Full text of "Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Monograph"
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY
H. S. SALT
WORK AT MARLOW.
On the outskirts of the town of Great Marlow there is a small, quaint-looking house, with an inscription on the outer wall which commemorates the fact that Percy Bysshe Shelley there "lived and wrote" It is further recorded that Shelley was there visited by Lord Byron, and that the mural tablet was erected "at the instance of Sir William Robert Clayton, Bart.;" but of these two statements the former must be regarded as inaccurate, and the latter as superfluous. Here, however, during the greater part of the year 1817, lived Shelley and Mary, with their son William, and here another child, a daughter, was born in September, while Claire Clairmont, with her infant daughter, Allegra, of whom Byron was the father, was again an inmate of their household.
Shelley and Mary had been married at the close of the preceding year, and though their own union of hearts had long before been complete, yet the ceremony, "so magical in its effects," as Shelley wrote of it, was fortunately instrumental in bringing about a reconciliation with Godwin and other alienated friends. Now at last Shelley was able to settle down to something like an uninterrupted spell of thinking, reading, and writing; and the time spent at Marlow is therefore found to be one of the most interesting and important periods of his life, a year of mingled happiness and sorrow made memorable by the acquisition of life-long friendships and the creation of great and characteristic works in poetry and prose. The situation and nature of his new home were altogether favourable to the peculiarities of his mind and genius ; for living close to the best scenery of the Thames, and yet within easy reach of London, he had always the choice of complete solitude or congenial conversation. At no other time did he enjoy such free scope for carrying into effect his ideals of private life, and for giving expression to his opinions on public policy. He was never more active, more enthusiastic - in a word, more thoroughly himself — than during this final and crowning year of his residence in England.
Early in March, 1817, the good people of Marlow were somewhat scandalized by the news that Albion House was now tenanted by a strange family, the members of which were rumoured to have announced an impious determination never to go to church or mix in the ordinary local society. All sorts of unfavourable reports were quickly current respecting Mr. Shelley's antecedents, and these were in great measure confirmed, shortly after his arrival, by the statement that, at the instance of the relatives of his former wife, he had just been deprived of the custody of her two children, no less eminent a personage than Lord Chancellor Eldon having declared Mr. Shelley's conduct to have been so "highly immoral" as to incapacitate him for the duty of taking charge of his own offspring. Much interest was accordingly excited in the quiet little town by the advent of this dangerous and unprincipled young man, and some surprise was doubtless expressed that such respectable inhabitants as Mr. Peacock and Mr. Madocks should tolerate the acquaintance of one who, as it was sometimes darkly whispered, had come to Marlow with the purpose of keeping a seraglio.
The appearance, however, of the newcomer, odd though it was, did not convey the impression of any extreme wickedness or depravity to those who marked him as he hurriedly returned, bare-throated and sometimes bare-headed, from his expeditions to wood Or river; indeed, there were some who descried a singular and striking benignity in his firm yet gentle bearing, and eyes bright and wild as those of a deer. The lady, too, by whom he was often accompanied, seemed fair, and innocent and young. Then again, his extreme kindness to the distressed lace-makers of Marlow and his instant generosity to those who claimed his help soon created a strong reaction in his favour — at any rate, among the poorer classes of the town. It was felt that a gentleman who had been seen to come home bare-footed, having given his shoes to a poor woman whom he had met limping along the stony road, could not be altogether wicked, however gravely the parson might shake his head. "Every spot is sacred that he visited," — so wrote an inhabitant of Marlow forty years after Shelley's sojourn there, and the words are a worthy testimony to the utter unselfishness of his disposition and the lasting impression left by his frank and gracious benevolence.
The decision of Lord Eldon in the Chancery suit by which the Westbrooks had succeeded in depriving Shelley of the care of his daughter lanthe and his son Charles, was, perhaps, the heaviest blow of all that Shelley had to bear on account of his heretical opinions. It was a subject on which he could not easily trust himself to speak even to his nearest and dearest friends. But when the judgment of the court had been delivered, and the wretched suspense of the preceding weeks was at an end, he sought and found the best and surest consolation in those literary labours to which he was ever eager to devote himself, forgetting his private sorrows in his anxiety for the welfare of a cause. It was foreseen by Shelley, with a sagacity of political instinct which deserves to be clearly recognised at the present day, that the two great questions which must, above all others, engage the earnest attention of all lovers of liberty, were the improvement of the condition of the working classes and the social and intellectual emancipation of women.
The state of the English poor during the early years of the nineteenth century, and especially after the conclusion of the war in 1816, was in many ways pitiable, and Shelley, with his keen sympathies, clear intellect, and strong sense of justice, was the last man to shut his eyes to the true causes of social inequality and distress, as several anecdotes recorded by Hogg and other friends testify very distinctly. When he adopted the socialistic doctrines of Godwin's "Political Justice," and gave new expression to the same in his own "Notes to Queen Mab," he did this in no spirit of mere boyish bravado, but with a clear conviction from which he never afterwards swerved, although these heterodox views on the subject of property obtained him more ill-will, according to one of his biographers, than any other of his heresies.
In the two political pamphlets which he published during his residence at Marlow he now reverted to these social topics of which he had treated in "Queen Mab," and though he had long outgrown those errors of style from which his youthful poem was not wholly free, he could conscientiously assert that his opinions had been strengthened and confirmed by the experience that the years had brought him. However statesmen might temporize and learned economists split straws in their partiality for the established order of society, one writer, at any rate, the despised and calumniated "Hermit of Marlow," would go to the root of the matter in his plea for justice and freedom. "I put the thing," he wrote, " in its simplest and most intelligible shape. The labourer — he that tills the ground and manufactures cloth — is the man who has to provide, out of what he would bring home to his wife and children, for the luxuries and comforts of those whose claims are represented by an annuity of forty-four millions a year levied upon the English nation."
This fact, according to the upshot of Shelley's teaching, is the key to the right understanding of the great social problem, and until this fact is recognised and clearly faced, no true solution will be found. But, while thus insisting on the supreme importance of the question of property, Shelley was in other respects an ardent upholder of the ordinary programme of political reform then advocated by Leigh Hunt and the Radical party of the day; though he was strongly convinced of the necessity of proceeding with caution, and asserted in these same Marlow pamphlets that the enfranchisement of the people and the consequent abolition of aristocracy must be carried out by a prudent and gradual process of change.
It was in poetry, however, and not in prose, that Shelley's chief work at Marlow was effected. For now it was that he wrote his "Laon and Cythna," that great epic of free thought and free love, in which the revolutionary opinions advanced in "Queen Mab" were further developed, and the doctrine of human perfectibility, which Shelley had adopted from Godwin, was set forth in narrative and poetical form. In the character of Cythna, the heroine of the story, we have Shelley's ideal of woman as she might be in the perfect state — the free, equal, fearless companion of man, no
longer the slave of religious and conventional superstitions, but saving and cherishing all that is innocent and beautiful in life by her gospel-message of liberty and redeeming love.
It is no wonder that Shelley, with his lofty conception of the purity of woman's nature and the holiness of her mission, should have been, by a sort of magnetic attraction, an object of interest and affection to all women with whom he became acquainted. We are told by Hogg, who, it may be surmised, was the more impressed by the treatment Shelley received, owing to the contrast afforded by his own experiences, that, from the moment the poet entered a house, he excited the liveliest and warmest solicitude of all female inmates from the highest to the lowest, and that he was "often called by names of endearment as Ariel, Oberon, and spoken of by the ladies of his acquaintance as the Elfin King, the King of Faery, and under other affectionate titles".
And it is certain that the elfish traits in Shelley's youthful character had not been obliterated by the maturer qualities of philanthropist and poet; the hermit of Marlow was still essentially the same person as the elf-child of Field Place. "He took strange caprices," says the same friend and biographer, "unfounded frights and dislikes, vain apprehensions and panic terrors, and therefore he absented himself from formal and sacred engagements. He was unconscious and oblivious of times, places, persons, and seasons; and falling into some poetic vision, some day-dream, he quickly and completely forgot all that he had repeatedly and solemnly promised ; or he ran away after some object of imaginary urgency and importance, which suddenly came into his head, setting off in vain pursuit of it, he knew not whither." At Marlow he would sometimes playfully account for these strange absences and disappearances by saying that he had been raising the devil in Bisham woods; and the simple country folk might be pardoned for believing that there was something unearthly about this solitary haunter of waters and woodland places, when even his intimate friends felt a strong suspicion that he "came from the planet Mercury," or some other mysterious quarter.
It was known, too, that to escape an unwelcome visitor, or any of the wearisome ordinances of what mortals call "society," he did not hesitate to leap through an open window, or to sit a whole day with barricaded doors; since, as he himself expressed it, he was not "wretch enough" to tolerate a mere acquaintance. But there was some society of which he never tired : that of children, for instance, with whom he was always and instantly in sympathy; and especially that of the few congenial and intellectual friends who frequently visited him. First and foremost among these was the warm-hearted, noble-minded Leigh Hunt, who was linked to Shelley by a close bond of true and lasting friendship ; Peacock, Hogg, and Godwin were also visitors at Marlow; while in Leigh Hunt's house at Hampstead Shelley became acquainted with Hazlitt, Keats, and Horace Smith, for the last-named of whom he conceived a sincere affection.
Yet, dear as his friends were, there were times when, like all other men of great and original genius, Shelley felt a sense of loneliness and despondency. "I know not," he wrote in his essay on Love, "the internal constitution of other men. I see that in some external attributes they resemble me ; but when, misled by that appearance, I have thought to appeal to something in common, and unburthen my inmost soul to them, I have found my language misunderstood, like one in a distant and savage land." It had been the same at Eton, at Oxford, and during the period of his first marriage, and it was destined to be the same to the end of his life. An Ariel cannot readily be comprehended by ordinary mortals, even though he preach the gospel of love, and live according to its strictest precepts.
For it should be clearly noted that Shelley gave expression to his doctrines in practice and not only in theory, being strongly of opinion that individual self-reform is no less necessary than the abolition of legalized injustice. Simplicity of living was an essential feature of the creed which asserted that "all men are called to participate in the community of nature's gifts." To rise early; to spend the mornings in study, and the evenings in social converse; to write his poem as he drifted in his boat, or sat in some leafy haunt; to walk now and then in Peacock's company from Marlow to London, a distance of over thirty miles; to live frugally and healthily on a diet from which flesh and wine were excluded — such was Shelley's course of life during the year he spent at Marlow, and it seems a matter for regret that his stay there could not have been further prolonged.
But towards the end of 1817 a variety of reasons determined Shelley and Mary to make another change of residence early in the new year. The chief cause of their desertion of a home which they had once thought would be permanent, was probably their fear that their children, William and Clara, might be taken from them by another high-handed act of despotic bigotry ; for they had learnt by bitter experience that " in this extraordinary country, "as Leigh Hunt expressed it, "any man's children may be taken from him to-morrow, who holds a different opinion from the Lord Chancellor in faith and morals. "They desired also to migrate to a warmer climate for the sake of Shelley's health, and by withdrawing for a time to a more secluded region, to be able to curtail their expenses, which had been rendered heavy of late by the too numerous loans to friends and relatives ; while a further object was to aid Claire Clairmont in taking her child Allegra to Byron.
After much consideration, it was decided that all these conditions would be best fulfilled by their undertaking a journey to Italy.
Chapter 9 | Index