Studies in letters and life/Remarks on Shelley
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REMARKS ON SHELLEY.
I. HIS CAREER.
The natural charm by which Shelley fascinated his familiar friends lives after him, and has gathered about him for his defense a group of men whose affection for him seems no whit lessened because they never knew him face to face. The one common characteristic prominent in all who have written of him with sympathy, however meagre or valuable their individual contributions of praise, criticism, or information, is this sentiment of direct, intimate, intense personal loyalty which he has inspired in them to a degree rare, if not unparalleled, in literary annals. Under the impulse of this strong love, they have championed his cause, until his fame, overshadowed in his own generation by the vigorous worldliness of Byron, and slightly esteemed by nearly all of his craft, has grown world-wide. With the enthusiasts, however, who have aided in bringing about this result, admiration for Shelley's work is a secondary thing; its virtue is blended with and transfused into the nature of Shelley himself, who is the centre of their worship. To reveal the fineness and lustre of his character, his essential worth throughout that romantic and darkened career of thirty years, is their chief pleasure, and in this, too, they have now won some success, and have partially reversed the popular estimate of the poet as merely an immoral atheist; yet, although some amends have been made for harsh contemporary criticism, Shelley's name is still for orthodoxy a shibboleth of pious terror and of insult to God. It is still too early to decide whether the modification of the harsh criticism once almost universally bestowed upon Shelley will go on permanently, or whether it is not in some measure due to peculiar results of culture in our own time. Without attempting to prejudge this question, especially in regard to poetic fame, there seems to be, as the cause passes out of the hands of those who knew Shelley personally into the guardianship of the new generation, a tendency toward greater unity of judgment in regard to the larger phases of his character and conduct.
Shelley, as Swinburne said of William Blake, was born into the church of rebels; he was born, also, gentle, loving, and fearless. The dangers to which such a natural endowment would inevitably expose him were aggravated by a misguided education, and by the temper of that feverish and ill-regulated age in which modern reform began. He was in early years first of all a revolter; he would do only what seemed to him best, and in the way which seemed to him best; he took nothing upon authority, he acknowledged no validity in the customs and beliefs which past experience had bequeathed to men; he must examine every conclusion anew, and accept or reject it by the light of his own limited thought and observation; he carried the Protestant spirit to its ultimate extreme all legal and intellectual results embodied in institutions or in accepted beliefs must show cause to him why they should exist. He was, moreover, in haste; he could not rest in a doubt, he could not suspend his judgment, he could not wait for fuller knowledge. Finding only incomplete or incompetent answers to his questioning, he leaped to the conclusion that there was no answer. Had he been contented with allowing this spirit to influence only his own private creed and conduct, mischief enough was sure to be wrought for him, error and suffering were in store for him in no common degree. But he was not merely building an ideal of life and formulating a rule of living for himself; he had, as he afterward confessed, a passion for reforming the world. He was early in print, and aspired to teach the world before he was well out of his teens,—took in his hands, indeed, the regeneration of Ireland through pamphlets, and public eloquence, and personal agitation and supervision. It is easy to dismiss this as the foolish conceit of a boy of talent much given to dreaming. It is easy, too, to dismiss his exile from his home and his expulsion from Oxford as childish obstinacy, disobedience, ingratitude, and presumption; but if there was anything of these faults in him there was also much more made evident in these first trials of his character: there was the capacity for sacrifice, the resolution to be faithful to the truth as he saw it. The beginning of manhood found him in the full sway of immature conviction, and already suffering the penalty. It is not necessary to follow out in detail the development of a life so entered upon. It led him to attack Christianity and to disregard the law of marriage, and this is the sum and substance of his offense. Yet no sign, perhaps, is so indicative of the increased liberality of religion in our time as the attempt which has been made to show that Shelley was essentially Christian, an attempt so common and vigorous that Trelawney felt called upon to protest against it. In this spirit Mr. Symonds writes from one extreme: "It is certain that as Christianity passes beyond its mediæval phase, and casts aside the husk of outworn dogmas, it will more and more approximate to Shelley's exposition. Here, and here only, is a vital faith adapted to the conditions of modern thought, indestructible because essential, and fitted to unite instead of separating minds of divers quality"; and Rev. F. W. Robertson, from the other extreme, writes: "I cannot help feeling that there was a spirit in poor Shelley's mind which might have assimilated with the spirit of his Redeemer, nay, which I will dare to say was kindred with that spirit, if only his Redeemer had been differently imaged to him.... I will not say that a man who by his opposition to God means opposition to a demon, to whom the name of God in his mind is appended, is an enemy of God;... change the name and I will bid that character defiance with you!" A candid examination must show, however, that Trelawney is right; there is no doubt that Shelley rejected altogether what is properly known as Christianity, in youth violently and with hatred, while in later years he came to care less about it. At the same time it is to be remembered that he had seen Christianity only in those forms whose most prominent characteristic is defect in charity and love, which Shelley believed to be the central virtues. Probably he never dissociated the Christian God from the Jewish Jehovah, and his feeling towards him is well illustrated in the terrible indictment he makes against him in reference to Milton's delineation of Satan as one "who, in the cold security of undoubted triumph, inflicts upon his fallen enemy the most horrible punishment, not from any mistaken hope of thereby reforming him, but with the avowed purpose of exasperating him to deserve new torments." It is, therefore, impossible to deny Shelley's atheism; the most that can be contended for is that in natural piety, in purity of life and motive, in conscientious and unselfish action, Shelley was exceptionally conspicuous.
