Some Remarks on Shelley's Life

IT is impossible to review this Life 1 in an ordinary way. One turns the pages, and owns for the thousandth time the fascination of Shelley, from the first glimpse of the boy, pressing his face against the window-pane to kiss his sister, to the hot July afternoon when he made his last embarkation, and the summer storm swept the gleaming mountains from his sight; but no art trans-

mits the spell, and the story, clasped between those periods, must be left in its integrity. Bulky as these volumes are, they are only a condensed biography. Shelley lived in solitude, and died before he was thirty years old; but his career involved such variety of scenes, persons, and incidents, was so thickstrewn with interesting episodes, and contained so many perplexed passages, that it is a study by itself, and requires for its mastery converse with an extensive literature of its own. Dr. Dowden has reduced this Shelley library within the compass of a single work, and has brought forward at the same time fresh information from many manuscript sources ; patient investigation, frankness, and scrupulous justice in stating all sides of those delicate and important matters in which there is room for private judgment could not be greater ; and his labors have their reward in a universal recognition of the authority, the exhaustiveness, and the liberality of mind that characterize the biography as a whole, and make it final for all except students of its sources. But one ought not to leave such a work with a mere advertisement of its merits ; the deserts of the author and the memory of Shelley require something more to be said ; and therefore, although it were useless to attempt a critique, or to describe Shelley anew from this minute portrayal of him, day after day, some unstudied remarks upon his fortunes in life may be ventured upon.

Shall we incur the charge of beingsupercilious and aristocratic if we acknowledge at once having ended the narrative with a feeling that we had been in very disagreeable company ? Assuredly no one can rise from the perusal with a heightened respect for human nature, apart from Shelley. He was born a gentleman; his innate courtesy clothes him with attractiveness, and distinguishes him among his associates, as a person of a different kind from them, in his actions and bearing ; and the deference which Byron showed to him. it is not unlikely, sprang from a perception of this strain of breeding in him rather than from appreciation of his genius or his nature. In his earliest fellowship with school-friends, for whom he had a kindly regard at Eton and after they went down together to Oxford, though Hogg plainly obscures it, there is a gleam here and there of natural and equal companionship ; but this morning ray soon dies out. He was, afterwards, almost uniformly unfortunate in his acquaintances. His life was truly one long and sorrowful disillusion; and in it not the least part was the discovery of how he had been deceived in his judgment of persons.

Hogg was his first example. Shelley became familiar with him at Oxford, and, not content with having him for a bosom-friend, wished to make him his brother-in-law. At that time Shelley was in the first crude ferment of his intellectual life, eagerly absorbing the new knowledge which came to him from his indiscriminate reading, and disputing on all the usual topics with vehement and unwearied earnestness, insatiable curiosity, and the delight of a youth who has just made the discovery that he has a mind of his own. His thoughts and letters were mostly polemical; ideal elements of morality were growing up in him, and radical views of conduct getting a hold in his convictions. He was willful, precipitate, and heedless through inexperience ; he was thrown the more upon himself, and given a violent turn toward rebellion, to which he was prone enough, by his expulsion from Oxford and the senseless attempt of his family to make him suppress his mental and moral life by denying his first dear conclusions. In this state, partly from adventure and restlessness, perhaps, but also from a sense of obligation, the desire to spread his gospel, and by the mere favor of circumstances, he married his first wife, though he knew that his sympathies were more engaged than his heart.

At Edinburgh, whither the pair had gone, Hogg joined them, and with him they returned to York, where Shelley left his wife in his friend’s care during a brief necessary absence. Hogg, who appears to have been not as pure as might be wished in his university days, tried to seduce her; and when Shelley came back he learned the facts. He loved Hogg; he was ashamed, he wrote, to tell him how much he loved him; he was grateful to him for having stood by him and shared his expulsion from the college; and he placed the most extravagant estimate upon his abilities. What followed upon the disclosure Shelley himself tells in a letter written at the time: —

“ We walked to the fields beyond York. I desired to know fully the account of this affair. I heard it from him, and I believe he was sincere. All I can recollect of that terrible day was that I pardoned him, —fully, freely pardoned him ; that I would still be a friend to him, and hoped soon to convince him how lovely virtue was ; that his crime, not himself, was the object of my detestation ; that I value a human being not for what it has been, but for what it is ; that I hoped the time would come when he would regard his horrible error with as much disgust as I did. He said little ; he was pale, terror-struck, remorseful.”

