HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Sort By Author Sort By Title
pixel - Memoir Of Shelley.

Sort By Author
Sort By Title


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics
Memoir Of Shelley.

The life of Percy Bysshe Shelley is one which has given rise to a great deal of controversy, and which cannot, for a long time to come, fail to be regarded with very diverse sentiments. His extreme opinions on questions of religion and morals, and the great latitude which he allowed himself in acting according to his own opinions, however widely they might depart from the law of the land and of society, could not but produce this result. In his own time he was generally accounted an outrageous and shameful offender. At the present date many persons entertain essentially the same view, although softened by lapse of years, and by respect for his standing as a poet: others regard him as a conspicuous reformer. Some take a medium course, and consider him to have been sincere, and so far laudable; but rash and reckless of consequences, and so far censurable. His poetry also has been subject to very different constructions. During his lifetime it obtained little notice save for purposes of disparagement and denunciation. Now it is viewed with extreme enthusiasm by many, and is generally admitted to hold a permanent rank in English literature, though faulty (as some opine) through vague idealism and want of backbone. These are all points on which I shall here offer no personal opinion. I shall confine myself to tracing the chief outlines of Shelley's life, and (very briefly) the sequence of his literary work.

Percy Bysshe Shelley came of a junior and comparatively undistinguished branch of a very old and noted family. His branch was termed the Worminghurst Shelleys; and it is only quite lately that the affiliation of this branch to the more eminent and senior stock of the Michelgrove Shelleys has passed from the condition of a probable and obvious surmise into that of an established fact. The family traces up to Sir William Shelley, Judge of the Common Pleas under Henry VII, thence to a Member of Parliament in 1415, and to the reign of Edward I, or even to the Norman Conquest. The Worminghurst Shelleys start with Henry Shelley, who died in 1623. It will be sufficient here to begin with the poet's grandfather, Bysshe Shelley. He was born at Christ Church, Newark, North America, and raised to a noticeable height, chiefly by two wealthy marriages, the fortunes of the junior branch. Handsome, keen-minded, and adventurous, he eloped with Mary Catherine, heiress of the Rev. Theobald Michell, of Horsham; after her death he eloped with Elizabeth Jane, heiress of Mr. Perry, of Penshurst. By this second wife he had a family, now represented, by the Baron de l'Isle and Dudley: by his first wife he had (besides a daughter) a son Timothy, who was the poet's father, and who became in due course Sir Timothy Shelley, Bart., M.P. His baronetcy was inherited from his father Bysshe—on whom it had been conferred, in 1806, chiefly through the interest of the Duke of Norfolk, the head of the Whig party in the county of Sussex, to whose politics the new baronet had adhered.

Mr. Timothy Shelley was a very ordinary country gentleman in essentials, and a rather eccentric one in some details. He was settled at Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex, and married Elizabeth, daughter of Charles Pilfold, of Effingham, Surrey; she was a beauty, and a woman of good abilities, but without any literary turn. Their first child was the poet, Percy Bysshe, born at Field Place on Aug. 4, 1792: four daughters also grew up, and a younger son, John: the eldest son of John is now the Baronet, having succeeded, in 1889, Sir Percy Florence Shelley, the poet's only surviving son. No one has managed to discover in the parents of Percy Bysshe any qualities furnishing the prototype or the nucleus of his poetical genius, or of the very exceptional cast of mind and character which he developed in other directions. The parents were commonplace: if we go back to the grandfather, Sir Bysshe, we encounter a man who was certainly not commonplace, but who seems to have been devoid of either poetical or humanitarian fervour. He figures as intent upon his worldly interests, accumulating a massive fortune, and spending lavishly upon the building of Castle Goring; in his old age, penurious, unsocial, and almost churlish in his habits. His passion was to domineer and carry his point; of this the poet may have inherited something. His ideal of success was wealth and worldly position, things to which the poet was, on the contrary, abnormally indifferent.

