"Proserpine and Midas", composed in 1820 while the Shelleys were living in Italy, is a collection of two plays written by famous Romantic era writer Mary Shelley and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley for children. Mary wrote the blank verse drama and Percy contributed with lyric poems to the work. Whether the plays were ever intended to be staged is a point of debate among scholars.
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PROSERPINE AND MIDAS
The editor came across the unpublished texts included in this volume as early as 1905. Perhaps he ought to apologize for delaying their appearance in print. The fact is he has long been afraid of overrating their intrinsic value. But as the great Shelley centenary year has come, perhaps this little monument of his wife’s collaboration may take its modest place among the tributes which will be paid to his memory. For Mary Shelley’s mythological dramas can at least claim to be the proper setting for some of the most beautiful lyrics of the poet, which so far have been read in undue isolation. And even as a literary sign of those times, as an example of that classical renaissance which the romantic period fostered, they may not be altogether negligible.
These biographical and literary points have been dealt with in an introduction for which the kindest help was long ago received from the late Dr. Garnett and the late Lord Abinger. Sir Walter Raleigh was also among the first to give both encouragement and guidance. My friends M. Emile Pons and Mr. Roger Ingpen have read the book in manuscript. The authorities of the Bodleian Library and of the Clarendon Press have been as generously helpful as is their well-known wont. To all the editor wishes to record his acknowledgements and thanks.
‘The compositions published in Mrs. Shelley’s lifetime afford but an inadequate conception of the intense sensibility and mental vigour of this extraordinary woman.’
Thus wrote Dr. Garnett, in 1862 (Preface to his Relics of Shelley). The words of praise may have sounded unexpectedly warm at that date. Perhaps the present volume will make the reader more willing to subscribe, or less inclined to demur.
Mary Godwin in her younger days certainly possessed a fair share of that nimbleness of invention which generally characterizes women of letters. Her favourite pastime as a child, she herself testifies,1 had been to write stories. And a dearer pleasure had been—to use her own characteristic abstract and elongated way of putting it—‘the following up trains of thought which had for their subject the formation of a succession of imaginary incidents’. All readers of Shelley’s life remember how later on, as a girl of nineteen—and a two years’ wife—she was present, ‘a devout but nearly silent listener’, at the long symposia held by her husband and Byron in Switzerland (June 1816), and how the pondering over ‘German horrors’, and a common resolve to perpetrate ghost stories of their own, led her to imagine that most unwomanly of all feminine romances, Frankenstein. The paradoxical effort was paradoxically successful, and, as publishers’ lists aver to this day, Frankenstein’s monster has turned out to be the hardest-lived specimen of the ‘raw-head-and-bloody-bones’ school of romantic tales. So much, no doubt, to the credit of Mary Shelley. But more creditable, surely, is the fact that she was not tempted, as ‘Monk’ Lewis had been, to persevere in those lugubrious themes.
Although her publishers—et pour cause—insisted on styling her ‘the author of Frankenstein’, an entirely different vein appears in her later productions. Indeed, a quiet reserve of tone, a slow, sober, and sedate bearing, are henceforth characteristic of all her literary attitudes. It is almost a case of running from one to the other extreme. The force of style which even adverse critics acknowledged inFrankenstein was sometimes perilously akin to the most disputable kinds of romantic rant. But in the historical or society novels which followed, in the contributions which graced the ‘Keepsakes’ of the thirties, and even—alas—in the various prefaces and commentaries which accompanied the publication of so many poems of Shelley, his wife succumbed to an increasing habit of almost Victorian reticence and dignity. And those later novels and tales, though they sold well in their days and were kindly reviewed, can hardly boast of any reputation now. Most of them are pervaded by a brooding spirit of melancholy of the ‘moping’ rather than the ‘musical’ sort, and consequently rather ineffective as an artistic motive. Students of Shelley occasionally scan those pages with a view to pick some obscure ‘hints and indirections’, some veiled reminiscences, in the stories of the adventures and misfortunes of The Last Man or Lodore. And the books may be good biography at times—they are never life.
Altogether there is a curious contrast between the two aspects, hitherto revealed, of Mary Shelley’s literary activities. It is as if the pulse which had been beating so wildly, so frantically, in Frankenstein(1818), had lapsed, with Valperga (1823) and the rest, into an increasingly sluggish flow.
The following pages may be held to bridge the gap between those two extremes in a felicitous way. A more purely artistic mood, instinct with the serene joy and clear warmth of Italian skies, combining a good deal of youthful buoyancy with a sort of quiet and unpretending philosophy, is here represented. And it is submitted that the little classical fancies which Mrs. Shelley never ventured to publish are quite as worthy of consideration as her more ambitious prose works.