One may smile at the episode, if he be cynical, and has left youth far enough behind; but, for all that, there is something pathetic in these sentences of boyish goodness, this simple belief in the moral principles which Shelley had found in his first search, and to which he had given the allegiance of his unworn heart; and in this scene of forgiveness, still confused with the emotions of first friendship betrayed, one perceives the Shelley we know, though he was not yet out of his teens. Some time elapsed before Shelley realized all the incident meant; then he wrote, “ I leave him to his fate ; ” and when they met again in London, the old footing was gone forever.

Godwin, too, affords a capital example of a shattered ideal. He was the Socrates of the young poet, and Shelley, who derived the main articles of his political and social creed from the radi-

cal philosopher’s great book, was already adoring him as one in the pantheon of the immortal dead, when he learned from Southey that his master and emancipator still walked the earth. He sat down at once and wrote a characteristic epistle, in which he expressed himself with the enthusiasm of a disciple not yet twenty, and respectfully but earnestly besought the living friendship and advice of him whom he regarded as the light of the new age. Godwin was interested, and long and frequent letters, admirable in tone upon both sides, passed between them. The elder endeavored to check the irrepressible activity and eager plans of the young reformer, who had no notion of waiting until he should grow old before setting to work to remake society, and the youth on his part exhibited a deference and willingness to be guided such as he never showed before or afterwards. The first modification of Shelley’s idea of Godwin came in consequence of their personal acquaintance, as was natural; but in discovering that Godwin was really an idiosyncratic mortal, as well as an illuminating intellect, Shelley did not yield his admiration for the sage. One can still see the unbounded astonishment of the poet, which Mary Godwin describes, when she told him her father was annoyed by his addressing him as “Mr.” instead of “ Esq.,” in directing his letters. They got on very well together, however, until Shelley ran away with Mary, a practical exposition of Godwin’s doctrines which he, having now grown respectable and socially cautious, did not at all relish. Shelley had before this aided Godwin somewhat in financial embarrassments. That philosopher was always in debt; and the young disciple, who, though the heir to a great property, had no way of realizing anything from it except by selling post-obit bonds, agreed with his master that philosophers had a paramount claim on any money their friends might have. He was willing to discharge his duty by getting Godwin out of debt, or assisting him as far as he could in the matter. When he returned to England with Mary, he found that the philosopher would not see or forgive him, and positively declined to correspond except upon the subject of how much money Shelley could give him. Shelley had no thought of not doing his own duty, because of the conduct of other people ; and while he felt Godwin’s hardness and inconsistency, nevertheless he would relieve that great mind from the little annoyances consequent on borrowing money without providing means of repayment. He, however, was not blind ; and what he learned of Godwin in the course of these transactions had a destroying influence upon that ideal of the man which he had formed in his first days of revolutionary hope. In the second year of his life with Mary he told the philosopher what he thought of the whole matter in a letter which one may be excused for reading with peculiar satisfaction : —

“ It has perpetually appeared to me to have been your especial duty to see that, so far as mankind value your good opinion, we were dealt justly by, and that a young family, innocent and benevolent and united, should not be confounded with prostitutes and seducers. My astonishment, and, I will confess, when I have been treated with most harshness and cruelty by you, my indignation, has been extreme, that, knowing as you do my nature, any considerations should have prevailed on you to have been thus harsh and cruel. I lamented also over my ruined hopes of all that your genius once taught me to expect from your virtue, when I found that for yourself, your family, and your creditors you would submit to that communication with me which you once rejected and abhorred, and which no pity for my poverty or sufferings, assumed willingly for you, could avail to extort. Do not talk of forgiveness again to me, for my blood boils in my veins, and my gall rises against all that bears the human form, when I think of what I, their benefactor and ardent lover, have endured of enmity and contempt from you and from all mankind.”

The writer was that youth of twentythree years, of whom Godwin remarks that he knew “ that Shelley’s temper was occasionally fiery, resentful, and indignant.” It is true that it was so, and one is pleased to find upon what fit occasions it broke out. Shelley, however, had undertaken a hopeless and endless task in trying to extricate Godwin from debt, and he spent much money, raised at a great sacrifice, in the vain attempt. What he thought of these transactions, when his judgment had matured, we know from another delightfully plainspoken letter, written five years later, in answer to renewed importunities : —

“ I have given you the amount of a considerable fortune, and have destituted myself, for the purpose of realizing it, of nearly four times the amount. Except for the good-will which this trans action seems to have produced between you and me, this money, for any advantage it ever conferred on you, might as well have been thrown into the sea. Had I kept in my own hands this £4000 or £5000, and administered it in trust for your permanent advantage, I should indeed have been your benefactor. The error, however, was greater in the man of mature age, extensive experience, and penetrating intellect than in the crude and impetuous boy. Such an error is seldom committed twice.”

