Early in April the Shelleys arrived in London, where they were soon joined by Eliza, from whose increasingly irksome companionship the poet had recently enjoyed a few weeks’ respite. After living for a short while in hotels, they took lodgings in Half Moon Street. The house had a projecting window, where the poet loved to sit with book in hand, and catch, according to his custom, the maximum of sunlight granted by a chary English summer. “He wanted,” said one of his female admirers, “only a pan of clear water and a fresh turf to look like some young lady’s lark, hanging outside for air and song.” According to Hogg, this period of London life was a pleasant and tranquil episode in Shelley’s troubled career. His room was full of books, among which works of German metaphysics occupied a prominent place, though they were not deeply studied. He was now learning Italian, and made his first acquaintance with Tasso, Ariosto, and Petrarch.
The habits of the household were, to say the least, irregular; for Shelley took no thought of sublunary matters, and Harriet was an indifferent housekeeper. Dinner seems to have come to them less by forethought than by the operation of divine chance; and when there was no meat provided for the entertainment of casual guests, the table was supplied with buns, procured by Shelley from the nearest pastry-cook. He had already abjured animal food and alcohol; and his favourite diet consisted of pulse or bread, which he ate dry with water, or made into panada. Hogg relates how, when he was walking in the streets and felt hungry, he would dive into a baker’s shop and emerge with a loaf tucked under his arm. This he consumed as he went along, very often reading at the same time, and dodging the foot-passengers with the rapidity of movement which distinguished him. He could not comprehend how any man should want more than bread. “I have dropped a word, a hint,” says Hogg, “about a pudding; a pudding, Bysshe said dogmatically, is a prejudice.” This indifference to diet was highly characteristic of Shelley. During the last years of his life, even when he was suffering from the frequent attacks of a painful disorder, he took no heed of food; and his friend, Trelawny, attributes the derangement of his health, in a great measure, to this carelessness. Mrs. Shelley used to send him something to eat into the room where he habitually studied; but the plate frequently remained untouched for hours upon a bookshelf, and at the end of the day he might be heard asking, “Mary, have I dined?” His dress was no less simple than his diet. Hogg says that he never saw him in a great coat, and that his collar was unbuttoned to let the air play freely on his throat. “In the street or road he reluctantly wore a hat; but in fields and gardens, his little round head had no other covering than his long, wild, ragged locks.” Shelley’s head, as is well known, was remarkably small and round; he used to plunge it several times a day in cold water, and expose it recklessly to the intensest heat of fire or sun. Mrs. Shelley relates that a great part of the Cenci was written on their house-roof near Leghorn, where Shelley lay exposed to the unmitigated ardour of Italian summer heat; and Hogg describes him reading Homer by a blazing fire-light, or roasting his skull upon the hearth-rug by the hour.
These personal details cannot be omitted by the biographer of such a man as Shelley. He was an elemental and primeval creature, as little subject to the laws of custom in his habits as in his modes of thought, living literally as the spirit moved him, with a natural nonchalance that has perhaps been never surpassed. To time and place he was equally indifferent, and could not be got to remember his engagements. “He took strange caprices, 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. When he was caught, brought up in custody, and turned over to the ladies, with, Behold, your King! to be caressed, courted, admired, and flattered, the king of beauty and fancy would too commonly bolt; slip away, steal out, creep off; unobserved and almost magically he vanished; thus mysteriously depriving his fair subjects of his much-coveted, long looked-for company.” If he had been fairly caged and found himself in congenial company, he let time pass unheeded, sitting up all night to talk, and chaining his audience by the spell of his unrivalled eloquence; for wonderful as was his poetry, those who enjoyed the privilege of converse with him, judged it even more attractive. “He was commonly most communicative, unreserved, and eloquent, and enthusiastic, when those around him were inclining to yield to the influence of sleep, or rather at the hour when they would have been disposed to seek their chambers, but for the bewitching charms of his discourse.”
From Half Moon Street the Shelleys moved into a house in Pimlico; and it was here, according to Hogg, whose narrative can probably be relied on in this matter, that Shelley’s first child, Ianthe Eliza, was born about the end of June, 1813. Harriet did not take much to her little girl, and gave her over to a wet-nurse, for whom Shelley conceived a great dislike. That a mother should not nurse her own baby was no doubt contrary to his principles; and the double presence of the servant and Eliza, whom he now most cordially detested, made his home uncomfortable. We have it on excellent authority, that of Mr. Peacock, that he “was extremely fond of it (the child), and would walk up and down a room with it in his arms for a long time together, singing to it a song of his own making, which ran on the repetition of a word of his own coining. His song was Yáhmani, Yáhmani, Yáhmani, Yáhmani.” To the want of sympathy between the father and the mother in this matter of Ianthe, Mr. Peacock is inclined to attribute the beginning of troubles in the Shelley household. There is, indeed, no doubt that the revelation of Harriet’s maternal coldness must have been extremely painful to her husband; and how far she carried her insensibility, may be gathered from a story told by Hogg about her conduct during an operation performed upon the child.
