Obrázky stránek

him, and he immediately set aside a portion for Harriet's use." He had been peculiarly solitary in these last few months. The Godwins ignored him and Mary; some of his friends of the preceding year had fallen away; and Hogg and Peacock were perhaps his only habitual companions.

In the winter which began 1815 he walked a London hospital, in order to acquire some knowledge of surgery which might enable him to be of service to the poor. It has been said, indeed, that he had now a sort of idea of studying medicine professionally; feeling that it might be necessary for him to adopt some definite calling in life, and having more inclination for this than for any other. He had entertained the project as far back as the summer of 1811, prior to his marriage with Harriet, and had even studied medicine then for a short while under a celebrated surgeon. His own health, however, was very delicate in 1815; and in the spring an eminent physician pronounced him to be in a rapid consumption. This passed away : his lungs suddenly righted in 1818, but the other forms of ill-health from which he suffered remained. A tour along the south coast of Devonshire, and to Clifton, was made in the summer.

He next rented a house at Bishopgate Heath, near Windsor Forest; and passed here several months of comparative health and tranquillity, spending whole days under the oaks of Windsor Great Park. At the end of August, Shelley, with Mary (always named Mrs. Shelley), Peacock, and Charles Clairmont, went in a wherry towards the source of the Thames beyond Lechlade in Gloucestershire. The beautiful Lines in Lechlade Churchyard were the result. Another possible result, in Mr. Peacock's estimation, may have been the great taste for boating which Shelley ever afterwards retained. This, however, is one of the small points on which much difference of opinion has been expressed. An Eton schoolfellow, Mr. W. S. Halliday (quoted by Hogg), affirms that Shelley never boated at Eton; whereas Medwin says that Shelley not only spoke of boating as having been his greatest delight at Eton, but had also, within the biographer's own knowledge, shown the same taste in still earlier boyhood at the Brentford school, and Mr. Middleton speaks to the same effect as regards Eton, naming Mr. Amos as Shelley's

Shelley was not at once placed beyond embarrassment in consequence of his grand. father's death. Mr. Locker possesses an unpublished letter from the poet, dated 14th April 1815, saying that he had the most urgent necessity for the advance of such a sum as £500. The statement in the text as to Harriet may be relied upon, though not derived from any printed source.

boating companion there. Hogg says nothing about boating by his friend as coming under his own observation at Oxford or afterwards; but relates as symptomatic a prank with washingtubs played by the poet on a rill at Bracknell. Perhaps we should conclude that Shelley did a great deal of boating in boyhood, but little afterwards until this Lechlade trip revived the fancy. Mr. Peacock thinks that the excessive hobby which Shelley had for floating paper boats may also have been derived from his example: it was, however, according to Hogg,' a Shelleyan habit at Oxford. It has been said that on one occasion, having no other paper at hand, he launched a £50 bank postbill on the pond in Kensington Gardens, and, with greater good luck than he deserved, succeeded in recovering it on the opposite bank. This Hogg denies ; but Medwin will have it that such an incident did really occur with a £10 note on the Serpentine. Once, when Shelley was playing with paper boats, he jestingly said that he could wish to be shipwrecked in one of them-he would like death by drowning best. It is curious to note how many times, before the final catastrophe, something occurred to associate the idea of drowning with Shelley—now merely by way of joke, now by some passages in his writings, now by calamities in his family circle, now by premonitory danger to himself. One salient instance is pointed out by Lady Shelley, from an allusion made by the poet to an article in the Quarterly Review comparing him to Pharaoh in the Red Sea. “It describes the result of my battle with their Omnipotent God; his pulling me under the sea by the hair of my head, like Pharaoh ; my entreating everybody to drown themselves; pretending not to be drowned myself, when I am drowned ; and lastly being drowned.”

