So much of the Shelleys’ time in Italy seems, as I read over these pages, so involved with travel, child care, marital strife, dealing with friends, and, of course death. But both Bysshe and Mary, somehow, found time to write—and to write some pretty impressive pieces. In this memoir, I’m not as concerned with Bysshe’s writing, but during his time in Italy he wrote some of his most celebrated works, including Prometheus Unbound, The Cenci, “Ode to the West Wind,” “To a Skylark,” “A Defence of Poetry,” and numerous others. It’s still hard to comprehend that he was only twenty-nine when he drowned off the coast of Viareggio.
In 1819, by the way, he wrote a couple of short pieces to Mary, fragments, really, that reflect the tensions in their marriage at the time. Here’s one …
My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,
And left me in this dreary world alone?
Thy form is here indeed,—a lovely one—
But thou art fled, gone down the dreary road,
That leads to Sorrow’s most obscure abode;
Thou sittest on the heart of pale despair,
For thine own sake I cannot follow thee.
We need to remember, of course, that by the time he’d written these lines, they had buried two of their little children in Italy. And Mary was understandably despondent. Later, when Mary published her late husband’s works, she did not include these lines among them, not in the first edition.
Mary wrote a novella she began in August 1819 and finished in February 1820. She called in Matilda, and she sent it to her father in 1820 to see if he could make arrangements for publication. But Godwin put it in a drawer, where it stayed, and it was not published until 1959, the year I would turn fifteen. And therein lies a tale …