Percy Bysshe Shelley

Henry Fothergill Chorley, "Percy Bysshe Shelley" The Authors of England (1838) 56-64.

It is a delicate, no less than a difficult task, to write the life of a dreamer and a doubter; if the biographer feels a biographer's sympathy with his subject, he runs the risk of being himself disregarded as a visionary, a questioner of sound and wholesome matters of faith. If, on the other hand, he cannot leave the beaten track of reason and belief, if he cannot deal indulgently with the wanderings and struggles of a mind, at once strong and weak, liberal and credulous, he is unfit for his task, and stands in the position of a common horseman passing judgment upon the winged steed Pegasus. The difficulties adverted to have not been unfelt, even in meditating the brief sketch which accompanies our portrait of the childlike, melancholy features of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

He was born at Field Place, in the county of Sussex, on the 4th of August, 1792, the son of Sir Timothy Shelley, Bart., of Castle Goring, in the same county. Till he reached the age of seven or eight years, Captain Medwin tells us that "he was brought up in retirement with his sisters, receiving the same education as they, whence he never showed the least taste for the amusements of boys." He was then sent to school at Sion House, Brentford, where he remained for some years — years to him of exquisite misery. We are told that his feminine education subjected him to much persecution and ridicule, in that roughest of republics, a boy's playground. It may be, too, that some slight kindling of that peculiar and unworldly spirit, which afterwards burned within him with so consuming a fire, manifested itself even in this ungenial region for that his mind began early to work we have. proof in those lines of confession so often quoted:

I do remember well the hour which burst
My spirit's sleep, a fresh May dawn it was,
When I walked forth upon the glittering grass,
And wept, I knew not why — until there rose,
From the near schoolroom, voices, that, alas!
Were but one echo from a world of woes—
The harsh and grating strife of tyrants and of foes.

And then I clasped my hands, and looked around;
But none was near to mock my streaming eyes,
Which poured their warm drops on the sunny ground,
So without shame I spoke — "I will be wise,
And just, and free, and mild — if in me lies
Such power, for I grow weary to behold
The selfish and the strong still tyrannize
Without reproach or check." I then controll'd
My tears — my heart grew calm, and I was meek and bold.

And from that hour did I, with earnest thought,
Heap knowledge from forbidden mines of lore....

While at school, Shelley's progress in learning appears to have been wayward and unsatisfactory; he was already, however, reading, thinking, analysing for himself, — devouring such books as he adopted, and embracing such opinions as were congenial to him, with the prejudice of a young lover. In one place we read of his translating Pliny's Natural History, pausing and puzzling his tutor over its books of astronomy; in another, of the eagerness with which he threw himself upon the study of German literature, feeding with its mysticism and marvels, that mind whose tendency it was "implicitly to believe every assertion, so that it was improbable and incredible:" as a recreation, indulging his propensity for chemical experiment, by setting trees on fire with a burning-glass; as a duty, organizing a conspiracy against the hateful system of fagging. Every line of these school-records makes us earnestly lament that one gifted with a mind so active, so noble, but withal so incomplete as his, should have been early in life denied the guidance of some friend or relation strong enough calmly and kindly to entertain his doubts without aversion, and sufficiently wise to teach him the true name of the key to their solution, which he carried to his grave without knowing it — who would have smiled at his eccentricities rather than reproved them, being aware that all such as were of any importance to his real happiness and usefulness, must of necessity, fall away, as his mind became balanced by time and experience.

Shelley was one of those impatient geniuses who rush early before the world. Captain Medwin tells us, that at the unripe age of fifteen he wrote part of a poem, called the "Wandering Jew," published not many years since in Fraser's Magazine, and shortly afterwards printed his wholly lost novels, "Zastrozzi" and "The Rosicrucian;" the former was composed under the fervent influence of his first love, the lady being his cousin, whom, like the "Mary" of Byron's youth, he had the misery of seeing wedded to another.