For one thing they give us the longest poetical effort of the writer. The moon of Epipsychidion never seems to have been thrilled with the music of the highest spheres. Yet there were times when Shelley’s inspiration and example fired her into something more than her usual calm and cold brilliancy.
One of those periods—perhaps the happiest period in Mary’s life—was during the early months in Italy of the English ‘exiles’. ‘She never was more strongly impelled to write than at this time; she felt her powers fresh and strong within her; all she wanted was some motive, some suggestion to guide her in the choice of a subject.’2
Shelley then expected her to try her hand at a drama, perhaps on the terrible story of the Cenci, or again on the catastrophes of Charles the First. Her Frankenstein was attracting more attention than had ever been granted to his own works. And Shelley, with that touching simplicity which characterized his loving moments, showed the greatest confidence in the literary career of his wife. He helped her and encouraged her in every way. He then translated for her Plato’s Symposium. He led her on in her Latin and Italian studies. He wanted her—probably as a sort of preliminary exercise before her flight into tragedy—to translate Alfieri’s Myrrha. ‘Remember Charles the First, and do you be prepared to bring at least some of Myrrha translated,’ he wrote; ‘remember, remember Charles the First andMyrrha,’ he insisted; and he quoted, for her benefit, the presumptuous aphorism of Godwin, in St. Leon, ‘There is nothing which the human mind can conceive which it may not execute’.3
But in the year that followed these auspicious days, the strain and stress of her life proved more powerful on Mary Shelley than the inspiration of literature. The loss of her little girl Clara, at Venice, on the 24th of September 1818, was cruel enough. However, she tried hard not to show the ‘pusillanimous disposition’ which, Godwin assured his daughter, characterizes the persons ‘that sink long under a calamity of this nature’.4 But the death of her boy, William, at Rome, on the 4th of June 1819, reduced her to a ‘kind of despair’. Whatever it could be to her husband, Italy no longer was for her a ‘paradise of exiles’. The flush and excitement of the early months, the ‘first fine careless rapture’, were for ever gone. ‘I shall never recover that blow,’ Mary wrote on the 27th of June 1819; ‘the thought never leaves me for a single moment; everything on earth has lost its interest for me,’ This time her imperturbable father ’philosophized’ in vain. With a more sympathetic and acuter intelligence of her case, Leigh Hunt insisted (July 1819) that she should try and give her paralysing sorrow some literary expression, ‘strike her pen into some... genial subject... and bring up a fountain of gentle tears for us’. But the poor childless mother could only rehearse her complaint—‘to have won, and thus cruelly to have lost’ (4 August 1819). In fact she had, on William’s death, discontinued her diary.
Yet on the date just mentioned, as Shelley reached his twenty-seven years, she plucked up courage and resumed the task. Shelley, however absorbed by the creative ardour of his Annus mirabilis, could not but observe that his wife’s ‘spirits continued wretchedly depressed’ (5 August 1819); and though masculine enough to resent the fact at times more than pity it, he was human enough to persevere in that habit of co-operative reading and writing which is one of the finest traits of his married life. ‘I write in the morning,’ his wife testifies, ‘read Latin till 2, when we dine; then I read some English book, and two cantos of Dante with Shelley’5 —a fair average, no doubt, of the homely aspect of the great days which produced The Cenci and Prometheus.
On the 12th November, in Florence, the birth of a second son, Percy Florence Shelley, helped Mary out of her sense of bereavement. Subsequent letters still occasionally admit ‘low spirits’. But the entries in the Journal make it clear that the year 1819-20 was one of the most pleasantly industrious of her life. Not Dante only, but a motley series of books, great and small, ancient and modern, English and foreign, bespoke her attention. Not content with Latin, and the extemporized translations which Shelley could give her of Plato’s Republic, she started Greek in 1820, and soon came to delight in it. And again she thought of original composition. ‘Write’, ‘work,’—the words now occur daily in her Journal. These must mainly refer to the long historical novel, which she had planned, as early as 1819,6 under the title of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, and which was not published until 1823, as Valperga. It was indeed a laborious task. The novel ‘illustrative of the manners of the Middle Ages in Italy’ had to be ‘raked out of fifty old books’, as Shelley said.7
But heavy as the undertaking must have been, it certainly did not engross all the activities of Shelley’s wife in this period. And it seems highly probable that the two little mythological dramas which we here publish belong to this same year 1820.
The evidence for this date is as follows. Shelley’s lyrics, which these dramas include, were published by his wife (Posthumous Poems, 1824) among the ‘poems written in 1820’. Another composition, in blank verse, curiously similar to Mary’s own work, entitled Orpheus, has been allotted by Dr. Garnett (Relics of Shelley, 1862) to the same category.8 Again, it may well be more than a coincidence, that the Proserpine motive occurs in that passage from Dante’s Purgatorio, canto 28, on ‘Matilda gathering flowers’, which Shelley is known to have translated shortly before Medwin’s visit in the late autumn of 1820.