But long before this Shelley, though His estimate of Godwin’s powers, in common with that of the people of the time, remained extravagant, had found out the difference between the author of Political Justice and Plato and Bacon.

If any one wonders at the extent to which Shelley let himself he fleeced by the philosophical radical of Skinner Street, he should reserve some astonishment for the remainder of the shearers. Shelley, it is to be remembered, was never in possession of his property, and had only a small allowance at first, and a thousand pounds a year after he was twenty-four years old; he was extravagant in his generosity, and gave money with a free hand, whenever he had any, to the poor about him, to his needy friends, and to causes of one kind and another which excited in him his passion for philanthropy. He was, consequently, in his early days, commonly in debt for his own expenses, and often in danger of arrest and imprisonment. When he mentioned his days of poverty, in that letter to Godwin, it was not a mere phrase; and though a settlement was at last made which provided for him sufficiently, he was never ahead in his savings. Under these circumstances, his biography at times reminds one of the old comedy, with its mob of parasites and legacy-hunters. He was simply victimized by those who could establish any claim on his benevolence. No doubt he gave willingly, with all his heart, to Peacock and Leigh Hunt and the rest, as he did to Godwin, and thought it was his duty as well as his pleasure; but his generosity does not alter the fact that his acquaintances were very dull of conscience in money matters. One begins to relent a little toward Hogg, remembering that he did actually share his own funds with Shelley just after the expulsion from Oxford, when the latter could get no money, owing to his father’s displeasure ; and for Horace Smith, the banker, who sometimes advanced money to Shelley, and not too much, one has a feeling of amazed respect.

The worst misfortune of Shelley, however, in the friends he made, was to have met and married Harriet Westbrook. The circumstances of their union and its unlucky course and tragical close are now for the first time fully set forth. The marriage on Shelley’s side was not originally one of love, but it became one

of affection. For two years life went on without the discovery of anything to break the happiness of the pair; but after the birth of their first child trouble arose, and rapidly culminated. It is most likely that the sister-in-law, Eliza, who lived with them, was the source of the original dissension by her interference, arbitrariness, and control of Harriet ; but, as Shelley had grown in mind and character, the difference between him and his wife in endowment and in taste was bound to make itself felt, and to put an end to the unity of study and spirit of which he had dreamed ; and it is clear enough that she had tired of the studies and the purposes in which Shelley’s life consisted, and that though overborne for a time, by his influence, she was now showing herself worldly, frivolous, and weak. She had married the heir to a baronetcy and a fortune, and desired to profit by it. In one way and another she had become hard and unyielding toward Shelley, had made him thoroughly miserable, and in the earlier months of 1814 was living away from him ; and he, on his side, as late as May in that year, as appears from stanzas now first printed, was trying to soften her. While affairs were in this condition he first met Mary Godwin, and he fell passionately in love with her, all the more because of the long strain of dejection and loneliness ; and in addition to the story of the dissensions that had arisen in his family, and the difference of character and temperament which had declared itself between his wife and himself, Shelley is said to have told Mary that Harriet had been unfaithful to him. If he did not tell her then, he did afterwards. On what evidence he relied we do not know ; nor is there any confirmatory proof from other quarters except a letter of Godwin’s written after Harriet’s suicide, in which he states the same fact as coming from unquestionable authority unconnected with Shelley. Not long before his death Shelley renewed the charge, though in a veiled and inferential way, in a letter to Southey, in which he defends himself for his conduct in this matter, declares his innocence of any harm done or intended, refuses to he held responsible for the suicide of Harriet, and practically asserts that he had grounds for divorce, had he chosen to free himself in that way. There is no need to prove that Shelley was right in his belief of his wife’s infidelity, and it would be cruel to allow weight to the fact that after the separation she erred in her course ; but if it be thought that Shelley did in truth believe her guilty, that has much to do with our estimate of his action. He was twenty-two years old, or nearly that, and he held radical views as to the permanence and sacredness of the marriage bond, as also did Mary, who inherited them from her mother. Their decision to unite their lives, under these circumstances, was a practical admission that Shelley’s home was in fact broken up, and that he was free to offer and Mary to accept, not legal union, but a common home, with the expectation and purpose of complete devotion one to the other, in a pure spirit and for the ordinary ends of marriage.

