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A GENEROUS member of the Shelley Society, who chooses to be unnamed and unknown, offered some time ago to present to his fellow members a reprint of one of the poet's volumes if I would undertake to edit it.
Various circumstances combined to direct the choice to the volume issued in 1819 containing Rosalind and Helen, the Lines written among the Euganean Hills, the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, and the sonnet entitled Ozymandias. The preparation of the reprint naturally leads to a few reflexions on the poetical contents of the original volume, and more particularly on that eclogue which occupies sixty-eight of the ninety-two pages composing the book; and, on studying afresh that poem of which Shelley himself spoke or wrote so slightingly, I found myself once more in that atmosphere of reform which surrounds and permeates so many other works of the poet. Moreover this necessary re-perusal of an old favourite revives a well-worn impression that Rosalind and Helen, though disjointed and inconsistent in execution, is quite unusually replete with passages in a high degree beautiful and characteristic.
Shelley knew only too well how imperfect was his own work, how imperfect was all human work, when judged by the elevated standard which he set up for himself and future aspirants to the poetic priesthood to follow; and his almost contemptuous attitude towards this particular child of his swift and splendid imagination is not difficult to understand. Yet I cannot bring myself to admit Rosalind and Helen to quite so low a
place as he would seem to have assigned to it. Before attempting to examine the poem and the circumstances of its composition, let us look at what its author said about it. In the Advertisement" prefixed to his own edition he frankly damns it with the faintest praise.
"The story of Rosalind and Helen' is," he says, undoubtedly, not an attempt in the highest style of poetry. It is in no degree calculated to excite profound meditation; and if, by interesting the affections and amusing the imagination, it awaken a certain ideal melancholy favourable to the reception of more important impressions, it will produce in the reader all that the writer experienced in the composition. I resigned myself, as I wrote, to the impulse of the feelings which moulded the conception of the story; and this impulse determined the pauses of a measure, which only pretends to be regular inasmuch as it corresponds with, and expresses, the irregularity of the imaginations which inspired it."
By Mrs. Shelley we are told that Rosalind and Helen was begun at Marlow and thrown aside until she found it in Italy, when Shelley, at her request, finished it at the Baths of Lucca in the summer of 1818. When he had finished it, and Mrs. Shelley had transcribed it for the press, he wrote to Peacock of it that its structure was slight and aëry, its subject ideal,”—adding in a later letter, "I lay no stress on it one way or the other. The concluding lines are natural."
Now the essential statement in all this is that the creation of Rosalind and Helen did no more than awaken in Shelley "a certain ideal melancholy favourable to the reception of more important impressions." To my apprehension it seems that the poem is properly to be regarded as a solid result of moral speculation rather than an exercise, the outcome of impressions decidedly more important than any which can fairly be described. by the term "ideal melancholy"; and what Shelley either forgets or modestly ignores is that those more important themes are there in the poem in such a form as to take effect at once on that receptiveness of the reader which he regards as the only probable result of his poem.
Let us look first at the story: who are Rosalind and Helen, and what have their lives produced for them at the time of their conversation forming the staple fabric of the poem?
Rosalind and Helen are two young mothers at the time of their introduction to us, seemingly both of English middle-class birth, though of Helen's parents nothing is said. Rosalind, living with her mother, in her father's absence from England, has formed an attachment for a young man, who is about to marry her. When the pair are already at the altar her father suddenly appears from abroad, and forbids the banns on the ground that the bridegroom is his son by another mother than Rosalind's. The youth falls dead, but Rosalind lives on in self-contained misery. Her father dies leaving his wife and daughter unprovided for; and Rosalind in sheer despair, and for her mother's sake, marries a man whom she positively loathes in the sequel, if not from the first. She has three children, all of whom fear their father like the plague. He in turn dies, leaving a will under which his widow is abominably traduced, and his children only provided for on condition of absolute separation from their mother. Rosalind accepts the position of a childless outcast rather than expose her offspring to the horrors of poverty.
