THERE is a moral or a lesson to be found in the life of almost every man, the chief duty of a biographer being to set forth and illustrate this; and a history of the commonest individual, if written truly, could not fail to be interesting to his fellows; for the feelings and aspirations of men are pretty much alike all the world over, and the elements of genius not very unequally distributed through the mass of mankind, — the thing itself being a development due to circumstances, very probably, as much as to anything singular in the man. But there are few good biographies extant; the writers, for the most part, contenting themselves with superficial facts, refusing or unable to follow the mind and motive powers of the subject,—or following these imperfectly. For this reason, they who would read the truest kind of biographies must turn to those written by men of themselves,— that is, the autobiographies ; and these are, in fact, found to be among the most attractive specimens of literature in our language, or any other.
The life of any man is more or less of a mystery to other men, and one who would write it effectively must have been intimate with him from his youth onward. When the biography is that of a man of genius, the difficulty is greatly increased, even to the writer who has been his lifelong familiar; for genius, by the necessity of its being, implies a departure in a variety of ways from the thoughts and rules of that regulated existence which is most favorable to the progress and welfare of men in the mass,—at least, as these are generally understood. But if the life-long intimacy be wanting in this instance, the task of the writer is the most difficult of all, and almost always a failure,— save in some rare case, where the writer and his subject have been men of a similar stamp.
Few biographies are written by the life-intimates of the dead. In most instances they are composed as tasks or duties by comparative strangers; or if now and then by the friends or associates of the subject, these are very likely the observers of only a part of his life, the seri studiorum of his latter or middle career, and unacquainted with that period when the strong lines of character are formed and the mental tendencies fixed. Boswell’s “ Life of Johnson ” is considered one of the best performances of its kind in our language; but it is, after all, only half a biography, as it were. We have the pensioned and petted life of the rough and contemptuous man of genius,—whose great renown in English literature, bythe-by, is owing far more to that garrulous admirer of his than to his own works, —but we have little or nothing about those days of study or struggle when he taught and flogged little boys, or felt all the contumely excited by his shabby habiliments, or knocked down his publisher, or slept at night with a hungry stomach on a bulkhead in the company of the poor poet Savage. All the racier and stronger part of the man’s history is slurred over. No doubt he would not encourage any prying into it, and neither cared to remember it himself nor wished others to do so. He had a sensitive horror of having his life written by an ignorant or unfriendly biographer, and even spoke of the justice of taking such a person’s life by anticipation, as they tell us. Others, feeling a similar horror, and some of them conscious of the enmities they should leave behind them, have themselves written the obscurer portions of their own lives, like Hume, Gibbon, Gifford, Scott, Moore, Southey. These men must have felt, that, even at best, and with the fairest intentions, the task of the biographer is full of difficulties, and open to mistakes, uncertainties, and false conclusions without number.
The autobiographies are the best biographies. No doubt, self-love and some cowardly sensitiveness will operate on a man in speaking of his own doings; but all such drawbacks will still leave his narrative far more trustworthy, as regards the truth of character, than that of any other man : and this is more emphatically the case in proportion to the genius of the writer; for genius is naturally bold and true, the antipodes of anything like hypocrisy, and prone to speak out,— if it were but in defiance of hatred or misrepresentation, even though the better and more philosophic spirit were wanting. We should have better and more instructive autobiographies, if distinguished men were not deterred by the self-denying ordinance so generally accepted, that it is not becoming in any one to speak frankly of himself or his own convictions. We have no longer any of the st rong, wayward egotists,— the St. Augustines, the Montaignes, the Rousseaus, the Mirabeaus, the Byrons; even the Cobbetts hare died out. But the Carlyles and the Emersons preserve amongst us still the evidences of a stronger time.
