. The wing’s gray, weather-
beaten shutters are all closed. They walk up the four stone steps to the
front door: he unlocks it and the door creaks open. Inside it is dark,
dusty and moldering. He asks them to wait, and after a moment he
opens the shutters in the first room, bathing the room in light and
revealing a dining room: there are piles of white plaster littering the
floor, and the plaster still on the walls and ceiling is faded and stained
with years of dampness. The pattern shows through faintly: pale blue
and white, round convoluted circles of stucco on the ceiling radiating
out from a chandelier of bronze grape leaves with places for eight
candles. A whole patch of the ceiling has lost all of its plaster which
forms piles of white dust and rubble on the floor below it, leaving the
wooden floorboards and ceiling beams above showing through. The
door and window frames are all dark wood, the unbroken panes rippled
and distorted with age. The man tells them he must return to Padova,
but he gives them permission to wander in the living quarters and on
the grounds, and explains that when they leave they should tell the
groundskeeper inside the door from where he first emerged. He gives
them his card, they thank him, and he departs after pausing a moment
to speak to the groundskeeper. After the sound of his car fades away,
they are left in silence. They look at each other, then around them, and
suddenly burst out laughing at their good fortune.
“. . .can you believe it? is is perfect. . .”
“. . .it’s unbelievable. . .”
“. . .I wonder who else has ever seen this?”
“. . .it doesn’t look like it was used since they were here. . .”
“. . .I don’t know, but it’s possible – it would have been about one
hundred-seventy-five years ago. I know what fiy or even one hundred
years of disrepair looks like, but I have no idea how to judge this! In any
case, it hasn’t changed – I mean, it’s fallen apart, but this is basically what
they must have seen: this is the plaster they saw, the glass they looked
through, the door handles they opened, the chandelier they lighted – it
must be, based on its age!”
“. . .it gives me a shiver. . .”

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“. . .me too. I didn’t expect a quaintly reconstructed tourist trap, like

Wordsworth’s house in Grasmere, but I also wasn’t expecting this – this
is amazing!”
She crosses the hallway to the room opposite and opens a window – it
is an empty drawing room, half the size of the first room. He begins
slowly climbing the wooden stairway.
“. . .is it safe?”
“. . .yes, very solid. . .I want to find the bed he mentioned – it over-
looked the castle, so it must be in one of the front rooms up here. . .”
“. . .wait, I’m coming with you. . .”
“. . .so come. . .”
“. . .I’ll wait until you open the windows up there – I hate dark places. . .”
“. . .it’s not so dark. . .”
He turns on the landing, feeling his way with his fingertips on the wall.
He finds a wooden door, and opens its latch with a creak. Stale, cool air
envelopes him. He walks to the window and opens the window and shut-
ters, letting light and heat wa in. rough the window he can see the
green foliage of the front yard, and, beyond, the variegated walls and
crenellations of the castle. He turns, and against the far wall he sees
a small night table and a dark mahogany bed, its headboard and foot-
board rising straight up, then curling back in an ornate scroll.
“. . .come on up, it’s here!”
“. . .ok. . .where are you? oh, I see. . .”
She enters the room, where he is opening a second window. He turns
and points at the bed.
“. . .there it is. . .”
“. . .to je nádhera! Do you think they really slept here?”
“. . .it has to be it – it’s the right age, and this is the master bedroom.
Shelley wrote of a room overlooking the castle – see, it’s right there. . .”
“. . .it’s beautiful, but it’s so small: I couldn’t even fit here, and for you
it would be impossible!”
“. . .Shelley was considered tall by the standards of his day, but he would
seem like a child to us – an average-sized man, then, would be five eight
or nine. . .”
“. . .what?”
“. . .sorry – human measurements are the one measurement that never
seem real to me in the metric system. . .about this high compared to me. . .”
“. . .probably 1 or so. . .”

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“. . .so Shelley was probably 1, and Byron would have been up to your
nose: we would be giants to them. . .”
“. . .what about Shelley’s other features? I only know that painting – the
one in the biography. . .”
“. . .that’s the Curran portrait: it was painted in Rome, but there are
references mentioning that it was a bit idealized – it wasn’t completed
until aer Shelley’s death, when the artist filled in the details based on
memory. Actually, it was Silsbee who thought to ask Claire about such
things as the physical details of their appearance – and I’m glad he did, as
there are very few records otherwise. She told Silsbee that Shelley was
quite beautiful – that she had never seen such a face, except on one
Russian woman she met later. He had dark blue eyes, and she described
him as having had a ‘marble forehead’ – broad, smooth, and white. He
was tall for the time, as I mentioned, and quite thin. . .”
“. . .probably due to his vegetarianism. . .”
“. . .or his laudanum habit. Somewhere either in the recollections of
Medwin or Trelawny he was described as holding himself with
a somewhat stooped upper back towards the end, as if he bore the
weight of the world on his shoulders. His voice matched his physique
– it was evidently quite high-pitched, and even higher-pitched when
he got carried away, which was often. He was like one of the spirits
of the air he wrote about – not effeminate so much as hypersensitive.
Claire jokingly referred to him as the ‘exotic’ when she was in
Florence after his poem ‘The Sensitive Plant,’ but his energy and
intensity formed the center of their circle: even Byron, as tireless as
he was, acknowledged it. I sometimes think that energy is the primary
aspect that matters in life – there’s some sort of connection to
a primordial source. . .”
“. . .and Claire – what did she look like?”
“. . .that’s harder to say: by the time Silsbee saw her, she was in her late
0s, and she had already lived an intense and incredibly difficult life –
she didn’t suffer fools. . .”
“. . .she didn’t suffer Silsbee, you mean. . .”
“. . .she certainly knew what she was doing with him – James was right
about that in e Aspern Papers. Her niece Pauline, who was jealous of
Silsbee’s attentions to Claire, said that Claire would play the role of a silly
girl when Silsbee came around – a woman of her advanced age! Silsbee
sensed Claire was not quite straight with him: he described her as

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Byronic in her temperament – strong-willed and capricious, which makes

sense given what I’ve already told you. . .”
“. . .and when she was younger – when she was with Shelley, what was
she like?”
“. . .she was far more vivacious, more passionate, and more sexual than
Mary, and created a good many scenes because of it. I sometimes wonder
if Mary’s real reason for wanting her to leave didn’t have as much to do
with Claire’s fluctuating, volatile temperament as with Mary’s jealousy.
She told Silsbee that she thought she knew Shelley better than Mary,
because she was the one who went on long walks with him, as she had
the stamina for it: it seems to have been true, according to the journal
entries that still exist. Because their relations had to be clandestine from
the start, Claire and Shelley had fewer illusions to work through –
a certain self-awareness arose out of the circumstances. Claire seems to
have read as much as Mary – their reading schedules were virtually iden-
tical, as they passed books between each other. She kept as complete
a journal as Mary did – perhaps even more complete, given that Shelley
shared Mary’s journal. Claire was far more fluent in foreign languages –
she spoke French and Italian, taught Shelley German, and later picked
up quite a bit of Russian when she was in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
She was so capable of inhabiting a foreign language and sensibility that
when Medwin met her in Pisa for the first time he thought he was
meeting an Italian woman! Of course she sang beautifully, but she never
had the same urge to write as they did – although she did do some
writing, and even wrote a novel at one point, and a story. . .”
“. . .was any of it ever published?”
“. . .we don’t know what happened to the novel, but the story was
published under Mary’s name, later, because Claire wanted to retain her
incognito. Other than that, there’s the remnants of her journals and many
of her letters, which were, in their own way, works of art: Mary later
commented on how wonderful her letters were, and tried to provoke
Claire to write more oen to her. . .”
“. . .did she?”
“. . .the problem was that she needed an active correspondent, and Mary
became increasingly withdrawn as time passed while Claire maintained
her exuberance. Her life was gregarious – a life of experience, and she had
a great deal of it. . .”
“. . .but what did she look like in her prime?”

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“. . .the Curren portrait of Claire is rather unflattering, and she didn’t

like it. From what we know she had dark, curly hair; penetrating, dark
blue eyes; and was rather voluptuous. She certainly wasn’t the blonde
airhead portrayed in Passer’s film, nor the silly and depraved sex object
of Ken Russell’s farce, although he, at least, seems to have cast someone
who could have been likened to her physically. She certainly had more
sex appeal than Mary, who was more intellectual, more fragile. She had
a very mercurial personality, and it must have animated her features quite
attractively. . .”
“. . .‘mercurial’?”
“. . .like mercury – the silver liquid that’s in thermometers. . .”
“. . .oh, ‘rtuť’ in Czech – the adjective would then mean something like
“. . .it means to be fluctuating, unpredictable, in any case. . .”
“. . .it’s so strange to think that they were right here: do you think
Shelley and Claire made love in this very bed?”
“. . .it’s possible. I have no doubt that their relations were intimate at
the time they were here. . .this is the master bedroom, and this bed is the
right age for it. . .”
“. . .it’s incredible – I don’t know how it’s possible that it’s still here. . .”
“. . .I wonder what use was made of this villa over the years – perhaps
because it’s such a small town it was just neglected. ey did manage to
put the plaque up, so someone knew of its significance – perhaps they
thought it would draw tourists. It all seems fantastic to me, as if we
stepped straight into the past. . .”
“. . .how many generations ago would that have been?”
“. . .let me think. . .something like six generations ago: Claire lived until
189 – that’s about 11 years ago. . .”
“. . .it’s as if time stopped here aer they le. . .I can feel them here. . .”
He walks from the bed to the window and looks out in the direction
of the castle wall.
“. . .look, down there – I think that’s the summer house! Let’s go down
and have a look – you go ahead of me and I’ll close the windows. . .”
“. . .good – I don’t want to be alone in the dark up here. . .”
Downstairs they take a last look at the room, close the windows and
shutters, and go out together, closing the door behind them. ey walk
down the stone steps to a path, and turn le onto another path that takes
them to the far side of the house and the garden.

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“. . .there should be a pergola from the back door to the garden – I don’t
see anything – it must have been here. . .look, there!”
He points to a small structure through the trees, about thirty meters
from the side of the house.
“. . .but there are two of them – see, there’s that other little house at the
end of the garden. . .”
“. . .yes, that one has a pergola over the door, and there are more
windows – more light for reading and writing. . .it must be the one. . .”
e stucco on the outside of the summer house is flaking off, revealing
only bare brick in places. e glass-paneled door has windows to each
side and an arched transom. e building is five meters square, six meters
high. In the wall above the transom is another circular space for
a window, now open to the air. e door has a small pergola built over it,
hung with grape vines. Inside, against the walls on three sides, is a shelf
of stone, fiy centimeters high and a meter from the walls in every direc-
tion but the door. e stones of the shelf are rough, crumbling, and
uneven, and there are several window frames and half of an old coach
wheel propped up against the rear wall. ere is considerable light in the
room, as the high circular space catches the late aernoon sun shining
over the castle walls.
“. . .this must be it – it fits all the descriptions: this was where Shelley
came every morning to work when they were here. . .”
“. . .tell me the whole story in detail again – exactly what they were
doing while they were here. . .”
“. . .let’s sit down. . .”
“. . .fine. . .”
She pulls a plastic bag out of her shoulder bag and spreads it on the
shelf of stone. He sits next to her.
“. . .I have it here: Claire, Allegra, Elise, and Shelley arrived here from
Venice in the last week of August, 1818, and they were here for ten days
or so before Mary’s arrival. It was during the first ten days here that he
conceived the over-all scheme of Prometheus Unbound, and draed the
whole first act – perhaps sitting right here, perched against this wall. . .”
“. . .does that part of the poem reflect anything about their stay here, or
anything about what was happening in their lives, then?”
“. . .every poem he wrote expressed something about his life, but, as
I said, the longer poems were oen far less explicit – far more metaphor-
ical, symbolical, and abstract. Whereas poems like Alastor, Julian and

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Maddalo, and Epipsychidion can be read fruitfully with the specifics of

his life in mind, Prometheus Unbound is very abstract – it’s certainly
related to the concerns in his life at the time, but it would be wrong to
read it as a one-to-one correspondence to his life. In the longer poems he
tried to shape his particular experiences into idealizations that would
extend, enhance, and universalize them – to transmute the chaos of his
life into significance. Mary mentioned in her notes to the poem in the
189 edition that while other poets clothed the ‘ideal in the real,’ Shelley
clothed the ‘real in the ideal.’ Prometheus Unbound was particularly dense
with imagery taken partly from his own work translating Aeschylus’
Prometheus Bound. e system of images and metaphors he uses is aston-
ishing: there are political, psychological, mythical, and even scientific
associations throughout the poem. e characters are more than simply
symbols or metaphors: they are powers, forces, affects – he was seeking
to distill and crystallize the energies of life into poetic forms. I believe he
was seeking a language to describe the intensive, psychological level of
being in a continuum with wider social and historical forces – something
like what William Blake was independently accomplishing at the same
time. Like Blake, he saw the contradictions in everything – how emotion
or intellect or instinct could become dangerous if isolated from one
another, and the need for a mode of integration on both a personal and
social level. . .”
“. . .so he held on to his belief in political – or at least micropolitical –
“. . .I think both Shelley and Blake were trying to work through a belief
in the possibility of liberation while at the same time recognizing the
dangers and risks of believing any liberation is ever final. at’s the bril-
liance of the poem – how the poet shis perspectives so that we are
constantly brought to reexamine our own assumptions about any solid
reality, any final position. . .”
“. . .was he responding to Mary in the poem – to Frankenstein – I mean
to her subtitle, ‘A Modern Prometheus’?”
“. . .it’s possible – perhaps he felt he was looking for a way to move
beyond the danger: after all, by beginning with Prometheus already
shackled to the rock he was admitting there were dangers, and now the
key was to try to surmount them. It’s clear he identified himself with
the hero – with his striving and with his sufferings. Look at these lines
from the preface: ‘The moral interest of the fable, which is so power-

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fully sustained by the sufferings and endurance of Prometheus, would

be annihilated if we could conceive of him as unsaying his high
language and quailing before his successful and perfidious adversary.’
He compares him to Satan – clearly he had Milton’s Satan in mind,
but, he writes here,

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 aggrandisement. . .Prometheus
is, as it were, the type of the highest perfection of moral and
intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and truest motives
to the best and noblest ends. . .

. . .”
“. . .that definitely sounds like Shelley. . .”
“. . .while the first act of Prometheus was fleshed out here prior to the
arrival of Mary, the final act and final dra of the whole poem wouldn’t
be completed until sixteen months later – aer much of the worst had
happened. You can sense this in the poem – the difference between how
it started and where it ended. It’s really a turning point for him, midway
between the radically naive optimism of a poem like Queen Mab and the
dark pessimism of his last long poem, e Triumph of Life. Clearly he
wanted to write a hopeful poem about the possibility of radical political
and social change, but you can sense something happens in the poem: it
shis in the middle, and while it keeps trying to rise to its own occasion,
you get a sense that when it tries to represent the actual revolution in the
later acts, the poet is really grasping for something that has become
simply grains of sand in his hands. He enacts, as a poet, the very lesson
that the poem came to illustrate. . .it seems to me the poem is truly
a battle between parts of his own nature. . .”
“. . .so the part he wrote here – the first act – is optimistic?”
“. . .I wouldn’t quite say that – it’s just clear in this act that the trajectory
of the poem is towards liberation. It opens with the well-known scene of
Prometheus chained to the cliff, with two ‘Oceanids’ – daughters of
Oceanus – at his feet: Panthea and Ione. . .”
“. . .a reference to Claire and Mary?”

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“. . .I think that the Panthea figure, if close to anybody, is closest to

Claire. Prometheus’ exiled lover, Asia, is closer to Mary, who, of course,
was far away at the time of the writing. . .”
“. . .and Ione?”
“. . .I don’t think one can really say – these are imaginative qualities,
aer all, but I do think there is some reflection of the situation he hoped
for, idealistically. . .”
“. . .you mean peace between Mary and Claire. . .”
“. . .at least. He certainly hoped as much for a revolution in private
life as for a revolution in the public realm – they were intrinsically
inter-connected realms for him. It’s difficult to give a sketch of the
poem, as actually not much can be said to happen in any traditional
sense of the word. A key to the metaphors is given quite early in the
poem: the Earth – Prometheus’ mother, speaks as a character, and
explains that her own suffering is due to a curse that Prometheus
himself cast on Jupiter after he was bound to the cliff. When
Prometheus asks her how he can get rid of the curse, he is told his
words must somehow be restated: at that point she explains to him
that there is a kind of double world he must gain access to in order to
do this. . .it’s very strange. She summons an image of the magician
Zoroaster – in Ancient Persian, Zarathustra: how one day he met his
double walking in a garden – a being from the world of shadows, with
whom he will be reunited when he dies. . .”
“. . .why was Shelley so obsessed by doubles?”
“. . .he was seeking a reason for the failure of revolution and goodness in
something close to a proto-Freudian theory. You can see it in what
happens next: suddenly there emerges a being from this nether realm –
the ‘phantasm of Jupiter,’ who speaks the curse of Prometheus again. . .”
“. . .it’s interesting that Prometheus cannot bring himself to speak it. . .”
“. . .on some level he’s confronting his own negative impulses, which
had been split off: that’s the crux of the issue for Shelley also, as he was in
a way exorcising his idealism in this period, and confronting his own
destructive drives – his own ‘fiend’ or ‘evil.’ You can see it in how deeply
the repeated curse affects him – he can hardly believe he was responsible
for it: ‘Were these my words, O parent?. . .It doth repent me: words are
quick and vain; Grief for awhile is blind, and so was mine. I wish no
living thing to suffer pain. . .’”
“. . .does this li the curse?”

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“. . .it seems to give Prometheus a certain additional reserve of quiet

strength in his self-sacrifice, and it also seems to lead to a certain strength
in the Earth’s ability to aid him, but there are no clear results: everything
is diffuse in the poem – another aspect of his mature style. Immediately
aer this he is visited by Jupiter’s messenger, Mercury, who tries to
bargain with him over his knowledge of a secret that could lead to the
end of Jupiter’s reign. He refuses, and the furies are set upon him: their
torments are mostly psychological, and, of course, directly suited for the
optimist he is – their tormenting lesson for him is about how good inten-
tions will always lead to the worst results in the end. Look, here, where
he tells Panthea how he sees the forces of ‘truth, liberty and love’ reduced
by the victors to ‘strife, deceit, and fear’. . .”
“. . .a reference to the French Revolution?”
“. . .most likely: the reformer’s worst nightmare – that his reforms will
lead to terror. e only thing that saves Prometheus is when Earth
summons a group of spirits – I don’t know what they are, but they are
connected to spring: they proclaim themselves the ‘guides and guardians
of human thought,’ and they seem to try to give an upli to the human
spirit, although the stories they tell are not particularly happy – the one
spirit who speaks of love suggests that when one goes to sleep with
a vision of love, one awakes to find ‘the shadow of pain.’ Despite this, the
only hope he has aer what has passed is love: ‘. . .and yet I feel Most vain
all hope but love. . .’”
“. . .you’re right – the whole thing is rather abstract. . .”
“. . .but look – this is an interesting passage, which intersects with his
existential condition here in Este: in reminding him of love, the spirits
remind him of his distant love, Asia, but he despairs that she is so far
away, and claims there is ‘no solace le.’ At this point Panthea jumps in to
remind him that she is there with him: ‘Hast thou forgotten one who
watches thee e cold dark night, and never sleeps but when e shadow
of thy spirit falls on her?’ His response is to reassure her: ‘I said all hope
was vain but love: thou lovest.’ She responds ‘Deeply in truth,’ and then
goes on to describe Asia in her exile – quite sympathetically, actually, and
she hurries off to her – and that’s the end of the first act, which was all
he actually completed here in Este. . .”
“. . .what do you make of it in regard to their situation – anything?”
“. . .there’s an imaginative projection here that everything will work out
well between them all. . .the whole poem is about an attempt at a revolution

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in human relations privately and publicly, and while it modifies and

qualifies its prediction drastically compared to the earlier poetry, there
is still hope for some progression. . .”
“. . .progression towards what?”
“. . .as he says at the end, it’s only a hope for the possibility of love – he
fully acknowledges that revolutionary hopes may be impossible: for
Shelley, at this point, it was the hope that love could be freed from its
social determinations. is is even more clear in the second act – the
opening is really quite extraordinary. He switches the scene to focus on
the character Asia. . .”
“. . .why ‘Asia’?”
“. . .I think Shelley named her Asia precisely to suggest a certain distanced
view, not to mention the distance between himself and Mary – physically
as well as emotionally. e act opens with Asia waiting in a vale for the
arrival of her sister, Panthea, and what transpires between them is really
quite astonishing. Panthea arrives and tells Asia that her reason for being
late was that she was in a deep sleep where she experienced two dreams, but
at this point she can only remember one. Asia asks to look into Panthea’s
eyes to see the dream, and Panthea tells her how Prometheus spoke to her,
comparing her to Asia and asking her to look into his eyes. . .here, look at
this passage where she describes the dream, it’s very sexual:

. . .the overpowering light

Of that immortal shape was shadowed o’er
By love; which, from his so and flowing limbs,
And passion-parted lips, and keen, faint eyes,
Steamed forth like vaporous fire; an atmosphere
Which wrapped me in its all-dissolving power,
As the warm aether of the morning sun
Wraps ere it drinks some cloud of wandering dew.
I saw not, heard not, moved not, only felt
His presence flow and mingle through my blood
Till it became his life, and his grew mine,
And I was thus absorbed, until it passed,
And like the vapours when the sun sinks down,
Gathering again in drops upon the pines,
And tremulous as they, in the deep night
My being was condensed. . .

