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PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY
OF poets of revolt, of the “Satanic school” as Southey said, none was more delicate, ethereal, and divinely inspired than Shelley. Because of his fiery independence of spirit he revolted against the bonds of custom and convention and gained for himself among his contemporaries an undeserved reputation for gross immorality, but with the passage of a century, the innate purity of his life and motives has been recognized. Historical perspective has thrown into their proper relations many of the incidents once magnified beyond all reason.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born August 4, 1792, at an old-fashioned country house called Field Place, near Horsham, in Sussex. His father, Timothy Shelley, was the son and heir of Sir Bysshe Shelley, Bart, and was Member of Parliament for the constituency of Shoreham. His mother, Elizabeth Pilfold, was of a good Surrey family, and was herself beautiful and capable, but not notably literary.
As a child Shelley was sensitive, impetuous, and highly imaginative. His brothers and sisters, all younger than he, have recorded for us incidents peculiarly valuable in revealing his imaginative and romantic nature, as his description of the nearby wood inhabited by a dragon and a headless specter, of the huge turtle in the pond, of the wise old snake in the garden, of the alchemist in the garret. After primary education at schools in the neighborhood, he went to Eton at twelve, where he gained the sobriquets of “Mad Shelley" and "Shelley the atheist," and was not popular either with masters or with his schoolmates. He left Eton at eighteen and entered University College, Oxford.
Shelley had already shown his decided bent toward literature. In his childhood he had scribbled verses with ease, and while he was still in Eton he published two wild prose romances, Zastrossi and St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian, reflections of the Mrs. Radcliffe school. At the time of his matriculation at Oxford he had poems in the hands of publishers. He showed thus early the impetuous hurry which characterized him through life, the tendency to ignore solid facts and logic in the sweep of his impulses and his imagination, to rush into print with his immature work and half-formed theories.
Shelley's stay at the University was very brief. With a friend, Hogg, as his confidant, he printed anonymously a little pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, an argument that neither reason nor testimony adequately establishes the existence of a deity, and sent it broadcast to invite discussion. The authorities at the College traced the authorship to him, and expelled him and his friend March 25, 1811.
Shelley went to London. He found himself in desperate straits. His father, scandalized at his action, demanded that he return home, study, apologize to the Oxford authorities, and profess conformity to the Church. His allowances were cut off and he lived for a time on contributions from his sisters, secretly conveyed to him by a mutual friend, Miss Harriet Westbrook. Shelley refused to recant, and not until six weeks later was a reconciliation effected on the basis that Shelley should receive two hundred pounds a year and complete independence of action and thought. The acquiescence of the rather stubborn conventional father to these terms was due to the fact that Shelley was in direct line for the baronetcy, and was, therefore, a person of considerable importance.
Shelley's impetuous nature was shortly to involve him in more serious difficulties. The pretty intermediary during his six weeks in London, Harriet Westbrook, had fallen entirely under Shelley's proselyting influence, professed atheism, and rebelled against a return to school. She threw herself upon Shelley's protection, and he, really inspired by the purest and highest motives, eloped with her and married her in Edinburgh August 28, 1811. His conduct was highly honorable from every point of view, but the two were singularly ill-mated. His wife was beautiful, sweet-tempered, and well-bred, albeit she was the daughter of an innkeeper, but was wholly unable to "feel poetry and understand philosophy.” These failings, not serious in the wife of an ordinary man, were fatal for the happiness of Shelley.
The marriage bond held Shelley for about three years, but the continual bickering that arose between his wife and him proved intolerable at last. It must be remembered, in order to understand rightly the succeeding events, that Shelley's pronounced principles were wholly out of accord with the rules of society and the laws of his country. Marriage was to him merely a convention, not to be held sacred or inviolable. When he met a woman who could more intimately enter into a spiritual communion with him than could his wife, he held that, except for arbitrary conventions of society, he was free to accept such communion. In his mind he was violating no sacred law. Such a woman he met in Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. She was imbued as he was with atheistic principles and contempt for social convention. July 28, 1814, Shelley and she and Jane Clairmont, a half-sister, left the Godwin house, crossed to Calais, and went to Switzerland, all three prepared to ignore social conventions and accept the consequences. In January of 1815, upon the death of Sir Bysshe Shelley, the poet, as the prospective heir to his father, came immediately into possession of a good income.