There are two sorts of biographies, which may be described, in a rough way, as biographies of thought and biographies of action. It may not be a very difficult thing, perhaps, to write the life of a politician or a general, or even of a statesman or a great soldier. At any rate, the history of such a one is an easy matter, compared with that of a mere man of thought, of a man of genius. In the former case, we have the marked events, which are, as it were, the stepping-stones of biography,— events belonging to the narrative of the time,—and the individual receives a reflected light from many men and things. Dates and facts make the task of statement or commentary more easy to the writer, and his work more interesting to the general reader. But the case of the mere thinker, the man of inaction, whose sphere of achievement is for the most part a little room, and who produces his effects in a great measure in silence or solitude, is a very different one. The names of his publications, the dates of them, the number of them, the publisher's price for them, the critic’s opinion of them, are meagre facts for the biographer; and if the man of genius be a man of quiet, sequestered life, the record of it will be only the more uninteresting to the reader. It is only when something painful has been suffered, something eccentric done and misunderstood and denounced or derided, that the biography rouses the languid interest of the public. Indeed, so imperfect and false are the plan and style of the literary biographies, that such opprobria are, as it were, necessary to them,— necessary stimulants of attention, and necessary shades of what would otherwise be a monotonous and ineffective picture; and thus the unlucky men of letters suffer posthumously for the stupidity of others as well as their own faults or divergencies. When biographers have not facts, they are not unwilling to make use of fallacies; they set down “elephants for want of towns.” Dean Swift is a case in point. Society has avenged itself by calumniating the man who spat upon its hypocrisies and rascalities; and to appease the wounded feellings of the world, he is attractively set down as a savage and a tyrant. Mr. Thackeray and others find such a verdict artistically suitable to their criticisms or their narratives, (a French author has written a romantic book about the Dean and Stella,) and so the man is still depicted and explained as the slayer of two poor innocent women, a sort of clerical Bluebeard, and the horrid ogre who proposed to kill and eat the fat Irish babies. Thackeray’s plan of dissertation, indeed, was inconsistent with any displacing or disturbing of the preconceived notions; the success of it was, on the contrary, to be built upon the customary old impressions of the subject. Everybody is pleased to find his own idea in Thackeray, liking it all the better for the graphic way in which it is set forth and illustrated ; and the result shows the shrewd artistic judgment of the critic, who apparently (especially in the Dean’s case) understands his readers rather better than his theme. As for Swift,—though a fair knowledge of the man may be gleaned from the several biographies of him that we hare, his life has not yet been fairly written and interpreted ; and we believe the same may be said of most literary men of genius.
It must certainly be said of Shelley,— and this brings us to the beginning of our remarks. Not one man in ten thousand would be capable of writing the life of that poet as it should be written, — even supposing the biographer were one of his intimate friends. Shelley went entirely away from the ranks of society,— farther away than Byron, and was a man harder to be understood by the generality of men. An autobiography of such a man was more needed than that of any other ; but we could not expect an autobiography from Shelley. He felt nothing but pain and sorrow in the retrospect of his life, and, like Byron, shrank from the task of explaining the mixture of self-will, injustice, falsehood, and impetuous defiance that made up the greater part of his history; and when he died, he left everything at sixes and sevens, as regarded his place and acts in the world. Accordingly, until lately, no one ventured forward with a biography of the departed poet, who has been for more than a generation looked on, as it were, through the medium of two lights : one, that of his poetry, which represents him as the loftiest and gentlest of minds ; and the other, the imperfect notices of his life, which show him forth a cruel, headstrong, and reckless outlaw,— hooted at, anathematized, (and by his own father first,) driven out, like a leper in the Middle Ages, and deprived of the care of his children. In his case, however, the tendency to dwell upon and bring out the darker traits of biography does not exhibit itself in any remarkable way; and, on the whole, Shelley’s character wears a mild and retiring rather than a defiant or fiendish aspect. The world is inclined to make allowances for him, on account of his beautiful poetry; and this is something of the justice which, on other grounds also, is probably due to him. Still, nobody has come forward to write his biography as it should be written ; and we are yet to seek for the illustrated moral of a sensitive, unaccommodating, and impulsive being, rebelling against the rules of life and the general philosophy of his fellow-creatures, and shrinking with a shy, uncomprehended pride from the companionship of society. Shelley’s disposition was a marked and rare one, but there is nothing of the riddle in it; for thousands, of his temperament, may always be found going strangely through the world, here and there, and the interpretation of such a character could be made extremely interesting, and even instructive, by any one capable of comprehending it.