Alastor, written in 1815 at some time after the Lechlade excursion, was published in the succeeding year in a small volume containing also the bulk of the short pieces classed in our edition as Early Poems. In Alastor we at last have the genuine, the immortal Shelley. It may indeed be said that the poem, though singularly lovely and full-charged with meaning, has a certain morbid vagueness of tone, a want of firm human body: and this is true enough. Nevertheless, Alastor is proportionately worthy of the author of Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci, the greatest Englishman of his age; which cannot fully be said even of Queen Mab, and must be peremptorily denied

Hogg's Life, vol. i. pp. 83, 84. I think Hogg means (but his expressions are not very clear) that Shelley acquired the habit towards the end of 1810.


of any preceding attempts. It may well be supposed that the genial atmosphere of domestic love and intellectual sympathy in which Shelley was now living with Mary contributed to the kindly development of his poetic power.

XIII.-SECOND CONTINENTAL TRIP BYRON. At the beginning of May 1816 Shelley and Mary, with her infant son William born on the 24th of January, and Miss Clairmont, again went abroad, reaching Paris on the 8th of the month. William was not strictly Mary's first-born; as a daughter had before come prematurely into the world, living only a few days. The practical reason for the trip was probably the obvious one-that they felt inclined for it: but Shelley somehow conceived that there was a more abstruse reason-viz., that his father and uncle (meaning, no doubt, Sir John Shelley-Sidney, not Captain Pilfold) were laying a trap for him with the view of locking him up, and that Mr. Williams, the agent of Mr. Madocks of Tanyrallt, had come down to Bishopgate, and given him warning of this plot, which the poet believed to be only one out of many that his father had schemed for the same purpose. That Shelley made such an allegation is certain from the testimony of Mr. Peacock; and that the allegation was untrue is convincingly represented on the same testimony. How this new delusion got into Shelley's head it is difficult to conceive—the objectlessness of inventing such a tale for Mr. Peacock's sole behoof being patent, not to speak of the lofty veracity of Shelley's character in essentials. We must remember that a poet is “of imagination all compact ;” and, as no one had a better right than Shelley to the name of poet, none consequently had a readier store of imaginations which he propounded as realities. But even this was not the last mysterious transaction which beset his departing footsteps. The very night before his leaving London for the continent, a married lady of fashion, young, handsome, rich, and nobly connected, called upon him, and avowed that the author of Queen Mab, hitherto personally unknown to her, was her ideal of everything exalted in man, and that she had come to be the partner of his life. Shelley could but explain that he was no longer his own to dispose of; and, with much effusion and magnanimity on both sides, they parted. But the lady followed him to the continent, and many a time watched him, herself unseen, on the Lake of Geneva. The sequel of this story belongs to a later date. Such is the narrative which Shelley, not very long before his death, detailed to Medwin and Byron, and which the former has handed down to us with no lack of embellishing touches. Byron disbelieved the story, attributing all to “an overwrought imagination"; and everybody since seems to have agreed with him—Lady Shelley, for instance, saying that no sort of confirmatory evidence appears in the farnily papers. Medwin, however, is a believer.

