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Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1792-1822
(text from the 1st edition, 1883 )
That a principle of profound significance for the welfare of our own species in particular, and for the peaceful harmony of the world in general - that is a true spiritualism, of which some of the most admirable of the poets of the pre-Christian ages proved themselves not unconscious, has been, for the most part, altogether overlooked or ignored by modern aspirants to poetic fame os matter for our gravest lament. Thomson, Pope, Shelley, Lamartine - to whom Milton, perhaps, may be added - these form a small band who almost alone represent, and have developed the earlier inspiration of a Hesiod, Ovid, or Virgil, the prophet-poets who, faithful to their proper calling, (1) have sought to unbarbarise and elevate human life by arousing, in various degree, feelings of horror and aversion from the prevailing materialism of living.
Of this illustrious band, and, indeed, of all the great intellectual and moral luminaries who have shed a humanising influence upon our planet - who have left behind them "thoughts that breathe and words that burn" - none can claim more reverence from humanitarians than the poet of poets - the influence of whose life and writings, considerable even now, and gradually increasing, doubtless in a not remote future is destined to be equal to that of the very foremost of the world's teachers, and of whom our sketch, necessarily limited though it is, will be extended beyond the usual allotted space.
Percy Bysshe Shelley descended from an old and wealthy family long settled in Sussex. At the age of 13 he was sent to Eton, where (such was the spirit of the public and other schools at that time, and, indeed of long afterwards) he was subjected to severe trials of endurance by the rough and rude manners of the ordinary schoolboy, and the harsh and unequal violence of the schoolmaster. Of an exceptionally refined and sensitive temperament, he was none the less determined in resistance to injustice and oppression, and his refusal to submit tamely to their petty tyrannies seems to have brought upon him more than the common amount of harsh treatment. It penetrated into his inmost soul, and inspired the opening stanzas of "The Revolt of Islam," in intensity of feeling seldom equalled. Some alleviation of these sufferings of childhood he found in his own mental resources. For his amusement he translated, we are assured, several books of the Natural History of Pliny. Of Greek writers he even then (in an English version) read Plato, who afterwards, in his own language, always remained one of his chief literary companions, and he applied himself also to the study of French and of German. In natural science, Chemistry seems to have been his special pursuit.
In 1810, at the age of seventeen, he entered University College, Oxford. There he studied and wrote unceasingly. With a strong predilection for metaphysics, he devoted himself in particular to the great masters of dialectics, Locke and Hume, and to their chief representatives in french philosophy. Ardent and enthusiastic in the pursuit of truth, he sought to enlarge his knowledge and ideas from every possible quarter, and he engaged in correspondence with distinguished persons, suggested to him by choice or chance, with whom he discussed the most interesting philosophical questions. Like all truly fruitful minds, the youthful inquirer was not satisfied with the dicta of mere authority, or with the consensus, however general, of past ages, and he hesitated not, in matters of opinion in which every well-instructed intelligence is capable of judging for itself, to bring to the test of right reason the most widely-received dogmas of Antiquity. Actuated by this spirit, rather than by any matured convictions, and wishing to elicit sincere as well as exhaustive argument on the deepest of all metaphysical inquiries, in an unfortunate moment for himself, he caused to be printed an abstract of anti-theistic speculations, drawn from David Hume and other authorities, presented in a series of mathematically-expressed propositions. Copies of this modest thesis of two pages were sent either by the author, or by some other hand, to the heads of his College. The clerical dignitaries, listening to the dictates of outraged authority, rather than influenced by calm reflection, which would have, perhaps,shewn them the useless injustice of so extreme a measure, proceeded at once to expel him from the University. (2)
That in spite of this impetuous attack upon the stereotyped presentations of Theism, Shelley had an eminently religious temperament has been well insisted upon by a recent biographer :-
"Brimming over with love for men, he was deficient in sympathy with the conditions under which they actually think and feel. Could he but dethrone the anarch, Custom, the 'Millennium,' he argued, would immediately arrive; nor did he stop to think how different was the fibre of his own soul from that of the unnumbered multitudes around him. In his adoration of what he recognised as living, he retained no reverence for the ossified experience of past ages. . . . For he had a vital faith, and this faith made the ideals he conceived seem possible - faith in the duty and desirability of overthrowing idols; faith in the gospel of liberty, fraternity, equality; faith in the divine beauty of Nature; faith in the perfectibility of man; faith in the omnipresent soul, whereof our souls are atoms; faith in love, as the ruling and co-ordinating substance of morality. The man who lived by this faith was in no vulgar sense of the word 'atheist.' When he proclaimed himself to be one he pronounced his hatred of a gloomy religion which had been the instrument of kings and priests for the enslavement of their fellowbeings, As he told his friend Trelawny, he used the word Atheism 'to express his abhorrence of superstition : he took it up, as a knight took up a gauntlet, in defiance of injustice.' " (3)
So thorough was his contempt for mere received and routine thought, that even Aristotle, the great idol of the mediæval schoolmen, and still an object of extraordinary veneration in the elder University, became for him a kind of synonym or despotic authority :-
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . "Tomes
Of reasoned Wrong glozed on by Ignorance" -
and was, accordingly, treated with undue neglect. As for politics, as represented in the parliament and public Press of his day, he was indignantly impatient of the too usual trifling and unreality of public life. He seldom read the newspapers; nor could he ever bring himself to mix with the "rabble of the House."
