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

Full text of "Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Monograph"





It was a strange party that started from Godwin's house in the early dawn of that memorable summer morning — Shelley, with his eager eyes and wild elfish appearance; Mary, even at that early age, calm and sedate in manner, and noticeable for her fair hair and high, tablet-like forehead; and Claire Clairmont, Godwin's stepdaughter, a lively, quick-eyed brunette, whose whim it was to accompany them in their adventures abroad.

To baffle pursuit by driving in a fleet post-chaise to Dover; to cross the channel in an open boat, at the imminent risk of their lives; to purchase an ass at Paris, on which they might ride in turn during the onward journey to Switzerland; to despatch a letter to Harriet, with a suggestion, made in all sincerity and good faith, that she too should join the party as friend and guest; to hire a house for six months on the shore of the lake of Lucerne, and then to leave it after two days' sojourn; to travel homewards in public boats and fragile canoes down the Reuss and the Rhine; and to reach England with scarcely a crown in their purse after a "six weeks' tour" — these were a few of the incidents in what was perhaps the strangest and most romantic honeymoon ever vouchsafed by guardian sprites to mortal lovers.

But the months that followed this brief dream of happiness were, like those that had preceded it, a time of trouble and anxiety; and it may be doubted if Shelley could ever have fought his way through the dreary close of this most trying year, had he not now been cheered and supported by the knowledge that he possessed the love and sympathy of a gifted and intellectual woman. It was this that alone could compensate him for the changed looks of shocked and alienated friends; for the coldness of Godwin, who bitterly resented the step his daughter had taken in connecting herself with Shelley ; for the accumulation of debts, and the persecution of duns, which rendered life in London almost unbearable towards the end of the year; and, above all, for the pain of the occasional interviews with Harriet, whom he still continued to visit and advise.

Yet, in spite of the many trials which had to be undergone during this period of probation, Shelley's alliance with Mary Godwin was nothing less to him than the beginning of a new moral and intellectual life. It was not merely that through Mary's companionship and inspiration, his mind, which was always delicately balanced between hopefulness and despondency, was now again filled with reviving hope; but henceforth, partly from the experience gained in the past, and partly from the more stimulating influence of his new surroundings, he seemed to have entered on a larger and fuller existence, with wider views of man and nature, and more wisdom in his manner of promoting the doctrines which he still had at heart.

Repeated failure and disappointment had made him realize the folly of expecting that any immediate and tangible success would crown his appeal from Prejudice to Reason; yet his enthusiasm, so far from being dimmed and lessened by this knowledge, was, on the contrary, clarified and elevated. Instead of trusting to the barren study of argumentation and dialectics, he now made love and humanity the watch-words of his faith; and by a natural connection it was about this period that he finally abandoned the cold tenets of the materialistic creed, and adopted the ideal philosophy of Plato and Berkeley. Very important, too, in the strong impression left on Shelley's mind, and powerfully affecting his subsequent writings, was his recent visit, in the six weeks' tour, to the mighty mountains and rivers of the Continent, the first sight of the Alps and the Rhine being to him a new revelation of the holiness and majesty of Nature.

With the opening of the new year, Shelley was relieved from the pressing, pecuniary cares by which he had so long been harassed. At the death of his grandfather, old Sir Bysshe, on January 6th, 1815, he became the immediate heir to the estates, and henceforth received an annual income of £1000. He had, moreover, the option of largely increasing the property to which he would succeed on his father's death, if he were now willing to agree to a perpetual entail; but he refused this, as he had refused a similar offer three years previously, on the ground that he could not fairly and conscientiously entail so great a "command over labour" on those who might use the power thus given for purposes of injustice or oppression.

In the summer and autumn of 1815 we see him settled awhile at Bishopsgate, on the border of Windsor Forest, and within reach of the Thames, where he enjoyed a period of greater happiness and tranquillity than had fallen to his lot for a long time past; and accordingly he now began once more to devote himself to literary work. His poem "Alastor," written under the oaks of Windsor Forest, was the first proof that he undoubtedly possessed the essential qualities of a great poet; he was also busy about this time with a series of prose writings, of which the "Essay on Christianity" is the most important, as showing the profound respect felt for the teaching of Christ by one who believed the spirit of established Christianity to be wholly at variance with that of its founder.

