The Shelleys ascended Vesuvius on December 16, 1818. Mary didn’t write much about it in her journal. Go up Vesuvius and see the rivers of Lava gush from its sides, she wrote—we are very much fatigued—& S is very ill – return at 10 o’clock—
But a day or two later, Bysshe left a more detailed account in a very long letter to his friend Thomas Love Peacock. The Vesuvius portion consumes nearly two full pages. In it, we learn that he thought it was the most impressive expression of the energies of nature I ever saw—second only, he said, to the glaciers near Chamonix, France—the Mer de Glace that had occasioned that key scene in Frankenstein.
He and Mary rode mules to the Vesuvian summit, but Claire Clairmont (yes, she was still with them) was carried in a chair on the shoulders of four men, much like a member of parliament after he has gained his election ….
He describes the trail, the views, and the thick heavy white smoke emerging from the crater. He waxes eloquent about the lava and heat. [T]here are several springs of lava, he wrote, & in one place it gushes precipitously over a high crag, rolling down the half melted rocks & its own burning waves; a cataract of quivering fire.
They stayed on the summit a while, enjoying the sunset. We descended by torch light, he tells us.
On the way down he somehow became ill (a state of intense bodily suffering) and had some unkind words for their guides—complete Savages, he writes. You have no idea of the horrible cries which they suddenly utter, no one knows why, the clamour the vociferation & the tumult.
And Claire apparently annoyed her carriers, for they threatened to leave her in the middle of the road …. Only a threat of a beating changed their attitude.
But then—unexpectedly—these “savages” began to sing some fragment of their wild & … sweet national music, the effect is exceedingly fine—
And the Romantic poet finds Romance in the “savages” of Vesuvius.
I had read the Shelleys’ and Dickens’ accounts of their ascents before I made my own, and it probably would have helped if I had read some more current accounts of the trail to the summit of the mountain that killed Pompeii. But I didn’t. And so I was a bit nervous about my hike. Could I do it? And—more ludicrously—would the mountain erupt while I was up there?