Page images

is said, to write to his elfish opponent's tutor, and have him whipped: a style of argument which has always been acceptable to the losing side. The same curious system of mischief occupied the young student at Oxford. Instead, however, of the innocent and stupid hoax which gives a pleasure of which he is soon deeply ashamed, to many a youth of eighteen, there was a certain diabolical fun in the ranks of this wild Ariel in cap and gown. is new mode of proceeding was as follows:—

“When he came to Oxford, he retained and extended his former practice without quitting the convenient disguise of an assumed name. His object in printing the short abstract of some of the doctrines of Hume was to facilitate his epistolary disquisitions. It was a small pill, but it worked powerfully : the mode of operation was this: — He enclosed a copy in a letter, and sent it by the post, stating, with modesty and simplicity. that he had met accidentally with that little tract, which appeared unhappily to be quite unanswerable. Unless the fish was too sluggish to take the bait, an answer of refutation was forwarded to an appointed address in London, and then in a vigorous reply he would fall upon the unwary disputant, and break his bones. The strenuous attack sometimes provoked a rejoinder more carefully prepared, and an animated and protracted debate ensued. The party cited, having put in his answer, was fairly in court, and he might get out of it as he could. The chief difficulty seemed to be to induce the party addressed to acknowledge the jurisdiction and to plead; and this, Shelley supposed, would be removed by sending, in the first instance, a printed syllabus instead of written arguments.”

This pamphlet was inscribed with the mystic letters Q. E. D., and was sent about the world right and left, raising “rich crops of controversy.” It is not intended, Mr. Hogg tells us, for the general reader, but only for the metaphysician; and “as it was shorter, so was it plainer, and perhaps, in order to provoke discussion, a little bolder, than Hume's Essays,” Its title erhaps was still bolder than its scope. t was called “The Necessity of Atheism.” Mr. Rossetti, the last and perhaps most entirely enthusiastic of all Shelley's biographers, thinks it for the dignity of his

hero to give this proceeding the gravest

what appalling assertion, especially for those unlucky wights who are charged with the care of heroes of nineteen: but perhaps if the Archbishop of Canterbury took to expounding his theology in the shape of anonymous pamphlets, we might be better able to judge of his rights in the comparison. Mr. Hogg tells us that his young friend argued “through the love of argument, and because he found a noble joy in the fierce shocks of contending minds.” But the authorities about him did not sympathize in this noble joy; and on Ladyday, in the year 1811, Shelley being then about eighteen and a half, he was suddenly summoned before the master of his college. There he was asked abruptly whether he was the author of the pamphlet, a copy of which was shown to him ; and on his refusal to reply, was immediately expelled. His friend Hogg, who ventured to remonstrate, had the same summary sentence of banishment pronounced upon him; and next morning both lads, in such a state of excitement, and with such a sense of wrong, as must have been delightful to them amid all its bitterness, left the University. Hogg intimates, in the calmness of after-reflection, that he thinks they might have been allowed delay had they condescended to ask it; and that the reputation of the college having been saved by such an appearance of sharp action, they might have been tacitly allowed to remain the ordinary time. But the young blood was up, even of the steadier student, and they rushed up to London together, blazing with their consciousness of wrong. This was the origin of Shelley's quarrels with his family. Perhaps his college was to blame for the precipitate and arbitrary manner in which , this violent step was taken; but it is difficult to see how the authorities could have winked at such a production as the “Necessity of Atheism,” or the anonymous combats of its compiler. One of Shelley's biographers tells us that Hogg's father never forgave, and went to his grave without ever again seeing, his son; but Mr. Shelley, much-abused man, was not so hard upon the greater culprit. He did see his prodigal, and some vague

negotiations arose between them which it

is difficult to make out, at least from Shel

character, and to accept it as a real and ley's account, though the father is very

absolute profession of the poet's faith.