After a considerable interval, some notices of Shelley have appeared, without, however, throwing much additional light on the wayward heart and pilgrimage of the poet. Mr. C. S. Middleton has published a book upon Shelley and his writings; Mr. T. J. Hogg has given a sketch of his life; and E, J. Trelawny some recollections of him, as well as of Byron. None of these pretends to explain that eccentric nature, or harmonize in any way his acts and his feelings; though a few things may be gathered that tend to make the biography somewhat more distinct than before, in some particulars. On the subject of his first unfortunate marriage, we are made aware that his wife was a selfwilled, ill-taught young woman, who set her own father at defiance, and threw herself on the protection of such a wandering oddity as Percy Shelley. She was strong-minded, and brought with her into her husband’s house her elder sister, also strong-minded, a ridiculous and insufferable duenna, whom Shelley hated with all his heart and soul, and wished dead and buried out of his sight, — finding, no doubt, his unsteady disposition controlled and thwarted by the voice and authority of his sister-in-law, who, knowing that her father furnished the young couple with their chief means of livelihood, would be all the more resolute in advising them or domineering over the migratory household. At last, these women grew tired of the moping and ineffectual youth who Still remained poor and unsettled, with a father desperately healthy and inexorable, and all hope of the baronetcy very far off indeed ; they grew tired of him and went away,—the wife, like Lady Byron, refusing to go back to such an aimless, rhapsodizing vagabond. With her natural decision of mind, aided and encouraged, very likely, by her astute relatives, she thought she saw good reasons for breaking and setting aside the contract which had united them; and no doubt the poor woman must have felt the hardship of living with such a melancholy outlaw. Having nothing in common with the devoted Emma, drawn in the ballad of “The Nut-brown Maid,” she must have hated that wandering about from place to place, living in lonely country-houses, under perpetual terror of robbers in the night, and subsisting for the most part on potatoes and Platonism; and she must have especially hated the Latin Grammar. She naturally thought, that, when she was married, she should have nothing more to say to exercises and lessons ; but she found a pedagogue in Shelley, and the honeymoon saw her “attacking Latin” for the purpose of construing the poet Horace. How she must have hated all poets ! She had other ideas,— ideas of ease, respectability, baronetcy; and her disappointment was greater than she could bear. Mr. Hogg says, she had a propensity to strong courses, and would talk of suicide in a speculative way. It is not difficult to discover the truth of that unfortunate union and disunion. Shelley, betrayed by the impulses of his enthusiast nature and the ignorant and deplorable credulity of a bookworm, allowed himself to be imposed upon by a designing boarding-school girl and her relatives, and everything followed as a matter of course. The unhappy wife recklessly broke the bond which she had as recklessly formed, and which the poet would have honorably and truly respected all his life; and then her passionate regret reacted fatally on herself,—and on him also, by a Nemesis not so very strange or unnatural, as the world goes.1
The subject of Shelley’s character is a delicate and a difficult one, and Mr. Hogg and Mr. Trelawny, especially, show their inability to understand it, by the way in which they put forward and dwell upon the poet’s peculiarities. Trelawny, a hard-minded, thorough-paced man of the world, publishing garrulously in his old age what he was silent about in his better period, talks of the poet’s oddity, awkwardness, and want of punctuality,— as if Percy were some clerkly man on ’Change ; and Hogg, hilariously clever, says Shelley was so erratic, fragmentary, and unequal, that his character cannot be shown in any way but as the figures of a magic-lantern are shown on a wall, —Mr, Hogg’s own style of description being the wall, — “O wall, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall! ” He also tells us, to instance the poet’s familiarity with the sex, a story of Shelley sitting with one of his lady friends and being plied with cups of tea by that fair sympathizer,—the poet talking and letting his saucer fall, and the lady wiping his perspiring face with a pocket-handkerchief. Such scraps of silly gossip are not biography; they may do for tea-table chit-chat, but show very feebly in the place where one looks for something like a philosophical criticism on the mind of so extraordinary a man as Shelley.
