Ascending Vesuvius was often on the itinerary of people visiting Naples—and still is. There are myriads of published accounts of it (and I will write about the Shelleys’ experience—and mine—in a bit), but one of my favorite appears in Charles Dickens’ memoir Pictures from Italy, 1846, the story of his year-long sojourn and travels with his family in that country (1844–45).
|Dickens' travels in Italy|
He has quite a lengthy description of his ascent of (and adventures on) Vesuvius near the end of Pictures—and you can find the whole thing with an easy Google search (link)—but I want to include here two of his wonderful paragraphs about getting near the edge—and peering over—at a time when the mountain was spitting fire.
There is something in the fire and roar, that generates an irresistible desire to get nearer to it. We cannot rest long, without starting off, two of us, on our hands and knees, accompanied by the head-guide, to climb to the brim of the flaming crater, and try to look in. Meanwhile, the thirty yell, as with one voice, that it is a dangerous proceeding, and call to us to come back; frightening the rest of the party out of their wits.
What with their noise, and what with the trembling of the thin crust of ground, that seems about to open underneath our feet and plunge us in the burning gulf below (which is the real danger, if there be any); and what with the flashing of the fire in our faces, and the shower of red-hot ashes that is raining down, and the choking smoke and sulphur; we may well feel giddy and irrational, like drunken men. But, we contrive to climb up to the brim, and look down, for a moment, into the Hell of boiling fire below. Then, we all three come rolling down; blackened, and singed, and scorched, and hot, and giddy: and each with his dress alight in half-a-dozen places.
I’ve alluded in other writing to this moment—the moment that writers cannot resist: peering over the edges which others fear to approach, feeling an irresistible desire while doing so, then returning, scorched, and hot, and giddy, ready to write the truths that they have witnessed. And survived.
The Shelleys’ experience was a bit less … fiery, and mine was … well … read on.