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      The Sea-Change

      The Journal of the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society
      UCL Press

            Main article text

            The Sea-Change

            Opera Libretto in Six Scenes for Paul Nordoff. (with love)



            MARY SHELLEY


            JANE WILLIAMS

            CLAIRE CLAIRMONT– half-sister to Mary




            The action takes place in the year 1822, at the Villa Magni on the Bay of Spezia. The scene is a large room on the upper floor, with a door L. and five french windows in the back wall. These windows have slatted shutters, opening outward on to a flat roof, which extends the whole length of the five windows, and has a low balcony. Beyond is the sea. The room has a faded decoration of frescoed garlands on the walls, which are stained with damp. The furniture is scanty, 18th cent. in date; it has been handsome and now is shabby. In the opening scene the room must appear disused.

            The producer should note that all the characters are young. TRELAWNY, the eldest among them, is thirty.





            SHELLEY stands in the window when he first enters after his vision of Allegra.

            The Sea-Change

            [Act 1]2 Scene i.

            The time is spring and summer of the year 1822. The scene is the sala on the first floor of Casa Magni, at Lerici. Door on L. five french windows on the back wall. These are now closed with slatted shutters. The walls have a faded decoration of frescoed garlands. The furniture is scanty, a makeshift of shabby 18th cent. magnificence, and rough wooden stools. The ceiling is cracked and stained with damp, the whole room looks disused and out of condition.

            Enter MARY, CLAIRE, and TRELAWNY, in travelling dress. MARY and TRELAWNY are preoccupied with some interior anxiety, which they conceal from CLAIRE.

            TRELAWNY,with a gesture of displaying the room.

            Here, is your sala, Mary. How does it please you?

            MARYIf I were a lady in a poem, it would do well.

            Penelope might sit here, weaving and grieving,

            Or Hero trim her lamp for a drowned Leander.

            But I am a poet’s wife.

            CLAIREThen it should please you;

            For this is the very room for a poet,

            Full of stains and shadows

            With lyres and laurels on the walls.

            Oh, it is certainly the room for Shelley!

            TRELAWNYBut that’s not all. Laurels and shadows are not all.

            Laurels and shadows are everywhere in Italy;

            But when I open this window, everything changes: The house turns to a ship, we are at sea,

            We suffer a sea-change.

            (Goes towards window.)

            MARYNot yet, Trelawny. Do not open the window.

            No, Trelawny! Do not let in the daylight yet!

            CLAIREMy eyes are tired with the journey!

            Let us wait till Shelley and the others come. We will be changed together. Let the sea wait!

            MARYTrelawny wants us to be turned to coral.

            CLAIRETrelawny wants to set the sea-nymphs tolling.


            Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell,

            Hark, now I hear it! Sing, Trelawny!3

            TRELAWNYDing dong bell! Ding dong bell!


            CLAIRE, TRELAWNYHark, now I hear it! Ding dong, ding dong.

            MARYListen! (They are silent.)

            TRELAWNYOnly the sea.

            CLAIREOnly the sea.

            MARYI thought… No, I thought nothing. My nerves trouble me.

            I am tired with travelling.

            CLAIREWhy did we travel here so fast, so suddenly[?]

            MARYIt was Shelley’s wish. You know how impetuous he is.

            CLAIREIt seemed to me that we were running away.

            And that I had left something behind.

            Was it a letter, telling me of my child?

            My sweet lost child. (Turning to TRELAWNY.)

            You have not seen my Allegra.

            Byron sent her to be brought up among nuns –

            A mother were better.

            (TRELAWNY approaches her with a look of intense compassion, then turns away.)

            MARYWhat shall we do to make this room less awkward Before the others arrive?

            (She begins to move chairs about. CLAIRE and TRELAWNY help her. Enter, in travelling dress, SHELLEY, EDWARD and JANE WILLIAMS. JANE glances enquiringly at MARY. MARY shakes her head.)

            CLAIRE(Wildly) What is your secret? What is it you know

            And do not tell me? O Shelley, dearest Shelley,

            You are a poet but compassionate.

            You have lost children. Is my child dead?

            (He looks at her in silence. She leans on a chair, weeping.)

            MARY, JANEAcross the threshold of the spring.

