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

Full text of "Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Monograph"





At Venice, in the autumn of 1818, two English poets, each of whom offered very striking points of contrast to the other in appearance, character, opinions, and mode of life, were spending much time together in daily conversations and rides along the sandy flat of the Lido. These poets were Byron and Shelley, the former of whom was then living in a palace on the Grand Canal, while the latter was on a visit to Venice, having preceded his wife in their wanderings through Northern Italy. Both poets were exiles from their native land on account of their insults to the great social fetish of Respectability, but except for this bond of union there was little in common between them — the one a professed cynic, a votary of pride, scepticism, and libertinism; the other an enthusiastic believer in the perfectibility of man and the gospel of purity, gentleness, and love.

"In the forehead and head of Byron," says the author of a description which has been often and deservedly quoted, " there was a more massive power and breadth; Shelley's had a smooth, arched, spiritual expression; wrinkles there seemed none on his brow; it was as if perpetual youth had there dropped its freshness. Byron's eye seemed the focus of lust and pride; Shelley's was mild, pensive, fixed on you, but seeing through the mist of its own idealism. Defiance curled Byron's nostril, and sensuality steeped his full, large lips; the lower portions of Shelley's face were frail, feminine, and flexible. Byron's head was turned upwards, as if, having proudly risen above his contemporaries, he were daring to claim kindred or to demand a contest with a superior order of beings ; Shelley's was half bent in reverence and humility before some vast vision seen by his eye alone. In the portrait of Byron, taken at the age of nineteen, you see the unnatural age of premature passion; his hair is grey, his dress is youthful, but his face is old. In Shelley you see the eternal child, none the less because the hair is grey, and that sorrow seems half his immortality."

It might well have been thought that Byron, the haughty misanthrope and man of the world, would scorn the gentle and disinterested idealist whose creed must have seemed to him so strange and unintelligible. But this was not the case; for Byron had discovered two years before in Switzerland what he now again realized at Venice, that there was a strength and sincerity in Shelley's nature, — "genius joined to simplicity" was his own expression, — which was quite unlike anything he had seen in other men, and against which he felt neither inclination nor power to employ the shafts of ill-natured sarcasm or invective. It was not Byron's habit to be too sparing or scrupulous in his remarks on friend or foe ; but it is said that against Shelley he never uttered a word of detraction ; while in their personal intercourse he treated his opinion with marked and unusual deference. It was a notable tribute of admiration and respect, paid almost unconsciously by a proud and faulty spirit to one whom he secretly and instinctively felt to be his own superior, whatever might be the verdict of contemporary opinion. "If people only appreciated Shelley, where should I be?" was Byron's remark; and the words spoken playfully at the time of utterance have much significance when looked back to by later generations of readers.

With the exception of this visit to Byron, of which "Julian and Maddalo" was the poetical record, Shelley's first year in Italy was a time of comparative loneliness and temporary cessation from literary labour. Accompanied by Mary and Claire, whose daughter Allegra was transferred to Byron's charge soon after their arrival in Italy, he visited Milan, Leghorn, Lucca, Rome, Naples, and other cities, but found no congenial resting-place in which to make a home such as that he had made at Marlow.

The winter, which was spent at Naples, left Shelley in a state of unusual dejection and despondency. His daughter Clara had died in the preceding autumn; and at Naples there died also, if report be true, a certain mysterious and enamoured lady, who had made avowal of her love for the author of "Queen Mab " on the eve of his departure for Switzerland in 1816, and had since followed him from place to place with faithful but hopeless affection.

Such anecdotea as this, amounting to quite a list of secret perils, attempted assassinations, strange occurrences, and supernatural portents, of which the authenticity can neither be proved nor disproved, must be classed among the apocrypha rather than the history of Shelley's life ; but they at least indicate the sense of romance with which that life was surrounded, and the inclination of Shelley's intimate friends to regard him as an incomprehensible being, scarcely subject to the usual laws of space and time, of whom many things might be credited which are held to be incredible in the case of ordinary men.

There was, unhappily, no doubt about the reality of the blow which overtook Shelley and Mary on their visit to Rome in the following year; for in the early summer their only remaining child, William, died of a fever. This crowning sorrow, coming at a time when Shelley regarded himself, not without reason, as "hunted by calamity," "an exile and a Pariah," who could name at the most five individuals to whom he did not appear a prodigy of crime, might well have been expected to put a final close to all literary hopes and aspirations. But it was not so ; for the same indomitable spirit which had carried him through the chancery suit, by which he had suffered an even heavier loss — the loss inflicted by the tyranny of man being more grievous than that dealt by the mysterious providence of nature — did not desert him now. The life in Italy, lonely, unhappy, almost desultory though it had hitherto been, was nevertheless acting like the summer warmth to ripen and bring to maturity the thoughts that were germinating in his mind; and the year 1819 accordingly witnessed the creation of his most characteristic and triumphant works. It was not as an idle tourist that Shelley had become familiar with the aspect of Alps and Apennines, with the Italian sky and the Italian waters, and with the glories of such cities as Milan, Venice, Naples, and Rome; the land of ideal scenery could not fail to foster
and stimulate the most idealistic genius with which poet was ever endowed.

