Page images
PDF
EPUB

public controversy on the subject. Shelley was at this time just seventeen years of age! In conjunction with a fellow-collegian, Mr, Hogg, he composed a small treatise, 'The Necessity of Atheism; and the result was that both the heterodox students were, in 1811, expelled from college. They went to London, where Shelley still received support from his family; Mr. Hogg removed to York, and nearly half a century afterwards (1858) became the biographer of the early life of his poet-friend. It was the cardinal article of Shelley's faith, that if men were but taught and induced to treat their fellows with love, charity, and equal rights, this earth would realise Paradise. He looked upon religion as it was professed, and, above all, practised, as hostile, instead of friendly, to the cultivation of those virtues which would make men brothers. Mrs. Shelley conceives that, in the peculiar circumstances, this was not to be wondered at. At the age of seventeen, fragile in health and frame, of the purest habits in morals, full of devoted generosity and universal kindness, glowing with ardour to attain wisdom, resolved, at every personal sacrifice, to do right, burning with a desire for affection and sympathy, he was treated as a reprobate, cast forth as a criminal. The cause was, that he was sincere, that he believed the opinions which he entertained to be true, and he loved truth with a martyr's love; he was ready to sacrifice station, and fortune, and his dearest affections, at its shrine. The sacrifice was demanded from, and made by, a youth of seventeen.'

It appears that in his youth Shelley was equally inclined to poetry and metaphysics, and hesitated to which he should devote himself. He ended in uniting them, by no means to the advantage of his poetry. At the age of eighteen he produced a wild atheistical poem, 'Queen Mab,' written in the rhythm of Southey's 'Thalaba,' and abounding in passages of great power and melody. He had been strongly attached to his cousin, an accomplished young lady, Miss Grove, but after his expulsion from college and from home, communication with this lady was prohibited. He then became enamoured of another beauty-a handsome londe of sixteen, but in social position inferior to himself. This was a Miss Harriet Westbrook, daughter of a person who had kept the Mount Street Coffee-house, London-a place of fashionable resort-and had retired from business with apparently competent means. Mr. Westbrook had put his daughter to a boarding school, at which one of Shelley's sisters was also placed. The result was an elopement after a few weeks' acquaintance, and a marriage in Edinburgh in August 1811. This still further exasperated his friends, and his father cut off his allowance. An uncle, Captain Pilfold, one of Nelson's captains at the Nile and Trafalgar-generously supplied the youthful pair with money, and they lived for some time in Cumberland, where Shelley made the acquaintance of Southey, Wordsworth, De Quincey, and Wilson. His literary ambition must have been excited by this intercourse; but he suddenly departed for Dublin, whence he again removed to the Isle of Mạn, and afterwards, to Wales. Two children were born to them. In March 1814, Shelley was married a second time to Harriet Westbrook, the ceremony taking place in St. George's Church, Hanover Square. Unfortunately about this time the poet became enamoured of the daughter of Mr. Godwin, a young lady who could 'feel poetry and understand philosophy,' which he thought his wife was incapable of, and Harriet refusing to agree to a separation, Shelley, at the end of July in the same year, left England in the company of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.

They made a six weeks' tour on the continent, of which he wrote a journal, and returned to London. It was discovered that, by the provisions of the deed of entail, the fee-simple of the Shelley estate was vested in the poet after his father's death, and he had thus power to raise money. According to his friend, Thomas L. Peacock, Shelley purchased an annuity of £1000 a year from his father, who had previously allowed him £200! The poet now established himself on the banks of the Thames, and there composed his poem, ‘Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude' (1816), designed, as he states, to represent a youth of uncorrupted feelings and adventurous genius, led forth by an imagination inflamed and purified through familiarity with all that is excellent and majestic, to the contemplation of the universe. The mind of his hero, however, becomes awakened, and thirsts for intercourse with an intelligence similar to itself. He seeks in vain for a prototype of his conception; and blasted by his disappointment, he descends to an untimely grave. In this picture, Shelley undoubtedly drew from his own experience, and in none of his subsequent works has he excelled the descriptive passages in ‘Alastor.' The copious picturesqueness of his language, and the boldness of his imagination, are here strikingly exemplified. Symptoms of pulmonary disease having appeared, Shelley again repaired to the continent, in the summer of 1816, and first met with Lord Byron at the Lake

