“Mr. Trelawny on Byron and Shelley”

Oil painting of Edward John Trelawny by Stephen Makepeace Wiens, copyright Worthing Museum and Art Gallery

[NOTE: this revealing profile of Edward John Trelawny, whose 1858 memoir Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron became a key if controversial text for Victorian “Shelleyites,” was published just one year before Trelawny’s death  in 1881. It appeared in The Whitehall Review, January 10, 1880, pp. 196-97, where Blind also published an equally revealing profile of Holman Hunt.]

TO see Mr. Trelawny and to hear him talk is to be transported back, as if by magic, half a century or so, to that thrilling period when Shelley and  Byron, those revolutionary Dioscuri of English poetry, passed the last years of their brief lives self-exiled in Italy.  As he sits smoking in his chair, or paces up and down the room, the grand old man, who has been so long before Europe as to have become historical, still shows traces in his fine features which justify the assertion that he, Lord Byron, and Count d’Orsay were considered the three handsomest men of their time.  Then, as he begins talking to you in a voice that seems issuing from some deep cavern, his prodigious memory and singular power of expression make the past present.

But it is not in the past alone that he lives. Nothing is too new, bold, and daring for him in modern philosophic speculation; he delights in the latest discoveries of science, holds that woman should receive the same education as man and enjoy the same social advantages, and considers Darwin the most eminent man of this age.  Perhaps contempt for his kind makes the theory of the Origin of Species doubly acceptable to him, for he invariably speaks of his fellow creatures as “human animals,” or “humans,” and says that, except in cunning, they are inferior to some animals.  Shelley seems to be the only mortal who ever touched that proud, rebel spirit with a feeling akin to hero-worship.  When he speaks of the poet there is something like tenderness in his accents, something verging on reverence in his looks.  The customary formulas of social intercourse are an abomination in his sight.  Woe to you, if, on first seeing him, you should unfortunately say, “How do you do, Mr. Trelawny?” He will, if not rebuke, merely grunt out a reply and look as it he thought you a fool.  He gives no small change of conversation; every word he utters is stamped with his personality—a personality so powerful that it overtops everything he can say or do.  One cannot help thinking that he could have done great deeds, or written great books, or made great orations, had he so willed.  Was it his inability, or his unwillingness to act in concert with others, that has prevented this?  Or his sovereign contempt for man—-poor man “crawling between earth and heaven?”

He will begin speaking quite abruptly, as if only continuing aloud some previous train of thought. “What,” he growled, “is  all  that  rubbish  that  Symonds  writes  about  Shelley being too beautiful to paint?  Too beautiful to paint, indeed! When he was quite young he might have had the beauty that we admire in children or young girls, but he had no manly beauty. He was narrow-chested and stooped like a scholar. You could see that from a child, almost a baby, he had been bending over books.   He had the smallest head of any man I ever knew; Byron’s came next. His eyes were slightly prominent, and there was hardly any of the white visible.  To see him in a crowd was like seeing a stag in the midst of a herd of deer.  The deer has a timid way of looking on the ground, but the stag walks with lifted head and shining eyes.  His were like stars.  Now Byron was handsome. The upper part of his figure was nobly proportioned and his throat was like a column. He had most beautiful eyes, well set in his head; they were like a cat’s, changing continually in colour, now brown, now golden, then green, full of ever-varying expression.”

“What do you think of their genius respectively?”

“Shelley had the divine madness which alone makes a man write great poetry.  But he appealed to the intellect, while Byron’s poetry appealed to the passions of mankind.  All men have passions; therefore they understood him.  But Shelley was a great metaphysician, a logician, a poet whom people shunned in his day.  No one read his writings; and when I went to get one of his poems from Oilier, his publisher, he pretended not to have a copy, till, being informed that I was Shelley’s friend, he fetched it from a secret drawer. This was the universal feeling concerning him.  No one understood him—not Hogg—not Peacock; and the former, though he often calls him a divine poet, did not believe anything of the kind; on the contrary, he thought it all nonsense, and was laughing in his sleeve when he used such expressions.”

“But what was the bond between them, then?”