            TRELAWNY, EDWARDBrief as the shadow of a linnet’s wing,

            TRELAWNYA shadow falls.

            JANELight as a blossom shaken loose,

            MARYAnd wept by April dews,

            A child is dead.

            CLAIRE, to SHELLEYWhy did you bring me to this desolate place To tell me I am desolate?

            (SHELLEY leads her to the centre window, which he opens. It gives on to a flat roof, overlooking the sea. The afterglow of the sunset fills the room.)

            SHELLEYLook out! Look round us! In what quietude

            The mountains stand, and gaze upon the sea!

            Cloaked in their woods, do they not seem like travellers, Spell-bound, lost in arrival?

            They hear the assenting murmur of the wave,

            The salt sweet air fingers their stoic brows;

            Here is their journey’s end, here is the sea,

            Hither their brooks, their cataracts, their rivers,

            Have run, like children, before them.

            Weep, weep, dear Claire, weep on this solemn strand! Weep, while the yearning wave clings to the rock, Sighing, and falls back, sighing. Weep, while the light Mutely relinquishes the mountain.

            Here, in this innocent desolation, unlearn

            Hate and remorse and sophistries of comfort,

            And as the mountains gaze upon the sea

            Gaze on death’s patient face till it grows beautiful.


            Scene ii

            Morning. Brilliant light. The centre window is open, JANE sits by it with her guitar, trying to pick up the tune sung by the fishermen on the strand.

            CHORUS offNicholas sailed to Jerusalem (Pray for us, Nicholas!)

            When the storm came down an angel took the helm. Sail with us today, O good Saint Nicholas!

            JANE, sotto voceSail with us today, O good Saint Nicholas!

            (Enter EDWARD. While chorus continues he goes affectionately to JANE.)

            EDWARDMy morning love! You sit there like a flower.

            JANEWhat are they doing, the fishermen down there[?]

            EDWARDThey rig the boat, And make it ready for sea.

            JANEAnd sing of storms, do they not?

            CHORUS, risingSail with us today, O good Saint Nicholas!

            EDWARDIf I were Nicholas, I would go with them.

            One would quit heaven to sail

            On such a sea, under so blue a sky.

            Look, how the ripples fold, one into another,

            Like feathers on the breast of a dove.

            So blue, so fair, so folded, our summer lies before us,

            O my love

            What happiness!

            JANEWhen the storm came down… Not all are happy.

            Claire, sorrowing for her child, has gone away, To visit graves and lawyers.

            Shelley grieves for Claire;

            And Mary – grieves for Mary.

            EDWARDWhy does she grieve?

            JANEShelley loves her no more.

            Why must all poets be inconsistent in love?

            EDWARDWhere is the rainbow’s wandering foot?

            (JANE looks at him, puzzled.)

            EDWARDHave you never run,

            To find the rainbow’s foot? Now, it is in the meadow, Now in the orchard. Now, it has crossed the brook

            And is planted on the hillside. Track it as you will

            It is always some other-where.

            And still the rainbow arches overhead.

            That is how Shelley loves, being a poet.

            JANEPoor Mary!

            EDWARDAnd now the rainbow’s foot is on the sea.

            Enter SHELLEYWhy do they sing no more? Have they set sail?

            I wanted to go with them; for while I sat

            Looking in my empty heart for rhymes and jingles

            I heard their song, rolling suddenly as Acheron

            And the midge counterpoint of Jane’s guitar, till

            I thought

            These fishermen learn their music from their lives,

            Savage, suppliant, and inexorable.

            Why should I wait for my smart new pleasure-boat?

            I will go with them

            Till I discover the true note of the sea.

            (He goes to the edge of the platform and looks down.)

            There is the boat,

            Abandoned, as though the waves had cast her up.

            And the fishermen are standing by her, idle.

            VOICES, belowHere it comes, here it comes!

            Look, to the northward. Make the boat fast!

            SHELLEYWhat do you see?

            VOICE, belowA storm, out over the bay.

            That little darkness to the northward. A storm.

            JANE, risingA storm? A storm, out of this blue sky?

            VOICES, belowA storm, a storm, travelling this way!

