Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Count Maddalo is a Venetian nobleman of ancient family and of great fortune, who, without mixing much in the society of his countrymen, resides chiefly at his magnificent palace in that city. He is a person of the most consummate genius, and capable, if he would direct his energies to such an end, of becoming the redeemer of his degraded country. But it is his weakness to be proud. He derives, from a comparison of his own extraordinary mind with the dwarfish intellects that surround him, an intense apprehension of the nothingness of human life. His passions and his powers are incomparably greater than those of other men; and, instead of the latter having been employed in curbing the former, they have mutually lent each other strength. His ambition preys upon itself, for want of objects which it can consider worthy of exertion. I say that Maddalo is proud, because I can find no other word to express the concentred and impatient feelings which consume him; but it is on his own hopes and affections only that he seems to trample, for in social life no human being can be more gentle, patient and unassuming than Maddalo. He is cheerful, frank and witty. His more serious conversation is a sort of intoxication; men are held by it as by a spell. He has travelled much; and there is an inexpressible charm in his relation of his adventures in different countries.
Julian is an Englishman of good family, passionately attached to those philosophical notions which assert the power of man over his own mind, and the immense improvements of which, by the extinction of certain moral superstitions, human society may be yet susceptible. Without concealing the evil in the world he is forever speculating how good may be made superior. He is a complete infidel and a scoffer at all things reputed holy; and Maddalo takes a wicked pleasure in drawing out his taunts against religion. What Maddalo thinks on these matters is not exactly known. Julian, in spite of his heterodox opinions, is conjectured by his friends to possess some good qualities. How far this is possible the pious reader will determine. Julian is rather serious.
Of the Maniac I can give no information. He seems, by his own account, to have been disappointed in love. He was evidently a very cultivated and amiable person when in his right senses. His story, told at length, might be like many other stories of the same kind. The unconnected exclamations of his agony will perhaps be found a sufficient comment for the text of every heart.
I rode one evening with Count Maddalo Upon the bank of land which breaks the flow Of Adria towards Venice: a bare strand Of hillocks, heaped from ever-shifting sand, Matted with thistles and amphibious weeds, Such as from earth's embrace the salt ooze breeds, Is this; an uninhabited sea-side, Which the lone fisher, when his nets are dried, Abandons; and no other object breaks The waste, but one dwarf tree and some few stakes Broken and unrepaired, and the tide makes A narrow space of level sand thereon, Where 'twas our wont to ride while day went down. This ride was my delight. I love all waste And solitary places; where we taste The pleasure of believing what we see Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be: And such was this wide ocean, and this shore More barren than its billows; and yet more Than all, with a remembered friend I love To ride as then I rode; -- for the winds drove The living spray along the sunny air Into our faces; the blue heavens were bare, Stripped to their depths by the awakening north; And, from the waves, sound like delight broke forth Harmonising with solitude, and sent Into our hearts aëreal merriment.