Shelley's schooling began at six years of age, when he was placed under the Rev. Mr. Edwards, at Warnham. At ten he went to Sion House School, Brentford, of which the Principal was Dr. Greenlaw, the pupils being mostly sons of local tradesmen. In July, 1804, he proceeded to Eton, where Dr. Goodall was the Head Master, succeeded, just towards the end of Shelley's stay, by the far severer Dr. Keate. Shelley was shy, sensitive, and of susceptible fancy: at Eton we first find him insubordinate as well. He steadily resisted the fagging-system, learned more as he chose than as his masters dictated, and was known as 'Mad Shelley,' and 'Shelley the Atheist.' It has sometimes been said that an Eton boy, if rebellious, was termed 'Atheist,' and that the designation, as applied to Shelley, meant no more than that. I do not feel satisfied that this is true at all; at any rate it seems to me probable that Shelley, who constantly called himself an atheist in after-life, received the epithet at Eton for some cause more apposite than disaffection to school-authority.

He finally left Eton in July, 1810. He had already been entered in University College, Oxford, in April of that year, and he commenced residence there in October. His one very intimate friend in Oxford was Thomas Jefferson Hogg, a student from the county of Durham. Hogg was not, like Shelley, an enthusiast eager to learn new truths, and to apply them; but he was a youth appreciative of classical and other literature, and little or not at all less disposed than Percy to disregard all prescription in religious dogma. By demeanour and act they both courted academic censure, and they got it in its extremest form. Shelley wrote, probably with some co-operation from Hogg, and he published anonymously in Oxford, a little pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism; he projected sending it round broadcast as an invitation or challenge to discussion. This small pamphlet—it is scarcely more than a flysheet—hardly amounts to saying that Atheism is irrefragably true, and Theism therefore false; but it propounds that the existence of a God cannot be proved by reason, nor yet by testimony; that a direct revelation made to an individual would alone be adequate ground for convincing that individual; and that the persons to whom such a revelation is not accorded are in consequence warranted in remaining unconvinced. The College authorities got wind of the pamphlet, and found reason for regarding Shelley as its author, and on March 25, 1811, they summoned him to appear. He was required to say whether he had written it or not. To this demand he refused an answer, and was then expelled by a written sentence, ready drawn up. With Hogg the like process was repeated. Their offence, as entered on the College records, was that of 'contumaciously refusing to answer questions,' and 'repeatedly declining to disavow' the authorship of the work. In strictness therefore they were expelled, not for being proclaimed atheists, but for defying academic authority, which required to be satisfied as to that question. Shortly before this disaster an engagement between Shelley and his first cousin on the mother's side, Miss Harriet Grove, had come to an end, owing to the alarm excited by the youth's sceptical opinions.

Settling in lodgings in London, and parting from Hogg, who went to York to study conveyancing, Percy pretty soon found a substitute for Harriet Grove in Harriet Westbrook, a girl of fifteen, schoolfellow of two of his sisters at Clapham. She was exceedingly pretty, daughter of a retired hotel-keeper in easy circumstances. Shelley wanted to talk both her and his sisters out of Christianity; and he cultivated the acquaintance of herself and of her much less juvenile sister Eliza, calling from time to time at their father's house in Chapel Street, Grosvenor Square. Harriet fell in love with him: besides, he was a highly eligible parti, being a prospective baronet, absolute heir to a very considerable estate, and contingent heir (if he had assented to a proposal of entail, to which however he never did assent, professing conscientious objections) to another estate still larger. Shelley was not in love with Harriet; but he liked her, and was willing to do anything he could to further her wishes and plans. Mr. Timothy Shelley, after a while, pardoned his son's misadventure at Oxford, and made him a moderate allowance of 200 a-year. Percy then visited a cousin in Wales, a member of the Grove family. He was recalled to London by Harriet Westbrook, who protested against a project of sending her back to school. He counselled resistance. She replied in July 1811 (to quote a contemporary letter from Shelley to Hogg), 'that resistance was useless, but that she would fly with me, and threw herself upon my protection.' This was clearly a rather decided step upon the damsel's part: we may form our own conclusions whether she was willing to unite with Percy without the bond of marriage; or whether she confidently calculated upon inducing him to marry her, her family being kept in the dark; or whether the whole affair was a family manoeuvre for forcing on an engagement and a wedding. Shelley returned to London, and had various colloquies with Harriet: in due course he eloped with her to Edinburgh, and there on 28th August he married her. His age was then just nineteen, and hers sixteen. Shelley, who was a profound believer in William Godwin's Political Justice, rejected the institution of marriage as being fundamentally irrational and wrongful. But he saw that he could not in this instance apply his own pet theories without involving in discredit and discomfort the woman whose love had been bestowed upon him. Either his opinion or her happiness must be sacrificed to what he deemed a prejudice of society: he decided rather to sacrifice the former.

For two years, or up to an advanced date in 1813, the married life of Shelley and Harriet appears to have been a happy one, so far as their mutual relation was concerned; though rambling and scrambling, restricted by mediocrity of income (400 a year, made up between the two fathers), and pestered by the continual, and to Percy at last very offensive, presence of Miss Westbrook as an inmate of the house. They lived in York, Keswick in Cumberland, Dublin (which Shelley visited as an express advocate of Catholic emancipation and repeal of the Union), Nantgwillt in Radnorshire, Lynmouth in Devonshire, Tanyrallt in Carnarvonshire, London, Bracknell in Berkshire: Ireland and Edinburgh were also revisited. Various strange adventures befell; the oddest of all being an alleged attempt at assassination at Tanyrallt. Shelley asserted it, others disbelieved it: after much disputation the biographer supposes that, if not an imposture, it was a romance, and, if not a romance, at least a hallucination,—Shelley, besides being wild in talk and wild in fancy, being by this time much addicted to laudanum-dosing. In June 1813 Harriet gave birth, in London, to her first child, Ianthe Eliza (she married a Mr. Esdaile, and died in 1876). About the same time Shelley brought out his earliest work of importance, the poem of Queen Mab: its speculative audacities were too extreme for publication, so it was only privately printed.

Amiable and accommodating at first, and neither ill-educated nor stupid, Harriet did not improve in tone as she advanced in womanhood. Her sympathy or tolerance for her husband's ideals and vagaries flagged; when they differed she gave him the cold shoulder; she wanted luxuries—such as a carriage of her own—which he neither cared for nor could properly afford. He even said—and one can hardly accuse him of saying it insincerely—that she had been unfaithful to him: this however remains quite unproved, and may have been a delusion. He sought the society of the philosopher Godwin, then settled as a bookseller in Skinner Street, Holborn. Godwin's household at this time consisted of his second wife, who had been a Mrs. Clairmont; Mary, his daughter by his first wife, the celebrated Mary Wollstonecraft; and his young son by his second wife, William; also his step-children, Charles and Clare Clairmont, and Fanny Wollstonecraft (or Imlay), the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft by her first irregular union with Gilbert Imlay. Until May 1814, when she was getting on towards the age of seventeen, Shelley had scarcely set eyes on Mary Godwin: he then saw her, and a sudden passion sprang up between them—uncontrollable, or, at any rate, uncontrolled. Harriet Shelley has left it on record that the advances and importunities came from Mary Godwin to Shelley, and were for a while resisted: it was natural for Harriet to allege this, but I should not suppose it to be true, unless in a very partial sense. Shelley sent for his wife, who had gone for a while to Bath (perhaps in a fit of pettishness, but this is not clear), and explained to her in June that they must separate—a resolve which she combated as far as seemed possible, but finally she returned to Bath, staying there with her father and sister. Shelley made some arrangements for her convenience, and on the 28th of July he once more eloped, this time with Mary Godwin. Clare Clairmont chose to accompany them. Godwin was totally opposed to the whole transaction, and Mrs. Godwin even pursued the fugitives across the Channel; but her appeal was unavailing, and the youthful and defiant trio proceeded in much elation of spirit, and not without a good deal of discomfort at times, from Calais to Paris, and thence to Brunen by the Lake of Uri in Switzerland. It is a curious fact, and shows how differently Shelley regarded these matters from most people, that he wrote to Harriet in affectionate terms, urging her to join them there or reside hard by them. Mary, before the elopement took place, had made a somewhat similar proposal. Harriet had no notion of complying; and, as it turned out, the adventurers had no sooner reached Brunen than they found their money exhausted, and they travelled back in all haste to London in September,—Clare continuing to house with them now, and for the most part during the remainder of Shelley's life. Even a poet and idealist might have been expected to show a little more worldly wisdom than this. After his grievous experiences with Eliza Westbrook, the sister of his first wife, Shelley might have managed to steer clear of Clare Clairmont, the sister by affinity of his second partner in life. He would not take warning, and he paid the forfeit: not indeed that Clare was wanting in fine qualities both of mind and of character, but she proved a constant source of excitement and uneasiness in the household, of unfounded scandal, and of harassing complications.