The tourists reached Sécheron, near Geneva, on the 17th of May. On the 25th Lord Byron, with his travelling physician Dr. Polidori, arrived at the same hotel; and the two parties encountered on the 27th, if not before. Byron and Shelley had not previously met : they now found themselves in daily and intimate intercourse. Shelley expressed in 1818, in his introductory words to Fulian and Maddalo, an estimate of Byron which he probably formed, in essential respects, soon after he first knew him in Switzerland. “He is a person of the most consummate genius, and capable, if he would direct his energies to such an end, of becoming the redeemer of his degraded country [i.e. according to the poem, not England but Venice. But it is his weakness to be proud : he derives, from a comparison of his own extraordinary mind with the dwarfish intellects which surround him, an intense apprehension of the nothingness of human life. . . . I say that Maddalo is proud, because I can find no other word to express the concentred and impatient feelings which consume him; but it is on his own hopes and affections only that he seems to trample, for in social life no human being can be more patient, gentle, and unassuming, than Maddalo. He is cheerful, frank, and witty." In fact, the feelings of Shelley for Byron were at all periods of a very mixed kind. He admired intensely his poetic genius, and most intensely some of his performances-in especial Cain and certain sections of Don Juan (both of them works of a later date than 1816). He was totally destitute of uneasy personal vanity as a poet; and, so far from feeling any jealousy of Byron's splendid success both with cultivated judges and with ordinary readers, he very greatly undervalued himself in comparison, though on the other hand he was resolved not to be or appear in any way a literary satellite of the great luminary. At the present day we see all these things with very different eyes; and have to reason ourselves into believing that, while the author of Childe Harold and Don Juan was an intellectual power throughout Europe, and divided the laurel of poetry with Göthe, the author of Prometheus Unbound and Epipsychidion was almost “nowhere," save only in the laudations of a few partisans, and in the foul mouths and hypocritical hysterics of quarterly or other orthodox calumniators, heirs to all dearest traditions of scribes and pharisees. Queen Mab and The Cenci may have been partial exceptions. The former made some faint sort of stir, in which its audacities of opinion count no doubt for almost everything: The Cenci went through two English editions in a short while. But, as regards the other poems, I presume it is no exaggeration to say that hardly one of them sold, during Shelley's lifetime, to the extent of a hundred copies, in the open market of literature ;3 and perhaps even ten copies would be a bold guess with respect to Epipsychidion and Adonais. Thus far as regards Shelley's literary relation to Byron. As to his personal relation, he found much to fascinate him in the poet's company, and was always eagerly susceptible to the finer points of his character; but he bitterly censured his promiscuous and lowering immoralities, and counted him, on more grounds and occasions than one, a difficult man to keep friends with. “ The canker of aristocracy wants to be cut out was one of his observations; and perhaps. nothing could be said in so small a space going equally close to the substructure of all that was worst in Byron. The reader, however, should turn to Fulian and Maddalo itself, to refresh at the fountain-head his recollection of what Shelley thought of his brother-poet.

* For some reason which I do not find explained, Mrs. Shelley applied the name Albè to Byron.

For his part, Byron had a most genuine regard for Shelley, and a sincere relish for his society. He set great store by his critical opinion, and admired his poetry very highly, though

Some notices of Shelley in Blackwood's Magazine should be excepted, as neither cliqueish nor abusive : see those of Alastor, Rosalind and Helen, and Prometheus, in the volumes for 1819-20. They show-especially the first-sincere admiration and personal kindliness of feeling, though there is more than enough about Shelley's portentous religious and other opinions. One of them, probably the critique of Alastor, was at the time attributed by Shelley to Walter Scott: The review of Prometheus is certainly not unmixed praise : we read that “it is quite impossible that there should exist a more pestiferous mixture of blasphemy, sedition, and sensuality." The later review of Adonais in Blackwood is most outrageous-a tissue of scurrilous sneers and (as regards Keats) of low callousness. The critic finds in the

poem two sentences of pure nonsense out of every three : a more faithful calculation would bring us to ninety-nine out of every hundred."

2 I follow other writers in mentioning The Cenci as a moderate success. Yet Shelley had no reason to think it such up to 15th February 1821, at any rate, when he wrote to Mr. Peacock (Fraser's Magazine, March 1860), "Nothing is more difficult and unwelcome than to write without a confidence of finding readers; and, if my play of The Cenci found none or few, I despair of ever producing anything that shall merit them.

3" I hope Ollier has told you that Shelley's book sells more and more" is an expression of Leigh Hunt in a letter dated 12th November 1818. This book must be the Revolt of Islam, which may possibly have failed rather less manifestly than some other volumes: yet Medwin says it "fell almost stillborn from the press.” He uses a like phrase with regard to Prometheus Unbound.

« PředchozíPokračovat »