« AnteriorContinuar »
in chemistry had taught him to perform a few flashy experiments, but his acquaintance with the science never seems to have gone further. This crude, flimsy, and ill-digested knowledge, đecked out in all the dazzling colours which the novelty of young life and a splendid imagination could bestow, formed a world in which the bashful boy, unaccustomed to converse with his kind, lived alone. The real world, as far as he could see, was different'; and, like all children, he sought to make it what he wished. He commenced his task by attempting to convert his tutors; he printed a pamphlet professing to demonstrate atheism, and sent copies to some clerical dignitaries. The consequence of this was, a summons to appear before the heads of colleges ; whom Shelley, when called upon to recant, challenged to argue the question. He was expelled the university. Shelley's conduct was that of a foolish boy; the punishment inflicted, being calculated to blast all his prospects in life, was disproportionate and tyrannical.
After his expulsion, not daring to face his angry father, a commonplace, money-making man, who had expected that the talents of his son would raise and illustrate his family, he repaired to London, where he resided some time with his relation, Captain Medwin, in the Temple. About this period he seems to have become acquainted, for the first time, with “ Godwin's Political Justice," and immediately resolved to square all his actions by its rules. In his Atheism, which was rather an adherence to an unmeaning formula of words than an opinion, he had been confirmed by what he considered a persecution. Living without an aim, he involved himself in the cloudy labyrinth of what were at that time called metaphysics; a mixture of materialism with the auguries of a highly excited sensual fancy. He embraced about this time the theory of the deleterious effects of animal food, and, as was uniformly his way, proceeded to act upon it. The account given of him by Captain Medwin at this period of his life, represents him totally engrossed by his metaphysical pursuits; daily noting down his dreams, till the atten. tion he paid to his dreaming fancies well nigh made them more than a half of his conscious existence; disregarding all the usual allotments of time, dining when he felt hungry at the first baker's shop, and laying himself down to sleep at times in the open street. His anxiety to remodel the world by the diffusion of his opinions, continued as intense as ever; and the eagerness with which, for this purpose, he opened a communication with every person who began to emerge into notoriety, soon swelled the number of his correspondents. This period of his history closed at the age of eighteen, by his being inveigled into a marriage with a young woman of his own age, neither fitted by her natural character nor by her education to be a companion for Shelley. As his wife was of what is called in the world low birth, the union led to an entire alienation from his family.
The ill-assorted pair dragged on an unhappy union, the fruit of which was two children, for upwards of three years, and then separated by mutual consent. Previous to this event, he had habituated himself, for the purpose of deadening painful reflection, to take large quantities of opium ; which completely undermined a constitution naturally delicate, and further stimulated the painful busy workings of a restless imagination. He was at this period of his life miserably straitened in his circumstances, and led a restless wandering life, in the course of which he wandered through great part of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and the Continent ; sometimes alone, sometimes in company, frequently on
foot. He took up his abode in London in 1814, and remained pretty closely there for eighteen months, during which period he studied medicine ; making but slender progress in his anatomical pursuits, but prosecuting botany with greater success. In 1816 he visited Geneva, in company with the lady whom he afterwards married, who had sometime previously consented to become the companion of his wanderings; and attracted by the society of Lord Byron, fixed his residence for a short time in the neighbourhood. He removed hence to the Vale of Chamouni, and afterwards to the Lake of Como, and returned to England in the autumn of 1817. He was met by the intelligence that his wife had terminated her existence by suicide. His feelings of compunction were so strong as to bring on a temporary derangement. The cup of his misery was filled up by the unnatural and iniquitous decision of the Court of Chancery, denying him the guardianship of his own children, and consigning them to the care of strangers.
By the urgent advice of his friends, co-operating with the promptings of his own love of justice, he now married Miss Godwin ; and in her company, after a short sojourn at Marlow, bade a last adieu to his native land in the spring of 1818. He passed rapidly through France and Switzerland, and, after paying a visit to Lord Byron at Naples, proceeded to Rome. The autumn he spent at Naples, and the winter in Rome. After spending some time at Florence, the Baths, Lucca, and Leghorn, he finally took up his abode at Pisa in 1820, and continued to reside in that city or its neighbourhood till the hour of his untimely death. His residence in Italy leaves little to record ; his life was devoted to the study of his art, and to vain longings after the realization of his Utopian dreams. His wife proved a kind and sympathetic attendant ; one who could appreciate his conversation, share in his pleasures, or sooth his almost unremitting sufferings. In June 1822 he visited Pisa, for the purpose of welcoming his friend Hunt to Italy; and was lost at sea, with his friend Williams, on his return to Lerici, where he was then residing.
