1902 Encyclopedia > Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley
English poet
(1792-1822)




SHELLEY, PERCY BYSSHE (1792-1822), was born on 4th August 1792, at Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex. He was the eldest child of Timothy Shelley, M.P. for Shoreham, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Charles Pilfold, of Effingham, Surrey. Mr Timothy Shelley became in 1815 Sir Timothy Shelley, Bart, upon the decease of his father Bysshe, who was created a baronet in 1806. This Bysshe Shelley was born in Christ Church, Newark, North America, and married two heiresses, the former, the mother of Timothy, being Mary Catherine, heiress of the Rev. Theobald Michell, of Horsham. He was a handsome man of enterprising and remarkable character, accumulated a vast fortune, built Castle Goring, and lived in sullen and penurious retirement in his closing years. None of his talent seems to have descended to Timothy, who, except for being of rather oddly self-assertive character, was undistinguishable from the ordinary run of commonplace country squires. The mother of the poet is described as beautiful, and a woman of good abilities, but not with any literary turn; she was an agreeable letter-writer. The branch of the Shelley family to which the poet Percy Bysshe belonged traces its pedigree to Henry Shelley, of Worminghurst, Sussex, who died in 1623. Beyond that point the genealogical record is not clear; yet no substantial doubt exists that these Worminghurst or castle Goring Shelley’s are of the same stock as the Michelgrove Shelleys, who trace up to Sir William Shelley, judge of the common pleas under Henry VII., thence to a member of parliament in 1415, and to the reign of Edward I., or even to the epoch of the Norman Conquest. The Worminghurst branch was a family of credit, but not of distinction, until his fortunes culminated under the above-named Sir Bysshe.

Percy Bysshe Shelley image

Percy Bysshe Shelley


In the character Percy Bysshe Shelley three qualities become early manifest, and may be regarded as innate; impressionable or extreme susceptibility to external and internal impulses of feeling; a lively imagination or erratic fancy, blurring a sound estimate of solid facts; and a resolute repudiation of outer authority or the despotism of custom. These qualities were highly developed in his earliest manhood, were active in his boyhood, and no doubt made some show even on the borderland between childhood and infancy. At the age of six he was sent to a day school at Warnham, kept by the Rev. Mr Edwards; at ten to Sion House School, Brentford, of which the principal was Dr Greenlaw, while the pupils were mostly sons of local tradesmen; at twelve (or immediately before that age, 29th July 1804) to Eton. The headmaster of Eton, up to nearly the close of Shelley’s sojourn in the school, was Dr Goodall, a mild disciplinarian; it is therefore a mistake to suppose that Percy (unless during his very brief stay in the lower school) was frequently flagellated by the formidable Dr. Keate, who only became headmaster after Goodall. Shelley was a shy, sensitive, mopish sort of boy from one point of view, -- from another a very unruly one, having his own notions of justice, independence, and mental freedom; but nature gentle, kindly, and retiring, -- under provocation dangerously violent. He resisted the odious fagging system, exerted himself little in the routine of school-learning, and was known both as "Mad Shelley" and as "Shelley the Atheist." Some writers try to show that on Eton boy would be termed atheist without exhibiting any propensity to atheism, but solely on the ground of his being mutinous. However, as Shelley was a declared atheist a good while before attaining his majority, a shrewd suspicion arises that, if Etonians dubbed him atheist, they had some relevant reason for doing so.