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. . .Panthea tells her that the only sound she heard Prometheus utter was
Asia’s name. . .”
“. . .of course – he must have been guilty when he was writing this: aer
all, he had just been very intimate with ‘Panthea’. . .”
“. . .yes, and Ione becomes a kind of projection screen: aer Panthea
awakes from the dream, Ione tells her how, aer sensing Panthea’s dream,
she no longer knows what she herself desires, as she can sense that some-
thing has happened to her – here she says, ‘. . .when just now we kissed,
I felt within thy parted lips the sweet air that sustained me, and the
warmth of the life-blood, for loss of which I faint, quivered between our
intertwining arms. . .’”
“. . .how do you read that? It sounds like she was somehow involved as
well – at least vicariously. . .”
“. . .somehow the desire that Panthea shared with Prometheus in her
dream is felt by Ione. I read it as simply the fact that love, or desire, is
contagious – it spreads in all directions. Otherwise, if we read it more
specifically, we could read Ione as Elise – who of course probably did
know about and was affected by Claire’s relationship to Shelley; aer all,
she knew enough about their relations to try to blackmail them later. . .”
“. . .do you think it can be read so specifically?”
“. . .no, not really – certainly not as the poem was intended to be read:
but still, in a way, yes – for our purposes. Aer all, something influenced
him to include these sections, and I have never really been convinced by
the various critical explanations of this section and what follows. One
imagines a universe, but there’s always some sort of foundation in the real
– at least in terms of human energies. . .but a ‘real’ we will never know,
for sure. . .I doubt Shelley knew it, or could know it. . .”
“. . .so, what is Asia’s reaction to the dream?”
“. . .it’s interesting that the actual passage is quite tame compared to the
passage Shelley cancelled from the poem. In the cancelled passage, there’s
a reaction which was probably closer to how Mary’s reaction would have been
if she had ‘seen’ Shelley in Claire’s eyes – look, she’s almost killed by it: Asia
says, ‘Li up thine eyes Panthea – they pierce they burn!’ to which Panthea
responds, ‘Alas! I am consumed – I melt away e fire is in my heart – ’ then
Asia, ‘ine eyes burn burn! – Hide them within thine hair – ’. . .Panthea: ‘O
quench they lips I sink I perish’. . .Asia: ‘Shelter me now – they burn It is his
spirit in their orbs. . .my life Is ebbing fast – I cannot speak – ’ and, finally,
Panthea says, ‘rest rest! Sleep death annihilation pain! aught else. . .’”

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“. . .that sounds closer to the truth, given that Claire wouldn’t have been
able to hide her own feelings fully, and Mary would have sensed some-
thing between them. How did the passage he actually included describe
“. . .he went for the more idealistic version, to say the least. Here Asia
asks to read Panthea’s eyes, and she sees a change in their ‘deep, blue,
boundless heaven’ – it’s quite a difference. . .”
“. . .what does she see there?”
“. . .she can first see Prometheus, ‘arrayed In the so light of his own
smiles,’ which gives her joy, but suddenly a shadowy shape clouds her
view of him, which Panthea says is her other dream – the darker one she
forgot, which then comes into her mind: she has seen the spring buds
blown from the trees by a sudden ill wind, and on the blown leaves is
written ‘follow, follow.’ is, in turn, jogs Asia’s memory of her own
dream of how she and Panthea were wandering under ‘dense white fleecy
clouds’ blowing across the mountains, and in Asia’s dream the clouds also
have written on them ‘follow, follow,’ and the wind blowing through the
pines gives rise to sounds ‘like the farewell of ghosts,’ which, again, call
out ‘follow, follow’. . .”
“. . .follow where?”
“. . .it’s abstract, but the images are all associated with transience – the
leaves that fall, the clouds that scud across the sky, the blowing wind: at
this point of the poem we are witnessing the love each has for Prometheus,
and his distance from them brings them to an understanding of what his
loss would mean to them. Within Asia’s dream she asks Panthea to look
at her, and she sees within Panthea’s eyes the words ‘follow, follow,’ but
suddenly the sound actually occurs in the forest around them – first as an
echo of their words, then as a tangible voice, which they indeed follow.
ey are slowly drawn into this other realm – the realm of shadows intro-
duced before, presided over by this incredibly strange figure of
Demogorgon – really the core of negativity in the poem. . .”
“. . .and what does he, or it, represent – the unconscious?”
“. . .Shelley’s poem combines the mythic, the symbolic, the archetypal,
the religious, the psychological, the social, the philosophical – and takes
all of these modes of perception and knowledge into consideration only
to reject them in favor of a position beyond the transcendental thresh-
olds they represent, a negative realm of unknowing – something like
Kant’s concept of the noumenal world opposed to the phenomenal.

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Demogorgon in his cave is the guardian of whatever this realm is, and it’s
fitting that even he, or ‘it’ – whatever it is, doesn’t know the answers it’s
guarding. Asia questions him about the origins of reality, drawing him
out: she arrives at the realization that Jupiter is enslaved by whatever this
master is, and when she asks who it is, Demogorgon responds as follows
– it’s an incredible speech:

If the abysm
Could vomit forth its secrets:—but a voice
Is wanting, the deep truth is imageless;
For what would it avail to bid thee gaze
On the revolving world? What to bid speak
Fate, Time, Occasion, Chance, and Change? To these
All things are subject but eternal Love.

. . .it doubles back upon itself, as the progression to ever higher levels of
rulership finally ends up opening out to something beyond our compre-
hension – the ‘imageless truth’. . .”
“. . .but he does give a privileged position to love, which isn’t ruled by
time, chance, or fate. . .more wishful thinking on his part. . .”
“. . .given the circumstances he was in, yes, but it’s le open – one has to
give him credit for that. Asia’s response to Demogorgon is that she
already knew all this before, and consequently knows that each person
must judge for themselves: ‘So much I asked before, and my heart gave
e response thou hast given; and of such truths Each to itself must be
the oracle. . .’”
“. . .if Asia and Panthea are even traces of his hope in regard to Mary’s
acceptance of Claire, then certainly it’s wishful thinking – very few
women could easily accept seeing their man in another woman’s eyes, or
seeing the other woman in his eyes. . .”
“. . .I think that’s what accounts for the strange abstraction of the final
acts of the play – I’m not even sure I can characterize them. What
happened between its conception and its completion threw the play
entirely out of its orbit. It veers back and forth between a description of
what the liberation looks like and its complication, as the poetry moves
between a celebration of something that looks like oceanic merging, and
the opening of a possibility for further liberation. It makes sense, in a way,
because there’s a dialectical movement in the poem between Prometheus,

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who must learn to temper his action with passivity, and Asia, who is
passive and must learn to act. In the third act Jupiter is overthrown, and
there’s a description of the world aer his fall. Shelley seems torn
between describing a celebration of liberation, and a realization that the
liberation is not all that the idealist in him would have hoped for – in
one section there’s even a description of people waking up to the revolu-
tion to find the world ‘somewhat changed,’ and then sinking down to
sleep again. . .”
“. . .it reminds me of the ‘Velvet Revolution’. . .”
“. . .yes, there were those who went back to sleep, or who never awoke!
Anyway, by the time Shelley wrote the third and fourth acts he knew that
there wasn’t going to be a final revolution – not in public life, and also not
in his private life. In the third act the key is simply mutability: any revolu-
tion is limited by the finite beings who experience and enact it. But aer
the recognition of necessity in the third act, the fourth act explodes again
in an almost ecstatic celebration of the earth and moon within their new
post-revolutionary status, with Panthea and Ione as the sole observers. . .”
“. . .a private revolution – or an imaginary one?”
“. . .I’m not sure. . .perhaps something like Blake’s view of revolution –
everything happening simultaneously. Many critics consider the last act
an aerthought, and an unfortunate one at that, but there’s something
fascinating about it. I think that he was extrapolating from the particular
to the universal and then back again – back from the abstraction of
oceanic merging to a full realization of passionate, bonded love in its
particular forms. ere’s a kind of mating ritual that takes place between
the earth and the moon, and if you consider that Mary was symbolically
associated with the moon and its coldness later on in Epipsychidion, it
isn’t stretching it too much to suggest that, on some level, Shelley may
have been projecting himself as the earth and Mary as the moon in this
section. In the intervening period between their stay in Este and when
this last act was written, Mary had utterly withdrawn into herself. It was
during the autumn of 1819, sixteen months later, that she was pregnant
with their son, Percy Florence Shelley. is pregnancy saved her life, as
otherwise she may not have been able to go on: the last section of
Prometheus Unbound was written that same autumn. Here, look at these
lines, where the earth speaks of how it has brought life again to the dead-
ened moon:

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How art thou sunk, withdrawn, covered, drunk up

By thirsty nothing, as the brackish cup
Drained by a desert-troop, a little drop for all!
And from beneath, around, within, above,
Filling thy void annihilation, love
Burst in like light on caves cloven by the thunder-ball.

. . .and the moon’s reply:

e snow upon my lifeless mountains

Is loosened into living fountains,
My solid oceans flow, and sing, and shine:
A spirit from my heart bursts forth,
It clothes with unexpected birth
My cold bare bosom: Oh, it must be thine
On mine, on mine!

. . .the same sense of regeneration is expressed in his other great poem

of that period, ‘Ode to the West Wind,’ and for much the same
reason – that life had emerged out of all the death they had experi-
enced. . .”
“. . .so the poem simply ends like that – with this new birth?”
“. . .I’ve reduced it tremendously, but, yes – save that the last words are
those of Demogorgon, who warns that the balance may be unsettled
again at any time, but who also proclaims that it’s love that is the
conquering force – love defined as the power of bonding, merging,
forgiving, letting go:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;

To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
is, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
is is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

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. . .he extols the endurance of suffering, forgiveness, resistance to power,

hope, and goodness: Prometheus learned the lesson of a quiet giving-over
to his suffering, while Asia learned the lesson that truth is only to be
found within one’s own self – albeit as a faint voice. Despite the fire-
works, there will be no final revolution, no final conquering of evil. It’s
a mature vision – at least in comparison to the earlier poetry. . .”
“. . .how was the poem received?”
“. . .he sent it to his publisher, Ollier, who bound it up with several
shorter lyrics, including the lyric, ‘Ode to the West Wind.’
Contemporary accounts suggest that no more than twenty or so copies
were sold – a contemporary joke had it that Prometheus Unbound was
unbound because no publishers would bind and sell it!”
“. . .he must have been crushed. . .”
“. . .he was gradually developing a thick skin about it all, and adopting
a view Mallarmé would articulate at the other end of the century – that
there was no audience, no ‘people,’ existing yet for the works he was
writing. . .”
“. . .and now they’re here, but they’re a very small minority. . .”
“. . .I think Shelley would have been happier with a dedicated few rather
than the popular mass audience Byron was getting. . .”
“. . .still, it must have been rather discouraging at the time – to have
written such a long poem, and then to have only a few readers. . .did he
write any short works while they were here?”
“. . .before Mary arrived he wrote only one – a short, unfinished lyric
addressed to her in Bagni di Lucca aer they had just arrived in Este the
first time. . .here it is:

O Mary dear, that you were here

With your brown eyes bright and clear,
And your sweet voice, like a bird
Singing love to its lone mate
In the ivy power disconsolate;
Voice the sweetest ever heard!
And your brow more. . .
an the sky
Of this azure Italy.
Mary dear, come to me soon,
I am not well whilst thou art far;

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As sunset to the spherèd moon,

As twilight to the western star,
ou, belovèd, art to me.
O Mary dear, that you were here;
e Castle echo whispers ‘Here!

. . .the blank is a word he didn’t fill in. . .”

“. . .given what happened, it’s understandable he didn’t finish it. . .”
“. . .there wasn’t much time – but I’m sure that he felt guilty even before
Clara died. at’s one of the lessons he learned here: that it isn’t as easy
to enact ‘free love’ as he first thought. He had to learn to balance their
concerns in a way that wouldn’t lead to situations like the one he found
himself in – if that’s even possible. . .”
“. . .so nothing else was written here?”
“. . .after Mary arrived there was nothing written until they returned
to Este after Clara’s death. Mary arrived with the children and the
servants Milly Shields and Paolo Foggi on September th, and from that
time onwards Claire was ill with her mysterious illness, while Shelley
was ill from eating some bad cakes, and Clara, of course, was ill from
the fever that began in Bagni di Lucca. It was a little over two weeks
later that Shelley and Claire went to see the doctor in Padua: I think
it’s significant that they went alone together, and having missed the
appointment, Shelley sent Claire back to Este, and went on himself to
Venice to see Byron – Shelley feared he had been neglecting him, espe-
cially given his hospitality in offering the villa in Este for their use. He
returned after a day in Venice to meet Mary and Clara at Padua as he
had planned, but they decided to go on to Venice to Byron’s doctor, as
Clara’s condition had severely worsened. I’ve already told you the tragic
outcome of it all. After Clara’s death, Mary and Shelley were a week in
Venice mostly being comforted by the Hoppners and Byron, then they
returned to Este – which would have been around the end of
September: that’s when he drafted ‘Lines Written Among the
Euganean Hills’. . .”
“. . .what is it about?”
“. . .well, it’s been totally over-looked by critics, and I think precisely
because it’s the kind of poem where the biographical context really does
give it another dimension. It took me several readings to see that the
narrative context is the passing of one beautiful, serene autumn day, over

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the course of which the poem is being written. e poem recounts the
poet’s experience of the passing of the day itself, which he metaphorizes
as a green island amid the stormed-tossed sea of life – in sections it’s quite
specifically referring to their situation here. . .”
“. . .read it to me. . .”
“. . .it’s quite long. . .”
“. . .so read the sections about Este – about the feelings he had here. . .”
“. . .these are the opening lines:

Many a green isle needs must be

In the deep wide sea of misery,
Or the mariner, worn and wan,
Never thus could voyage on
Day and night, and night and day,
Driing on his dreary way,
With the solid darkness black
Closing round his vessel’s track;
Whilst above the sunless sky,
Big with clouds, hangs heavily,
And behind the tempest fleet
Hurries on with lightning feet,
Riving sail, and cord, and plank,
Till the ship has almost drank
Death from the o’er-brimming deep;
And sinks down, down, like that sleep
When the dreamer seems to be
Weltering through eternity;
And the dim low line before
Of a dark and distant shore
Still recedes, as ever still
Longing with divided will,
But no power to seek or shun,
He is ever dried on
O’er the unreposing wave
To the haven of the grave.

. . .the island metaphor works as a way to spatialize the temporal, to give

an image to his life then – a few moments of safe refuge, which was

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always enveloped by misery. He would continue to use both the boat

metaphor and the island metaphor in his later poems. . .”
“. . .that’s what days like this are like – serene islands, floating in time,
before we go back to the usual turmoil. How does it continue?”
“. . .it shis here a bit – he deliberately wants the reader not to consider
heaven as such a place of refuge: the poem would be meaningless for the
kind of Christian he anticipates who sees everything as God’s grand
design, and life’s misery as being compensated for in heaven. He’s quite
Nietzschean in this, for his concern is with how we act, here and now:

What, if there no friends will greet;

What, if there no heart will meet
His with love’s impatient beat;
Wander wheresoe’er he may,
Can he dream before that day
To find refuge from distress
In friendship’s smile, in love’s caress?
en ‘twill wreak him little woe
Whether such there be or no:
Senseless is the breast, and cold,
Which relenting love would fold;
Bloodless are the veins and chill
Which the pulse of pain did fill;
Every little living nerve
at from bitter words did swerve
Round the tortured lips and brow,
Are like sapless leaflets now
Frozen upon December’s bough.

. . .”
“. . .‘bitter words’ – perhaps like Mary’s aer Clara’s death?”
“. . .yes – especially given the next stanza is a clear reference to little
Clara, who was buried out on the Lido in an unmarked tomb: Shelley
sees his own fate as connected to hers – he is the ‘wretch’ come to lie
down next to the little grave. . .

On the beach of a northern sea

Which tempests shake eternally,

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As once the wretch there lay to sleep,

Lies a solitary heap,
One white skull and seven dry bones,
On the margins of the stones,
Where a few gray rushes stand,
Boundaries of the sea and land:
Nor is heard one voice of wail
But the sea-mews as they sail
O’er the whirlwind up and down
Howling, like a slaughtered town,
When a king in glory rides
rough the pomp of fratricides;
ose unburied bones around
ere is many a mournful sound;
ere is no lament for him,
Like a sunless vapor, dim,
Who once clothed with life and thought
What now moves nor murmurs not.

. . .”
“. . .why does he imagine her remains as ‘unburied’?”
“. . .certainly because it was an unofficial burial ground, but also I think
it’s an objective correlative of his grief, which was still gaping wide open
when he wrote these lines: imagine burying a one year old baby in the
sand. . .”
“. . .I would want to lie down right on the spot, and die. . .”
“. . .part of him did, I think – certainly a significant part of his rela-
tionship to Mary was buried there. The poem then shifts back to the
present moment, and the poet’s arrival back to Este from Venice and
Padua that morning. He recognizes the irony of being here among all
this beauty and serenity with agony surrounding him on all sides.
After describing the surroundings, he expands his meditation outward
to include the histories of Venice and Padua, with all of their histor-
ical miseries, contextualizing his own misery within the totality of
human suffering until he returns back to the scene around him – the
sun reaching noon, his soul being pervaded by the scene surrounding

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Noon descends around me now:

Tis the noon of autumn’s glow,
When a so and purple mist
Like a vaporous amethyst,
Or an air-dissolvèd star
Mingling light and fragrance, far
From the curved horizon’s bound
To the point of Heaven’s profound,
Fills the overflowing sky;
And the plains that silent lie
Underneath, the leaves unsodden
Where the infant Frost has trodden
With his morning-wingèd feet,
Whose bright print is gleaming yet;
And the red and golden vines,
Piercing with their trellised lines
e rough, dark-skirted wilderness;
e dun and bladed grass no less,
Pointing from this hoary tower
In the windless air. . .

. . .the ‘hoary tower’ is the place where we are sitting right now, and the
trellises – those right outside the door here. . .”
“. . .it’s strange to imagine that moment from the point of view of this
moment – to hear words written over a century and a half ago now, in
the same place. . .I wonder if he could have imagined his future readers
sitting right here, reading his poem. . .”
“. . .unfortunately, he hardly expected his poem to be heard in the
England of his own time. . .”
“. . .that’s terrible. . .but tell me, how does the poem end?”
“. . .by late aernoon, the voyage of that single day is coming to an end,
and the metaphorical ship’s ‘pilot,’ personified pain, returns to the helm
in order to cast them off into the sea of misery again. He then imagines
that there must be other islands, other brief moments of happiness,
awaiting him on the sea of life, and other souls voyaging over the sea
towards him – and he hopes that he might build some kind of refuge
against misery, even going so far as to imagine that it could be a kind of
catalyst for changing the world. . .here, I’ll read a few lines:

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Other flowering isles must be

In the sea of Life and Agony:
Other spirits float and flee
O’er that gulf: even now, perhaps,
On some rock the wild wave wraps,
With folded wings they waiting sit
For my bark, to pilot it
To some calm and blooming cove,
Where for me, and those I love,
May a windless bower be built,
Far from passion, pain, and guilt,
In a dell mid lawny hills,
Which the wild sea-murmur fills,
And so sunshine, and the sound
Of old forests echoing round. . .

. . .”
“. . .the idealist again. . .”
“. . .very much so. . .Shelley still hoped for an earthly paradise when
he wrote this poem, and hoped it could be made universal, but I think
he changed quite soon after this: what he experienced here was the
beginning of the end of his belief in an earthly utopia brought about
through radical political means, and the beginning of a more mature
mode of thinking. He gave up thinking there was a way for the world
to finally meet his own vision of it, and began concentrating on how
he could hold onto his own vision, despite the world. . .”
“. . .but what about Mary – do you think Mary ‘saw Shelley in Claire’s
eyes’ when she arrived here as Asia saw Prometheus in Panthea’s eyes?”
“. . .her concern for Clara probably distracted her, although surely she
would have been aware that Shelley and Claire had been alone together
for three weeks. . .”
“. . .aer Clara died it was probably difficult for Mary to see Claire with
Allegra. . .”
“. . .that’s probably the reason why Claire remained with Allegra in
Este while Mary and Shelley returned to Venice in mid-October. There
were clearly changes in the nature of their intimacy after Clara’s death
– the ‘bitter words’ and ‘guilt’ mentioned in the poem. The bond

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between Mary and Shelley was never broken, but there was a chasm
opened between them that would never again be fully bridged. At some
point between the time they were in Este and the time they were in
Naples, he wrote a scathing poem about this breach between them,
entitled ‘Invocation to Misery’: it clearly refers to Mary, and Mary must
have realized it, as it’s the only poem she didn’t include in the collected
poems she tried to publish in 18. He represents Mary as misery
personified. . .”
“. . .do you have it?”
“. . .yes, here:

Come, be happy! – sit near me,

Shadow-vested Misery:
Coy, unwilling, silent bride,
Mourning in thy robe of pride,
Desolation – deified!

Come, be happy! – sit near me:

Sad as I may seem to thee,
I am happier far than thou,
Lady, whose imperial brow
Is endiademed with woe.