But it is noticeable that a tone of pensive melancholy pervades most of Shelley's writings of this date; his sufferings, physical and mental, had seriously undermined his health, and in the early months of this year the danger of consumption had compelled him to look death closely in the face. A sorrowful reminiscence, a legacy of despondency left from past calamities, was thus found to give a slightly morbid tinge to work which was in reality done under circumstances of unusual restfulness and prosperity; but this dejection was soon to pass away, together with the particular symptoms of ill-health in which it originated. The close of Shelley's and Mary's stay at Bishopsgate was made memorable to them by the birth of their son William, the "delightful child" to whom some of Shelley's most beautiful and pathetic verses were afterwards dedicated.

At the approach of the next summer, Shelley and Mary, again accompanied by Claire Clairmont, started on a second visit to Switzerland, and there spent three months in the neighbourhood of Geneva. Here they became closely associated with Byron, with whom Claire, unknown to her friends, had already formed an acquaintance in London during the previous year; and the two poets, unlike in all else, but sworn allies in their revolt against the formalities of society, spent many long days together in the region which Rousseau's genius had immortalized. Water excursions by day, in which Shelley gratified to the full that passion for boating which he had already acquired on the Thames, and the telling of ghost-stories by night, from which Mary Shelley's novel, "Frankenstein," originated, made the months pass pleasantly enough until their return to England in September.

Then again, as after their six weeks' tour in 1814, there awaited them a time of sorrow and calamity, two heavy blows falling in rapid succession. The first of these was the suicide of Fanny Imlay (known as Fanny Godwin in her step-father's household), the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft by a previous marriage, and therefore the half-sister of Mary Shelley. Her gentle and unselfish disposition had endeared her greatly to Shelley as well as to Mary, and her death was long a severe grief to him, not to be obliterated by the still heavier shock that was to follow. "My airy elf, how unlucky you are! "wrote Mary to Shelley, during a brief absence in December of the same year; but the writer of these words little knew that Fanny's suicide had already been followed by that of Harriet Shelley. At the very time when Shelley was vainly searching for her in London, Harriet had drowned herself in the Serpentine, thus realizing in sad earnest a suicidal purpose of which she had been in the habit of speaking lightly in her youthful days.

It was a dark and terrible ending to that ill-omened marriage, for the commencement of which Shelley was in part, though not wholly, to blame; but unless we are prepared to hold that an acquiescence in one rash and foolish act involves a responsibility for the whole train of consequences that results therefrom, we cannot fix any guilt on Shelley's head for the conclusion of the tragedy. In the whole matter of the separation from Harriet he had acted conscientiously, deliberately, and with due consideration for Harriet's interests as well as his own. He had sacrificed his own wish to keep the two children, out of deference to her earnest entreaty that they should be left with her; he had visited her from time to time, and made her an ample pecuniary provision. Cruelly, then, though he felt the shock of this death, which, as Leigh Hunt has recorded, "tore his being to pieces," he yet had the consolation of knowing that his own conscience acquitted him of any sense of guilt, "I am innocent," he solemnly declared in a letter written four years later, "of ill either done or intended; the consequences you allude to flowed in no respect from me."

It is obvious that the maxim de mortuis nil nisi honum has been stretched to the utmost in the case of Harriet Shelley, and that there has been too much disposition on the part of Shelley's biographers to overlook the truth, well stated by De Quincey, that "on this principle, in cases innumerable, tenderness to the dead would become the ground of cruel injustice to the living; nay, the maxim would continually counterwork itself, for too inexorable a forbearance with regard to one dead person would oftentimes effectually close the door to the vindication of another."

Let Shelley take his just share of the blame, whatever that may be; but let us not be so hypocritical as to affect to believe that the conduct of Harriet after the separation has no bearing on the vexed question as to her conduct before it. Pity we must all feel for her sad fate ; but it cannot be denied that the adverse view of her character, which is suggested by Shelley's veiled references to the cause of the separation, and by his conviction of her unfaithfulness, receives additional significance from the ascertained fact that she sank into a degraded and vicious way of living at a time when she was quite secure from pecuniary want, when she had her children with her, and could count on the protection of both her husband and her father.

It was owing to the remorse that sprang from this self-inflicted degradation, and the knowledge that her father's doors would henceforth be closed against her, that, in a fit of desperation, she put an end to her life. So good an opportunity for blasting the reputation of one who was in revolt against society was not likely to be lost. Malignant slanders were soon afloat, and sedulously propagated by respectable and venerable calumniators. Hence arose the lying fiction, long prevalent and not yet wholly extinct, that Shelley, by his cruel desertion and shameless immorality, had caused the death of an innocent and affectionate wife.

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