Shelley entered University College, Oxford, in April 1810, returned thence to Eton, and finally quitted the school at midsummer, and commenced residence in Oxford in October. Here he met a young Durham man, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, who had preceded him in the university by the couple of months; the two youths at once struck up a warm and intimate friendship. Shelley had at this time a love for chemical experiment, as well as for poetry, philosophy, and classical study, and was in all his tastes and bearing an enthusiast. Hogg was not in the least an enthusiast, rather a cynic, but he also was a steady and well-read classical student. In religious matters both were skeptics, or indeed decide anti-Christians; whether Hogg, as the senior and more informed disputant, pioneered Shelley into strict atheism, or whether Shelley, as the more impassioned and unflinching speculator, outran the easy-going jeering Hogg, is a moot point; we incline to the later opinion. Certain it is that each egged on the other by perpetual disquisition on abstruse subjects, conduced partly for the sake of truth and partly for that of mental exercitation, without on either side any disposition to bow to authority or stop short of extreme conclusions. The upshot of this habit was that Shelley and Hogg, at the close of some five months of happy and uneventful academic life, got expelled from the university. Shelley -- for he alone figures as the writer of the "little syllabus," although there can be no doubt that Hogg was his confidant and coadjutor throughout -- published anonymously a pamphlet or flysheet entitled The Necessity of Atheism, which he sent round, or intended to send round, to all sorts of people as an invitation or challenge to discussion. It amounted to saying that neither reason nor testimony is adequate to establish the existence of a deity, and that nothing short of a personal individual self-revelation of the deity would be sufficient. The college authorities heard to the pamphlet, somehow identified Shelley as its author, and summoned him before them -- "our master, and two or three of the fellows." The pamphlet was produced, and Shelley was required to say whether he had written it or not. The youth declined to answer the question, and was expelled by a written sentence, ready drawn up. Hogg was next summoned, with a result practically the same. The precise details of this transaction have been much controverted; the best evidence is that which appears on the college records, showing that both Hogg and Shelley (Hogg is there named first) were expelled for "contumaciously refusing to answer questions," and for "repeatedly declining to disavow" the authorship. Thus they were dismissed as being mutineers against academic authority, in a case pregnant with the suspicion -- not the proof -- of atheism; but how the authorities could know beforehand that the two undergraduates would be contumacious and stiff against disavowal, so as to give warrant for written sentences ready drawn up, is nowhere explained. Possibly the sentences were worded without ground assigned, and would only have been produced in terrorem had the young men proved more malleable. The date of this incident was 25th March 1811.

Shelley and Hogg came up to London, where Shelley was soon left alone, as his friends went to York to study conveyancing. Percy and his incensed father did not at once come to terms, and for a while he had no resource beyond pocket-money saved up by his sisters (four in number altogether) and sent round to him, sometimes by the hand of a singular pretty school-fellow, Miss Harriet Westbrook, daughter of a retired and moderately opulent hotel-keeper. Shelley, especially in early youth, had a somewhat "priggish" turn for moralizing and argumentation, and a decided mania for proselytizing; his school-girl sisters, and their little Methodist friend Miss Westbrook, aged between fifteen and sixteen, must all be enlightened and converted to anti-Christianity. He therefore the society of Harriet, calling at the house of her father, and being encouraged in his assiduity by her much older sister Eliza. Harriet not unnaturally fell in love with him; and he, though not it would seem at any time ardently in love with her, dallied along the flowery pathway which leads to sentiment and a definite courtship. This was not his first love-affair; for he had but a very months before been courting his cousin Miss Harriet Grove, who, alarmed at his heterodoxies, finally broke off with him -- to his no small grief and perturbation at the time. It is averred, and seemingly with truth, that Shelley never indulged in any sensual or dissipated amour; and, as he advances in life, it becomes apparent that, though capable of the passion of love, and unusually prone to regard with much effusion of sentiment women who interested his mind and hear, the mere attraction of a pretty face or an alluring figure left him unenthralled. After a while Percy was reconciled to this father, revisited his family in Sussex, and then stayed with a cousin in Wales. Hence he was recalled to London by Miss Harriet Westbrook, who wrote complaining of her father’s resolve to send her back to her school, in which she was now regarded with repulsion as having become too apt a pupil of the atheist Shelley. He replied counseling resistance. "She wrote to say" (these are the words of Shelley in a letter to Hogg, dating towards the end of July 1811) "that resistance was useless, but that she would fly with me, and threw herself upon my protection." Shelley therefore returned to London, where he found Harriet agitated and wavering; finally they agreed to elope, travelled in haste to Edinburgh, and there, according to the law of Scotland, became husband and wife and 28th August. Shelley, it should be understood, had by this time openly broken, not only with the dogmas and conventions of Christian religion, but with many of the institutions of Christian polity, and in especial with such as enforce and regulate marriage; he held -- with William Godwin and some other theorists -- that marriage ought to be simply a voluntary relation between a man and a woman, to be assumed at joint option and terminated at the after-option of either party. If therefore he had acted upon his personal conviction of the right, he would never have wedded Harriet, whether by Scotch, English, or any other law; but he waived his own theory in favour of the consideration that in such an experiment the woman’s stakes, and the disadvantages accruing to her, are out of all the comparison with the man’s. His conduct therefore was so far entirely honourable; and, if it derogated from a principle of his own (a principle which, however, contrary to the morality of other people, was and always remained matter or genuine conviction on his individual part), this was only in deference to a higher and more imperious standard of right.