“Why, they were both excellent scholars.  Shelley was an enthusiastic student of the Greek poets, and greatly influenced by them, especially in his latter years.  No one who is ignorant of the classics can thoroughly appreciate him.  That is partly the reason why Swinburne understands him so well; he has written better things concerning him than anyone else.  But he, too, has some of the divine madness.  Nothing great can ever be done without it.  Here is another man who was also full of it.”

Mr. Trelawny was pacing up and down the room while uttering these sentences in his deep, leonine voice.  He now brought me a portrait of John Brown, the American martyr, of whom he spoke with a kindling eye.

“Do you know what was his answer to the rebels when they threatened to hang him?” ‘Do,’ said he, ‘I wish for nothing better, for then my name will become a flag for the North to rally round.’ Enthusiasts and fanatics are the men that move the world. There is Blake, now; I consider him a true poet, also; what he writes is full of inspiration.”

Mr. Trelawny’s extraordinary freshness and vigour of intellect shows itself in his openness to all kinds of new impressions. Thus, he only recently, two or three years ago, became acquainted with the works of William Blake, that rapt modern visionary. One cannot help thinking that the pungent causticity of our nineteenth-century Diogenes cannot go deep when he takes so warmly to the child-like, ecstatic outpourings of the mystic poet. But the fact is, I believe, that he loves all that is really loveable, admires all that is truly great, and only feels scorn for the sorry shams, artificialities, and general snobbery with which modern English life is half choked. He repeated some of Blake’s lines. His manner of quoting poetry is peculiarly impressive, almost oracular; it seems that Shelley was very fond of it. Once hearing him declaim:

Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
In which he puts alms for oblivion, . . .

The poet was so taken with the passage, which he did not appear to know, that he clapped his hands with delight, and could not hear it often enough. Something being said to him about his “Rosalind and Helen,” he laughed and shouted, “That’s going into Time’s wallet, you know.”

“Was Shelley’s voice really as loud and piercing as is generally asserted?

“Of course all the Shelley biographers must go on repeating Hogg’s assertion about the harsh shrillness of the poet’s tones. No doubt he was habitually hoarse in this climate. You always find that Italians lose their voice on coming to England, while that of English gets sweeter in Italy. Shelley’s voice was soft and pleasant—at any rate when I knew him.”

“Did Shelley ever shut himself up to write?”

“Shut himself up!” shouted Mr. Trelawny indignantly. “Never!” He wrote his poems in the open air; on the sea-shore; in the pine-woods; and, like a shepherd, he could tell the time of day exactly by the light. He never had a watch. And I think Byron never had; but, if the latter had one, he never wore it.”

“Which of all Byron’s works do you yourself prefer?”

“‘Childe Harold.’ He at one time intended introducing me either into that poem or into ‘Don Juan’; he did not know which. His intention was to have written a fifth canto of ‘Childe Harold,’ the scene of which was to be laid at Naples. But he said he must see Naples before writing about it; he could not write about things he had not seen.

Southey on his return from a tour in Italy was asked by a friend whether he considered Shelley or Byron as the head of the Satanic school. Southey, pointing to his feet, said, ‘The devil marks his own.’” Mr. Trelawny chuckled sardonically, and he repeated the joke at intervals, as if he enjoyed it.

“That accounts, I suppose, for the author of ‘The Vision of Judgment’ imprisoning poor Southey in the pillory of his imperishable satire?”

“Yes. Moore, who used to sugar over his spite and malice with the diamond-dust of wit, lost no time in repeating the saying to his noble friend.”

Mr. Trelawny informed me that Gérôme, the French artist, had begun a picture of the burning of Shelley’s body. The idea evidently gratified him. He referred to it repeatedly, picturing the scene, which apparently increased in vividness while he described it, till I, too, seemed to see with him the long sweep of sand, the smoothly rippling waters of the bay, the long dark line of the pine forest skirting the shore.

“Gérôme,” he said, “ought to introduce the pines in his picture. They are characteristic of Shelley and of the place.  Their tall, straight stems, forty feet high, rose at equal distances one from the other, and, although the sun never penetrated through their interlacing boughs, it would cast a red light on the trunks below.”

“I wish M. Gerome could hear your description; someone ought certainly to send these details to him.”