From school, Shelley was removed to Oxford at an early age, — another unlucky circumstance in his destiny. Without any superior mind at hand, upon which he might anchor his own; — ceaselessly stirred by doubts which the spirit of the times wherein he lived was peculiarly tended to awaken — times, be it remembered, which had called forth the masterly essays of Godwin, and had sent forth in life three of our afterwards most orthodox poets as the promoters of a scheme of Pantisocracy: — eccentric and unworldly in his habits — gifted with a purity of mind which made him " offended, and indeed more indignant than would appear to be consistent with the singular mildness of his nature, at a coarse or awkward jest, especially if it were immodest or uncleanly" — animated with a passion for truth (forgetful that, even in Truth's holy cause, passion is excess) — it is not to be wondered that the whole structure and routine of university life was felt by him to be an absurdity, a mockery, an oppression — that something of a martyr's feelings began to possess him, confirming him in his secluded habits and unpopular speculations, and leading him resolutely to despise that very world he was so enthusiastically bent upon reforming.

Of Shelley's residence at Oxford, the hand of an intimate friend has given some most interesting particulars. Nothing could have been less orderly or more harmless than his habits — nothing more utterly at variance with his inclinations and feelings, than the severe but limited course of study, and round of scarcely-veiled licence which, between them, divide college life. In his studies he was unmethodical, irregular, but most earnest. "He rejected with marvellous impatience," writes his friend, "every mathematical disciple that was offered; — the method of demonstration had no charms for him, and when the discoveries of modern analysts were presented, he was immediately distracted, and fell off into endless musings." It may be noted, as illustrative of his peculiar mind that, devoted as he was to the ancient literature and language of Greece, he manifested not merely an indifference, but a hostile aversion to the study of the Oriental tongues; that, eager as he was in the pursuit of chemistry, he despised a science of no distant kindred, the science of botany; that he, who on a future day, drew inspiration from the architectural splendours of ruined Rome (the "Prometheus Unbound," he tells us, being "chiefly written upon the mountainous ruins of the Baths of Caracalla,") should have no eye for the stately and picturesque buildings which make Oxford stand alone among the English cities. Yet we are expressly told that such was the case. "Out of the four-and-twenty hours he frequently read sixteen," the place of his study being often indicated by a circle of crumbs upon the carpet; for his reasonings and researches had already led him to believe that, whereas crime comes of evil, evil comes of bodily disease, and bodily disease is fostered by a sanguinary and unnatural diet; and he had begun rigorously to suit his practice to the theory, which he shortly afterwards recommended to the world in a singular note to that strange poem "Queen Mab."

All this time Shelley's mind was working with unhealthy activity; he was writing anonymous letters to provoke discussion on the momentous questions with which it was occupied, or to inoculate others with his daring and unpopular opinions. He still found his chief recreation in the performance of chemical experiments, though we are told that he was so unskilful a manipulator, that he more than once narrowly escaped poisoning himself or setting his rooms on fire. His college friend adds, "that he possessed a singular taste for perilous recreations, and a thoughtlessness in pursuit of them, that rendered his existence from one day to another miraculous." The Reviewer who deduced his possession of a large organ of destructiveness from his experiments with the burning-glass, would have found corroborative proof in the trait that he chose to equip himself for his long country rambles with "pistols and good store of powder and ball." No less astounding and significant to such severe judges must be the frolics in which he indulged. What could be expected from a youth of sixteen, who could hardly pass by a pond or piece of running water without loitering near it; — amusing himself by the childish pastime of throwing stones in it, or sailing paper boats, to manufacture which, when all other material was exhausted, he would even avail himself of the flyleaves of his books, his darling pocket companions? It is true that in some of these rambles we find traces of the sweet charity of his nature: in one place we read of his feeding a vagrant's child with milk procured from a neighbouring farmhouse; in another, how he reasoned gravely with a donkey-boy upon cruelty to animals; then, again, we stumble upon some curious outbreak of whim and eccentricity, — as when, having been equipped in an admirable new coat, the skirts of which were torn off in forcing his way through a thicket, he insisted upon displaying them on a hedge, and leaving them there "a spectacle," he said, "for men and gods;" — as when, on meeting with a poor woman with a baby in her arms, he suddenly snatched the latter, asking in the piercing tones of his shrill and high-pitched voice, whether the child could communicate anything concerning a state of preexistence. And how characteristic is the trait of his reasoning himself out of a fit of choler by an attempt to define anger; how quaintly engaging the home-picture of him lying asleep on the rug before the fire, exposing his little round head to the full force of the unscreened blaze, and seeming to rejoice in the heat!