Misery! we have known each other,

Like a sister and a brother
Living in the same lone home,
Many years – we must live some
Hours or ages yet to come.

‘Tis an evil lot, and yet

Let us make the best of it;
If love can live when pleasure dies,
We two will love, till in our eyes
is heart’s Hell seem Paradise.

Come, be happy! – lie thee down

On the fresh grass newly mown,
Where the grasshopper doth sing

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Merrily – one joyous thing

In a world of sorrowing!

ere our tent shall be the willow,

And mine arm shall be thy pillow;
Sounds and odours, sorrowful
Because they once were sweet, shall lull
Us to slumber, deep and dull.

Ha! thy frozen pulses flutter

With a love thou darest not utter.
ou art murmuring – thou art weeping –
Is thine icy bosom leaping
While my burning heart lies sleeping?

Kiss me; – oh! they lips are cold:

Round my neck thine arms enfold –
ey are so, but chill and dead;
And thy tears upon my head
Burn like points of frozen lead.

Hasten to the bridal bed –

Underneath the grave ‘tis spread:
In darkness may our love be hid,
Oblivion be our coverlid –
We may rest, and none forbid.

Clasp me till our hearts be grown

Like two shadows into one;
Till this dreadful transport may
Like a vapour fade away,
In the sleep that lasts alway.

We may be dream, in that long sleep,

at we are not those who weep;
E’en as Pleasure dreams of thee,
Life-deserting Misery,
ou mayst dream of her with me.

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Let us laugh, and make our mirth,

At the shadows of the earth,
As dogs bay the moonlight clouds,
Which, like spectres wrapped in shrouds,
Pass o’er night in multitudes.

All the wide world, beside us,

Show like multitudinous
Puppets passing from a scene;
What but mockery can they mean,
Where I am – where thou hast been?

. . .”
“. . .it’s devastating – he didn’t let her read it then, did he?”
“. . .I strongly doubt it. Clearly Mary felt more than grief – she blamed
him and Claire for what happened, and held herself at a distance, which
you can see in the phrases ‘robe of pride’ and ‘imperial brow,’ and all the
images of coldness in the poem. . .”
“. . .but he still hopes they will be able to transcend it – although it’s
not clear if it will be via suicide or a kind of death-in-life. . .”
“. . .it’s a hope that their bond will remain, despite everything. It
turned out to be true, but there was always a degree of coldness in Mary,
a degree of distance between them. . .who knows what would have
happened if Shelley had lived beyond the age of twenty-nine? He
turned more to Claire and others for his emotional needs from that
point onwards. . .”
“. . .what about Claire? What was she doing, what was she feeling,
during that period?”
“. . .we can only speculate, as with much of the story. . .I imagine that
it made Claire realize, all the more, the preciousness of her time spent
with Allegra, and the precariousness of her position vis-à-vis both
Byron and Shelley. It’s a tragic irony of the situation that Allegra may as
well have been dead from this point onwards as well, for this short
period of time together in Este was the last time Claire would ever see
Allegra. . .”
“. . .what? How is that possible? I thought Allegra lived for. . .how much

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“. . .Allegra lived for over three years longer. I couldn’t believe it either
when I first realized it aer plotting out their whole chronology. Of
course Claire couldn’t have known it at the time. . .”
“. . .Claire never saw her again. . .that’s so difficult to take in. I knew he
refused to let her see Allegra later, but it never occurred to me that the
last time came so soon, and here, in Este. . .”
“. . .from that point onwards Byron’s resolve hardened, and he refused
her access to the child, which grew worse the more Claire grew frantic
and reproached him for it – they were caught in a cycle of recriminations
that only made the situation increasingly worse. . .”
“. . .it’s horrible – it changes my sense of the place. ey had so much
happiness here in the beginning – until Clara died, and everything disinte-
grated. . .‘sea of misery’ is right! Tragedy is waiting around every corner. . .”
“. . .but we’re viewing it from the standpoint of eternity, their whole
lives spread before us: the future was inaccessible to them, and there were
times when they could fully live in the moment, and enjoy their green
islands. . .”
“. . .but it’s frightening to see it all at once – that both children were
really lost here. . .that’s so terrible. . .”
ey go out onto the lawn between the small tower and the hedge
fronting the road, and sit on a small stone bench ten meters from the
summer house.
“. . .what were their final days here like?”
“. . .at the end of October Shelley came to help Claire pack, and, prob-
ably, to discuss what had happened with her. ey had four days alone
together here. . .”
“. . .they had enjoyed such intimacy here, but the memory of it must
have been connected to the loss of Clara – they must have felt so guilty.
Did Shelley write to Claire from Venice aer Clara’s death?”
“. . .there’s an interesting point about that: Holmes was able to discover
something – most likely because he was the only one really trying to find
anything! He wondered why there wouldn’t have been at least one letter
that hinted about their time alone in Este – hinted because Mary oen
had access to the letters Shelley sent to Claire, and unless he sent a secret
letter, he had to assume Mary might read it. . .”
“. . .are there any letters existing from that time?”
“. . .yes. ere’s one letter Shelley sent from Venice to Este to tell Claire
about Clara’s death – it described the events leading up to her death. . .”

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“. . .do you have it?”

“. . .yes. . .this is what he wrote:

My dear Claire,
We arrived at Venice yesterday about five o’clock. Our little girl
had shown symptoms of increased weakness and even convul-
sive motions of the mouth and eyes, which made me anxious
to see the physician. As she passed from Fusina to the Inn, she
became worse. I le her on a landing and took a gondola for
Dr. Alietti. He was not at home. – When I returned, I found
Mary in the hall of the Inn in the most dreadful distress. Worse
symptoms had appeared. Another Physician had arrived. He
told me there was no hope. In about an hour – how shall I tell
you – she died – silently, without pain.
And now she is buried.
e Hoppners instantly came and took us to their house –
a kindness I should have hesitated to accept, but that this unex-
pected stroke reduced Mary to a kind of despair. She is better
today. I have sent a message to Albè, to say that I cannot see
him today – unless he will call here. Mary means to try and
persuade him to let Allegra stay.
All this is miserable enough – is it not? but must be borne. . .
– And above all, my dear girl, take care of yourself,
Your affectionate friend,

. . .it seems there’s no clear reference suggesting anything especially inti-

mate between them, but Holmes wondered about an etched-out line,
following the ellipsis aer the words ‘but must be borne.’ As the letter
itself was in a collection in America, it was a while before he could satisfy
his curiosity, but when he did check it, it turned out to be significant: the
erased line turned out to have said, ‘Meanwhile forget me &’ – then
a word he couldn’t decipher – he thought it said either ‘relive’ or ‘revive
not the other thing’: either possibility would be a veiled hint at their rela-
tions. . .still, I wonder. . .”
“. . .what?”
“. . .well, Holmes is probably right because he saw the original letter,
but ‘relive’ or ‘revive’ both seem odd words to me. . .given her trip to the

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Paduan physician, I can’t help wondering if he didn’t write, quickly and

a bit illegibly, ‘relieved about the other thing’. . .”
“. . .the abortion?”
“. . .Holmes does think that’s why she went to see the physician, and,
well, ‘abortion’ isn’t exactly the right word: given that their sexual rela-
tions had probably commenced again at Este, it likely was about
bringing on a missed period, so probably involved drinking some
potion or other. . .”
“. . .and either he was simply relieved because it did work, or, if she truly
was pregnant at the same time as Eliza, because he thought it had worked.
Still, it’s only a hypothesis – I guess we’ll never know. . .”
“. . .but who does Holmes think deleted it?”
“. . .Holmes wrote that the deletion was made in ink contemporary
with the writing, so he assumes probably Claire, who would have saved
the letter but wouldn’t have wanted Mary to come upon it. He also made
the point that even the deletion, given it was done then, says something
about what happened at Este – if it had to be handled so indirectly, and
then crossed out. . .”
“. . .I can understand how they must have felt: given their period of inti-
macy here was followed so closely by the death of Clara they would have
felt miserable. Do you think they really le off their intimacy again?”
“. . .I think for a while they did: there’s a poem from the period that
may well have been written about this temporary decision, called ‘e
Past’. . .”
“. . .read it, please. . .”
“. . .ok. . .here it is:

Wilt thou forget the happy hours

Which we buried in love’s sweet bowers,
Heaping over their corpses cold
Blossoms and leaves, instead of mould?
Blossoms which were the joys that fell,
And leaves, the hopes that yet remain.

Forget the dead, the past? Oh, yet

ere are ghosts that may take revenge for it,
Memories that make the heart a tomb,
Regrets which glide through the spirit’s gloom,

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And with ghostly whispers tell

at joy, once lost, is pain.

. . .it certainly reveals something about the situation – aer all, there it
all is: memories, regrets, lost joy, and some hope. He seems to be trying to
convince her that they cannot turn away from their past. In any case,
circumstances would have made it very difficult for them to continue
their intimate relations in Naples. It might well have been in Rome that
their intimacy was re-engaged, and certainly by the time they were in
Florence and Pisa. It must have seemed for them a lifetime’s distance
away by then, even though it was actually only a year. . .”
“. . .so in their final days here alone they must have spoken of the future
– the future of their relationship. . .”
“. . .yes, and none of them could have guessed what was in store for
them in Rome, so I would speculate that perhaps they didn’t extinguish
the intimacy fully, then, as his letter, written in grief and haste, suggests,
but they must have become far more realistic about it. In any case, the
tragedy of Clara and the difficulty of their relations didn’t prevent him
from draing a good part of one of his major poems during precisely that
last four day period here before they all returned to Venice: he wrote
Julian and Maddalo during that time, right here in the summer house –
it’s one of my favorites. . .”
“. . .does it reflect their situation here, or was it abstract like Prometheus
“. . .even though the precise events are transformed, I think it’s more or
less a direct expression of the results of the whole trip in terms of his
changed sensibility: of his friendship and conflict with Byron, of his rela-
tions with Claire, of the tragedy of Clara’s death, and of the consequences
to his relationship with Mary. You can see clearly the shi in his own
sensibility in the poem: the Julian character is still the earlier idealist
Shelley arguing against the pessimism of Maddalo – the character based
on Byron, but there is a considerable degree of self-directed irony in
regard to his own idealism. Listen to these lines from the preface:

Julian is an Englishman of good family, passionately attached

to those philosophical notions which assert the power of man
over his own mind, and the immense improvements of which,
by the extinction of certain moral superstitions, human

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society may be yet susceptible. Without concealing the evil in

the world, he is for ever speculating how good may be made
superior. He is a complete infidel, and a scoffer at all things
reputed holy; and Maddalo takes a wicked pleasure in drawing
out his taunts against religion. What Maddalo thinks on these
matters is not exactly known. Julian, in spite of his heterodox
opinions, is conjectured by his friends to possess some good
qualities. How far this is possible the pious reader will deter-
mine. Julian is rather serious.

. . .”
“. . .that fits Shelley perfectly. What does he say about Maddalo?”
“. . .I think he gets Byron perfectly as well:

Count Maddalo is a Venetian nobleman of ancient family and

of great fortune, who, without mixing much in the society of his
countrymen, resides chiefly at his magnificent palace in that city.
He is a person of the most consummate genius, and capable, if
he would direct his energies to such an end, of becoming the
redeemer of his degraded country. 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. His passions and
his powers are incomparably greater than those of other men;
and, instead of the latter having been employed in curbing the
former, they have mutually lent each other strength. His ambi-
tion preys upon itself, for want of objects which it can consider
worthy of exertion. I say that Maddalo is proud, because I can
find no other word to express the concentered and impatient
feelings which consume him; but it is on his own hopes and
affections only that he seems to trample, for in social life no
human being can be more gentle, patient, and unassuming than
Maddalo. He is cheerful, frank, and witty. His more serious
conversation is a sort of intoxication; men are held by it as by
a spell. He has traveled much; and there is an inexpressible charm
in his relation of his adventures in different countries.

. . .”

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“. . .that sounds quite accurate as well. . .”

“. . .compared to the abstractions of Prometheus Unbound, the poem is
surprisingly concrete – almost as if he needed to ground himself by
recording some of the events of the period. It opens with one of their
horseback rides down the beach of the Lido – of course it was barren and
windswept back then, not a line of resorts it became by the end of the
19th Century:

I rode one evening with Count Maddalo

Upon the bank of land which breaks the flow
Of Adria towards Venice:—a bare strand
Of hillocks, heaped from ever-shiing sand,
Matted with thistles and amphibious weeds,
Such as from earth’s embrace the salt ooze breeds,
Is this;—an uninhabited sea-side,
Which the lone fisher, when his nets are dried,
Abandons; and no other object breaks
e waste, but one dwarf tree and some few stakes
Broken and unrepaired, and the tide makes
A narrow space of level sand thereon,
Where ‘twas our wont to ride while day went down,
is ride was my delight. —I love all waste
And solitary places; where we taste
e pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be:
And such was this wide ocean, and this shore
More barren than its billows; and yet more
an all, with a remembered friend I love
To ride as then I rode;—for the winds drove
e living spray along the sunny air
Into our faces; the blue heavens were bare,
Stripped to their depths by the awakening North;
And from the waves, sound like delight broke forth
Harmonizing with solitude, and sent
Into our hearts aerial merriment.
So, as we rode, we talked. . .

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. . .one gets a wonderful sense of the banter between them, which becomes
more serious as they cross the lagoon in a gondola and begin to argue their
respective positions. Maddalo has the gondolier pause in mid-journey to
enjoy the vista of the city against the summer sunset – Shelley even
mentions the Euganean Hills in the distance. . .”
“. . .it must have been wonderful, then, just to float there – no
vaporettos, no motorboats. . .”
“. . .untreated sewage emptied straight into the canals. . .”
“. . .perhaps not all that wonderful, but still, it must have been beau-
tiful. . .”
“. . .yes, I can imagine it – imagine them floating in the lagoon in the
so twilight, just the waves lapping against the gondola. ey suddenly
hear the bell from a nearby church, and Maddalo tells Julian that it’s the
bell from the lunatic asylum, calling the inmates to Vespers Mass. Julian
makes a brief diatribe against a church that has nothing of real comfort to
offer the inmates, following which the two men part, and the gondola
takes him home. e next morning, Julian goes to Maddalo’s palace,
where he meets a little girl who is clearly modeled upon Allegra. . .

e following morn was rainy, cold and dim.

Ere Maddalo arose, I called on him,
And whilst I waited with his child I played.
A lovelier toy sweet Nature never made,
A serious, subtle, wild, yet gentle being,
Graceful without design and unforeseeing,
With eyes – oh speak not of her eyes! – which seem
Twin mirrors of Italian Heaven, yet gleam
With such deep meaning, as we never see
But in the human countenance: with me
She was a special favorite. I had nursed
Her fine and feeble limbs when she came first
To this bleak world; and she yet seemed to know
On second sight her ancient playfellow,
Less changed than she was by six months or so;
For aer her first shyness was worn out
We sate there, rolling billiard balls about. . .

. . .he must have put it in the poem to please Claire. . .”

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“. . .it’s quite charming – did it actually happen?”

“. . .unless it occurred the very first night they were in Venice, it must
be an imaginative transposition of his time with Allegra at Este: Allegra
was never in the presence of both men when he was visiting, as far I know,
as she was always with Claire. . .”
“. . .there are no figures for Claire or Mary in the poem?”
“. . .yes and no: not as concrete characters – he was writing it in the
period aer the death of Clara, so he would have avoided it, but I do
believe that somehow everything that happened, and how Shelley was
affected by it all, was transposed into the strange figure of the ‘Maniac’ –
the Maniac character is really what takes the poem out of one realm and
into another, more mysterious realm, revealing the psychic stresses and
pressures Shelley had been through. . .”
“. . .where does he come in?”
“. . .already in the preface, where a short description is given of him:

Of the Maniac I can give no information. He seems, by his own

account, to have been disappointed in love. He was evidently
a very cultivated and amiable person when in his right sense.
His story, told at length, might be like many other stories of
the same kind: the unconnected exclamations of his agony will
perhaps be found a sufficient comment for the text of every

. . .Shelley makes his story deliberately vague: everyone is le by someone,

or someone dies, or some relationship turns out badly. . .”
“. . .or what Shelley was undergoing when he wrote it. . .”
“. . .yes. . .in some sense it’s a figure of the irrational, passion, chance, fate
– everything that breaks into ordered lives. e Byron character, Maddalo,
mentions him during their morning conversation: Julian has been arguing
for the perfectibility of the human race, while Maddalo has been arguing
the opposite. Maddalo initially brings up the Maniac as an example of
someone who had argued the same belief in social perfection as Julian, but
who was driven mad in the end – perhaps by the discrepancy between his
experience and his ideals. ey decide to visit him in his cell on the island,
and he becomes the crux of their argument, a kind of case-study in human
nature and despair. Maddalo only knows a bit about the Maniac’s history:

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A lady came with him from France, and when

She le him and returned, he wandered then
About yon lonely isles of desert sand
Till he grew wild—he had no cash or land
Remaining,—the police had brought him here—
Some fancy took him and he would not bear
Removal; so I fitted up for him
ose rooms beside the sea, to please his whim,
And sent him busts and books and urns for flowers,
Which had adorned his life in happier hours,
And instruments of music—you may guess
A stranger could do little more or less
For one so gentle and unfortunate. . .

. . .it’s clearly a projection – as if he were transposing his own grief onto

what he feared he might be becoming. It’s not difficult to imagine Shelley
in the place of the Maniac – this is the description of what they see when
they first come to his cell:

ere the poor wretch was sitting mournfully

Near a piano, his pale fingers twined
One with the other, and the ooze and wind
Rushed through an open casement, and did sway
His hair, and starred it with the brackish spray;
His head was leaning on a music book,
And he was muttering, and his lean limbs shook.
His lips were pressed against a folded leaf
In hue too beautiful for health, and grief
Smiled in their motions as they lay apart—
As one who wrought from his own fervid heart
e eloquence of passion, soon he raised
His sad meek face and eyes lustrous and glazed
And spoke—sometimes as one who wrote, and thought
His words might move some heart that heeded not
If sent to distant lands: and then as one
Reproaching deeds never to be undone
With wondering self-compassion; then his speech
Was lost in grief, and then his words came each

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Unmodulated, cold, expressionless;

But that from one jarred accent you might guess
It was despair made them so uniform:
And all the while the loud and gusty storm
Hissed through the window, and we stood behind
Stealing his accents from the envious wind
Unseen. I yet remember what he said
Distinctly: such impression his words made.

. . .the words of the maniac tell a somewhat different story than Shelley’s,
but I think the shadow tracings of his feelings and experiences are
expressed there – there’s some evidence that the Maniac section was actu-
ally written, or at least greatly revised, aer the events in Naples, and the
story he tells seems vague enough to be a conglomeration of Mary, Claire,
and Eliza Campbell. . .but it’s difficult to tell, as his narrative is frag-
mented, layered, and just how everything fits together is unclear – and
I think intentionally so. It’s difficult enough to understand the Maniac’s
narrative in the poem: to try to make sense of Shelley’s life via the poem,
or of the poem via his life, only complicates the issue further – one is le
simply siing through the fragments, and gaining glimpses of the narra-
tive, or narratives, behind them. e Maniac begins by explaining how
difficult it has been not to tell anyone of his despair, which is clearly how
Shelley handled the whole period in his own life given he was the only
one who knew the truth about everything that transpired, and Claire,
Mary, and others only received fragments:

‘Month aer month,’ he cried, ‘to bear this load

And as a jade urged by the whip and goad
To drag life on, which like a heavy chain
Lengthens behind with many a link of pain!—
And not to speak my grief—O, not to dare
To give a human voice to my despair
But live and move, and, wretched thing! smile on
As if I never went aside to groan
And wear this mask of falsehood even to those
Who are most dear—not for my own repose—
Alas, no scorn or pain or hate could be
So heavy as that falsehood is to me—

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But that I cannot bear more altered faces

an needs must be, more changed and cold embraces,
More misery, disappointment, and mistrust
To own me for their father. . .Would the dust
Were covered in upon my body now!
at the life ceased to toil within my brow!
And then these thoughts would at the least be fled;
Let us not fear such pain can vex the dead.

. . .”
“. . .did he really hide it so well?”
“. . .yes – for example, Mary didn’t even know about the existence of
this poem or the other melancholic poems he wrote during this time until
aer he was dead. Look what she writes in her notes to the shorter poems
of this period – she seems unaware, blaming it on his physical suffering:

At this time Shelley suffered greatly in health. He put himself

under the care of a medical man, who promised great things, and
made him endure severe bodily pain, without any good results.
Constant and poignant physical suffering exhausted him; and
though he preserved the appearance of cheerfulness, and oen
greatly enjoyed our wanderings in the environs of Naples, and our
excursions in its sunny sea, yet many hours were passed when his
thoughts, shadowed by illness, became gloomy, – and then he
escaped to solitude, and in verses, which he hid from fear of
wounding me, poured forth morbid but too natural bursts of
discontent and sadness. One looks back with unspeakable regret
and gnawing remorse to such periods; fancying that, had one been
more alive to the nature of his feelings, and more attentive to
soothe them, such would not have existed. And yet, enjoying as
he appeared to do every sight or influence of earth or sky, it was
difficult to imagine that any melancholy he showed was aught but
the effect of the constant pain to which he was a martyr.