“I will send a letter to  Rossetti; he  can communicate with the artist if he thinks proper.  Byron and myself were the only persons on the spot besides three coast-guards.  Leigh Hunt remained in his carriage on the edge of the pine forest.  Italian peasant-folk had also come to witness the spectacle, but, with hereditary good breeding, did not press near, and remained patiently watching in their gigs, carts, and other vehicles.  As I was pouring the incense—wine and oil—-upon the flames, I muttered, half to myself, ‘I restore to Nature, through fire, the elements of which this man was composed—earth, air, and water:  everything is changed but not annihilated.   He is now a portion of that which he worshipped—’ I continued for some time in this vein, when I suddenly felt Byron clapping me on the shoulder. ‘Why, Trelawny,’ he said, ‘I knew you were a pagan, but not that you were a pagan priest!  You do it very well.’”

From the obsequies of Shelley it was but natural to revert to the death-scene of Lord Byron.  He had a curious fancy in his last illness to count the number of boots in the room; he persisted in saying that he could only count three boots.  “This,” Mr. Trelawny remarked,” was a sign of the extraordinary activity of Byron’s intellect.  For he had read in some German author, not long before, that incipient madness showed itself by an incapacity of counting correctly; and now in his delirium this statement was evidently preying on his mind, and he was trying experiments on himself.”

“If Lord Byron had lived, what in your opinion would have been the end of his Greek expedition?”

“Why, he might have been President, or King of Greece. Odysseus, the only capable man the Greeks had, and myself would have managed it.”

“What a possibility! But it would have  been too like  poetic justice, for this world of fact, if he who so gloriously sang of  ‘The Isles of Greece,’ had also succeeded to their sway.”

“’Childe Harold’ represents Byron  as  he was at heart ;  ‘Don Juan’ as he liked to appear in a circle, to the world.”

Mr. Trelawny did not tell me all this consecutively. He comes and goes, and walks out of the house even, before you are aware of his intentions.  The last time I saw him was at his place at Sompting, on the South Downs. His own particular sitting-room there reminds one considerably of a ship’s cabin; it is very plainly furnished, without curtains, and the wall-paper, brilliantly coloured like a child’s picture book, has small square designs of different nations engaged in characteristic occupations.  In the morning I heard this wonderful old man, now aged 87, singing as he rose. He always takes a kind of air-bath before dressing, draws his own water, and chops his own wood.  He breakfasts off cold water, bread, and fruit, which he eats, standing, on the principle that after lying in bed people should not sit down again. The crumbs of his table he scatters on the window-sill for the birds, being very fond of animals generally.  He is extremely abstemious, taking only one solid meal a day, and, like his beloved Shelley, he prefers a diet consisting of vegetables, milk, and fruit, to meat.  His astonishing health and strength ought certainly to make many converts to his mode of living.   He has invented a regular system of hygiene for himself; one of his theories being that you should never take hot food or drink.  He goes out every day, no matter how inclement the weather may be, and of late years, when he has chiefly lived at Sompting, he strolls to a duck-pond and feeds the ducks.  It has also been reported to me that, although he professes to scout children utterly, he has a sneaking fondness for them, and, if unobserved, will walk with a stray child clinging to his hand, and regale it with “Turkish Delight,” a favourite sweetmeat of his own.

Winter and summer he wears the same costume—no under-clothing and no extra outer-clothing. He generally has a cap on his head, which he also wears in preference to a hat out of doors.  His air and appearance are singularly commanding  He is tall (six feet), but stoops slightly.  Under his bulging, fiercely-contracted brows, his blue-grey, deep-set eyes look out with an unrelenting keenness of vision; his nose is  curved like a hawk’s;  his mouth, grimly resolute, still shows the mark of the ball which fractured his jaw when he was nearly assassinated in Greece by a ruffianly fellow-countryman.  The whole character and bearing of the man seem, indeed, like a reversion to the stern old type of the Norse Viking or sea pirate; a sea-king perchance charmed into humanity and gentleness by the spiritual beauty of Shelley’s genius. “The Adventures of a Younger Son” bears ample testimony to the author’s love of nautical enterprise and reckless daring.  It is a lion’s whelp of a book; incisive in diction, thrilling in narrative, full of native force and fire.  I have but one fault to find with it—-that it has been suffered to remain alone of its kind.  No doubt the volume of “Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author” gives equal evidence of an eminent literary faculty, although not coming under the same category.

Trelawny’s grave at the non-Catholic cemetery in Rome; photo 2019 by James Diedrick