simple and very precise in his demands,

“We shall do well to understand once for according to a letter in his odd and com

all,” says this champion, with curious

grandiloquence, “that Percy Shelley had as good a right to form and expound his opinions on theology as the Archbishop of Canterbury had to his.” This is a some

plicated style, which is given in Mr. Hogg's book; where all he asks is that his son would return home, give up communication with his friend Hogg, and place him. self under the care of a tutor selected bf his father. These terms, however, were utterly unacceptable to the rebellious spirit to which they were addressed; and while Hogg, more dutiful, returned to his native county to study in York the humble but honourable trade of conveyancing, Shelley remained in London in Poland Street, not an attractive region, in lodgings which he had been attracted to by the paper with which the walls were covered, and which was printed in imitation of a trellis overgrown with grapes | Here and elsewhere in London he remained, with occasional visits to his home in the country, and the houses of other relatives, till the end of August, when the scenes suddenly shifted, and a new chapter began in his career. It is not easy to know how the boy-poet lived during this interval. Mr. Rossetti tells us it was on the little savings of his sisters, which they sent to him by means of one of their schoolfellows, Harriet Westbrook, a beautiful girl of sixteen. Whether this was so or not — and the fact that Shelley himself positively informed Hogg in May: “I have come to terms with my father. I call them very good ones. I am to possess £200 per annum,” makes it unlikely —yet it is certain that Harriet was at school with Shelley's sisters, though of much inferior condition, her father being the keeper of a tavern — and that he became acquainted with her through their means. The philosopher of nineteen had a great many conversations upon profound and interesting subjects with the openminded and lovely-faced listener of sixteen, who, for her part, was very sick of being at school, and of all the restraints which generally limit the independence of the British subject at that age. No doubt she learned a great deal from Shelley, who informs his friend on one occasion that “Miss Westbrook is reading Voltaire's “Dictionnaire Philosophique,’” perhaps not quite the kind of literature most appropriate in the circumstances. A little later he reproves Hogg gravely for the vulgar nonsense of supposing him to be in love with Harriet; but in his very next letter announces to him, that in consequence of the brutal tyranny of Harriet's father, “who has persecuted her in the most horrible way by endeavouring to compel her to go to school,” “she has thrown herself on my protection.” This conclusion, equally mad and foolish on the girl's side, is, however, received on the boy's with very highly honourable sentiment. He is staggered for the moment, and reels under the “flattering distinction;” but whereas he had expressed a very unfavourable opinion of