Harriet Shelley was not only beautiful; she was amiable, accommodating, adequately well educated and well bred. She liked reading, and her reading was not strictly frivolous. But she could not (as Shelley said at a later date) "feel poetry and understand philosophy." Her attractions were all on the surface; there was (to use a common phrase) "nothing particular in her." For nearly three years Shelley and she led a shifting sort of life upon an income of £400 a year, one-half, one-half of which was allowed (after his first severe indignation at the misalliance was past) by Mr Timothy Shelley, and the other half by Mr Westbrook. The spouses left Edinburgh for York and the society of Hogg; broke with him upon a charge made by Harriet, and evidently fully believed by Shelley at the time, that, during a temporary absence of his upon business in Sussex, Hogg had tried to seduce her (this quarrel was entirely made up at the end of about year); moved off to Keswick in Cumberland, coupled with the company of Southey, and some hospitality from the duke of Norfolk, who, as chief magnate in the Shoreham region of Sussex, was at pains to reconcile the father and his too unfilial heir; sailed thence to Dublin, where Shelley was eager, and in some degree prominent, in the good cause of Catholic emancipation, conjoined with repeal of union; crossed to Wales, and lived at Nant-Gwillt, near Rhayader, then at Lynmouth in Devonshire, then at Tanyrallt in Carnarvonshire. All this was between September 1811and February 1813. At Lynmouth as Irish servant of Shelley’s was sentenced to six month’s imprisonment for distributing and posting up printed papers, bearing no printer’s name, of an inflammatory or seditious tendency -- being a Declaration of Rights composed by the youthful reformer, and some verses of his named The Devil’s Walk. At Tanyrallt Shelley was (to trust his own ad Harriet’s account, confirmed by the evidence of Miss Westcrook, the elder sister, who continued an inmate in most of their homes) attacked on the night of 26th February by an assassin who fired three pistol-shots. The motive of the attack was undefined; the fact of its occurrence was generally disbelieved, both at the time and by subsequent inquirers. To analyse the possibilities and probabilities of the case would lead us too far; we can only say that we rank with the decided sceptics. Shelley was full of wild unpractical notions; he dosed himself with laudanum as a palliative to spasmodic pains; he was given to strange assertions and romancing narratives (several of which might properly be specified here but for want of space), and was not incapable of conscious fibbing. His mind no doubt oscillated at times along the line which divides sanity from insane delusion. It is difficult to suppose that he simply invented such a monstrous story to serve a purpose. The very enormity of the story tends to dissuade us from thinking so, and the purpose alleged seems disproportionately small -- that of decamping from Tanyrallt ere creditors should become too pressing. Indeed, we decisively reject this supposed motive. On the other hand nothing could be traced to corroborate Shelley’s assertion. This was at any rate the break-up of the residence at Tanyrallt; the Shelleys revisited Ireland, and then settled for a while in London. Here, in June 1813, Harriet gave birth to her daughter Ianthe Eliza (she married a Mr Esdaile, and died in 1876). Here also Shelley should brought out his first poem of any importance, Queen Mab; it was privately printed, as its exceedingly aggressive tone in matters of religion and morals would not allow publication.