So, as we rode, we talked; and the swift thought. Winging itself with laughter, lingered not, But flew from brain to brain, -- such glee was ours. Charged with light memories of remembered hours. None slow enough for sadness: till we came Homeward, which always makes the spirit tame. This day had been cheerful but cold, and now The sun was sinking, and the wind also. Our talk grew somewhat serious, as may be Talk interrupted with such raillery As mocks itself, because it cannot scorn The thoughts it would extinguish: -- 'twas forlorn, Yet pleasing, such as once, so poets tell, The devils held within the dales of Hell Concerning God, freewill and destiny: Of all that earth has been or yet may be, All that vain men imagine or believe, Or hope can paint or suffering may achieve, We descanted, and I (for ever still Is it not wise to make the best of ill?) Argued against despondency, but pride Made my companion take the darker side. The sense that he was greater than his kind Had struck, methinks, his eagle spirit blind By gazing on its own exceeding light. Meanwhile the sun paused ere it should alight, Over the horizon of the mountains; -- Oh, How beautiful is sunset, when the glow Of Heaven descends upon a land like thee, Thou Paradise of exiles, Italy! Thy mountains, seas, and vineyards, and the towers Of cities they encircle! -- it was ours To stand on thee, beholding it: and then, Just where we had dismounted, the Count's men Were waiting for us with the gondola. -- As those who pause on some delightful way Though bent on pleasant pilgrimage, we stood Looking upon the evening, and the flood Which lay between the city and the shore. Paved with the image of the sky ... the hoar And aëry Alps towards the North appeared Through mist, an heaven-sustaining bulwark reared Between the East and West; and half the sky Was roofed with clouds of rich emblazonry Dark purple at the zenith, which still grew Down the steep West into a wondrous hue Brighter than burning gold, even to the rent Where the swift sun yet paused in his descent Among the many-folded hills: they were These famous Euganean hills, which bear, As seen from Lido thro' the harbour piles, The likeness of a clump of peakèd isles -- And then -- as if the Earth and Sea had been Dissolved into one lake of fire, were seen Those mountains towering as from waves of flame Around the vaporous sun, from which there came The inmost purple spirit of light, and made Their very peaks transparent. "Ere it fade," Said my companion, "I will show you soon A better station" -- so, o'er the lagune We glided; and from that funereal bark I leaned, and saw the city, and could mark How from their many isles, in evening's gleam, Its temples and its palaces did seem Like fabrics of enchantment piled to Heaven. I was about to speak, when -- "We are even Now at the point I meant," said Maddalo, And bade the gondolieri cease to row. "Look, Julian, on the west, and listen well If you hear not a deep and heavy bell." I looked, and saw between us and the sun A building on an island; such a one As age to age might add, for uses vile, A windowless, deformed and dreary pile; And on the top an open tower, where hung A bell, which in the radiance swayed and swung; We could just hear its hoarse and iron tongue: The broad sun sunk behind it, and it tolled In strong and black relief. -- "What we behold Shall be the madhouse and its belfry tower," Said Maddalo, "and ever at this hour Those who may cross the water, hear that bell Which calls the maniacs, each one from his cell, To vespers." -- "As much skill as need to pray In thanks or hope for their dark lot have they To their stern maker," I replied. "O ho! You talk as in years past," said Maddalo. "'Tis strange men change not. You were ever still Among Christ's flock a perilous infidel, A wolf for the meek lambs -- if you can't swim Beware of Providence." I looked on him, But the gay smile had faded in his eye. "And such," -- he cried, "is our mortality. And this must be the emblem and the sign Of what should be eternal and divine! -- And like that black and dreary bell, the soul, Hung in a heaven-illumined tower, must toll Our thoughts and our desires to meet below Round the rent heart and pray -- as madmen do For what? they know not, -- till the night of death As sunset that strange vision, severeth Our memory from itself, and us from all We sought and yet were baffled.' I recall The sense of what he said, although I mar The force of his expressions. The broad star Of day meanwhile had sunk behind the hill, And the black bell became invisible, And the red tower looked gray, and all between The churches, ships and palaces were seen Huddled in gloom; -- into the purple sea The orange hues of heaven sunk silently. We hardly spoke, and soon the gondola Conveyed me to my lodging by the way.