Genius alone can do justice to genius; and kindred genius alone will do it. There have been, no doubt, a great many writers of biography who had no objection to compensate their feelings for bygone slights or discourtesies, suffered from some wayward or inattentive superiority, some stroke of ridicule or malice. Literary antipathies do not die with the dead. The posthumous impression of Margaret Fuller Ossoli has been colored by some who sneer at her ways and pretensions, because there was probably something in her manner which displeased them in a personal way. She had certainly a very awkward fashion of blinking her eyes, and also “ a mountainous me,” It is very probable poor Edgar Poe has had his faults exaggerated by those who suffered from the critical superiority of his intellect ; since some of those notices of him which tend most to fix his character as a reprobate, and appear in a laggard way in the English periodicals, were probably written by some of his own countrymen. It was a painful consciousness of this literary revenge that made H. W. Herbert, in his last agony, call on his brother-penmen for mercy on his remains, and that induces many of our public men to bring out their own memoirs or encourage others to do so. It looks like vainglory, but it is not such. The memoirs show a mortal dread of calumny or misrepresentation. Mr. Barnum, for instance, was more just to himself than anybody else would be. He showed that his doings were only of a piece with those of thousands around him in society; and this not unreasonable extenuation is one that few of his critics are apt to make use of in commenting on him and his dexterities of living. As for Shelley, he might have shunned or slighted or overlooked Mr. Trelawny in some painful or preoccupied moment, or offended the robust man of the world by the mere delicate shyness of his look ; he might also have puzzled and bewildered Mr. Hogg, being, perhaps, puzzled and bewildered himself, by some subtile mental speculation, — unconscious that for these things he was yet to be brought to judgment and turned into ridicule, for the coming generation, by these familiar men,—these drilled and pipe-clayed familiar men. He might have tossed up a paradox or two to keep the muscles of his mind in exercise on a cold day, and his rapid intellect. may have run away from his hearer, trampling on the conventions and platitudes in its course; but Mr. Hogg does not think he had fixed notions concerning anything. The poet did not nail his colors with a cheer to the mast of any of the great questions of the day, ethical or social, and therefore suffered the disparagements of those intelligent friends of his who have been taught to consider a welldefined rigidity of conviction and maintenance, in the midst of all these phenomena of our universe, telluric and uranological, as the test of everything valuable in human character and morals. And thus it has come about, that genius, with its native instincts of reason, truth, and common sense, is doomed to pay the penalty of its preëminence and its divergencies, and suffer at the hands of friends and enemies alike, from the show of those false appearances, insincerities, equivocations, which are its natural and proper antipathies.
Since the foregoing observations were written, the writer has seen a certain corroboration of them in the interesting “ Memorials of Shelley,” recently edited by Lady Shelley, and published by Tieknor and Fields. For, in the preface of this book, she. takes occasion to speak of the misstatements of all those who have hitherto written on the subject of the poet, instancing the fallacies of Captain Medwin's book, and also, in an especial manner, though vaguely enough, the incorrectness, amounting to caricature, put forth by a later biographer, one of Shelley’s oldest friends,— by which she evidently means to indicate Mr. Hogg. At the same time, the nature of her Ladyship’s book is, involuntarily, an additional evidence of the difficulty that seems fated to attend all attempts to set forth or set right the character of Shelley. Indeed, she appears to be in some degree conscious of this; for she says, apologetically, that she has published the “ Memorials ” for the special purpose of neutralizing the misstatements and spirit of Mr. Hogg’s work, and also lets us know that the time is not yet come for the publication of other and more important matter calculated to do justice to the character of Percy Bysshe Shelley.