During this period of his sojourn in London, Shelley was again in some pecuniary difficulties. Yet he indulged Harriet’s vanity by setting up a carriage, in which they afterwards took a hurried journey to Edinburgh and back. He narrowly escaped a debtor’s prison through this act of extravagance, and by a somewhat ludicrous mistake Hogg was arrested for the debt due to the coachmaker. His acquaintances were few and scattered, and he saw nothing of his family. Gradually, however, he seems to have become a kind of prophet in a coterie of learned ladies. The views he had propounded in Queen Mab, his passionate belief in the perfectibility of man, his vegetarian doctrines, and his readiness to adopt any new nostrum for the amelioration of the race, endeared him to all manners of strange people; nor was he deterred by aristocratic prejudices from frequenting society which proved extremely uncongenial to Hogg, and of which we have accordingly some caustic sketches from his pen. His chief friends were a Mrs. Boinville, for whom he conceived an enthusiastic admiration, her sister Mrs. Newton, and her daughter Cornelia, Mrs. Turner. In order to be near them he had moved to Pimlico; and his next move, from London to a cottage named High Elms, at Bracknell, in Berkshire, had the same object. With Godwin and his family he was also on terms of familiar intercourse. Under the philosopher’s roof in Skinner Street there was now gathered a group of miscellaneous inmates — Fanny Imlay, the daughter of his first wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary, his own daughter by the same marriage; his second wife, and her two children, Claire and Charles Clairmont, the offspring of a previous union. From this connexion with the Godwin household events of the most serious import in the future were destined to arise, and already it appears that Fanny Imlay had begun to look with perilous approval on the fascinating poet. Hogg and Mr. Peacock, the well-known novelist, described by Mrs. Newton as “a cold scholar, who, I think, has neither taste nor feeling,” were his only other intimates.
Mrs. Newton’s unfair judgment of Mr. Peacock marks a discord between the two main elements of Shelley’s present society; and indeed it will appear to a careful student of his biography that Hogg, Peacock, and Harriet, now stood somewhat by themselves and aloof from the inner sphere of his associates. If we regard the Shelleys as the centre of an extended line, we shall find the Westbrook family at one end, the Boinville family at the other, with Hogg and Peacock somewhere in the middle. Harriet was naturally drawn to the Westbrook extremity, and Shelley to the Boinville. Peacock had no affinity for either, but a sincere regard for Harriet as well as for her husband; while Hogg was in much the same position, except that he had made friends with Mrs. Newton. The Godwins, of great importance to Shelley himself, exercised their influence at a distance from the rest. Frequent changes from Bracknell to London and back again, varied by the flying journey to Edinburgh, and a last visit paid in strictest secrecy to his mother and sisters, at Field Place, of which a very interesting record is left in the narrative of Mr. Kennedy, occupied the interval between July, 1813, and March, 1814. The period was not productive of literary masterpieces. We only hear of a Refutation of Deism, a dialogue between Eusebes and Theosophus, which attacked all forms of Theistic belief.
Since we are now approaching the gravest crisis Shelley’s life, it behoves us to be more than usually careful in considering his circumstances at this epoch. His home had become cold and dull. Harriet had lost her interest in his studies. She became more and more an ordinary woman of the world. Eliza was a source of continual irritation, and the Westbrook family did its best, by interference and suggestion, to refrigerate the poet’s feelings for his wife. On the other hand he found among the Boinville set exactly that high-flown, enthusiastic, sentimental atmosphere which suited his idealizing temper. Two extracts from a letter written to Hogg upon the 16th of March, 1814, speak more eloquently than any analysis, and will place before the reader the antagonism which had sprung up in Shelley’s mind between his own home and the circle of his new friends:—“I have been staying with Mrs. B—— for the last month; I have escaped, in the society of all that philosophy and friendship combine, from the dismaying solitude of myself. They have revived in my heart the expiring flame of life. I have felt myself translated to a paradise, which has nothing of mortality but its transitoriness; my heart sickens at the view of that necessity, which will quickly divide me from the delightful tranquillity of this happy home — for it has become my home. The trees, the bridge, the minutest objects, have already a place in my affections.”
“Eliza is still with us — not here! — but will be with me when the infinite malice of destiny forces me to depart. I am now but little inclined to contest this point. I certainly hate her with all my heart and soul. It is a sight which awakens an inexpressible sensation of disgust and horror, to see her caress my poor little Ianthe, in whom I may hereafter find the consolation of sympathy. I sometimes feel faint with the fatigue of checking the overflowings of my unbounded abhorrence for this miserable wretch. But she is no more than a blind and loathsome worm, that cannot see to sting.” 11
That Shelley, early in 1814, had formed no intention of abandoning his wife is certain; for he was re-married to her on the 24th of March (eight days after the letter I have just quoted) at St. George’s, Hanover Square. This ratification of the Scotch marriage was no doubt meant to place the legitimacy of a possible heir beyond all question. Yet, if we may base conjecture upon “Stanzas, April, 1814,” which undoubtedly refer to his relations with the Boinville family, it seems that in the very month after this new ceremony Shelley found the difficulties of his wedded life intolerable. He had not, however, lost his affection for Harriet. He still sought to recover her confidence and kindness. In spite of his wife’s apparent coldness and want of intellectual sympathy, in spite of his own increasing alienation from the atmosphere in which she now lived, he still approached her with the feelings of a suitor and a lover. This is proved beyond all doubt by the pathetic stanzas “To Harriet: May, 1814,” which have only recently been published. I may add that these verses exist in Harriet’s own autograph, whence I infer that she, on her side, was not indifferent to the emotion they express.35 Shelley begins with this apostrophe:
Thy look of love has power to calm
The stormiest passion of my soul;
Thy gentle words are drops of balm
In life’s too bitter bowl.