The speculative sage whom Shelley especially reverenced was William Godwin, the author of Political Justice and of the romance Caleb Williams; in 1796 he had married Mary Wollstonecraft, authoress of The Rights of Woman, who died shortly after giving birth, on 30th August 1797, to a daughter Mary. With Godwin Shelley had opened a volunteered correspondence late in 1811, and he had known him personally since the winter which closed 1812. Godwin was then a bookseller, living with his second wife, who had been a Mrs Clairmont; there four other inmates of the household, two of whom call for some mention here -- Fanny Wollstonecraft, the daughter of the authoress and Mr Imlay, and Claire, the daughter of Mrs Clairmont. Fanny committed suicide in October 1816, being, according to some accounts which remain unverified, hopelessly in love with Shelley; Claire was closely associated with all his subsequent career. It was towards May 1814 that Shelley first saw Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin as a grown-up girl (she was well on towards seventeen); he instantly fell in love with her, and she with him. Just before this, 24th March, Wollstonecraft had remained Harriet in London though with no obviously cogent motive for doing so; but, on becoming enamoured of Mary, he seems to have rapidly made up his mind that Harriet was in London, and for a while she heard nothing of him. They had, however, met again in London and come to some sort of understanding before the final crisis arrived, -- Harriet remonstrating and indignant, but incapable of effective resistance, -- Shelley sick of her companionship, and bent upon gratifying his own wishes, which as we have already seen were not at odds with his avowed principles of conduct. For some months past there had been bickerings and misunderstanding between him and Harriet, aggravated by the now detested presence of Miss Westbrook in the house; more than this cannot be said, for no more is at present known. It is certain, however, that evidence exists which, while not plainly proving any grave wrongdoing on Harriet’s part, exculpates Shelley from the charge of having separated from her without what appeared to himself sufficient cause. The upshot came on 28th July, when Shelley aided Mary to elope from her father’s house, Claire Clairmont deciding to accompany them. They crossed to Calais, and proceeded across France into Switzerland. Godwin and his wife were greatly incensed. Though he and Mary Wollstonecraft had entertained and avowed bold opinions regarding the marriage-bond, similar to Shelley’s own, and had in their time acted upon these opinions, it is not clearly made out that Mary Godwin had ever been encouraged by paternal influence to think or to do the like. Shelley and she chose to act upon their own likings and responsibility, -- he disregarding any claim which Harriet had upon him, and Mary setting at nought her father’s authority. Both were prepared to ignore the law of the land and the rules of society.





The three young people returned to London in September. In the following January Sir Bysshe Shelley died, and Percy became the immediate heir to the entailed property inherited by his father Sir Timothy. This entailed property seems to have been worth £6000 per annum, or little less. There was another very much larger property which Percy might shortly before have secured to himself, contingently upon his father’s death, if he would have consented to put it upon the same footing of entail; but this he resolutely refused to do, on the professed ground of his being opposed upon principle to the system of entail; therefore, on his grandfather’s death the larger property passed wholly away from any interest which Percy might have had in it, in use or in expectancy. He now came to an understanding with his father as to the remaining entailed property; and, giving up certain future advantages, he received henceforth a regular income of £1000 a year. Out of his assigned £200 a year to Harriet, who had been given birth in November to a son, Charles Bysshe (he died in 1826). Shelley, and Mary as well, were on moderately good terms with Harriet, seeing her from time to time. His peculiar views as to the relations of the sexes appear markedly again in his having (so it is alleged) invited Harriet to return to his and Mary’s house as a domicile; of course this curious arrangement did not take effect. Shelley and Mary (who was naturally always called Mrs. Shelley) now settled at Bishopgate, near Windsor Forest; here he produced his first excellent poem, Alator, or the Spirit of Solitude, which was published soon afterwards along with a few others. In May 1816 the pair left England for Switzerland, together with Miss Clairmont, and their own infant son William. They went straight to Sécheron, near Geneva; Lord Byron, whose separation from his wife had just then taken place, arrived there immediately afterward. A great deal of controversy has lately arisen as to the motives and incidents of this foreign sojourn. The clear fact is that Miss Clairmont, who had a fine voice and some inclination for the stage, had been Byron, as connected with the management of Drury Lane theatre, early in the year, and an amorous intrigue had begun between them in London. Prima facie it seems quite reasonable to suppose that she had explained the facts to Shelley or to Mary, or to both, and had induced them to convoy her to the society of Byron abroad; were this finally established as the fact, it would show no inconsistency of conduct, or breach of his own code of sexual morals, on Shelley’s part. On the other hand it is asserted that documentary evidence of an irrefragable kind exists showing that Shelley and Mary were totally ignorant of the amour shortly before they went abroad. Whether or not they knew of it while they and Claire were in daily intercourse with Byron, and housed close by him on the shore of the Lake of Geneva, may be left unargued. The three returned to London in September 1816, Byron remaining abroad; and in January 1817 Miss Clairmont gave birth to his daughter named Allegra. The return of the Shelleys was closely followed by two suicides, -- first that of Fanny Wollstonecraft (already referred to), and second that of Harriet Shelley, who on 9th November drowned herself in the Serpentine. The latest stages of the lovely and ill-started Harriet’s career have never been very explicitly recorded. It seems that she formed a connexion with some gentleman from whom circumstances or desertion separated her, that her habits became intemperate, and that she was treated with contumelious harshness by her sister during an illness of their father. She had always had a propensity (often laughed at in earlier and happier days) to the idea of suicide, and she now carried it out in act -- possibly without anything which could be regarded as an extremely cogent predisposing motive, although the total weight of her distresses, accumulating within the past two years and a half, was beyond question heavy to bear. Shelley, then at Bath, hurried up to London when he heard of Harriet’s death, giving manifest signs of the shock within so terrible a catastrophe had produced on him. Some self-reproach must no doubt have mingled with his affliction and dismay; yet he does not appear to have considered himself gravely in the wrong at any stage in the transaction, and it is established that in the train of quite recent events which immediately led up of Harriet’s suicide he had borne no part.