The following morn was rainy, cold and dim: Ere Maddalo arose, I called on him, And whilst I waited with his child I played; A lovelier toy sweet Nature never made, A serious, subtle, wild, yet gentle being, Graceful without design and unforeseeing, With eyes -- Oh speak not of her eyes! -- which seem Twin mirrors of Italian Heaven, yet gleam With such deep meaning, as we never see But in the human countenance: with me She was a special favourite: I had nursed Her fine and feeble limbs when she came first To this bleak world; and she yet seemed to know On second sight her ancient playfellow, Less changed than she was by six months or so; For after her first shyness was worn out We sate there, rolling billiard balls about, When the Count entered. Salutations past -- "The word you spoke last night might well have cast A darkness on my spirit -- if man be The passive thing you say, I should not see Much harm in the religions and old saws (Tho' I may never own such leaden laws) Which break a teachless nature to the yoke: Mine is another faith" -- thus much I spoke And noting he replied not, added: "See This lovely child, blithe, innocent and free; She spends a happy time with little care, While we to such sick thoughts subjected are As came on you last night -- it is our will That thus enchains us to permitted ill -- We might be otherwise -- we might be all We dream of happy, high, majestical. Where is the love, beauty, and truth we seek But in our mind? and if we were not weak Should we be less in deed than in desire?" "Ay, if we were not weak -- and we aspire How vainly to be strong!" said Maddalo: "You talk Utopia." "It remains to know," I then rejoined, "and those who try may find How strong the chains are which our spirit bind; Brittle perchance as straw ... We are assured Much may be conquered, much may be endured, Of what degrades and crushes us. We know That we have power over ourselves to do And suffer -- what, we know not till we try; But something nobler than to live and die -- So taught those kings of old philosophy Who reigned, before Religion made men blind; And those who suffer with their suffering kind Yet feel their faith, religion." "My dear friend," Said Maddalo, "my judgement will not bend To your opinion, though I think you might Make such a system refutation-tight As far as words go. I knew one like you Who to this city came some months ago, With whom I argued in this sort, and he Is now gone mad, -- and so he answered me, -- Poor fellow! but if you would like to go We'll visit him, and his wild talk will show How vain are such aspiring theories." "I hope to prove the induction otherwise, And that a want of that true theory, still, Which seeks a 'soul of goodness' in things ill Or in himself or others, has thus bowed His being -- there are some by nature proud, Who patient in all else demand but this -- To love and be beloved with gentleness; And being scorned, what wonder if they die Some living death? this is not destiny But man's own wilful ill.'
As thus I spoke Servants announced the gondola, and we Through the fast-falling rain and high-wrought sea Sailed to the island where the madhouse stands. We disembarked. The clap of tortured hands, Fierce yells and howlings and lamentings keen, And laughter where complaint had merrier been, Moans, shrieks, and curses, and blaspheming prayers Accosted us. We climbed the oozy stairs Into an old courtyard. I heard on high, Then, fragments of most touching melody, But looking up saw not the singer there -- Through the black bars in the tempestuous air I saw, like weeds on a wrecked palace growing, Long tangled locks flung wildly forth, and flowing, Of those who on a sudden were beguiled Into strange silence, and looked forth and smiled Hearing sweet sounds. -- Then I: "Methinks there were A cure of these with patience and kind care, If music can thus move ... but what is he Whom we seek here?" "Of his sad history I know but this," said Maddalo: "he came To Venice a dejected man, and fame Said he was wealthy, or he had been so; Some thought the loss of fortune wrought him woe; But he was ever talking in such sort As you do -- far more sadly -- he seemed hurt, Even as a man with his peculiar wrong, To hear but of the oppression of the strong, Or those absurd deceits (I think with you In some respects, you know) which carry through The excellent impostors of this earth When they outface detection -- he had worth, Poor fellow! but a humourist in his way" -- "Alas, what drove him mad?" "I cannot say: A lady came with him from France, and when She left him and returned, he wandered then About yon lonely isles of desert sand Till he grew wild -- he had no cash or land Remaining, -- the police had brought him here -- Some fancy took him and he would not bear Removal; so I fitted up for him Those rooms beside the sea, to please his whim, And sent him busts and books and urns for flowers, Which had adorned his life in happier hours, And instruments of music -- you may guess A stranger could do little more or less For one so gentle and unfortunate: And those are his sweet strains which charm the weight From madmen's chains, and