He then immediately adds that his cruellest grief is to have known and lost “those choicest blessings”; Harriet is proving by her coldness that she repays his most devoted love with scorn. Nevertheless he will appeal to her better nature:
Be thou, then, one among mankind
Whose heart is harder not for state,
Thou only virtuous, gentle, kind,
Amid a world of hate;
And by a slight endurance seal
A fellow-being’s lasting weal.
The next stanza paints a moving picture of his own wretchedness, and beseeches her, before it is too late, to avert the calamity of an open rupture:
In mercy let him not endure
The misery of a fatal cure.
She has been yielding to false counsels and obeying the impulse of feelings which represent not her real and nobler, but her artificial and lower self:
O trust for once no erring guide!
Bid the remorseless feeling flee;
’Tis malice, ’tis revenge, ’tis pride,
’Tis anything but thee;
O deign a nobler pride to prove,
And pity if thou canst not love.
Whatever opinion the student of Shelley’s history may form regarding his previous and his subsequent conduct, due weight must always be given to the accent of sincerity, of pleading sorrow, of ingenuous self-humiliation, in these touching lines. It must also be remembered that Harriet, although she treasured them and copied them in her own handwriting, apparently turned a deaf ear to their appeal, and that it was not until several weeks of solitude and misery had passed that Shelley finally sought the “fatal cure” of separation by flinging himself into the arms of Mary Godwin.
We may now affirm with confidence that in the winter and spring of 1814 an estrangement had gradually been growing up between Shelley and Harriet. Her more commonplace nature, subsiding into worldliness, began to weary of his enthusiasms, which at the same epoch expanded somewhat unhealthily under the influences of the Boinville family. That intimacy brought into painful prominence whatever was jarring and repugnant to him in his home. While divided in this way between domesticity which had become distasteful, and the society of friends with whom he found scope for his most romantic outpourings of sensibility, Shelley fell suddenly and passionately in love with Godwin’s daughter, Mary. He made her acquaintance first perhaps in May or at the beginning of June. Peacock, who lived on terms of the closest familiarity with him at this period, must deliver his testimony as to the overwhelming nature of the new attachment:—“Nothing that I ever read in tale or history could present a more striking image of a sudden, violent, irresistible, uncontrollable passion, than that under which I found him labouring when, at his request, I went up from the country to call on him in London. Between his old feelings towards Harriet, from whom he was not then separated, and his new passion for Mary, he showed in his looks, in his gestures, in his speech, the state of a mind ‘suffering, like a little kingdom, the nature of an insurrection.’ His eyes were bloodshot, his hair and dress disordered. He caught up a bottle of laudanum, and said, ‘I never part from this.’”
Mary Godwin was then a girl of sixteen, “fair and fair-haired, pale indeed, and with a piercing look,” to quote Hogg’s description of her, as she first appeared before him on the 8th or 9th of June, 1814. With her freedom from prejudice, her tense and high-wrought sensibility, her acute intellect, enthusiasm for ideas, and vivid imagination, Mary Godwin was naturally a fitter companion for Shelley than the good Harriet, however beautiful. How he plighted his new troth, and won the hand of her who was destined to be his companion for life, may best be told in Lady Shelley’s words:—
“His anguish, his isolation, his difference from other men, his gifts of genius and eloquent enthusiasm, made a deep impression on Godwin’s daughter Mary, now a girl of sixteen, who had been accustomed to hear Shelley spoken of as something rare and strange. To her, as they met one eventful day in St. Pancras Churchyard, by her mother’s grave, Bysshe, in burning words, poured forth the tale of his wild past — how he had suffered, how he had been misled, and how, if supported by her love, he hoped in future years to enrol his name with the wise and good who had done battle for their fellow-men, and been true through all adverse storms to the cause of humanity. Unhesitatingly, she placed her hand in his, and linked her fortune with his own; and most truthfully, as the remaining portions of these Memorials will prove, was the pledge of both redeemed. The theories in which the daughter of the authors of Political Justice, and of the Rights of Woman, had been educated, spared her from any conflict between her duty and her affection. For she was the child of parents whose writings had had for their object to prove that marriage was one among the many institutions which a new era in the history of mankind was about to sweep away. By her father, whom she loved — by the writings of her mother, whom she had been taught to venerate — these doctrines had been rendered familiar to her mind. It was therefore natural that she should listen to the dictates of her own heart, and willingly unite her fate with one who was so worthy of her love.”
