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Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
Shelley's Vegetarianism

Full text of "Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Monograph"

PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

H. S. SALT

CHAPTER III.

THE EDUCATION OF A GENTLE MAN — AT OXFORD.

Having now reaped the benefits of a great public school, Shelley had still to attain the fuller and maturer culture of a great University ; accordingly, we find him entered, in the autumn of 1810, as a member of University College, Oxford.

At this time his prospects looked brighter, when judged from the ordinary worldly standpoint, than at any other period of his life; and his father had as yet perceived no incontestable proofs of the threatened failure of his hopes for the boy's advancement. When he left Eton, he had already done two things, both of which have been known to be done by other school-boys before and since, — he had written an exceedingly worthless novel, and he had fallen desperately in love with his beautiful cousin, Harriet Grove; but, on the other hand, unlike the generality of school-boys, he had further managed to secure the publication of his book, and to win the consent of the young lady, and the sanction of her parents and his own, to a sort of prospective engagement.

He had now escaped from the tedious thraldom and innumerable persecutions of school life to the comparative freedom of the University, where he enjoyed ample time for reading, writing, conversing, arguing, and following, to the uttermost, the bent of his own inclinations. At home he was on cordial, if not on affectionate, terms with his father, who had learnt to look with equanimity, and, perhaps, with a sort of qualified admiration, on that strong tendency towards authorship which he noted, even at this early stage, as a distinctive feature of his son's character, and was even heard to speak with paternal pride of the "literary turn" and "printing freaks" of the promising youth.

It almost seemed as if the career which his relatives had sketched out for him by anticipation was likely to be in some measure fulfilled, and as if Shelley, after going through Oxford in the usual manner, would marry his fair cousin, and settle down at Horsham to the honourable duties of a county gentleman and heir to large estates. The wild, strange boy, with dreamy eyes and flowing locks, would then be forgotten in the respectability of the Whig member for Shoreham ; the "Mad Shelley" and "Atheist" of Etonian notoriety would be sanctified by the unquestionable orthodoxy of the owner of many acres. It was a comforting prospect for Mr. Shelley to dwell on, and it was subject only to one disadvantage and limitation, which was — that it was not destined to be realized.

The proverb that if a thing is to be done well, it must be done by the parties most interested, had been recognised by the Oxford authorities of those days as the guiding principle of liberal education. The undergraduates were therefore permitted to enjoy to the full the advantages of this voluntary system, undisturbed by any undue interference from those who were nominally their instructors, with the result that while the majority sunk into a condition of helpless sloth and sensuality — for which they were of course themselves alone to blame, since no obstruction whatever was put in the way of their self-education — there were a few who made a good use of the leisure thus obtained for intellectual purposes.

It is recorded of Shelley that he often devoted sixteen hours out of the twenty-four to reading; classics and modern languages, poetry and prose, science and metaphysics — nothing seemed to come amiss. When "a little man," presumably one of the college tutors, informed Shelley one morning that "he must read," the pupil was able to answer, without any scruple or hesitation, that "he had no objection." Day after day Shelley, with one familiar friend, used to read or discuss all sorts of subjects connected or not connected with the academic course of study, notable among these, on account of their special influence on his mind, being the essays of Locke and Hume. Moreover, he was still greatly interested in the study of chemistry; and his rooms at Oxford, as at Eton, were strewn with crucibles, phials, galvanic batteries, air-pumps, microscopes, and all the apparatus of the chemist, which continued to excite in him a wild and lawless delight. Returning fresh from some dull and wearisome lecture on mineralogy, where a learned pedant had discoursed heavily "about stones, about stones," the youthful enthusiast would dilate to his wondering friend on the "mysteries of matter," and the glorious future in store for the human race when the dream of Bacon's "New Atlantis" should be realized, and the powers of nature should be organized and enlisted in the service of man.

But the "mysteries of mind" now began to claim a still larger share of his attention, poetry and philosophy being the two great objects to which the thoughts of this strange, self-educated youth were steadily and intuitively attracted. At first it was philosophy to which he felt the stronger inclination; and as if to verify the nomenclature of his Etonian school-fellows, he had already adopted the materialistic and atheistic doctrines of the eighteenth century writers, and hence regarded religion "as hostile instead of friendly to the cultivation of virtue."

