Percy Bysshe Shelley

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 8:254-61.

This gifted but erring genius, was the eldest son of Sir Timothy Shelley, Baronet, of Castle Goring, Sussex, and was born at his father's seat, on the 4th of August, 1792. The following biographical notice of him is from the pen of his friend and associate, Captain Medwin:—

"Percy Bysshe Shelley was removed from a private school at thirteen, and sent to Eton. He there showed a character of great eccentricity, mixed in none of the amusements natural to his age, was of a melancholy and reserved disposition, fond of solitude, and made few friends. Neither did he distinguish himself much at Eton, for he had a great contempt for modern Latin verses, and his studies were directed to any thing rather than the exercises of his class. It was from an early acquaintance with German writers, the he probably imbibed a romantic turn of mind, at least, we find him, before fifteen, publishing two Rosa-Matilda-like novels, called, Justrozzi, and The Rosicrucian, that bore no marks of being the productions of a boy, and were much talked of and reprobated as immoral by the journalists of the day. He also made great progress in chemistry. He used to say, that nothing ever delighted him so much as the discovery that there were no elements of earth, fire, or water; but before he left school he nearly lost his life by being blown up in one of his experiments, and gave up the pursuit.

"He now turned his mind to metaphysics, and become infected with the materialism of the French school. Even before he was sent to University college, Oxford, he had entered into an epistolary theological controversy with a dignitary of the church, under the feigned name of a woman, and, after the second term, he printed a pamphlet with a most extravagant title, — The Necessity of Atheism. This silly work, which was only a recapitulation of some of the arguments of Voltaire and the philosophers of the day, he had the madness to circulate among the bench of bishops, not even disguising his name. The consequence was an obvious one; he was summoned before the heads of the college, and refusing to retract his opinions, on the contrary preparing to argue them with the examining masters, was expelled the university. This disgrace in itself affected Shelley but little at the time, but was fatal to all his hopes of happiness and prospects in life; for it deprived him of his first love, and was the eventual means of alienating him for ever from his family. For some weeks after this expulsion his father refused to receive him under his roof; and when he did, treated him with such marked coldness, that he soon quitted what he no longer considered his home, went to London privately, and thence eloped to Gretna Green, with a Miss Westbrook — their united ages amounting to thirty-three. This last act exasperated his father to such a degree, that he now broke off all communication with Shelley. After some stay in Edinburgh, we trace him into Ireland; and, that country being in a disturbed state, find him publishing a pamphlet, which had a great sale, and the object of which was to soothe the minds of the people, telling them that moderate firmness, and not open rebellion, would most tend to conciliate, and to give them their liberties.

"He also spoke at some of their public meetings with great fluency and eloquence. Returning to England the latter end of 1812, and being at that time an admirer of Mr. Southey's poems, he paid a visit to the lakes, where himself and his wife passed several days at Keswick. He now became devoted to poetry, and after imbuing himself with The Age of Reason, Spinosa, and The Political Justice, composed his Queen Mab, and presented it to most of the literary characters of the day, — among the rest to Lord Byron, who speaks of it in his note to The Two Foscari thus — 'I showed it to Mr. Sotheby as a poem of great power and imagination. I never wrote a line of the notes, nor ever saw them, except in their published form. No one knows better than the real author, that his opinions and mine differ materially upon the metaphysical portion of that work; though, in common with all who are not blinded by baseness and bigotry, I highly admire the poetry of that and his other productions.' It is to be remarked here, that Queen Mab, eight or ten years afterwards, fell into the hands or a bookseller, who published it on his own account; and on its publication, and subsequent prosecution, Shelley disclaimed the opinions contained in that work, as being the crude notions of his youth.