The separation from Harriet, which actually took place about the middle of July, was not arranged by mutual consent, as some authorities assert, so much as by Shelley’s deliberate repudiation of his partner. Yet she must be held to some degree responsible for bringing about the catastrophe by her own imprudent behaviour. At an uncertain date in the summer she went to Bath, leaving her husband in London or its neighbourhood. Although he was now becoming convinced that their union could not be prolonged, he continued to correspond with her regularly until early in July. A silence of four days then alarmed her so much that she wrote upon the 6th in great anxiety to Mr. Hookham, begging to be informed of Shelley’s doings. On the 14th they met again at his request in London. What passed on this occasion is not known; but it seems tolerably certain that he informed her of his firm resolve to part from her. On the 28th of that month he departed secretly for the Continent with Mary Godwin, who had consented to share his fortunes. It must be added that he passed through a crisis of intense suffering and excitement, bordering on madness, before he finally determined to exchange the refrigerated and uncongenial Harriet for the impassioned and sympathetic Mary.
That Shelley has to bear the burden of this act of separation from his first wife seems quite clear; nor can I discover anything to justify his conduct, according to the commonly received opinions of the world, except incompatibility of aims and interests in 1814 between him and the woman he so recklessly married in 1811. His own peculiar justification is to be found in his avowed opinions on the subject of marriage — opinions which Harriet knew well and professed to share, and of which he had recently made ample confession in the notes to Queen Mab. Men and women in general, those whom Shelley was wont to style “the vulgar,” will still agree with Lord Eldon in regarding those opinions as dangerous to society. But it would be unfair, while condemning them as frankly as Shelley professed them, to blame him also because he did not conform to the opposite code of morals, for which he frequently expressed extreme abhorrence, and which he stigmatized, however wrongly, as the source of the worst social vices.
What is left of Harriet’s history may be briefly told. She remained in correspondence with her husband, who showed himself always anxious for her material and moral welfare. At Bath, upon the 30th of November, 1814, she gave birth to Shelley’s second child, Charles Bysshe, who eventually died in 1826. She seems to have formed other connexions at a later date, which proved unfortunate; and on the 9th of November (?) 1816, she committed suicide by drowning in the Serpentine. It should be added that, until just before the end, she continued to live under her father’s protection. The distance of time between July, 1814, and November, 1816, and the new ties formed by Harriet in the interval, prove that there was no immediate relation between Shelley’s abandonment of his wife and her suicide. She had always entertained the thought of self-destruction, as Hogg, who is no adverse witness in her case, has amply recorded. It may, indeed, be permitted us to suppose that, finding herself for the second time unhappy in her love, she reverted to a long-since cherished scheme, and cut the knot of life and all its troubles.
So far as this is possible, I have attempted to narrate the most painful episode in Shelley’s life as I conceive it to have occurred, without extenuation and without condemnation. But one important point connected with the chief incident still remains to be examined in detail.
Mr. Dowden says: “From an assurance that she (Harriet) had ceased to love him, Shelley had passed to a conviction that she had given her heart to another, and had linked her life to his.”36 This statement he repeats without qualification: “He had left her, believing she was unfaithful to him.”37 The documents which Mr. Dowden quotes to establish Shelley’s belief in Harriet’s unfaithfulness before the separation are three in number.38 First, a letter from Shelley to his second wife, dated January 11, 1817. Secondly, a letter from Godwin to Mr. W. T. Baxter, dated May 12, 1817. Thirdly, a note appended by Miss Clairmont to transcripts from her mother’s letters, made some time after 1832. I have enumerated these in chronological order, because their greater or less remoteness from the year 1814 considerably affects their value as evidence regarding Shelley’s belief at that period.
It must be borne in mind that Harriet committed suicide in November, 1816, and very soon after this event the Westbrook family began a suit in Chancery with the object of depriving Shelley of the custody of his two children by her. On the 11th of January, 1817, then, Shelley wrote to Mary: “I learn just now from Godwin that he has evidence that Harriet was unfaithful to me four months before I left England with you. If we can succeed in establishing this, our connexion will receive an additional sanction, and plea be overborne.”39 As a matter of fact, when the pleadings began, he did not establish this, nor did he allude to the matter in the memorandum he drew up of his case.40 Godwin writes upon the 12th of May: “The late Mrs. Shelley has turned out to be a woman of great levity. I know from unquestionable authority, wholly unconnected with Shelley (though I cannot with propriety be quoted for this), that she had proved herself unfaithful to her husband before their separation.” On the strength of these two passages, the pith and kernel of which is that Godwin, some months after Harriet’s death, credited a tale told him by an unknown person, which he repeated to Shelley, we are asked to suppose that Shelley in July, 1814, two and a half years earlier, was convinced of Harriet’s infidelity. But Miss Clairmont has still to be heard. She, writing at some uncertain date subsequently to 1832, and therefore at least eighteen years after the separation, recorded that: “He (Shelley) succeeded in persuading her (Mary) by declaring that Harriet did not really care for him; that she was in love with a Major Ryan; and the child she would have was certainly not his. This Mary told me herself, adding that this justified his having another attachment.” When we come to examine Miss Clairmont’s reminiscences, we find them untrustworthy in so many instances that her evidence carries no weight.41 In the second place it is unquestioned and unquestionable that Shelley firmly believed the second child he had by Harriet to be his own. He announced the boy’s birth to his friends, had him named Charles Bysshe, used him in his efforts to raise money, and passionately claimed him when Harriet’s relatives refused to give him up. Yet we are invited to accept the memorandum of an inaccurate woman, penned at least eighteen years after the event, and including one palpable and serious misstatement, as proof that Shelley judged his first wife unfaithful before he eloped with Mary.