            (SHELLEY, EDWARD, JANE, stand on the platform looking out to sea. The lighting changes to a leaden grey.)

            JANEFaster than a dream it travels hither.

            Our little world darkens and dwindles as the clouds


            EDWARDThe wind has whirled the blue out of the sky.

            The sea is shaken with a cold fever.

            Arrowy sleet and leaping spray struggle together.

            The rooks answer with an iron cry.

            SHELLEYOut of the abyss the storm boils up and over.

            Waves toss and winds blow me hither and thither. Like music from the stricken lyre I fly.

            (They move out of sight along the platform. The room is now almost dark. Enter MARY.)

            MARYShelley! Shelley! Where are you. Merciless God,

            Where is he? Oh, he is merciless as you.

            There is no mercy in God, no mercy in Shelley,

            Why should I cry to either when neither hears me?

            I will sit here like a patient wife and listen to the wind.

            (She sits down. She remembers:)4

            SHELLEY’S voice off-stageoff-stage Listen, listen, Mary mine,

            To the whisper of the Apennine…

            MARYBut that was four years ago, when he loved me.

            SHELLEY’S voiceO Mary dear, that thou wert here,

            With thy brown eyes, bright and clear,

            And thy sweet voice like a bird

            Singing love to its lone mate.

            MARYAh, my lone mate, my phoenix, I love you still.

            But I can only croak like a raven! Where is he?

            Shelley, where are you? Why do you leave me?

            (SHELLEY, entering through a window.)


            (She throws herself on his breast, then starts back, affectedly.)

            MARYCold, so wringing-wet and cold,

            It is a drowned sailor I hold.

            SHELLEYThen warm me at your breast.

            MARYCold without and within,

            I feel your cold heart under your cold skin.

            SHELLEYTake pity on the ghost.

            MARYSo cold and bitter as the brine.

            Cold as your love are your cold lips on mine.

            SHELLEYYet I came at your call,

            And came from further than you know.

            MARYAnd in a moment you will go,

            And that will be all.

            SHELLEYCold, cold as a stone.

            Reasonable as a skeleton.

            MARYCold as the forsaken nest.

            SHELLEYCold and witty as an adder’s tongue,

            MARYTedious as an old song,

            TOGETHERThat is the worst, that is the worst.

            Scene closes.

            Scene iii.

            Evening. The room in candlelight. Three windows stand open, showing moonlight on the sea. EDWARD and JANE are playing chess, MARY lies on the sofa embroidering, SHELLEY leans against the window frame, reading.

            EDWARDI take your bishop. Check to your king.

            Shelley should smile at the downfall of a bishop.

            But he is drowned past news of the world in a book.

            SHELLEYI have been reading of the remora.

            It is a little thing, no larger than a child’s hand,

            That fastens on the hull of a ship.

            JANEA barnacle and hatches into a goose.

            I know. It is a sailor’s story.

            SHELLEYIt hatches into nothing with wings, dear Jane.

            Oars, sail, tide, nothing can move that ship:

            It lies becalmed, and rots upon the water.

            And men have their remoras too:

            Some insubstantial care, no larger than a child’s hand, That holds us back from joy and freedom of the mind.

            EDWARDNo larger than a child’s hand…

            We know what grieves you, Shelley: the dead Allegra.

            SHELLEYShe died of fever, in a cold nunnery;

            A little fire dying on a cold stone.

            Claire’s daughter and Byron’s daughter. Take your guitar, Jane, and sing her elegy.

            JANEI set my child to sleep and sail

            Far over the blue sea.

            The waves shall rock her easily

            As though she lay on a mother’s knee. The sky shall watch over her

            With the long look of a mother.

            SHELLEYThe loom of land shall thin and fail,

            Far out in the blue sea.

            The barren rock, the leafless tree,

            The shore of human misery,

            Transmuted, shall only show

            Like a calm violet shadow.

            EDWARD, JANE, SHELLEYSail on! Fare-well! The moon shall

            companion her

            With a white foot on the water.

            (SHELLEY goes out slowly by the door, L. Mary half-rises as though to follow him, then sinks back. JANE and EDWARD slowly resume their chess match. Enter TRELAWNY.)



            MARYThe Pirate! what wind blows you here?