"His marriage, by which he had two children, soon turned out — as might have been expected — an unhappy one, and a separation ensuing in 1816, he went abroad, and passed the summer of that year in Switzerland, where the scenery of that romantic country tended to make nature a passion and enjoyment; and at Geneva he formed a friendship for Lord Byron, which was destined to last for life. It has been said that the perfection of every thing Lord Byron wrote at Diodati, (his third canto of Childe Harold, his Manfred, and Prisoner of Chillon,) owed something to the critical judgment that Shelley exercised over those works, and to his dosing him — as he used to say — with Wordsworth. In the autumn of this year we find the subject of this memoir at Como, where he wrote Rosalind and Helen, an eclogue, and an ode to the Euganean Hills, marked with great pathos and beauty. His first visit to Italy was short, for he was soon called to England by his wife's melancholy fate, which ever after threw a cloud over his own. The year subsequent to this event, he married Mary Wolstoncraft Godwin, daughter of the celebrated Mary Wolstoncraft and Godwin; and shortly before this period, heir to an income of many thousands a year, and a baronetage, he was in such pecuniary distress, that he was nearly dying of hunger in the streets! Finding, soon after his coming of age, that he was entitled to some reversionary property in fee, he sold it to his father for an annuity of 1,000 a year, and took a house at Marlow, where he persevered more than ever in his poetical and classical studies. It was during his residence in Buckinghamshire that he wrote his Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude; and perhaps one of the most perfect specimens of harmony, in blank verse, that our language possesses, and full of the wild scenes which his imagination had treasured up in his Alpine excursions. In this poem he deifies nature much in the same way that Wordsworth did in his earlier productions.

"Inattentive to pecuniary matters, and generous to excess, he soon found that he could not live on his income; and, still unforgiven by his family, he came to a resolution of quitting his native country, and never returning to it. There was another circumstance also that tended to disgust him with England: his children were taken from him by the Lord Chancellor, on the ground of his atheism. He again crossed the Alps, and took up his residence at Venice. There he strengthened his intimacy with Lord Byron, and wrote his Revolt of Islam, an allegorical poem in the Spencer stanza. Noticed very favourably in Blackwood's Magazine, it fell under the lash of The Quarterly, which indulged itself in much personal abuse of the author; both openly in the review of that work, and insidiously under the critique of Hunt's Foliage. Perhaps little can be said for the philosophy of The Loves of Laon and Cythra. Like Mr. Owen of Lanark, he believed in the perfectibility of human nature, and looked forward to a period when a new golden age would return to earth, — when all the different creeds and systems of the world would be amalgamated into one, — crime disappear, and man, freed from shackles civil and religious, bow before the throne 'of his own awless soul' or 'of the Power unknown.'

"Wild and visionary as such a speculation must be confessed to be in the present state of society, it sprang from a mind enthusiastic in its wishes for the good of the species, and the amelioration of mankind and of society; and however mistaken the means of bringing about this reform or 'revolt,' may be considered, the object of his whole life and writings seems to have been to develope them. This is particularly observable in his next work, The Prometheus Unbound, a bold attempt to revive a lost play of Aeschylus. This drama shows an acquaintance with the Greek tragedy-writers, which perhaps no other person possessed in an equal degree, and was written at Rome amid the flower-covered ruins of the Baths of Caracalla. At Rome, also, he formed the story of The Cenci into a tragedy, which, but for the harrowing nature of the subject, and the prejudice against any thing bearing his name, could not have failed to have had the greatest success, — if not on the stage, at least in the closet. Lord Byron was of opinion that it was the best play the age had produced, and not unworthy of the immediate followers of Shakspeare.

"After passing several months at Naples, he finally settled with his lovely and amiable wife in Tuscany, where he passed the last four years in domestic retirement and intense application to study. His acquirements were great. He was, perhaps, the first classic in Europe. The books he considered the models of style for prose and poetry, were Plato and the Greek dramatists. He had made himself equally master of the modern languages. Calderon, in Spanish; Petrarch and Dante, in Italian; and Goethe and Schiller, in German, were his favourite authors. French he never read, and said he never could understand the beauty of Racine.