In November of 1816, Harriet Shelley drowned herself in the Serpentine. Shelley had remained on good terms with her and had given her a liberal allowance for her needs, but she herself had formed a connection with some other man and had also become intemperate. Disappointment, disgrace, remorse, some ill-treatment at home, and an hereditary predisposition toward suicide combined to drive her to this fatal step. Shelley, though deeply shocked and grieved, never held himself in any way responsible. In December of 1816, all obstacles to the legal union of Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin being removed by Harriet's death, the marriage was performed.
Shelley now settled in Buckinghamshire and undertook to recover his children from the Westbrooks, but his right to do so was contested in the Chancery Court on the ground that Shelley had deserted his wife and would educate his children in his own atheistic and anti-social opinions. Judgment was given against Shelley, and the children were put under the guardianship of Dr. Hume, an orthodox army surgeon nominated by Shelley, the poet contributing liberally to their support.
In March, 1818, Shelley, frightened by what he believed to be serious lung trouble, moved his whole household to Italy, where he spent the remainder of his life. He migrated from place to place, - Milan, Leghorn, Venice, Rome, Naples, Florence, Pisa, — and in 1822 was living on the Casa Magni on the Gulf of Spezia. Much of the time there Shelley spent sailing in the little skiff, Don Juan, with his friend Williams. Early in July they set out across the gulf to meet Leigh Hunt at Leghorn. On the 8th they left Leghorn for the return trip. Days passed and nothing was heard of them. Trelawney, who had watched them sail out of Leghorn Harbor, rode in person along the shore toward Via Reggio searching for evidences of a wreck. At that place he found a water-keg and some bottles which had been in the boat. On the 18th, Shelley's body was cast up on the sand, “with the volume of Æschylus in one pocket, and Keats's poems in the other, doubled back, as if the reader, in the act of reading, had hastily thrust it away." On the 6th of August, the body was taken from the sand which had covered it and cremated on the spot in compliance with the requirements of the law. “The heat from the sun and fire was so intense that the atmosphere was tremulous and wavy," writes Trelawney; "the fire was so fierce as to produce a white heat on the iron, and to reduce its contents to gray ashes. The only portions that were not consumed were some fragments of bones, the jaw and skull; but what surprised us all was that the heart remained entire. In snatching tbis relic from the fiery furnace, my hand was severely burnt.” His ashes were carried to Rome and buried there in the little Protestant cemetery with the following inscription: “Percy Bysshe Shelley, Cor Cordium, Natus iv. Aug. M.CCXII. Obiit viji Jul. MDCCCXXII.
“Nothing of him that doth fade
Into something rich and strange." During his short and very eventful life as outlined above, Shelley had established himself as the greatest lyric poet who has written in English. Queen Mab was published when he was
twenty-one, Alastor in 1816, The Revolt of Islam in 1817, but all of Shelley's finest work was done during the four short years in Italy from 1818 to 1822. His genius had passed through its apprenticeship and matured rapidly. Of his longer poems, Rosalind and Helen was finished at Lucca in August, 1818; Julian and Maddolo (a reflection of the companionship with Byron), the lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound, perhaps his masterpiece, and his terrible tragedy, The Cenci, in 1819; Epipsychidion, Adonais, and Hellas, in 1821. Of the lyrics, practically all that we have retained as most characteristic of his genius were written during this period. Lines Written among the Euganean Hills was composed at Este in October of 1818; The Ode to the West Wind and The Indian Serenade, in 1819; The Cloud, and “I fear thy kisses, gentle maiden," in 1820; To Night, “Music, when soft voices die,” “One word is too often profaned,” “O world! O life! O time!” in 1821; and “When the lamp is shattered” and A Dirge, in 1822.
Shelley will always be to the discerning lover of poetry a shining example of success in failure, of an Arthur struggling for an ideal, failing, and yet supremely great in his failure. For Shelley sought to fix the delicate, intangible fancies that fit almost imperceptibly before our imaginations. Words are too crude a medium for this purpose: only music can approach success. Shelley was foredoomed to failure in his attempt. "Mr. Shelley's style," wrote William Hazlitt in his criticism of the Posthumous Poems, “is to poetry what astrology is to natural science - a passionate dream, a straining after impossibilities, a record of fond conjectures, a confused embodying of vague abstractions, – a fever of the soul, thirsting and craving after what it cannot have, indulging its love of power and novelty at the expense of truth and nature, associating ideas by contraries, and wasting great powers by their application to unattainable objects.” And yet, with due respect for Hazlitt's opinion, to the minds of many of us Shelley's great powers were not“wasted." His poetry strikes within us a chord which none but the greatest sound. We, too, have had our ideals, our impalpable
Fancies that broke through language and escaped; — our visions too filmy to be expressed in rough words, yet none the less real and precious. To us his poetry seems to have been the direct breath of a soul; as Macaulay says, “not to have been an art, but an inspiration."