With a good deal of the fierce resolve of a martyr, Rosalind from first to last has been the slave of conventional duty. Not so Helen, who loves, from Rosalind's point of view "not wisely but too well," Lionel, a youth of noble birth, amiable character, great personal attractions, and revolutionary-humanitarian sentiments and convictions. Rosalind, apparently at a time anterior to her own dire misfortunes, considers Helen's relations with Lionel sufficient cause for breaking with her friend. Lionel throws himself as orator and pamphleteer into the ferment of agitation against political, social, and priestly tyranny; and, when the popular hope dies for the moment, and tyranny and superstition are triumphantly consolidated in power, the frustrated spirit of freedom within him drives him forth to wander in far lands, away from Helen, and not unsuspected of seeking solace in strange loves. After three years he returns,
desolate, and renews his intercourse with Helen, under whose influence his spirit has a second birth of faith, hope, and power to agitate, while his bodily health begins to fail. Although Helen's account is a trifle vague, there seems to me to be no doubt that, during this spiritual revival, Lionel was conducting a second courtship of Helen, the end of which is that she consents. to a second union with him of the same unconventional character as the first. No sooner is this matter settled than Lionel is arrested on a charge of uttering a blasphemous and seditious libel of and concerning Almighty God and of and concerning the Holy Scriptures, to translate into the jargon of the contemporary law-courts the flowing poetic generalities of Helen's narrative. Soon, but too late," Lionel is released from prison, and proceeds in a carriage from London to his home in the Welsh mountains near the coast, with the stamp of death already on him; and there, after a short time, he dies. Helen goes mad, is tended by Lionel's mother, and gives birth to a son. When she recovers
her reason she learns for the first time that she is a mother, that Lionel's mother has died during her period of insanity, that Lionel has left great wealth to her by will, and that "the ready lies of law" have bereft her and her child of all. She commences an action to vindicate her legal rights; but what came of it is not recorded. Whatever the result of her lawsuit, Helen acquires a home with her little son on the banks of the Lake of Como, where Rosalind takes up her abode with her early friend. Eventually Rosalind's daughter is restored to her (we hear no more of her other two children), and grows up with Helen's son ; and the young people are at last married, or rather, I should say, consecrated to each other, for we are not told whether in this respect they followed the orthodox traditions of Rosalind or the anti-matrimonial heresy of Lionel and Helen. Of the two friends Rosalind dies prematurely, while Helen lives to be old and dies among her relations.
Such in brief is the argument of Rosalind and Helen: I have interpreted the details of the narrative literally and set them down in commonplace terms, in order to emphasize and bring home to the mind the fundamental
conceptions which Shelley has embodied in so much poetry and overlaid with so much of his characteristic propagandism, that the mind is apt to dwell upon isolated passages rather than lay hold on the fable as a whole. No doubt the poet had good reasons for leading the attention of Peacock to the ideal side of the subject; but probably Peacock's wit was far too keenly edged for the real basis of the work to escape him, although he may perhaps not have discovered what Shelley may perhaps have been most anxious to have undiscovered, namely, that the relations of Rosalind and Helen were a reproduction of the relations of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and an early friend, a reproduction highly idealized, be it conceded, but still a reproduction.
Whatever Peacock may have known or divined on this subject, he can scarcely have failed to recognize his friend's delightful self-portraiture in Lionel; for this is one of the thinnest of the disguises in which Shelley has masked the essential characteristics of his personality, that personality which Peacock had himself been caricaturing as Scythrop, in my opinion rather wildly and remotely, in his charming book Nightmare Abbey, published in 1818. Nor is it likely that the author of Nightmare Abbey, when he read for Shelley the proofsheets of Rosalind and Helen and recognized in Lionel the lineaments of which he had just given the world so different a representation in Scythrop, failed to observe in what particular popular agitation it was that Lionel figured as taking part. For, although the terms are large enough to be applicable to the French Revolution, the local colour is wholly English; and I cannot avoid the conclusion that here we have nothing more or less than an idealized record of the Reform agitation of 1816 and 1817. That very collapse of the democratic aspirations which Shelley witnessed in 1817 finds its appropriate place in Rosalind and Helen; and the final outrage of Lionel's imprisonment on a charge of blasphemy is precisely what Shelley was in constant risk of experiencing himself, and had been ever since his boyhood.
I have already referred to the basis of that part of