It is only natural to think that Lady Shelley is not the person to write the biography of the poet, whose relationship to her is suck a dose one. She would far more willingly leave the events of his troubled life forever unremembered. Indeed, when we find, that, in her long widowhood of thirty years, Mrs. Shelley shrank from the task of writing the life of her husband, we can the more easily understand why any member of his family, especially a lady, should be the most unfit to undertake the task. Nobody could expect Lady Shelley to enter into those painful explanations necessary to it. Accordingly, in the work before us, we do not find any light thrown on those places where a person would be most anxious to see it. Lady Shelley slurs over the undutiful boyhood of the poet and the terrible sternness of his Mirabeau-father. She merely glances across the first foolish marriage and the catastrophe that closed it, as a bird flies over an abyss. On such subjects she cannot set about contradicting anybody.
But it is an ungrateful task to go on speaking of short-comings in a ease like this, where the hardest critic in the world must sympathize with the feelings of the author, whatever becomes of the book. And yet the book will be very welcome to every one who regards it as a feminine offering of tender admiration and grief laid upon the grave of departed genius. Though not exactly the sort of personal history one would wish for from another hand, it is still valuable, as furnishing very interesting matter for a future biography. We have in it several new letters of Shelley’s, some letters of Godwin’s, and others of Mrs. Shelley’s, together with a number of touching extracts from the diary of the latter. There are also two papers from the poet’s pen : one an “Address to Lord Ellenborough ” in defence of a man punished for having published Paine’s “Age of Reason,” and another an “ Essay on Christianity.” In the first, with all a boy’s enthusiasm, he opposes the high abstract logic of truth and toleration to the hard government policy which tries to keep a reckless kind of semi-civilizat ion in order, and cannot bring itself to believe, that, as yet, the broad principle of license is the one that can serve the cosmogony best. In the next he rather surprises the reader by exhibiting himself as the eulogist and expounder of Jesus Christ,—but not after the manner of Saint Paul. No doubt, the secular and semi-pagan tone of this dissertation will jar against the orthodoxy of a great many readers,—to whom, however, it will be interesting as a literary curiosity. But it is meant to show the character of Shelley in a more amiable light than that in which it is contemplated by the generality of people.
To explain Percy Bysshe Shelley, by telling us he was inconsequent, absurd, and odd in his manners, is as futile as to explain him by saying he was a strange, wonderful genius, of the Platonic or Pythagorean order, always soaring above the atmosphere of common men. To call a man of genius an inspired idiot or an inspired oddity is an easy, but false way of interpreting him. The truth of Shelley’s character may he found by a more matterof-fact investigation. He was naturally of a feeble constitution from childhood, and not addicted to the amusements of stronger boys; hence he became shy, and, when bullied or flouted by the others, sensitive and irritable, and given to secret reading and study, instead of play with those “ little fiends that scoffed incessantly.” These habits gave him the name of an oddity, and what is called a “Miss Molly,” and the persecution that followed only made him more recluse and speculative, and disgusted with the ways and feelings of others. He began to have thoughts beyond his years, and was happy to think he had, in these, a compensation for what he suffered from his schoolfellows. With his hermit habits grew naturally a strong egotistical vanity, which he could as little repress as the other youths could repress their muscular propensities to exercise ; and hence his eagerness to set forth the threadbare heretical theories he had found among his books. For supporting these with an insolent show of importunity, he was turned away from college, and soon left his father’s home, with his fathers curse to bear him company. Had the baronet been in the way of a lettre de cachet, like Mirabeau’s father, he would certainly have had Percy put into Newgate and kept there.