The above passages have been dwelt upon, perhaps, disproportionately, but they are valuable as illustrating the thoughts and opinions which so long and sadly alienated him from his fellowmen. It will be divined, too, from them, that Shelley's residence at Oxford could hardly be crowned by the usual termination of a scholar's career. No one will be surprised at that outbreak of his republican spirit, which led him to put forth a volume of fierce and fiery rhymes, under the title of "Margaret Nicholson's Remains" (she, it will be recollected, being the maniac who attempted the assassination of George the Third), or at the subsequent avowal of his scepticism manifested in the publication of a syllabus from Hume's essays, and his challenge of the constituted authorities to discuss its truths in a public controversy, which led to his expulsion from Oxford at the age of seventeen; and this expulsion to a disunion from his own family. Thus, while yet a boy, did he deliberately cast away all the worldly advantages which he might have enjoyed; deliberately break the ties of use and custom, and deeming himself a missionary and a reformer, throw himself upon life, with little hope or support, save such as he found in the earnestness and endurance of his own spirit. The words with which he describes Lionel in "Rosalind and Helen," are exactly applicable to himself.

Men wondered, and some sneered to see
One sow what he could never reap:
For he is rich, they said, and young,
And might drink from the depths of luxury;
If he seeks fame, fame never crowned
The champion of a trampled creed:
If he seeks power, power is enthroned
'Mid ancient rights and wrongs, to feed
Which, hungry wolves with praise and spoil,
Those who would sit near power must toil
And such, there sitting, all may see.
What seeks he? All that others seek
He casts away, like a vile weed
Which the sea casts unreturningly.

From Oxford, Shelley made his way up to London. The strange irregular life which he led in the metropolis tended still further to subject him to reproof and misconstruction. His mistaken enthusiasm in the cause to which his future prospects had been sacrificed hurried him presently into the commission of an act more daringly overt than the one which had provoked his expulsion from the University; the publication of "Queen Mab." As some mitigation of the offence justly given by its undisguised atheism, (so strangely compounded of bitterness and gentleness) and the wild code of morals promulgated in its notes, it should be remembered that this poem was printed only for private circulation, being brought under the notice of the general public by a piratical bookseller, and that in subsequent years its author spoke of its publication with regret. Strangely characteristic of the audacious simplicity of the poet's character is the anecdote, if a true one, that he sent a copy of his confession of faith and code of morals to each one of the bench of bishops.

About this time Shelley's first marriage took place: the lady being yet younger than himself, a Miss Harriet Westbrooke. This connexion was more than distasteful to his family, who now utterly cast him off, and as long as it lasted his life was one of misery, and restlessness, and privation. The details of his residence in England and Wales, — the many anecdotes of his inconsiderate generosity, amounting to munificence, which prove that his disordered fortunes and shattered health neither soured his temper nor shut up his heart, cannot be included within our present limits. It must be mentioned, however, that about this period he made the acquaintance of Leigh Hunt (whom he was afterwards to befriend so signally) and of Lord Byron: the latter during a flight to the continent; for, finding the union into which he had precipitated himself, or, as some have it, been inveigled, a yoke no longer to be borne, he had separated from his wife, and endeavoured to find distraction and relief from his anxieties in a foreign tour. During the comfortless years of his first married life, he had breathed out his doubts and discontents in a few poems, which were published but to be disregarded or anathematized. The preface to "Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude," dated December 1815, contains a remarkable and saddening confession; for all Shelley's poems and prefaces may be read as confessions.