This was the time when Shelley began to see a great deal of Leigh Hunt, the poet and essayist, editor of The Examiner; they were close friends, and Hunt did something (hardly perhaps so much as might have been anticipated) to uphold the reputation of Shelley as a poet -- which, we may here say once for all, scarcely obtained any public acceptance or solidity during his brief lifetime. The death of Harriet having removed the only obstacle to a marriage with Mary Godwin, the wedding ensued on 39th December 1816, and the married couple settled down at Great Marlow in Buckinghamshire. Their tranquility was strongly disturbed by a Chancery suit set in motion by Mr. Westbrook, who asked for the custody of his two grandchildren, on the ground that Shelley had deserted his wife and intended to bring up his offspring in his own atheistic and anti-social opinions. Lord Chancellor Eldon delivered judgment towards 26th March 1817. He held that Shelley, having avowed condemnable principles of conduct, and having fashioned his own conduct to correspond, and being likely to inculacate the same principles upon his children, was unfit to have the charge of them. He therefore assigned this charge to Mr and Miss Westbrook, and appointed as their immediate curator Dr Hume, an orthodox army-physician, who was Shelley’s own nominee. The poet had to pay for the maintenance of the children a sum which stood eventually at £120 per annum; if it was first (as generally stated) £200, that was no more than what he had previously allowed to Harriet. This is the last incident of marked importance in the perturbed career of Shelley; the rest relates to the history of his mind, the poems which he produced and published, and his changes of locality in traveling. In march 1818, after an illness which he regarded (rightly or wrongly) as a dangerous pulmonary attack, Shelley, with his wife, their two infants William and Clara, and Miss Clairmont and her baby Allegra, went off to Italy, in which country the whole short remainder of his life was passed. Allegro was soon sent on to Venice, to her father Byron, who, ever, since parting from Miss Clairmont in Switzerland, showed a callous and unfeeling determination to see and know no more about her. In 1818 the Shelleys -- mostly, not always, with Miss Clairmont in their company -- were in Milan, Leghorn, the Bagni di Lucca, Venice and its neighbourhood, Rome, and Naples; in 1819 in Rome, the vicinity of Leghorn, and Florence (both their infants were now dead, but a third was born late in 1819, the present baronet, Sir Percy Shelley); in 1820 in Pisa, the Bagni di Pisa (or di San Giuliano), and Leghorn; in 1821 in Pisa and with Byron in Ravenna; in 1822 in Pisa and on the Bay of Spezia, between Lerici and San Terenzio. The incidents of this period are but few, and of no great importance apart from their bearing upon the poet’s writings. In Leghorn he knew Mr and Mrs Gisborne, the latter a once intimate friend of Godwin; she taught Shelley Spanish, and he was eager to promote a project for a steamer to be built by her son by a former marriage, the young engineer Henry Reveley; it would have been the first steamer to navigate the Gulf of Lyons. In Pisa he formed a sentimental intimacy with the Contessina Emilia Viviani, a girl who was pining in a convent pending her father’s choice of a husband for her; this impassioned but vague and fanciful attachment -- which soon came to an end, as Emilia’s character developed less favourably in the eyes of her Platonic adorer -- produced the transcendental love-poem of Epipsychidion in 1821. in Ravenna the scheme of the quarterly magazine The Liberal was concerted by Byron and Shelley, the latter being principally interested in it which a view to benefiting Leigh Hunt by such an association with Byron. In Pisa Byron and Shelley were very constantly together, having in their company at one time or another Captain Medwin (cousin and schoolfellow of Shelley, and one of his bibliographers), Lieutenant and Mrs Williams, to both of whom our poet was very warmly attached, and Captain Trelawny, the adventurous and romantic-natured seaman who last left important and interesting reminiscences of this period. Byron admired very highly the generous, unworthy, and enthusiastic character of Shelley, and set some value on his writings; Shelley half-worshipped Byron was a poet, was anxious, but in some conjunctures by no means able, to respect him as a man. In Pisa he knew he also Prince Alexander Mavrocordato, one of the pioneers of Grecian insurrection and freedom; the glorious cause fired Shelley; and he wrote the drama of Hellas (1821).

