1830 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Percy Bysshe Shelley

John Galt, in The Life of Lord Byron (1830) 255-59.



It has been my study in writing these sketches to introduce as few names as the nature of the work would admit of; but Lord Byron connected himself with persons who had claims to public consideration on account of their talents; and, without affectation, it is not easy to avoid taking notice of his intimacy with some of them, especially, if in the course of it any circumstance came to pass which was in itself remarkable, or likely to have produced an impression on his Lordship's mind. His friendship with Mr. Shelley, mentioned in the preceding chapter, was an instance of this kind.
That unfortunate gentleman was undoubtedly a man of genius—full of ideal beauty and enthusiasm. And yet there was some defect in his understanding by which he subjected himself to the accusation of atheism. In his dispositions he is represented to have been ever calm and amiable; and but for his metaphysical errors and reveries, and a singular incapability of conceiving the existing state of things as it practically affects the nature and condition of man, to have possessed many of the gentlest qualities of humanity. He highly admired the endowments of Lord Byron, and in return was esteemed by his Lordship; but even had there been neither sympathy nor friendship between them, his premature fate could not but have saddened Byron with no common sorrow.
Mr. Shelley was some years younger than his noble friend; he was the eldest son of Sir Timothy Shelley, Bart., of Castle Goring, Sussex. At the age of thirteen he was sent to Eton, where he rarely mixed in the common amusements of the other boys; but was of a shy, reserved disposition, fond of solitude, and made few friends. He was not distinguished for his proficiency in the regular studies of the school; on the contrary, he neglected them for German and chemistry. His abilities were superior, but deteriorated by eccentricity. At the age of sixteen he was sent to the University of Oxford, where he soon distinguished himself by publishing a pamphlet, under the absurd and world-defying title of The Necessity of Atheism; for which he was expelled from the University.
The event proved fatal to his prospects in life; and the treatment he received from his family was too harsh to win him from error. His father, however, in a short time relented, and he was received home; but he took so little trouble to conciliate the esteem of his friends, that he found the house uncomfortable, and left it. He then went to London; where he eloped with a young lady to Gretna Green. Their united ages amounted to thirty-two; and the match being deemed unsuitable to his rank and prospects, it so exasperated his father, that he broke off all communication with him.
After their marriage the young couple resided some time in Edinburgh. They then passed over to Ireland, which being in a state of disturbance, Shelley took a part in politics, more reasonable than might have been expected. He inculcated moderation.
About this tune he became devoted to the cultivation of his poetical talents; but his works were sullied with the erroneous inductions of an understanding which, inasmuch as he regarded all the existing world in the wrong, must be considered as having been either shattered or defective.
His rash marriage proved, of course, an unhappy one. After the birth of two children, a separation, by mutual consent, took place, and Mrs. Shelley committed suicide.
He then married a daughter of Mr. Godwin, the author of Caleb Williams, and they resided for some time at Great Marlow, in Buckinghamshire, much respected for their charity. In the meantime, his irreligious opinions had attracted public notice, and, in consequence of his unsatisfactory notions of the Deity, his children, probably at the instance of his father, were taken from him by a decree of the Lord Chancellor: an event which, with increasing pecuniary embarrassments, induced him to quit England, with the intention of never returning.
Being in Switzerland when Lord Byron, after his domestic tribulations, arrived at Geneva, they became acquainted. He then crossed the Alps, and again at Venice renewed his friendship with his Lordship; he thence passed to Rome, where he resided some time; and after visiting Naples, fixed his permanent residence in Tuscany. His acquirements were constantly augmenting, and he was without question an accomplished person. He was, however, more of a metaphysician than a poet, though there are splendid specimens of poetical thought in his works. As a man, he was objected to only on account of his speculative opinions; for he possessed many amiable qualities, was just in his intentions, and generous to excess.
When he had seen Mr. Hunt established in the Casa Lanfranchi with Lord Byron at Pisa, Mr. Shelley returned to Leghorn, for the purpose of taking a sea excursion; an amusement to which he was much attached. During a violent storm the boat was swamped, and the party on board were all drowned. Their bodies were, however, afterwards cast on shore; Mr. Shelley's was found near Via Reggio, and, being greatly decomposed, and unfit to be removed, it was determined to reduce the remains to ashes, that they might be carried to a place of sepulture. Accordingly preparations were made for the burning.
Wood in abundance was found on the shore, consisting of old trees and the wreck of vessels: the spot itself was well suited for the ceremony. The magnificent bay of Spezzia was on the right, and Leghorn on the left, at equal distances of about two-and-twenty miles. The headlands project boldly far into the sea; in front lie several islands, and behind dark forests and the cliffy Apennines. Nothing was omitted that could exalt and dignify the mournful rites with the associations of classic antiquity; frankincense and wine were not forgotten. The weather was serene and beautiful, and the pacified ocean was silent, as the flame rose with extraordinary brightness. Lord Byron was present; but he should himself have described the scene and what he felt.
These antique obsequies were undoubtedly affecting; but the return of the mourners from the burning is the most appalling orgia, without the horror of crime, of which I have ever heard. When the duty was done, and the ashes collected, they dined and drank much together, and bursting from the calm mastery with which they had repressed their feelings during the solemnity, gave way to frantic exultation. They were all drunk; they sang, they shouted, and their barouche was driven like a whirlwind through the forest. I can conceive nothing descriptive of the demoniac revelry of that flight, but scraps of the dead man's own song of Faust, Mephistophiles, and Ignis Fatuus, in alternate chorus.

The limits of the sphere of dream,
The bounds of true and false are past;
Lead us on, thou wand'ring Gleam;
Lead us onwards, far and fast,
To the wide, the desert waste.

But see how swift, advance and shift,
Trees behind trees—row by row,
Now clift by clift, rocks bend and lift,
Their frowning foreheads as we go;
The giant-snouted crags, ho! ho!
How they snort, and how they blow.

Honour her to whom honour is due,
Old mother Baubo, honour to you.
An able sow with old Baubo upon her
Is worthy of glory and worthy of honour.

The way is wide, the way is long,
But what is that for a Bedlam throng?
Some on a ram, and some on a prong,
On poles and on broomsticks we flutter along.

Every trough will be boat enough,
With a rag for a sail, we can sweep through the sky.
Who flies not to night, when means he to fly?