The malediction of the old man seems to have clung to Shelley’s mind to the end, and made him rebellious against everything bearing the paternal name. He assailed the Father of the Hebrew theocracy with amazing bitterness, and joined Prometheus in cursing and dethroning Zeus, the Olympian usurper. With him, tyrant and father were synonymous, and he has drawn the old Cenci, in the play of that name, with the same fierce, unfilial pencil, dipped in blood and wormwood. Shelley was by nature, self-instruction, and inexperience of life, impatient and full of impulse; and the sharp and violent measures by which they attempted to reclaim him only exasperated him the more against everything respected by his opponents ami persecutors. Genius is by nature aggressive or retaliatory ; and the young poet, writhing and laughing hysterically, like Demogorgon, returned the scorn of society with a scorn, the deeper and loftier in the end, that it grew calm and became the abiding principle of a philosophic life. It was the act of his father which drove Shelley into such open rebellion against gods and men. Very probably, though he might have lived an infidel in religious matters, like tens of thousands of his fellows, he would not have written, or, at least, published, such shocking things, if his father had been more patient with a youth so organized. But parents have a right to show a terrible anger when thwarted by their children, and in this case the father too much resembled the son in wilful impetuosity of temper. Turned out of his first home, Shelley went wandering forth by land and sea, —a reed shaken by the wind, a restless outcast yearning for repose and human sympathy, and in this way encountering the questionable accidents of his troubled, unguarded life, and gathering all the feverish inspiration of his melancholy and unfamiliar poetry.
With a sense of physical infirmity or defect which shaped the sequestered philosophy of the Cowpers, the Beraugers, and others, the manlier minds of literature, including Byron himself, in some measure, Shelley felt he was not fit lor the shock and hum of men and the greater or lesser legerdemain of life, and so turned shyly away to live and follow his plans and reveries apart, after the law of his being, violating in this way what may be called the common law of society, and meeting the fate of all nonconformists. He was slighted and ridiculed, and even suspected ; for people in general, when they see a man go aside from the highway, maundering and talking to himself, think there must be a reason for it; they suppose him insane, or scornful, or meditating a murder, — in any case, one to be visited with hard thoughts; and thus baffled curiosity will grow uneasily into disgust, and into calumny, if not into some species of outrage,—and very naturally, after all; for man is, on the whole, made for society, and society has a sovereign right to take cognizance of him, his ways and his movements, as a matter of necessary surveillance.
The world will class men “ in its coarse blacks and whites.” Some mark Shelley with charcoal, others with chalk,— the former considering him a reprobate, the latter admiring him as a high-souled lover of human happiness and human liberty. But he was something of both together, — and would have been nothing without that worst part of him. He ran perversely counter to the lessons of his teachers, and acted in defiance of the regular opinions and habits of the world. He was too outspoken, like all genius ; whereas the world inculcates the high practical wisdom of a shut mouth and a secretive mind. Fontenelle, speaking according to the philosophy of the crowd, says, “ A wise man, with his fist full of truths, would open only his little finger.” Shelley opened his whole hand, in a fearless, unhappy manner; and was accordingly punished for ideas which multitudes entertain in a quiet way, saying nothing, and living in the odor of respectable opinion. With a mind that recoiled from anything like falsehood and injustice, he wanted prudence. And as, in the belief of the matter-of-fact Romans, no divinity is absent, if Prudentia be present, so it still seems that everything is wanting to a man, if he wants that. Shelley denied the commonly received Divinity, as all the world knows, — an Atheist of the most unpardonable stamp, — and has suffered in consequence ; his life being considered a life of folly and vagary, and his punishment still enduring, as we may perceive from the tone and philosophy of his biographers, or rather his critics, who, not being able to comprehend such a simple savage, present his character as an oddity and a wonder,— an extravaganza that eannot be understood without some wall of the world’s pattern and plastering to show it up against. It is, to be sure, much easier and safer to regard Shelley’s career in this way than to justify it, since the customs and opinions of the great majority must, after all, be the law and rule of the world. Shelley’s apologist would be a bold man. Whether he shall ever have one is a question. At all events, he has not had a biographer as yet. His widow shrank from the task. Of those familiar friends of his, we can say that “ no man’s thought keeps the roadway better than theirs,” and all to show how futile is the attempt to measure such a man with the footrule of the conventions. Shelley was a mutineer on board ship, and a deserter from the ranks; and he must, therefore, wait for a biographer, as other denounced and daring geniuses have waited for their audience or their epitaph.
- Since this article was written, Mr. Peacock, an early friend of Shelley, has published a very different estimate of the character of Harriet Shelley. See Fraser's Magazine for March, 1860.↩