The last residence of Shelley was the Casa Magni, a bare and exposed dwelling on the Gulf of Speza. He and his wife, with the Williamses, went there at the end of April 1822, to spend the summer, which proved an arid and scorching one. Shelley and Williams, both of them insatiably fond of boating, had a small schooner named the "Don Juan" built at Genoa after a design which Williams had procured from a naval friend, and which was the reverse of safe. They received her on 12th May, found her rapid and alert, and on 1st July started in her to Leghorn, to meet Leigh Hunt, whose arrival in Italy had just been noticed. After doing his best to set things going comfortably between Bryon and Hunt, Shelly returned on board with Williams on 8th July. It was a day of dark, louring, stiffing heat. Trelawny took leave of his two friends, and about half-past six in the evening found himself started from a doze by a frightful turmoil of storm. The "Don Juan" had by this time made Via Reggio; she was not to be see, though other vessels which had sailed about the same time were still discernible. Shelley, Williams, and their only companion, a sailor-boy, perished in the squall. The exact nature of the catastrophe was from the first regarded as somewhat disputable, but it is only of late years (1875) that it has been keenly debated. The condition of the "Don Juan" when recovered did not favour any assumption that she had capsized in a heavy sea -- rather that she had been run down by some other vessel, a felucca or fishing-smack. In the absence of any counter-evidence this would be supposed to have occurred by accident; but a rumour, not strictly verified and certainly not refused, exists that an aged Italian seaman on his deathbed confessed that he had been one of the crew of the fatal felucca, and that the collision was intentional, as the men had plotted to steal a sum of money supposed to be on the "Don Juan," in charger of Lord Byron. In fact there was a moderate sum there, but Byron had neither embarked nor intended to embark. This may perhaps be the true account of the tragedy; at any rate Trelawny, the best possible authority on the subject, accepted it as true. He it was who laboriously tracked out the shore-washed corpses of Shelley and Williams, and who undertook the burning of them, after the ancient Greek fashion, on the shore near Via Reggio, on the 15th and 16th of August. The great poet’s ashes were then collected, and buried in the new Protestant cemetery in Rome. He was, at the time of his untimely death, within a month of completing the thirtieth year of his age -- a surprising example of rich poetic achievement for so young a man.





The character of Shelley can be considered according to two different standards of estimation. We can estimate the original motive forces in his character; or we can form an opinion of his actions, and thence put a certain construction upon his personal qualities. We will first try the latter method. If cannot be denied by his admirers and eulogists, and is abundantly clear to his censors, that his actions were in some considerable degree abnormal, dangerous to the settled basis of society, and marked by headstrong and undutiful presumption. But it is remarkable that, even among the censors of his conduct, many persons are none the less impressed by the beauty of his character; and this leads us back to our first point -- the original motive forces in that. Here we find enthusiasms, fervour, courage (moral and physical), an unbounded readiness to act upon what he considered right principle, however inconvenient or disastrous the consequences to himself, sweetness and indulgence towards others, extreme generosity, and the principle of love for humankind in abundance and superabundance. He respected the truth, such as the conceived it to be, in spiritual or speculative matters, and respected no construction of the truth which came to him recommended by human authority. No man had more hatred or contempt of custom and prescription; no one had a more authentic or vivid sense of universal charity. The same radiant enthusiasm which appeared in his poetry as idealism stamped his speculation with the conception of perfectibility and his character with loving emotion.

