Obrázky na stránke

heard the eager discourse of the young enthusiast concerning the mysteries of nature and the deeper mysteries of mind ; has seen him at his favourite sports of skimming stones and sailing paper-boats on river or pond; has strode across country with the pair in their joyous winter walks, and shared the frugal supper which they enjoyed on their return; has witnessed “the divine poet's ” sweet humanity towards those who needed the sustenance of hand or heart, and no less his sudden outbreaks of indignation against the wrongdoer and the oppressor ; has smiled with the narrator at the quaint freaks and fancies of the immortal child.

“ The devotion, the reverence, the religion with which he was kindled towards all the masters of intellect," says Hogg, “cannot be described.” The biographer speaks of the purity and “sanctity" of Shelley's life, of his “meek seriousness” of heart, and “marvellous gentleness” of disposition. But with reverence for the self-elected masters of his intellect, and this marvellous gentleness Shelley united a contempt for inheritance and tradition, and an intellectual audacity which was unchecked by any adequate sense of the difficulties encompassing the great problems of human thought. His guides were the lights of the eighteenth-century illumination. Had he mastered Kant as well as Holbach, and submitted his intellect to Burke as he submitted it to Godwin, he might not have shot up as quickly, but his roots would have plunged deeper and embraced the soil more firmly. Yet it is hard to conceive Shelley as other than he actually was. be that the logical gymnastic of his studies in eighteenth-century thinkers--and those especially of France-saved him in some degree from the dangers of an excessive tendency towards the visionary. " Had it not been for this sharp brushing away of intellectual cobwebs,” writes Mr. Salt, “his genius, always prone to mysticism and metaphysical subtleties, might have lost itself . . . in a labyrinth of dreams and phantasies, and thus have wasted its store of moral enthusiasm.” Only we must remember that in the eighteenth-century crusade against thrones and churches there was a good deal of visionary destructiveness, as events have proved, and that a part of Shelley's moral enthusiasm, as some of us venture to think, was not wisely directed.

Shelley's career at University College was brief. In February 1811 a small pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism was issued from a provincial press at Worthing in Sussex. The author's name was not given, but in Oxford, where the pamphlet was offered for sale, it was known to be the work of Shelley. On being interrogated by the master of his college Shelley refused to answer the questions put to him. The same questions were put to Hogg, who had come forward to remon

And it may strate with the authorities ; he also declined to reply, and on 25th March both youths were expelled from University College for contumacy in refusing to answer questions and declining to disavow the publication.

“I once was an enthusiastic Deist,” Shelley wrote a few weeks later, “ but never a Christian." His atheism was the denial of a creator rather than the denial of a living spirit of the universe. A Christian he never became in the theological sense of that word ; but certainly, at a later time, he deeply reverenced the personal character of Jesus. And his militant ardour against the historical developments of Christianity in some degree waned as he became better acquainted with the literature and art of mediæval Italy. His faith in later years had in it something of Plato's and of Berkeley's idealism ; something perhaps also of the philosophic system of Spinoza.

A word must be said of the “ Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson," which appeared in Shelley's first term at University College. Poems written with a serious intention, but bearing all the marks of immaturity, were put forth under cover of a jest, and were perhaps retouched-Hogg assisting --with a view to burlesque effect. Margaret Nicholson, a mad washerwoman, had attempted the King's life, and was now in Bedlam. It was decided that she should be the authoress of the verses, and that their publication should be posthumous, under the editorial supervision of an imaginary nephew, John Fitz-Victor. The pamphlet was brought out in quarto form; the mystification perhaps delighted the author, but we do not find it difficult to credit the publisher's statement that the work was almost still-born.