No one contends that Harriet actually broke her marriage vow before the separation. What Professor Dowden asks us to believe is that Shelley thought she was untrue to him at that period. Miss Clairmont’s evidence I reject as valueless. At the most she only reports something which Shelley is supposed to have said to Mary with the object of persuading her to elope with him, and which his subsequent conduct with regard to his son Charles Bysshe contradicted. The true inference to be drawn from Shelley’s and Godwin’s far more important letters in 1817 is that it was not until the latter date that the suspicion of Harriet’s guilt before the separation arose. This suspicion did not, however, harden into certainty, nor was it found capable of verification; else why did not Shelley use the fact, as he proposed, in order to strengthen his case against the Westbrooks? I admit that his letter to Southey in 1820 supports the view that, having once begun to entertain the suspicion, he never afterwards abandoned it.42
If now we turn to contemporary records between the dates, June, 1814, and May, 1815 (at which time Harriet disappears from our ken), we find no intimation either in Mary’s or Miss Clairmont’s diary, or in Shelley’s words and writings, or in the conduct of the Shelley-Godwin set, that Harriet was believed to have broken faith so early with her husband. When Shelley in the summer of 1814 sought to lower her in the eyes of Mary Godwin, he did so by hinting that she only cared for his money and his prospects.43 Mary talks about her “insulting selfishness,” calls her “nasty woman,” and exhibits a good deal of resentment at Shelley’s welcome to his son and heir by her (December 6, 1814).44 The pained reiteration of the words wife in her diary on this occasion proves how bitterly she felt her own position as mistress. Shelley invited Harriet to establish herself in the neighbourhood of Mary and himself. She was visited in London by the whole party. But while they continued upon awkward terms of half familiarity and mutual irritation, nothing by word or act implied a knowledge of her previous infidelity. What is further to the point is that Mrs. Shelley, in her novel of Lodore, which Professor Dowden rightly judges to be a history of Shelley’s relation to Harriet, painted a wife’s gradual alienation from her husband without hinting at misconduct.45
In conclusion, I am bound to express my opinion that nothing now produced from the Shelley archives very materially alters the view of the case at which sane and cautious critics arrived before these were placed in the hands of his last biographer. We ought, moreover, to remember that Shelley, of all men, would have most resented anything like an appeal to popular opinions regarding the marriage tie. His firm conviction was that when affection ceased between a married couple, or when new loves had irrevocably superseded old ones, the connexion ought to be broken. In his own case he felt that Harriet’s emotion towards him had changed, while an irresistible passion for another woman had suddenly sprung up in his heart. Upon these grounds, after undergoing a terrible contention of the soul, he forced on the separation to which his first wife unwillingly submitted.
On the 28th of July, 1814, Shelley left London with Mary Godwin, who up to this date had remained beneath her father’s roof. There was some secrecy in their departure, because they were accompanied by Miss Clairmont, whose mother disapproved of her forming a third in the party. Having made their way to Dover, they crossed the Channel in an open boat, and went at once to Paris. Here they hired a donkey for their luggage, intending to perform the journey across France on foot. Shelley, however, sprained his ancle, and a mule-carriage was provided for the party. In this conveyance they reached the Jura, and entered Switzerland at Neufchatel. Brunnen, on the Lake of Lucerne, was chosen for their residence; and here Shelley began his romantic tale of The Assassins, a portion of which is printed in his prose works. Want of money compelled them, after two days in Uri, to turn their steps homeward; and the back journey was performed upon the Reuss and Rhine. They reached Gravesend, after a bad passage, on the 13th of September. Mrs. Shelley’s History of a Six Weeks’ Tour relates the details of this trip, which was of great importance in forming Shelley’s taste and in supplying him with the scenery of river, rock, and mountain, so splendidly utilized in Alastor.
The autumn was a period of more than usual money difficulty; but on the 6th of January, 1815, Sir Bysshe died, Percy became the next heir to the baronetcy and the family estates, and an arrangement was made with his father by right of which he received an allowance of 1000l. a year. A portion of his income was immediately set apart for Harriet. The winter was passed in London, where Shelley walked a hospital, in order, it is said, to acquire some medical knowledge that might be of service to the poor he visited. His own health at this period was very bad. A physician whom he consulted, pronounced that he was rapidly sinking under pulmonary disease, and he suffered frequent attacks of acute pain. The consumptive symptoms seem to have been so marked that for the next three years he had no doubt that he was destined to an early death. In 1818, however, all danger of phthisis passed away; and during the rest of his short life he only suffered from spasms and violent pains in the side, which baffled the physicians, but, though they caused him extreme annoyance, did not menace any vital organ. To the subject of his health it will be necessary to return at a later period of his biography. For the present it is enough to remember that his physical condition was such as to justify his own expectation of death at no distant time.13
Fond as ever of wandering, Shelley set out in the early summer for a tour with Mary. They visited Devonshire and Clifton, and then settled in a house on Bishopsgate Heath, near Windsor Forest. The summer was further broken by a water excursion up the Thames to its source, in the company of Mr. Peacock and Charles Clairmont. Peacock traces the poet’s taste for boating, which afterwards became a passion with him, to this excursion. About this there is, however, some doubt. Medwin tells us that Shelley while a boy delighted in being on the water, and that he enjoyed the pastime at Eton. On the other hand, Mr. W. S. Halliday, a far better authority than Medwin, asserts positively that he never saw Shelley on the river at Eton, and Hogg relates nothing to prove that he practised rowing at Oxford. It is certain that, though inordinately fond of boats and every kind of water — river, sea, lake, or canal — he never learned to swim. Peacock also notices his habit of floating paper boats, and gives an amusing description of the boredom suffered by Hogg on occasions when Shelley would stop by the side of pond or mere to float a mimic navy. The not altogether apocryphal story of his having once constructed a boat out of a bank-post-bill, and launched it on the lake in Kensington Gardens, deserves to be alluded to in this connexion.