make this Hell appear A heaven of sacred silence, hushed to hear." -- "Nay, this was kind of you -- he had no claim, As the world says" -- "None -- but the very same Which I on all mankind were I as he Fallen to such deep reverse; -- his melody Is interrupted -- now we hear the din Of madmen, shriek on shriek, again begin; Let us now visit him; after this strain He ever communes with himself again, And sees nor hears not any." Having said These words we called the keeper, and he led To an apartment opening on the sea -- There the poor wretch was sitting mournfully Near a piano, his pale fingers twined One with the other, and the ooze and wind Rushed through an open casement, and did sway His hair, and starred it with the brackish spray; His head was leaning on a music book, And he was muttering, and his lean limbs shook; His lips were pressed against a folded leaf In hue too beautiful for health, and grief Smiled in their motions as they lay apart -- As one who wrought from his own fervid heart The eloquence of passion, soon he raised His sad meek face and eyes lustrous and glazed And spoke -- sometimes as one who wrote, and thought His words might move some heart that heeded not, If sent to distant lands: and then as one Reproaching deeds never to be undone With wondering self-compassion; then his speech Was lost in grief, and then his words came each Unmodulated, cold, expressionless, -- But that from one jarred accent you might guess It was despair made them so uniform: And all the while the loud and gusty storm Hissed through the window, and we stood behind Stealing his accents from the envious wind Unseen. I yet remember what he said Distinctly: such impression his words made. "Month after month," he cried, "to bear this load And as a jade urged by the whip and goad To drag life on, which like a heavy chain Lengthens behind with many a link of pain! -- And not to speak my grief -- O, not to dare To give a human voice to my despair, But live and move, and, wretched thing! smile on As if I never went aside to groan, And wear this mask of falsehood even to those Who are most dear -- not for my own repose -- Alas! no scorn or pain or hate could be So heavy as that falsehood is to me -- But that I cannot bear more altered faces Than needs must be, more changed and cold embraces, More misery, disappointment, and mistrust To own me for their father ... Would the dust Were covered in upon my body now! That the life ceased to toil within my brow! And then these thoughts would at the least be fled; Let us not fear such pain can vex the dead. "What Power delights to torture us? I know That to myself I do not wholly owe What now I suffer, though in part I may. Alas! none strewed sweet flowers upon the way Where wandering heedlessly, I met pale Pain My shadow, which will leave me not again -- If I have erred, there was no joy in error, But pain and insult and unrest and terror; I have not as some do, bought penitence With pleasure, and a dark yet sweet offence, For then, -- if love and tenderness and truth Had overlived hope's momentary youth, My creed should have redeemed me from repenting; But loathèd scorn and outrage unrelenting Met love excited by far other seeming Until the end was gained ... as one from dreaming Of sweetest peace, I woke, and found my state Such as it is. -- "O Thou, my spirit's mate Who, for thou art compassionate and wise, Wouldst pity me from thy most gentle eyes If this sad writing thou shouldst ever see -- My secret groans must be unheard by thee, Thou wouldst weep tears bitter as blood to know Thy lost friend's incommunicable woe. "Ye few by whom my nature has been weighed In friendship, let me not that name degrade By placing on your hearts the secret load Which crushes mine to dust. There is one road To peace and that is truth, which follow ye! Love sometimes leads astray to misery. Yet think not though subdued -- and I may well Say that I am subdued -- that the full Hell Within me would infect the untainted breast Of sacred nature with its own unrest; As some perverted beings think to find In scorn or hate a medicine for the mind Which scorn or hate have wounded -- O how vain! The dagger heals not but may rend again ... Believe that I am ever still the same In creed as in resolve, and what may tame My heart, must leave the understanding free, Or all would sink in this keen agony -- Nor dream that I will join the vulgar cry; Or with my silence sanction tyranny; Or seek a moment's shelter from my pain In any madness which the world calls gain, Ambition or revenge or thoughts as stern As those which make me what I am; or turn To avarice or misanthropy or lust ... Heap on me soon, O grave, thy welcome dust! Till then the dungeon may demand its prey, And Poverty and Shame may meet and say -- Halting beside me on the public way -- 'That love-devoted youth is ours -- let's sit Beside him -- he may live some six months yet.' Or the red scaffold, as our country bends, May ask some willing victim, or ye friends May fall under some sorrow which this heart Or hand may share or vanquish or avert; I am prepared -- in truth with no proud joy -- To do or suffer aught, as when a boy I did devote to justice and to love My nature, worthless now! ... "I must remove A veil from my pent mind. 