The dolorous tone of regret often employed by Shelley's apologists concerning this early line of reading shows an inability to grasp the full meaning of his career. It is true that he was by nature an idealist, and that the philosophy of negation is not consonant with the higher creed of idealism; yet, for all that, this initial phase of keen and trenchant scepticism was a valuable and even indispensable preparation in the case of one whose special mission was to overthrow the tyranny of conventional methods of thought. Had it not been for this sharp brushing away of intellectual cobwebs, Shelley's genius, always dangerously prone to mysticism and metaphysical subtleties, might have lost itself, like that of Swedenborg or Coleridge, in a labyrinth of dreams and phantasies, and thus have wasted and misdirected its store of moral enthusiasm.

It is important, too, to notice that the materialism of which Shelley became an adherent during his residence at Oxford was not, in his case, the mere cold profession of intellectual scepticism, but went hand in hand (fortunately, though perhaps illogically) with a remarkable ardour in the cause of gentleness and humanity. Even as a boy, in Sussex, he had been keenly affected by the sight of want and suffering among the poor; and his reading of Godwin's works, by which he was profoundly moved at some early period of his life, had doubtless already set him thinking, not only on the contrast, but also on the connection between poverty and wealth. His chivalrous knight-errantry on behalf of the down-trodden and oppressed, whether it were a starved child or an over-driven beast, had more than once brought wonder to the mind of the more phlegmatic companion of his daily rambles round Oxford and its neighbourhood.

This chosen companion was Thomas Jefferson Hogg, the Boswell of Shelleyan biography, destined to be remembered by succeeding generations of Shelley students with mingled feelings of gratitude, amusement, and disgust. By nature and disposition he was a hard-headed, cynical man of the world, regarding all sentiment and enthusiasm with a kind of tolerant contempt, and firmly convinced that the great object of life is to be prosperous, comfortable, and sarcastic. But at the time when he first met Shelley, his worldly propensities were not yet fully developed, and his character was redeemed by a touch of literary taste and a love of intellectual liberty which were the chief bonds of the friendship that was soon established between the two undergraduates, one of whom was now preparing for the career of a philanthropist, the other for that of a lawyer.

The force of the strange influence which the shy and gentle idealist exercised over the mind of the shrewd and confident cynic may be measured by the warmth of the praise bestowed by Hogg on Shelley in the record of their life at Oxford, which he published more than twenty years later. It was the first instance of the homage which was so often paid to Shelley's elfish and mysterious personality by such rough, busy, matter-of-fact men as chanced to be brought in contact with it; it was, as Carlyle has written of the devotion of the true Boswell, "a genuine reverence for excellence; a worship for heroes, at a time when neither heroes nor worship were surmised to exist." But in Hogg's case the hero-worship was further set off and enhanced by the sense of amazement and pity aroused in his breast at the sight of Shelley's unbusinesslike habits and quixotic temperament. How would "his poor friend" have fared — so Hogg often thought — had not he been present to advise and assist him with his keen, practical sense and shrewd insight into human character.

Those were pleasant days when. the two friends devoted the autumn afternoons to long country rambles, in the course of which Shelley would indulge his liking for such pastimes as ducks-and-drakes and pistol practice, and when their after-supper conversations were prolonged until the College clock struck two.

But already, at the close of Shelley's first term at Oxford, signs were not wanting that this happiness would be but short-lived. His father's suspicions had been aroused on the subject of his heterodox opinions, and the Christmas vacation spent by Shelley at Field Place was a time of mutual distrust and recrimination. Now there are some youthful aberrations which may be overlooked or condoned in respectable English households; there are others which cannot be overlooked, and unfortunately Shelley's belonged to the latter class. If it had been merely a propensity to gambling, swearing, drinking, or some of the youthful indiscretions not uncommon among Oxford students at that date, Mr. Timothy Shelley would not have quite despaired of his son, and perhaps Miss Harriet Grove would not have withheld all hopes of forgiveness from her lover. But when a young man, in all simplicity and good faith, sets himself to test and examine and inquire into the truth of certain doctrines, which, according to the established code of religion and morality, he is bound to take for granted, then it is clear that such an offender must be denounced and disowned until lie sees the necessity of repenting his errors. Unhappily this was a necessity that Shelley, in spite of his excellent education at Eton and Oxford, could not be brought to understand; and it must, I suppose, be attributed to his elfish origin that instead of recognising the force of Mr. Timothy Shelley's lucid and cogent arguments, he actually had the temerity to attempt to "illuminate" his father.