marriage a short time before, he now makes up his mind to try and be converted to it. “Marriage, Godwin says, is hateful, detestable,” he cries, in the beginning of May; “a kind of ineffable sickening disgust seizes my mind when I think of this most despotic, most unrequired fetter which prejudice has forged to confine its energies.” But in August, as soon as this startling prospect has opened upon him, he writes to his friend, “I will hear your arguments for matrimonialism; ” and soon after declares that the plea of “impracticability, and, what is even worse, the disproportionate sacrifice which the female is called npon to make — these arguments . . . I cannot withstand.” It seems to us that there is something extremely honourable to the lawless youth in this sudden conversion. So far from rejecting the principle of marriage in order to excuse his own passions, he becomes converted to the bond distasteful to him, as soon as the responsibility of another's happiness is thrown on his astonished shoulders. Had he, with his avowed principles and ruined character, carried off the imprudent girl who threw herself on his protection, without troubling himself about the results, it would have been perfectly natural and in character. But there is a gleam of noble-, ness in this sudden pause which comes in the midst of his excitement—this thought for the other who trusts herself to him, which is equally fine and unexpected. To our thinking, it is perhaps the finest thing in all Shelley's life. He had nowhere expressed any love for Harriet before this. He had spoken much of her, it is true, as a young man does of a girl to whom he is being gradually attracted; but, it would seem, was still far from having reached anything like passion, when the foolish impatient young creature thus took matters into her own hands. Shelley, however, does not appear to have ever thought of resisting. With the same high honour which we have just remarked upon, it is evident that he held himself committed to Harriet as soon as she had thus committed herself to him — a fact which shows that, under all the wildness of his strange nature, the soul of a true and knightly gentleman existed in him. He took her to Edinburgh, and married her there, according to his friend's account; and there, for the first time since their Oxford adventure, Hogg saw again his “incomparable friend.” The incomparable friend was nineteen, and his bride sixteen. They had as much knowledge of the world between them as two babies; and they had, or thought they had, two hundred a-year, and the displeasure and alienation of all their friends. But none of these things troubled the serenity of these dream-creatures. Never was there a picture of more absolute yet pretty foolishness. The three roamed about together, the baby-pair being of another strain from those impassioned lovers who dislike the presence of a third party; and at home in their lodgings Harriet read aloud the most proper and instructive of books, and was ever serene, blooming, smiling, neat, and imperturbable — one would have said the very wife for an excitable and half-crazed É. — a warm, placid, steady prop for im to lean upon. To be sure, Nemesis arrived after a few pleasant weeks, in the shape of a grim schoolmistress-like elder sister, who kept them all in order. But except for this uncomfortable alien element, the match would not seem at first to have been at all an unsuccessful one. Harriet was always ready to pack up and be off at an hour's notice. She was ready to move into Wales or Ireland or Cumberland, wherever novelty and Shelley bade her. She was perfectly good-tempered and insouciante. She gave in to all his disorderly ways, and was indeed as easy about meals and hours as he was, dispensing with the one and forgetting the other; and so far the marriage was not such an absolute failure as, according to all human laws, it ought to have been. However, as was natural, it raised a new imbroglio, and apparently cut off Shelley from all further personal intercourse with his family. The Shelleys have been wildly vituperated, as indeed have been all who have ventured to lift a hand against the poet—a doom which even the present writer does not hope to escape; but in reality it is very evident that their son had done everything a son could do to offend and wound them. He had brought a public stigma on his name; he had attempted to fill the mind of at least one of his sisters with his own wildly sceptical ideas; and now he had made the most glaring mesalliance on the very back of his other offences. Parental anger had not got time to cool when it was thus fanned into fiercest blaze again. We are never formally told, however, that Shelley's two hundred a-year was withdrawn from him; and it is certain that he managed to live somehow, to make continual changes and long journeys, amusements which are far from being inexpensive, during the three years which ensued. And what years these were ! Never Pixie of the wilds, never Will-o'-the

wisp, or the mischievous wanderer Puck himself, had a wilder, more fantastic existence. The strange trio —for Harriet's sister remained with them — went to York for a few weeks, to be near Hogg, then lunged suddenly off into Cumberland, to Keswick, where they made friends with Southey, and where Shelley commenced the correspondence with William Godwin, which was to influence so much his future life. In three months' time the eccentric party were off again from this seclusion, and this time, of all places, in the world, it was Dublin they went to ; and their object (of all objects in the world) was “to forward as much as we can Catholic Emancipation ”! In pursuance of this, when he arrived in Dublin, Shelley published a pamphlet, “An Address to the Irish People,” and also proposals for an association of philanthropists to regenerate the nation by intellectual and moral means. The first was cheaply printed, and written in language “wilfully vulgarized, in order to reduce the remarks it contains to the taste and comprehension of the Irish peasantry.” Shelley himself is said to have distributed this pamphlet from the balcony of the house he lived in to the passers-by. He also appeared and spoke at one meeting, at least, where O'Connel and other notable persons were present. Perhaps that astute demagogue was not sorry to have the name of the son of an English member of Parliament in the list of his supporters at that early period. However, this wild and aimless crusade, undertaken heaven knows why, and ending in nothing, did not last long. They went to Ireland in the end of February, and by the 25th April we find the little family in Wales, from whence they took another flight to Devonshire, returning in autumn to Wales again, but to a different spot. Their new residence was Tanyrallt in Carnarvonshire, and there occurred a mysterious accident, which Shelley either dreamt, invented, or really encountered, no one can tell which. All at once, from out of their solitude, frantic shrieks from the young husband and wife made themselves audible to all their friends. Some wretch in human form had attempted to assasinate Shelley ! The ball of the assassin's pistol had penetrated the poet's nightgown, and with headlong terror the little party fled from the house and country, once more plunging across the Channel to Ireland. e next thing we hear of them is that they are mooning about Killarney, and enjoying themselves according to their fashion, after this astounding incident. No further inquiries,

