Soon after he embarked upon a four-year Wanderjahr through Italy with his beloved wife Mary—a trip that would turn out to be an end-of-life journey—the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley found himself in Milan. While there, he would make his way to the cathedral in the center of town to sit within its shadowy vaulted interior and read. I learned of this predilection from the introduction of Shelley In Italy, a beautiful little anthology first published in 1947 in Great Britain featuring the poetry he wrote during his travels through the country.
The editor of the book, John Lehmann, also wrote the introduction in which he shared Shelley’s memories of the church: “During the days which they passed in the city he haunted the cathedral, and read Dante in ‘one solitary spot among those aisles behind the altar, where the light of day is dim and yellow under the storied window.’”
Percy Bysshe Shelley in Italy
This book led me to Shelley’s Letters from Italy in which he described the cathedral as “a most astonishing work of art,” adding: “It is built of white marble, and cut into pinnacles of immense height, and the utmost delicacy of workmanship, and loaded with sculpture. The effect of it, piercing the solid blue with those groups of dazzling spires, relieved by the serene depth of this Italian heaven, or by moonlight when the stars seem gathered away among those clustered shapes, is beyond anything I had imagined architecture capable of producing.”
He declares the interior sublime, as well, but with a more “earthly character,” making note of “its stained glass and massy granite columns overloaded with antique figures; the silver lamps, that burn forever under the canopy of black cloth beside the brazen altar and the marble fretwork of the dome,” which “give it the aspect of some gorgeous sepulchre.”
These descriptions were written on April 20, 1818, and just four days shy of the date he sat inside the Choir reading 197 years before, I made a poetic pilgrimage to the cathedral, lowering myself into a pew in the right Transept before pulling two books I had brought from home from my bag. The first was Lehmann’s anthology and the second was Dante’s La Vita Nuova (The New Life)—the latter a choice because I wanted to feel the essence of how Shelley might have felt reading one of his literary heroes within that “storied” building.
Peering into the farthest reaches of the vaulted ceiling, I thought about how Shelley had visited Milan when the cathedral was not quite as spectacular as it is today, though given that the building was so new, the purity of the not-yet-weathered marble may have made up for a lack of over-the-top ornateness the building exhibits now. During the time he would have explored it, there were still a number of missing arches and spires, the statues on the southern wall had not yet been finished, and the more elaborate stained glass windows in place now had not replaced the old ones. I’m guessing this and the fact he would have visited grander gothic cathedrals in the UK where the style was invented was why the word “earthly” seemed appropriate to him.
Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry
I held both the books in my lap for quite some time as I let myself experience the wonder of the cavernous structure that had impressed the poet so. When I decided to open Lehmann’s book, I allowed fate to decide the page; what presented itself was an excerpt of Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry.
In the now famous essay, he wrote, “But it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton had ever existed; if Raphael and Michelangelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the Ancient World had been extinguished together with its belief.”
I would add that it would have been equally inconceivable to think that Shelley might have never graced our planet and left with us such a remarkable legacy—he was a true agent of change during his era, a stunning accomplishment given the shortness of his life. He was also an exceptional poet. Thumbing through the verses in Lehmann’s book, I came across these two lines in Epipsychidion:
Thy wisdom speaks in me, and bids me dare
Beacon the rocks on which high hearts are wrecked…
The poem, published in 1821, debuted just three years after he spent his afternoons reading in the cathedral and one year before his untimely death. His wisdom speaks in all of us who respect his poetry and who dare to attempt to follow in his footsteps, I thought as the priest began the service for a small group of locals gathered for mass. The organ music made it even more powerful to be in the building surrounded by the brilliance of nearly 80 architects and engineers spanning seven decades from the early fourteenth-century to the late twentieth-century who articulated the cathedral into being.
Dante’s La Vita Nuova
I ran my hand over the cover of La Vita Nuova, and thought about how it’s no wonder Shelley was reading Dante, being the romantic that he was. Both men suffered angst in equal measure but for different reasons. Those “rocks on which high hearts are wrecked” for Shelley represented politics and poetry; for Dante, it was poetry and love. It’s Dante who gave me a visual that seemed made for the moment. Like an angel, it came wafting right out of his book, an apparition that appeared to him in the form of a beautiful woman dressed in pure white. “Love ruled over my soul,” he said, smitten from that point on and doomed to remain frustrated by it.
Love also ruled over Shelley’s soul, and though his was not unrequited, he and Mary certainly had their struggles given he was married when they began their relationship. It’s touching to read his letters to her—many of which he closed with heartfelt tenderness along the lines of, “Dearest love, be well, be happy, come to me—confide in your own constant and affectionate P.B.S.” Maybe it was that I was in Italy. Maybe it was that I was there, in the Duomo di Milano, with two hopeless romantics. Whatever the driving force behind the impulses, the sentimental afternoon is one I will not soon forget.
Sharing this experience with you has made me wonder if it is vain for this writer to say she hopes to leave as powerful a legacy as Shelley did. I guess it could come off that way but how else do we express a desire to contribute something of lasting value to the world?
Footnotes: If you are looking for a mellow addition to your summer reading list, I highly recommend Shelley In Italy, especially if you are planning to travel to the country any time soon.
The Modern Salonière and Shelley in Italy © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist. Her books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.