It is here that the second charge against Shelley has its place. How, it is indignantly asked, was he unselfish, loving, and conscientious, when he left his youthful wife to circumstances which resulted in her suicide, and transferred his devotion to another? Nothing more can be done than to point out the fact that Shelley acted in harmony with his convictions of social duty; that the first marriage was the result of knight-errantry rather than affection, and had become destitute of any pleasure; that Shelley did not desert his wife in such a way as to make her suicide chargeable to him. These considerations do not, it is true, relieve him of condemnation, or remove the really great defect in his moral perception of the responsibility which rested upon him in consequence of a thoughtless and foolish marriage. Yet it is not doubtful that in his life he atoned for his error, if suffering is atonement; from that time a shadow fell upon him which never was removed. It is hard to find heart for reproach when one, whose whole gospel was love, is so cruelly entangled in the unforeseen consequences of his acts that he seems to have wrought the work of hatred.
What, then, under this presentation of the case, remains to be said for that ideal character which those who love Shelley believe to have been his possession? That, beginning life with a theory which left every desire and impulse free course, which imposed no restrictions except those of his own honor and self-respect, which acknowledged no command not proceeding from his own reason, he yet served the truth he saw with entire loyalty and sincerity of heart; that, making many errors throughout a darkened life, he did not strive by lightness of heart or logical sophistication to avoid their penalties of misery and remorse, but kept them in memory and bore his burden of sorrow courageously; that by intense thought and bitter experience he came at last to find the laws of life and to obey them. He found how impossible it is for the individual to solve the problems put before him, so that he himself grew content to leave many of these in doubt; found how ignorant it was in him to make his own experience the measure of the conditions of general human life, and attempt to reform the world's motives and standards by reference to that experience alone; found how little the individual counts for in life, so that the youth, who with fervid hope took up the regeneration of a whole nation in confidence, came to doubt whether it was worth while for him to write at all, and rated himself far below his friend Byron. These characteristics are the evidence of his strength, sincerity, and rightness of purpose; and through these he worked out an ideal of life and rule of living, which differed much from those of his early days. No ideal intrinsically more powerful in influence or more exalted in virtue has been worked out by men who, like himself, found the old familiar standards rationally inadequate and morally weak. These are the essential elements in Shelley's career, and to them his personal qualities and his daily life give form and color. This, too, is the work of a man framed for self-destruction, against whom circumstances did their worst throughout. The marvel is, not that his life was so broken in private happiness, and his public work so unequal in the worth of its results, but, taking all into account, that he saved so much of his life and work through his perception of the valuable objects of living, and his clinging to them.
This, too, was the result of the imperfect years of preparation. He had given him only the traditional thirty years which belong to every genius for trial and training before the finished work can be required. He had just recognized the conditions to which he must conform, and was only ready to begin when he died.
II. HIS ACQUAINTANCES.
It is impossible to condense Shelley's Life in a clear 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 transmits the spell, and the story, clasped between these periods, must be left in its integrity. 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 thick-strewn with interesting episodes, and contained so many perplexed passages, that it is a study by itself, and requires for its mastery an acquaintance with an extensive literature of its own. It were useless to attempt a criticism, or to describe Shelley anew, but some unstudied remarks upon his fortunes in life may be ventured upon.
Must one incur the charge of being supercilious and aristocratic if he acknowledges at once a feeling, after reading Shelley's life, of having 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 so 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 this 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 radical 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 have a paramount claim on any money their friends might own. 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 twenty-three 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 plain-spoken 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 transaction 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 £4,000 or £5,000, 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 be 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 have lately been 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 be 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; 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 summoned 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 children 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, 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. 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 dining-table, 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 untruthful, 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 enough has been said of 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 Reveley 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 a 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 this 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. For it would be wrong to close even these informal remarks without expressing dissent from the assumption that Shelley's intellectual and moral life was one long mistake. Disillusion it was, and the nature of it has been indicated by the single point of his acquaintances; 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 less than it seems. 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.