"The poem entitled 'Alastor,' may be considered as allegorical of one of the most interesting situations of the human mind. It represents a youth of uncorrupted feelings and adventurous genius led forth by an imagination inflamed and purified by all that is excellent and majestic, to the contemplation of the universe. He drinks deep of the fountains of knowledge, and is still insatiate. The magnificence and beauty of the external world sinks profoundly into the frame of his conceptions, and affords to their modifications a variety not to be exhausted. So long as it is possible for his desires to point toward objects thus infinite and unmeasured, he is joyous, and tranquil, and self-possessed. But the period arrives when these objects cease to suffice. His mind is at length suddenly awakened, and thirsts for intercourse with an intelligence similar to itself. He images to himself the being whom he loves conversant with speculations of the sublimest and most perfect natures, the vision in which he embodies his own imaginations unites all of wonderful, wise, or beautiful, which the poet, the philosopher, or the lover could depicture. The intellectual faculties, the imagination, the functions of sense, have their respective requisitions on the sympathy of corresponding powers in other human beings. The poet is represented as uniting all these requisitions, and attaching them to a single linage. He seeks in vain for a prototype of his conception. Blasted by his disappointments, he descends to an untimely grave...."

During the interval which elapsed between the publication of "Alastor" and "The Revolt of Islam," Shelley's fortunes had undergone dark vicissitudes. His first marriage had been closed by the melancholy death of his wife, which took place in the year 1817, and was followed by a chancery decree, depriving the poet of the guardianship of his children on the plea of immorality and atheism. These events produced their natural consequences of bitter self-condemnation: unfortunately, however, there was sufficient palpable injustice and harshness in Lord Eldon's sentence, to furnish a wrong to a spirit so sensitive and questioning; and with this wrong, an opiate of selfexcuse strong enough to lull those upbraidings of conscience which might otherwise have ended in a clearer and more relying faith in a Supreme Being. The wound, too, was in some measure healed by Shelley's second marriage with Miss Godwin. For a short time after this he resided at Great Mallow in Buckinghamshire, occupying six months of his retirement in the composition of the "Revolt of Islam." In its exquisite dedicatory address to his wife, and in the whole tone of its colouring and imagery, there is evidently an increase of hope and calmness on the part of the poet. He still, however, shows himself unalterably vowed to the services of his boyhood — to the preaching of a religion of Love and Intellectual Beauty, whose spirit should be peace and liberty, and brotherly kindness — he still is filled to overflowing with the vision of a world where should neither be sensual passion, nor hate, nor bigotry; all its inhabitants being equally divine in their strength and purity. — How different this from the negative scepticism of the mocker, who pulls down without the power or the wish to build up again! Parts of this long allegory are of a surpassing beauty — instinct with music and perfume, glistening, with imagery of inexhaustible variety: as a whole, however, it is wearying from its want of the life and breath of humanity, and it requires more than a single effort to induce us to follow the fortunes of Laon and Cythna to their close. "The Revolt of Islam" was written in friendly rivalry of Keats, who was writing his "Endymion" at the same time, and with whom Shelley had recently made a friendship, too soon, alas! to be closed with that lament for his early death, which may be called the "Lycidas" of our own day.

It was early in the year 1818, that Shelley quitted England never to return to it, taking up his residence in different parts of the continent, and pouring forth in rapid succession that splendid series of poems which entitle him to one of the highest thrones among our modern sons of song; though they will always, from their manner yet more than their mind, remain the delight of the few rather than of the many. We may trace the poet's wanderings in his works, beginning with the exquisite "Lines written among the Euganean Hills" (October 1818), the Eclogue, "Rosalind and Helen," a dreary tale of oppression and agony, and the gentler and sadder "Stanzas written in Dejection," wherein