This is the history of a warm heart and a forgetive fancy, left to tread their way through the intricacies of life without an affectionate and experienced guide, quarrelling with the world before they understood each other. The presumptuous dogmatism of his boyhood was apology sufficient for the great mass of mankind, when it shrunk back in shy apprehension from him who attacked with scorn and derision all that they held most sacred. It was, however, no apology for those who dared to assume the office of the teachers of youth, so ill-qualified for their task as to meet his offence with treatment, which could not fail to convince him that he was right. Still less is it an apology for those hireling scribes, who, either with full knowledge of the truth, or without sufficient previous inquiry (a degree of levity scarcely less culpable,) persisted for a tract of years in misrepresenting and calumniating his actions. Whoever has traced the history of Shelley must feel that his error was of a kind to which even the rankest bigot could not attribute criminality. Itwas the honest and ingenuous search of a lonely and unaid. ed mind after that truth which the dazzling brilliancy of that mind's own inborn light prevented it from perceiving. The rude manner in which his expressions shocked the reverential feeling for religion entertained by the larger as well as better portion of the British public, naturally enough led men to attribute an evil character to the cause of their annoyance. But those who searched deeper saw that this seeming harshness was merely the
tuning of an instrument of the mellowest tones ; that the muddiness of his thoughts and feelings was the fermentation which transforms the clammy and insipid juice of the grape into the clear and generous wine. Shelley's mind, in early life, was not ill indicated by his personal appear. ance ; a face not regularly beautiful, yet, when longer gazed on, inexpressibly charming ; a voice high and thin, yet capable of a mellower tone, and of the most musical modulation ; a manner awkward and bashful, yet with an inborn gentility which could not be concealed. Tolerance, which is true wisdom, is increasing. A young man is no longer looked upon as lost because his passions drive him once astray. Within certain limits society allows men to avow their opinions. But it must learn not, it is true, to encourage such aberrations as Shelley's, but not to condemn precipitately. There is danger undeniably in the extravaganzas of such a mind; but where all tends so evidently towards good, the darkness and terror, nay even the danger which herald the birth, are ominous of its surpassing excellence.
The stream “ ran itself fine.” We have no wish to palliate his con. duct where it was wrong ; but this we are entitled to say in alleviation, that his misconduct was scarcely to be avoided in one abandoned so young to his own guidance ; that he made reparation where he could ; and that he suffered agonizingly for the pain he caused. Nemesis exacted her dues in full. Every year of Shelley's brief life shewed the beauty of his mind more fully developed, and with less alloy of the ridiculous. Love was the atmosphere in which his soul existed. He loved all nature, animate and inanimate. He shuddered at the least pain inflicted upon any thing that breathed ; but, instead of turning away selfishly, indulging a morbid sensibility, he lingered like the good Samaritan, to bind up and pour balm into the wound. More than any other mere human being on record, he was capable of sacrificing himself for others. There was a maiden purity in his soul : a gross expression pained him almost as an evil act; his love was sentiment ; his diet was that of an Anchorite ; his greatest dainties, those which please the unsophisticated palate of children. In a weak body he kept alive a fearless, unwinking soul; and hourly tortured with the pains of sick. ness sapping his vital frame, he was neither sullen nor fretful. The eagerness with which his friends sought and walked by his advice, shews that his strong mind had not wrestled with the world in vain. He had learned to trace accurately the connexion between actions, their causes and consequences. His night-mare dream of atheism had softened, unawares, into a recognizance of an intelligent Author and Preserver of the universe. Taught ourselves, by experience, to cling to the Christian belief, as that alone which can purify us amid our eternal aberrations from right, and reconcile us with God and ourselves, we must ever lament, that so fair a soul was closed against its accesses; but we dare not anticipate the mysterious decrees of the Creator. We leave poor Shelley with is
trembling hope,” to his repose. Let no one misunderstand or bring an undeserved reproach against us when we say, that nothing carries home to us so convincingly the impression of his tremendous strength of mind, as his power to bear up with all the emptiness of unbelief, in gentle meekness, against pain, sickness, the world's contumely, and the reproaches of his own heart.