of Geveva. His health being restored, he returned to England, and settled himself at Great Marlow in Buckinghamshire. His unfortunate wife committed suicide by drowning herself in the Serpentine River in December 1816, and Shelley married Miss Godwin a few weeks afterwards (December 30), the prospect of succession for his children to a large entailed estate having apparently removed his repugnance to matrimony. A new source of obloquy and misery was, however, opened. Shelley claimed his children ; their mother's family refused to give them up: they resisted the claim in Chancery, and the decree of the Lord Chancellor (Eldon) was given against him, The ground of Lord Eldon's judgment was that Shelley had published and maintained, and carried out in practice, the doctrine that marriage was a contract binding only during mutual pleasure, and that such practice was injurious to the best interests of society. In a poetical fragment on the subject, he invokes a curse on the administrator of the law, ‘by a parent's outraged love,' and in one exquisite verse

By all the happy see in children's growth,

That undeveloped flower of budding years,
Sweetness and sadness interwoven both,

Source of the sweetest hopes and saddest fears! At Marlow, Shelley composed the 'Revolt of Islam’ (1818), a poem more energetic than Alastor, yet containing the same allegorical features and peculiarities of thought and style, and rendered more tedious by the want of human interest. It is honourable to Shelley that, during his residence at Marlow, he was indefatigable in his attentions to the poor; his widow relates that, in the winter, while bringing out his poem, he had a severe attack of ophthalmia, caught while visiting the poor cottages. This certainly stamps with reality his pleadings for the human race, though the nature of his philosophy and opinions would have deprived them of the highest of earthly consolations. The poet now prepared to go abroad. A strong sense of injury, and a burning desire to redress what he termed the wrongs of society, rendered him miserable in England, and he hoped also that his health would be improved by a milder climate. Accordingly, on the 12th of March, 1818, he quitted this country, never to return. He went direct to Italy. In 1819 appeared 'Rosalind and Helen,' and the same year “The Cenci,' a tragedy, dedicated to Mr. Leigh Hunt. “Those writings,' he remarks in the dedication, which I have hitherto published, have been little else than visions which impersonate my own apprehensions of the beautiful and the just. I can also perceive in them the literary defects incidental to youth and impatience; they are dreams of what ought to be, or may be.

The drama which I now present to you is a sad reality. I lay aside the presumptuous attitude of an instructor, and am content to paint, with such colours as my own heart furnishes, that which has been.' The painting is dark and gloomy; but, in spite of a revolting plot, and the insane, unnatural character of Cenci, Shelley's tragedy is one of the best of modern times. As an effort of intellectual strength, and an embodiment of human passion, it may challenge a comparison with any dramatic work since Otway; and it is incomparably the best of the poet's productions.

In 1821 was published 'Prometheus Unbound,' which he had written while resident in Rome. This poem,' he says, 'was chiefly written upon the mountainous ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, among the flowery glades and thickets of odoriferous blossoming trees, which are cxtended in ever-winding labyrinths upon its immense platforms and dizzy arches suspended in the air. The bright blue sky of Rome, and the effect of the vigorous awakening of spring in that divinest climate, and the new life with which it drenches the spirits even to inspiration, were the inspiration of this drama.' No change of scene, however, could permanently ect the ture of Shelley's speculations, and his 'Prometheus' is as mystical and metaphysical and as daringly sceptical as any of his previous works. The cardi. nal point of his system is described by Mrs. Shelley as a belief that a man could be so perfectionised as to be able to expel evil from his own nature, and from the greater part of the creation; and the subject he loved best to dwell on was the image of one warring with the evil principle, oppressed not only by it, but by all, even the good, who were deluded into considering cvil a necessary portion of humanity. His remaining works are IIellas;' The Witch of Atlas;'Adonais,'• Epipsychidion;' and a variety of shorter productions, with scenes translated from Calderon and the Faust' of Goethe. In Italy, Shelley renewed his acquaintance with Lord Byron, who thought his philosophy 'too spiritual and romantic. He was temperate in his habits, gentle, affectionate, and generous; so that even those whọ most deeply deplored or detested his opinions, were charmed with the intellectual purity and benevolence of his life. His favourite amusement was boating and sailing; and whilst returning one day, the 8th of July 1822, from Leghorn-whither he had gone to welcome Leigh Hunt to Italy—the boat in which he sailed, accompanied by Mr. Williams, formerly of the 8th Dragoons, and a single seaman, went down in the Bay of Spezia, and all perished. . A volume of Keats's poetry was found open in Shelley's coat-pocket when his body was washed ashore. The remains of the poet were reduced to ashes by fire, and being taken to Rome, were deposited in the Protestant burial-ground, near those of a child he had lost in that city.

A complete edition of Shelley's Poetical Works, with notes by his widow, was published in four volumes, 1839; and the same accomplished lady gave to the world two volumes of his prose Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments. Shelley's was a dream of romance-a tale of mystery and grief. That he was sincere in his opinions, and benevolent in his intentions, is now undoubted. He looked upon the world with the eyes of a visionary, bent on unattainable schemes of intellectual excellence and supremacy. His delusion led to misery, and made hin for a time, unjust to others. It alienated him from his family and friends, blasted his prospects in life, and distempered all his views and opinions. It is probable that, had he lived to a riper age, he might have modified some of those extreme speculative and pernicious tenets, and we have no doubt that he would have risen into a purer atmosphere of poetical imagination. The troubled and stormy dawn was fast yielding to the calm noonday brightness. He had worn out some of his fierce antipathies and morbid affections; a happy domestic circle was gathered around him: and the refined simplicity of his tastes and habits, joined to wider and juster views of human life, would imperceptibly have given a new tone to his thoughts and studies. He had a high idea of the art to which he devoted his faculties.

verse.

Poetry,' he says in one of his essays, “is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.

We are aware of evanescent visitations of thought and feeling, sometimes associated with place or person, sometimes regarding our own mind alone, and always arising unforeseen and departing unbidden, but elevating and delightful beyond all expression; so that, even in the desire and the regret they leave, there cannot but be pleasure, participating as it does in the nature of its object. It is, as it were, the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own; but its footsteps are like those of a wind over the sea, which the morning calm erases, and whose traces remain only, as on the wrinkled sand which paves it. These and corresponding conditions of being are experienced principally by those of the most delicate sensibility and the most enlarged imagination; and the state of mind produced by them is at war with every base desire. The enthusiasm of virtue, love, patriotism, and friendship is essentially linked with such emotions; and whilst they last, self appears as what it is, an atom to a uni

Poets are not only subject to these experiences as spirits of the most refined organisation, but they can colour all that they combine with the evanescent hues of this ethereal world; a word, a trait in the representation of a scene or passion, will touch the enchanted chord, and reanimate, in those who have ever experienced those emotions, the sleeping, the cold, the buried image of the past. Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interlunations of life, and veiling them, or in language or in form, sends them forth among mankind, bearing sweet news of kindred joy to those with whom their sisters abide-abide, because there is no portal of expression from the caverns of the spirit which they inhabit into the universe of things. Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man.

The remote abstract character of Shelley's poetry, and its general want of anything real or tangible, by which the sympathies of the heart are awakened, must always prevent its becoming popular. Even to Charles Lamb it was icy cold.' He was a pantheistic dreamer and idealist. Yet the splendour of his lyrical verse—so full, rich, and melodious—and the grandeur of some of his conceptions, stamp him a great poet. His influence on the succession of English poets since his time has been inferior only to that of Wordsworth. Macaulay doubted whether any modern poet possessed in an equal degree the highest qualities of the great ancient masters.' His diction is singularly classical and imposing in sound and structure. He was a close student of the Greek and Italian poets. The descriptive passages in Alastor,' and the river-voyage at the conclusion of the

Revolt of Islam,' are among the most finished of his productions. His better genius leads him to the pure waters and the depth of forest shades, which none of his contemporaries knew so well how to de

« PreviousContinue »