WAEN genius has flowered in a man of letters, it is always customary to look back to parents or environment for the seeds and cultivation. In one man's father we note unusual force of character, marked piety, or the like; in another's mother we hear of a vivid imagination and a mind stored with old wives' tales; and to said fathers or mothers we may trace respectively the deep and scathing satire of one poet or the romantic fancies of another. No biographer has suc. ceeded, however, in identifying in the parentage and early environment of Keats the germs of the love of beauty and delicacy of touch that distinguished him in an era of great poets.
John Keats was born October 29 (or October 31), 1795. His father, Thomas Keats, had come as a boy to London and worked his way up to the place of head hostler in the Swan and Hoop livery-stable, kept by a Mr. John Jennings. The head hostler married Frances Jennings, daughter of his employer, and, upon the retirement of his father-in-law immediately after, took over the business. The newly married couple lived at the stable, and it was in their rooms there that John, their first child, was born.
In 1804, Thomas Keats was killed by a fall from a horse and less than a year later the widow married William Rawlings, apparently the successor to her husband in the ownership of the livery-stable. In 1806, she left her husband and, with her children, went to live with her mother, Mrs. Jennings, at Edmonton. The stepfather, Rawlings, seems to have passed out of the knowledge and lives of the children after this time.
The family was by no means left in poverty after the death of the father. Mr. Jennings had,
upon his death in 1805, left thirteen thousand pounds from which provision was made for his wife and daughter. There was enough to permit the children to have a good education with the possibility of preparation for a profession. John and his two brothers were sent to a little private school at Enfield kept by John Clarke, where John formed a friendship with Charles Cowden Clarke, the head master's son. Keats, was a bright, active, vivacious student, very pugnacious on occasions, and a natural leader among his schoolmates. During his last years at school, 1809 and 1810, all the energy of his nature seems to have turned by some inward impulse toward reading. He was at his books from morning to night, giving up the athletics of which he had been so fond and delighting in literature.
His mother died in 1810 and his guardians, desiring to train him for a profession, removed him from school in the same year and apprenticed him to Thomas Hammond, a surgeon at Edmonton. We know little of the years of this apprenticeship, except that, being near his old school, he often walked over to see Cowden Clarke and exchanged books with him, reading especially during these days Spenser and the Elizabethans. Charles Brown, intimate friend during the closing years of Keats's short life, is authority for the statement that Keats owed his own inspiration to write verse wholly to his soul-awakening upon reading Spenser. “In Spenser's fairyland," says Brown, "he was enchanted, breathed in a new world, and became another being; till, enamoured of the stanza, he attempted to imitate it, and succeeded. ... This, his earliest attempt, the Imitation of Spenser, is in his first volume of poems.”
In 1814, after a quarrel, the indentures of apprenticeship were canceled by mutual consent and Keats went to London to continue the study of his profession in Guy's and St. Thomas's hospitals, but his chief interest had already come to be poetry. Clarke had settled in London and Keats's intimate friendship with him was renewed. It was after a night's enthusiastic study of Chapman's Homer that Keats sent his friend the famous sonnet, “Much have I trarell'd in the realms of gold.” On another occasion early in 1816, Clarke showed some of Keats's manuscript poems to Leigh Hunt and brought the poet and Hunt together. Through Hunt Keats became acquainted with Shelley, Reynolds (a young man of promise who became one of his close friends and admirers), and the painter Haydon, whose fiery ardor struck an answering enthusiasm from the poet. Keats's friendships and the encouragement he received from those to whom his poetry was shown drew him further and further from his hospital work, so that in the winter of 1816 and 1817 he definitely abandoned his profession. In March, 1817, the Poems by John Keats were published, with a dedicatory sonnet to Leigh Hunt.
Despite occasional purple patches, the poems of 1817 deserved the neglect with which they were received, — a cordial but just appreciation in Hunt's Examiner, the enthusiasm of a few friends, a fair sale for a fortnight, and then oblivion. Apparently George Keats, the poet's brother, was inclined to blame the publisher for the chilly reception accorded to the little volume. We have the letter written by the publishers, C. and J. Ollier, to George Keats:
"Sir, — We regret that your brother ever requested us to publish this book, or that our opinion of its talent should have led us to acquiesce in undertaking it. We are, however, much obliged to you for relieving us from the unpleasant necessity of declining any further connexion with it, which we must have done, as we think the curiosity is satisfied, and the sale has dropped. By far the greater number of persons who have purchased it from us have found fault with it in such plain terms, that we have in many cases offered to take the book back rather than be annoyed with the ridicule which has, time after time, been showered upon it. In fact, it was only on Saturday last that we were under the mortification of having our own opinion of its merits flatly contradicted by a gentleman, who told us he considered it ‘no better than a take in.' These are unpleasant imputations for any one in business to labour under, but we should have borne them and concealed their existence from you had not the style of your note shewn us that such delicacy would be quite thrown away. We shall take means without delay for ascer. taining the number of copies on hand, and you shall be informed accordingly.”
Keats himself, before the full knowledge of the success or failure of his poems could be realized, went for rest and study to the Isle of Wight, from which he wrote to his friend Reynolds:
"I find I cannot do without poetry — without eternal poetry; half the day will not do it — the whole of it. I began with a little, but habit had made me a leviathan.... I shall forthwith begin my Endymion, which I hope I shall have got some way with before you come, when we will read our verses in a delightful place I have set my heart upon, near the Castle.”
Endymion: a Poetic Romance, was published in the spring of 1818. Its imperfections Keats himself discerned, — "I would write the subject thoroughly again but I am tired of it, and think the time would be better spent in writing a new romance," — and in his preface he acknowledges to the public his dissatisfaction with the results of his work, but his humility did not save him from the savage onslaughts of the reviewers. The poet was known to be a friend of Hunt, so that the Quarterly ranged him as a “puling satellite of the arch-offender and King of Cockaigne, Hunt," and advised his return “to plasters, pills, and ointment-boxes.” The poem has lived to confute these bitter criticisms. Faulty as it is in many ways, it has survived by virtue of the law set forth in its opening verse —
A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Keats was too much occupied just at this time to feel the full sting of the Quarterly's attack, for his brother George was setting out for America to try his fortune and his brother Tom was sickening with the same disease which later carried off the poet himself. He tenderly cared for his sick brother during the last months of the illness and after the death early in December, he went to live and share expenses with his friend Brown at Hampstead. At Brown's house he again became absorbed in his poetry, working at this time upon Hyperion.
During this same period the one great love-influence came into Keats's life. He became completely fascinated with Fanny Brawne, the daughter of a widow in the neighborhood. By his friends his choice was considered unfortunate, for the independent, self-confident girl of seventeen was wholly unfitted to be a fit mate for the delicate, sensitive poet. His experience was certainly an unhappy one. The condition of his finances was such that marriage could be considered only a remote possibility, and a little later the unmistakable signs in him of the consumption that had carried off his brother removed even this possibility. He was mentally tortured between his love for Miss Brawne, his anguish at the realization that marriage was impossible, and intense jealousy at the thought of any one else aspiring to her. He was alternately raised high in hope and cast into the deepest dejection.
And yet, unhappy and disturbed as he was at this time, he did his best work between the summer of 1818 and the spring of 1820. The poems of this period were published in July of the latter year, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, including the Ode: Bards of Passion and of Mirth, Ode on a Grecian Urn, La Belle Dame sans Merci, Ode to Psyche, Ode to a Nightingale, Lamia, and To Autumn. On February 3, 1820, his grave condition, suspected for a year previous, became evident to him when he saw a drop of blood from his mouth: “It is arterial blood – I cannot be deceived in that color ...” he said to his friend Brown; “I must
He was warned that he could not survive another winter in England, so, very reluctantly, he set out, September 18, for Naples, accompanied by an artist friend, Joseph Severn. The two friends went to Rome and settled in the Piazza di Spagna. There, on the 23d of February, Keats died. Four days later he was buried in the Protestant cemetery near the pyramid of Caius Sestius.
In thinking of Keats's poetry, we return to what he wrote his friend Reynolds: “I find I cannot do without poetry — without eternal poetry; half the day will not do it -- the whole of it." No poet was more fully absorbed in poetry than Keats. To him it was a passion, it was life itself. His was a mind peculiarly susceptible to beauty, beauty in the external world, beauty of thought and imagination, and beauty of language. As he was fed upon the Elizabethans in his youth and his young manhood, so his poetry, with its richness of imagination and its beauty of expression, takes us back to Spenser and Shakespeare. To Matthew Arnold, Keats is "the poet, who evidently caught from Spenser his sweet and easy-slipping movement, and who has