[merged small][ocr errors]

it appears, have thrown any light on this bewildering mystification, if mystification it was. Mr. Hogg, it is evident, did not believe a word of it, and smiles at the breathless prayer for a little breathingtime and twenty pounds, to enable him to get over it, which the poet, still panting with his flight, makes to several of his friends. The whole story is tragically ridiculous, though it is evident that, whether false or true, Shelley believed in it, and attributed even some of the fluctuations of his own health to its results. This occurred in the beginning of March 1813. In April they were again in London, where, or in its neighbourhood, they continued until the next scene in the wild drama bean.

g It was, however, during this agitated and troublous period that Shelley's first poem, and that which perhaps — so obstinate is human feeling when once powerfully impressed — is most generally known at least by name, “Queen Mab,” was written. It seems so vain at this period to rediscuss a poem already over-discussed, and which is so very unlikely either to attract or influence the present generation, that we will confine ourselves to quoting Mr. Rossetti's verdict on the subject, in which we substantially agree : —

“As to the poetical merits of “Queen Mab,' I think the ordinary run of criticism is at fault. Some writers go to the ridiculous excess of speaking of it as not only a grand poem, but actually the masterpiece of its author; and even those who stop far short of this expatiate in loose talk about its splendid ideal passages, gorgeous elemental imagery, and the like. The fact is that “Queen Mab is a juvenile production in the fullest sense of the word — as nobody knew better than Shelley a few years afterwards; and furthermore, unless I am much mistaken, the most juvenile and unremarkable section of it is the ideal one. The part which has some considerable amount of promise, and even of positive merit at times, is the declamatory part — the passages of flexible and sonorous blank verse, in which Shelly boils over against kings or priests, or the present misery of the world of man, and in acclaiming augury of an era of regeneration. Those passages, with all their obvious literary crudities and imperfections, are, in their way, of real mark, and not easily to be overmatched by other poetic writing of that least readable sort, the didactic-declamatory.”

There is one thing, however, which we may note here, and which is everywhere and at all times characteristic of Shelley: a curious twist which his mind seems to have taken from the first, like some growing thing warped and thwarted by a freak of nature. We have already remarked upon

his deification of that secondary mental quality, resistance, and absolute incapacity to understand the much loftier sentiment of harmony, obedience, and subordination — qualities quite indispensable to any lofty ideal. “Queen Mab" reveals another tendency equally strange. No one, we believe, ever has glanced at this audacious production, without an involuntary sense of incongruity, a jar of something contradictory, which at the first moment it is difficult to give a reason for. On further examination, it will be seen that this involuntary jar arises from the extraordinary choice at once of the name and preliminary machinery of the poem. The name is already enshrined in the English soul. It is that of that tiniest empress, –

“In shape no bigger than an agate-stone On the forefinger of an alderman’” —

who drives over courtiers' knees and ladies' lips in her fairy chariot, daintiest and most fanciful of equipages. This tricksome sprite is the apparition that presents herself before us even now, despite of Shelley, when we read the name. We think of her “waggon-spokes made of long spinners' legs,” the hood of her vehicle of the wings of grasshoppers, her whip of cricket-bone, her team of little atomies, innocentest and most fantastic of imaginations. Shelley, all-indifferent to the foregone fancy, imposes the delightful levity of this name upon his solemnly didactic fairy who is grand as a tragedy queen. Queen Mab, thus travesticd, comes to the side of a sleeping maiden, Ianthe, lovely and innocent, and carries off the soul, released for the moment from its beautiful covering. The fair spirit and the fairyqueen go off together in a state chariot of a very different form from that original one. It is a “pearly and pellucid car,” with “celestial coursers,” endowed with “filmy pennons”, and “reins of light.” Such in its turgid grandeur is the machinery of the poem. And where do the voyagers go? To investigate the miseries of earth, the horrors of tyranny and religion, the falsehood of revelation, the cruel fiction of Christianity Never was a more strange contradiction to all poetic anticipations and all rules of art and nature. It is so wildly perverse that the ingenuous reader can scarcely believe it serious. But to the poet the idea of such a hideous panorama exhibited by a fairy to a pure mortal maiden has no incongruity in it. His mind fails to seize the subtle sense of inappropriateness. He is unable to escape from the ruling tendency of his own