            TRELAWNYA rising off-shore breeze, my ladies. One that will blow

            Your husbands out to sea, and leave you bird-alone.

            I have ridden from Genoa, where the boat is building

            And ready to set sail. Where is Shelley?

            MARYNot far. I heard his footstep on the beach.

            Only a minute ago.

            JANEOh, call him in.

            He is in one of his melancholy moods.

            This news will revive him.

            MARYHe will come when he pleases. Time enough.

            There will be all the summer for sailing!

            For steering, tacking, heave-ho, and ship-ahoy!

            Time enough, too, to grow tired of his summer


            TRELAWNYNo plaything, Mary, but a lively schooner:

            Fast, strongly built, and Torbay-rigged. (Turning to Edward)                  It needed

            Two tons of iron ballast to sober her

            And make her manageable.

            EDWARDSo much the better. I can feel her under me already Impassioned,

            Nobly obedient to the helm,

            Proud as a stag and limber as an eel.

            TRELAWNYAye, but no ship to dream in, or rhyme on.

            Shelley must brush the visions out of his eyes

            And heave his books and papers overboard.

            He cannot put to sea with Plato.

            (SHELLEY re-enters, pale and exalted. He walks about the room while the others watch him with growing concern.)

            SHELLEYI have seen… Oh, I have seen…

            The moon had made a pathway on the water,

            The night was intensely calm.

            I saw the surf whiten and fade at my feet.

            I heard the mile-long crash of the wave. And my own

            heart beating.

            I saw a naked child rise up out of the sea,

            And clasp her hands upon her breast as though with joy

            And smile at me!

            Oh, it was she! Allegra! Allegra!

            EDWARD, TRELAWNYHe saw the moonlight on the water.

            MARYCan such things be?

            SHELLEYI saw the surf whiten and fade at my feet,

            EDWARD, TRELAWNYHe saw the surf whiten and fade at his feet.

            SHELLEYI heard the mile-long crash of the wave,

            And my own heart beating.

            EDWARD, TRELAWNYHe saw the moonlight and the fleeting spray.

            MARY, JANEHow can a dead child rise up out of the grave?

            SHELLEYI saw a naked child rise up out of the sea.

            And clasp her hands upon her breast as though for joy.

            EDWARD, TRELAWNYWas it the moonlight or the fleeting spray?

            JANEAnd not the dead at rest?

            SHELLEYAnd smile at me.

            MARYWoe is me! Woe is me!

            It is Claire’s child, not mine, that he would see!

            SHELLEYOh, it was she, Allegra! Allegra!

            I saw Allegra rise up out of the sea!

            EDWARD, TRELAWNYA dead child, rising joyful from the sea.

            JANEIs it a shadow of things past? Is it an omen of things

            yet to be?

            Scene closes.

            ACT II Scene iv.

            Mid-day. All five windows stand open. MARY and JANE on the platform. SHELLEY, EDWARD, TRELAWNY are grouped round a table, on which are maps and charts, which they are studying.

            TRELAWNYSo, rounding the northernmost point of Corsica, we

            anchor here

            Then homeward, through the straits of Bonifacio.

            SHELLEYThen onward to the Balearic Islands, onward to Spain!

            Why should we not sail into the Atlantic itself

            On a wind blowing from Africa? But when will she


            When will our boat come?

            TRELAWNYHere, from Cap Testa, there is a strong current.

            SHELLEYOr shall we sail to Greece?

            EDWARDHere, one would need to stand well off from shore.

            MARYShe has come!

            SHELLEY, EDWARDShe has come?

            (MARY and JANE enter the room as the three men hurry to platform and stare about.)

            MARYYou look for her in the wrong place.

            (CLAIRE comes in by door L. taking off her bonnet and shawl. The three women form an embracing group, as the men re-enter.)

            MARY, JANEWelcome, dear Claire!

            Welcome as snow in the heat of midsummer,

            Welcome as a spar to a drowning mariner.

            CLAIREWhy, who is fainting, and who is drowning?

            MARY, JANEWho but we?

            Drowning in charts, in talks of currents and soundings,

            SHELLEY, EDWARDWho but we?

            Stormbound in wedlock, here we must toss and


            Longing for sympathy.