III. HIS ITALIAN LETTERS.
The prose work of Shelley has remained in the obscurity which it once shared with his poetry. The formal essays, which concern the transitory affairs of the world or themes of thought remote through their generality, are valued, even by admirers of Shelley, mainly as media of his spirit; the familiar letters, scattered in old books, or collected only in a costly edition, and deprived of literary effectiveness because those of high and enduring interest have never been selected and massed until recently, have escaped any wide public attention; even the translations have been neglected. All this really large body of prose, however exalted by its informing enthusiasm, however exquisite in language, and melodious, lies outside the open pathways of literature. It is this fact which gave the element of surprise to what Mr. Arnold called his doubt "whether Shelley's delightful Essays and Letters, which deserve to be far more read than they are now, will not resist the wear and tear of time better, and finally come to stand higher, than his poetry,"—a judgment which well deserved Dr. Garnett's quiet rejoinder that "this deliverance will be weighed by those to whose lot it may fall to determine Mr. Arnold's own place as a critic." Dr. Garnett adds that, in an age when all letters approximate to the ideal set by men of business, Shelley's alone, among those of his time, rank with Gray's, Pope's, Cowper's, or Walpole's in possessing a certain classical impress similar to that of deliberate artistic work; and, secondly, that they exhibit the mind of the poet as clearly as Marlborough's do the mind of the general, or Macaulay's the mind of the man of letters. Their two prime qualities are beauty of form and transparency.
The sense of form has usually been denied to Shelley, and if by it is meant the purely critical impulse to remodel, revise, and polish for the sake of that finish which the schools prize, Shelley neither possessed it nor sought for it with any strong desire, but rather rejected it as dangerously submitting the mind to system, against which he was prejudiced. But if by the sense of form is meant the instinct for proportion, for regulated combination, for natural development of sensation into idea, idea into passion, so that the poem issues in a single harmony in the mind and heart; if, in other words, by that loose phrase is meant, not the corrective power of the critical, but the shaping power of the creative faculty working out ideal beauty directly, then both in his brief and in much of his longer poems Shelley was singularly distinguished by it. This spontaneous beauty of form, if we may so phrase it, is the only species that is found in these letters: fitness of words, sweetness of cadence, modulation of feeling in immediate response to thought and image, all conspiring to make up perfection of utterance, are continually present, but not through erasure and elaboration. Shelley's self-training in literature, almost unrivaled as an apprenticeship in its length and continuity, more comprehensive, profound, and ardent than Pope's, more vital than Milton's, had made such literary lucidity and grace the habit of his pen, and he was fortunate in employing his gift upon subjects intrinsically most interesting to cultivated men: upon the art and landscape of Italy, or his own always high human relations, or his poetic moods.
In what he says of statues and paintings he shows but slight knowledge of art. The keenness of his perceptions and the warmth of his feelings made him particularly open to sensuous effects, so that in general he worships the later schools. In painting, especially, he can hardly be considered a safe guide for others, because his praise or censure is largely dependent on his temperament for its justification: a picture which is consonant with his own imagination, and stirs it, is thereby raised and glorified, but one whose theme would have been differently developed by himself is at once made pale by contrast with the quick visions of his own vividly pictorial mind. Here is a portion of his description of a Christ Beatified:—
"The countenance is heavy, as it were, with the rapture of the spirit; the lips parted, but scarcely parted, with the breath of intense but regulated passion; the eyes are calm and benignant; the whole features harmonized in majesty and sweetness."
One cannot but feel that the face which Shelley thus summons up before us bears the same relation to the original as what the dull-minded call his plagiarisms from Lodge do to that poet's lyrics. Shelley often paints the picture over upon the outlines of the old canvas; but this transforming or penetrating power, as it will be differently named just as one believes the given picture to lack or possess what Shelley saw in it, lends such passages not only surpassing beauty, but a real value as interpretations of art. Much as Ruskin would differ from Shelley's judgments, the two are essentially similar in their mode of treatment, and in their faculty of giving the equivalent of form and color in eloquence.