. . .I think if she had been ‘more alive to the nature of his feelings’ her feelings
would have been somewhat more ambivalent than she expresses them here. . .”
“. . .do you think she’s being truthful? I realize she knew nothing at the
time, but later – surely she would have at least suspected something?”

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“. . .if she had been aware she would never have admitted it publicly,
but I don’t think she was aware – that’s where Mary was severely limited.
She was honest, sincere, sensitive, and yet she deeply feared the darker
side of human nature, the result being she tended to shut down her
awareness, and consequently her feelings. . .”
“. . .but still, I feel sorry for her. . .”
“. . .oh, I certainly feel sorry for her, and understand her plight, but that
doesn’t change the fact that she was self-limiting in certain crucial ways
– the same self-limitations that led to her coldness, and finally her
emotional paralysis. . .”
“. . .so when the Maniac refers to ‘more changed and cold embraces,’ he
wasn’t exaggerating?”
“. . .apparently not at all. . .”
“. . .how does he continue?”
“. . .as I said, it’s all jumbled together without any coherence: in the next
fragment he switches from describing his torments to describing himself
working it through in his mind – how guilty he was, how much a victim:

‘What Power delights to torture us? I know

at to myself I do not wholly owe
What now I suffer, though in part I may.
Alas, none strewed sweet flowers upon the way
Where wandering heedlessly, I met pale Pain
My shadow, which will leave me not again—
If I have erred, there was no joy in error,
But pain and insult and unrest and terror;
I have not as some do, bought penitence
With pleasure, and a dark yet sweet offence,
For then,—if love and tenderness and truth
Had overlived hope’s momentary youth,
My creed should have redeemed me from repenting,
But loathèd scorn and outrage unrelenting
Met love excited by far other seeming
Until the end was gained. . .as one from dreaming
Of sweetest peace, I woke, and found my state
Such as it is.—

. . .”

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“. . .I assume the ‘loathèd scorn and outrage unrelenting’ is from

“. . .it’s possible it might have been a description of Mary – or it
might be entirely imaginary: that’s the trouble with using the poetry
for evidence, as to assume any direct correspondence is facile at best,
dangerously inaccurate at worst. . .still, for those who know the story,
there are aspects of the poem that are clearly references to his life;
for example, the next short stanza is one of those points where the
poem betrays its real source, for clearly a second woman suddenly
emerges in the Maniac’s story. Where the other was ‘scornful’ and
‘unrelenting,’ this one is ‘compassionate and wise’ – but she disap-
pears from the poem, so she’s clearly a musing of Shelley’s rather
than of the Maniac’s. It’s as if the narrative persona slips for
a moment:

O ou, my spirit’s mate

Who, for thou art compassionate and wise,
Wouldst pity me from thy most gentle eyes
If this sad writing thou shouldst ever see—
My secret groans must be unheard by thee,
ou wouldst weep tears bitter as blood to know
ey lost friend’s incommunicable woe.

. . .”
“. . .Mary. . .or Claire?”
“. . .it could be either, or both, given that Mary would not have wanted
to know about Claire or Eliza, and Claire did not know about Eliza.
The most we can say is that it is clear there’s a second woman who
couldn’t be told something. This secrecy must have been tormenting
him, for the scene where the Maniac suddenly bursts out with the truth
is extraordinary – almost as if the poet were suddenly giving us
a glimpse into his own mind and the sudden frenzy he feels to tear the
‘veil’ from his mind and speak out. If there’s anything in the poem that
he wouldn’t have wanted Mary to see, it’s in this section and the stanzas
that follow – he uses ellipses throughout to show his derangement. It
starts here:

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‘I must remove
A veil from my pent mind. ‘Tis torn aside!
O, pallid as death’s dedicated bride,
ou mockery which art sitting by my side,
Am I not wan like thee? at the grave’s call
I haste, invited to thy wedding-ball
To greet the ghastly paramour, for whom
ou hast deserted me. . .and made the tomb
y bridal bed. . .But I beside your feet
Will lie and watch ye from my winding sheet—
us. . .wide awake though dead. . .yet stay, O stay!
Go not so soon—I know not what I say—
Hear but my reasons. . .I am mad, I fear,
My fancy is o’erwrought. . .thou art not here. . .
Pale art thou, ‘tis most true. . .but thou art gone,
y work is finished. . .I am le alone!—

. . .where the previous stanza was vague, here it’s clear – I think these
words are quite clearly written out of his feelings for Mary aer she had
withdrawn from him emotionally, ‘wide awake though dead.’ When he
says ‘Am I not wan like thee?’ it could refer to the difference between
their feelings aer Clara died. . .”
“. . .it’s too intense not to have been written with the situation in mind
– he couldn’t have just happened to come upon these images. . .”
“. . .when you think about it, there really are so few literary works that
reveal the mind in extremis truthfully – that reveal how a person can
deeply love another and yet at certain moments feel a total hatred for
them, that are able to represent the depths the mind can plunge to when
such a crisis is reached. at was what Greek tragedy was supposed to
evoke in the audience – a dizzying confrontation with the abyss. In any
case, the various fragments are hard to reconcile as being about the same
woman – the next stanza shis the focus to what seems, if it is referring
to anybody, the mystery lady:

‘Nay, was it I who wooed thee to this breast

Which, like a serpent, thou envenomest
As in repayment of the warmth it lent?
Didst thou not seek me for thine own content?

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Did not thy love awaken mine? I thought

at thou wert she who said, “You kiss me not
Ever, I fear you do not love me now”—
In truth I loved even to my own overthrow
Her, who would fain forget these words: but they
Cling to her mind, and cannot pass away.

. . .”
“. . .what does ‘fain’ mean?”
“. . .it’s archaic – it means ‘willingly,’ but here it’s somewhat unclear, for
the suggestion is that the woman would willingly want to forget she
seduced him. . .none of it is a one-to-one correspondence – it’s a transmu-
tation of his entire history. e next section is the most intense description
of self-loathing I’ve ever read, with perhaps the exception of Oedipus
tearing out his own eyes. e Maniac claims he has no pride le, compares
himself to a worm, and then there’s this terrible image of self-castration. . .”
“. . .self-castration?”
“. . .imaginary self-castration, but it’s still horrifying and, what’s worse,
it’s not even with a knife – he imagines himself simply pulling it off with
his bare hands!

‘at you had never seen me—never heard

My voice, and more than all had ne’er endured
e deep pollution of my loathed embrace—
at your eyes ne’er had lied love in my face—
at, like some maniac monk, I had torn out
e nerves of manhood by their bleeding root
With mine own quivering fingers, so that ne’er
Our hearts had for a moment mingled there
To disunite in horror—these were not
With thee, like some suppressed and hideous thought
Which flits athwart our musings, but can find
No rest within a pure and gentle mind. . .
ou sealedst them with many a bare broad word
And cearedst my memory o’er them—for I heard
And can forget not. . .they were ministered
One aer one, those curses. Mix them up
Like self-destroying poisons in one cup,

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And they will make one blessing which thou ne’er

Didst imprecate for, on me,—death.

. . .it’s quite intense, isn’t it?”

“. . .very – one doesn’t write things like that unless it reflects something
about one’s own psychic state. . .”
“. . .he felt deeply abject: Clara’s death and Mary’s withdrawal must
have felt like fate’s punishment – not to mention whatever happened
with his Naples ‘charge’ and her mother. e wildness of the Maniac’s
rantings and ravings were certainly no stranger to him: Shelley had come
to realize that much of life was out of his control, and that what he might
have done in one moment out of a sense of idealized love and goodness
could end up with disastrous consequences. Of course, aer this, in
Naples and in Rome, his life became even more uncontrollable: all of his
poetry from that period onwards is trying to work out the chasm
between his vision and its attainment – between his sense of the possi-
bilities of life and the actual facts of his life, which is what the dialectic
of this poem is ultimately about. . .”
“. . .what follows – what could follow – the stanza you just read?”
“. . .the Maniac raves a bit more: the next stanza is pure Shelley, but the
old Shelley, wondering how someone with such good intentions could
turn out to be hated so deeply by another. It’s meant to be pathetic, in all
of the senses of the word. . .

‘It were
A cruel punishment for one most cruel,
If such can love, to make that love the fuel
Of the mind’s hell; hate, scorn, remorse, despair:
But me—whose heart a stranger’s tear might wear
As water-drops the sandy fountain-stone,
Who loved and pitied all things, and could moan
For woes which others hear not, and could see
e absent with the glance of fantasy,
And with the poor and trampled sit and weep,
Following the captive to his dungeon deep;
Me – who am as a nerve o’er which do creep
e else unfelt oppressions of this earth,
And was to thee the flame upon thy hearth,

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When all beside was cold—that thou on me

Shouldst rain these plagues of blistering agony –
Such curses are from lips once eloquent
With love’s too partial praise—let none relent
Who intend deeds too dreadful for a name
Henceforth, if an example for the same
ey seek. . .for thou on me lookedst so, and so—
And didst speak thus. . .and. . .thus. . .I live to show
How much men bear and die not!

. . .here the persona of the Maniac melds into Shelley himself, and two
stanzas later, where he addresses his own writing of these words, the
representation of the Maniac speaking becomes the representation of
Shelley writing:

‘How vain
Are words! I thought never to speak again,
Not even in secret,—not to my own heart—
But from my lips the unwilling accents start,
And from my pen the words flow as I write,
Dazzling my eyes with scalding tears. . .my sight
Is dim to see that charactered in vain
On this unfeeling leaf which burns the brain
And eats into it. . .blotting all things fair
And wise and good which time had written there.

. . .but the writing is ‘in vain’ – and in the next stanza there appears to be
a direct address to the woman: he advises her to be ‘milder’ for his sake
and her own, as nothing will bring back what she has lost. . .

‘ose who inflict must suffer, for they see

e work of their own hearts and this must be
Our chastisement or recompense—O child!
I would that thine were like to be more mild
For both our wretched sakes. . .for thine the most
Who feelest already all that thou hast lost
Without the power to wish it thine again;
And as slow years pass, a funereal train

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Each with the ghost of some lost hope or friend

Following it like its shadow, wilt thou bend
No thought on my dead memory?

. . .the mixing of the Maniac and Shelley is clear here, for the reference to
something ‘lost’ applies to Mary, but applies in no clear way to the
Maniac’s woman. His speech ends with his assurance that he won’t harm
her or himself, that he forgives all, and that he will tell nothing – that he
will ‘hide under these words, like embers, every speck of that which has
consumed me.’ He hopes that ‘oblivion hides this grief’. . .”
“. . .he did a very good job of hiding it – both in the poem and in his
life. Does the poem end with this speech?”
“. . .no, there’s a denouement. Julian and Maddalo go away aer the
Maniac falls asleep, and their argument is entirely forgotten. ey are le
to brood upon his fate, and they only conclude that his ravings were close
to poetry – that poets oen experience such madness. Julian, the Shelley
character, idealistically muses on the possibility of staying in Venice,
befriending the Maniac, and slowly bringing him back to human society,
but he gives up this scheme as merely a product of the moment and
nothing else. e poem ends with him returning to Venice aer an
absence of many years, finding Maddalo has gone away traveling to
Armenia, and the Allegra character, now a woman, receives him, telling
him that the woman who had caused the Maniac’s problems had
returned, met him, and le again without him. Julian is astonished, and
asks her if she knows the reason the woman le: aer refusing at first, she
tells him something, but it isn’t even communicated to the reader. e
poem closes with the line: ‘. . .but the cold world shall not know. . .’”
“. . .that’s it?”
“. . .that’s it. e poem was a very private catharsis of his feelings, just as
Epipsychidion was to be later. He simply gathered the poem up with
several others written during this period and sent them to Leigh Hunt in
August, 1819, but they weren’t published during his lifetime. . .”
“. . .only Hunt saw the poem during Shelley’s lifetime?”
“. . .it’s possible Claire did, but she made no mention of it. . .”
“. . .and it’s considered one of Shelley’s major poems, right?”
“. . .yes. e pre-crisis Shelley would have at least had it privately printed
as a pamphlet or in a book, but the post-crisis Shelley was more resigned to
his lack of renown, and was considerably more clandestine in his life – even

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with his friends. His letters to Peacock, Hogg, and Hunt about that whole
period offer nothing more than a single sentence about his not being in high
spirits around that time. . .”
“. . .that’s understandable given the circumstances, and given how they
had already treated him. . .”
“. . .and given how many critics have treated him until this day. Aer
his death, critics and commentators quickly took control of his legacy
mostly recasting him as a weak, ineffectual ‘spirit of the air,’ until critics
in the second half of the 0th century finally reached a level of sophisti-
cation to deal with his œuvre. But I sometimes wonder if the academic
critical enterprise is more about deploying, controlling, and policing
meaning and value – turning his poetry into either pure aesthetics, or
a cautionary tale, or drawing ideological conclusions posited from the
outset. Shelley was seeking a new way to live, despite everything.
Sometimes I wonder if he realized just what he had undertaken – just
how much he was challenging his own society’s social and class structure,
its hypocrisy, and with little or no financial support except for his
minimal allowance from the estate – supporting at any given time six or
seven people, and giving spiritual and emotional support to many more.
He had to live this way – he couldn’t live any other, so his poetry
explored ways of coping, ways of dealing with the difficulties in the face
of the fact that his reality became increasingly bleak, increasingly tragic.
His poetry was always seeking ways through and beyond – even the
bleakest poems. When he was here in Este, he probably thought it had
reached the bottom – he had no idea it would get much worse. . .”
“. . .it’s hard to believe it could have gotten any worse, but given
I already know Claire would never see Allegra again, I can imagine it. . .”
“. . .I can tell you now, if you want. . .”
“. . .no, leave me in suspense for a while, so I can take it all in. When did
they finally leave here?”
“. . .Shelley returned with Allegra to Venice aer the four days in Este
on October 9th, leaving Claire behind. He and Mary took their leave of
Byron on the 1st, returned to Este, and aer packing for five days, they
le for Rome on November th. ey wouldn’t see Byron again for
almost three years. If my theory is correct, Shelley probably discovered
a post restante letter from Mrs. Campbell in Rome, which would have
prompted his early journey alone to Naples. It seems unlikely to me that
he would have gone alone unless there was something pressing, and

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private, to attend to – and, as you know, that’s when everything came to

a head, and almost immediately. Whatever did happen had to be kept
secret from Mary, who was lost in her own grief – facing any of this in
the wake of the loss of Clara would have been impossible for her to bear.
I think much of his torment in Naples was not only caused by the terrible
consequences of the one – or possibly two – pregnancies, but also by the
sheer fact he had to keep it entirely secret from Mary. . .”
“. . .how do you think he managed it?”
“. . .on the surface he appeared like a tourist, along with Mary and
Claire. In the first days they spent there in December they even had time
to visit the summit of Mount Vesuvius, but – and this seems rather telling
– Shelley collapsed in a fit of nervous exhaustion following the descent.
ey visited Pompeii as well, and the Sibyl’s Grotto at Cumae, where
Mary staged the prologue to her novel, e Last Man. It’s hard to
imagine the psychic stress he must have been under, tip-toeing around
Mary’s grief when the circumstances were so compromising to him. All
of this went into one of his most famous poems, ‘Stanzas Written in
Dejection, Near Naples,’ another poem that was in the batch that he sent
to Hunt with Julian and Maddalo. . .”
“. . .that one I do know. . .”
“. . .it’s one of the most anthologized of his lyrics, and yet, while it
certainly stands alone as an excellent poem, when the whole story behind
it is considered, I believe it has a much deeper resonance. . .”
“. . .can you read it for me?”
“. . .here, I’ve found it:

e sun is warm, the sky is clear,

e waves are dancing fast and bright,
Blue isles and snowy mountains wear
e purple noon’s transparent might,
e breath of the moist earth is light,
Around its unexpected buds;
Like many a voice of one delight,
e winds, the birds, the ocean floods,
e City’s voice itself, is so like Solitude’s.

I see the Deep’s untrampled floor

With green and purple seaweeds strown;

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I see the waves upon the shore,

Like light dissolved in star-showers, thrown:
I sit upon the sands alone, –
e lightning of the noontide ocean
Is flashing round me, and a tone
Arises from its measured motion,
How sweet! did any heart now share in my emotion.

Alas! I have nor hope nor health,

Nor peace within nor calm around,
Nor that content surpassing wealth
e sage in meditation found,
And walked with inward glory crowned –
Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.
Others I see whom these surround –
Smiling they live, and call life pleasure; –
To me that cup has been dealt in another measure.

Yet now despair itself is mild,

Even as the winds and waters are;
I could lie down like a tired child,
And weep away the life of care
Which I have borne and yet must bear,
Till death like sleep might steal on me,
And I might feel in the warm air
My cheek grow cold, and hear the sea
Breathe o’er my dying brain its last monotony.

Some might lament that I were cold,

As I, when this sweet day is gone,
Which my lost heart, too soon grown old,
Insults with this untimely moan;
ey might lament – for I am one
Whom men love not, – and yet regret,
Unlike this day, which, when the sun
Shall on its stainless glory set,
Will linger, though enjoyed, like joy in memory yet.

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. . .given that the Maniac’s scene in Julian and Maddalo had not yet been
completed when he wrote this, and Prometheus Unbound only completed
in Rome, I think one can date the moment of Shelley’s existential,
psychological and poetic maturity to this poem. . .”
“. . .but the last part is a little unclear to me: he seems to be saying that
these others ‘might lament,’ and yet they would ‘regret’. . .so that unlike
the day, which lingers on in memory because it is ‘stainless,’ he is not
‘stainless,’ and so would be the cause of their regret – is that right?”
“. . .yes, that’s it. . .”
“. . .but how could he really think they would have regretted his
“. . .there’s undoubtedly some self-pity there, but at that moment he
must have wondered if there would be any love le for him aer what
happened – certainly Mary had turned away from him. . .”
“. . .but what about Claire?”
“. . .she didn’t exist as solace at that moment for many reasons –
possibly the pregnancy or miscarriage, or their mutual sense of guilt and
complicity in Clara’s death, or the fact she had just le Allegra again, or
the fact he couldn’t tell her about Eliza Campbell. . .most likely, a mixture
of all of these things. . .”
“. . .it must have been horrible to have had so many difficulties – to
know that he was the cause of them, and to know that he could not share
them with those who loved him best. . .”
“. . .I think he was forced by these events to see his own limitations, the
limitations of those closest to him, and the limitations of life itself. He
expressed it in another short lyric he wrote during this period, ‘Li Not
the Painted Veil,’ which is more abstract than the ode, but perhaps even
more depressing, as it’s more universal. He uses the figure of the veil of
Isis to reveal the dangers:

Li not the painted veil which those who live

Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread, – behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
eir shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.
I knew one who had lied it – he sought,
For his lost heart was tender, things to love,

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But found them not, alas! nor was there aught

e world contains, the which he could approve.
rough the unheeding many he did move,
A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

. . .the veil is based on the veiling of an image of Isis in Saïs, Egypt, which
bore the inscription, ‘I am everything that has been, that is, and that shall
ever be: no human mortal has discovered me behind my veil.’ It was
a standard theme of the romantics – especially the German romantics
because of its Kantian connotations. Schiller also wrote a poem called
‘e Veiled Image of Sais’ about a youth who lis the veil, is struck
unconscious, and is unable to explain what he saw – he spends the rest
of his life warning people not to li it. Novalis, also, wrote on a similar
theme in his unfinished, poetic novel, Die Lehrlinge zu Sais – e
Apprentices of Saïs: within the novel there’s a fable of Hyacinth and Rose
Petal. Hyacinth, a young man, falls in love, dreams of the veiled image,
and when he lis the veil, Rose Petal falls into his arms; however, a variant
version is more interesting: when the protagonist lis the veil, he sees
himself – the self as unknowable. For Shelley, the veil is similar, for the
narrator is seeking ‘things to love’ behind it, and discovers nothing but
the cynical world of Diogenes. e events in Este and Naples had
brought him face to face with certain truths – with the vagaries of love,
with the consequences of his incapacity to accept certain of life’s limita-
tions. By the time their period in Rome ended, Shelley had been forced,
by fate, to accept these limitations, and was a changed man. . .”
“. . .when did they depart for Rome?”
“. . .they le Naples for Rome the last day of February, 1819. e Rome
sojourn started out well enough: they took rooms on the Corso, and they
became tourists – visiting the ruins, galleries, and private collections.
ey took daily rides among the statues and fountains of the gardens of
the Villa Borghese, and they each adopted a different part of Rome as the
setting for their activities – Shelley writing, Claire reading, and Mary
drawing. . .”
“. . .did Mary recover at all from her depression?”
“. . .when they le Naples, Mary was still in a deep depression – although
it wasn’t so deep during this period to prevent them from conceiving

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a child, as she knew she was pregnant by April. She wrote about her depres-
sion in her journal and letters, but it seems to have only affected her in
moments. For example, she writes the following about her depressions:
‘God knows why but I have suffered from them, ten times over, than I ever
did before I came to Italy. Evil thoughts will hang over me – but this is only
now and then. . .’”
“. . .and how was Claire spending her time?”
“. . .Claire was taking singing lessons and reading: her favorite place was
on the steps of the Temple of Aesculpius in the Villa Borghese, on an
island in the gardens there – she was reading Wordsworth, Schlegel, and
Shelley’s translation of the Symposium. . .”
“. . .and you think she and Shelley had resumed their intimacy?”
“. . .she seems to have accompanied Shelley on quite a few of his moon-
light walks, and there’s one reference, in a fragment, to awaiting an
‘aethereal lover’ among the ruins in Rome. . .”
“. . .I suppose they had to be very secretive, so the moments of intimacy
they had were infrequent. Also, she was no doubt deeply upset about
Allegra. . .”
“. . .yes: I think it was in Rome that she finally resigned herself to the
impossibility of any relation to Byron, and began to pit herself against
him – with, predictably, even worse results. In May, she wrote him a long
letter in response to her having heard from Mrs. Hoppner about
a possible plan for a Mrs. Vavassour, a widow, to adopt Allegra as her
daughter and educate her. . .”
“. . .she must have been furious!”
“. . .she was more frantic than furious. She began the letter rather calmly,
looking at all sides of the issue, but soon she was imploring him not to
‘throw away his great treasure to strangers,’ and cajoling him to take better
care of Allegra, especially given she seems to have feared she wouldn’t get
a chance to see her. Here, I’ll read the second part – it’s quite poignant, and
even more so in retrospect, given how prescient she was:

I am very unhappy about Allegra – Mr. Bell, one of the first

English surgeons who has seen Shelley, ordered him to pass
the summer at Naples & says if S – has any consumptive
symptoms left by the approach of next winter he must pass
the cold season at Tunis. So you may think how vexed I am
about her – I really think I never shall see you or her again.

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And if Shelley were to die there is nothing left for us but

dying – My dearest Lord Byron – all the good you can do
for me is not to hate me, but for Allegra everything depends
upon you. Do not make me mention what you ought to do
for her, for I know that every word that falls from my mouth
is a serpent or toad to you like the wicked sister in the fairy
tale. It is not mine but your fault that they are not Pearls &
Diamonds. Think therefore for yourself & do what you
know you ought to do for her. If I knew that it were done
I should be a great deal happier for I really am most
wretched about her & fear I ever shall be. I dare say all my
writing is useless. I write so little that I cannot express what
I mean. Pray think of that child’s miserable condition if you
were to die, without any one to take care of her except her
mother who is hated & detested by everybody – She would
be dependant all her life without any hope – like me she
would never see the end of it – her days would pass one after
the other like the unraveling of a ball of thread, line after line
each like the past and yet forever hoping – People talk of the
stabbing of the Italians – the English do worse – (they take
your heart & squeeze it out of your body put it back in your
body & and then ask you how do you do?)
You know very well what I mean concerning Allegra – do it
for it can make no difference to yourself & does greatly to me.
Let me hear then that it is done & I shall ever think of you
with affection & gratitude – Could I hinder the past I would
– & then you should not be teased – I hope that in making
my unhappiness you have found your own happiness but I fear
not. How is your health? I always fear you will die suddenly
with a fever living the life you do. But that Heaven forbid.
May you live long & happy my dearest Lord Byron. And take
care of your health. Likewise pardon in me the only fault
I ever committed towards you – that of Co-existence. Visit
Allegra oener than you have. You ought indeed.

Your affectionate

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. . .it’s as if she were gazing in a crystal ball without realizing it: she never
did see Allegra or Byron again, Byron did die of a fever, and she guessed
correctly that handing Allegra over to strangers would be for the worse. . .”
“. . .and she anticipated Shelley’s death as well, although not the cause
– but was Shelley as sick as she writes?”
“. . .it may partially have been a reference to his despair in Naples; aer
all, Claire seems to have been oblivious to the real cause, and would, like
Mary, have attributed his problems to his physical ailments, which
continued, as always, flaring up especially when his existential conditions
were dismal. Shelley wrote to Peacock from Rome that his ‘spirits’ were
‘not the most brilliant,’ but by the end of March his health was better, and
he was actually quite active in Rome with his reading and writing
schedule. He was reading Euripides, Lucretius, and Milton, and he
decided upon the Baths of Caracalla as his writing studio – he wrote most
of the second and third acts of Prometheus Unbound perched on top of
the ruins there. He wrote a beautiful description of the Baths to Peacock:

The next most considerable relic of antiquity considered as

a ruin is the Thermæ of Caracalla. These consist of six enor-
mous chambers, above 00 feet in height, and each enclosing
a vast space like that of a field. There are in addition a number
of towers & labyrinthine recesses hidden & woven over by the
wild growth of weeds & ivy. Never was any desolation more
sublime & lovely. The perpendicular wall of ruin is cloven
into steep ravines filled with flowering shrubs whose thick
twisted roots are knotted in the rifts of the stones. At every
step the aerial pinnacles of shattered stone group into new
combinations of effect, & tower above the lofty yet level
walls, as the distant mountains change their aspect to one
rapidly traveling along the plain. The perpendicular walls
resemble nothing more than that cliff in Bisham wood which
is overgrown with wood, & yet is stony & precipitous – you
know the one I mean, – not the chalk-pit, but the spot which
has that pretty copse of fir trees & privet bushes at its base, &
where Hogg & I scrambled up & you – to my infinite discon-
tent – would go home. These walls surround green & level
spaces of lawn, on which some elms have grown, & which are
interrupted towards their skirts by masses of the fallen ruin

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overtwined with the broad leaves of creeping weeds. The blue

sky canopies it, & is as the everlasting roof of these enormous
halls. But the most interesting effect remains. In one of the
buttresses which supports an immense and lofty arch which
‘bridges the very winds of Heaven’ are the crumbling remains
of an antique winding staircase, whose sides are open in many
places to the precipice. This you ascend, & arrive on the
summit of these piles. Here grow on every side thick entan-
gled wildernesses of myrtle & the myrtelus & bay & the flow-
ering laurustinus whose white blossoms are just developed,
the wild fig & a thousand nameless plants sown by the
wandering winds. These woods are intersected on every side
by paths, like sheep tracks thru the copse wood of steep
mountains, which have been seen from below. In one place
you wind along a narrow strip of weed-grown ruin; on one
side is the immensity of earth & sky, on the other, a narrow
chasm, which is bounded by an arch of enormous size,
fringed by the many coloured foilage & blossoms, &
supporting a lofty & irregular pyramid, overgrown like itself
by the all-prevailing vegetation. Around rise other crags &
other peaks all arrayed & the deformity of their vast desola-
tion softened down by the undecaying investiture of nature.
Come to Rome.

. . .in writing Prometheus Unbound in that spot he was writing about the
downfall of empire from the midst of imperial ruins. . .”
“. . .he sounds a little nostalgic about England. . .”
“. . .he had been gone a year when he wrote this, so there was some
nostalgia, but it was balanced by a growing sense of exile, and its necessity
for him. Shelley was already aware of the contempt in which he was held
by the English, and he wrote to Peacock a few weeks later that, save for
five or so people, he was seen in England as a ‘rare prodigy of crime &
pollution whose look even might infect.’ is was driven home by an
event that occurred in early May: Shelley was collecting his mail at the
post office when a man standing behind him suddenly cried out, ‘What,
are you that damned atheist Shelley?’ and then proceeded to knock him
to the ground. . .”
“. . .really? at’s terrible! What did he do?”

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“. . .he seems to have given a few blows back to the man, but the fight
appears to have been broken up rather quickly. He was understandably
deeply shaken by the experience. . .”
“. . .I can imagine. . .”
“. . .they decided the next day to move from the Corso to a building at
the top of the Spanish steps, near the Trinita dei Monti. ey took rooms
next door to Aemilia Curran, a friend of the Godwins: she was a free
spirit – an Irish radical, living alone, totally adapted to continental life.
She painted, and over the space of a few weeks she painted all of their
portraits – the portraits of Shelley and Claire you’ve seen, but also
portraits of Mary and William which have been lost. . .”
“. . .that’s a pity. . .”
“. . .she wasn’t a terribly good painter, and Mary thought her portrait
made her look ‘dowdy’. . .”
“. . .what’s that?”
“. . .it’s a somewhat archaic word – it means plain, or a bit old-fashioned. . .”
“. . .I guess ‘ošumělý’ would be closest in Czech. . .and was Shelley writing
anything, then?”
“. . .at some point when they lived on the Corso Shelley had ventured
over towards the Jewish Quarter and visited the Palazzo Cenci,
a Renaissance palace. He had obtained a manuscript detailing the life of
Count Cenci and his family back in Livorno, and he had obtained
a portrait of Beatrice Cenci, his daughter, in April – but visiting the
palace activated his imagination, and he began draing a play based on
their lives a few days later. . .”
“. . .what is their story?”
“. . .the primary events occurred in 198 and 199. e story Shelley
would have known, which is a mixture of fact and fable, is that Count
Francesco Cenci, the owner of the palace, had been ruined when he was
forced to pay a large fine for having sodomized and beaten both his male
and female servants – he also beat his sons Giacomo and Bernardo, and
his daughter Beatrice. In order to save money, he moved his second wife,
Lucrezia, and his daughter to the castle of La Petrella on a mountain near
the Neapolitan border. He more or less imprisoned them there, raping
his wife in front of Beatrice, and attempting to sodomize his fieen year
old step-son – there’s a rumor he may have raped his daughter as well. So
Beatrice became the lover of a castellan there, and together with him, her
brothers, her step-mother, and a coachman, they plotted to kill Count

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Cenci. Her brother sent opium, and the coachman and castellan carried
out the murder aer drugging him. Rumors from villagers in the area
alerted the authorities to possible foul play, and, although public opinion
was completely on their side, the family was arrested and tortured in
order to wrest a confession from them. . .”
“. . .tortured? How?”
“. . .it was called the strappado: they tied the arms of the victim behind
their back, and lied them off the ground by the arms: this dislocated the
shoulders, which were then reset, and the whole process began again –
until they confessed. . .”
“. . .that would make anyone confess – to anything. . .”
“. . .that’s just it – Beatrice refused to confess or implicate her family in
the plot under torture, and only confessed when it became clear that they
would execute her and her family anyway. In September, 199, they were
led to their execution: on the way, they tore out the muscles and tendons
from Giacomo’s torso with red-hot pincers. . .”
“. . .strašné!”
“. . .then they decapitated the mother and Beatrice, and, saving the
worst for last, clubbed Giacomo to death with a mace, followed by decap-
itation and quartering. . .”
“. . .but why? ey were the real victims, aer all. . .”
“. . .as far as I understand it, following their arrest there had been some
other familial murders in Rome – mostly concerning estates and inheri-
tances: the authorities wanted to make an example of them to prevent
further murders – an exercise in arbitrary punishment, which probably
didn’t function at all as it was intended, given the crowd was entirely on
the side of the family, and especially Beatrice. . .”
“. . .it must have maddened Shelley to hear about it, given his attitudes
to patriarchy and state authority. . .”
“. . .it did, and the result was that he identified entirely with Beatrice: he
kept her portrait on his wall, and there are certain aspects of his descrip-
tion of her, in his preface, which echo his own ideal self, and are clearly
psychological projections. Shelley wrote,

In the whole mien there is a simplicity and dignity which,

united with her exquisite loveliness and deep sorrow, are inex-
pressibly pathetic. Beatrice Cenci appears to have been one of
those rare persons in whom energy and gentleness dwell

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together without destroying one another: her nature was

simple and profound. e crimes and miseries in which she was
an actor and a sufferer are as the mask and mantle in which
circumstances clothed her for her impersonation on the scene
of the world.

. . .he saw her as an essentially good person thrust into evil circumstances
from which she had no escape; unfortunately, the story has been shown
by historians not to have been such a clear-cut case between good and
evil. . .”
“. . .it wasn’t true?”
“. . .Cenci was not as nearly monstrous as the legends made him, and
his children were not nearly as ‘good’ as legends made them. His sons
were reputedly as dissolute as their father, and even Beatrice is now
known to have had an illegitimate child, which is probably why he quar-
reled with her – but the incestuous rape and other aspects of his crimes
are unfounded, and were obviously embellished by the Roman popula-
tion, who saw the myth as illustrating the fight of the common people
against evil aristocracy. . .”
“. . .another veil lied. . .”
“. . .yes, but Shelley never knew it, and anyway, he had his own agenda
in his play: in the play he wanted to explore what happens to good in an
evil world; however, as he initially conceived it, the play was merely
meant to be something like Mary’s Frankenstein – a bit of a crowd-
pleaser, to make up for the lack of an audience for his poetry. He was
quite impressed with how the story of the Cenci family was universally
known in Rome: he thought he could adapt it successfully for the
London stage, and gain some of the success that had eluded him. In the
end his motivation changed. Although he had completed the first dra
by May 9th, the real issues of the play wouldn’t be worked out until that
summer – when his revision of the play became a form of mourning. . .”
“. . .mourning? For whom?
“. . .it’s bitterly ironic that Mary had written a letter saying that ‘only
malaria could chase them from Rome,’ because it was malaria that did chase
them away in the end. Mary had chosen the Colosseum as one of her
favorite places to sketch, and she would go there with little William. At
that time it was overgrown with foliage, and down in the ruins underneath
there was no drainage, so the water collected in pools, breeding malaria-

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carrying mosquitoes. William, who was three and a half then, came down
with a fever in late May, 1819. He was attended daily by an English physi-
cian but the symptoms grew worse, and on June th he went into convul-
sions and almost died. He was brought out of it, and Shelley stayed up for
three days and nights watching over him; but, just as they were thinking he
might recover, he died, suddenly, at noon on June th. . .”
“. . .Pane Bože! I can’t even imagine it. . .I’m not sure I could have gone
on living aer that. . .”
“. . .the effects were catastrophic for all of them. Claire told Silsbee that
Shelley threw himself on the sofa sobbing – that she had never seen such
sobbing. You can imagine the effect it had on Mary, who never fully recov-
ered from it – her third lost child. Shelley sent Peacock this terse letter the
next day – its brevity betrays the intense shock and grief behind it:

My dear friend,
Yesterday aer an illness of only a few days my little William
died. ere was no hope from the moment of the attack. You
will be kind enough to tell all my friends, so that I need not
write to them—it is a great exertion to me to write this, & it
seems to me as if, hunted by calamity as I have been, that
I should never recover any cheerfulness again—
If the things Mary desired to be sent to Naples have not been
shipped—send them to Livorno.
We leave this city for Livorno tomorrow morning where we
have written to take lodgings for a month. I will there write
Yours ever affectionately
P B Shelley

. . .Shelley wrote a description of William to Hogg a few weeks later –

there are very few descriptions of him elsewhere. . .”
“. . .he must have needed to describe him in order to try to preserve
what was lost – do you have it?”
“. . .yes. . .this is what he wrote:

Our misfortune is, indeed, a heavy one.—Your little

favorite had improved greatly both in mind and body
before that fatal fever seized him. He had lost all shades of

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ill-temper, and had become affectionate and sensible to an

extraordinary degree, his spirits had a very unusual
vivacity—it was impossible to find a creature more gentle
and intelligent.—His health and strength appeared to be
perfect; and his beauty, the silken fineness of his hair, the
transparence of his complexion, the animation and deep
blue colour of his eyes were the astonishment of everyone.
The Italian women used to bring each other to look at him
when he was asleep.

. . .”
“. . .did he write any poetry about William?”
“. . .Shelley tried to turn his grief into verse, but failed – he couldn’t
bring himself to complete the two lyrics he started. Listen to this frag-
ment – it’s quite poignant:

My lost William, thou in whom,

Some bright spirit lived, and did
at decaying robe consume
Which its lustre faintly hid, –
Here its ashes find a tomb,
But beneath this pyramid
ou art not – if a thing divine
Like thee can die, thy funeral shrine
Is thy mother’s grief and mine.

Where art thou, my gentle child?

Let me think thy spirit feeds,
With its life intense and mild,
e love of living leaves and weeds
Among these tombs and ruins wild; –
Let me think that through low seeds
Of sweet flowers and sunny grass
Into their hues and scents may pass
A portion—

. . .he breaks it off there – he couldn’t bear to finish it. In fact, as Holmes

noticed, the last line wouldn’t be completed until two years later, when

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he placed it in his elegy for John Keats, Adonais: ‘He is a portion of the
loveliness Which once he made more lovely’. . .”
“. . .I can understand both his need to try, and why he couldn’t accom-
plish it – trying to hold on to what’s lost. . .”
“. . .other writers have tried also, and failed: there’s Mallarmé, who lost
his son Anatole, and one might also count Joyce, whose daughter Lucia
was lost to insanity, as was Victor Hugo’s daughter Adele – there’s
a Truffaut film based on it. Otherwise, I’d hardly call Byron’s attitude or
relation to Allegra fatherly! Goethe lost four of his children very early in
infancy, and then his rather pathetic son, August, when his son was forty,
so it’s not quite the same. Mallarmé attempted to write poetry on the loss
of his son, but could only come up with fragments, like Shelley, some of
which were quite poignant – he le them with the papers he wanted
burnt at his death. Joyce seems to have put the loss he felt in regard to
Lucia’s insanity into Ulysses as both the death of Bloom’s son Rudy, and
the departure of Bloom’s daughter, Milly. . .”
“. . .it must be terrible to deal with the loss of a child – it’s not in the
natural order of things. . .”
“. . .the child usually sees their parents into the darkness, carrying their
memories for them, but when a child dies, the parent has experienced
their child’s entire journey from out of the abyss of time and back again
– the child is entirely contained within the parent’s memory. e impulse
to transcribe the child into writing is an attempt to somehow situate the
burden of grief in words, in an effort to make one’s own memory perma-
nent. . .”
“. . .can it work?”
“. . .you can see the difficulty that Shelley and Mallarmé faced – at best,
the emotions and intensities can be transformed. ere are the dangers
of a break-down into unrepresentability on one side, and pathos, in the
worst sense, on the other: by abandoning their poems in the midst of
their anguish and grief, Shelley and Mallarmé avoided the latter difficulty,
giving themselves over to the former. ey ultimately sublimated their
grief in less directly personal works, as did Mary. . .”
“. . .Mary? She could write aer William’s death? I can’t see how she
even could have survived it. . .”
“. . .no, she didn’t write immediately – even her journal was broken off.
In fact, ultimately, I think the only thing that saved her from self-destruc-
tion or madness was the fact she was already four months pregnant. . .”

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“. . .but it must have frightened her, terribly – the possibility of further

loss. . .”
“. . .yes – you can see her fear in her eventual treatment of Percy
Florence, who she held as close to her as Godwin tried to hold her aer
Mary Wollstonecra’s death. She began writing a short novel on Shelley’s
twenty-seventh birthday, August th. . .”
“. . .what was it about?”
“. . .well, it’s interesting, and a bit strange: like e Cenci, her novel also
focused on incest. . .”
“. . .incest?”
“. . .father-daughter incest, to be precise, but let’s wait – it’s getting late,
and we need to catch the 0:0 back to Padua if we don’t want to change
trains twice. . .we can eat at the albergo. . .”
They stand, brush themselves off, and walk up the short path to the
house. In front of the servants’ wing an old man – small, stooped, bald,
his tan face creased with the wrinkles – sits under the pergola smoking
a cigarette and listening distractedly to the portable radio. When he
sees them he smiles and gets up. They indicate with gestures that the
house is closed and that they are leaving. He nods and smiles, and
walks with them to the front gate, unlocks it with an old iron key, lets
them out, and locks it behind them. They thank him, wave goodbye,
and he turns and walks slowly back to his chair. They pause a moment,
looking back at the villa – now almost fully in the shadow of the hill-
side, the sun touching only the tops of the trees, and begin walking to
the station.
“. . .it’s beautiful here – it’s sad to leave. . .”
“. . .I always have that feeling when I visit places like this – places
connected to some author, or some book that has deeply affected me, or
some historical event. I felt the same when I visited D. H. Lawrence’s Kiowa
Ranch outside of Taos, or Joyce’s Martello tower in Dalkey, or the castle
where Rilke wrote the Duino Elegies. Much of what is compelling about
Prague, for me, is the proximity of the former haunts of writers like Kaa,
Rilke, Holan – knowing I live among their ghosts helps me cope with the
daily grind of life there. . .”
“. . .did coming to Prague change your thoughts about their writing?”
“. . .yes, entirely – or rather I should say that it deepened them. I first
read Kaa’s works in a different world, where he was taught in an almost
abstract manner as an example of proto-existentialist absurdity, and

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placed alongside Camus or Sartre on the one hand, or Beckett and

Ionesco on the other. ere was absolutely no socio-historical under-
standing of his context: he was taught as a German writer – there was
little understanding of the difference between the Austro-Hungarian
empire and Germany, let alone the even more marked difference between
German-speaking Bohemians and the rest of the German-speaking
world, or the German-speaking and Czech-speaking communities of
Prague. I know now that if he were to be classed with any other major
modernist writer, it would have to be Rilke. Despite the difference
between Kaa’s Jewish background and Rilke’s Catholic background,
the simple fact they were both born in Prague within eight years of one
another, given the special position of German-speakers there, makes
many aspects of their outlook strikingly similar, despite the immediate
differences in their writing. . .”
“. . .do you know if they ever met in Prague?”
“. . .no, they didn’t. Rilke was sent, when he was eleven, to a military
academy in upper Austria, and then, at age fieen, to another one in
Moravia – in fact, the same academy Robert Musil would attend four
years aer Rilke had le, and about which he wrote the novel, Die
Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless – or, in English, something like e
Confusions of Young Törless. Rilke returned to Prague when he was seven-
teen in order to attend the Gymnasium, and he stayed in Prague for four
years – until he moved to Munich when he was twenty-one. . .let’s see,
that would have been 189 through 189, and given Kaa was born in
188, Kaa would have been between nine to thirteen during that
period. At best, Kaa might have noticed him walking down the street:
Rilke was in his ‘dandy phase’ then, and he dressed rather ostentatiously
– one critic I read noted he would walk down the streets in an old-fash-
ioned formal coat and black hat, holding an iris in one hand and with
a look of longing in his intense eyes. . .”
“. . .Kaa’s eyes are also rather intense. . .”
“. . .they both have a bit of the look of a hunted animal that longs to be
somewhere else – perhaps in a different universe. . .”
“. . .they were hunted, in a way. We didn’t even read Kaa when I was
in school, and I never even knew Rilke or Musil existed, let alone that
they lived in Prague and Brno. . .”
“. . .the Swedish playwright, August Strindberg, lived in Brno too, for
a few years. . .”