O come, that I may hear Thy song: like Proserpine, in Enna’s glen, Thou seemest to my fancy,—singing here, And gathering flowers, as that fair maiden, when She lost the spring and Ceres her more dear. 9
But we have a far more important, because a direct, testimony in a manuscript addition made by Thomas Medwin in the margin of a copy of his Life of Shelley (1847). 10 The passage is clearly intended—though chronology is no more than any other exact science the ‘forte’ of that most tantalizing of biographers—to refer to the year 1820.
‘Mrs. Shelley had at this time been writing some little Dramas on classical subjects, one of which was the Rape of Proserpine, a very graceful composition which she has never published. Shelley contributed to this the exquisite fable of Arethusa and the Invocation to Ceres.—Among the Nymphs gathering flowers on Enna were two whom she called Ino and Uno, names which I remember in the Dialogue were irresistibly ludicrous. She also wrote one on Midas, into which were introduced by Shelley, in the Contest between Pan and Apollo, the Sublime Effusion of the latter, and Pan’s characterised Ode.’
This statement of Medwin finally settles the question. The ‘friend’ at whose request, Mrs. Shelley says, 11 the lyrics were written by her husband, was herself. And she was the author of the dramas.12
The manuscript (Bodleian Library, MS. Shelley, d. 2) looks like a cheap exercise-book, originally of 40, now of 36 leaves, 8 1/4 x 6 inches, in boards. The contents are the dramas here presented, written in a clear legible hand—the equable hand of Mrs. Shelley.13 There are very few words corrected or cancelled. It is obviously a fair copy. Mr. C. D. Locock, in his Examination of the Shelley Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1903, pp. 24-25), has already pointed out the valuable emendations of the ‘received’ text of Shelley’s lyrics which are found here. In fact the only mystery is why neither Shelley, nor Mary in the course of her long widowed years, should have published these curious, and surely not contemptible, by-products of their co-operation in the fruitful year 1820.
For indeed there is more than a personal interest attached to these writings of Mrs. Shelley’s. The fact that the same mind which had revelled, a few years earlier, in the fantastical horrors of Frankenstein’s abortive creation, could now dwell on the melancholy fate of Proserpine or the humorous disappointment of Midas, and delight in their subtle poetical or moral symbolism—this fact has its significance. It is one of the earliest indications of the revival, in the heart of Romanticism, of the old love of classical myths and classical beauty.
The subject is a wide one, and cannot be adequately dealt with in this place. But a few words may not be superfluous for a correct historical appreciation of Mrs. Shelley’s attempt.
How deficient had been the sense of classical beauty in the so-called classical age of English literature, is a trite consideration of criticism. The treatment of mythology is particularly conclusive on this point. Throughout the ‘Augustan’ era, mythology was approached as a mere treasure-house of pleasant fancies, artificial decorations, ‘motives’, whether sumptuous or meretricious. Allusions to Jove and Venus, Mercury, Apollo, or Bacchus, are of course found in every other page of Dryden, Pope, Prior, Swift, Gay, and Parnell. But no fresh presentation, no loving interpretation, of the old myths occur anywhere. The immortal stories were then part and parcel of a sort of poetical curriculum through which the whole school must be taken by the stern masters Tradition and Propriety. There is little to be wondered at, if this matter of curriculum was treated by the more passive scholars as a matter of course, and by the sharper and less reverent disciples as a matter of fun. Indeed, if any personality is then evinced in the adaptation of these old world themes, it is generally connected with a more or less emphatic disparagement or grotesque distortion of their real meaning.
When Dryden, for example, makes use of the legend of Midas, in his Wife of Bath’s Tale, he makes, not Midas’s minister, but his queen, tell the mighty secret—and thus secures another hit at woman’s loquacity.
Prior’s Female Phaëton is a younger sister, who, jealous of her elder’s success, thus pleads with her ‘mamma’:
I’ll have my earl as well as she Or know the reason why.
And she wants to flaunt it accordingly.
Fondness prevailed; mamma gave way; Kitty, at heart’s desire, Obtained the chariot for a day, And set the world on fire.
Pandora, in Parnell’s Hesiod or the Rise of Woman, is only a
‘shining vengeance... A pleasing bosom-cheat, a specious ill’
sent by the gods upon earth to punish the race of Prometheus.
The most poetical fables of Greece are desecrated by Gay into mere miniatures for the decoration of his Fan.
Similar instances abound later on. When Armstrong brings in an apostrophe to the Naiads, it is in the course of a Poetical Essay on the Art of Preserving Health. And again, when Cowper stirs himself to intone an Ode to Apollo, it is in the same mock-heroic vein:
Patron of all those luckless brains, That to the wrong side leaning Indite much metre with much pains And little or no meaning...
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