From Bocca di Magra to Bocca d’Arno, mile after mile, the sandy beaches smoothly, unbrokenly extend. Inland from the beach, behind a sheltering belt of pines, lies a strip of coastal plain—flat as a slice of Holland and dyked with slow streams. Corn grows here and the vine, with plantations of slim poplars interspersed, and fat water-meadows. Here and there the streams brim over into shallow lakes, whose shores are fringed with sodden fields of rice. And behind this strip of plain, four or five miles from the sea, the mountains rise, suddenly and steeply: the Apuan Alps. Their highest crests are of bare limestone, streaked here and there with the white marble which brings prosperity to the little towns that stand at their feet: Massa and Carrara, Serravezza, Pietrasanta. Half the world’s tombstones are scooped out of these noble crags. Their lower slopes are grey with olive trees, green with woods of chestnut. Over their summits repose the enormous sculptured masses of the clouds. The landscape fairly quotes Shelley at you. This sea with its luminous calms and sudden tempests, these dim blue islands hull down on the horizon, these mountains and their marvellous clouds, these rivers and woodlands are the very substance of his poetry. Live on this coast for a little and you will find yourself constantly thinking of that lovely, that strangely childish poetry, that beautiful and child-like man. Perhaps his spirit haunts the coast. It was in this sea that he sailed his flimsy boat, steering with one hand and holding in the other his little volume of Æschylus. You picture him so on the days of calm. And on the days of sudden violent storm you think of him, too. The lightnings cut across the sky, the thunders are like terrible explosions overhead, the squall comes down with a fury. What news of the flimsy boat? None, save only that a few days after the storm a young body is washed ashore, battered, unrecognizable; the little Æschylus in the coat pocket is all that tells us that this was Shelley.
I have been spending the summer on this haunted coast. That must be my excuse for mentioning in so self-absorbed a world as is ours the name of a poet who has been dead these hundred years. But be reassured. I have no intention of writing an article about the ineffectual angel beating in the void his something-or-other wings in vain. I do not mean to add my croak to the mellifluous chorus of centenary-celebrators. No; the ghost of Shelley, who walks in Versilia and the Lunigia, by the shores of the Gulf of Spezia and below Pisa where Arno disembogues, this ghost with whom I have shaken hands and talked, incites me, not to add a supererogatory and impertinent encomium, but rather to protest against the outpourings of the other encomiasts, of the honey-voiced centenary-chanters.
The cooing of these persons, ordinarily a specific against insomnia, is in this case an irritant; it rouses, it exacerbates. For annoying and disgusting it certainly is, this spectacle of a rebellious youth praised to fulsomeness, a hundred years after his death, by people who would hate him and be horrified by him, if he were alive, as much as the Scotch reviewers hated and were horrified by Shelley. How would these persons treat a young contemporary who, not content with being a literary innovator, should use his talent to assault religion and the established order, should blaspheme against plutocracy and patriotism, should proclaim himself a Bolshevik, an internationalist, a pacifist, a conscientious objector? They would say of him that he was a dangerous young man who ought to be put in his place; and they would either disparage and denigrate his talent, or else—if they were a little more subtly respectable—they would never allow his name to get into print in any of the periodicals which they controlled. But seeing that Shelley was safely burnt on the sands of Viareggio a hundred years ago, seeing that he is no longer a live dangerous man but only a dead classic, these respectable supporters of established literature and established society join in chorus to praise him, and explain his meaning, and preach sermons over him. The mellifluous cooing is accompanied by a snuffle, and there hangs over these centenary celebrations a genial miasma of hypocrisy and insincerity. The effect of these festal anniversaries in England is not to rekindle life in the great dead; a centenary is rather a second burial, a reaffirmation of deadness. A spirit that was once alive is fossilized and, in the midst of solemn and funereal ceremonies, the petrified classic is duly niched in the temple of respectability.