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“. . .I didn’t know that – you see! e communists considered them all

bourgeois individualists, but I think it’s even more due to Czech nation-
alism – the German-speaking world that had existed in Bohemia and
Moravia was simply ignored, except by a few people with more open
minds. . .”
“. . .so they were considered ‘Germans’ by the Czechs as well?”
“. . .largely. . .Kaa was and is a reminder of those who are no longer
here – Jews, German-speaking Bohemians, not to mention the fact it
would disturb the version of ‘Czechness’ that the cultural elite have been
building there. Aer all, Kaa’s status in world literature eclipses any
Czech-speaking writer, so Kaa is a bit of an embarrassment for those
who are nationalists. . .”
“. . .so, while I had to make my way through historical and cultural
ignorance, you had to make your way through deliberate historical and
cultural obfuscation – I’m not sure which is worse. I gained a consider-
ably deeper understanding of both Kaa and Rilke when I came to
Prague – partly because so much is still the same: the mindless bureau-
cracy, the baroque web of clandestine maneuverings, the subterranean
power struggles, the submerged and yet pervasive presence of eros. I feel
I’m in a daily discourse with Kaa or Rilke just walking the streets. . .”
“. . .for most Czechs they may as well have been from a different
universe. . .but it’s the same thing with you – your reality and concerns
are so far from the norm in Prague that you also live in a kind of alter-
nate reality. . .”
“. . .that doesn’t bother me – in fact I sought it out. I didn’t choose to
stay in order to assimilate to a new culture – as I said before, I don’t want
to live in America as an American, I don’t want live in Prague as a would-
be Czech, or the worst kind of homeward-looking American expatriate.
I want to be somewhere else – ‘Weg-von-hier, das ist mein Ziel,’ as Kaa
wrote: ‘Away-From-Here, that is my destination’. . .”
“. . .away to where?”
“. . .rather to when. . .it’s timeless moments I’m seeking – those
moments when the realm of the transitory touches the realm of the
eternal. Such moments, like today for us, are like time warps, where one
realm touches the other – usually the two are kept well apart, and we lose
ourselves in the transience of our daily lives. . .”
“. . .that’s true. . .Shelley, Claire, Mary, their children, and even Byron,
all came alive for me here, and even aer we leave, I’ll always remember

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this time and place as an intense experience – for us, in this moment, and
its connection to them, in theirs. . .but I hope we can avoid the worst
parts – the turmoil and tragedy they experienced. . .”
“. . .the worst can’t be avoided if we seek such intensities: Nietzsche
wrote, ‘Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? then you said Yes, too, to all
woe’. . .deep joy is far more difficult to endure, for it demands the accept-
ance and endurance of just as deep a despair. It’s what we were speaking of
before, in regard to American culture – the difference between a mode of
life that accepts negativity, and one that denies it. Pleasure, ‘fun,’ happiness
is all possible there, but I simply found it all unreal, in a way. . .somehow
there’s an attempt there to ward off what are seen as negative emotions,
and it ends in millions taking anti-depressants when they can’t manage
it. . .”
“. . .when I think of it, ‘fun’ is an entirely American concept: it’s not
translatable into Czech – at least not in the way Americans seem to mean
it. ere’s radost, which is pleasure, joy, or delight; štĕstí, which is happi-
ness; zábava, which is amusement or entertainment; and perhaps the
closest is legrace, which is oen used to translate fun, but actually means
something closer to funny or amusing. ‘Fun’ seems to be something else,
or at least what I see the word applied to. . .”
“. . .that’s true, actually – one never thinks about words one takes for
granted in one’s own language until one comes up against another
language where they are untranslatable. It seems to me that what
Americans really mean when they say the word ‘fun’ is something like
‘mindless, visceral amusement,’ with an emphasis on the ‘mindless’
part: someone riding a rollercoaster, or playing with a Frisbee is
‘having fun,’ while you’d never use it to describe reading a book or
attending a concert of classical music. I’m not against fun per se – it’s
just that in America it became a kind of be-all and end-all to life: it
ends up being a physical anti-depressant, cutting off the intensities –
the highs along with the lows, or, at best, reducing the intensities to
only exhilaration. . .”
“. . .I’ve noticed that in Americans. What I’ve always wondered is
whether the surface-level ‘happy’ attitude of my American colleagues is
faked or not: I’m now convinced that while it’s not fake, they’re not
necessarily happy – but they certainly think they are: there seems to be
a good deal of willing oneself to be happy, as if to be anything else were
abnormal. I find that somewhat disturbing. . .”

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“. . .that’s a good part of what drove me away, but it’s not that I find
something better elsewhere. . .for me, the greatest shock of realization
from my travels was that the forms of human pettiness were so vast.
Schopenhauer wrote, ‘National identity is another name for the partic-
ular form which the pettiness, perversity and baseness of mankind take in
every country. Every nation mocks other nations, and all are right.’ One
thing that can be said about Germany, despite its severe faults, is that it
certainly bred astute self-critics: Schopenhauer, Heine, Nietzsche, and
even Goethe. . .”
“. . .what about the United States? You’re American, aer all, so your
critical attitude must have come from somewhere. . .”
“. . .in the United States it was mostly writers and essayists who took
up the task of national self-critique: aside from activists like Thoreau,
Robert Bly or Adrienne Rich, or minority writers like Ralph Ellison
and Richard Wright, the target of critique was usually the philistinism
of the United States by writers like Henry Adams, Nathanael West,
H.L. Mencken, or Gore Vidal. Those considered major American
writers, if they were concerned with social critique at all, combined it
with other, more universal concerns – writers like Melville, James,
Eliot, Faulkner, or Pynchon. I wonder how much an effect they really
have had. Many of those I just mentioned, if they didn’t collapse into
conservatism, either went abroad, died young, or went into seclusion.
Of course, the American authors who most influenced me, aside from
some of the major ones like Melville or James, are either entirely idio-
syncratic – like Poe, Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, and Djuna Barnes;
or they are agonizingly inscrutable poets – like Wallace Stevens,
Charles Olson and John Ashbery; or they are not even considered
serious authors, like, Raymond Chandler, Henry Miller, Patricia
Highsmith, and Jim Thompson; or they are simply largely unknown,
like Paul and Jane Bowles, George Oppen, Jack Spicer, or Marguerite
Young. I was always equally, if not more, influenced by European
authors, in any case. . .”
“. . .with Czech writers it’s somewhat different: there’s social criticism
in writers like Božena Nĕmcová and Karel Čapek, and there were
certainly critics and satirists of the Austro-Hungarian empire like Hašek,
or of the communist period – like Kundera and Havel, but the country is
too uncertain of its status, given its history, and its literature is too young
– its writing is caught up with building a national consciousness,

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although in day-to-day life I think Czechs oen cannot really stand the
worst aspects of each other’s Czechness. . .”
“. . .yes, I saw some poll a year or two ago about how citizens of different
countries compared in their esteem for their average fellow citizen: the
most favorably disposed towards each other were the Americans, the least
favorably disposed were the Czechs – either extreme indicates a signifi-
cant distortion of reality, in my opinion. . .”
“. . .but which is worse? I think the Czechs are worse – my compatriots
drive me insane. . .”
“. . .Czechs can be quite petty, but I think the Americans are worse: I’m
not especially fond of the way Czechs treat each other, and especially how
foreigners are treated by Czechs, but cynicism is less dangerous than
hypocrisy, and, aer all, at least Czechness stays put in the Czech
Republic, while Americans export their Americanness abroad – at least
since the postwar period. . .”
“. . .that’s true, but in terms of escaping it? At least the United States is
so vast that one has a choice, or a place to hide – and, if one is a writer,
there’s at least a strong tradition of turning away. In the Czech Republic,
excepting the dissident writers during the communist period, if one is
a writer it’s truly either publish or perish, and if one publishes, one is
already in danger of becoming a part of it all. . .”
“. . .yes, that’s the ‘small nation, small language syndrome’ – Gombrowicz
writes about it in his Diaries in regard to Polish culture, and Poland is a large
‘small nation’ compared to the Czech Republic. . .”
“. . .if one isn’t a writer, and merely wants to be le alone, it’s still quite hard,
as all these little baroque webs of connection you mentioned really add up in
the end. ey’re almost impossible to evade and still get somewhere. . .”
“. . .yes, I can see that now: I realize that as an American I took for
granted the possibility, in the United States, to simply uproot and move
to another state, climate, and even sub-culture two thousand kilometers
away, or even to move to a new apartment in a different part of the city.
In Prague, finding a decent apartment is a daunting enough task for
a comparatively well-paid foreigner on the black market, and far worse
for a Czech with a normal salary. One is almost condemned to endure
one’s pre-determined place. . .”
“. . .most Czechs don’t even see that they are condemned: they take as
natural facts weekends at the cottage, vepřo-knedlo-zelo, hockey and foot-
ball and, of course, pivo. . .”

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“. . .as Americans take as natural facts recreational vehicles, synthetic

diet-food concocted in a lab, American football, handguns, and shop-
ping malls. . .”
“. . .so how does one escape it all, if one desires to – needs to?”
“. . .well, what do we face compared to Shelley? ey were fleeing from
the economic and political structures of their times, and the micro-polit-
ical structures of relation and affiliation – everything that their lives
brought into question. ey came to realize that their primary defensive
strategy was what Shelley intimated when he ended Julian and Maddalo
with the words, ‘but the cold world shall not know’ – imperceptibility,
or living in such a way that one appears to have a degree of adherence to
the social norm on the surface in one’s daily life where the battles do not
matter, while living as one desires where it matters, and affecting fewer
people, but more deeply. Otherwise, ‘they’ will come aer you, and wear
you down. . .”
“. . .the ‘right-thinking people’ again?”
“. . .yes, and they come in all forms, from red-neck reactionaries to trendy
radicals. I don’t mean one must conform to the norm, but simply to wear
one’s difference more intensively than extensively. ere’s always the
danger, when marking oneself externally, of either identifying oneself to
one’s potential enemies, or of creating a trend or fashion – which is not
exactly changing anything very deeply: both lead to a cessation of becoming
– the former singular, the latter en masse. . .”
“. . .so you think one should avoid any external display of difference?”
“. . .no, not at all – I just think the important differences are intensive,
and one ought to avoid self-designation of one’s intensive nature: there’s
no reason anyone but oneself, or one’s inner circle, should know the
deeper reasons why one acts, speaks, thinks, or feels the way one does. e
kind of self-proclamations of Surrealism and Dadaism seem terribly dated,
confining, and dangerous to me. I choose the way of Joyce’s Stephen
Dedalus, living by the way of ‘silence, exile, and cunning,’ or Marcel
Duchamp, who lived by ‘silence, slowness, and solitude,’ or Deleuze’s
three ethical imperatives of ‘imperceptibility, indiscernibility, and imper-
sonality’ aided by a dose of Spinoza’s ‘sobriety and caution’. . .”
“. . .but it seems a bit paranoid. . .”
“. . .the paranoia is justified – one doesn’t want one’s attempts to do or
be something singular to be taken up and marketed too quickly as the
next trend: that’s the surest way to dri back into the ossified norm.

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ere’s a relevant excerpt from one of Paul Bowles’ letters to Jane in her
novel Two Serious Ladies: something like, ‘When you think you’re going
ahead, make sure you’re not really standing still. In order to go ahead, you
must leave things behind which most people are unwilling to do. . .’”
“. . .but do you think it’s even harder to ‘go ahead’ now than during
Shelley’s time?”
“. . .despite all the supposed freedoms we have, I think for someone to
truly go ahead now is considerably harder. . .”
“. . .but how did we come to this?”
“. . .do you mean ‘we’ the world, or ‘we’ us?”
“. . .both. . .”
“. . .we wouldn’t be here right now if we hadn’t fallen through a crack
– a crack in the social structures, a crack in the vapid materialism of both
the communist and capitalist varieties, and they are, aer all, two sides
of the same dull coin. . .”
“. . .and we’ve been falling ever since, it seems. . .”
“. . .as Shelley, Mary and Claire were falling. . .”
“. . .and is there only falling? I know what we’re falling om, but what
are we falling to. . .?”
“. . .falling towards – always ‘away from here,’ towards something else. . .”
“. . .so there’s no bottom, no end to the falling?”
“. . .there are several ways we could reach bottom – the worst would be
if we stopped falling because we arrived at some form of stabilization:
first anxiety and fear, then conservation, then reaction, and, in its worst
form, denial of life, denial of the other – for the other is what always
impels us out of our stabilities. Barring that this first risk of stabilization
is evaded, we could somehow lose control of the process, falling into
a black hole or abyss. . .”
“. . .like Shelley?”
“. . .perhaps – or Hölderlin, Nietzsche, Woolf, or Plath. . .”
“. . .so the key is to fall for as long as possible?”
“. . .I believe so – to live life as intensely as possible, for as long as
possible. . .however, if there has to be a choice, intensity seems preferable
to longevity. Baudelaire wrote that he had lived three seconds for every
one second of an average bourgeois: he died at , which would mean
18 years by his calculations, and, having read his biography, I believe
him. But it’s like a tight-rope walker – one can fall off either side: Shelley
fell off the intensity side of the tight-rope, dying young, while

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Wordsworth fell off the stabilization side – living long, losing intensity,

becoming conservative, and writing dull poetry. . .”
“. . .so who lived both intensely and long?”
“. . .it’s rare, but when it happens, it’s usually when the person is involved
in a much larger project of variability, like Goethe, Blake, Musil, or Joyce, so
that there’s a structure to direct and contain their striving, and yet enough
opened-endedness to allow continuous becoming. . .”
“. . .and for the normal person who lacks a project?”
“. . .different people have different thresholds, but I’m not entirely
convinced that many people make it a habit to regularly challenge and
risk their thresholds: there are too many rewards for not doing so, for
simply going at the pace of the society – but that’s just my suspicion.
Certainly who we end up hearing about are those who make waves, not
to mention the fact that not all societies are so taken by fame: I have no
doubt that, for example, Tibetan monks live intense but anonymous lives
trying to coincide with immanence, which is really what’s at the bottom
of it all, anyway. . .”
“. . .immanence?”
“. . .one possible definition or attribute might be the cessation of the
fleeting moment, an interpenetration with pure time. . .”
“. . .that sounds quasi-religious. . .”
“. . .well, perhaps some religions, but not others. Most religions are like
psychic safety nets, comforters for minds which seek some stability in the
face of the abyss – especially those that presuppose the continued exis-
tence of an active consciousness, even if only in a disembodied form.
Immanence, as I define it, is a merging with the flow of temporality – not
the fleeting present, but pure time. . .”
“. . .do you mean eternity?”
“. . .not in the way it is normally meant. Consider what’s le aer we
die – not the corpse or ashes, but what’s le of our lived existence. On
the most basic level one can start with what of our being remains aer
our deaths – from the memories of those who survive us to the indirect,
subliminal effects we’ve had on all of those who have come into contact
with us, from our children and their genetic inheritance to, if we have le
works, an estate, or institutions, the social and historical inheritance we
are connected to, or are responsible for creating – if I remember correctly,
the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has a somewhat similar
concept that he calls the ‘memetic’ inheritance, although it’s a pity he

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missed the chance to call it the ‘semetic’ aer semiotics, which might have
been better. A poet like Shelley intensely affected everyone around him
personally, but the power of the symbolic forms he le behind in his
poetry continue to act as energies long aer his death. . .”
“. . .the non-organic life-forms you spoke of before?”
“. . .yes. e symbolic forms wouldn’t have been produced if he hadn’t
been who he was, so it’s difficult to separate the life from the forms, or the
forms from the life, but, clearly – even if his books were le to gather dust
on a shelf for a century, or canonized to the point of ossification and
thereby ‘made safe for human consumption’ – some organic life form, some
person, comes along sooner or later and opens them, the process of inspira-
tion takes place, and those energies can suddenly grow like a seed. . .”
“. . .so immanence is connected to immortality, or greatness?”
“. . .one aspect of this kind of posthumous immanence is rather the
continued effect of one’s energies in the world of the living aer one has
died, so that one can say that artists or thinkers who continue to be
disseminated, who continue to have an influence on the living, have
attained an intense posthumous immanence. e traditional view of the
genius tends to locate that greatness in the self and the works, and not in
the energies that a self, through its work, has generated, liberated, or
sustained: or, in other words, in being rather than becoming. at’s why,
in my opinion, the artists, writers, or thinkers who have the greatest influ-
ence are those with the most becoming, the most variability – who open
vistas, unbinding energies. ose vistas needn’t necessarily be contained
in a unified artwork, approach, or style. Look at Shelley or Mallarmé: in
the case of the former the poetry is oen unwieldy, and at times even bad,
but there’s also the life connected to the poetry, and the openings it
represented. In the case of Mallarmé, despite proclaiming he was engaged
in writing the Book, he never actually completed more than a slim volume
of poems, and yet I would argue both have endured precisely because of
the openings they discovered and explored, and which have allowed
further openings for others. . .”
“. . .but if such influence is a sign of immanence, wouldn’t you say that
great religious figures like Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed have attained
the highest form of immanence, given they established world religions
that still influence millions?”
“. . .certainly. . .”
“. . .so it is a religious perspective, in a way. . .”

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“. . .only if a religion can be said to exist without a doctrine, without

a designation of God, and without making any claims to absolute truth.
I would be considered a heretic by the members of any of these religions,
given that while I would accept each of these figures as having attained
the highest form of immanence, I also see a continuum between their
existences and the rest of the human race, rather than seeing them as
somehow apart – I see them as men, not as metaphysical beings. . .”
“. . .but are only those who are well-known aer their deaths imma-
“. . .no, not at all: I believe everyone attains some degree of immanence
when they die – from the subtle memory traces they leave in others who
have been touched by them, to an immanence of the system or epoch or
culture they have been a part of, not to mention I’ve only been speaking
of posthumous immanence: there are moments of immanence in one’s life
as well, when anyone may have an intuition of pure time. Let me explain
it this way: in the ninth Duino Elegy Rilke wrote, ‘Just once, everything
only once. Once and no more. And we, also, only once. And never again.
But this having existed once, even if only once: having been once on
earth, can it ever be effaced?’ e last word might be translated as
‘refuted,’ ‘revoked,’ or ‘nullified’ – or, as the poet Stephen Spender trans-
lated it, ‘cancelled.’ e point is, can something that has happened ever
be said not to have happened? Let’s say the sun suddenly sent out a jet of
gas in this direction right now, and it wiped out the entire earth. How
would you characterize the status of this moment?”
“. . .how do you mean?”
“. . .given that there would be no record of it having happened – no
traces le in a biographical or historical text, no one to remember this
moment: would you be inclined to say that this moment never
“. . .no – of course it happened. . .”
“. . .but how would it exist, where would it exist – without a conscious-
ness to be aware of it? Berkeley’s idealist answer was ‘in the mind of God,’
while, alternately, the materialist answer would be in the backward traces
le by all the atomic particles – if we had the capacity to track them all.
In my mind these explanations simply beg the question, or paste an easy
answer over the mysteriousness of it all. It seems to me there is something
like a ‘pure time,’ or what Mallarmé termed simply ‘eternity,’ that has
some sort of strange subsistence within flowing time. . .”

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“. . .so would ‘pure time’ be how everything truly was and is, in a sort
of cosmic history that is unknowable to humans?”
“. . .that’s one way of saying it. I’m not saying I have any idea what that
would be – the only thing I do know is that it’s beyond human compre-
hension. If we cannot imagine moments such as this as not having
happened if they were suddenly effaced, we’re le positing a kind of pure
flux of time which somehow subsists within normal time. Furthermore,
there seems to be a kind of strange synchronicity between the two times
– even Einstein said, ‘the distinction between past, present, and future is
only an illusion.’ I’m no scientist, but when I read about the various spec-
ulations that have been made, it always brings me back to Blake’s vision
of all time existing simultaneously – ‘I see the Past, Present, and Future
existing all at once, before me,’ or Eliot’s ‘And the end and the beginning
were always there Before the beginning and aer the end. And all is
always now,’ or even Goethe, when he has Werther say, ‘How can
I perish? How can you perish? Do we not exist?’. . .”
“. . .so what are you saying?”
“. . .I’m not sure – it’s more of a feeling than a knowing. . .”
“. . .so what is your feeling? When do these connections between
temporalities occur. . .during mystical visions?”
“. . .yes, in a way, but more than merely the religious forms of mysticism.
It seems that what we seek – from zen satori to the ecstasy of St. John of
the Cross, from the aesthetic beauty of Beethoven’s late quartets to that
of Shelley’s poetry, from the scientific explanation of the beginning of
time to its philosophical explanation – is to coincide with pure time, eter-
nity, or what I am calling immanence. e problem is that while we can
come very close to what I call a ‘Being-towards-immanence’ –
a bastardization of Heidegger’s term ‘Being-towards-death,’ full imma-
nence is always just out of reach. . .”
“. . .because to reach it is to die?”
“. . .yes, or short of dying, it’s the loss of the self in madness. Mallarmé’s
character Igitur experiences it when he tries to coincide with eternity: he
exclaims, ‘I was the hour which is to make me pure,’ but it leads to the
breakdown of Igitur as a subject, and his dissolution into a darkened abyss
of static objects in the room where his presence is a mere shadow.
Mallarmé tried to transcribe it, but by bringing it back into language, he
lost it – the threshold cannot be crossed without there being a biological
death, and at times Mallarmé felt he was very close to death indeed. . .”