On their return from this river journey, Shelley began the poem of Alastor, haunting the woodland glades and oak groves of Windsor Forest, and drawing from that noble scenery his inspiration. It was printed with a few other poems in one volume the next year. Not only was Alastor the first serious poem published by Shelley; but it was also the first of his compositions which revealed the greatness of his genius. Rarely has blank verse been written with more majesty and music: and while the influence of Milton and Wordsworth may be traced in certain passages, the versification, tremulous with lyrical vibrations, is such as only Shelley could have produced.
“Alastor” is the Greek name for a vengeful dæmon, driving its victim into desert places; and Shelley, prompted by Peacock, chose it for the title of a poem which describes the Nemesis of solitary souls. Apart from its intrinsic merit as a work of art, Alastor has great autobiographical value. Mrs. Shelley affirms that it was written under the expectation of speedy death, and under the sense of disappointment, consequent upon the misfortunes of his early life. This accounts for the somewhat unhealthy vein of sentiment which threads the wilderness of its sublime descriptions. All that Shelley had observed of natural beauty — in Wales, at Lynton, in Switzerland, upon the eddies of the Reuss, beneath the oak shades of the forest — is presented to us in a series of pictures penetrated with profound emotion. But the deeper meaning of Alastor is to be found, not in the thought of death nor in the poet’s recent communings with nature, but in the motto from St. Augustine placed upon its title-page, and in the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, composed about a year later. Enamoured of ideal loveliness, the poet pursues his vision through the universe, vainly hoping to assuage the thirst which has been stimulated in his spirit, and vainly longing for some mortal realization of his love. Alastor, like Epipsychidion, reveals the mistake which Shelley made in thinking that the idea of beauty could become incarnate for him in any earthly form: while the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty recognizes the truth that such realization of the ideal is impossible. The very last letter written by Shelley sets the misconception in its proper light: “I think one is always in love with something or other; the error, and I confess it is not easy for spirits cased in flesh and blood to avoid it, consists in seeking in a mortal image the likeness of what is, perhaps, eternal.” But this Shelley discovered only with “the years that bring the philosophic mind,” and when he was upon the very verge of his untimely death.
The following quotation is a fair specimen of the blank verse of Alastor. It expresses that longing for perfect sympathy in an ideal love, which the sense of divine beauty had stirred in the poet’s heart:—
At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore
He paused, a wide and melancholy waste
Of putrid marshes. A strong impulse urged
His steps to the sea-shore. A swan was there,
Beside a sluggish stream among the reeds.
It rose as he approached, and, with strong wings
Scaling the upward sky, bent its bright course
High over the immeasurable main.
His eyes pursued its flight:—“Thou hast a home,
Beautiful bird! thou voyagest to thine home,
Where thy sweet mate will twine her downy neck
With thine, and welcome thy return with eyes
Bright in the lustre of their own fond joy.
And what am I that I should linger here,
With voice far sweeter than thy dying notes,
Spirit more vast than thine, frame more attuned
To beauty, wasting these surpassing powers
In the deaf air, to the blind earth, and heaven
That echoes not my thoughts?” A gloomy smile
Of desperate hope wrinkled his quivering lips.
For Sleep, he knew, kept most relentlessly
Its precious charge, and silent Death exposed,
Faithless perhaps as Sleep, a shadowy lure,
With doubtful smile mocking its own strange charms.
