Shelley: His Life and Work

by Walter Edwin Peck. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1927. 2 vols. 8vo. xx+532+301 pp. Illus. $12.50.
THE author of this monumental biography is a specialist known and esteemed by all students of Shelley. For a good many years past he has been publishing in various periodicals the results of his researches. He has had access to the stores of manuscript material in the great Shelley collections in this country and in England. He is well acquainted with the poet’s milieu and has visited well-nigh every place in England or on the Continent associated with Shelley. His erudition is immense and is so well controlled that there is scarcely an error in fact in all his many pages. The problem of arranging and presenting an almost overwhelming abundance of material is in the main happily solved. At times, notably in the admirable and dispassionate discussion of the charges brought against Shelley’s first wife, a marked ability to weigh evidence is exhibited. The publication of a dozen letters written by Elizabeth Hitchener casts new light upon the personality and motives of Shelley’s ‘Brown Demon.’ A hitherto unpublished poem is of genuine interest for its references to Wordsworth. Not so remarkable, but still worth rescuing, is a ballad of ‘ Young Parson Richards,’ printed from a manuscript at Harvard which was known to Woodberry but excluded from his edition of Shelley. The documents now first published relative to the preparations for the burning of Shelley’s body add no new information of importance, but are interesting literary curiosities. A long fragment of a letter from Godwin to Shelley contains new light on Shelley’s relations with his father-in-law. Many letters hitherto printed carelessly or imperfectly are here given in impeccable fashion.
There is a depressing amount of chaff among the sound wheat of this scholar’s discoveries. There are those who hold that in the case of so great a genius as Shelley every ascertainable fact is worthy of record. This is beyond doubt the criterion adopted by Professor Peck. He prints in one of his many appendices four stout columns of extant checks drawn by Shelley, with the date, the payee, and the amount of the check. A few of these cast light upon the poet’s whereabouts at a particular time; a few others have some bearing upon his relations with the person to whom the check is payable. Most are of no significance whatsoever. Elsewhere there is a portentous note recording the precise number of times that Shelley introduces into his writings allusions to caves, cataracts, mountains, and the like. The most extravagant of Shelley’s worthless juvenilia are studied with a care equal to that expended upon the Prometheus Unbound; there is even a special section devoted to Shelley’s ‘formula’ in fiction. Quellenstudien in their most arid and profitless form are relentlessly pursued; not a phrase, not an episode, not an allusion, but is tracked to its ‘source.’ Most of the letters now first published are hastily scribbled notes, often to his bankers, into which Shelley put not one shred or atom of his personality. Two brief notes to an Oxford acquaintance, one James Roe, are fair examples of this sort of document. In one Shelley asks for the return of a manuscript poem; in the other he bids Roe to ‘wine and poetry’ at half-past four o’clock. Roe thus leads for a moment the palest shadow of a ghost’s life on one of Professor Peck’s pages and then vanishes into nothingness. He had no influence whatsoever on the poet at Oxford or elsewhere, so far as the record indicates.
In works of a rarer and less pedestrian type of scholarship the faculty of selection is exercised; and scholarship is then raised to the level of an art. No æsthetic satisfaction is to be had from this biography. It is an accumulation of facts for facts’ sake. It is time that someone besides the young intellectuals (most of them now middle-aged) protested against the tyranny of the document which holds almost undisputed sway in our graduate schools. Modern Language Notes lately printed a version or Byron’s ‘Maid of Athens’ discovered in an old manuscript scrapbook. This version contained a number of variant readings, each of which, without exception, was less good than those in the canonical version. The scrapbook version was probably hastily jotted down from memory and had of course no authority; but it was a ‘fact’ and as a fact, deserving of record and reverence. Another so-called ‘learned journal’ has recently printed three pages of excerpt - from the account book of a Grasmere carpenter who from time to time sold tuppenny-worth of nails or m many square feet of lumber to William Wordsworth. This sort of thing brings genuine learning into contempt ; and there is too much of it in the new biography of Shelley, The general public of intelligence and culture does not know what goes on in the ‘halls of learning’; but the professors, who must perforce look into these publications, know; and it is time for some of them to speak out. Et ego apud academicos fuiand, for that matter, still am; I write therefore with the authority born of experience.