The description of landscape, which is another principal topic, possesses even more plainly classic beauty. Whether Shelley writes of nature in her wild and picturesque scenes, or where the presence of man has added pathos or dignity to her loveliness; whether he flashes the view upon us in one perfect line, or unfolds it slowly in unconfused detail, he displays the highest power in this field of literature. This view from the Forum of Pompeii, which, instead of being robed with "the gray veil of his own words," seems filled with "the purple noon's transparent light," cannot be surpassed as speech at once familiar and noble:—
"At the upper end, supported on an elevated platform, stands the temple of Jupiter. Under the colonnade of its portico we sate, and pulled out our oranges, and figs, and bread, and medlars,—sorry fare, you will say,—and rested to eat. Here was a magnificent spectacle. Above and between the multitudinous shafts of the sun-shining columns was seen the sea, reflecting the purple noon of heaven above it, and supporting, as it were, on its line the dark, lofty mountains of Sorrento, of a blue inexpressibly deep, and tinged toward their summits with streaks of new-fallen snow. Between was one small green island. To the right was Capreæ, Inarime, Prochyta, and Misenum. Behind was the single summit of Vesuvius, rolling forth volumes of thick white smoke, whose foam-like column was sometimes darted into the clear dark sky, and fell in little streaks along the wind. Between Vesuvius and the nearer mountains, as through a chasm, was seen the main line of the loftiest Apennines to the east. The day was radiant and warm. Every now and then we heard subterranean thunder of Vesuvius; its distant, deep peals seemed to shake the very air and light of day, which interpenetrated our frames with the sullen and tremendous sound."
Thus he wrote when merely passive to nature's influences; but when he begins to think he irradiates the scene; he lifts it with his aspiration and softens it with his regret; he brings it near by reminiscences of the English fields and cliffs and streams; he informs it with the large interests of the intellectual life; and not infrequently he concludes with a passage which, in the arrangement of its images, the sequence of its thought and feeling, the unity of its effect, in all except metrical structure, is a poem. Many paragraphs might be cited which show the character of his genius as directly as do his verses, and which justify the claim advanced for them as having the permanent interest of ideal beauty.
The principal charm of these letters, however, as Dr. Garnett says, is not artistic, but moral. It is not meant to refer by this term to the practical morality of Shelley's deeds, or to his conscientiousness, humanity, self-sacrifice, or other such qualities as they are here displayed; of these there is no longer need to speak. Nor is it meant simply to express the gratification one feels at finding that Shelley, unlike many men of letters who disappoint us by being only common mortals in private life, never falls below our conception of him, indicative as it is of his purity that his "unpremeditated song" does not fail to reach the height of his great argument. What impresses one most is rather the character of the life itself, of the mind to which "trust in all things high came natural," that moved with equal ease among the things of beauty, on the heights of thought, or amid the common and trivial cares of household life and in the offices of friendship, and knew no difference in the level of his life, so single was his nature and so completely expressed in all he did. In the most ideal passages, in those most impersonal, one does not lose the sense of friendliness in them, of the sweet human relationship which underlies the telling of what he has to say, and keeps the letters in their appropriate sphere. They are not rhapsodies, or soliloquies, or disquisitions; in other words, the visitations of the spirit that came to Shelley, and left record of themselves in this beauty and eloquence and imaginative passion, did not isolate him even momentarily, and could not sever him from his friends. Who these were, we know well enough: Miss Hitchener, the blue-stocking; Hogg, the betrayer; the Williamses and Gisbornes, who seem to have belonged to the class of people known as satisfying; Peacock, who, with all his nympholepsy, was a born beef-eater; Smith, the obliging; Hunt, the "wren," and Byron, the "eagle," in Shelley's nomenclature,—the too fortunate people who knew Shelley and whom he loved. They formed the environment, which needs to be kept in mind by any who would estimate Shelley's moral power; amid them he lived his high life and made it theirs, in the case of the most, during their communion with him. In a vague analogical way he sometimes brings to mind the Greek gods, who, with all their divine attributes of beauty, power, dignity, were singular among deities for their companionableness; Shelley had that divine quality of being familiar and retaining his original brightness. Toward Byron alone does he show any repulsion; he recognized Byron's admirable qualities, but he was alienated by the latter's selfishness, worldliness, and earthliness, even while he kept terms of amity. Shelley's sentence on Byron is most serious evidence against him, and it is now supported by much that Shelley could not have known; but it need not be discussed here.
It is especially fortunate that the letters exhibit him after his boyhood, with its false starts, its follies and prejudices, its narrowness and confusion, was passed; of that time we get only a noble echo in his sad remembrance, amid his seeming failure, of the lofty purpose with which he had entered life, while we see the depth unconfused by the tumult of his soul. In these last years, it is true, the thwarting of his practical instinct was ending in hopelessness; but if the earthly paradise that was the faith of his youth was now fading away, he was lifting his eyes to the city in the heavens, and had acknowledged the vanity of seeking the ideal he knew, except in the eternal; he had worked out his salvation. Perhaps after all we do wrong to lament his death; with that tragedy, in which every thought of Shelley involuntarily concludes, his work as a quickener of the spirit was accomplished. More finished works of art he might have given to us; he could not have left a nobler or more enkindling memory. These letters help in the still necessary labor of clearing away the misconceptions concerning him. In them one sees him only in the quiet of his soul, and will come to a better knowledge and perhaps a higher truth concerning him than is possible by reading his changeful poems alone.