1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Percy Bysshe Shelley

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 40.



PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY, eldest son of Sir Timothy Shelley, Bart. of Castle Goring, was born at Field Place, Sussex, on the 4th of August, 1792. He was educated at Eton, and at University College, Oxford was twice married, and has left two children, a daughter by the first wife, and a son — who is heir to the title — by the second. His widow, the daughter of William Godwin, is well known as the author of Frankenstein, and other novels. Mr. Shelley was cut off in the flower of his years and genius, on the 8th of July, 1822; he was drowned in a storm on the Genoese coast, whither he was hastening, to his abode near the town of Lerici.

It is within the scope neither of the limits nor the object of this work, to enter upon those controversial points, which so occupied the attention, and coloured the existence of this extraordinary man. Suffice it to say (for the man's NATURE can never be left out, where the Poet is concerned), that whether his speculations were well or ill grounded, he is acknowledged on all hands to have been sincere in his pursuit of them; and that his friends entertain the most enthusiastic regard for his memory.

Mr. Shelley was tall, and slight of figure, with a singular union of general delicacy of organization and muscular strength. His hair was brown, prematurely touched with grey; his complexion fair and glowing; his eyes grey and extremely vivid; his face small and delicately featured, especially about the lower part; and he had an expression of countenance, when he was talking in his usual earnest fashion, which has been described elsewhere, as giving you the idea of something "seraphical."

Mr. Shelley's poetry resembles that creation, for the moral harmony of which he was so anxious. It is wonderfully flowing and energetic, round and harmonious as the orb, — no less conversant with seas and mountains, than with flowers and the minutest beauty, — and it hungers and thirsts after a certain beauty of perfection, as the orb rolls in loving attraction round the sun. He is remarkable for mixing a scholarly grandiosity of style with the most unaffected feeling and the most impulsive expression, and for being alike supernatural and human in his enthusiasm, — that is to say, he is equally fond of soaring away into the most ethereal abstractions, as if he were spirit; and of sympathizing with every-day flesh and blood, as though he had done nothing but suffer and enjoy with the most earth-bound of his fellow-creatures. Whether interrogating Nature in the icy solitudes of Chamouny, or thrilling with the lark in the sunshine, or shedding indignant tears with sorrow and poverty, or pulling flowers like a child in a field, or pitching himself back into the depths of time and space, and discoursing with the first forms and gigantic shadows of creation; he is alike in earnest, and AT HOME. His faults arise from the very excess of his sympathies with all things. He is sometimes obscure in the remoteness of his abstractions, and sometimes so impatient with the forms of error, as to seem contradictory to his own tolerant doctrine. He not only

Relishes all things sharply,
Passioned as well—

He is far more passioned, and relishes them with a sharpness that makes him cry out like one constituted almost too delicately for existence. The cry is useful, because it begets attention to what might be otherwise too dully endured; but it leaves his genius with a certain charge of impatience and excess upon it, that hazards, meanwhile, that very enjoyment of the beautiful which he longed for, and which it is the more peculiar business of poetry to produce.

THE EDITOR is indebted for this Memoir of Shelley, and also for that of Keats, to the friend of both, Leigh Hunt. The dangerous tendency of Shelley's writings, — his mistakes, theoretical and practical, acknowledged in some instances by himself, — will not find from others the excuse they have found from those who had personal regard for the man, as well as admiration of the Poet. Shelley may have been, as it is contended he was, SINCERE in his schemes for re-modelling society; but his doctrines are not, therefore, the less pernicious. Unhappily he died before judgment had arrived to the aid of genius: it is impossible to doubt that a mind so naturally generous would have atoned for many of the errors he had assisted to propagate, if he had lived to be convinced of them. He publicly disavowed (in the Examiner) the republication of Queen Mab; and regretted that he had written it. It was the work or a youth exasperated by scholastic injustice.