On quitting Oxford the two college friends resided for a while together in London lodgings. Mr. Timothy Shelley refused to receive his son at Field Place unless he would undertake to break off all communication with Hogg, and submit himself to appointed tutors and governors. Such conditions Shelley declined to accept, and so remained in exile from his home with a sore feeling that he was unjustly punished for intellectual beliefs for which he was not morally responsible. On Hogg's departure to his friends, Shelley remained in lodgings alone. His younger sisters were schoolgirls at Clapham, and through them he had already made the acquaintance of their companion, Harriet Westbrook, a pink and white schoolgirl beauty of sixteen, with a pleasant temper, a bright smile, and a pretty manner,—the daughter of a retired London coffee-house keeper. Her guide and guardian, the elder Miss Westbrook, already thirty years old, showed a most affectionate interest in the young misbeliever, who was also a prospective baronet with a great property entailed, wrote to him, called on him with Harriet, conducted him to church, read under his guidance the works of heretics. When in the summer Shelley visited his cousin Mr. Grove at Cwm Elan in Radnorshire, the Westbrooks were also in Wales, and communications went to and fro between Shelley and the sisters. On the return of the Westbrooks to London urgent letters came from Harriet ; she was persecuted in her home; they were about to force her to return to school where she was miserable ; should she resist her father, or would it be wrong to put an end to her life ? Another letter came in which she threw herself on Shelley's protection ; she would fly with him if he were but willing. Shelley hastened to London, yet before he left Wales he found time to write to his cousin Charles telling him that if he devoted himself to Harriet it was not for love's sake but through a chivalrous motive of self-sacrifice. On seeing Harriet, he was shocked by her altered looks, which he ascribed to the suffering caused by domestic persecution ; she now avowed that it was not so, that she loved him and feared that he could not return her love. They parted with a promise on Shelley's part that if she summoned him from the country he would come quickly and unite his fate with hers.

Within a week the summons arrived. Immediately arrangements for flight by the northern mail-coach were made, and on the 28th of August 1811 Shelley and Harriet Westbrook, aged respectively nineteen and sixteen, joined hands as man and wife at Edinburgh, with such ceremony as the Scottish law required. It needed some straining of the principles of a disciple of William Godwin to submit to a legal form of marriage ; but for the sake of Harriet's appearance in the eyes of the world he consented to what he regarded as an evil. He assured her that for his own part he did not consider the contract binding, if at some future time their union should prove a source of misery instead of happiness. And in so far he was obedient to the teaching of his philosophic master.

In fact, at this time, Shelley was immeasurably more interested in a Sussex schoolmistress, Miss Hitchener, whom he had idealised into an Egeria or a Cythna, than in Harriet Westbrook. This very commonplace person became for his boyish imagination a type of all that is most exalted in womanhood, but his feeling was one of homage and rapture, not a feeling of love, which could descend to the commonplace of wedlock. “ Blame me if thou wilt, dearest friend,” he wrote to her, when apologising for his marriage, “ for still thou art dearest to me ; yet pity even this error if thou blamest me.” A closer acquaintance with Miss Hitchener, a year later, resulted -- after a fashion too common with Shelley-in an idealisation of an opposite kind; the

1 See Southey's last letter to Shelley in Southey's Correspondence with Caroline Bowles.

worthy woman assumed the form of a demon of selfishness and ignoble passion, an angel indeed still, but of the diabolic kind.

Shelley's father had allowed him two hundred pounds a year before his marriage; now he saw fit to give the rash boy a lesson by cutting off supplies. Ultimately the allowance was again given, and with two hundred pounds also from Mr. Westbrook, the young couple were no in danger of want.

From Edinburgh they journeyed to York, where they passed under the control of the evil providence of their wedded life, the elder sister, Eliza Westbrook ; and where misconduct of Hogg's caused a temporary breach between him and Shelley. From York they passed to Keswick, attracted in part by the fact that there resided Southey, for whose poetry Shelley at the time had a strong admiration. Southey received the young people with characteristic kindness, but to Shelley he seemed a spent force, a withered branch, because he took little interest in metaphysical subtleties, and had lost his early confidence in the virtue of Revolutionary abstractions. A more congenial personal influence was that of William Godwin, with whom Shelley entered into correspondence while at Keswick; he laid bare his spirit before Godwin as before a philosophic confessor, listened to his direction with reverence, and hoped for the joy of a closer intimacy with this latest and greatest of the sages.