We have dwelt at so much length on the personal history of Shelley for two reasons. In the first place, because a knowledge of it is indispensable to the right understanding and appreciation of some of his
works. in the second place, because both friends and foes have, in his case, mixed up the poet too much with his writings, to enable them to come to a true judgment of them. A poem, to be rightly estimated, must be judged without reference to its author as much as a painting or statue. It is a separate and independent existence, and must stand or fall by its own merits. Investigations which enable us to explain some peculiarity in its structure, by reference to the mental constitution of the author, are both interesting and useful; but they belong to the department of practical metaphysics, not of criticism.
Shelley's earliest effusions, like those of all young poets, are rather the overflowing of the thoughts, feelings, and images fermenting in his mind, than poems. A poem is a creation of art—it is the product of the imagination—a thing existing for itself. It addresses itself to the active imagination of others, or to that passive imagination which is called taste. It is like a picture or statue, an object to be contemplated, not a vehicle of instruction or instrument of persuasion. Its sole object is to please. Its moral and intellectual influence is indirect, -strengthening, elevating, or purifying the mind by the objects of contemplation with which it renders it familiar,-suggesting to the mind thoughts and speculations which otherwise might not have occurred. Of course, the more nervous and masculine the thought embodied in a poem, the higher will be its character ; but its merit must always be determined by the effect it produces upon the imagination. It deviates from the standard of perfection in proportion as it diverges into ratioci. nation on the one hand, or addresses itself too much to the sensual part of our constitution on the other. Shelley's deviations lay in the former direction.
“Queen Mab,'* composed in his seventeenth year, and “ the Revolt of Islam,” composed at Marlow in the Autumn or Winter of 1818, are attempts to shadow out, in an allegorical form, his views of a more perfect state of society, and the process by which it may be arrived at. The Utopian, the framer of an ideal commor
nonwealth, predominates over the poet. We are incessantly reminded that the forms which Ait before our imagination are mere arbitrary representatives of abstract ideas of relations. The anxiety of the writer to keep this constantly in view, has infected his imagery: it has much of the vagueness and thinness of his speculations. The fairy-land which he seeks to conjure up before us, partakes of the dimness and unsubstantiality of those shadows of a PreAdamitic world, through which Cain is made to wander in Byron's Mystery, or the World of Death, in Shelley's own Prometheus,
Where do inhabit
Till death unite them and they part no more. In Queen Mab, the lecture of the Fairy on the origin and progress of civil society, a prose harangue, and not of a very original character, occupies so large a share of the poem as to destroy the equilibrium, The attention flags, and our retrospect, when we come to the close, embraces not a well-proportioned poem, a pleasing or majestic whole, but a tedious and unsymmetrical piece of declamation, interspersed with out-breakings of the most gorgeous and powerful imagination. These, however, are, in a great measure, lost, from not being properly grouped. But for this fault the poem must have ranked high in the descriptive class. The approach of the Fairy, the disembodying of the soul, the voyage through the realms of space, the exhibition of the world's work, ings, and the return, form a bold and well-proportioned frame-work, with which some of the descriptions harmonize well in splendour and grandeur of conception. We may instance the bold idea of introducing the Wandering Jew as a phantasm of the human mind,—the gloomy gran. deur of the conception is unsurpassed. We prefer, however, laying before our readers the glowing picture of etherial beauty and spiritual voluptuousness with which the poet has presented us in the palace of Mab the Fairy.
* His earliest poetical work—the four cantos of “ The Wandering Jew," lately published in Fraser's Magazine, are claimed by Captain Medwin. The Captain informs us that there were some additional cantos by Shelley. These are, most probably, irrecoverable. The MS. in Fraser's possession contained only the four cantos which he has printed. It was in Shelley's handwriting, left by him nineteen or twenty years ago, with a gentleman in Edinburgh, and never reclaimed.
If solitude hath ever led thy steps
And thou hast lingered there,
Until the sun's broad orb
Thou must have marked the lines
Hung o'er the sinking sphere :
Towering like rocks of jet
When the sun's highest point
Shaded with deepest purple, gleam
Like islands on a dark blue sea ;
And furled its wearied wing
Within the Fairy's fane. .
Nor the feathery curtains
Paving that gorgeous dome,
Its floors of flashing light,
Floating on a silver sea;
And pearly battlements around
The Fairy and the Spirit
Those golden clouds