William, the eldest son of Shelley and Mary Godwin, was born on the 24th of Jan., 1816. In the spring of that year they went together, accompanied by Miss Clairmont, for a second time to Switzerland. They reached Geneva about the 15th of May, and were soon after joined by Lord Byron and his travelling physician, Dr. Polidori. Shelley had not yet made Byron’s acquaintance, though he had sent him a copy of Queen Mab, with a letter, which miscarried in the post. They were now thrown into daily intercourse, occupying the villas Diodati and Mont Alégre at no great distance from each other, passing their days upon the lake in a boat which they purchased, and spending the nights in conversation. Miss Clairmont had known Byron in London, and their acquaintance now ripened into an intimacy, the fruit of which was the child Allegra. This fact has to be mentioned by Shelley’s biographer, because Allegra afterwards became an inmate of his home; and though he and Mary were ignorant of what was passing at Geneva, they did not withdraw their sympathy from the mother of Lord Byron’s daughter. The lives of Byron and Shelley during the next six years were destined to be curiously blent. Both were to seek in Italy an exile-home; while their friendship was to become one of the most interesting facts of English literary history. The influence of Byron upon Shelley, as he more than once acknowledged, and as his wife plainly perceived, was, to a large extent, depressing. For Byron’s genius and its fruits in poetry he entertained the highest possible opinion. He could not help comparing his own achievement and his fame with Byron’s; and the result was that in the presence of one whom he erroneously believed to be the greater poet, he became inactive. Shelley, on the contrary, stimulated Byron’s productive faculty to nobler efforts, raised his moral tone, and infused into his less subtle intellect something of his own philosophical depth and earnestness. Much as he enjoyed Byron’s society and admired his writing, Shelley was not blind to the imperfections of his nature. The sketch which he has left us of Count Maddalo, the letters written to his wife from Venice and Ravenna, and his correspondence on the subject of Leigh Hunt’s visit to Italy, supply the most discriminating criticism which has yet been passed upon his brother poet’s character. It is clear that he never found in Byron a perfect friend, and that he had not accepted him as one with whom he sympathized upon the deeper questions of feeling and conduct. Byron, for his part, recognized in Shelley the purest nature he had ever known. “He was the most gentle, the most amiable, and least worldly-minded person I ever met; full of delicacy, disinterested beyond all other men, and possessing a degree of genius joined to simplicity as rare as it is admirable. He had formed to himself a beau ideal of all that is fine, high-minded, and noble, and he acted up to this ideal even to the very letter.”
Toward the end of June the two poets made the tour of Lake Geneva in their boat, and were very nearly wrecked off the rocks of Meillerie. On this occasion Shelley was in imminent danger of death from drowning. His one anxiety, however, as he wrote to Peacock, was lest Byron should attempt to save him at the risk of his own life. Byron described him as “bold as a lion;” and indeed it may here be said, once and for all, that Shelley’s physical courage was only equalled by his moral fearlessness. He carried both without bravado to the verge of temerity, and may justly be said to have never known what terror was. Another summer excursion was a visit to Chamouni, of which he has left memorable descriptions in his letters to Peacock, and in the somewhat Coleridgian verses on Mont Blanc. The preface to Laon and Cythna shows what a powerful impression had been made upon him by the glaciers, and how he delighted in the element of peril. There is a tone of exultation in the words which record the experiences of his two journeys in Switzerland and France:—“I have been familiar from boyhood with mountains and lakes and the sea, and the solitude of forests. Danger, which sports upon the brink of precipices, has been my playmate. I have trodden the glaciers of the Alps, and lived under the eye of Mont Blanc. I have been a wanderer among distant fields. I have sailed down mighty rivers, and seen the sun rise and set, and the stars come forth, whilst I have sailed night and day down a rapid stream among mountains. I have seen populous cities, and have watched the passions which rise and spread, and sink and change amongst assembled multitudes of men. I have seen the theatre of the more visible ravages of tyranny and war, cities and villages reduced to scattered groups of black and roofless houses, and the naked inhabitants sitting famished upon their desolated thresholds.”
On their return to the lake, the Shelleys found M. G. Lewis established with Byron. This addition to the circle introduced much conversation about apparitions, and each member of the party undertook to produce a ghost story. Polidori’s Vampyre and Mrs. Shelley’s Frankenstein were the only durable results of their determination. But an incident occurred which is of some importance in the history of Shelley’s psychological condition. Toward midnight on the 18th of July, Byron recited the lines in Christabel about the lady’s breast; when Shelley suddenly started up, shrieked, and fled from the room. He had seen a vision of a woman with eyes instead of nipples. At this time he was writing notes upon the phenomena of sleep to be inserted in his Speculations on Metaphysics, and Mrs. Shelley informs us that the mere effort to remember dreams of thrilling or mysterious import so disturbed his nervous system that he had to relinquish the task. At no period of his life was he wholly free from visions which had the reality of facts. Sometimes they occurred in sleep and were prolonged with painful vividness into his waking moments. Sometimes they seemed to grow out of his intense meditation, or to present themselves before his eyes as the projection of a powerful inner impression. All his sensations were abnormally acute, and his ever-active imagination confused the border-lands of the actual and the visionary. Such a nature as Shelley’s, through its far greater susceptibility than is common even with artistic temperaments, was debarred in moments of high-strung emotion from observing the ordinary distinctions of subject and object; and this peculiar quality must never be forgotten when we seek to estimate the proper proportions of Dichtung und Wahrheit in certain episodes of his biography. The strange story, for example, told by Peacock about a supposed warning he had received in the spring of this year from Mr. Williams of Tremadoc, may possibly be explained on the hypothesis that his brooding thoughts had taken form before him, both ear and eye having been unconsciously pressed into the service of a subjective energy.14
On their return to England in September, Shelley took a cottage at Great Marlow on the Thames, in order to be near his friend Peacock. While it was being prepared for the reception of his family, he stayed at Bath, and there heard of Harriet’s suicide. The life that once was dearest to him, had ended thus in misery, desertion, want. The mother of his two children, abandoned by both her husband and her lover, and driven from her father’s home, had drowned herself after a brief struggle with circumstance. However Shelley may have felt that his conscience was free from blame, however small an element of self-reproach may have mingled with his grief and horror, there is no doubt that he suffered most acutely. His deepest ground for remorse seems to have been the conviction that he had drawn Harriet into a sphere of thought and feeling for which she was not qualified, and that had it not been for him and his opinions, she might have lived a happy woman in some common walk of life. One of his biographers asserts that “he continued to be haunted by certain recollections, partly real and partly imaginative, which pursued him like an Orestes,” and even Trelawny, who knew him only in the last months of his life, said that the impression of that dreadful moment was still vivid. We may trace the echo of his feelings in some painfully pathetic verses written in 1817;15 and though he did not often speak of Harriet, Peacock has recorded one memorable occasion on which he disclosed the anguish of his spirit to a friend.16
Shelley hurried at once to London, and found some consolation in the society of Leigh Hunt. The friendship extended to him by that excellent man at this season of his trouble may perhaps count for something with those who are inclined to judge him harshly. Two important events followed immediately upon the tragedy. The first was Shelley’s marriage with Mary Godwin on the 30th of December, 1816. [Whether Shelley would have taken this step except under strong pressure from without, appears to me very doubtful. Of all men who ever lived, he was the most resolutely bent on confirming his theories by his practice; and in this instance there was no valid reason why he should not act up to principles professed in common by himself and the partner of his fortunes, no less than by her father and her mother. It is, therefore, reasonable to suppose that he yielded to arguments; and these arguments must have been urged by Godwin, who had never treated him with cordiality since he left England in 1816. Godwin, though overrated in his generation and almost ludicrously idealized by Shelley, was a man whose talents verged on genius. But he was by no means consistent. His conduct in money-matters shows that he could not live the life of a self-sufficing philosopher; while the irritation he expressed when Shelley omitted to address him as Esquire, stood in comic contradiction with his published doctrines. We are therefore perhaps justified in concluding that he worried Shelley, the one enthusiastic and thoroughgoing follower he had, into marrying his daughter in spite of his disciple’s protestations; nor shall we be far wrong if we surmise that Godwin congratulated himself on Mary’s having won the right to bear the name of a future baronet.]
The second event was the refusal of Mr. Westbrook to deliver up the custody of his grandchildren. A chancery suit was instituted; at the conclusion of which, in March, 1817, Lord Eldon deprived Shelley of his son and daughter on the double ground of his opinions expressed in Queen Mab, and of his conduct toward his first wife. The children were placed in the hands of a Dr. Hume, to be educated in accordance with principles diametrically opposed to their parent’s, while Shelley’s income was mulcted in a sum of 200l. for their maintenance. Thus sternly did the father learn the value of that ancient Æschylean maxim, τῷ δράσαντι παθεῖν, the doer of the deed must suffer. His own impulsiveness, his reckless assumption of the heaviest responsibilities, his overweening confidence in his own strength to move the weight of the world’s opinions, had brought him to this tragic pass — to the suicide of the woman who had loved him, and to the sequestration of the offspring whom he loved.
Shelley ought not to be made the text for any sermon; and yet we may learn from him as from a hero of Hebrew or Hellenic story. His life was a tragedy; and like some protagonist of Greek drama, he was capable of erring and of suffering greatly. He had kicked against the altar of justice as established in the daily sanctities of human life; and now he had to bear the penalty. The conventions he despised and treated like the dust beneath his feet, were found in this most cruel crisis to be a rock on which his very heart was broken. From this rude trial of his moral nature he arose a stronger being; and if longer life had been granted him, he would undoubtedly have presented the ennobling spectacle of one who had been lessoned by his own audacity, and by its bitter fruits, into harmony with the immutable laws which he was ever seeking to obey. It is just this conflict between the innate rectitude of Shelley’s over-daring nature and the circumstances of ordinary existence, which makes his history so tragic: and we may justly wonder whether, when he read the Sophoclean tragedies of Œdipus, he did not apply their doctrine of self-will and Nemesis to his own fortunes.
11 This and the next four pages were rewritten since the appearance of Professor Dowden’s Life. See Appendix for the deleted text.
35 This poem may be read in full in Professor Dowden’s Life, vol. i. p. 413.
36 Vol. i. p. 429.
37 Vol. ii. p. 65.
38 These three documents will be found in vol. ii. p. 98; vol. i. pp. 424, 425.
39 Mr. Dowden omits the second sentence in his quotation. Vol. i. p. 426.
40 Vol. ii. p. 88.
41 See Mr. Dowden’s own critique of this witness in Appendix B. to vol. ii. Compare vol. i. p. 440.
42 Vol. i. p. 428.
43 Vol. i. p. 415.
44 Vol. i. p. 465.
45 Vol. i. pp. 436-438.
13 See Letter to Godwin in Shelley Memorials, p. 78.
14 Fraser’s Magazine, Jan., 1860, p. 98.
15 Forman, iii. 148.
16 Fraser, Jan., 1860, p. 102.
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