Thus, forced into antipathy to the ordinary and orthodox business of life around him, the poet withdrew himself more and more from it into his own thoughts, and hopes, and aspirations, which he communicated to his familiar friends. Some of those, however, into whose, society he chanced to be thrown, were not of a sort of mind most congenial to his own. Yet they all bear witness to his surpassing moral no less than mental constitution.
"In no individual, perhaps, was the moral sense ever more completely developed than in Shelley," says one of his most intimate acquaintances; "in no being was the perception of right and wrong more acute. As his love of intellectual pursuits was vehement, and the vigour of his genius almost celestial, so were the purity and sanctity of his life most conspicuous. . . . I have had the happiness to associate with some of the best specimens of gentleness; but (may my candour and preference be pardoned), I can affirm that Shelley was almost the only example I have yet found that was never wanting, even in the most minute particular, of the infinite and various observances of pure, entire, and perfect gentility."
This is the voluntary testimony of a friend who was not inclined to excess of praise. (4)
The sudden end of his career at Oxford had estranged him from his father, who was of a temperament the very opposite to that of the enthusiastic reformer - harsh, intolerant, and bigoted in his prejudices; and the young Shelley's marriage, shortly afterwards to Harriet Westbrook, a young girl of much beauty, but of little cultivation of mind, and in a position of life different from his own, incensed him still further. The marriage, happy enough in the beginning, proved to be an ill-assorted one, and various causes contributed to the inevitable dénouement. After a union of some three years, the marriage, by mutual consent, was dissolved. Two years later - not, it seems, in consequence of the divorce, as sometimes has been suggested - the young wife put an end to her existence - a terrible and tragic termination of an ill-considered attachment, which must have caused him the deepest pangs of grief, and which seems always, and justly, to have cast a gloomy shadow upon his future life.
brief as his career was, we can refer only to the most interesting events in it. Of these, his enthusiastic effort to arouse a bloodless revolution in Ireland, such as, if effected, might have prevented the continued miseries of that especially neglected portion of the three kingdoms, is not the least noteworthy. With his lately-married wife and her sister he was living at Keswick, when by a sudden inspiration, he resolved to cross the Channel, and engage in the work of propagating his principles of political and social reform.This was in the early part of 1812. In Dublin, where they established their head-quarters, he printed an Address to the Irish People, which, by his own hands, as well as by other agency, was distributed far and wide. In this wonderfully well-considered and reasonable manifesto, the principles laid down as necessary to success in attempting deliverance from ages of bad laws and mis-government, are as sound as the ardour and sincerity of his hopeless undertaking are unmistakable. The cosmopolitan scope of the Address appears in such passages as these :-
"Do not inquire if a man be a heretic, if he be a Quaker, or a Jew, or a Heathen, but if he be a virtuous man, if he love liberty and truth, if he wish the happiness and peace of human kind. If a man be ever so much 'a believer' and love not these things, he is a heartless hypocrite, a knave. . . . It is not a merit to tolerate, but it is a crime to be intolerant. . . . Be calm, mild, deliberate, patient. . . . Think, and talk, and discuss. . . . Be free and be happy, but first be wise and good. . . . Habits of Sobriety, Regularity, and Thought, must be entered into, and firmly resolved upon."
Truer in his perception of the radical causes and cure of national evils than most party politicians, he urged the essential need of ethical and social change, without much mere political change of parties, or increase in material wealth of some sections in the community, must be valueless in any true estimate of a nation's prosperity. Shelley also issued, in pamphlet form, Proposals for an Association - a plan for the formation of a vast society of Irish Catholics, to enforce their "emancipation" - a measure which was not brought about until twenty years later after long and vehement opposition.
Two months were devoted to this generous work; the people of Ireland did not move, and the young reformer returned to England but without abandoning his propaganda of the principles of liberty and justice. While residing in Somersetshire he published a paper entitled a Declaration of Rights, to circulate which recourse was had to ingenious methods. Four years later, in 1817, he published A Proposal for putting Reform to the Vote throughout the Kingdom. "He saw that the House of Commons did not represent the country; and acting upon his principle that Government is the servant of the Governed, he sought means for ascertaining the real will of the nation with regard to its Parliament, and for bringing the collective opinions of the population to bear upon its rulers. The plan proposed was that a large network of committees should be formed, and that by their means every individual man should be canvassed. We find here the same method of advancing reform by peaceable associations as in Ireland." At the same time, in presence of the incalculable amount of ignorance, destitution, and consequent venality of the great mass of the community - the necessary outcome of long ages of bad and selfish legislation - Universal Suffrage for the present appeared to him to be not a safe experiment. Evidence of controversial power, is his "grave and lofty" Letter to Lord Ellenborough, who had recently sentenced to imprisonment the printers of Age of Reason,
"an eloquent argument in favour of toleration and the freedom of the intellect, carrying the matter beyond the instance of legal tyranny, which occasioned its composition, and treating it with philosophical if impassioned, seriousness." (5)
Before his visit to Ireland, he had been engaged (as he tells his correspondent William Godwin) in writing An Inquiry into the Causes of the Failure of the French Revolution to Benefit Mankind. We have to lament that this Essay seems never to have been completed, since it is hardly doubtful that it would have been of unusual interest. Such was the force and activity of Shelley's intellect, as displayed in the regions of practical philosophy, at the age of twenty, and before he had given the world his first productions in poetry.
