[Composed at Florence, October, 1819, and forwarded to Hunt (November]
2) to be published by C. & J. Ollier without the author's name;
ultimately printed by Mrs. Shelley in the second edition of the
"Poetical Works", 1839. A skit by John Hamilton Reynolds, "Peter Bell,
a Lyrical Ballad", had already appeared (April, 1819), a few days
before the publication of Wordsworth's "Peter Bell, a Tale". These
productions were reviewed in Leigh Hunt's "Examiner" (April 26, May 3,
1819); and to the entertainment derived from his perusal of Hunt's
criticisms the composition of Shelley's "Peter Bell the Third" is
TO THOMAS BROWN, ESQ., THE YOUNGER, H.F.
Allow me to request you to introduce Mr. Peter Bell to the respectable
family of the Fudges. Although he may fall short of those very
considerable personages in the more active properties which
characterize the Rat and the Apostate, I suspect that even you, their
historian, will confess that he surpasses them in the more peculiarly
legitimate qualification of intolerable dulness.
You know Mr. Examiner Hunt; well--it was he who presented me to two of
the Mr. Bells. My intimacy with the younger Mr. Bell naturally sprung
from this introduction to his brothers. And in presenting him to you,
I have the satisfaction of being able to assure you that he is
considerably the dullest of the three.
There is this particular advantage in an acquaintance with any one of
the Peter Bells, that if you know one Peter Bell, you know three Peter
Bells; they are not one, but three; not three, but one. An awful
mystery, which, after having caused torrents of blood, and having been
hymned by groans enough to deafen the music of the spheres, is at
length illustrated to the satisfaction of all parties in the
theological world, by the nature of Mr. Peter Bell.
Peter is a polyhedric Peter, or a Peter with many sides. He changes
colours like a chameleon, and his coat like a snake. He is a Proteus
of a Peter. He was at first sublime, pathetic, impressive, profound;
then dull; then prosy and dull; and now dull--oh so very dull! it is
an ultra-legitimate dulness.
You will perceive that it is not necessary to consider Hell and the
Devil as supernatural machinery. The whole scene of my epic is in
'this world which is'--so Peter informed us before his conversion to
'The world of all of us, AND WHERE
WE FIND OUR HAPPINESS, OR NOT AT ALL.'
Let me observe that I have spent six or seven days in composing this
sublime piece; the orb of my moonlike genius has made the fourth part
of its revolution round the dull earth which you inhabit, driving you
mad, while it has retained its calmness and its splendour, and I have
been fitting this its last phase 'to occupy a permanent station in the
literature of my country.'
Your works, indeed, dear Tom, sell better; but mine are far superior.
The public is no judge; posterity sets all to rights.
Allow me to observe that so much has been written of Peter Bell, that
the present history can be considered only, like the Iliad, as a
continuation of that series of cyclic poems, which have already been
candidates for bestowing immortality upon, at the same time that they
receive it from, his character and adventures. In this point of view I
have violated no rule of syntax in beginning my composition with a
conjunction; the full stop which closes the poem continued by me
being, like the full stops at the end of the Iliad and Odyssey, a full
stop of a very qualified import.
Hoping that the immortality which you have given to the Fudges, you
will receive from them; and in the firm expectation, that when London
shall be an habitation of bitterns; when St. Paul's and Westminster
Abbey shall stand, shapeless and nameless ruins, in the midst of an
unpeopled marsh; when the piers of Waterloo Bridge shall become the
nuclei of islets of reeds and osiers, and cast the jagged shadows of
their broken arches on the solitary stream, some transatlantic
commentator will be weighing in the scales of some new and now
unimagined system of criticism, the respective merits of the Bells and
the Fudges, and their historians. I remain, dear Tom, yours sincerely,
December 1, 1819.
P.S.--Pray excuse the date of place; so soon as the profits of the
publication come in, I mean to hire lodgings in a more respectable