"Discouraged by the ill success of his writings, — persecuted by the malice of his enemies, — hated by the world, — an outcast from his family, and a martyr to a painful complaint, he was subject to occasional fits of melancholy and dejection. For the last four years, though he continued to write, he had given up publishing. There were two occasions, however, that induced him to break through his resolution. His ardent love of liberty inspired him to write Hellas, or the Triumph of Greece, a drama, since translated into Greek, and which he inscribed to his friend, Prince Mavrocordato, and his attachment to Keats led him to publish an elegy, which he entitled Adonais.

"This last is, perhaps, the most perfect of all his compositions, and the one he himself considered so. Among the mourners at the funeral of his poet-friend he draws this portrait of himself (the stanzas were afterwards expunged from the elegy):—

'Mid others of less note came one frail form,—
A phantom among men, — companionless
As the last cloud of an expiring storm,
Whose thunder is its knell. He, as I guess,
Had gazed on Nature's naked loveliness
Acteon-like; and now he fled astray
With feeble steps on the world's wilderness,
And his own thoughts along that rugged way
Pursued, like raging hounds, their father and their prey.
His head was bound with pansies overblown,
And faded violets, white, and pied, and blue;
And a light spear, topp'd with a cypress cone,
(Round whose rough stem dark ivy tresses shone,
Yet dripping with the forest's noon-day dew,)
Vibrated, as the ever-beating heart
Shook the weak hand that grasp'd it. Of that crew
He came the last, neglected and apart—
A herd-abandoned deer, struck by the hunter's dart!

"The last eighteen months of Shelley's life were passed in daily intercourse with Lord Byron, to whom the amiability, gentleness, and elegance of his manners, and his great talents and acquirements, had endeared him. Like his friend, he wished to die young: he perished in the 29th year of his age, in the Mediterranean; between Leghorn and Lerici, from the upsetting of an open boat. The sea had been to him, as well as Lord Byron, ever the greatest delight, and as early as 1813, in the following lines, written at sixteen, he seems to have anticipated that it would prove his grave:—

To-morrow comes
Cloud upon cloud with dark and deep'ning mass
Roll o'er the blacken'd waters, the deep roar
Of distant thunder mutters awfully;
Tempest unfolds its pinions o'er the gloom
That shrouds the boiling surge; the pitiless fiend
With all his winds and lightnings tracks his prey;
The torn deep yawns, — the vessel finds a grave
Beneath its jagged jaws.

For fifteen days after the loss of the vessel his body was undiscovered; and when found, was not in a state to be removed. In order to comply with his wish of being buried at Rome, his corpse was directed to be burnt; and Lord Byron, faithful to his trust as an executor, and duty as a friend; superintended the ceremony which I have described. The remains of one who was destined to have little repose or happiness here, now sleep with those of his friend Keats, in the burial-ground near Caius Cestus's Pyramid; — 'a spot so beautiful,' said he, 'that it might almost make one in love with death.'"

"Shelley," says the author of an able article in the National Magazine, "was most assuredly an amiable man: the spirit which pervades the whole of his writings, is that of a thoughtful and romantic humanity. We have little of the spirit of fashion or of the world. He possessed all the intensity of individual feeling which belongs to Byron, but none of the dark: and desolating bitterness with which that haughty spirit overflowed. Like Wordsworth, he has bathed his heart in the beauty,: and drunk of the spirit of the universe: he has all the lively conception of natural beauty, but none of the puerility and affectation occasionally to be met with in the works of that illustrious poet. Like him, too, he is one whose 'hourly neighbour' ever was

Beauty, a living presence of the earth,
Surpassing the most fair ideal forms
That craft of delicate spirits hath composed
From earth's materials.