            CLAIREThere, there!

            TRELAWNYWomen are always vexed when husbands go to sea.

            (SHELLEY turns to window.)

            SHELLEYA sail!

            (He hurries to the platform, and presently returns, dejectedly.)

            CLAIREHow strange it is

            To find Shelley longing for something not impossible…

            Not moon, not unicorn, not even the regeneration of mankind,

            But a boat, an ordinary wooden boat!

            TRELAWNYThat is the sea-change I promised you.

            CLAIREThe sea-change!

            Yet no boat Shelley sailed in could be an ordinary boat:

            He can work changes, too.

            (SHELLEY, EDWARD, MARY, and JANE, who have [been] disputing in the background, now come forward.)

            MARY, JANEPity us Claire!

            Perched on these rocks in this crazy dwelling!

            With a smokey chimney and a cracked ceiling.

            SHELLEY, EDWARDPity us Claire!

            Teased by our wives from day’s end to day’s end…

            TRELAWNYWhile our faithless vessel coquets with our patience.

            MARY, JANEWhy, who are the craziest, the lords or the ladies?

            MARY, JANEHere we must stay,

            Combing our love-lorn hair,

            Weeping like mermaids,

            While they go jaunting away.

            SHELLEY, EDWARDAway! Away!

            Scolding like sea-mews, they flutter round us upbraiding.

            Why does our boat delay?

            CLAIREChafing, disputing, contending,

            They only quarrel to make it up in the end.

            MARYI cannot endure it! Everything in this house

            Is changed into fantasy, into sea-mews and mermaids.

            Only my blood remains human; heavy with care,

            Rocking my heart with wave on wave of foreboding,

            I, alone, listen to the sea.

            (As she turns from the others, SHELLEY and JANE come forward.)

            SHELLEYI know you do not love the thought of our boat

            Yet every day you watch the boats go to and fro,

            Lightly, safely, as butterflies over a meadow.

            Why should you be afraid?

            JANEI have all the songs and ballads On my side,

            Where bright ladies grow dim, Waiting for a ship

            That never comes again.

            SHELLEYNot all the songs are written.

            I will bring back songs for you, far lovelier,

            More strange, more flowing…

            Lovelier, stranger, more magical…

            A VOICE FROM THE SEAAhoy!

            VOICES ON SHOREAhoy! Ahoy!

            VOICES FROM THE SEAIs this the Englishman’s house?

            SHELLEYJoy! Joy!

            (They hasten to the platform.)

            VOICES ON SHOREHere! Here! Steer this way. So. Now clear

            The reef.

            Easy! Easy! Now let her go!

            VOICES FROM THE SEA,nearer. Let her go!

            VOICES ON SHORELook, how she comes about. How she finds her way.

            EDWARDHow smoothly she comes on!

            Proud, painted, and new

            Like the Virgin going in procession.

            Going above the heads of the crowd.

            How she comes in!

            Easily riding like the rising moon.

            (The sails of a ship come in sight at back of stage.)

            SHELLEYMy soul flies into her sails. I am gone. I am gone.

            Scene closes.

            Scene v.

            Curtain down. All voices off.

            TRELAWNY, narrativeOn the eighth day of July, I watched them sail from the port of Livorno on their homeward voyage.

            A SAILOR, conversationalThey start too late. They should have sailed two hours ago.

            TRELAWNY, conversationalSoon, they will have the land-breeze.

            SAILOR, conversationalThey will have more than a land-breeze.

            Look at those ragged clouds hanging in the south-west.

            Look at smoke on the water.

            There is a storm brewing.

            TRELAWNY, conversationalThe sea-fog gathers round the boat.

            SAILOR,conversationalShe carries too much sail.

            TRELAWNY, conversationalI can see her no more.

            (Curtain rises. Stage in semi-darkness, all windows open, faint light beyond. The three women are grouped before the centre window, in silhouette. Lighting diminishing by degrees.)

            TRELAWNY narrativeIt had grown dark as night. The sea was leaden colour, solid and smooth as lead. Gusts of wind swept over it without ruffling it. Large drops of rain fell on it, rebounding as though they could not pierce its oily swell. There was a commotion in the air, a hubbub of threat and danger coming upon us from the sea.