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“. . .so a ‘Being-towards-immanence’ is when we come to an awareness

of this dissolution?”
“. . .yes, and it can be deliberate, or it can steal up upon one, such as
suddenly being affected by a piece of music. In Blanchot’s La folie du jour,
the narrator suddenly comes upon it – what he terms the ‘madness of the
day’ – in the most innocuous of circumstances, as he crosses over the
threshold of a doorway. . .”
“. . .what happens to him?”
“. . .he is seized by delirium, then he describes himself as in a corridor
where, like Igitur, he’s enveloped in an unearthly cold, and as he loses
consciousness and gives over to the feeling he describes himself as
expanding ‘as high as the stone of the sky’. . .”
“. . .does he survive it?”
“. . .yes and no – the work is partially based on an event that happened
to him in the war, when he was stood up against a wall to be shot and
then just as suddenly released: in a later work he describes himself as
having been ‘freed from life.’ Somehow this event punctured a hole in
the threshold between the two aspects of time, and from that moment
forwards he would suddenly find himself sliding towards the other
time. . .”
“. . .but these are extraordinary experiences – do they occur for normal
human beings, in normal circumstances?”
“. . .not in daily life, but we all have some experience that brings us
suddenly towards something like this interpenetration of realities –
moments that penetrate us so deeply that they remain etched into our
very beings. . .but such moments needn’t be so extreme, in regard to their
cause: one can suddenly have one while one walking down the street,
looking out a window, sitting by the side of a river, or remembering a day
like today. . .”
“. . .I know what you are saying: I felt it today, for I truly felt our time
was coinciding with their time. I feel it right now, as we stand here – that
somehow, part of us will always remain here. . .”
ey pause for a moment on a small bridge over a canal a short distance
from the station, and turn to look back. e high rear tower of the castle
across from the villa is just visible above the tree line in the distance. e
sky to the north is blue and cloudless, while thunderheads creep north-
wards from the south. ey hear thunder in the distance, as the leaves
around them begin to stir in the gathering breeze.

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“. . .the storm is going to break soon. at’ll cool things off – for

a while, anyway. . .”
“. . .we’ll make it to the station just in time. . .”
“. . .it’s so difficult to leave. . .”
“. . .well, as I’ve just been saying, we’re not leaving – part of us will
always remain here. . .eternally. . .”

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Moments passing: the double cone of time holding and releasing us simul-
taneously – transfixing each moment for eternity while bearing us ever
onwards towards our ends. . .

. . .holding to a vision as to a single flame in absolute darkness, I plunge into

the pure past of what has been and what will always be, retracing the infinite
nappes of space and time, om vertex to vortex. . .

. . .wending pastward in time on its braided course, the world unwinding

through sixty-five thousand sunrises and sunsets like grains of sand held in
the cupped palm of a hand. . .two thousand waxing and waning moons spaced
between two presents. . .one hundred and seventy five journeys through the
seasons. . .spiraling back through what was wrought on earth. . .the lives
brought in and out of existence, passing like the summer rising of ephemera,
the endless pulse of human concord and conflict, cataclysms and catastrophes,
destinies raveling and unraveling in the warp and we of time. . .

. . .waing silently through space – over the Ligurian sea, the Gulf of La
Spezia, San Terenzo, Lerici, the pink and white marble quarries of Carrara,
the Apuan Alps, Monte Sumbra, Bagni di Lucca, le Pizzorne, Péscia,
Montecatini, Monte Albano, Vinci, Empoli, the Arno river valley, spiraling
downward towards the Cascine Forest west of Firenze. . .

. . .a solitary man walks through the autumnal woods in the late aernoon,
the wind gusting through the branches of the silver birch and plane trees,
green and yellow palmated and serrated leaves falling around him to the
forest floor with each gust. He has a slightly stooped posture and a halting,
erratic gait. His great-coat is clenched closely around him, collar turned up
around his face. His long, unruly graying brown hair blows wildly in the
wind. He stops for a moment, looks around him, then upwards towards the
western sky – listening to the wind whirring through the trees. He bends
over variously to examine a stone, a seed pod, a leaf. He mutters to himself
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repeated words, then pauses, eyes closed. He starts briskly walking again,
wind-driven, weaving through the trees like a madman. . .suddenly, he
exclaims to himself – “. . .and he dared to write ‘the path of mighty waters
closes in upon him. . .a still deepening ocean before him, he sinks like lead to
the bottom!’” He bursts out running through a small clearing in the trees,
trips over a root hidden by the dead and dying leaves, sprawls forwards to
the ground, and lies there, still, for several moments. Slowly he rolls over,
gazing at the clouds driing rapidly overhead. He raises his hands towards
the sky, then looks at his dirty palms – one of them is bleeding. . .he pulls
om it a spiked seed pod, lies back, resting, holding the pod distractedly in
his hand while gazing at the glowering sky rising over the hills to the west –
billowing thunderheads, darkly threatening. e wind picks up, gusting
forcefully through the trees, leaves tossing and swirling through the air over
him. He slowly gets up, brushes off his coat, and walks on, murmuring to
himself – “. . .decaying leaves, decaying leaves. . .once green, like. . .like my
hopes. . .as my hopes were like fire. . .now decayed like the leaves – yes, that’s
it. . .my pages, my poems. . .as my hopes were like fire, so my decay shall be like
ashes. . .yes – my poems, my leaves, falling. . .all burned, ashes, forgotten. . .and
the clouds. . .loose clouds. . .like my now graying hair. . .like the locks of the
approaching storm. . .a dirge of lament for. . .a dirge for the dying year. . .and
what will come? What will be? ere’s nothing le, nothing. . .everything
crumbles, everything falls into decay and ruin. . .everything will be no
longer. . .nothing but darkness, everything lost in the end. . .the coming storm,
an uncontrollable bursting of thunder and lightning. . .then all is swallowed
up, savagely blown by the wind. . .the west wind, to be destroyed and buried
in the sands of time. . .”

“. . .but look! – the Arno. . .its flowing water swollen with rain. . .rain om
the hills, clouds om the sea. . .the cycling of nature, of the seasons, of death
and. . .of birth”. . .he looks again at the seed pod, breaks it apart with his
finger, and rolls the seeds between his palms. . .he throws the seeds to the
wind – “. . .through the scattering of seeds, these seeds, my seeds – my leaves,
my thoughts. . .so that even if dying, even when dead, there remains some-
thing. . .some spark of life om the ashes of the dying year, driven, as these
seeds are driven. . .carrying inside them life. . .the spark to quicken a new
birth. . .yes, that’s it – as she carries inside her a new life. . .towards what
has been and what will be bursting forth – a new birth, a new life, yet
again, yet always and forever for the first time. . .”
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orning sunlight blazes through the mauve-tinted window of the
M air conditioned first-class compartment. e two figures are alone,
sitting opposite one another. ey observe the passing scenery of the
Venetian Plain as the train heads south from Padova. e man gestures
out the window at a passing train station.
“. . .we’ll go southbound past Rivigo, across the Po into Ferrara, then
on to Bologna and Florence. . .”
“. . .how long will it take?”
“. . .we arrive there at 9:, so a little under an hour and a half. . .”
“. . .not even enough time to get comfortable – when do we arrive in
“. . .11:. . .”
“. . .that’s long enough for you to tell me what happened between the
time they le Rome, and the time they arrived in Pisa. . .”
“. . .they actually lived in two places: first near Livorno, then in
Florence. . .”
“. . .so why don’t you want to stop in Florence now if it comes next
“. . .Florence, in my eyes, is really far more important in regard to
Claire’s life – especially her life aer Shelley’s death, so chronologically
it’s better if it comes aer Pisa and San Terenzo. When we return, I’d like
to find her house there. . .”
“. . .the house Silsbee visited?”
“. . .that’s the one. . .”
“. . .I’d like to see it too. . .”
“. . .and I’d like to go to Antella – it’s a little town southeast of Florence
where Claire was buried, but, you know, Florence is almost intolerably
packed with tourists in summer – the kind who limit their Italian itiner-
aries to Florence, Rome, Venice, and a three-hour stop-over at Pisa to see
the ‘leaning tower’. . .I’d like to limit our time there. . .”
“. . .that suits me – Venice already was bad enough. We face enough
tourists in Prague. . .”

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“. . .yes – the ‘stream of un-consciousness,’ as Michael called it. . .”

“. . .that’s appropriate. . .”
“. . .so, where should I begin?”
“. . .begin with when they le Rome. . .”
“. . .ok. eir decision to leave Rome happened quite quickly. ey had
William buried in the Protestant cemetery: not being Catholic or Jewish,
he had to be buried there with the rest of those the Church considered
‘heretics’. ey later tried to arrange either a pyramid or obelisk to be
erected over his grave, but, finally, they had to settle for a plain stone slab
– I hope we can find it when we’re there. Later, aer Shelley died and his
ashes had been sent to Rome, Joseph Severn, Keats’ friend, was placed in
charge of seeing to their burial in January, 18: he had been instructed
to disinter William, and bury him with his father, but when they looked
under the slab, they found only the skeleton of an adult. . .”
“. . .what do you think happened?”
“. . .I suppose they had to make room for further burials and moved the
stone. Anyway, they departed for Livorno on June 10th, arriving a week
later. ey stayed at an inn until they rented the Villa Valsovano – near
the town of Montenero in the hills above Livorno. ey stayed there
through the whole summer of 1819, departing from Livorno at the end
of September and remaining in Florence until the end of January, 180.
ey were in each place about three-and-a-half months. . .”
“. . .why did they choose Livorno?”
“. . .for Mary’s sake: the Gisbornes were still in Livorno, and I think she
wanted to be near someone with whom she had a deeper personal
connection. Given Maria Gisborne had nursed Mary aer her mother
died, there had been this maternal closeness from an early age. . .”
“. . .does the villa still exist?”
“. . .unfortunately, according to Holmes, it was destroyed towards the
end of the last century: the villa was on a farm located on a rise halfway
to Montenero – not in the town itself, which is quite a way up the hill.
Mary described the villa in her note to Shelley’s play e Cenci:

Some friends of our were residing in the neighbour-

hood of Leghorn, and we took a small house, Villa Valsovano,
about half-way between the town and Monte Nero, where we
remained during the summer. Our villa was situated in the
midst of a podere; the peasants sang as they worked beneath

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our windows, during the heats of a very hot season, and in the
evening the water-wheel creaked as the process of irrigation
went on, and the fire-flies flashed from among the myrtle
hedges: – nature was bright, sunshiny, and cheerful, or diver-
sified by storms of a majestic terror, such as we had never
before witnessed.
At the top of the house, there was a sort of terrace.
ere is oen such in Italy, generally roofed. is one was very
small, yet not only roofed but glazed; this Shelley made his
study; it looked out on a wide prospect of fertile country, and
commanded a view of the near sea. e storms that sometimes
varied our day showed themselves most picturesquely as they
were driven across the ocean; sometimes the dark lurid clouds
dipped towards the waves, and became waterspouts, that
churned up the waters beneath, as they were chased onward,
and scattered by the tempest. At other times the dazzling
sunlight and heat made it almost intolerable to every other;
but Shelley basked in both, and his health and spirits revived
under their influence. In this airy cell he wrote the principal
part of e Cenci.

. . .as far as I know, the little tower is a common feature of villas in that
part of Italy. Shelley wrote to Peacock that he was able to see Elba and
Corsica from his vantage in the tower. . .”
“. . .I notice that she doesn’t mention the loss of William. . .”
“. . .oh, she does – here, a little further on: ‘We suffered a severe afflic-
tion in Rome by the loss of our eldest child, who was of such beauty and
promise as to cause him deservedly to be the idol of our hearts. We le
the capital of the world, anxious for a time to escape a spot associated too
intimately with his presence and loss.’ She was inconsolable. . .you can
sense the toll William’s death must have exacted from her by the fact that
Mary’s journal broke off without a word aer his death and didn’t start
again until almost two months later, August th – Shelley’s twenty-
seventh birthday. . .”
“. . .what did she write when she started it again?”
“. . .she began the journal again with these words: ‘I begin my journal on
Shelley’s birthday – We have now lived five years together & if all the
events of the five years were blotted out I might be happy – but to have

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won & then cruelly have lost the. . .’ – and here the word she uses is
poignantly understated – ‘. . .associations of four years is not an accident
to which the human mind can bend without much suffering. . .’”
“. . .it must have been terrible to have lost all of her children, and by –
how old was she then?”
“. . .believe it or not, she was only twenty-two. . .”
“. . .it’s so hard to imagine. . .”
“. . .she wrote later that she thought she would never recover from it,
and, in a way, I don’t think she ever did. She spiraled deeply into herself,
and even Shelley couldn’t find her. ere are two short lyrics he wrote
about it – here’s the first:

My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,

And le me in this dreary world alone?
y form is here indeed—a lovely one—
But thou art fled, gone down the dreary road,
at leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode;
ou sittest on the hearth of pale despair,
For thine own sake I cannot follow thee.

. . .this is the 189 edition. In the aborted 18 edition of the poems she
le out the poem entirely, but even in the 189 edition she le out an
additional line: ‘Do thou return for mine’. . .”
“. . .she must have le it out due to her grief – or her guilt. . .”
“. . .yes, and the other poem speaks even more plainly of the chasm that
opened between them because of her grief:

e world is dreary
And I am weary
Of wandering on without thee, Mary;
A joy was erewhile
In thy voice and thy smile,
And ‘tis gone, when I should be gone too, Mary.

. . .Shelley sensed the unbridgeable chasm between them, but he was too
grief-stricken himself to be able to help her. One critic upbraided him for
supposedly not sharing in Mary’s grief, which in my mind shows

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a distinct lack of sensitivity for how different people, different genders,

cope in the face of grief, and especially grief caused by the death of
a child! As the poems reveal, he felt dragged into Mary’s abyss, and
needed to isolate himself from it for the sake of his own equilibrium, so
he would go up to his room in the tower and close himself off from the
world below – sometimes for the whole day. . .”
“. . .how did Mary survive it?”
“. . .ironically enough it was Claire who helped her the most then.
Despite their problems with one another, it was in severe crises like these
that the bond between Mary and Claire revealed itself. Claire wrote to
Byron that she couldn’t imagine leaving Mary alone when she was so
melancholy. Claire even gave up a rare chance to see Allegra. . .”
“. . .did she know she was giving up the chance?”
“. . .yes. . .”
“. . .did Mary know?”
“. . .probably not. . .”
“. . .it’s probably always like that – the failure to see the other’s sacri-
fices. . .and how was Claire affected by it all?”
“. . .she was certainly affected by the loss of William, for she loved him
deeply, but someone had to manage things – Mary and Shelley were the
beings closest to her, and she needed to attend to them. Her own journal
also stopped at the time of William’s death, and didn’t pick up again
until the following year. . .”
“. . .our difficulties seem small in comparison, and yet they kept on
living, loving, and writing. . .”
“. . .that’s what inspires me about their lives – how despite what they
went through, they carried on with the experiment of their lives. . .”
“. . .so Mary never came out of mourning?”
“. . .she never fully got over it of course, but she recovered incre-
mentally. In June and July she spent a good amount of time just sitting
on the stone arbor seats in the garden in silence, but by August she was
six months pregnant, and the life inside her must have reawakened her.
She began reading again – some of Sir Walter Scott’s novels that
arrived and, with Shelley, Dante’s Purgatorio, Paradise Lost, and even
the Bible. . .”
“. . .telling choices. . .”
“. . .yes, and very influential for their next works; in fact, I think the
primary distraction for Mary was that she started writing a short novel,

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eventually entitled Mathilda. Given she was finished by mid-September,

she must have buried herself in the writing of it. . .”
“. . .is this the one about incest?”
“. . .yes. . .”
“. . .what motivated her to write it?”
“. . .I think the loss of William, plus Godwin took it upon himself to
respond to the news of William’s death by sending a totally unfeeling
letter verging on a threat to disown her if she didn’t get Shelley to send
him more money. . .”
“. . .he wasn’t exactly a sensitive man. . .”
“. . .no, and in her state of mind it must have sent her reeling. Certainly
a portion of her time sitting in the garden must have been devoted to
reassessing her whole life up to that point – especially in regard to how it
had been influenced by her relation to her father. . .”
“. . .is there any indication that her relation with him was incestuous?”
“. . .not physically incestuous, but certainly it had been emotionally
incestuous – she later confessed to Maria Gisborne her ‘excessive and
romantic attachment to her father.’ I think the shock of her grief must
have brought her face to face with the truth about her psyche, and that’s
what she explored in Mathilda, which is as much a loosely camouflaged
psychic autobiography as Shelley’s Epipsychidion would be later on. . .”
“. . .is there any significance to the title?”
“. . .in Dante’s Purgatorio Matilda is the name of the last woman tempting
the pilgrim on the summit of Mount Purgatory before the appearance of
Beatrice in her car of light. She’s innocent – something like the figure of
Eve before the fall, or women before the loss of their virginity: the pilgrim
is drawn to her innocence, but it’s a desire tainted with sexuality – the only
true love is his spiritual love for Beatrice, who appears immediately aer he
encounters Matilda. . .”
“. . .Beatrice was the woman he worshipped from afar, wasn’t she?”
“. . .Beatrice, in real life, was a young woman that Dante worshipped
anonymously and who became the subject of his La Vita Nuova. He had
seen her a handful of times at a distance from the age of nine, and one
day she greeted him in the street, which inaugurated his ‘new life’ of
idealized love. But the next time he saw her she failed to greet him, and
it plunged him into despair. en, aer a certain foreboding on the part
of the poet, she died at the age of twenty. In the Purgatorio she descends
from heaven and takes over from Virgil as the pilgrim’s guide. . .”

