1846 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Percy Bysshe Shelley

John Dix, in "Personal Sketches of Shelley and Hazlitt" Pen and Ink Sketches of Poets, Preachers, and Politicians (1846) 140-47.



Mr. De Quincy, in his notes on "Gilfillan's Gallery of Literary Portraits," says of Percy Bysshe Shelley — "Everything was romantic in his short career, everything wore a tragic interest. From his childhood he moved through a series of afflictions; always craving for love, loving and seeking to be loved, always he was destined to reap hatred from those with whom life had connected him." Perhaps the following reminiscence of Shelley may bear out Mr. De Quincy's remarks, so far as the term "romantic" is concerned.

In the last chapter, I have alluded to a Sunday evening interview with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. After quitting his residence, I had crossed the fine fields between Highgate and Hampstead to the latter place, when just entering on the Heath, at rather a late hour, I was startled by a sort of disturbance among a few persons at the door of a large house. Drawing near, I perceived what seemed the lifeless body of a woman, by the imperfect light of one lantern, upheld in a half-sitting posture, with lolling head, by a tall young man, evidently no vulgar brawler by his speech, but in a highly excited state, who seemed disposed to force an entrance with his senseless charge, which two or three men-servants resisted. There was a voice, or more than one, almost screaming from within, — the tall stranger's tones were as high without; all were too busy to have satisfied any inquiry; and in the midst of uproar, the sound of wheels was heard — it was the carriage of the master of the mansion returning home. To him, who seemed astonished at the scene, the friend of the dead or dying woman turned, and detained him on the steps of the carriage, before he could set foot on the ground, pointing at the same time to the female figure. The servants, however, quickly explaining the cause of the turmoil; angry words passed, and he was no nearer to his benevolent object — the introducing his burthen (which he had brought on his back from Heaven knows where,) into the house. Some wine, and restoratives, and volatile, essences, and smelling-bottles, were sent out from the dwelling, and I was gratified to find the "suspended animation" of the sufferer itself happily suspended so far as to admit the entrance of a whole glass of wine, her deglutition seeming to me better "than could be expected." It was a young woman in draggled plight, but her features were hardly visible where I stood. Her humane but unreflecting friend had found her in a fit, or fainting from illness, and insisted, on the score of humanity, on the admission for the night of this poor woman into the strange gentleman's house; so I was informed afterwards. He forgot that he himself; being unknown, the inmates might justly fear that it was a ruse to rob the house, concocted between some "Jack Sheppard" of the day and his lady; or even if he could have proved his own respectability, he could not answer for hers. The air was no bad aid to recovery from syncope, and every relief but a lodging was afforded, as I have shown. This did not content PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY, for he it was; but he vociferated a philippic against the selfishness of the aristocracy; he almost wept; he stood prophesying downfall to the unfeeling higher orders! a servile war! a second edition, in England, of the bloody tragedy of the French revolution, and I know not what more; the gentleman being at all this very indignant, and the servants insolently bantering him. Indeed, one could not well wonder at this, for his gestures and deportment were like those of a madman.

Meanwhile, his female protege, finding attention directed from herself to the parties quarrelling, very quietly adjusted her drapery, seemingly making up her mind that no more relief was likely to be forthcoming; and I fancied that her tones, when she made some passing remark, were of the harsh, hoarse, unfeminine kind, which is soon acquired by those wretched women who perambulate London streets after nightfall, in cold and damp weather, when on the very brink of starvation.

I believe she proved to be one of those characters, or an impostor, or both — she did not appear to be drunk, as the servants would have it she was. It was not until a week afterwards, I heard from a literary friend living on Hampstead Heath, that this was Shelley. I know not how he got rid of his reviving companion, for I left the spot in the midst of his oration. It was a strong practical illustration of Shelley's theoretical monomania of philanthropy — that fine, but preposterous excess of humanity, that almost drove him melancholy mad over the condition of man. He wished to make a new world where men should be angels, and died too soon to learn that he must take the world as he found it, and perhaps, by such patient reconciliation to its wretchedness and errors, he would have found it very tolerable at least. Just as he desired to force into a quiet household, the members of which were about to retire to rest, a suspicious looking stranger who might have plundered it, he passionately longed to introduce his own darling theories into society, running all hazards of mischief incurred by the violent experiment. But his very error, his ardent desire to better the lot of man, was surely more Christian in spirit (infidel though he was,) than the furious zeal of intolerance in those "who profess and call themselves Christians," which grows complacent over the sufferings of those who differ from their infallible selves, even about a dogma — (perhaps a dogma seeming once false and foolish even to themselves) — than that horrid diabolical spirit which dared to pollute a newspaper published in Christian London with that inhuman yell of pleasure, over the melancholy end of the most gentle, generous, highly gifted, brotherly-natured being on earth, however mistaken in his noble dream of human perfectibility. These remarks especially refer to a paragraph that appeared on the occasion of his being drowned. "Shelley the atheist is drowned at Pisa; he knows now whether there is a hell or no." Multiplied examples of such religious zeal would go further to overturn Christianity in a nation, than all the mournful misgivings, clouds, and shadows of the soul, that haunted Shelley, Byron, and numbers beside, could they be daily put forth in all the newspapers of that nation.

A sort of melancholy beyond that of the poetic temperament seemed to pursue Shelley all his life. His appearance and manners were very eccentric, though polished and subdued, except in excited moments. He went to Charles Richards, the printer in St. Martin's Lane, when quite young, about the printing a little volume of Keats' first poems. (I have a copy given me by Richards.) The printer told me, that he had never had so strange a visitor. He was gaunt, and had peculiar starts and gestures, and a way of fixing his eyes, and his whole attitude for a good while, like the abstracted apathy of a musing madman.

Having thus brought together, in this and the preceding chapter, in one retrospect, three men whose names alone survive — names so familiar to all who read, I am tempted to reflect a little on their several fates — their paths diverging so widely in life, and their genius so kindred, notwithstanding. Shelley, with his ardent yearning for a reform as general as human nature. Southey and Coleridge, about to seek the same visionary blessedness in remote regions, were evidently enthusiasts of one family, thrown on differing eras. To them we may add Byron, wandering rather than travelling the world into which he was born, under a misanthropy founded in deep love of his species, impatient of its errors. Viewed in this light, it is melancholy to recall the feuds and intellectual partings of these fine natures, united, we might say by God himself, in the bond of native brotherhood. Who can doubt that one strong sentiment, and that an amiable and noble one, animated the youthful bosoms of all these men? They desired, they panted, to realize each his own idea — to animate each his own beautiful image. Their idol was a perfect and happy man! Failing in this early adventure of the heart, one betook himself to scoffing, denying all good, and crying "all is vanity;" another transferred to futurity his dream of perfectibility in human nature, and laying his hand on Revelation as the only hold left to him, the sole refuge of that hope of perpetuated being, perhaps natural to man, grew jealous of even imaginary slight offered to that ark of his eternal salvation.

Again, a third, wholly desponding of such salvation, from unfortunate disbelief of all revealed religions, thus at once breaks away, of course, from his brother genius for ever, nor can all the sweetness of his nature, his love of mankind, his practical Christianity, atone, in the eyes of that ultra-orthodox brother, for his involuntary doubt, darkness, despair, which ought rather to have won on that happier brother to snatch from groping by the hand, if never before, to become his comforter, if not his guide in the vast darkness of his mind's prospect, as he would lead a blind, unoffending child; I say, such melancholic and clouded mind as Shelley evinced, ought to have conciliated kindness, ensured pity, from a man so theoretically Christian as Southey. Surely "love thy brother" is the Alpha, if not the Omega, of the faith of Christ — the creed of the state church, and ought to have been the watchword of him who wrote the "Book of the Church."

Again, a fourth of these fine spirits is led by his evil genius among the "ignes fatui" of German illumination, ("lucens a non lucendo!") He pleases himself as fondly in creating systems as did Lucretius of old, falls to worshipping images, instead of dealing with good old vigorous flesh and blood humanity, as dealt those elder dramatists he conceited himself in love with "heu quam mutatus ab illis!" — dreams with Kant and wakes angry, to be shaken by sturdy Truth, Reality, and Jeffrey — wastes all his powers in musing about the Logos, and writing sermons not to be preached, and never read, panting for praise here and hereafter, but, ever in agonies of distracted choice, still crying, with Cowley, "What shall I do to be for ever known?" till the time is gone past for doing the sublime something, which to-day is to be a rival poem to Southey's, called "the Maid of Orleans;" to-morrow, is to be metaphysical; next day, theological — a treatise on St. John's Gospel! I say, this fourth genius murders his whole life in dreamy indecision. Alas for genius!