'Tis torn aside! O, pallid as Death's dedicated bride, Thou mockery which art sitting by my side, Am I not wan like thee? at the grave's call I haste, invited to thy wedding-ball To greet the ghastly paramour, for whom Thou hast deserted me ... and made the tomb Thy bridal bed ... But I beside your feet Will lie and watch ye from my winding sheet -- Thus ... wide awake tho' dead ... yet stay, O stay! Go not so soon -- I know not what I say -- Hear but my reasons ... I am mad, I fear, My fancy is o'erwrought ... thou art not here... Pale art thou, 'tis most true ... but thou art gone, Thy work is finished ... I am left alone! -- "Nay, was it I who wooed thee to this breast Which, like a serpent, thou envenomest As in repayment of the warmth it lent? Didst thou not seek me for thine own content? Did not thy love awaken mine? I thought That thou wert she who said, 'You kiss me not Ever, I fear you do not love me now' -- In truth I loved even to my overthrow Her, who would fain forget these words: but they Cling to her mind, and cannot pass away. "You say that I am proud -- that when I speak My lip is tortured with the wrongs which break The spirit it expresses ... Never one Humbled himself before, as I have done! Even the instinctive worm on which we tread Turns, though it wound not -- then with prostrate head Sinks in the dusk and writhes like me -- and dies? No: wears a living death of agonies! As the slow shadows of the pointed grass Mark the eternal periods, his pangs pass Slow, ever-moving, -- making moments be As mine seem -- each an immortality! "That you had never seen me -- never heard My voice, and more than all had ne'er endured The deep pollution of my loathed embrace -- That your eyes ne'er had lied love in my face -- That, like some maniac monk, I had torn out The nerves of manhood by their bleeding root With mine own quivering fingers, so that ne'er Our hearts had for a moment mingled there To disunite in horror -- these were not With thee, like some suppressed and hideous thought Which flits athwart our musings, but can find No rest within a pure and gentle mind ... Thou sealedst them with many a bare broad word, And searedst my memory o'er them, -- for I heard And can forget not ... they were ministered One after one, those curses. Mix them up Like self-destroying poisons in one cup, And they will make one blessing which thou ne'er Didst imprecate for, on me, -- death. "It were A cruel punishment for one most cruel, If such can love, to make that love the fuel Of the mind's hell; hate, scorn, remorse, despair: But me -- whose heart a stranger's tear might wear As water-drops the sandy fountain-stone, Who loved and pitied all things, and could moan For woes which others hear not, and could see The absent with the glance of phantasy, And with the poor and trampled sit and weep, Following the captive to his dungeon deep; Me -- who am as a nerve o'er which do creep The else unfelt oppressions of this earth, And was to thee the flame upon thy hearth, When all beside was cold -- that thou on me Shouldst rain these plagues of blistering agony -- Such curses are from lips once eloquent With love's too partial praise -- let none relent Who intend deeds too dreadful for a name Henceforth, if an example for the same They seek ... for thou on me lookedst so, and so -- And didst speak thus ... and thus ... I live to show How much men bear and die not! "Thou wilt tell, With the grimace of hate, how horrible It was to meet my love when thine grew less; Thou wilt admire how I could e'er address Such features to love's work ... this taunt, though true, (For indeed Nature nor in form nor hue Bestowed on me her choicest workmanship) Shall not be thy defence ... for since thy lip Met mine first, years long past, since thine eye kindled With soft fire under mine, I have not dwindled Nor changed in mind or body, or in aught But as love changes what it loveth not After long years and many trials. "How vain Are words! I thought never to speak again, Not even in secret, -- not to my own heart -- But from my lips the unwilling accents start, And from my pen the words flow as I write, Dazzling my eyes with scalding tears ... my sight Is dim to see that charactered in vain On this unfeeling leaf which burns the brain And eats into it ... blotting all things fair And wise and good which time had written there. "Those who inflict must suffer, for they see The work of their own hearts, and this must be Our chastisement or recompense -- O child! I would that thine were like to be more mild For both our wretched sakes ... for thine the most Who feelest already all that thou hast lost Without the power to wish it thine again; And as slow years pass, a funereal train Each with the ghost of some lost hope or friend Following it like its shadow, wilt thou bend No thought on my dead memory? "Alas, love! Fear me not ... against thee I would not move A finger in despite. Do I not live That thou mayst have less bitter cause to grieve? I give thee tears for scorn and love