Shelley did not proceed secretly. He called Harriet, who had not thought of such serious results of her action, to London, and told her what he was going to do. She did not consent to the separation, nor does she seem to have regarded it as final. Shelley had a settlement made for her by the lawyers, provided credit for her, and two weeks after the interview left England with Mary. He wrote to Harriet on the journey, assured her of his affection and his care for her, and indulged a plan that she should live near them, which is, perhaps, the most surprising instance of Shelley’s purity of mind, and of the unworldliness or unreality, as one chooses to call it, of his conception of how human life might be lived. On his return he saw her, and agreed to leave the chil-

dren with her ; and when his allowance was fixed at a thousand pounds, he gave orders to honor her drafts for two hundred pounds annually. She had an equal amount from her own family, which had been paid since the beginning of their married life. When Shelley left England the second time, she was thus provided for, as one would think, sufficiently. On his return he lost sight of her, and was anxiously inquiring for her, when the news of her suicide reached him. She had put the children, of whom the eldest was three years old, out to board, at a time when he was ill; she had not been permitted to see her father ; but the circumstances immediately surrounding her death are not known. She seems to have been deserted by her lover, and to have put into practice the thought of suicide long familiar to her. Shelley, though he bore his share of natural sorrow for the death of one to whom he had been tenderly attached, did not hold himself guilty of any wrong.

It is no wonder that in the last few years of his life Shelley would not talk of his earlier days, and had a kind of shame in remembering in what ruin his hopes and purposes and the enthusiasm of his youth had fallen; he felt it as an indignity to the nobleness of spirit which, in spite of all his failures, he knew had been his throughout. As we see those years, it is only for himself that we prize them ; and it is a pleasure to be enabled to look on them free from that saddening retrospect of his own mind, and observe how natural and simple he really was. No one has ever had the days of his youth so laid open to the common gaze, and this is one charm of his personality, that we know him as a brother or a friend. The pages afford many happy anecdotes; but one can linger here only to mark the constant playfulness of Shelley, which was a bright element in his earlier career and not altogether absent in his Italian life. The passion for floating paper-boats, which he indulged unweariedly, is well known; but at all times he was ready for sport, and could even trifle with his dearest plans, as in the flotilla of bottles and aerial navy of fire-balloons, all loaded with revolutionary pamphlets, which he sent forth on the Devonshire coast. His running about the little garden, hand in hand with Harriet; his impersonating fabulous monsters with Leigh Hunt’s children, who begged him “not to do the horn; ” and his favorite sport with his little temporarily adopted Marlow girl, of placing her on the diningtable, and rushing with it across the long room, are instances that readily recur to mind, and illustrate the gayety and high spirits which really belonged to him, and which perhaps the Serchio last knew when it bore him and his boat on his summer-day voyages. This side of his nature ought to be remembered, as well as that “ occasionally fiery, resentful, and indignant ” quality which Godwin observed, and the intense and restless practicality of the impatient reformer, when one thinks of Shelley (as he has been too often represented) as only a morbid, sensitive, idealizing poet, of a rather feminine spirit. That portrait of him is nonsense, for he was of a most masculine, active, and naturally joyful nature.

After he left England for the last time, and took up his abode in Italy, principally, it would seem, because of the social reproach and public stigma under which he lived and by which he felt deeply wronged, he was not really much more fortunate in his company. The immediate reason for the journey was to take Byron’s natural daughter, Allegra, to her father at Venice ; the mother, Miss Clairmont, went with them, and, as it turned out, continued to be a member of Shelley’s family, as she had been since his union with Mary. It is now known that the Shelleys were ignorant of the liaison both when it began in London, and afterward when they

first met Byron at Geneva ; but Shelley had a warm affection for Miss Clairmont, whose friendlessness appealed to his sympathy, and he spent much time in Italy in trying to make Byron do his duty toward Allegra, and to soften the ill-nature of her parents toward each other. Byron’s conduct in this matter was a powerful element in generating in Shelley that thorough contempt he expressed for the former as a man. But though Shelley’s most winning qualities are to be observed, and his tact was conspicuously called forth by their negotiations in regard to the child, yet the connection with Miss Clairmont was unfortunate. That it repeatedly drew scandal upon him was a minor matter ; it was of more consequence that in his family she was a disturbing element, and Mary, who had disliked to have her as an inmate almost from the first, finally insisted on her withdrawal, but not until frequent disagreements had sadly marred the peace of Shelley’s home. Mary, indeed, was not perfect, any more than other very young wives ; and by her jealousies, and yet more, it seems, by her attempts to make Shelley conform to the world, especially in the last year or two, she tried and harassed him; and so it came about that his love took the form of tenderness for her welfare and feelings, and often of despondency for himself. Miss Clairmont was a source of continual trouble for him in many ways : she was of an unhappy temperament and hard to live with, but with his long-enduring and charitable disposition, and his extraordinary tenacity in attachment and perfect readiness to admit the least obligation upon him, proceeding from any one in trouble, he never wavered in his devotion to her interests and care for her happiness. It is a curious fact that Miss Clairmont, who lived to be very old, manipulated the written records of this portion of her life, so that her evidence is of very questionable worth, though better, one hopes, than that of her mother, the second Mrs. Godwin, whose lying about the Shelleys was of the most wholesale and conscienceless kind.