In London Shelley and Mary lived in great straits, abandoned by almost all their acquaintances, and playing hide-and-seek with creditors. But in January 1815 Sir Bysshe Shelley died, and Percy's money affairs improved greatly. An arrangement was arrived at with his father, whereby he received a regular annual income of 1000, out of which he assigned to Harriet 200 for herself and her two children—a son, Charles Bysshe, having been born in November 1814 (he died in 1826). Shelley and Mary next settled at Bishopgate, near Windsor Forest. In May 1816 they went abroad, along with Miss Clairmont and their infant son William, and joined Lord Byron on the shore of the Lake of Geneva. An amour was already going on between Byron and Miss Clairmont; it resulted in the birth of a daughter, Allegra, in January 1817; she died in 1822, very shortly before Shelley. He and Mary had returned to London in September 1816. Very shortly afterwards, 9th of November, the ill-starred Harriet Shelley drowned herself in the Serpentine: her body was only recovered on the 10th of December, and the verdict of the Coroner's Jury was 'found drowned,' her name being given as 'Harriet Smith.' The career of Harriet since her separation from her husband is very indistinctly known. It has indeed been asserted in positive terms that she formed more than one connexion with other men: she had ceased to live along with her father and sister, and is said to have been expelled from their house. In these statements I see nothing either unveracious or unlikely: but it is true that a sceptical habit of mind, which insists upon express evidence and upon severe sifting of evidence, may remain unconvinced. This was the second suicide in Shelley's immediate circle, for Fanny Wollstonecraft had taken poison just before under rather unaccountable circumstances. No doubt he felt dismay and horror, and self-reproach as well; yet there is nothing to show that he condemned his conduct, at any stage of the transactions with Harriet, as heinously wrong. He took the earliest opportunity—30th of December—of marrying Mary Godwin; and thus he became reconciled to her father and to other members of the family.

It was towards the time of Harriet's suicide that Shelley, staying in and near London, became personally intimate with the essayist and poet, Leigh Hunt, and through him he came to know John Keats: their first meeting appears to have occurred on 5th February, 1817. As this matter bears directly upon our immediate theme, the poem of Adonais, I deal with it at far greater length than its actual importance in the life of Shelley would otherwise warrant.

Hunt, in his Autobiography, narrates as follows. 'I had not known the young poet [Keats] long when Shelley and he became acquainted under my roof. Keats did not take to Shelley as kindly as Shelley did to him. Shelley's only thoughts of his new acquaintance were such as regarded his bad health with which he sympathised [this about bad health seems properly to apply to a date later than the opening period when the two poets came together], and his poetry, of which he has left such a monument of his admiration as Adonais. Keats, being a little too sensitive on the score of his origin, felt inclined to see in every man of birth a sort of natural enemy. Their styles in writing also were very different; and Keats, notwithstanding his unbounded sympathies with ordinary flesh and blood, and even the transcendental cosmopolitics of Hyperion, was so far inferior in universality to his great acquaintance that he could not accompany him in his daedal rounds with Nature, and his Archimedean endeavours to move the globe with his own hands [an allusion to the motto appended to Queen Mab]. I am bound to state thus much; because, hopeless of recovering his health, under circumstances that made the feeling extremely bitter, an irritable morbidity appears even to have driven his suspicions to excess; and this not only with regard to the acquaintance whom he might reasonably suppose to have had some advantages over him, but to myself, who had none; for I learned the other day with extreme pain ... that Keats, at one period of his intercourse with us, suspected both Shelley and myself of a wish to see him undervalued! Such are the tricks which constant infelicity can play with the most noble natures. For Shelley let Adonais answer.' It is to be observed that Hunt is here rather putting the cart before the horse. Keats (as we shall see immediately) suspected Shelley and Hunt 'of a wish to see him undervalued' as early as February 1818; but his 'irritable morbidity' when 'hopeless of recovering his health' belongs to a later date, say the spring and summer of 1820.