—despair itself is mild,
Even as the winds and waters are,

bear the date of Naples, December 1818. The Cenci, unquestionably the most powerful of modern tragedies, (the only work which we dare at a distance, compare with Shakspeare's "Lear," and which, by its power, and passion, and concentration, makes us mourn its author as the lost hope of modern tragedy,) is dated from Rome in the following May: so also is "Jullan and Maddalo," that poem (published in 1820), so deeply interesting as containing the portraits of its author and Lord Byron, independently of its gloomy and forcible picture of an evening landscape, with that one grim object on its horizon,—

A windowless, deformed, and dreary pile,
And on the top, an open tower, where hung
A bell, which in the radiance swayed and swung
In strong and black relief — "What we behold
Shall be the madhouse, and its belfry tower,"
Said Maddalo, "and even at this hour
Those who may cross the water hear that bell
Which calls the maniacs, each one from his cell
To vespers...."

The "Ode to the West Wind," of all Shelley's Lyrics the most individual and passionate (we write, not forgetting the odes to "Naples" and "Liberty," and the ode to the "Skylark," in which, like the bird, its poet seems to sing "at Heaven's gate,") "was conceived and chiefly written in a wood that skirts the Arno near Florence, on a day when that tempestuous wind, whose temperature is at once mild and animating, was collecting the vapours from which pour down the autumnal rains;" — the birthplace of the "Prometheus Unbound" which was completed in six weeks, has already been mentioned. The winter of 1821 was spent in and near Pisa, where again Shelley for some months enjoyed the society of Lord Byron, with that peculiar zest which is not tasted by those whose popularity, or the easiness of their requisitions, makes them the sought and the seekers of many friends. Between the two poets the "Liberal" was planned, and the consequent invitation of Mr. Hunt to Italy. This ill-considered publication, it will be remembered, had but a short and disastrous life. In the course of this winter, too, the "Adonais" was written, Mr. Keats having recently died at Rome under very painful and depressing circumstances. That elegy, like the Requiem of Mozart, might almost be accepted as prophetic of its singer's own untimely fate.

We are now near the close of Shelley's career; for it would be superfluous to dwell upon the well-known details of the melancholy shipwreck of the 8th of July, in which he perished, and of the singular and painful obsequies which attended his remains. Our scanty sketch cannot be better brought to an end, than by a passage from the eloquent preface to his Posthumous Poems, which were edited and published shortly after his decease by Mrs. Shelley.

"When he made his home under the Pisan Hills, their roofless recesses harboured him as he composed 'The Witch of Atlas,' 'Adonais,' and 'Hellas.' In the wild but beautiful bay of Spezia 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, he often went alone in his little sballop to the rocky caves that bordered it, and sitting beneath their shelter, wrote 'The Triumph of Life,' the last of his productions. The beauty and strangeness of this lonely place, the refined pleasure which he felt in the companionship of a few selected friends, our entire sequestration from the rest of the world, all contributed to render the period of his life one of continued enjoyment. I am convinced that the two months we passed there were the happiest we had ever known: his health even rapidly improved, and he was never better than when I last saw him, full of spirits and joy, embark for Leghorn, that he might there welcome Leigh Hunt to Italy.... He spent a week at Pisa, employed in kind offices towards his friend, and enjoying with keen delight the renewal of their intercourse. He then embarked with Mr. Williams, the chosen and beloved sharer of his pleasures and of his fate, to return to us. We waited for them in vain; the sea, by its restless moaning, seemed to desire to inform us of what we would not learn: — but a veil may well he drawn over such misery.... The truth at last was known — a truth that made our loved and lovely Italy appear a tomb, its sky a pall. Every heart echoed the deep lament; and my only consolation was in the praise and earnest love that each voice bestowed and each countenance demonstrated for him we had lost — not, I fondly hope, for ever; for his unearthly and elevated nature is a pledge of the continuation of his being, though in an altered form. Rome received his ashes; they are deposited beneath its weed-grown wall, and the world's sole monument, is enriched with his remains."