In person Shelley was attractive, winning, and almost beautiful, but not to be called handsome. His height was nearly 5 feet 11; he was slim, agile, and strong, with something of a stoop; his complexion brilliant, his fair abundant and wavy, dark-brown but early beginning to grizzle; the eyes, deep-blue in tint, have been termed "stag-eyes" -- large, fixed, and beaming. His voice was wanting in richness and suavity -- high-pitched, and tending to the screechy; this general aspect, though extremely variable according as his mood of mind and his expression shifted, was on the whole uncommonly juvenile.

From this necessarily very slight account of the life of Shelley we pass to a consideration -- and this too must be equally slender -- of his works in poetry. If we except Goethe (and for convenience’ sake leaving out of count any living writers, whose ultimate value cannot at present be assessed), we consider Shelley to be the supreme poet of the new era which, beginning with the French Revolution, remains continuous into our own day. Lord Byron and Victor Hugo come the nearest to Shelley in poetic stature, and each of them might for certain reasons be even preferred to him; Wordsworth also has his numerous champions. The grounds on which we set Shelley highest of all are mainly three. He excels all his competitors in ideality, he excels them in music, and he excels them in importance. By importance we here mean the direct import of work performed, its controlling power over the reader’s thought and feeling, the contagious fire of its white-hot intellectual passion, and the long reverberation of its appeal. Shelley’s emphatically the poet of the future. In his own day an alien in the world of mind and invention, and in our day scarcely yet a denizen of it, he appears destined to become, in the lost vista of years, an informing presence in the innermost shire of human thought. Shelley appeared at the time when the sublime frenzies of the French revolutionary movement had exhausted the elasticity of men’s thought -- at least in England -- and had left them flaccid and stolid; but that movement prepared another in which revolution was to assume the milder guise of reform, conquering and to conquer. Shelley was its prophet. As an iconoclast and an idealist he took the only position in which a poet could advantageously work as a reformer. To outrage his contemporaries was the condition of leading his successors to triumph and of personally triumphing in their victories. Shelley had the temper of an innovator and a martyr; and in an intellect wondrously poetical he united speculative keenness and humanitarian zeal in a degree for which we might vainly seek his precursor. We have already named ideality as one of his leading excellences. The Shelleian quality combines, as its constituents, sublimity, beauty, and the abstract passion for good. It should be acknowledged that, while this great quality forms the chief and most admirable factor in Shelley’s poetry, the defects which go along with it mar his work too often -- producing at times vagueness, unreality, and a pomp of glittering indistinctness, in which excess of sentiment welters and excess of words. The blemish affects the long poems much more than the pure lyrics; in the latter in rapture, the music, and the emotion are in exquisite balance, and the work an often as much of delicate simplicity as of fragile and flower-like perfection.

