1847 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Horace Smith, in "A Graybeard's Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance" New Monthly Magazine 81 (1847) 238-40.



In the year 1816, at the house of our mutual friend Leigh Hunt, then residing at Hampstead, I made my first acquaintance with this remarkable man. Punishments disproportionately severe always excite sympathy for their victim, rather than condemnation for his offence. In the midst of all the reckless enthusiasm that prompted Shelley, like a moral Quixote, to run atilt at whatever he considered an abuse, I felt convinced that his aims were pure and lofty, that he was solely animated by an impassioned philanthropy, in the prosecution of which he was ready to sacrifice his life; and such being his motives, I thought it most cruel and unjust that he should be proscribed as a reprobate, and be made the butt of the most malignant invectives. Having long compassioned him as a grievously over-punished man, and having recently read his poems with a profound admiration of his genius, I had looked forward to our first meeting with no common interest. He was not in the cottage when I arrived, but I was introduced to another young poet of no common talent — Keats, who was destined, alas! ere many years had flown, to meet the same premature death, and to lie in the same cemetery, with Shelley, beneath the ruined walls of Rome. Keats has been described by Coleridge in his Table Talk, as a "loose, slack, not well-dressed youth;" and to an observant eye his looks and his attenuated frame already foreshadowed the consumption that had marked him for its prey. His manner was shy, and embarrassed, as of one unused to society, and he spoke little.

In a short while Shelley was announced, and I beheld a fair, freckled, blue-eyed, light-haired, delicate-looking person, whose countenance was serious and thoughtful; whose stature would have been rather tall had he carried himself upright; whose earnest voice, though never loud, was somewhat unmusical. Manifest as it was that his pre-occupied mind had no thought to spare for the modish adjustment of his fashionably-made clothes, it was impossible to doubt, even for a moment, that you were gazing upon a gentleman; a first impression which subsequent observation never failed to confirm, even in the most exalted acceptation of the term, as indicating one that is gentle, generous, accomplished, brave. "Never did a more finished gentleman than Shelley step across a drawing-room," was the remark of Lord Byron; and Captain Medwin, writing after several years' acquaintance with Shelley and an extensive intercourse with the polite world, thus expresses a similar opinion — "I can affirm that Shelley was almost the only example I have yet found that was never wanting, even to the most minute particular, in the infinite and various observances of pure, entire, and perfect gentility."

Two or three more friends presently arriving, the discourse, under the inspiration of our facetious host, assumed a playful, and bantering character, which Shelley by his smiles appeared to enjoy, but in which he took no part, and I then surmised, as I found afterwards, that it might be said of him, as of Demosthenes, — "Non displicuisse illi jocos, sed non contigisse." Young as he was, a mind so deeply impressed with the sense of his own wrongs, and sobered by his solemn vow to redress, if possible, the wrongs of his fellow creatures, was naturally more disposed to seriousness than levity. The weather being fine, the whole party sallied forth to stroll upon the Heath, where I attached myself to Shelley, and gradually drawing him apart, enjoyed with him a long and uninterrupted conversation. Well may I say "enjoyed," for to talk with a man of extensive reading and undoubted genius, who felt such a devout reverence for what he believed to be the truth, and was so fearless in its assertion that he laid his whole many-thoughted mind bare before you, was indeed a treat to one whose chief social intercourse had been with minds all stamped in the same established educational mould, or conforming to it with that plastic conventional hypocrisy which the worldly-wise find so exceedingly convenient. My companion, who, as he became interested in his subjects, talked much and eagerly, seemed to me a psychological curiosity infinitely more curious than Coleridge's Kubla Khan, to which strange vision he made reference. His principal discourse, however, was of Plato, for whose character, writings, and philosophy he expressed an unbounded admiration, dwelling much on the similarity of portions of his doctrines to those of the New Testament, and on the singular accordance between the scriptural narrative of the birth of Christ and the miraculous nativity attributed to Plato, 420 years before our era. On my confessing that I could not manage so subtle a thinker in the original Greek, but that I possessed Dacier's translation, Shelley replied, — "Then you have seen him by moonlight, instead of in the sunshine; the closeness of his logic and the splendour of his diction, cannot be transferred into another language."