            VOICES, distantDown with the topsails! Haul away! Make for the harbour!

            TRELAWNY, narrativeFishing craft under bare poles come crowding, jostling into port, running before the squall.

            VOICES, nearerAhoy there! Make way, make way!

            (The storm breaks with a crash of thunder. The stage is in darkness, except for distant lightning across back scene. Storm music dies down, stage slowly lightens.)

            TRELAWNY, resuming narrativeWhen the horizon cleared I looked to seaward…

            (Stage has lightened enough to reveal the bare shine of the sea.)

            TRELAWNYI looked to seaward… I looked to seaward…

            Scene closes.

            Scene vi.

            Candlelight. All windows are shuttered, and the room is back as in scene i, except for some bales and boxes on the floor, ready for departure. MARY, in widow’s dress, sits at the table, writing: Enter TRELAWNY, who approaches her in silence.

            MARY, after a pauseDo you remember how you came,

            And stood, as you do now, saying no word,

            Until at last I said, Is there no hope? And you were


            (Noise of the sea, as in scene i.)

            Do you remember our arrival,

            And how I said, Listen! – and you said, Only the sea?

            (She glances at what she was writing, and crumples it impatiently.)

            TRELAWNYYou tire yourself with writing. Do not do so.

            MARYI must write down my recollection of Shelley.

            I must; and yet I cannot. Tears come, and they are


            But my words betray him. What shall I write?

            TRELAWNYWrite, above all, that he was never-failing.

            (She looks up, momentarily disconcerted by this unexpected word.)

            TRELAWNYDo you remember, remembering our arrival,

            How we stood here, huddled in fear and falsehood,

            Being afraid of a dead child?

            And how, when Shelley came, we were suddenly


            Our cautious fetters struck off, our hearts recalled.

            To the truth of living, and the truth of dying?

            (MARY’S attitude and expression gradually animated by passionate attention.)

            TRELAWNYDo you remember how he would flash and frolic

            His spirit of delight through our dull vapours,

            And how his twilight enfolded our garish day?

            How he was wings to every joy, and glamour

            To every hope; and a cold clay

            Sepulchre darker than our utmost melancholy?

            MARYBeing a poet, a poet!

            TRELAWNYA poet!…

            How, from our mortal remembrance

            He is wafted;

            He rises to that untrammelled region

            Where poets as poems survive.

            Dying, he has reversed the sea-change.

            The sea enriched by him,

            And the wave lovelier

            His winding-sheet forever after.

            A poet. But not as the timid world would belie him:

            One dwelling in a dream’s enclosure

            Whose blood dropped from a painless wound

            Whose imagination complied with a whim’s disposal;

            No! But like his own Prometheus Unbound

            To extremity suffering, forgiving, and defying.

            MARY‘To love, and bear, to hope

            Till hope creates from its own wreck

            The thing it contemplates…

            Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent:

            This, like thy glory’5 …like thy glory

            …thy glory…

            (The curtain falls slowly.)

            MARY, to herself, intensely.To love, and bear, and hope.

            TRELAWNYNow from our mortal remembrance he is wafted

            MARY, as beforeTill hope creates

            From its own wreck the thing it contemplates

            TRELAWNYHe rises untrammelled to that region

            Where the poets as poems survive

            MARYNeither to change, nor falter, nor repent:

            TRELAWNYDying, he has reversed the sea-change:

            MARYThis, like thy glory…like thy glory…

            TRELAWNYThe sea enriched by him, and the wave

            Lovelier his winding sheet forever after

            MARYThy glory!

            Scene closes.



            Warner spells the last name of Edward John Trelawny as ‘Trelawney’ throughout the libretto, except for once in the note on staging.


            Editorial additions and corrections to Warner’s typescript appear in square brackets.


            The underlinings are reproduced as in Warner’s typescript. See The Tempest 1.2.400–9.


            Nordoff’s score notes at this point ‘(She remembers the poems he wrote her.)’ The lines from Shelley’s offstage voice are ‘The Passage of the Apennines’, lines 1–2, and ‘To Mary –---’, lines 1–4.


            Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, 4. 570–6.

            Author and article information

            The Journal of the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society
            UCL Press
            : 16
            : 1

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