Percy Shelley: Poems

The Witch Of Atlas: Note

We spent the summer of 1820 at the Baths of San Giuliano, four miles

from Pisa. These baths were of great use to Shelley in soothing his

nervous irritability. We made several excursions in the neighbourhood.

The country around is fertile, and diversified and rendered

picturesque by ranges of near hills and more distant mountains. The

peasantry are a handsome intelligent race; and there was a gladsome

sunny heaven spread over us, that rendered home and every scene we

visited cheerful and bright. During some of the hottest days of

August, Shelley made a solitary journey on foot to the summit of Monte

San Pellegrino--a mountain of some height, on the top of which there

is a chapel, the object, during certain days of the year, of many

pilgrimages. The excursion delighted him while it lasted; though he

exerted himself too much, and the effect was considerable lassitude

and weakness on his return. During the expedition he conceived the

idea, and wrote, in the three days immediately succeeding to his

return, the "Witch of Atlas". This poem is peculiarly characteristic

of his tastes--wildly fanciful, full of brilliant imagery, and

discarding human interest and passion, to revel in the fantastic ideas

that his imagination suggested.

The surpassing excellence of "The Cenci" had made me greatly desire

that Shelley should increase his popularity by adopting subjects that

would more suit the popular taste than a poem conceived in the

abstract and dreamy spirit of the "Witch of Atlas". It was not only

that I wished him to acquire popularity as redounding to his fame; but

I believed that he would obtain a greater mastery over his own powers,

and greater happiness in his mind, if public applause crowned his

endeavours. The few stanzas that precede the poem were addressed to me

on my representing these ideas to him. Even now I believe that I was

in the right. Shelley did not expect sympathy and approbation from the

public; but the want of it took away a portion of the ardour that

ought to have sustained him while writing. He was thrown on his own

resources, and on the inspiration of his own soul; and wrote because

his mind overflowed, without the hope of being appreciated. I had not

the most distant wish that he should truckle in opinion, or submit his

lofty aspirations for the human race to the low ambition and pride of

the many; but I felt sure that, if his poems were more addressed to

the common feelings of men, his proper rank among the writers of the

day would be acknowledged, and that popularity as a poet would enable

his countrymen to do justice to his character and virtues, which in

those days it was the mode to attack with the most flagitious

calumnies and insulting abuse. That he felt these things deeply cannot

be doubted, though he armed himself with the consciousness of acting

from a lofty and heroic sense of right. The truth burst from his heart

sometimes in solitude, and he would writes few unfinished verses that

showed that he felt the sting; among such I find the following:--

'Alas! this is not what I thought Life was.

I knew that there were crimes and evil men,

Misery and hate; nor did I hope to pass

Untouched by suffering through the rugged glen.

In mine own heart I saw as in a glass

The hearts of others...And, when

I went among my kind, with triple brass

Of calm endurance my weak breast I armed,

To bear scorn, fear, and hate--a woful mass!'

I believed that all this morbid feeling would vanish if the chord of

sympathy between him and his countrymen were touched. But my

persuasions were vain, the mind could not be bent from its natural

inclination. Shelley shrunk instinctively from portraying human

passion, with its mixture of good and evil, of disappointment and

disquiet. Such opened again the wounds of his own heart; and he loved

to shelter himself rather in the airiest flights of fancy, forgetting

love and hate, and regret and lost hope, in such imaginations as

borrowed their hues from sunrise or sunset, from the yellow moonshine

or paly twilight, from the aspect of the far ocean or the shadows of

the woods,--which celebrated the singing of the winds among the pines,

the flow of a murmuring stream, and the thousand harmonious sounds

which Nature creates in her solitudes. These are the materials which

form the "Witch of Atlas": it is a brilliant congregation of ideas

such as his senses gathered, and his fancy coloured, during his

rambles in the sunny land he so much loved.