Queen Mab, written in part two years before, was finished and printed in 1813. Although it may have some of the defects of immaturity of genius, it has the charm of a genuine poetic inspiration. Intense hatred of selfish injustice and untruth in all their shapes, equally intense sympathy with all suffering, sublime faith in the ultimate triumph of Good, clothed in the language of entrancing eloquence and sublimity, are the characteristics of this unique poem. The author's depreciation of his earliest poetic attempt in after years, in a letter addressed to the Examiner, only a month before his death, strikes us as scarcely sincere, and as having been a sort of necessary sacrifice on the altar of Expediency.
In this exquisitely beautiful prophesy of a "Golden Age" to be, the fairy Queen Mab, the unembodied being who acts as his instructress and guide through the Universe, displays to his affrighted vision, in one vast panorama, the horrors of the Past and Present. She afterwards, in a glorious apocalypse, relieves his despair by revealing to him the present evil constitution of things on our planet. On the redeemed and regenerated Globe :-
. . . . "Ambiguous man! he that can know
More misery, and dream more joy than all;
Whose keen sensations thrill within his heart,
To mingle with a loftier instinct there,
Lending their power to pleasure and to pain,
Yet raising, sharpening, and refining each;
Who stands amid the ever-varying world,
The burden or the glory of the earth;
He chief perceives the change; his being notes
The gradual renovation and defines
Each movement of its progress on his mind.
* * * * *
Here now the human being stands adorning
This loveliest earth with taintless body and mind;
Blest from his birth with all bland impulses,
Which gently in his noble bosom wake
All kindly passions and all pure desires.
Him (still from hope to hope the bliss pursuing,
Which from the exhaustless store of human weal
Draws on the virtuous mind), the thoughts that rise
In time-destroying infiniteness, gift
With self-enshrined eternity, that mocks
The unprevailing hoariness of age :
And man, once fleeting o'er the transient scene,
Swift as an unremembered vision, stands
Immortal upon earth. No longer now
He slays the lamb that looks him in the face,
And horribly devours his mangled flesh,
Which, still avenging Nature's broken law,
Kindled all putrid humors in his frame -
All evil passions and all vain belief -
Hatred, despair and loathing in his mind,
The germs of misery, death, disease and crime.
. . No longer now the wingèd habitants,
That in the woods their sweet lives sing away,
Flee from the form of man.
* * * * *
All things are void of terror. Man has lost
His terrible prerogative, and stands
An equal amidst equals. Happiness
And science dawn, though late, upon the Earth.
Peace cheers the mind, health renovates the frame.
Disease and pleasure cease to mingle here,
Reason and passion cease to combat there;
Whilst each unfettered o'er the Earth extend
Their all-subduing energies, and wields
The sceptre of a vast dominion there;
Whilst every shape and mode of matter lends
Its force to the omnipotence of Mind,
Which from its dark mine drags the gem of Truth
To decorate its paradise of Peace."
In rapt vision the prophet-poet apostrophises the "New Earth":
"O happy Earth ! reality of Heaven,
To which those restless souls that ceaselessly
Throng through the human universe, aspire.
* * * * *
Of purest spirits thou pure dwelling-place,
Where care and sorrow, impotence and crime,
Languor, disease and ignorance dare not come.
O happy Earth! reality of Heaven.
. . Genius has seen thee in her passionate dreams;
And dim forebodings of thy loveliness,
Haunting the human heart, have there entwined
Those rooted hopes of some sweet place of bliss,
* * * * *
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . and the souls
That, by the paths of an aspiring change,
Have reached thy haven of perpetual Peace,
There rest from the eternity of toil,
That framed the fabric of thy perfectness."