It has been said that Byron, even in his earlier and prouder days, before he was lost to himself, and worse than lost to the world, in the mean and degrading grossness of blackguardism, "Ere he fell flat, and shamed his worshippers," had little of creative energy in description, and was too much of a mere limner or copyist of nature. We find in the poetry of Shelley, a freer and purer development of what is best and noblest in ourselves: we are taught in it to love all living and lifeless things, with which, in the material and moral universe, we are surrounded, — we are taught to love the wisdom and goodness and majesty of the Almighty, for we are taught to love the universe, his symbol and visible exponent. God has given two books for the study and instruction of mankind: the book of revelation and the book of nature. In one at least of these was Shelley deeply versed, and in this one he has given admirable lessons to his fellow-men: throughout his writings, every thought and every feeling is subdued and chastened by a spirit of unutterable and boundless love. The poet meets us on the common ground of a disinterested humanity, and he teaches us to hold an earnest faith in the worth and the intrinsic godliness of the soul. He tells us — he makes us feel — that there is nothing higher than human hope, nothing deeper than the human heart, he exhorts us to labour devotedly in the great and good work of the advancement of human virtue and happiness, and stimulates us

To love and bear — to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates.

"The most extraordinary production from the pen of Shelley," our anonymous critic continues, "is the Revolt of Islam, which contains some of his highest and purest poetry, and may be considered as the fullest collection of his intellectual strength. There is an air about it of mysticism and wildness, — the materials are disjointed, — it is in some parts enigmatical, discontinuous, and unsubstantial, like the shadowy records of an ill-remembered dream, and yet, despite all this, its majestic expression, rich imagination, and splendid imagery, must rank it as one of the most remarkable of modern poems. The object of the author in undertaking this work, as we learn from his preface, was to enlist the harmony of metrical language, the ethereal combinations of the fancy, the rapid and subtle transitions of human passion, all those elements, in short, which essentially compose a poem in the cause of a liberal and comprehensive morality, and with the view of kindling in the bosoms of his readers a virtuous enthusiasm for those doctrines of liberty and justice, that faith and hope in something good, which neither violence nor misrepresentation, nor prejudice, nor the continual presence and pressure of evil, can ever totally extinguish among mankind. Against much of the philosophy of the Revolt of Islam, however, we must except as false: it is more powerful in its thought than its conclusions. Its notions of human perfectibility are mere chimeras and golden dreams. The cold realities of the world were accompanied with too much bitterness for Shelley, — he expected from it what it could and does give to no one: he vainly desired to raise the species in the seale of universal being, and to build himself a world, — like a brave poetical fiction. We smile at his vain enthusiasm, but we cannot condemn, — no, nor even scorn him for his simplicity; we leave that to those who see nothing in the world beyond their own dreary commonplaces, and hug themselves in the superiority of their knowledge, which is after all but the knowledge of evil, at all times a questionable advantage. We can imagine — we glory in imagining — the fond hopes that suggested themselves to a mind like Shelley's, imbued with an intense faith in the natural goodness of all things. We can pardon him for his unavailing belief in the power of man to be kinder and happier, — though we think he would have been himself much wiser and more happy, had he sought contentment in busy action, and the strong natural excitement of strenuous honourable exertion. The plot of this poem, as we have already said, is artificial and fastidious, — and too filmy and obscure to enable us to give our readers a fair idea of it here. The poem throughout is, perhaps, too learned; he measures every thing by the wide limits of his own understanding, and forgets that to speak to all men with success and power, he must bring himself down to their level, and make himself still more a man than they. He forgets the constitution of things, and follows blindly the light of his own mind, and the light of his own impulses, — he regards every thing in its connexion with his imaginative world, and

As if a man were author of himself
And owned no other kin,

he endeavours to suggest and illustrate, by noble passages and fine trains of thought, a certain system of philosophy and feeling, which belongs not to them, but rather to his own imagination. He 'hopeth against hope' recklessly on, and seeing that the world will not become what he so ardently thirsts for, he builds himself, in his vague abstraction, a world of nonentities and contingencies, and bids defiance there to the old security and sanctity of what he calls superstition and injustice. Such are the faults of the constitution of this singular poem; its beauties are above all praise. Grandeur of imagery, depth of sentiment, an intense feeling of nature, with an enthusiastic and buoyant hopefulness which might well teach us to mourn over the infinite longings and small acquirings of man."