As with Miss Clairmont, so in a less degree with others of the Italian circle. But we have already dwelt long enough upon the character of the people whom Shelley knew. It cannot be that they cut so poor a figure because of Shelley’s presence, hard as the contrast of common human nature must be with him. It is observable, and it is in some sort a test, that he did not overvalue them. Hogg, Peacock, and Medwin were all deceived, if they thought he trusted them or held them closer than mere friendly acquaintances ; there is no evidence that he felt for Williams or Trelawney any more than an affectionate good-will; toward Leigh Hunt he had the kindest feeling of gratitude and of respect, and for Gisborne and Revelry a warm cordiality, but nothing more. Mary he loved, though with full knowledge of her weaknesses, in a manly way ; for Miss Clairmont he had a true affection; and he recognized poetically the womanly attractiveness in Mrs. Williams, who seems to have represented to him the spirit of restfulness and peace, in the last months of his life. But, at the end, his errors respecting men and things being swept away, his ideals removed into the eternal world, and his disillusion complete, the most abiding impression is of the loneliness in which he found himself ; and remembering this, one forgets the companions he had upon his journey, and fastens attention more closely upon the man through whose genius that journey has become one of undying memory.

There is no thought of eulogizing him in saying that he represents the ideal of personal and social aspiration, of the love of beauty and of virtue equally, and of the hope of eradicating misery from the world ; hence springs in large measure his hold on young hearts, on those who value the spirit above all else and do not confine their recognition of it within too narrow bounds, and on all who are believers in the reform of the world by human agencies. He represents, let us repeat, the ideal of aspiration in its most impassioned form; and in his life one reads the saddest history of disillusion. It is because, in the course of this, he abated no whit of his lifelong hope, did not change his practice of virtue, and never yielded his perfect faith in the supreme power of love, both in human life and in the universe, that his name has become above all price to those over whom his influence extends. It is, perhaps, more as a man than as a poet merely that he is beloved; the shadows upon his reputation, as one approaches nearer, are burnt away in light; and he is the more honored, the more he is known.

It therefore passes our comprehension that Dr. Dowden should have thought it needful to adopt the apologetic and condoning tone which characterizes his work, or should have been unaware how often he is thus betrayed into a style which can only be described as patronizing. It is true that Dr. Dowden differs from Shelley in fundamentals of faith and opinion, but did this involve a treatment of which the prevailing mood is pity ? Perhaps, however, one ought not to expect anything more than toleration from a biographer to whom many of his hero’s beliefs and acts are heresies and errors, and in this respect Dr. Dowden’s liberality and temper are remarkable. But it would be wrong to close even this insufficient and informal notice without expressing discontent with Dr. Dowden’s general tone, and dissent from his unquestioning assumption that Shelley’s intellectual and moral life was one long mistake. Disillusion it was, and we have indicated, by the single point of his acquaintances, the nature of it; but a life of disillusion and one of mere mistake are not to be confounded together. Better fortune cannot be asked for a youth than that he should conceive life nobly, and, in finding wherein it falls short, should yet not fall short himself of his ideal beyond what may be forgiven to human frailty. Shelley’s misconceptions were the conditions of his living the ideal life at all, and differed from those of other youths in face of an untried world only by their moral elevation, passion, and essential nobleness ; he matured as other men do, by time and growth and experience, and he suffered much by the peculiar circumstances of his fate; but in the issue the substance of error in his life was very much less than Dr. Dowden would have us believe. Shelley, at least, never admitted he had been wrong in the essential doctrines of his creed and the motives of his acts, though he had been deceived in regard to human nature and what was possible to it in society. He held the faith and led the life until he died ; and the truth that he believed was in him still declares itself indubitably in words and deeds on which he stamped the image of himself.

  1. 2 The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley. By EDWARD DOWDEN, LL. D. Two vols. London : Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co. 1887.