From the Essay, in the form of a note, which he subjoined to the passage we have quoted, we extract the principal arguments :-
"Man, and the other animals whom he has afflicted with his malady or depraved by his dominion, are alone diseased. The Bison, the wild Hog, the Wolf, are perfectly exempt from malady, and invariably die either from external violence or from mature old age. But the domestic Hog, the Sheep, the Cow, the Dog, are subject to an incredible variety of distempers, and, like the corruptors of their nature, have physicians who thrive upon their miseries. The super-eminence of man is, like Satan's, the super-eminence of pain; and the majority of his species doomed to poverty, disease and crime, have reason to curse the untoward event that, by enabling him to communicate his sensations, raised him above the level of his fellow animals. But the steps that have been taken are irrevocable. The whole of human science is comprised in one question: How can the advantages of intellect and civilisation be reconciled with the liberty and pure pleasures of natural life? How can we take the benefits and reject the evils of the system which is now interwoven with the fibre of our being? I believe that abstinence from animal food and spiritous liquors would, in a great measure, capacitate us for the solution of this important question.
"It is true that mental and bodily derangements are attributable, in part, to other deviations from rectitude and nature than those which concern diet. The mistakes cherished by society respecting the connexion of the sexes, whence the misery and diseases of unsatisfied celibacy, unenjoyed prostitution, and the premature arrival of puberty, necessarily spring. The putrid atmosphere of crowded cities, the exhalations of chemical processes, the muffling of our bodies in superfluous apparel, the absurd treatment of infants - all these, and innumerable other causes, contribute their mite to the mass of human evil.
"Comparative anatomy teaches us that man resembles frugivorous animals in every thing, and carnivorous in nothing; he has neither claws wherewith to seize his prey, nor distinct and pointed teeth to tear the living fibre. A Mandarin of the first class, with nails two inches long, would probably find them alone inefficient to hold even a hare. After every subterfuge of gluttony, the bull must be degraded into the "ox", and the ram into the wether, by an unnatural and inhuman operation, that the flaccid fibre may offer a fainter resistance to rebellious nature. It is only by softening and disguising, dead flesh by culinary preparation, that it is rendered susceptible of mastication or digestion; and that the sight of its bloody juices and raw horror, does not excite intolerable loathing and disgust.
"Let the advocate of animal food, force himself to a decisive experiment on its fitness, and as Plutarch recommends, tear a living lamb with his teeth, and plunging his head into its vitals, slake his thirst with the steaming blood; when fresh from the deed of horror let him revert to the irresistible instincts of nature that would rise in judgment against it, and say, Nature formed me for such work as this. Then, and then only, would he be consistent.
"Man resembles no carnivorous animal. There is no exception, except man be one, to the rule of herbivorous animals having cellulated colons.
"The orang-outang perfectly resembles man both in the order and number of his teeth. The orang-outang is the most anthropomorphous of the ape tribe, all of which are strictly frugivorous. There is no other species of animals in which this analogy exists (6). In many frugivorous animals, the canine teeth are more pointed and distinct than those of man. The resemblance also of the human stomach to that of the orang-outang, is greater than to that of any other animal.
"The structure of the human frame then is that of one fitted to a pure vegetable diet, in every essential particular. It is true, that the reluctance to abstain from animal food, in those who have been long accustomed to its stimulus, is so great in some persons of weak minds, as to be scarcely overcome; but this is far from bringing any argument in its favour. - A lamb, which was fed for some time on flesh by a ship's crew, refused its natural diet at the end of the voyage. There are numerous instances of horses, sheep, oxen, and even wood-pigeons, having been taught to live upon flesh, until they have loathed their accustomed aliment. Young children evidently prefer pastry, oranges, apples, and other fruit, to the flesh of animals; until, by the gradual depravation of the digestive organs, the free use of vegetables has for a time produced serious inconveniences - for a time, I say, since there never was an instance wherein a change from spirituous liquors and animal food, to vegetables and pure water, has failed ultimately to invigorate the body, by rendering its juices bland and consentaneous, and to restore to the mind that cheerfulness and elasticity, which not one in fifty possess on the present system. A love of strong liquors is also with difficulty taught to infants. Almost every one remembers the wry faces, which the first glass of port produced. Unsophisticated instinct is invariably unerring; but to decide on the fitness of animal food, from the perverted appetites which its constrained adoption produces, is to make the criminal a judge in his own cause: - it is even worse, it is appealing to the infatuated drunkard in a question of the salubrity of brandy.
"Except in children there remain no traces of that instinct, which determines in all other animals what aliment is natural or otherwise, and so perfectly obliterated are they in the reasoning adults of our species, that it has become necessary to urge considerations drawn from comparative anatomy to prove that we are naturally frugivorous.
"Crime is madness. Madness is disease. Whenever the cause of disease shall be discovered, the root from which all vice and misery have so long overshadowed the globe, will lay bare to the axe. All the exertions of man, from that moment, may be considered as tending to the clear profit of his species. No sane mind in a sane body resolves upon a real crime. . . . The system of a simple diet promises no Utopian advantages. It is no mere reform of legislation, whilst the furious passions and evil propensities of the human heart, in which it had its origin, are still unassuaged. It strikes at the root of all evil, and is an experiment which may be tried with success, not alone by nations, but by small societies, families, and even individuals. In no cases has a return to vegetable diet produced the slightest injury; in most it has been attended with changes undeniably beneficial. Should ever a physician be born with the genius of Locke, I am persuaded that he might trace all bodily and mental derangements to our unnatural habits, as clearly as that philosopher has traced all knowledge to sensation. . . .