spirit into the nature of any other. The succession of tableaux which, after grave and long preparation, Milton permits Raphael to show to Adam, is utterly exceeded in horror and melancholy by the fierce scenes unfolded by Mab to Ianthe without any preparation or any F. at all. The same curious want of perception recurs constantly in all Shelley's works; everything seems to have been twisted to him out of naturalness, out of harmony — his sweet bells are always jangled. He turns to darkness, and mystery, and despair, and horror wantonly, when all the sweeter secrets of nature are open to him; and without knowing, with the most curious obtuseness in the midst of his genius, unfolds all this horror and misery to us by the most unfit interpreters — by the intervention of a fairy, and the dreams of a sleeping girl. We need not add anything about the opinions expressed in this poem. It is these only, thanks to the clamour of many good but foolish o that have kept this audacious piece of juvenile braggadocio afloat. The ideal part of “Queen Mab" is evidently founded on “Thalaba,” which was, it is said, Shelley's favourite poem at this period, and would have perished long ago out of mortal ken but for the bold atheism of its second part and of the notes, which the horror of the many has kept a certain life, or rather tradition of life, in. Had it not filled hosts of peole who never read it with this visionary right and hatred, “Queen Mab " would, we do not doubt, have been dead and forgotten long ago. In June of the year 1814, another new personage becomes visible in Shelley's wild story. His friend Hogg had gone with him to Godwin's shop, and into an inner room, where, however, the philosopher was not to be found. While the poet paced about in impatience, “the door was partially and softly opened. A thrilling voice called “Shelley !’ A thrilling voice answered “Mary 1” and he darted out of the room.” This is the first time that the second partner of Shelley's existence becomes apparent to us. In this same month were written some verses addressed to her, which breathe all the ‘troublous passion of a soul perhaps still trembling and doubting what its next step was to be. That they had by this time betrayed their mutual love to each other is evident. According to Lady Shelley, this betrayal occurred in a very strange scene, in St Pancras' churchyard, by the grave of Mar

Godwin's mother, the famous Mary Wol

stoncraft, where the two had met, whether accidentally or not we are not told ; but where Shelley, “in burning words, poured out the tale of his wild past — how he had suffered, how he had been misled, and how, if supported by her love, he hoped in future years to enrol his name with the wise and good who had done battle for their fellow-men, and been true, through all adverse storms, to the cause of humanity.” This sentimental nonsense, which is very like Mary Shelley's own outpourings, and no doubt came from her, is very much less calculated to inollify and touch the reader over the story of this strange transaction, than are the following tremulous verses, in which the reflection of a certain struggle and effort at self-restraint seems evident: —

“Upon my heart thy accents sweet
Of peace and pity fell like dew
On flowers half-dead; thy lips did meet
Mine tremblingly, thy dark eyes threw
Their soft persuasion on my brain,
Charming away its dream of pain.

“We are not happy, sweet ! our state
Is strange, and full of doubt and fear —
More need of words that ills abate.
Reserve or censure come not near
Our sacred friendship, lest there be
No solace left for thee or me.

“Gentle and good and mild thou art,
Nor can I live if thou appear
Aught but thyself, or turn thy heart
Away from ine, or stoop to wear
The mask of scorn, although it be
To hide the love thou feel'st for me.”

This ominous poem indicates with sufficient distinctness what was coming ; and about the middle of June Shelley left the cottage at Bracknell, where he had been living with his wife, and which for some time had been growing more and more uncongenial to him as a home, and went to London. He does not seem ever to have seen Harriet again, nor his child, the baby Ianthe, who had been born a short time before; but whether he deserted her cruelly or separated from her politely and amicably, is a matter which between them the biographers have not yet decided. He did part from her, however, absolutely and for ever, and some six weeks after started for the Continent with his Mary, and began an altogether new period of his life. This event is treated with such philosophic calm by everybody concerned that it would be a kind of anachronism to pause and discuss it, as if it bore any relation to morals or the abstract standard of right and wrong. “Nought was done in hate,

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »