1861 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Charles Cowden Clarke, 1861; Recollections of Writers (1878) 150-53.



When Shelley left England for Italy, Keats told me that he had received from him an invitation to become his guest, and, in short, to make one of his household. It was upon the purest principle that Keats declined his noble proffer, for he entertained an exalted opinion of Shelley's genius — in itself an inducement; he also knew of his deeds of bounty, and, from their frequent social intercourse, he had full faith in the sincerity of his proposal; for a more crystalline heart than Shelley's has rarely throbbed in human bosom. He was incapable of an untruth, or of deceit in any form. Keats said that in declining the invitation his sole motive was the consciousness, which would be ever prevalent with him of his being, in its utter extent, not a free agent, even within such a circle as Shelley's — he himself, nevertheless, being the most unrestricted of beings. Mr. Trelawney, a familiar of the family, has confirmed the unwavering testimony to Shelley's bounty of nature, where he says, "Shelley was a being absolutely without selfishness." The poorest cottagers knew and benefited by his thoroughly practical and unselfish nature during his residence at Marlow, when he would visit them, and, having gone through a course of medical study in order that he might assist them with advice, would commonly administer the tonic, which such systems usually require, of a good basin of broth or pea-soup. And I believe that I am infringing on no private domestic delicacy when repeating that he has been known upon an immediate urgency to purloin — "Convey the wise it call" — a portion of the warmest of Mrs. Shelley's wardrobe to protect some poor starving sister. One of the richer residents of Marlow told me that "they all considered him a madman." I wish he had bitten the whole squad.

No settled senses of the world can match
The "wisdom" of that madness.

Shelley's figure was a little above the middle height, slender, and of delicate construction, which appeared the rather from a lounging or waving manner in his gait, as though his frame was compounded barely of muscle and tendon; and that the power of walking was an achievement with him and not a natural habit. Yet I should suppose that he was not a valetudinarian, although that has been said of him on account of his spare and vegetable diet: for I have the remembrance of his scampering and bounding over the gorse-bushes on Hampstead Heath late one night, — now close upon us, and now shouting from the height like a wild school-boy. He was both an active and an enduring walker — feats which do not accompany an ailing and feeble constitution. His face was round, flat, pale, with small features; mouth beautifully shaped; hair bright brown and wavy; and such a pair of eyes as are rarely in the human or any other head, — intensely blue, with a gentle and lambent expression, yet wonderfully alert and engrossing; nothing appeared to escape his knowledge.

Whatever peculiarity there might have been in Shelley's religious faith, I have the best authority for believing that it was confined to the early period of his life. The practical result of its course of action, I am sure, had its source from the Sermon on the Mount. There is not one clause in that Divine code which his conduct towards his fellow mortals did not confirm and substantiate him to be — in action a follower of Christ. Yet, when the news arrived in London of the death of Shelley and Captain Williams by drowning near Spezzia, an evening journal of that day capped the intelligence with the following remark: — "He will now know whether there is a Hell or not." I hope there is not one journalist of the present day who would dare to utter that surmise in his record. So much for the progress of freedom and the power of opinion.