"By all that is sacred in our hopes for the human race, I conjure those who love happiness and truth, to give a fair trial to the vegetable system. Reasoning is surely superfluous on a subject, whose merits an experience of six months would set for ever at rest. But it is only among the enlightened and benevolent, that so great a sacrifice of appetite and prejudice can be expected, even though its ultimate excellence should not admit of dispute. It is found easier, by the short-sighted victims of disease, to palliate their torments by medicine, than to prevent them by regimen. The vulgar of all ranks are invariably sensual and indocile; yet I cannot but feel myself persuaded, that when the benefits of vegetable diet are mathematically proved; when it is as clear, that those who live naturally are exempt from premature death, as that nine is not one, the most sottish of mankind will feel a preference towards a long and tranquil, contrasted with a short and painful life. On the average, out of sixty persons, four die in three years. In April 1814, a statement will be given, that sixty persons, all having lived more than three years on vegetables and pure water, are then in perfect health. More than two years have now elapsed; not one of them has died; no such example will be found in any sixty persons taken at random.
"Seventeen persons of all ages (the families of Dr. Lambe and Mr. Newton) have lived for seven years on this diet, without a death and almost without the slightest illness. . . . In proportion to the number of proselytes, so will be the weight of evidence, and when a thousand persons can be produced living on vegetables and distilled water (7), who have to dread no disease but old age, the world will be compelled to regard animal flesh and fermented liquors, as slow, but certain poisons.
Shelley next insists on the incalculable benefits of a reformed diet economically, socially, and politically :-
"The monopolizing eater of animal flesh would no longer destroy his constitution by devouring an acre at a meal, and many loaves of bread would cease to contribute to gout, madness and apoplexy , in the shape of a pint of porter, or a dram of gin, when appeasing the long-protracted famine of the hard-working peasant's hungry babes. The quantity of nutritious vegetable matter, consumed in fattening the carcase of an ox, would afford ten times the sustenance, undepraving indeed, and incapable of generating disease, if gathered immediately from the bosom of the earth. The most fertile districts of the habitable globe are now actually cultivated by men for [other] animals, at a delay and waste of aliment absolutely incapable of calculation. It is only the wealthy that can, to any great degree, even now, indulge the unnatural craving for de ad flesh, and they pay for the greater licence of the privilege by subjection to supernumerary diseases. Again, the spirit of the nation that should take lead in this great reform, would insensibly become agricultural.
"The advantage of a reform in diet, is obviously greater than that of any other. It strikes at the root of the evil. To remedy the abuses of legislation, before we annihilate the propensities by which they are produced, is to suppose, that by taking away the effect, the cause will cease to operate. . . .
"Let not too much however be expected from this system. The healthiest among us is not exempt from hereditary disease. The most symmetrical, athletic, and long-lived, is a being inexpressibly inferior to what he would have been, had not the unnatural habits of his ancestors accumulated for him a certain portion of malady and deformity. In the most perfect specimen of civilized man, something is still found wanting, by the physiological critic. Can a return to nature, then, instantaneously eradicate predispositions that have been slowly taking root in the silence of innumerable ages? Indubitably not. All that I contend for is, that from the moment of the relinquishing all unnatural habits, no new disease is generated; and that the predisposition to hereditary maladies, gradually perishes, for want of its accustomed supply. In cases of consumption, cancer, gout, asthma and scrofula, such is the invariable tendency of a diet of vegetables and pure water. . . .
He concludes this philosophic discourse with an earnest appeal to the various classes of society:-
"I address myself not only to the young enthusiast: the ardent devotee of truth and virtue; the pure and passionate moralist, yet unvitiated by the contagion of the world. He will embrace a pure system, from its abstract truth, its beauty, its simplicity, and its promise of wide-extended benefit; unless custom has turned poison into food, he will hate the brutal pleasures of the chance by instinct; it will be a contemplation full of horror and disappointment to his mind, that beings capable of the gentlest and most admirable sympathies, should take delight in the death-pangs and last convulsions of dying animals.
"The elderly man, whose youth has been poisoned by intemperance, or who has lived with apparent moderation, and is afflicted with a variety of painful maladies, would find his account in a beneficial change produced without the risk of poisonous medicines. The mother, to whom the perpetual restlessness of disease, and unaccountable deaths incident to her children, are the causes of incurable unhappiness, would on this diet experience the satisfaction of beholding their perpetual health and natural playfulness (8). The most valuable lives are daily destroyed by diseases, that it is dangerous to palliate and impossible to cure by medicine. How much longer will man continue to pimp for the gluttony of death, his most insidious, implacable, and eternal foe?"