The result was as might have been foreseen by a youth of more reasonable disposition. At the end of the vacation Shelley returned to Oxford in disfavour with both his parents ; while his happiness was completely shattered by the breaking off of his engagement with his cousin ; and he was thrown into a restless and excited frame of mind. "I will crush intolerance; I will at least attempt it." Such was his spirit early in 1811, and he already hoped "to gratify some of this insatiable feeling in poetry." No doubt the cynical Hogg had smiled on receiving the letters from his "poor friend," which conveyed the news of this daring resolution, expressed in the exaggerated language of youthful emotion; yet the vow, like all those made by Shelley, was faithfully kept, and had serious consequences, not only for Shelley himself, but also for his friend Hogg, and possibly for a good many other people besides.

In March, 1811, Shelley and Hogg, still inseparable in their studies, and eager in the pursuit of knowledge, had come to the conclusion that they must henceforth devote a still larger portion of their time to their joint reading; both of them being quite unaware that the attention of the College authorities, which had for some time been attracted by their singularity of dress and general eccentricity of conduct, was now centred on a small pamphlet, entitled, "The Necessity of Atheism," which Shelley had lately written and circulated, and to which Hogg had contributed a preface. With that childlike simplicity, which could not, or would not, realize that learned men are actuated by other motives than a desire to investigate the truth, the youthful disputant had forwarded copies of his pamphlet to various dignitaries of the University and the Church, inviting free discussion, criticism, and, if possible, refutation of the principles enunciated.

The matter was brought under the cognisance of the Master and Fellows of University College, and after some previous consideration they summoned Shelley before them on March 25th, an official instinct perhaps suggesting to them that Lady Day would be a fit and proper date for the vacation of certain premises in their great quadrangle. The aspect of the culprit who had thus attempted to undermine the pillars of the English Church was not such as would have been expected from the desperate nature of the deed. It is true that the wildness of his long hair and the lack of spruceness in his costume constituted a breach of etiquette on which the authorities necessarily looked with disfavour; yet there was something in the vivid animation of his expressive features, the mingled firmness and gentleness of his manner and gestures, and his tall, yet bent and fragile figure, that would have been distinctly prepossessing and attractive, even to the minds of college deans and proctors, could it have been dissociated from their abhorrence of his pernicious views. As he would neither disown the authorship of the obnoxious publication, nor answer any questions on the subject, a sentence of expulsion was at once pronounced ; and Hogg's generous intervention only resulted in his sharing the same fate.

The two friends left Oxford for London on the next morning, and it has been significantly recorded by one who was present on the occasion that "no one regretted their departure." It was a departure that has been regretted by many persons in later years; but at the time it must have seemed almost unavoidable, and no blame can fairly be cast on those by whom it was decreed. They merely registered in their individual capacity one of those many sentences of anathema, which established and dominant Ohurohdom has so often fulminated, and still continues to fulminate in one form or another, against the great crime of inquiry.

Thus terminated Shelley's experiences of the education of a gentleman. Let US hope that, though he lost the crowning advantages of that highly valued process, he had gained some other instruction in the course of his boyhood and youth, which exercised a beneficial influence on his after career. But the disappointment at the time was none the less a bitter one, and the blow was severely felt. "It would seem, indeed," wrote Hogg in his "Shelley at Oxford," "to one who rightly considered the final cause of the institution of an University that all the rewards, all the honours, the most opulent foundation could accumulate would be inadequate to remunerate an individual whose thirst for knowledge was so intense, and his activity in the pursuit of it so wonderful and so unwearied." Shelley certainly looked for no reward for what was in him a natural instinct rather than a deliberate effort ; but he equally little anticipated that these very qualities would bring about his expulsion.

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