Percy Shelley: Poems

Letter To Maria Gisborne

[Composed during Shelley's occupation of the Gisbornes' house at]

Leghorn, July, 1820; published in "Posthumous Poems", 1824. Sources of

the text are (1) a draft in Shelley's hand, 'partly illegible'

(Forman), amongst the Boscombe manuscripts; (2) a transcript by Mrs.

Shelley; (3) the editio princeps, 1824; the text in "Poetical Works",

1839, let and 2nd editions. Our text is that of Mrs. Shelley's

transcript, modified by the Boscombe manuscript. Here, as elsewhere in

this edition, the readings of the editio princeps are preserved in the


LEGHORN, July 1, 1820.]

The spider spreads her webs, whether she be

In poet's tower, cellar, or barn, or tree;

The silk-worm in the dark green mulberry leaves

His winding sheet and cradle ever weaves;

So I, a thing whom moralists call worm, _5

Sit spinning still round this decaying form,

From the fine threads of rare and subtle thought--

No net of words in garish colours wrought

To catch the idle buzzers of the day--

But a soft cell, where when that fades away, _10

Memory may clothe in wings my living name

And feed it with the asphodels of fame,

Which in those hearts which must remember me

Grow, making love an immortality.

Whoever should behold me now, I wist, _15

Would think I were a mighty mechanist,

Bent with sublime Archimedean art

To breathe a soul into the iron heart

Of some machine portentous, or strange gin,

Which by the force of figured spells might win _20

Its way over the sea, and sport therein;

For round the walls are hung dread engines, such

As Vulcan never wrought for Jove to clutch

Ixion or the Titan:--or the quick

Wit of that man of God, St. Dominic, _25

To convince Atheist, Turk, or Heretic,

Or those in philanthropic council met,

Who thought to pay some interest for the debt

They owed to Jesus Christ for their salvation,

By giving a faint foretaste of damnation _30

To Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, and the rest

Who made our land an island of the blest,

When lamp-like Spain, who now relumes her fire

On Freedom's hearth, grew dim with Empire:--

With thumbscrews, wheels, with tooth and spike and jag, _35

Which fishers found under the utmost crag

Of Cornwall and the storm-encompassed isles,

Where to the sky the rude sea rarely smiles

Unless in treacherous wrath, as on the morn

When the exulting elements in scorn, _40

Satiated with destroyed destruction, lay

Sleeping in beauty on their mangled prey,

As panthers sleep;--and other strange and dread

Magical forms the brick floor overspread,--

Proteus transformed to metal did not make _45

More figures, or more strange; nor did he take

Such shapes of unintelligible brass,

Or heap himself in such a horrid mass

Of tin and iron not to be understood;

And forms of unimaginable wood, _50

To puzzle Tubal Cain and all his brood:

Great screws, and cones, and wheels, and grooved blocks,

The elements of what will stand the shocks

Of wave and wind and time.--Upon the table

More knacks and quips there be than I am able _55

To catalogize in this verse of mine:--

A pretty bowl of wood--not full of wine,

But quicksilver; that dew which the gnomes drink

When at their subterranean toil they swink,

Pledging the demons of the earthquake, who _60

Reply to them in lava--cry halloo!

And call out to the cities o'er their head,--

Roofs, towers, and shrines, the dying and the dead,

Crash through the chinks of earth--and then all quaff

Another rouse, and hold their sides and laugh. _65

This quicksilver no gnome has drunk--within

The walnut bowl it lies, veined and thin,

In colour like the wake of light that stains

The Tuscan deep, when from the moist moon rains

The inmost shower of its white fire--the breeze _70

Is still--blue Heaven smiles over the pale seas.

And in this bowl of quicksilver--for I

Yield to the impulse of an infancy

Outlasting manhood--I have made to float

A rude idealism of a paper boat:-- _75

A hollow screw with cogs--Henry will know

The thing I mean and laugh at me,--if so

He fears not I should do more mischief.--Next

Lie bills and calculations much perplexed,

With steam-boats, frigates, and machinery quaint _80

Traced over them in blue and yellow paint.

Then comes a range of mathematical

Instruments, for plans nautical and statical,

A heap of rosin, a queer broken glass

With ink in it;--a china cup that was _85

What it will never be again, I think,--

A thing from which sweet lips were wont to drink

The liquor doctors rail at--and which I

Will quaff in spite of them--and when we die

We'll toss up who died first of drinking tea, _90

And cry out,--'Heads or tails?' where'er we be.

Near that a dusty paint-box, some odd hooks,

A half-burnt match, an ivory block, three books,

Where conic sections, spherics, logarithms,

To great Laplace, from Saunderson and Sims, _95

Lie heaped in their harmonious disarray

Of figures,--disentangle them who may.

Baron de Tott's Memoirs beside them lie,

And some odd volumes of old chemistry.

Near those a most inexplicable thing, _100

With lead in the middle--I'm conjecturing

How to make Henry understand; but no--

I'll leave, as Spenser says, with many mo,

This secret in the pregnant womb of time,

Too vast a matter for so weak a rhyme. _105

And here like some weird Archimage sit I,

Plotting dark spells, and devilish enginery,

The self-impelling steam-wheels of the mind

Which pump up oaths from clergymen, and grind

The gentle spirit of our meek reviews _110

Into a powdery foam of salt abuse,

Ruffling the ocean of their self-content;--

I sit--and smile or sigh as is my bent,

But not for them--Libeccio rushes round

With an inconstant and an idle sound, _115

I heed him more than them--the thunder-smoke

Is gathering on the mountains, like a cloak

Folded athwart their shoulders broad and bare;

The ripe corn under the undulating air

Undulates like an ocean;--and the vines _120

Are trembling wide in all their trellised lines--

The murmur of the awakening sea doth fill

The empty pauses of the blast;--the hill

Looks hoary through the white electric rain,

And from the glens beyond, in sullen strain, _125

The interrupted thunder howls; above

One chasm of Heaven smiles, like the eye of Love

On the unquiet world;--while such things are,

How could one worth your friendship heed the war

Of worms? the shriek of the world's carrion jays, _130

Their censure, or their wonder, or their praise?

You are not here! the quaint witch Memory sees,

In vacant chairs, your absent images,

And points where once you sat, and now should be

But are not.--I demand if ever we _135

Shall meet as then we met;--and she replies.

Veiling in awe her second-sighted eyes;

'I know the past alone--but summon home

My sister Hope,--she speaks of all to come.'

But I, an old diviner, who knew well _140

Every false verse of that sweet oracle,

Turned to the sad enchantress once again,

And sought a respite from my gentle pain,

In citing every passage o'er and o'er

Of our communion--how on the sea-shore _145

We watched the ocean and the sky together,

Under the roof of blue Italian weather;

How I ran home through last year's thunder-storm,

And felt the transverse lightning linger warm

Upon my cheek--and how we often made _150

Feasts for each other, where good will outweighed

The frugal luxury of our country cheer,

As well it might, were it less firm and clear

Than ours must ever be;--and how we spun

A shroud of talk to hide us from the sun _155

Of this familiar life, which seems to be

But is not:--or is but quaint mockery

Of all we would believe, and sadly blame

The jarring and inexplicable frame

Of this wrong world:--and then anatomize _160

The purposes and thoughts of men whose eyes

Were closed in distant years;--or widely guess

The issue of the earth's great business,

When we shall be as we no longer are--

Like babbling gossips safe, who hear the war _165

Of winds, and sigh, but tremble not;--or how

You listened to some interrupted flow

Of visionary rhyme,--in joy and pain

Struck from the inmost fountains of my brain,

With little skill perhaps;--or how we sought _170

Those deepest wells of passion or of thought

Wrought by wise poets in the waste of years,

Staining their sacred waters with our tears;

Quenching a thirst ever to be renewed!

Or how I, wisest lady! then endued _175

The language of a land which now is free,

And, winged with thoughts of truth and majesty,

Flits round the tyrant's sceptre like a cloud,

And bursts the peopled prisons, and cries aloud,

'My name is Legion!'--that majestic tongue _180

Which Calderon over the desert flung

Of ages and of nations; and which found

An echo in our hearts, and with the sound

Startled oblivion;--thou wert then to me

As is a nurse--when inarticulately _185

A child would talk as its grown parents do.

If living winds the rapid clouds pursue,

If hawks chase doves through the aethereal way,

Huntsmen the innocent deer, and beasts their prey,

Why should not we rouse with the spirit's blast _190

Out of the forest of the pathless past

These recollected pleasures?

You are now

In London, that great sea, whose ebb and flow

At once is deaf and loud, and on the shore

Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more. _195

Yet in its depth what treasures! You will see

That which was Godwin,--greater none than he

Though fallen--and fallen on evil times--to stand

Among the spirits of our age and land,

Before the dread tribunal of "to come" _200

The foremost,--while Rebuke cowers pale and dumb.

You will see Coleridge--he who sits obscure

In the exceeding lustre and the pure

Intense irradiation of a mind,

Which, with its own internal lightning blind, _200

Flags wearily through darkness and despair--

A cloud-encircled meteor of the air,

A hooded eagle among blinking owls.--

You will see Hunt--one of those happy souls

Which are the salt of the earth, and without whom _210

This world would smell like what it is--a tomb;

Who is, what others seem; his room no doubt

Is still adorned with many a cast from Shout,

With graceful flowers tastefully placed about;

And coronals of bay from ribbons hung, _215

And brighter wreaths in neat disorder flung;

The gifts of the most learned among some dozens

Of female friends, sisters-in-law, and cousins.

And there is he with his eternal puns,

Which beat the dullest brain for smiles, like duns _220

Thundering for money at a poet's door;

Alas! it is no use to say, 'I'm poor!'

Or oft in graver mood, when he will look

Things wiser than were ever read in book,

Except in Shakespeare's wisest tenderness.-- _225

You will see Hogg,--and I cannot express

His virtues,--though I know that they are great,

Because he locks, then barricades the gate

Within which they inhabit;--of his wit

And wisdom, you'll cry out when you are bit. _230

He is a pearl within an oyster shell.

One of the richest of the deep;--and there

Is English Peacock, with his mountain Fair,

Turned into a Flamingo;--that shy bird

That gleams i' the Indian air--have you not heard _235

When a man marries, dies, or turns Hindoo,

His best friends hear no more of him?--but you

Will see him, and will like him too, I hope,

With the milk-white Snowdonian Antelope

Matched with this cameleopard--his fine wit _240

Makes such a wound, the knife is lost in it;

A strain too learned for a shallow age,

Too wise for selfish bigots; let his page,

Which charms the chosen spirits of the time,

Fold itself up for the serener clime _245

Of years to come, and find its recompense

In that just expectation.--Wit and sense,

Virtue and human knowledge; all that might

Make this dull world a business of delight,

Are all combined in Horace Smith.--And these. _250

With some exceptions, which I need not tease

Your patience by descanting on,--are all

You and I know in London.

I recall

My thoughts, and bid you look upon the night.

As water does a sponge, so the moonlight _255

Fills the void, hollow, universal air--

What see you?--unpavilioned Heaven is fair,

Whether the moon, into her chamber gone,

Leaves midnight to the golden stars, or wan

Climbs with diminished beams the azure steep; _260

Or whether clouds sail o'er the inverse deep,

Piloted by the many-wandering blast,

And the rare stars rush through them dim and fast:--

All this is beautiful in every land.--

But what see you beside?--a shabby stand _265

Of Hackney coaches--a brick house or wall

Fencing some lonely court, white with the scrawl

Of our unhappy politics;--or worse--

A wretched woman reeling by, whose curse

Mixed with the watchman's, partner of her trade, _270

You must accept in place of serenade--

Or yellow-haired Pollonia murmuring

To Henry, some unutterable thing.

I see a chaos of green leaves and fruit

Built round dark caverns, even to the root _275

Of the living stems that feed them--in whose bowers

There sleep in their dark dew the folded flowers;

Beyond, the surface of the unsickled corn

Trembles not in the slumbering air, and borne

In circles quaint, and ever-changing dance, _280

Like winged stars the fire-flies flash and glance,

Pale in the open moonshine, but each one

Under the dark trees seems a little sun,

A meteor tamed; a fixed star gone astray

From the silver regions of the milky way;-- _285

Afar the Contadino's song is heard,

Rude, but made sweet by distance--and a bird

Which cannot be the Nightingale, and yet

I know none else that sings so sweet as it

At this late hour;--and then all is still-- _290

Now--Italy or London, which you will!

Next winter you must pass with me; I'll have

My house by that time turned into a grave

Of dead despondence and low-thoughted care,

And all the dreams which our tormentors are; _295

Oh! that Hunt, Hogg, Peacock, and Smith were there,

With everything belonging to them fair!--

We will have books, Spanish, Italian, Greek;

And ask one week to make another week

As like his father, as I'm unlike mine, _300

Which is not his fault, as you may divine.

Though we eat little flesh and drink no wine,

Yet let's be merry: we'll have tea and toast;

Custards for supper, and an endless host

Of syllabubs and jellies and mince-pies, _305

And other such lady-like luxuries,--

Feasting on which we will philosophize!

And we'll have fires out of the Grand Duke's wood,

To thaw the six weeks' winter in our blood.

And then we'll talk;--what shall we talk about? _310

Oh! there are themes enough for many a bout

Of thought-entangled descant;--as to nerves--

With cones and parallelograms and curves

I've sworn to strangle them if once they dare

To bother me--when you are with me there. _315

And they shall never more sip laudanum,

From Helicon or Himeros (1);--well, come,

And in despite of God and of the devil,

We'll make our friendly philosophic revel

Outlast the leafless time; till buds and flowers _320

Warn the obscure inevitable hours,

Sweet meeting by sad parting to renew;--

'To-morrow to fresh woods and pastures new.'


_13 must Bos. manuscript; most edition 1824.

_27 philanthropic Bos. manuscript; philosophic edition 1824.

_29 so 1839, 2nd edition; They owed... edition 1824.

_36 Which fishers Bos. manuscript; Which fishes edition 1824;

With fishes editions 1839.

_38 rarely transcript; seldom editions 1824, 1839.

_61 lava--cry]lava-cry editions 1824, 1839.

_63 towers transcript; towns editions 1824, 1839.

_84 queer Bos. manuscript; green transcript, editions 1824, 1839.

_92 odd hooks transcript; old books editions 1839 (an evident misprint);

old hooks edition 1824.

_93 A]An edition 1824.

_100 those transcript; them editions 1824, 1839.

_101 lead Bos. manuscript; least transcript, editions 1824, 1839.

_127 eye Bos. manuscript, transcript, editions 1839; age edition 1824.

_140 knew Bos. manuscript; know transcript, editions 1824, 1839.

_144 citing Bos. manuscript; acting transcript, editions 1824, 1839.

_151 Feasts transcript; Treats editions 1824, 1839.

_153 As well it]As it well editions 1824, 1839.

_158 believe, and]believe; or editions 1824, 1839.

_173 their transcript; the editions 1824, 1839.

_188 aethereal transcript; aereal editions 1824, 1839.

_197-201 See notes Volume 3.

_202 Coleridge]C-- edition 1824. So too H--t l. 209; H-- l. 226;

P-- l. 233; H.S. l. 250; H-- -- and -- l. 296.

_205 lightning Bos. manuscript, transcript; lustre editions 1824, 1839.

_224 read Bos. manuscript; said transcript, editions 1824, 1839.

_244 time Bos. manuscript, transcript; age editions 1824, 1839.

_245 the transcript: a editions 1824, 1839.

_272, _273 found in the 2nd edition of P. W., 1839;

wanting in transcript, edition 1824 and 1839, 1st. edition.

_276 that transcript; who editions 1824, 1839.

_288 the transcript; a editions 1824, 1839.

_296 See notes Volume 3.

_299, _300 So 1839, 2nd edition; wanting in editions 1824, 1839, 1st.

_301 So transcript; wanting in editions 1824, 1839.

_317 well, come 1839, 2nd edition; we'll come editions 1824, 1839. 1st.

_318 despite of God] transcript; despite of... edition 1824;

spite of... editions 1839.

(_317 Imeros, from which the river Himera was named, is, with some

slight shade of difference, a synonym of Love.--[SHELLEY'S NOTE.]