Some time after the melancholy death of his first wife, Shelley married Mary Wolstoncraft, the daughter of William Godwin, author of Political Justice - perhaps the most revolutionary of all pleas for a change in the constitution of society that has ever proceeded from a prosaic tradesman, such as, in the ordinary intercourse of life and interchange of ideas, his biography and correspondence (lately published) prove him to have been. Her mother was the celebrated and earliest advocate of the rights of women. Previously the lovers had travelled through France and part of Germany, and an account of their six weeks' tour was afterwards printed by Mrs. Shelley.
In 1815 appeared his Alastor; or the Spirit of Solitude. In 1817 he again left England for Geneva. While in Switzerland he made the acquaintance of Byron, which was renewed during his stay in Italy. In the same year he returned to this country and, after a short sojourn with Leigh Hunt, he settled a Great Marlow, one of the most picturesque parts of the Thames. There, in spite of his own ill-health, he showed the active benevolence of his character, not only in the easier form of alms-giving but also in frequent visits to the sick and destitute, at the risk of aggravating symptoms of consumption now alarmingly apparent. There too, he composed the Revolt of Islam, or, as it was originally more fitly entitled, Laon and Cythna. In this poem, by the mouth of Laone, he again expresses his humanitarian convictions and sympathies. She calls upon the enfranchised nations :-
" 'My brethren, we are free! The fruits are glowing
Beneath the stars, and the night-winds are flowing
O'er the ripe corn, the birds and beasts are dreaming--
Never again may blood of bird or beast
Stain with its venomous stream a human feast,
To the pure skies in accusation steaming;
Avenging poisons shall have ceased
...To feed disease and fear and madness,
...The dwellers of the earth and air
...Shall throng around our steps in gladness,
...Seeking their food or refuge there.
Our toil from thought all glorious forms shall cull,
To make this Earth, our home, more beautiful,
And Science, and her sister Poesy,
Shall clothe in light the fields and cities of the free.
* * * * *
Their feast was such as Earth, the general Mother,
Pours from her fairest bosom, when she smiles
In the embrace of Autumn - to each other
As when some parent fondly reconciles
Her warring children, she their wrath beguiles
With her own sustenance; they relenting weep -
Such was this Festival, which from their isles
And continents, and winds, and oceans deep,
All shapes might throng to share, that fly, or walk or creep;
Might share in peace and innocence, for gore
Or poison none this festal did pollute,
But, piled on high, an overflowing store
Of pomegranates and citrons, fairest fruit,
Melons, and dates, and figs, and many a root
Sweet and sustaining, and bright grapes ere yet
Accursed fire their mild juice could transmute
Into a mortal bane; and brown corn set
In baskets: with pure streams their thirsting lips they wet." (9)
While he was yet residing in Marlow, the Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince of Wales (afterwards King George IV.,) died; and, since her character had been in strong contrast with her father's and with royal persons' in general, her early death seems to have caused, not only ceremonial mourning, but also genuine regret amongst all in the community having any knowledge of her exceptional amiability. The poet seized the opportunity of so public an event, and published An Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte. By the Hermit of Marlow, in which he inscribed the motto - "We pity the plumage, but forget the dying bird." In this pamphlet, while paying due tribute of regret for the death of an amiable girl, and fully appreciating the sorrow caused by death as well among the destitute and obscure (with whom, indeed, the too usual absence of the care and sympathy of friends intensifies the sorrow) as among the rich and powerful, he invited, in studiously moderate language attention to the many just reasons for national mourning in the interests of the poor no less than of princes ; and, in particular, invited the nation to express its indignant grief for the fate of the Lancashire mechanics who, missing the happier fate of their brethren slaughtered at Peterloo, were subjected to an ignominious death by a government which had, by its neglect, encouraged the growth of a just discontent.
In 1818 Shelley left England, never too return. At this time was composed the principal part of his masterpiece - Prometheus Unbound, the most finished and carefully executed of all his poems. While in Rome (1819) he published The Cenci, which had been suggested to him by the famous picture of the Guido, until lately supposed to be that of Beatrice Cenci, and by the traditions, current even in the poet's time, of the cruel fate of his heroine. Shakespeare's four great dramas excepted. The Cenci must take rank as the finest tragic drama since the days of the Greek masters. It is worked up to a degree of pathos unsurpassed by anything of the kind in literature. "The Fifth Act," remarks Mrs. Shelley, his editor and commentator, "is a masterpiece. Every character has a voice that echoes truth in its tones." The Cenci was followed in quick succession by the Witch of Atlas, Adonais (an elegy on the death of Keats), the most exquisite "In Memoriam" - not excepting Milton's or Tennyson's - ever written; and Hellas, which was inspired by his strong sympathy with the Greeks, who were then engaged in the was of independence.
Of his lesser productions, the Ode to the Skylark is of an inspiration seldom equalled in its kind. With the "blythe spirit," whom he apostrophises, the poet rises in rapt ecstasy "higher still and higher." For the rest of his productions (the Letters from Italy and criticisms or rather eulogies on Greek art have an especial interest) and for the other events in his brief remaining existence we must refer our readers to the complete edition of his works. (10) The last work upon which he was engaged was his Triumph of Life, a poem in the terza rima of the Divine Comedy. It breaks off abruptly - it is peculiarly interesting to note - with the significant words, "Then what is Life, I cried?"
