Obrázky na stránke
PDF
ePub

INTRODUCTION

ALTHOUGH Shelley wrote narrative poems and one great tragedy, his genius was primarily lyrical, and his poetry tells more to a reader who is acquainted with his character and the events of his life than to one who knows the poems only as if they had fallen out of the air from some invisible singer. No poet ever sang more directly out of his own feelings—his joys, his sorrows, his desires, his regrets; and what he has written acquires a fuller meaning when we understand its source and its occasion. Shelley's poetry belongs also to a particular epoch in the world's history—the revolutionary epoch — and what may fairly be described as the body of doctrine which forms the intellectual background of his imaginative visions can be comprehended only when we consider his work in relation to the period of which it is the outcome. “A beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain ”_s0 Matthew Arnold, with a variation of Joubert's sentence on Plato, defined his conception of Shelley. The charm of the phrase must not render us insensible of its remoteness from the fact. Shelley was no angel, whether of celestial or diabolic race, but most human in his passions, his errors, his failures, his achievement. Nor was it in the void that he lived and moved; he belonged in an eminent degree to the revolutionary movement of his own day, and viewed apart from the teaching of that geometer of the Revolution whom he accepted as his master -- William Godwin — the work of Shelley is only half intelligible.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on 4th August 1792 at Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex. The family was ancient and honourable, but no ancestor of the poet had ever given proof of literary genius. His grandfather, Bysshe Shelley, who received a baronetcy in 1806, had accumulated a large fortune, had married two heiresses, had quarrelled with his children, and now, troubled with gout and the infirmities of age, lived somewhat penuriously in a cottage-house at Horsham. Timothy

1 "Plato loses himself in the void, but one sees the play of his wings, one hears their rustle," quoted by Matthew Arnold in his essay on Joubert.

Shelley, the poet's father, was a country gentleman-dull, consequential, irritable, but not unkindly in disposition, who in the House of Commons gave an unwavering vote for the Whig party, and who was secured from all risk of aberration from the social conventions by a happy inaccessibility to ideas. His wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Charles Pilfold of Effingham, Surrey, was beautiful in person, and a woman of good sense, when her good sense was not obscured by temper. Though no lover of literature, she was an excellent letter-writer. Percy, the eldest child, inherited his mother's beauty.

He was slight of figure, of fair and ruddy complexion, with luminous blue eyes, and hair curling naturally, which changed from golden to a rich brown ; in temperament gentle yet excitable, of rare sensibility, prone to yield up his imagination to fantastic tale or vision, but not devoid of a certain quaint mirthfulness which took delight in oddity and surprises. Having acquired some knowledge of Latin from a neighbouring country parson, he was sent at ten years old to Sion House Academy, Isleworth, where Dr. Greenlaw taught some fifty or sixty boys, chiefly of the social middle class, and where Shelley's cousin, Thomas Medwin, was a pupil. The rough tyranny of the elder lads, who looked on the new scholar as strange and unsocial because he was sensitive and shy, sometimes drove him to violent outbreaks of passion ; yet, says his schoolfellow Rennie, “if treated with kindness, he was very amiable, noble, high-spirited, and generous." Here Shelley made some progress in classical learning ; his sense of intellectual wonder was much stimulated by scientific lectures ; and his heart awoke to the new and exquisite pleasure of romantic attachment to a boy of about his own age, whom he describes as of a character eminently generous, brave, and gentle.

In 1804 he passed from Sion House Academy to Eton, at that date under the headmastership of Dr. Goodall, an excellent scholar and kindly gentleman, but one who held the reins of authority perhaps somewhat too loosely. Shelley's tutor, George Bethell, with whom he boarded, was unluckily the dullest man in Eton ; he had the merit, however, of being good-humoured and well-meaning. At Eton as at Sion House Shelley stood apart from the throng of his schoolfellows. His spirit rose in rebellion against the system of fagging ; he did not join in the school sports ; he pursued studies in which his young coevals did not care to follow him. All things seemed to point out “mad Shelley” as a fit and proper victim upon whom the other boys might let loose their animal spirits. “I have seen him," wrote a schoolfellow, “surrounded, hooted, baited like a maddened bull.” If it was his tormentors' wish to excite their victim to paroxysms of rage, they often attained the desired end. Yet here, as at his earlier school, he won the goodwill of

a few of his schoolfellows, who describe him as generous and openhearted, of remarkable tenderness of heart, possessed of much moral courage, and fearing nothing but what was false or low. No friend pleased him better than old Dr. Lind of Windsor, a man original in character and opinions, and of most amiable temper. Shelley has given idealised portrai of this friend of his boyhood in Zonoras of “ Prince Athanase” and the aged hermit of “ The Revolt of Islam.”

Shelley's interest in what we may term the romantic side of modern science increased during the Eton years. He read the classics with a delight in the beauty of the poetry and a keen interest in the philosophical views of certain writers,--among these Lucretius and Pliny, but without showing much capacity for minute exactness of scholarship. The chief masters of his intellect were those eighteenth century thinkers who seemed to bring into a certain harmony the destructive or sceptical criticism of the age and those boundless hopes for the future which sprung phantomlike from the ruins of the past. He was too young to have learned the lessons of experience derived from the facts of the French Revolution, as they developed themselves from day to day. He accepted the doctrine of the Aufklärung from Godwin's Political Justice with awed and delighted mind. With Condorcet he beheld as in a vision the endless progress of the human race. His dreams were bright and generous dreams of youth, and in truth they were not altogether of a baseless fabric. Much that has become actual in the nineteenth century has grown out of the visions and aspirations of the age of revolution ; much perhaps remains to be realised.

Two moments of boyhood memorable in the development of his spirit have found record in Shelley's verse—that in which, escaping from the feelings of resentment and revenge excited by the persecutions and tyrannies of school, he vowed, for his own part, to be just, gentle, wise, and free; and that other moment when his imagination, escaping from the excitements of gross, fantastic horror, devoted its powers to the pursuit of spiritual beauty. The record of one of these moments will be found in the dedication of " The Revolt of Islam”; the record of the other in the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty." Both of these inspirations of high resolve came in the springtime, when the awakened life of nature seemed to reinforce the vitality of the spirit.

Before leaving Eton Shelley was an author. The romance of Zastrozzi, published in April 1810, was written, at least in great part, a year earlier. This and a second romance, St. Irvyne, or the Rosicrucian, which appeared before the close of the same year, are indescribably but not unaccountably absurd in their crude efforts at sublimity, their overwrought horrors, their pseudo-passion, their sentimental inanities. The

b

author, still a boy, was yielding an untrained imagination to the romantic movement of his day, as represented by its worst models, just as he had yielded his intellect in bondage, which fancied itself liberty, to the revolutionary speculators and dreamers. Shelley's boyish romances cease to be inexplicably bad when we have made acquaintance with certain Minerva Press novels of the same date ; we see that he was only a disciple, not a creator, of the fantastic-absurd, to which Mrs. Radcliffe and M. G. Lewis had given a vogue, and which just at this date was satirised in Northanger Abbey, the earliest novel of our most exquisite humorist of domestic life. A poem in several cantos on the subject of “The Wandering Jew” was written (1810) by Medwin and Shelley in conjunction ; four cantos appeared after Shelley's death, but it is uncertain whether they contain more than a few lines from his hand. A thin volume of verse entitled Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire, the work of Shelley and another, actually saw the light in September 1810; it was speedily withdrawn from circulation by the publisher on discovering the fact that one of the pieces was a transcript from the pages of M. G. Lewis. No copy of the Original Poetry is known to exist, and we can hardly regret the disappearance of verses which a reviewer describes, in all probability not unjustly, as "downright scribble."

It has been suggested that Shelley's coadjutor who assumed the feminine name

Cazire” was his cousin Harriet Grove, a beautiful girl of his own age, whom he loved with a boy's first ardour, and whom he would fain have made a partner in his own social, political, and religious beliefs and disbeliefs. The tone of his correspondence alarmed Harriet's family, and before long they had another settlement for her in view. Shelley suffered, or imagined that he suffered, much, declaimed against bigotry, and was resolved henceforth to wage bitter war against that destroyer of human happiness.

Having matriculated at University College, Oxford, in April 1810, Shelley entered on residence in Michaelmas term of the same year. In his fellow-student, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, son of a north-country gentleman of Tory politics, he found his closest ally. Hogg had high intellectual powers and a genuine love of literature ; his type of mind and character was as remote from Shelley's as can well be conceived ; he was keen-sighted, shrewd, sarcastic, but not devoid of some of the generosity of youth ; and he was highly interested in observing such a singular and charming phenomenon among young Oxonians of the days of the Regency as the idealist Shelley. Every one who knows anything of Shelley's life knows Hogg's admirable portrayal of Shelley at Oxford ; every one has been an intimate with Hogg in the college chambers, wildly confused with electrical and chemical apparatus ; has

« PredošláPokračovať »