This essay channeling Percy Bysshe Shelley in Milan is included in my book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
Percy Bysshe Shelley in Milan
I believe learning from writers of the past requires that we go beyond studying their poetry and fiction because to limit ourselves to these means we miss out on the chance to glean wisdom from their nonfiction, particularly when they are sharing anecdotes about their work or their lives. Recently, I tested this theory by seeing if the letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley could help me get beyond a stretch of writerly self-doubt that was dogging me. I chose a particular place as my starting point—the Duomo di Milano—because it was in the cathedral at the hem of a wide piazza in Milan, Italy, where Shelley had passed a number of afternoons reading Dante Alighieri.
I pulled open the gigantic door and paused while my eyes adjusted to the muted light before making my way to a spot he described in a letter to Thomas Love Peacock as “dim and yellow under the storied window.” I lowered myself into a pew in the same section of the cathedral 197 years after he visited, almost to the day. I had hit upon the idea of using him as a conduit because his letters to his friends expose how overwhelming his insecurity was. It was my hope that by commiserating with a celebrated writer who had experienced a lack of confidence over his own work, I could get on the other side of mine.
The source of his hurt was that his writing was so unpopular in England, which made him feel misunderstood and tossed aside. “I am regarded by all who know or hear of me, except, I think, on the whole, five individuals, as a rare prodigy of crime and pollution, whose look even might infect,” he wrote to Peacock from Rome. Peering into the farthest reaches of the vaulted ceiling, I told myself that if Shelley can feel so defeated and still push himself to write the quality of work he created, I can figure out how to break through the resistance I faced.
I was so lost in thought, I startled when the silence that had been interrupted only by distant murmurings exploded with resplendent chords from the organ. The music that indicated the end of a service for a small group of locals who had gathered for mass far across the nave was also a prompt for my exit. I made my way along one of the dark aisles toward the narthex, taking one last look around in disbelief that I had spent time in a building in which Shelley had sat reading before I heaved open the door.
The shock of drenching sunlight was extreme as I made my way toward a small café tucked beneath a colonnade hemming the Piazza. I chose a seat with a splendid view of this building that Shelley called “a most astonishing work of art” and ordered a glass of wine feeling a sense of gratitude for the friends to whom Shelley had written because they had saved and published his letters. The fact the missives remain means they serve as witnesses that a lauded writer who felt so ignored could continue to create in spite of this.
He tells Peacock, “I write nothing and probably shall write no more. It offends me to see my name classed among those who have no name. If I cannot be something better, I had rather be nothing…” To Leigh Hunt, he wrote from Pisa in January of the year in which he drowned that he had not even bothered to inquire as to how his writings were selling after they had failed to make the sort of impression he had expected. “My faculties are shaken to atoms and torpid,” he adds; “if Adonais had no success, and excited no interest, what incentive can I have to write?”
His suffering is all the more poignant because Shelley’s output during his four-year wanderjahr through Italy with his beloved wife was significant. John Lehmann, who edited Shelley in Italy, an anthology of his works and letters, says of the amount of quality work he produced, it “would have done credit to the most fluent of poets, especially when we remember the troubles he was laboring under so much of the time.” Among these challenges was how he measured himself against Lord Byron’s growing success.
“When he joined Byron in Ravenna, the contrast of his neglect with Byron’s success deepened his depression, though there is not the slightest trace of envy in his high estimate of Byron’s place in the literature of his time,” Lehmann wrote. As his self-doubt grew, Shelley wrote to Edward Trelawney, “If you ask me why I publish what few or none will care to read, it is that the spirits I have raised haunt me until they are sent to the devil of a printer.”
It was this declaration that clued me in as to why I was drawn to Shelley’s struggle—I share a particular sadness with him. I simply don’t feel successful because so few are reading my work compared to the most popular writers I’m competing against. One of the main reasons for this is that I shoulder the burden of marketing myself, which presents me with a maddening catch-22. If I don’t put the time for engagement in, my essays gain so little traction; but if I do, it takes away from the few hours a week I can carve out for my creative writing.
Though my struggle was far from solved that day, at least it had been identified. I watched the light soften and bathe the stone on the cathedral in a pale pink, feeling gratitude that Shelley now served as a beacon for me because he kept writing even when he was beaten down by hopelessness. It has been several years since I took the journey with Shelley that day, and in all that time the tender feelings I had toward him haven’t abated. If only I could feel as compassionate about my own struggle as I ask myself if my work will survive as his has. The truth is, I can’t possibly know the answer to this relentless question that so many writers face.
Percy Bysshe Shelley in Milan © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.