With his desire at once to translate his ideas into action for the service of the world, Shelley looked abroad for a battlefield where he might combat on behalf of freedom, and he found it, as he supposed, in Ireland. He prepared an Address to the Irish people, consisting, as he states it, “of the benevolent and tolerant deductions of philosophy reduced into the simplest language.” He would plead on behalf of Catholic Emancipation, on behalf of the Repeal of the Union ; he would endeavour to establish a system of societies in Ireland for the discussion of social, political, and moral questions; he would inculcate principles of virtue and benevolence. With such views he visited Dublin, scattered abroad a couple of pamphlets, spoke at a public meeting where O'Connell had harangued, dined with Curran and felt no liking for his host, discovered that the state of Irish politics and parties was not quite as simple as he had supposed, and, yielding to Godwin's advice and his own sense of failure, quitted Ireland, having effected little for the cause in which he was interested.

From Dublin Shelley, with Harriet and the inevitable Eliza Westbrook, crossed to Wales, and after a short residence amid wood and stream and mountain at Nantg willt, proceeded to the coast of North Devon, and took up his abode (June 1812) in a cottage at Lynmouth, then a secluded fishing-village. The July and August days were among the happiest of Shelley's life; his regard for his young wife had deepened into sincere love; he was in communication with the immortal Godwin ; his lady of light, Miss Hitchener, visited the cottage, and was not yet discovered to be an intolerable affliction ; his mind was vigorously occupied with a prose pleading on behalf of liberty of speech-the “ Letter to Lord Ellenborough,”—and with certain ambitious enterprises in verse. Of these last some still remain in manuscript ; but the most important, “Queen Mab,” sufficiently exposes its author's spirit at this period, his convictions, his hopes, his dreams, his views of the past, his aspirations towards the future. “It is,” I have said elsewhere, a kind of synthesis which harmonises the political and social fervours of the Irish expedition, with all their wisdom and folly, and the imaginative exaltation to which the grandeur and loveliness of Welsh hillsides and Devon cliffs and waves had given rise.” It is a pamphlet in verse, but with some of the beauty of poetry underlying its declamatory prophesyings. Its pictorial effects are sometimes rather spectacular than in a high sense imaginative. Its thought is often crude. It suffers from a moral shallowness, derived in part from Godwin, and arising from the supposition that evil exists less in human character than in human institutions. Its survey of the past history of society is superficial and one-sided ; its hopes for the future are in great part phantastic. Yet the poem, which may be held to lie midway between Shelley's “ Juvenilia" and the works of his adult years, has value in its deep sympathy with humanity and its imaginative setting forth of the idea of a cosmos, the unity of nature, the universality of law, the vast and ceaseless flow of Being ever subject to a process of evolution and development. In certain passages the writer ceases to be a doctrinaire rhetorician, and rises into a poet who can interpret alike the facts of external nature and the longings of the human heart. “ Villainous trash,” was Shelley's own description of “ Queen Mab," when a pirated edition appeared in 1821 ; but time, the arbiter, has pronounced that forms in fact an integral part of his gift to our literature. “Queen Mab” was finished in February 1813, and was printed in that year for private distribution.

Shelley's residence at Lynmouth came to an untimely end. He had amused himself—yet with a grave face—by launching into the Bristol Channel boxes and bottles, each laden with a copy of his broadsheet “Declaration of Rights,” or his poem “The Devil's Walk,” for the waves and winds to put into circulation. On 19th August his Irish servant was watched as he posted up about Barnstaple copies of the “Declaration,” a statement on the subject of government and society drawn up on the model of French Revolutionary documents. The Irishman was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to six months' imprison

« PredošláPokračovať »