for hate; And that thy lot may be less desolate Than his on whom thou tramplest, I refrain From that sweet sleep which medicines all pain. Then, when thou speakest of me, never say 'He could forgive not.' Here I cast away All human passions, all revenge, all pride; I think, speak, act no ill; I do but hide Under these words, like embers, every spark Of that which has consumed me -- quick and dark The grave is yawning ... as its roof shall cover My limbs with dust and worms under and over So let Oblivion hide this grief ... the air Closes upon my accents, as despair Upon my heart -- let death upon despair!" He ceased, and overcome leant back awhile, Then rising, with a melancholy smile Went to a sofa, and lay down, and slept A heavy sleep, and in his dreams he wept And muttered some familiar name, and we Wept without shame in his society. I think I never was impressed so much; The man who were not, must have lacked a touch Of human nature ... then we lingered not, Although our argument was quite forgot, But calling the attendants, went to dine At Maddalo's; yet neither cheer nor wine Could give us spirits, for we talked of him And nothing else, till daylight made stars dim; And we agreed his was some dreadful ill Wrought on him boldly, yet unspeakable, By a dear friend; some deadly change in love Of one vowed deeply which he dreamed not of; For whose sake he, it seemed, had fixed a blot Of falsehood on his mind which flourished not But in the light of all-beholding truth; And having stamped this canker on his youth She had abandoned him -- and how much more Might be his woe, we guessed not -- he had store Of friends and fortune once, as we could guess From his nice habits and his gentleness; These were now lost ... it were a grief indeed If he had changed one unsustaining reed For all that such a man might else adorn. The colours of his mind seemed yet unworn; For the wild language of his grief was high, Such as in measure were called poetry; And I remember one remark which then Maddalo made. He said: "Most wretched men Are cradled into poetry by wrong, They learn in suffering what they teach in song." If I had been an unconnected man I, from this moment, should have formed some plan Never to leave sweet Venice, -- for to me It was delight to ride by the lone sea; And then, the town is silent -- one may write Or read in gondolas by day or night, Having the little brazen lamp alight, Unseen, uninterrupted; books are there, Pictures, and casts from all those statues fair Which were twin-born with poetry, and all We seek in towns, with little to recall Regrets for the green country. I might sit In Maddalo's great palace, and his wit And subtle talk would cheer the winter night And make me know myself, and the firelight Would flash upon our faces, till the day Might dawn and make me wonder at my stay: But I had friends in London too: the chief Attraction here, was that I sought relief From the deep tenderness that maniac wrought Within me -- 'twas perhaps an idle thought -- But I imagined that if day by day I watched him, and but seldom went away, And studied all the beatings of his heart With zeal, as men study some stubborn art For their own good, and could by patience find An entrance to the caverns of his mind, I might reclaim him from his dark estate: In friendships I had been most fortunate -- Yet never saw I one whom I would call More willingly my friend; and this was all Accomplished not; such dreams of baseless good Oft come and go in crowds or solitude And leave no trace -- but what I now designed Made for long years impression on my mind. The following morning, urged by my affairs, I left bright Venice. After many years And many changes I returned; the name Of Venice, and its aspect, was the same; But Maddalo was travelling far away Among the mountains of Armenia. His dog was dead. His child had now become A woman; such as it has been my doom To meet with few, -- a wonder of this earth, Where there is little of transcendent worth, -- Like one of Shakespeare's women: kindly she, And, with a manner beyond courtesy, Received her father's friend; and when I asked Of the lorn maniac, she her memory tasked, And told as she had heard the mournful tale: "That the poor sufferer's health began to fail Two years from my departure, but that then The lady who had left him, came again. Her mien had been imperious, but she now Looked meek -- perhaps remorse had brought her low. Her coming made him better, and they stayed Together at my father's -- for I played, As I remember, with the lady's shawl -- I might be six years old -- but after all She left him" ... "Why, her heart must have been tough: How did it end?" "And was not this enough? They met -- they parted" -- "Child, is there no more?" "Something within that interval which bore The stamp of why they parted, how they met: Yet if thine agèd eyes disdain to wet Those wrinkled cheeks with youth's remembered tears, Ask me no more, but let the silent years Be closed and cered over their memory As yon mute marble where their corpses lie." I urged and questioned still, she told me how All happened -- but the cold world shall not know.