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“. . .so what was Mary trying to suggest by the name – was she identi-
fying with Matilda?”
“. . .in a way, perhaps yes – given the change in her personality from that
point onwards. Dante believed in a strict division between love and sexu-
ality: only a chaste, innocent, spiritual love could prevent love from being
sullied. Shelley’s entire belief-system was based on the alternate hope that
the higher aspirations of such a spiritual love could be maintained within
a love that included intimate physical relations. Mary, who had agreed
with him about this at the beginning of their relationship, seems to have
diverged from this belief: just as she saw the danger of Promethean
questing in Frankenstein, she seems to have been awakened to the
demonic operating within human sexuality. I think that naming her
protagonist Mathilda indicates her awareness of these dynamics, and
especially how they’re manifested in the parent-child relation. . .”
“. . .what actually happens in the novel?”
“. . .it has many autobiographical resonances: Mathilda’s parents are
only married for a year and a half when Mathilda’s mother dies while
giving birth to her, echoing what happened to Mary’s mother, Mary
Wollstonecra. ere it diverges a bit: Mathilda’s father leaves the
country due to his grief, leaving the baby with his half-sister and
returning when she’s sixteen – it’s simply a device to bring the narrative
quickly forward in time to the problem she’s exploring. By that time
Mathilda looks just like her mother, and the father and daughter live an
Edenic existence together. When the step-sister dies, the father and
daughter move to London, where Mathilda acquires a suitor; the father,
however, dismisses him, claiming that his daughter is still too young. . .”
“. . .how close is that to reality?”
“. . .quite close, with a few transpositions. Obviously Shelley was not so
easily dismissed as Mathilda’s suitor, but certainly Godwin had been
appalled by Shelley’s announcement that they were in love, and he would
have been appalled even if Shelley hadn’t already been married. In any
case, there’s a general truth sketched there about the closeness of Godwin
and Mary which is very accurate. . .”
“. . .what happens next?”
“. . .having rejected the suitor, the father begins to avoid Mathilda’s
company. She seeks him out, and when she embraces him affectionately,
he initially responds, but then draws away from her. He departs for the
family estate where he had lived with her mother and summons Mathilda

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there, but she finds her father cold and withdrawn. She’s certain he
harbors some tragic secret, and one day she follows him on a walk that
takes him to the edge of a cliff where she confronts him. He refuses to
confess his secret and she argues that he must hate her, to which the
father replies ‘yes,’ but then he proclaims he loves her in such a passionate
way that he swoons and faints at her feet. . .”
“. . .does she finally understand?”
“. . .yes – she’s horrified, and runs back to the estate and composes
a farewell letter to him, refusing to come down for dinner that evening.
When the father comes to the closed door of her room, she hides, but he
doesn’t enter. She falls asleep, and dreams that she has gone to her father
to tell him about her decision to leave him: she finds him in the woods,
dressed in a white robe and looking pale. She follows him to the edge of
the cliff, where he jumps to his death. At this point she awakens when
the servant brings her a letter from her father begging her understanding
and forgiveness, describing the torment he’s undergoing, and promising
that she will never hear from him again. She guesses he is suicidal, runs
aer him, but cannot find him. Entering a cottage by the sea, she sees
a rigid form enshrouded on a bed, discovers it’s her dead father, and she
faints to the floor beside him. One critic pointed out that the scene is
really quite sexual: the rigidity of the corpse symbolically representing
the rigidity of the penis, and her swoon, the swoon of sexual climax. . .”
“. . .do you agree?”
“. . .it’s a bit much, but certainly there’s something to it. . .”
“. . .what else happens – or is that all?”
“. . .that’s where the Shelley character enters. She stages her own suicide
and enters a convent in a remote part of Scotland where she lives for two
years mourning her father. At this point she meets Woodville, a young
poet grieving the death of his fiancée. He urges her to confess the cause of
her grief, and she finally consents, setting an appointed time and place.
ere she has prepared a cup of poison for them both to drink, but
Woodville refuses to drink the poison, claiming that as long as he has the
capacity to bring hope or happiness even for an hour to another human
being, he has an obligation to live. He leaves her, and she wanders into
the woods, thinking of Dante’s Matilda: a storm comes, she’s consumed
by a fever, and, while she’s dying, she composes a letter to Woodville,
which is the book itself – a confession of her father’s incestuous desires.
She sees herself becoming a ‘bride of death,’ and her impending death

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seems sweet to her, for she’ll finally be able to be united with her father in
what she calls an ‘eternal mental union’. . .”
“. . .that’s the end?”
“. . .yes – what do you think?”
“. . .I don’t know what to think! I suppose that the cup of poison is like
her grief, and Woodville’s turning away from it suggests Shelley’s with-
drawal from the abyss of Mary’s breakdown. I know it’s a novel, but was
there any indication Mary may actually have wanted Shelley to commit
suicide with her?”
“. . .she did write someone in the autumn that she felt it might have
been better if she had also died on June . So, the suicidal feeling was
there, but I doubt if anything was ever stated explicitly between them.
Clearly there was a significant chasm between them aer William’s death
that was never healed in Shelley’s lifetime. Aside from everything else
between them, it was caused by the difference in their ways of grieving
and in their orientation towards life aer William’s death, because he
could not follow her to the ‘hearth of pale despair.’ Shelley sublimated
his grief working in his tower – work that included his fragments to
William and his lyrics to Mary, as well as e Cenci. is must have
seemed to Mary a refusal to mourn. Mary, in contrast, lived her life in an
increasingly conservative manner – drawing, consolidating, and control-
ling her boundaries in order to try to prevent any further loss. . .”
“. . .I can’t blame her, given what happened. . .”
“. . .I don’t blame her either, but there’s a price to be paid either way
one handles one’s grief, or one’s life. She may have eliminated some of
the risks, but the problem is that one can’t simply curtail one aspect of
one’s life – the holding-on becomes global, affecting one’s entire sensi-
bility, and the result was the coldness that everyone who knew Mary
increasingly noticed from that point onward. . .”
“. . .but I still don’t see what she was doing with the incest theme – how
did her realizations fit into the way of living she began to adopt, unless. . .”
“. . .unless what?”
“. . .unless the ‘eternal mental union’ she spoke of stood for a new orien-
tation of her relations. . .”
“. . .I think it was exactly that: in a certain way she became at least
Matilda, if not Beatrice, in her self-purification. She didn’t commit
suicide, but she killed the passion in herself. Her coldness clearly affected
her emotional as well as her sexual relations with Shelley. . .”

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“. . .and what about her relations with Godwin?”

“. . .it’s strange, but Mary sent him the only manuscript of the novel. . .”
“. . .she sent it to him?”
“. . .yes, and it obviously hit a nerve, because he found it ‘disgusting and
detestable’ – to use precisely his words. When Mary asked for it to be
returned he refused, and it was found among his papers at his death.
I think that speaks very well to his awareness of what the book was really
about. I don’t think Mary ever fully worked through her relations to him.
When she began her next novel, Valperga, what seems to have motivated
her was making money to send to Godwin, which she did in the end –
the entire profits were made over to him. . .”
“. . .her ambivalence is there at the end of Mathilda – as if she both
wanted him dead, and yet still wanted to be with him. . .”
“. . .yes – Mathilda’s desire for ‘eternal mental union’ is simply a way to
have the desire consummated without the guilt of incestuous sexuality –
Mathilda becomes Beatrice. It’s questionable, however, just as Dante’s
attitude towards Beatrice is questionable. . .”
“. . .because love purified of sexuality cannot be maintained?”
“. . .because, as Lacan writes, relations always contain an aspect of
impossible jouissance: it oen becomes a choice between curtailing the
impossible through its domestication, or living with the endlessness of
yearning which is the limitlessness of the drives. . .”
“. . .like the Proust quote you mentioned about ‘killing the intolerable
love’. . .”
“. . .but the ‘intolerable’ jouissance is only ‘killed’ in one manifestation,
and always emerges in another: it always ends with the perpetuation of
those very drives! Mary was working out how her desire had been formed
by Godwin and then transferred to Shelley, and the outcome was her
decision to turn down her passion to a very low flame indeed. She felt
the need for severe caution by that time, as she associated unbridled
passion with the terrible events that had happened. . .”
“. . .wasn’t she over-reacting?”
“. . .certainly – in trying to curtail desire through suppressing passion she
ended up shutting herself down emotionally, and living a half-life. . .”
“. . .and the other extreme?”
“. . .opening oneself too much, without caution, can lead to real dangers.
We each instantiate drives of the whole species: although we like to
pretend that our desires are fully under our control, there’s a point where

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unbound desire shades into something else, something destructive – eros

into thanatos, perhaps. When two people come together, two infinities
are connected: within those combined infinities, one can locate intensi-
ties – aspects of one being that respond intensely to aspects of the other,
but it’s difficult, and even frightening at times. e kind of intensifica-
tion I’m speaking of seeks to perpetuate Proust’s ‘intolerable,’ or what
Bataille termed the ‘impossible’ – one aspect of which is what he called
a ‘naked erotic search.’ e search takes place within the thrall of loss – of
self, of the other. . .”
“. . .loss of control?”
“. . .it’s possible. . .one comes up against loss pure and simple – loss of
a stable self, loss of consciousness even, and within that sensed loss, the
traces of the ultimate loss. . .dissolution and death. Lacan felt much the
same way, and might have been influenced by Bataille: he felt that jouis-
sance involved reaching a threshold of singularity, but the point where it
dissolved that same singularity was dangerously close. . .”
“. . .so, as you see it, Mary wanted to curtail this search, while Shelley
wanted to continue it?”
“. . .it’s about living as intensely as possible – or, as Bataille wrote, it’s
about when ‘the subject assumes in himself alone the full truth of the
moment.’ Shelley’s life was precisely such a search, and the search existed
at all levels: emotionally, socially, politically, philosophically, spiritually. . .”
“. . .but what kinds of relations did he envision?”
“. . .for example, he saw that marriage as defined by his society was far
more concerned with the economic and social matters than with the
particularities of the individuals involved; indeed, he saw the social struc-
tures as controlling and even blocking love. Shelley sought to release this
energy. He rightly saw that if we throw over our pre-conceived notions
of a cosmos dictated by a king or priest, we are not le with emptiness,
but with vast energies that could take any form – good or evil. . .”
“. . .but what did he mean by good and evil?”
“. . .it seems to me that for Shelley neither good nor evil was self-evident,
timeless or unchanging – except at the extreme of absolute good and evil.
It’s not a matter of the relativity of good and evil, but the relativity of
human conceptions of good and evil which shi over time: what was good
one day possibly becoming evil the next. We cannot define good and evil
once and for all, because human meanings easily become distorted by
these energies – but it doesn’t mean we toss the whole thing up in the air.

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Shelley stands between Spinoza, Kant and Nietzsche: while certainly their
analyses were far more advanced conceptually, they withdrew themselves
from life in direct proportion to the distance they had traveled out and
beyond, while Shelley was a different sensibility, concerned with living out
these ideas experientially in his life, and representing them poetically and
dramatically. In regard to love relations, Shelley was seeking love freed
from the distorting bonds of society, and he discovered that even love has
two faces, depending on whether it is reactive or active. . .”
“. . .for example, Mary or Claire. . .”
“. . .yes, if you like – at least at that moment. . .”
“. . .so you see him as the avant-garde of love relations. . .”
“. . .yes, in a way, but his attitude didn’t come out of thin air: it brought
together certain concepts emerging in the Enlightenment – a certain
concept of human freedom and autonomy, a concept of the individual
and his or her relation to the other, a concept of love as a sharing of inte-
riorities. ese had been only recently conceived by Enlightenment
philosophers – Spinoza, Leibniz, Rousseau, Hume, and Kant. Shelley’s
writings are largely an avant-garde application of Enlightenment
concepts, using poetic images and descriptions. . .”
“. . .was he alone in this?”
“. . .he was one of a group of people self-consciously enacting Enlight-
enment principles in an intense way. I’d also include the Jena romantics
– certainly Novalis and Hölderlin, and, to an extent, the Schlegels,
Friedrich and August. . .”
“. . .did Shelley know their work?”
“. . .he only knew some of the critical writings of August Schlegel. It’s
a pity he didn’t know of Novalis, for they had a good deal in common –
Shelley’s atheism and political radicalism were not really so far from
Novalis’ or Hölderlin’s Spinozism and Kantianism. Both Novalis and
Hölderlin had the same pure spirit, the same desire for application of
philosophical concepts to affective experience; and strangely, Novalis also
died at age twenty-nine, just like Shelley. . .”
“. . .of what?”
“. . .his young fiancée, Sophie, had died of tuberculosis. He contracted
tuberculosis himself – perhaps from her, and died about two years later:
he raised her to a kind of pure form aerwards in his Hymnen an die
Nacht – Hymns to the Night, where he called for the night, embodied by
Sophie, to ‘consume’ his body with ‘Geisterglut’ – ‘spirit fire’. . .”

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“. . .it’s as if he had a death wish. . .”

“. . .in a way he did, or rather he knew the dangers. . .”
“. . .how do you mean?”
“. . .for example, the theorist Julia Kristeva believes that writers engaged
in textual experimentation are engaged in a dangerous crossing of the
‘thetic’ threshold. . .”
“. . .in plain English, please. . .”
“. . .when we enter language as children, our subjectivity is formed via
the linguistic splitting of our reality into subject and object: we acquire
a symbolic access to the world at the cost of losing direct access to our
drives, which become filtered, diffused, and even muted through our
language. Writers engaged in linguistic experimentation – especially that
involving lyrical or orphic effusion of one type or another, are placing
pressure on that threshold – they’re in danger of becoming immersed in
pure drives again, being swallowed up by the boundary loss of undiffer-
entiation. . .”
“. . .that’s a little clearer – so you are saying that they return to some-
thing like a pre-verbal state?”
“. . .yes, they risk losing the structure of their subjectivities and
descending into depression, psychosis and even death. Certainly it would
explain a great deal about why it is poets and other experimental writers,
are so endangered. I’ve never accepted the positivist studies done in the
Anglo-American world, which usually conclude that sick minds are
attracted to poetry: I think it makes far more sense to suggest a certain
type of open-ended lyricism can be dangerous to the mind. I think
a similar process must have affected artists like Van Gogh, Munch, or
Gauguin, or jazz musicians like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Bud
Powell. . .”
“. . .but in their case, it wouldn’t have involved language. . .”
“. . .I think it’s more the lyrical or orphic aspect that is so dangerous,
the opening to the muse in such an immediate way. Certainly something
similar is happening in expressionist painting, jazz improvisation, or
modern free-form dance. . .”
“. . .look! – there’s the Po. . .”
“. . .the vegetation is so lush – there’s probably hordes of mosquitoes
and midges there. . .”
“. . .‘midges’?”
“. . .those little flies that swarm around water and have nasty bites. . .”

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“. . .oh, mušky – yes, they’re terrible. . .”

“. . .but it’s beautiful – from in here, at least. . .”
“. . .like Shelley’s life: it’s beautiful if one is safely distant in space and
time, but it seems increasingly frightening to me as we look more closely
at everything that happened. . .”
“. . .it worries me too. I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that if
I can work out an understanding of the problems they encountered I can
find a solution to apply to my own life, then, suddenly, I realize that each
new life, each new configuration of lives, brings new problems into exis-
tence – perhaps insoluble problems – or at least insoluble within the span
of our own lives. . .”
“. . .insoluble because we lack the distance from which to see ourselves?”
“. . .partially, but also because any solution is always an aspect of an
experimental process of selection, of becoming, of variability – so, by
definition, there’s no model of what a correct solution would be until
history shows it to have been the right adaptation for that specific time
and situation, and even then, it’s never certain. We can make a provi-
sional assessment of our lives as they unfold, but the final outcome will
be determined by the shape of our whole lives – by what traces we leave
behind of our passing, and how those traces are taken up by others. . .”
“. . .immanence, again. . .but still, it seems to suggest that our lives only
have meaning if we end up becoming famous. . .”
“. . .not at all! e traces we leave behind might be great works or deeds,
but, as I said, for the average person the traces also include the children
we leave behind, the infinite ripples our lives have had on the others we’ve
come into contact with. Just as there are writers like Kaa and Shelley
and Dickinson who were largely unpublished and unknown in their life-
times, I’m certain there are people whose names we don’t know, but
whose lives expanded outwards to touch the lives of many others in essen-
tial ways: teachers, therapists, restaurant owners, fashion designers –
anyone who takes their life seriously. e list is endless, . . .”
“. . .but there’s no hope to assess a life from its midst?”
“. . .it’s a bit like the Kaa quote – ‘ere is hope, infinite hope, but
not for us’: perhaps it’s not that desperate, as some assessment is possible,
but still, I believe that the more variability our lives embody, the more
uncertain is the ultimate outcome – the ‘solution’; on the other hand,
I also agree with Marcel Duchamp when he said, ‘ere is no solution,
because there is no problem’. . .”

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“. . .now you’re just playing with me. . .”

“. . .not at all! Duchamp was interested in the process of art, not the
product. One of his greatest gestures, in my mind, was his designating his
large glass, La Mariée Mise A Nu Par Ses Célibataires, Même, ‘definitively
unfinished’ – it acknowledges how we’re always in medias res in our
works, our lives. I’m just trying to say that we will always lack a perspec-
tive from which to judge our ‘solution,’ and it especially holds when one
is assessing the variability side of human existence. Look at Shelley’s life:
we can only now just begin to assess, from our perspective, the outcome
of his experiment, but for him it was profoundly uncertain – a contin-
uous struggle between his belief in the process of what he was trying to
do in his life and work, and the oen terrible consequences that he expe-
rienced as a result of being – what to call it? – I suppose ‘an agent of vari-
ability’ expresses it adequately. His poems and essays exist as written
traces of the struggle – his attempts to come to terms with what
happened to him as a result of his actions, and to draw some conclusions
from it all. . .”
“. . .I can see that, but, to return to their story, what I don’t understand
is if Mary was trying to come to terms with her father and with how her
childhood experiences affected her later life with Shelley, what was
Shelley trying to do by writing e Cenci – that was also concerned with
father-daughter incest, wasn’t it?”
“. . .yes, but with the tyranny of father-daughter incest: Mary’s novel
had more to do with the tragedy of it, but, curiously enough, I think they
each identified with their main protagonists – Mary with Mathilda,
Shelley with Beatrice Cenci. . .”
“. . .how did it work as a point of identification for him – he had
a tyrannical father, certainly, but he wasn’t emotionally affected the way
Mary had been. . .”
“. . .for Shelley the same tyrannical principle embodied by Count Cenci
was operating within society – the church, the state, and even in the
general reception of literary works. He felt his poetry had been totally
rejected by society, so he wanted to find out whether he could reach an
audience in a more traditional way – through the vehicle of a serious but
popular drama. He deliberately tried not to include what he called the
‘peculiar feelings & opinions which characterize my other compositions,’
and in writing to Hunt, he made it clear that the play ought to be offered
anonymously, so the public wouldn’t come to it with any preconceived

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notions based on his authorship. In the notes to the play, Mary cited his
letter: ‘I wish to preserve a complete incognito, & can trust to you, that
whatever else you do, you will at least favour me on this point. Indeed
this is essential, deeply essential to its success.’ He really felt he had
a chance to have the same kind of popular success that Mary had had with
Frankenstein. . .”
“. . .and did he?”
“. . .the response was not quite as favorable, but the play did receive
a good deal of attention when it was brought out in the summer of 180.
It sold well for a tragedy, and even had a second edition printed in 181.
Part of it was due to the shock-value of the play – and it was a shocking
enough play that when Antonin Artaud wanted to exemplify his concept
of a ‘eater of Cruelty’ in 19, he chose e Cenci for the first produc-
tion, Artaud himself playing Count Cenci. . .”
“. . .was it just the incest theme that shocked people?”
“. . .the incest and cruelty were shocking enough, but I think what was
most shocking was the lack of any real justice in the play. Shelley, whose
earlier works all presented a universe where justice and even revolution
is still attainable, completely gave up his idealism in the wake of William’s
death. Look what he wrote to Hunt about the play:

ose writings which I have hitherto published, have been

little else than visions which impersonate my own apprehen-
sions of the beautiful and the just. I can also perceive in them
the literary defects incidental to youth and impatience; they
are dreams of what ought to be, or may be. e drama which
I present to you is a sad reality. I lay aside the presumptuous
attitude of an instructor, and am content to paint, with such
colours as my own heart furnishes, that which has been.

. . .”
“. . .what do you think of it – is it worth reading?”
“. . .it’s ok, but it lacks any real narrative twists and turns, ups and downs
– it simply reveals the triumph of evil and the incapacity to act against
evil without falling into evil oneself. . .”
“. . .what’s the basic plot?”
“. . .the play opens with Count Cenci paying off one of the Pope’s minions
in order to escape punishment for some crime he has committed. At a banquet

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he announces exultantly the deaths of two of his own sons – a speech which
disgusts the guests, and which causes his daughter, Beatrice, to speak out
publicly against him. To take his revenge, he rapes her – an act which causes
her to plot his murder with her stepmother and two brothers. e murder is
carried out, but they are caught, brought to Rome by the church, tortured to
gain a confession, and executed for the murder. at’s it. . .”
“. . .why did he identify with Beatrice – because of his own persecution?”
“. . .remember how he described her from what I read before? e part
about ‘the crimes and the miseries in which she was an actor and
a sufferer are as the mask and the mantle in which circumstances clothed
her for her impersonation on the scene of the world. . .’”
“. . .why does he use the word ‘impersonation’?”
“. . .I think with the idea of spirit or energy having been embodied for
a moment on earth – it’s close to what I mean by immanence. e essen-
tial point of identification is that she was a victim of circumstances, and,
beyond that, he’s showing his recognition that to act in any way against
evil is only to commit more evil. e moment one begins acting in the
world, one becomes entirely suspicious of the motives of others, a belief
that Shelley found intolerable, but increasingly necessary. . .”
“. . .it’s an extreme position. . .he began as such an idealist, so the world
must have seemed doubly evil to him, as he had twice as far to fall. . .”
“. . .the play is relentless in its negative view of human nature, but I don’t
think he could ever have held to such a position for long – the play was
a product of his grief. . .”
“. . .it helped him work through his mourning?”
“. . .slowly. . .that summer he spent the mornings in his tower writing,
but he wasn’t entirely shut down, like Mary. In mid-August he wrote this
description of an average day to Peacock:

My employments are these, I awaken usually at , read half an

hour, then get up, breakfast. Aer breakfast ascend my tower,
and read or write until two. en we dine – aer dinner I read
Dante with Mary, gossip a little, eat grapes & figs, sometimes
walk, though seldom; and at ½ past  pay a visit to Mrs.
Gisborne who reads Spanish with me until near seven. We
then come for Mary & stroll about till suppertime.

. . .”

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“. . .and what was Claire doing, aside from helping Mary?”

“. . .he mentions her later in the letter. . .here: ‘I do not walk enough.
Claire, who is sometimes my companion, sometimes does not dress in
exactly the right time – I have no stimulus to walk’. . .”
“. . .what was that about?”
“. . .Claire was apparently rather lazy that summer, sometimes not
dressing until lunch or even supper – but it was a hot Italian summer, and
she was grieving for William as well, not to mention her missed oppor-
tunity to see Allegra. . .”
“. . .do you think Claire and Shelley were intimate then, or was there
another break?”
“. . .there are a couple of fragments that may be from the period indi-
cating they were still intimate – in a clandestine way, of course. Here’s

Follow to the deep wood’s weeds,

Follow to the wild-briar dingle,
Where we seek to intermingle,
And the violet tells her tale
To the odour-scented gale,
For they two have enough to do
Of such work as I and you.

. . .”
“. . .he seems guilty in the last lines. . .”
“. . .to use the words ‘such work’ is certainly self-deprecatory, so I would
read it as an awareness of guilt, and even self-contempt. ere’s another
fragment that sets it out more clearly, devoting a stanza to lovers, and
a stanza to a mother who has lost her child:

When a lover clasps his fairest,

en be our dread sport the rarest.
eir caresses were like chaff
In the tempest, and be our laugh
His despair – her epitaph!

When a mother clasps her child,

Watch till dusty Death has piled

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His cold ashes on the clay;

She has loved it many a day—
She remains, — it fades away.

. . .”
“. . .what is ‘chaff’?