Percy Shelley: Poems

Hellas: Notes


Milan was the centre of the resistance of the Lombard league against

the Austrian tyrant. Frederic Barbarossa burnt the city to the ground,

but liberty lived in its ashes, and it rose like an exhalation from

its ruin. See Sismondi's "Histoire des Republiques Italiennes", a book

which has done much towards awakening the Italians to an imitation of

their great ancestors.

(2) THE CHORUS [L. 197].

The popular notions of Christianity are represented in this chorus as

true in their relation to the worship they superseded, and that which

in all probability they will supersede, without considering their

merits in a relation more universal. The first stanza contrasts the

immortality of the living and thinking beings which inhabit the

planets, and to use a common and inadequate phrase, "clothe themselves

in matter", with the transience of the noblest manifestations of the

external world.

The concluding verses indicate a progressive state of more or loss

exalted existence, according to the degree of perfection which every

distinct intelligence may have attained. Let it not be supposed that I

mean to dogmatise upon a subject, concerning which all men are equally

ignorant, or that I think the Gordian knot of the origin of evil can

be disentangled by that or any similar assertions. The received

hypothesis of a Being resembling men in the moral attributes of His

nature, having called us out of non-existence, and after inflicting on

us the misery of the commission of error, should superadd that of the

punishment and the privations consequent upon it, still would remain

inexplicable and incredible. That there is a true solution of the

riddle, and that in our present state that solution is unattainable by

us, are propositions which may be regarded as equally certain:

meanwhile, as it is the province of the poet to attach himself to

those ideas which exalt and ennoble humanity, let him be permitted to

have conjectured the condition of that futurity towards which we are

all impelled by an inextinguishable thirst for immortality. Until

better arguments can be produced than sophisms which disgrace the

cause, this desire itself must remain the strongest and the only

presumption that eternity is the inheritance of every thinking being.


The Greek Patriarch, after haying been compelled to fulminate an

anathema against the insurgents, was put to death by the Turks.

Fortunately the Greeks have been taught that they cannot buy security

by degradation, and the Turks, though equally cruel, are less cunning

than the smooth-faced tyrants of Europe. As to the anathema, his

Holiness might as well have thrown his mitre at Mount Athos for any

effect that it produced. The chiefs of the Greeks are almost all men

of comprehension and enlightened views on religion and politics.


A Greek who had been Lord Byron's servant commands the insurgents in

Attica. This Greek, Lord Byron informs me, though a poet and an

enthusiastic patriot, gave him rather the idea of a timid and

unenterprising person. It appears that circumstances make men what

they are, and that we all contain the germ of a degree of degradation

or of greatness whose connection with our character is determined by



It is reported that this Messiah had arrived at a seaport near

Lacedaemon in an American brig. The association of names and ideas is

irresistibly ludicrous, but the prevalence of such a rumour strongly

marks the state of popular enthusiasm in Greece.


For the vision of Mahmud of the taking of Constantinople in 1453, see

Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", volume 12 page 223.

The manner of the invocation of the spirit of Mahomet the Second will

be censured as over subtle. I could easily have made the Jew a regular

conjuror, and the Phantom an ordinary ghost. I have preferred to

represent the Jew as disclaiming all pretension, or even belief, in

supernatural agency, and as tempting Mahmud to that state of mind in

which ideas may be supposed to assume the force of sensations through

the confusion of thought with the objects of thought, and the excess

of passion animating the creations of imagination.

It is a sort of natural magic, susceptible of being exercised in a

degree by any one who should have made himself master of the secret

associations of another's thoughts.

(7) THE CHORUS [L. 1060].

The final chorus is indistinct and obscure, as the event of the living

drama whose arrival it foretells. Prophecies of wars, and rumours of

wars, etc., may safely be made by poet or prophet in any age, but to

anticipate however darkly a period of regeneration and happiness is a

more hazardous exercise of the faculty which bards possess or feign.

It will remind the reader 'magno NEC proximus intervallo' of Isaiah

and Virgil, whose ardent spirits overleaping the actual reign of evil

which we endure and bewail, already saw the possible and perhaps

approaching state of society in which the 'lion shall lie down with

the lamb,' and 'omnis feret omnia tellus.' Let these great names be my

authority and my excuse.


Saturn and Love were among the deities of a real or imaginary state of

innocence and happiness. ALL those WHO FELL, or the Gods of Greece,

Asia, and Egypt; the ONE WHO ROSE, or Jesus Christ, at whose

appearance the idols of the Pagan World wore amerced of their worship;

and the MANY UNSUBDUED, or the monstrous objects of the idolatry of

China, India, the Antarctic islands, and the native tribes of America,

certainly have reigned over the understandings of men in conjunction

or in succession, during periods in which all we know of evil has been

in a state of portentous, and, until the revival of learning and the

arts, perpetually increasing, activity. The Grecian gods seem indeed

to have been personally more innocent, although it cannot be said,

that as far as temperance and chastity are concerned, they gave so

edifying an example as their successor. The sublime human character of

Jesus Christ was deformed by an imputed identification with a Power,

who tempted, betrayed, and punished the innocent beings who were

called into existence by His sole will; and for the period of a

thousand years, the spirit of this most just, wise, and benevolent of

men has been propitiated with myriads of hecatombs of those who

approached the nearest to His innocence and wisdom, sacrificed under

every aggravation of atrocity and variety of torture. The horrors of

the Mexican, the Peruvian, and the Indian superstitions are well



The South of Europe was in a state of great political excitement at

the beginning of the year 1821. The Spanish Revolution had been a

signal to Italy; secrete societies were formed; and, when Naples rose

to declare the Constitution, the call was responded to from Brundusium

to the foot of the Alps. To crush these attempts to obtain liberty,

early in 1821 the Austrians poured their armies into the Peninsula: at

first their coming rather seemed to add energy and resolution to a

people long enslaved. The Piedmontese asserted their freedom; Genoa

threw off the yoke of the King of Sardinia; and, as if in playful

imitation, the people of the little state of Massa and Carrara gave

the conge to their sovereign, and set up a republic.

Tuscany alone was perfectly tranquil. It was said that the Austrian

minister presented a list of sixty Carbonari to the Grand Duke, urging

their imprisonment; and the Grand Duke replied, 'I do not know whether

these sixty men are Carbonari, but I know, if I imprison them, I shall

directly have sixty thousand start up.' But, though the Tuscans had no

desire to disturb the paternal government beneath whose shelter they

slumbered, they regarded the progress of the various Italian

revolutions with intense interest, and hatred for the Austrian was

warm in every bosom. But they had slender hopes; they knew that the

Neapolitans would offer no fit resistance to the regular German

troops, and that the overthrow of the constitution in Naples would act

as a decisive blow against all struggles for liberty in Italy.

We have seen the rise and progress of reform. But the Holy Alliance

was alive and active in those days, and few could dream of the

peaceful triumph of liberty. It seemed then that the armed assertion

of freedom in the South of Europe was the only hope of the liberals,

as, if it prevailed, the nations of the north would imitate the

example. Happily the reverse has proved the fact. The countries

accustomed to the exercise of the privileges of freemen, to a limited

extent, have extended, and are extending, these limits. Freedom and

knowledge have now a chance of proceeding hand in hand; and, if it

continue thus, we may hope for the durability of both. Then, as I have

said--in 1821--Shelley, as well as every other lover of liberty,

looked upon the struggles in Spain and Italy as decisive of the

destinies of the world, probably for centuries to come. The interest

he took in the progress of affairs was intense. When Genoa declared

itself free, his hopes were at their highest. Day after day he read

the bulletins of the Austrian army, and sought eagerly to gather

tokens of its defeat. He heard of the revolt of Genoa with emotions of

transport. His whole heart and soul were in the triumph of the cause.

We were living at Pisa at that time; and several well-informed

Italians, at the head of whom we may place the celebrated Vacca, were

accustomed to seek for sympathy in their hopes from Shelley: they did

not find such for the despair they too generally experienced, founded

on contempt for their southern countrymen.

While the fate of the progress of the Austrian armies then invading

Naples was yet in suspense, the news of another revolution filled him

with exultation. We had formed the acquaintance at Pisa of several

Constantinopolitan Greeks, of the family of Prince Caradja, formerly

Hospodar of Wallachia; who, hearing that the bowstring, the accustomed

finale of his viceroyalty, was on the road to him, escaped with his

treasures, and took up his abode in Tuscany. Among these was the

gentleman to whom the drama of "Hellas" is dedicated. Prince

Mavrocordato was warmed by those aspirations for the independence of

his country which filled the hearts of many of his countrymen. He

often intimated the possibility of an insurrection in Greece; but we

had no idea of its being so near at hand, when, on the 1st of April

1821, he called on Shelley, bringing the proclamation of his cousin,

Prince Ypsilanti, and, radiant with exultation and delight, declared

that henceforth Greece would be free.

Shelley had hymned the dawn of liberty in Spain and Naples, in two

odes dictated by the warmest enthusiasm; he felt himself naturally

impelled to decorate with poetry the uprise of the descendants of that

people whose works he regarded with deep admiration, and to adopt the

vaticinatory character in prophesying their success. "Hellas" was

written in a moment of enthusiasm. It is curious to remark how well he

overcomes the difficulty of forming a drama out of such scant

materials. His prophecies, indeed, came true in their general, not

their particular, purport. He did not foresee the death of Lord

Londonderry, which was to be the epoch of a change in English

politics, particularly as regarded foreign affairs; nor that the navy

of his country would fight for instead of against the Greeks, and by

the battle of Navarino secure their enfranchisement from the Turks.

Almost against reason, as it appeared to him, he resolved to believe

that Greece would prove triumphant; and in this spirit, auguring

ultimate good, yet grieving over the vicissitudes to be endured in the

interval, he composed his drama.

"Hellas" was among the last of his compositions, and is among the most

beautiful. The choruses are singularly imaginative, and melodious in

their versification. There are some stanzas that beautifully exemplify

Shelley's peculiar style; as, for instance, the assertion of the

intellectual empire which must be for ever the inheritance of the

country of Homer, Sophocles, and Plato:--

'But Greece and her foundations are

Built below the tide of war,

Based on the crystalline sea

Of thought and its eternity.'

And again, that philosophical truth felicitously imaged forth--

'Revenge and Wrong bring forth their kind,

The foul cubs like their parents are,

Their den is in the guilty mind,

And Conscience feeds them with despair.'

The conclusion of the last chorus is among the most beautiful of his

lyrics. The imagery is distinct and majestic; the prophecy, such as

poets love to dwell upon, the Regeneration of Mankind--and that

regeneration reflecting back splendour on the foregone time, from

which it inherits so much of intellectual wealth, and memory of past

virtuous deeds, as must render the possession of happiness and peace

of tenfold value.