The following remarks on Shelley's personal character are equally deserving of attention: — "The eccentricity of genius has, it appears, passed into a proverb — Shelley does not call into question the authority of the adage. His eccentricity, however, proceeded from enthusiasm; an ardent enthusiasm in all things, which cost him, as it usually does, many friends, and found him many foes. He could not, in any matter, leave his favourite region of sentiment and imagination for the sake of raising his worldly wealth or worldly greatness. With a vision deeper than that of most men he did not use it wisely: he refined too much on thought and feeling; he could not endure the necessary trials of human patience; he would have the world, as has been already said, a brave poetical fiction, and he turned dissatisfied from the harsh and dull reality. He was constantly during life regretting that he knew not the internal constitution of other men. 'I see,' he would say, 'that in some external attributes they resemble me, but when, misled by the appearance, I have thought to appeal to something in common, and unburthen my inmost soul to them, I have found my language misunderstood, like one in a distant and savage land. The more opportunities they have afforded me for experience, the wider has appeared the interval between us, and to a greater distance have the points of sympathy been withdrawn. With a spirit ill-fitted to sustain such proof, trembling and feeble through its tenderness, I have every where sought, and have found only repulse and disappointment.' And it was from this disappointment, this withering of his fond conjectures, that many of his faults arose. We have a high authority too, for stating that this 'unfortunate man of genius' was bitterly sensible, before his early death, of the error and the madness of that part of his career which drew upon him so much indignation and contumely. It is declared that he confessed with tears, 'that he knew well now he had been all in the wrong.' In his heart there was nothing depraved or unsound, — those who had opportunities of knowing him best, tell us that his life was spent in the contemplation of nature, in arduous study, or in acts of kindness and affection. A man of learning, who shared the poverty so often attached to it, enjoyed from him at one period a pension of a hundred a year, and continued to enjoy it, till fortune rendered it superfluous. To another man of letters in similar circumstances, he presented fourteen hundred pounds; and many other acts like these are on record to his immortal honour. Himself a frugal and abstemious ascetic, — by saving and economizing he was able to assist the industrious poor, — and they had frequent cause to bless his name. In his youth he was of a melancholy and reserved disposition, and fond of abstruse study. Like the scholar described by old Chaucer, he was accustomed to keep continually

At his bed's head,
A twenty bokes, clothed in black and red,
Of Aristotle and his philosophie.

He was, as his poetry attests, an elegant scholar and n profound metaphysician. We have frequently noticed his intense love of natural scenery, which grew with him from youth upwards. 'There is,' he once finely said, 'an eloquence in the tongueless wind, and a melody in the flowing brooks and the rustling of the reeds beside them, which, by their inconceivable relation to something within the soul, awaken the spirits to dance in breathless rapture, and bring tears of mysterious tenderness to the eyes, like the enthusiasm of patriotic success, or the voice of one beloved singing to you alone.' He made his study and reading room, we are told, of the shadowed copse, the stream, the lake and the waterfall. Prometheus Unbound, a poem of singular vigour, one which strikes the mind like the naked and solitary grandeur of an old sculpture, and which breathes the true spirit of the finest fragments of antiquity, was written among the deserted and flower-grown ruins of Rome. And when he made his home under the Pisan hills, their roofless recesses harboured him as he composed the Witch of Atlas, a strange and wild production, teeming with vivifying soul. Here also be wrote Adonais, a fine tribute to the memory of his friend Keats, who died young, but whose 'infelicity had years too many.' His beautiful and stirring poem of Hellas, was also written here. There is something strange and awful in the thought that he loved fervently, and always gloried in the presence of that sea, whose murderous jaws afterwards closed over his spirit for ever. 'In the wild but beautiful bay of Spezzia,' says one of his friends, 'the winds and waves which he loved became his playmates. His days were chiefly spent on the water; the management of his boat, its alterations and improvements, were his principal occupation. At night, when the unclouded moon shone on the calm sea, be often went alone in his little shallop to the rocky cliffs that bordered it, and sitting beneath their shelter, wrote the Triumph of Life, the last of his productions.'"