The manner of his death is well known. While engaged in his usual recreation of boating he was drowned in the bay of Spezia. His body was washed on to the shore and, according to regulations then in force against possible infection from the plague, it was burned where it lay, in presence of his friends Byron and Trelawney, and the ashes were entombed in the Protestant cemetery in Rome - a not unfitting disposal of the remains of one of the most spiritualised of human beings.
The following just estimate of the character of his genius and writings by a thoughtful critic, is worth reproducing here :-
"No man was more essentially a poet - 'glancing from earth to heaven.' He was, indeed, 'of imagination all compact.' . . . In all his poems he uniformly denounces vice and immorality in every form; and his descriptions of love, which are numerous, are always refined and delicate, with even less of sensuousness than in many of our most admired writers. It is true that he decried marriage, but not in favour of libertinism; and the evils he depicts, or laments, are those arising from the indissolubility of the bond, or from the opinions of society as to is necessity - opinions to which he himself submitted by marrying the woman to whom he was attached. . . . His reputation as a poet has gradually widened since his death, and has not yet reached its culminating point. He was the poet of the future - of an ideal futurity - and hence it was that his own age could not entirely sympathise with him. He has been called the 'poet of poets,' a proud title, and, in some respects, deserved." (11)
Of his creed the article which he most formally held, and which, perhaps, most distinguishes him from ordinary thinkers, was the Perfectibility of his species, and his firm faith in the ultimate triumph of Good.
"He believed," says one authority who had the best means of knowing his thought and feeling, "that mankind had only to will that there should be no evil, and there would be none. It is not my part in these notes to criticise the arguments that have been urged against this opinion, but to mention the fact that he entertained them and was, indeed, attached to it with fervent enthusiasm. That man could be so perfectionised as to be able to expel Evil from his own nature, and from the greater part of the world, was the cardinal point of his system. And the subject he liked best to dwell upon was the image of One warring with an evil principle, oppressed not only by it but by all, even the good, who were deluded into considering evil a necessary portion of humanity - a victim full of gratitude and o hope and of the spirit of triumph emanating from a reliance in the ultimate omnipotence of Good."
Such was the conviction which inspired his greatest poem The Prometheus Unbound.
A principal charm of his poetry is that which repels the common class of readers :
"He loved to idealise reality, and this is a task shared by few. We are willing to have our passing whims exalted into passions, for this gratifies our vanity. But few of us understand or sympathise with the endeavour to ally the love of abstract beauty and adoration abstract Good with sympathies with out own kind." (12)
Of so rare a spirit it is peculiarly interesting to know something of the outward form :-
"His features [describes one of his biographers] were not symmetrical - the mouth, perhaps, excepted. Yet the effect of the whole was extremely powerful. They breathed an animation, a fire, an enthusiasm, a vivid and preternatural intelligence, that I never met with in any other countenance. Nor was the moral expression less beautiful than the intellectual : for there was a softness, a delicacy, a gentleness, and especially (though this will surprise many) that air of profound religious veneration that characterises the best works, and chiefly the frescoes, of the great Masters of Florence and of Rome.
"His eyes were blue, unfathomably dark and and lustrous. His hair was brown : but very early in life it became grey, while his unwrinkled face retained to the last a look of wonderful youth. It is admitted on all sides that no adequate picture was ever painted of him. Mulready is reported to have said he was too beautiful to paint. And yet, although so singularly lovely, he owed less of his charm to regularity of feature, or to grace of movement, than to indescribable personal fascination."
As to his voice, impressions varied :-
"Like all finely-tempered natures, he vibrated in harmony with the subjects of his thought. Excitement made his utterances shrill and sharp. Deep feeling, or the sense of beauty, lowered its tone to richness; but the timbre was always acute, in sympathy with his intense temperament. All was of one piece in Shelley's nature. This peculiar voice, varying from moment to moment, and affecting different sensibilities in diverse ways, corresponds to the high-strung passion of his life, his fine drawn and ethereal fancies, and the clear vibrations of his palpitating verse. Such a voice, far-reaching, penetrating, and unearthly, befitted one who lived in rarest ether on the topmost heights of human thought." (13)
If the physical characteristics of a great Teacher or of a sublime Genius excite a natural curiosity, it is the principal moral characteristics which most reasonably and profoundly interest us. To the supremely amiable disposition of the creator of The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound brief reference has been made ; and we shall fitly supplement this imperfect sketch of his humanitarian career with the vivid impressions left on the mind of the friend who best knew him. Love of truth and hatred of falsehood and injustice were not, in his case, limited to the pages of a book, and forgotten in the too often deadening influence of intercourse with the world - they permeated his whole life and conversation.
"The qualities that struck any one newly introduced to Shelley were, first, a gentle and cordial goodness that animated his discourse with warm affection and helpful sympathy; the other, the eagerness and ardour with which he was attached to the cause of human happiness and improvement, and the fervent eloquence with which he discussed such subjects. His conversation was marked by its happy abundance, and the beautiful language in which he clothed his poetic ideas and philosophical notions. To defecate life of its misery and its evil was the ruling passion of his soul; he dedicated to it every power of his mind, every pulsation of his heart. He looked on political freedom as the direct agent to effect the happiness of mankind; and thus any new-sprung hope of liberty inspired a joy and even exultation more intense and wild than he could have felt for any personal advantage. Those who have never experienced the workings of passion on general and unselfish subjects cannot understand this; and it must be difficult of comprehension to the younger generation rising around, since they cannot remember the scorn and hatred with which the partisans of reform were regarded some few years ago, not the persecution to which they were exposed.
"Many advantages attended his birth; he spurned them all when balanced with what he considered his duties. He was generous to imprudence - devoted to heroism. These characteristics breathe throughout his poetry. The struggle for human weal; the resolution firm to martyrdom; the impetuous pursuit; the glad triumph in good; the determination not to despair . . . Perfectly gentle and for bearing in manner, he suffered a great deal of internal irritability, or rather excitement, and his fortitude to bear was almost always on the stretch; and thus, during a short life, he had gone through more experience of sensation than many whose existence is protracted. 'If I die tomorrow,' he said, on the eve of his unanticipated death, 'I have lived to be older than my father.' The weight of thought and feeling burdened him heavily. You read his feelings in his attenuated frame, while you perceived the mastery he held over them in his animated countenance and brilliant eyes.
"He died, and the world showed no outward sigh; but his influence over mankind, though slow in growth, is fast augmenting; and in the ameliorations that have taken place in the political state of his country we may trace, in part, the operation of his arduous struggles. . . . He died, and his place among those who knew him intimately has never been filled up. He walked beside them like a spirit of good to comfort and benefit - to enlighten the darkness of life with irradiations of genius, to cheer with his sympathy and love." (14)
- Poeta, in its original Greek meaning, marks out a creator of new, and, therefore (it is presumed) true ideas.
- Compare the fate of Gibbon, who, at the same age, found himself an outcast from the University for a very opposite offence - for having embraced the dogmas of Catholicism. (See Memoirs of my Life and Writings, by Edw. Gibbon.) The future historian of The Decline and Fall, it may be added, speedily returned to protestantism, though not to that of his preceptors.
- Shelley. By J. A. Symonds. Macmillan, 1887.
- Hogg's Life of Shelley. Moxon (1858)
- Shelley. By J. A. Symonds.
- Cuvier's Leçons d'Anatomie Comp., Tom III., pages 169, 443, 465, 480. Rees' Cyclop., Art Man.
- Inasmuch as at this moment there are in this country more than two thousand persons of all classes, very many for thirty or forty years strict abstinents from flesh-meat, enrolled members of the Vegetarian Society (not to speak of probably large number of isolated individual abstinents scattered throughout these islands, who, for whatever reason, have no attached themselves to the Society), and that there have long been Anti-flesh eating Societies in America and in Germany, the à fortiori argument in the present instance will be allowed to be of double weight.
- "See Mr. Newton's Book [Return to Nature. Cadell, 1811.] His children are the most beautiful and healthy creatures it is possible to conceive. The girls are perfect models for a sculptor; their dispositions are also the most gentle and concilliating. The judicious treatment they receive may be a correlative cause of this. In the first five years of their life, of 18,000 children that are born, 7,500 die of various diseases - and how many more that survive are rendered miserable by maladies not immediately mortal! The quality and quantity of a mother's milk are materially injured by the use of dead flesh. On an island near Iceland, where no vegetables are to be got, the children invariably die of tetanus, before they are three weeks old, and the population is supplied from the mainland.- Sir G. Mackenzie's History of Iceland - note by Shelley."
- Revolt of Islam. v. 51, 55, 56....
- Lately given to the world by Mr. Forman who has carefully collated and printed from Shelley's MSS.
- English Cyclopedia
- Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Edited by Mrs. Shelley. Moxon.
- Shelley. By J. A. Symonds.
- See preface to The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Edited by Mrs. Shelley. New edition. London, 1869. The increasing reputation of Shelley is proved, at the present time, by the increasing number of editions of his writings, and by the increasing number of thoughtful criticisms and biographies of the poet, by some of the most cultured minds of the day. Since the time, indeed, when a popular writer but sometimes rash critic, with condemnable want of discernment and still more condemnable prejudice, so egregiously misrepresented to his readers the character as well as of the poet as of his poems - which latter, nevertheless, he was constrained to admit to be the most "melodious" of all English poetry excepting Shakespere, and (their "utopian" inspiration apart) the most "perfect" - (Thoughts on Shelley and Byron, by Rev. C. Kingsley, "Fraser," 1853,) the pre-eminence of the poet, both morally and aesthetically, has been sufficiently established.
- Shelley - a large collection of articles, complete old books etc.
Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index