In the course of our biographical narrative we have mentioned a few, but only a few, of Shelley’s writings; we must now give some curt account of others. Of his early work prior to Queen Mab -- such romance as Zastrozzi and St Irvyne, such verse as the Fragments of Margaret Nicholson -- we can only here say that they are rubbish. Alastor was succeeded (1817) by The Revolt of Islam, a poem of no common length in the Spenserian stanza, preaching bloodless revolution; it is amazingly fine in parts, but as a whole somewhat long-drawn and exhausting. This transcendental epic (for such it may be termed was at first named Laon and Cythna, or the Revolution of the Golden City, and the lovers of the story were then brother and sister as well as lovers -- an experiment upon British endurance which the publishers would not connive at. The year 1818 produced Rosalind and Helen, a comparatively weak poem, and Julian and Maddalo, a very strong one -- demonstrating in Shelley a singular power of seeing ordinary things with directness, and at once figuring as reality and transfiguring them into poetry. The next year, 1819, was his culmination, producing as it did the grand Tragedy of The Cenci and the sublime ideal drama Prometheus Unbound, which we have no hesitation in calling his masterpiece. It embodies, in forms of surpassing imagination and beauty, Shelley’s deepest and most daring conceptions. Prometheus, the human mind, has invested with the powers proper to himself Jupiter the god of heaven, who thereupon chains and torments Prometheus and oppresses mankind; in other words, the anthropomorphic god of religion is a creation of the human mind, and both the mind of man and man himself are enslaved as long as this god exercises his delegated but now absolute power. Prometheus, who is from of old wedded to Asia, or Nature, protests against and anathematizes the usurper enthroned by himself. At last the anathema takes effect. Eternity, Demogorgon, dismisses Jupiter to unending nothingness. Prometheus is at once unbound, the human mind is free; he is reunited to his spouse Nature, and the world of man passes from thralldom and its degradation into limitless progression, or (as the phrase goes) perfectibility, moral and material. This we regard as in brief the argument of Prometheus Unbound. It is closely analogous to the argument of the juvenile poem Queen Mab, but so raised in form and creative touch that, whereas to write Queen Mab was only to be an ambitious and ebullient tyro, to invent Prometheus Unbound was to be the poet of the future. The Witch of Atlas (1820) appears to us the most perfect work among all Shelley’s longer poems, though it is neither the deepest nor the most interesting. It may be rated as a pure exercise of roving imagination -- guided, however, by an intense sense of beauty, and by its author’s exceeding fineness of nature. The poem has often been decried as practically unmeaning; we do not subscribe to this opinion. The "witch" of this subtle and magical invention seems to represent that faculty which we term "the fancy"; using this assumption as a clue, we find plenty of meaning in the poem, but necessarily it is financial of volatile meaning. The elegy on Keats, Adonais, followed in 1821; the Triumph of Life, a mystical and most impressive allegory, constructed upon lines marked out by Dante and by Petrarch, was occupying the poet up to the time of his death. The stately fragment which remains is probably but a small portion of the projected whole. The translations -- chiefly from Homer, Euripides, Calderon, and Goethe -- date from 1819 to 1822, and testify to the poetic endowment of Shelley not less absolutely than his own original compositions. From his list it will be readily seen at Shelley was not only a prolific but also a versatile poet. Works so various in faculty and in form as The Revolt of Islam, Julian and Maddalo, The Cenci, Prometheus, Unbound Epipsychidion, and in grotesque effusions of which Peter Bell the Third is the prime example added to the consummate array of lyrics, have seldom to be credited to a single writer -- one, moreover, who died before he was thirty years of age. In prose Shelley could be as admirable as in poetry; of late years it has even been pretended -- but we regard this proposition as worthy of summary rejection -- that his best and most enduring work is in the prose form. His letters to Thomas Love Peacock and others. And his uncompleted Defence of Poetry, are the chief monuments of his mastery in prose; and certainly no more beautiful prose -- having much of the spirit and the aroma of poetry, yet without being distorted out of its proper essence -- is to be found in the English language.

The chief original authorities for the life of Shelley (apart from his own writings, which contain a good deal of autobiography, if heedfully sifted and collated) are -- (1) the notices by Mrs Shelley interspersed in her edition of the Poems; (2) Hogg’s amusing, discerning, and authentic, although in some respects exaggerated, book; (3) Trelawny’s Records; (4) the Life by Medwin; and (5) the articles written by Peacock. Some other writers, especially Leigh Hunt, might be mentioned, but they come less close to the facts. Among biographical works produced since Shelley’s death, by authors who did not know him personally, much the largest is the The Real Shelley, by J. C. Jeaffreson (1885); it is controversial in method and decidedly hostile in tendency, and tries a man of genius by tests far from well adapted (in our opinion) to bring out a right result; it contains, however, an ample share of solid information and sharp disquisition. The memoir by W.M. Rossetti, prefixed to an edition of Shelley’s Poems in two forms of publication, 1870 and 1878, was an endeavor to formulate in brief space, out of then confused and conflicting records, an accurate account of Shelley -- admiring, but not uncandidly one-sided. There is valuable material in Lady Shelley’s Shelley Merorials, and in Dr Garnett’s Relics of Shelley; and in the memoir by Mr Symonds, in the series English Men of Letters, is very agreeably and skillfully done. While we write (November 1885) Prof. Dowden is engaged upon a life of Shelley, which may be expected to distance all its predecessors in authority and completeness. (W. M. R.)



The above article was written by: William Michael Rossetti, Professional to Board of Inland Revenue for Estate Duty on Pictures and Drawings; author of Fine Art, chiefly contemporary, Lives of Famous Poets, Life of Keats, Dante G. Rossetti as Designer and Writer, Memoir of Dante G. Rossetti; editor of The Germ, 1850, of Shelley's Poems, of Wm. Blake's Poems, of Poems by Dante and Christina Rossetti, of Praeraphaelite Diaries and Letters, etc.



Search the Encyclopedia:



About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Sitemaps
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us



© 2005-16 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries