Whatever opinion may be held with regard to the relative position occupied by Shelley as a poet, it will be granted by most of those who have studied his writings, that they are of such an individual and original kind, that he can neither be hidden in the shade, nor lost in the brightness, of any other poet. No idea of his works could be conveyed by instituting a comparison, for he does not sufficiently resemble any other among English writers to make such a comparison possible.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born at Field Place, near Horsham, in the county of Sussex, on the 4th of August, 1792. He was the son of Timothy Shelley, Esq., and grandson of Sir Bysshe Shelley, the first baronet. His ancestors had long been large landed proprietors in Sussex.
As a child his habits were noticeable. He was especially fond of rambling by moonlight, of inventing wonderful tales, of occupying himself with strange, and sometimes dangerous, amusements. At the age of thirteen he went to Eton. In this little world, that determined opposition to whatever appeared to him an invasion of human rights and liberty, which was afterwards the animating principle of most of his writings, was first roused in the mind of Shelley. Were we not aware of far keener distress which he afterwards endured from yet greater injustice, we might suppose that the sufferings he had to bear from placing himself in opposition to the custom of the school, by refusing to fag, had made him morbidly sensitive on the point of liberty. At a time, however, when freedom of speech, as indicating freedom of thought, was especially obnoxious to established authorities; when no allowance could be made on the score of youth, still less on that of individual peculiarity, Shelley became a student at Oxford. He was then eighteen. Devoted to metaphysical speculation, and especially fond of logical discussion, he, in his first year, printed and distributed among the authorities and members of his college a pamphlet, if that can be called a pamphlet which consisted only of two pages, in which he opposed the usual arguments for the existence of a Deity; arguments which, perhaps, the most ardent believers have equally considered inconclusive. Whether Shelley wrote this pamphlet as an embodiment of his own opinions, or merely as a logical confutation of certain arguments, the mode of procedure adopted with him was certainly not one which necessarily resulted from the position of those to whose care the education of his opinions was entrusted. Without waiting to be assured that he was the author, and satisfying themselves with his refusal to answer when questioned as to the authorship, they handed him his sentence of expulsion, which had been already drawn up in due form.
About this time Shelley wrote, or commenced writing, Queen Mab, a poem which he never published, although he distributed copies among his friends. In after years he had such a low opinion of it in every respect, that he regretted having printed it at all; and when an edition of it was published without his consent, he applied to the Court of Chancery for an injunction to suppress it.
Shelley’s opinions in politics and theology, which he appears to have been far more anxious to maintain than was consistent with the peace of the household, were peculiarly obnoxious to his father, a man as different from his son as it is possible to conceive; and his expulsion from Oxford was soon followed by exile from his home. He went to London, where, through his sisters, who were at school in the neighbourhood, he made the acquaintence of Harriet West brook, whom he eloped with and married, when he was nineteen and she sixteen years of age. It seems doubtful whether the attachment between them was more than the result of the reception accorded by the enthusiasm of the girl to the enthusiasm of the youth, manifesting itself in wild talk about human rights, and equally wild plans for their recovery and security. However this may be, the result was unfortunate. They wandered about England, Scotland, and Ireland, with frequent and sudden change of residence, for rather more than two years. During this time Shelley gained the friendship of some of the most eminent men of the age, of whom the one who exercised the most influence upon his character and future history was William Godwin, whose instructions and expostulations tended to reduce to solidity and form the vague and extravagant opinions and projects of the youthful reformer. Shortly after the commencement of the third year of their married life, an estrangement of feeling, which had been gradually widening between them, resulted in the final separation of the poet and his wife. We are not informed as to the causes of this estrangement, further than that it seems to have been owing, in a considerable degree, to the influence of an elder sister of Mrs. Shelley, who domineered over her, and whose presence became at last absolutely hateful to Shelley. His wife returned to her father’s house; where, apparently about three years after, she committed suicide. There seems to have been no immediate connection between this act and any conduct of Shelley. One of his biographers informs us, that while they were living happily together, suicide was with Mrs. Shelley a favourite subject of speculation and conversation.
Shortly after his first wife’s death, Shelley married the daughter of William Godwin. He had lived with her almost from the date of the separation, during which time they had twice visited Switzerland. In the following year (1817), it was decreed in Chancery that Shelley was not a proper person to take charge of his two children by his first wife, who had lived with her till her death. The bill was filed in Chancery by their grandfather, Mr. Westbrook. The effects of this proceeding upon Shelley may be easily imagined. Perhaps he never recovered from them, for they were not of a nature to pass away. During this year he resided at Marlow, and wrote The Revolt of Islam, besides portions of other poems; and the next year he left England, not to return. The state of his health, for he had appeared to be in a consumption for some time, and the fear lest his son, by his second wife, should be taken from him, combined to induce him to take refuge in Italy from both impending evils. At Lucca he began his Prometheus, and wrote Julian and Maddalo. He moved from place to place in Italy, as he had done in his own country. Their two children dying, they were for a time left childless; but the loss of these grieved Shelley less than that of his eldest two, who were taken from him by the hand of man. In 1819, Shelley finished his Prometheus Unbound, writing the greater part at Rome, and completing it at Florence. In this year also he wrote his tragedy, The Cenci, which attracted more attention during his lifetime than any other of his works. The Ode to a Skylark was written at Leghorn in the spring of 1820; and in August of the same year, the Witch of Atlas was written, near Pisa. In the following year Shelley and Byron met at Pisa. They were a good deal together; but their friendship, although real, does not appear to have been of a very profound nature; for though unlikeness be one of the necessary elements of friendship, there are kinds of unlikeness which will not harmonize. During all this time, he was not only maligned by unknown enemies, and abused by anonymous writers, but attempts of other kinds are said to have been made to render his life as uncomfortable as possible. There are grounds, however, for doubting whether Shelley was not subject to a kind of monomania upon this and similar points. In 1821, he wrote his Adonais, a monody on the death of Keats. Part of this poem had its origin in the mistaken notion, that the illness and death of Keats were caused by a brutal criticism of his Endymion, which appeared in the Quarterly Review. The last verse of the Adonais seems almost prophetic of his own end. Passionately fond of boating, he and a friend of his, Mr. Williams, united in constructing a boat of a peculiar build, a very fast sailer, but difficult to manage. On the 8th of July, 1822, Shelley and his friend Williams sailed from Leghorn for Lerici, on the Bay of Spezia, near which lay his home for the time. A sudden squall came on, and their boat disappeared. The bodies of the two friends were cast on shore; and, according to quarantine regulations, were burned to ashes. Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt, and Mr. Trelawney were present when the body of Shelley was burned; so that his ashes were saved, and buried in the Protestant burial-ground at Rome, near the grave of Keats, whose body had been laid there in the spring of the preceding year. Cor Cordium were the words inscribed by his widow on the tomb of the poet.
The character of Shelley has been sadly maligned. Whatever faults he may have committed against society, they were not the result of sensuality. One of his biographers, who was his companion at Oxford, and who does not seem inclined to do him more than justice, asserts that while there his conduct was immaculate. The whole picture he gives of the youth, makes it easy to believe this. To discuss the moral question involved in one part of his history would be out of place here; but even on the supposition that a man’s conduct is altogether inexcusable in individual instances, there is the more need that nothing but the truth should be said concerning that, and other portions thereof. And whatever society may have thought itself justified in making subject of reprobation, it must be remembered that Shelley was under less obligation to society than most men. Yet his heart seemed full of love to his kind; and the distress which the oppression of others caused him, was the source of much of that wild denunciation which exposed him to the contempt and hatred of those who were rendered uncomfortable by his unsparing and indiscriminate anathemas. In private, he was beloved by all who knew him; a steady, generous, self-denying friend, not only to those who moved in his own circle, but to all who were brought within the reach of any aid he could bestow. To the poor he was a true and laborious benefactor. That man must have been good to whom the heart of his widow returns with such earnest devotion and thankfulness in the recollection of the past, and such fond hope for the future, as are manifested by Mrs. Shelley in those extracts from her private journal given us by Lady Shelley.
As regards his religious opinions, one of the thoughts which most strongly suggest themselves is,—how ill he must have been instructed in the principles of Christianity! He says himself in a letter to Godwin, “I have known no tutor or adviser (not excepting my father) from whose lessons and suggestions I have not recoiled with disgust.” So far is he from being an opponent of Christianity properly so called, that one can hardly help feeling what a Christian he would have been, could he but have seen Christianity in any other way than through the traditional and practical misrepresentations of it which surrounded him. All his attacks on Christianity are, in reality, directed against evils to which the true doctrines of Christianity are more opposed than those of Shelley could possibly be. How far he was excusable in giving the name of Christianity to what he might have seen to be only a miserable perversion of it, is another question, and one which hardly admits of discussion here. It was in the name of Christianity, however, that the worst injuries of which he had to complain were inflicted upon him. Coming out of the cathedral at Pisa one day, [Footnote: From Shelley Memorials, edited by Lady Shelley, which the writer of this paper has principally followed in regard to the external facts of Shelley’s history.] Shelley warmly assented to a remark of Leigh Hunt, “that a divine religion might be found out, if charity were really made the principle of it instead of faith.” Surely the founders of Christianity, even when they magnified faith, intended thereby a spiritual condition, of which the central principle is coincident with charity. Shelley’s own feelings towards others, as judged from his poetry, seem to be tinctured with the very essence of Christianity. [Footnote: His Essay on Christianity is full of noble views, some of which are held at the present day by some of the most earnest believers. At what time of his life it was written we are not informed; but it seems such as would insure his acceptance with any company of intelligent and devout Unitarians.] He did not, at one time at least, believe that we could know the source of our being; and seemed to take it as a self-evident truth, that the Creator could not be like the creature. But it is unjust to fix upon any utterance of opinion, and regard it as the religion of a man who died in his thirtieth year, and whose habits of thinking were such, that his opinions must have been in a state of constant change. Coleridge says in a letter: “His (Shelley’s) discussions, tending towards atheism of a certain sort, would not have scared me; for me it would have been a semitransparent larva, soon to be sloughed, and through which I should have seen the true image—the final metamorphosis. Besides, I have ever thought that sort of atheism the next best religion to Christianity; nor does the better faith I have learned from Paul and John interfere with the cordial reverence I feel for Benedict Spinoza.”
Shelley’s favourite study was metaphysics. The more impulse there is in any direction, the more education and experience are necessary to balance that impulse: one cannot help thinking that Shelley’s taste for exercises of this kind was developed more rapidly than the corresponding power. His favourite physical studies were chemistry and electricity. With these he occupied himself from his childhood; apparently, however, with more delight in the experiments themselves, than interest in the general conclusions to be arrived at by means of them. In the embodiment of his metaphysical ideas in poetry, the influence of these studies seems to show itself; for he uses forms which appeal more to the outer senses than to the inward eye; and his similes belong to the realm of the fancy, rather than the imagination: they lack vital resemblance. Logic had considerable attractions for him. To geometry and mathematics he was quite indifferent. One of his biographers states that “he was neglectful of flowers,” because he had no interest in botany; but one who derived such full delight from the contemplation of their external forms, could hardly be expected to feel very strongly the impulse to dissect them. He derived exceeding pleasure from Greek literature, especially from the works of Plato.
Several little peculiarities in Shelley’s tastes are worth mentioning, because, although in themselves insignificant, they seem to correspond with the nature of his poetry. Perhaps the most prominent of these was his passion for boat-sailing. He could not pass any piece of water without launching upon it a number of boats, constructed from what paper he could find in his pockets. The fly-leaves of the books he was in the way of carrying with him, for he was constantly reading, often went to this end. He would watch the fate of these boats with the utmost interest, till they sank or reached the opposite side. He was just as fond of real boating, and that frequently of a dangerous kind; but it is characteristic of him, that all the boats he describes in his poems are of a fairy, fantastic sort, barely related to the boats which battle with earthly winds and waves. Pistol-shooting was also a favourite amusement. Fireworks, too, gave him great delight. Some of his habits were likewise peculiar. He was remarkably abstemious, preferring bread and raisins to anything else in the way of eating, and very seldom drinking anything stronger than water. Honey was a favourite luxury with him. While at college, his biographer Hogg says he was in the habit, during the evening, of going to sleep on the rug, close to a blazing fire, heat seeming never to have other than a beneficial effect upon him. After sleeping some hours, he would awake perfectly restored, and continue actively occupied till far into the morning. His whole movements are represented as rapid, hurried, and uncertain. He would appear and disappear suddenly and unexpectedly; forget appointments; burst into wild laughter, heedless of his situation, whenever anything struck him as peculiarly ludicrous. His changes of residence were most numerous, and frequently made with so much haste that whole little libraries were left behind, and often lost. He was very fond of children, and used to make humorous efforts to induce them to disclose to him the still-remembered secrets of their pre-existence. He seemed to have a peculiar attraction towards mystery, and was ready to believe in a hidden secret, where no one else would have thought of one. His room, while he was at college, was in a state of indescribable confusion. Not only were all sorts of personal necessaries mingled with books and philosophical instruments, but things belonging to one department of service were not unfrequently pressed into the slavery of another. He dressed well but carelessly. In person he was tall, slender, and stooping; awkward in gait, but in manners a thorough gentleman. His complexion was delicate; his head, face, and features, remarkably small; the last not very regular, but in expression, both intellectual and moral, wonderfully beautiful. His eyes were deep blue, “of a wild, strange beauty;” his forehead high and white; his hair dark brown, curling, long, and bushy. His appearance in later life is described as singularly combining the appearances of premature age and prolonged youth.
The only art in which his taste appears to have been developed was poetry. Even in his poetry, taken as a whole, the artistic element is not generally very manifest. His earliest verses (none of which are included in his collected works) can hardly be said to be good in any sense. He seems in these to have chosen poetry as a fitting material for the embodiment of his ardent, hopeful, indignant thoughts and feelings, but, provided he can say what he wants to say, does not seem to care much about how he says it. Indeed, there is too much of this throughout his works; for if the utterance, instead of the conveyance of thought, were the object pursued in art, of course not merely imperfection of language, but absolute external unintelligibility, would be admissible. But his art constantly increases with his sense of its necessity; so that the Cenci, which is the last work of any pretension that he wrote, is decidedly the most artistic of all. There are beautiful passages in Queen Mab, but it is the work of a boy-poet; and as it was all but repudiated by himself, it is not necessary to remark further upon it. The Revolt of Islam is a poem of twelve cantos, in the Spenserian stanza; but in all respects except the arrangement of lines and rimes, his stanza, in common with all other imitations of the Spenserian, has little or nothing of the spirit or individuality of the original. The poem is dedicated to the cause of freedom, and records the efforts, successes, defeats, and final triumphant death of two inspired champions of liberty—a youth and maiden. The adventures are marvellous, not intended to be within the bounds of probability, scarcely of possibility. There are very noble sentiments and fine passages throughout the poem. Now and then there is grandeur. But the absence of art is too evident in the fact that the meaning is often obscure; an obscurity not unfrequently occasioned by the difficulty of the stanza, which is the most difficult mode of composition in English, except the rigid sonnet. The words and forms he employs to express thought seem sometimes mechanical devices for that purpose, rather than an utterance which suggested itself naturally to a mind where the thought was vitally present. The words are more a clothing for the thought than an embodiment of it. They do not lie near enough to the thing which is intended to be represented by them. It is, however, but just to remark, that some of the obscurity is owing to the fact, that, even with Mrs. Shelley’s superintendence, the works have not yet been satisfactorily edited, or at least not conducted through the press with sufficient care. [Footnote: This statement is no longer true.]
The Cenci is a very powerful tragedy, but unfitted for public representation by the horrible nature of the historical facts upon which it is founded. In the execution of it, however, Shelley has kept very much nearer to nature than in any other of his works. He has rigidly adhered to his perception of artistic propriety in respect to the dramatic utterance. It may be doubted whether there is sufficient difference between the modes of speech of the different actors in the tragedy, but it is quite possible to individualize speech far too minutely for probable nature; and in this respect, at least, Shelley has not erred. Perhaps the action of the whole is a little hurried, and a central moment of awful repose and fearful anticipation might add to the force of the tragedy. The scenes also might, perhaps, have been constructed so as to suggest more of evolution; but the central point of horror is most powerfully and delicately handled. You see a possible spiritual horror yet behind, more frightful than all that has gone before. The whole drama, indeed, is constructed around, not a prominent point, but a dim, infinitely-withdrawn, underground perspective of dismay and agony. Perhaps it detracts a little from our interest in the Lady Beatrice, that after all she should wish to live, and should seek to preserve her life by a denial of her crime. She, however, evidently justifies the denial to herself on the ground that, the deed being absolutely right, although regarded as most criminal by her judges, the only way to get true justice is to deny the fact, which, there being no guilt, she might consider as only a verbal lie. Her very purity of conscience enables her to utter this with the most absolute innocence of look, and word, and tone. This is probably a historical fact, and Shelley had to make the best of it. In the drama there is great tenderness, as well as terror; but for a full effect, one feels it desirable to be brought better acquainted with the individuals than the drama, from its want of graduation, permits. Shelley, however, was only six-and-twenty when he wrote it. He must have been attracted to the subject by its embodying the concentration of tyranny, lawlessness, and brutality in old Cenci, as opposed to, and exercised upon, an ideal loveliness and nobleness in the person of Beatrice.
But of all Shelley’s works, the Prometheus Unbound is that which combines the greatest amount of individual power and peculiarity. There is an airy grandeur about it, reminding one of the vast masses of cloud scattered about in broken, yet magnificently suggestive forms, all over the summer sky, after a thunderstorm. The fundamental ideas are grand; the superstructure, in many parts, so ethereal, that one hardly knows whether he is gazing on towers of solid masonry rendered dim and unsubstantial by intervening vapour, or upon the golden turrets of cloudland, themselves born of the mist which surrounds them with a halo of glory. The beings of Greek, mythology are idealized and etherealized by the new souls which he puts into them, making them think his thoughts and say his words. In reading this, as in reading most of his poetry, we feel that, unable to cope with the evils and wrongs of the world as it and they are, he constructs a new universe, wherein he may rule according to his will; and a good will in the main it is—good always in intent, good generally in form and utterance. Of the wrongs which Shelley endured from the collision and resulting conflict between his lawless goodness and the lawful wickedness of those in authority, this is one of the greatest,—that during the right period of pupillage, he was driven from the place of learning, cast on his own mental resources long before those resources were sufficient for his support, and irritated against the purest embodiment of good by the harsh treatment he received under its name. If that reverence which was far from wanting to his nature, had been but presented, in the person of some guide to his spiritual being, with an object worthy of its homage and trust, it is probable that the yet free and noble result of Shelley’s individuality would have been presented to the world in a form which, while it attracted still only the few, would not have repelled the many; at least, not by such things as were merely accidental in their association with his earnest desires and efforts for the well-being of humanity.
That which chiefly distinguishes Shelley from other writers is the unequalled exuberance of his fancy. The reader, say for instance of that fantastically brilliant poem, The Witch of Atlas, the work of three days, is overwhelmed in a storm, as it were, of rainbow snow-flakes and many-coloured lightnings, accompanied ever by “a low melodious thunder.” The evidences of pure imagination in his writings are unfrequent as compared with those of fancy: there are not half the instances of the direct embodiment of idea in form, that there are of the presentation of strange resemblances between external things.
One of the finest short specimens of Shelley’s peculiar mode is his Ode to the West Wind, full of mysterious melody of thought and sound. But of all his poems, the most popular, and deservedly so, is the Skylark. Perhaps the Cloud may contest it with the Skylark in regard to popular favour; but the Cloud, although full of beautiful words and fantastic cloud-like images, is, after all, principally a work of the fancy; while the Skylark, though even in it fancy predominates over imagination in the visual images, forms, as a whole, a lovely, true, individual work of art; a lyric not unworthy of the lark, which Mason apostrophizes as “sweet feathered lyric.” The strain of sadness which pervades it is only enough to make the song of the lark human.
In The Sensitive Plant, a poem full of the peculiarities of his genius, tending through a wilderness of fanciful beauties to a thicket of mystical speculation, one curious idiosyncrasy is more prominent than in any other—curious, as belonging to the poet of beauty and loveliness: it is the tendency to be fascinated by what is ugly and revolting, so that he cannot withdraw his thoughts from it till he has described it in language, powerful, it is true, and poetic, when considered as to its fitness for the desired end, but, in force of these very excellences in the means, nearly as revolting as the objects themselves. Associated with this is the tendency to discover strangely unpleasant likenesses between things; which likenesses he is not content with seeing, but seems compelled, perhaps in order to get rid of them himself, to force upon the observation of his reader. But the admirer of Shelley is not pleased to find that one or two passages of this nature have been omitted in some editions of his works.
Few men have been more misunderstood or misrepresented than Shelley. Doubtless this has in part been his own fault, as Coleridge implies when he writes to this effect of him: that his horror of hypocrisy made him speak in such a wild way, that Southey (who was so much a man of forms and proprieties) was quite misled, not merely in his estimate of his worth, but in his judgment of his character. But setting aside this consideration altogether, and regarding him merely as a poet, Shelley has written verse which will last as long as English literature lasts; valuable not only from its excellence, but from the peculiarity of its excellence. To say nothing of his noble aims and hopes, Shelley will always be admired for his sweet melodies, lovely pictures, and wild prophetic imaginings. His indignant remonstrances, intermingled with grand imprecations, burst in thunder from a heart overcharged with the love of his kind, and roused to a keener sense of all oppression by the wrongs which sought to overwhelm himself. But as he recedes further in time, and men are able to see more truly the proportions of the man, they will judge, that without having gained the rank of a great reformer, Shelley had in him that element of wide sympathy and lofty hope for his kind which is essential both to the birth and the subsequent making of the greatest of poets.