Now were written the best and most vivid of the letters from Italy, which, for richness of colour, combined with perfect grace and naturalness of expression, have never been surpassed by those of any Englishman who has taken up his pen in a foreign land to describe what he saw and felt; now, too, was written the great tragedy of "The Cenci," pre-eminently the finest and most remarkable of all modern English dramas. But the chief production of this period, and, indeed, of Shelley's manhood, was the lyrical drama entitled "Prometheus Unbound," that splendid vision of the ultimate emancipation of humanity from the oppression of custom; the third and crowning part of that glorious trinity of poems which Shelley devoted to the purpose of showing how the world may be regenerated by the power of love. The sonorous rhetoric of "Queen Mab," and the polemic narrative of "Laon and Cythna," were now succeeded and perfected by the solemn idealistic harmonies of "Prometheus Unbound."

There is a legend told of one of Shelley's ancestors, which may perhaps be considered as allegorical and prefigurative of this great humanitarian trilogy. "Sir Guyon de Shelley," says Hogg, "one of the most famous of the Paladins, carried about with him at all times three conchs, fastened to the inside of his shield, tipt respectively with brass, with silver, and with gold. When he blew the first shell, all giants, however huge, fled before him. When he put the second to his lips, all spells were broken, all enchantments dissolved ; and when he made the third conch, the golden one, vocal, the law of God was immediately exalted, and the law of the devil annulled and abrogated, wherever the potent sound reached."

Was Shelley thinking of this golden conch when he described, in his great poem, that "mystic shell" from which is sounded the trumpet-blast of universal freedom? For truly such a trumpet-blast, to those who have ears to hear and hearts to understand it, may be said to ring through every passage of "Prometheus Unbound."

It was in the autumn of this same year, after the completion of his great work, that Shelley once more reverted to those political subjects of which he had treated in his Marlow pamphlets, deserting, to quote his own words, "the odorous gardens of literature, to journey across the great sandy desert of politics." The time was an anxious and critical one, the bitter class-strife under which England had long been suffering having culminated on August 16th in the famous "Peterloo" massacre, when the soldiers fired on the unarmed people at a reform meeting near Manchester — the darkest hour, perhaps, of all the dark and disgraceful period of the Regency. Shelley, who, in spite of his absence in Italy, continued throughout to take a deep interest in English politics, now conceived the notion of writing a series of political poems ; but though some of these were written and even forwarded to Leigh Hunt, they were not published till many years afterwards; while his "Philosophical View of Reform," a prose essay written about the same time, is to this day known only by excerpts and paraphrases.

In all these writings Shelley never fails to enforce what he regarded as the central fact of the situation, that it is social and not only political reform that is needed to avert a terrible revolution ; wealth on the one hand and want on the other being the two fertile causes of discord and misery. In the "Masque of Anarchy," that "flaming robe of verse," as Leigh Hunt called it, he distinctly asserted that real liberty cannot exist in a country where there is penury and starvation ; while in the stirring lines, "To the Men of England," we find the true socialist doctrine thus admirably and tersely expressed : —

"The seed ye sow another reaps;
The wealth ye find another keeps;
The robes ye weave another wears;
The arms ye forge another bears.

Sow seed — but let no tyrant reap;
Find wealth — let no impostor heap;
Weave robes — let not the idle wear;
Forge arms — in your defence to bear."

But this defence was to be, according to Shelley's teaching, as far as possible a passive and constitutional protest. He had imbibed Godwin's strong abhorrence of any violent or revolutionary outbreak, and believed that it would be better and wiser to postpone even the attainment of reforms which are otherwise desirable, such as universal suffrage and the abolition of aristocracy, rather than to risk the stability of a righteous cause by any immature attempt at establishing a republic. It was because he aimed at a complete but bloodless revolution that he distrusted and deprecated much of the teaching of Cobbett and his followers, in whose speeches he detected too many traces of the spirit of revenge.

On the other hand, he did not disguise the fact that if the aristocracy and plutocracy set themselves stubbornly and persistently against the gradual introduction of reforms, a forcible reformation, would eventually become both necessary and justifiable. "I imagine," he says, "that before the English nation shall arrive at that point of moral and political degradation now occupied by the Chinese, it will be necessary to appeal to an exertion of physical strength." The reforms to which Shelley pointed as most essential to further progress are the abolition of the national debt, the disbanding of the regular army, the institution of a system of free justice instead of the present legal anomalies, and the concession of complete liberty of thought and language.

During the latter half of 1819, the year in which these various works were produced, Shelley and Mary, having left Borne after the death of their child, were living at Leghorn and Florence, with Claire Clairmont still in their company. At Florence another son was born on November 12th, and was named Percy Florence. This event did much to raise the drooping spirits of both parents; and as it was felt that a more settled mode of life was now desirable, both for the infant's sake and for Shelley's health, which was affected by severe periodical attacks of spasms, the exact cause of which was never satisfactorily determined, they decided to take up their abode at Pisa, that place being especially recommended on account of the purity of the water. They accordingly left Florence early in the new year, and journeyed by boat down the river Arno to Pisa.

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