It is said that in the spring of 1817 Shelley and Keats agreed that each of them would undertake an epic, to be written in a space of six months: Shelley produced The Revolt of Islam (originally entitled Laon and Cythna), and Keats produced Endymion. Shelley's poem, the longer of the two, was completed by the early autumn, while Keats's occupied him until the winter which opened 1818. On 8th October, 1817, Keats wrote to a friend, 'I refused to visit Shelley, that I might have my own unfettered scope; meaning presumably that he wished to finish Endymion according to his own canons of taste and execution, without being hampered by any advice from Shelley. There is also a letter from Keats to his two brothers, 22nd December, 1817, saying: 'Shelley's poem Laon and Cythna is out, and there are words about its being objected to as much as Queen Mab was. Poor Shelley, I think he has his quota of good qualities.' As late as February 1818 He wrote, 'I have not yet read Shelley's poem.' On 23rd January of the same year he had written: 'The fact is, he [Hunt] and Shelley are hurt, and perhaps justly, at my not having showed them the affair [Endymion in MS.] officiously; and, from several hints I have had, they appear much disposed to dissect and anatomize any trip or slip I may have made.' It was at nearly the same date, 4th February, that Keats, Shelley, and Hunt wrote each a sonnet on The Nile: in my judgment, Shelley's is the least successful of the three.

Soon after their marriage, Shelley and his second wife settled at Great Marlow, in Buckinghamshire. They were shortly disturbed by a Chancery suit, whereby Mr. Westbrook sought to deprive Shelley of the custody of his two children by Harriet, Ianthe and Charles. Towards March 1818, Lord Chancellor Eldon pronounced judgment against Shelley, on the ground of his culpable conduct as a husband, carrying out culpable opinions upheld in his writings. The children were handed over to Dr. Hume, an army-physician named by Shelley: he had to assign for their support a sum of 120 per annum, brought up to 200 by a supplement from Mr. Westbrook. About the same date he suffered from an illness which he regarded as a dangerous pulmonary attack, and he made up his mind to quit England for Italy; accompanied by his wife, their two infants William and Clara, Miss Clairmont, and her infant Allegra, who was soon afterwards consigned to Lord Byron in Venice. Mr. Charles Cowden Clarke, who was Keats's friend from boyhood, writes: 'When Shelley left England for Italy, Keats told me that he had received from him an invitation to become his guest, and in short to make one of his household. It was upon the purest principle that Keats declined his noble proffer, for he entertained an exalted opinion of Shelley's genius—in itself an inducement. He also knew of his deeds of bounty, and from their frequent social intercourse he had full faith in the sincerity of his proposal.... Keats said that, in declining the invitation, his sole motive was the consciousness, which would be ever prevalent with him, of his being, in its utter extent, not a free agent, even within such a circle as Shelley's—he himself nevertheless being the most unrestricted of beings.' Mr. Clarke seems to mean in this passage that Shelley, before starting for Italy, invited Keats to accompany him thither—a fact, if such it is, of which I find no trace elsewhere. It is however just possible that Clarke was only referring to the earlier invitation, previously mentioned, for Keats to visit at Great Marlow; or he may most probably, with some confusion as to dates and details, be thinking of the message which Shelley, when already settled in Italy for a couple of years, addressed to his brother-poet—of which more anon.

Shelley and his family—including for the most part Miss Clairmont—wandered about a good deal in Italy. They were in Milan, Leghorn, the Bagni di Lucca, Venice and its neighbourhood, Rome, Naples, Florence, Pisa, the Bagni di Pisa, and finally (after Shelley had gone to Ravenna by himself) in a lonely house named Casa Magni, between Lerici and San Terenzio, on the Bay of Spezzia. Their two children died; but in 1819 another was born, the Sir Percy Florence Shelley who lived on till November 1889. They were often isolated or even solitary. Among their interesting acquaintances at one place or another were, besides Byron, Mr. and Mrs. Gisborne (the latter had previously been Mrs. Reveley, and had been sought in marriage by Godwin after the death of Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797); the Contessina Emilia Viviani, celebrated in Shelley's poem of Epipsychidion; Captain Medwin, Shelley's cousin and schoolfellow; the Greek Prince, Alexander Mavrocordato; Lieutenant and Mrs. Williams, who joined them at Casa Magni; and Edward John Trelawny, an adventurous and daring sea-rover, who afterwards accompanied Byron to Greece.

It was only towards the summer of 1819 that Shelley read the Endymion. He wrote of it thus in a letter to his publisher, Mr. Ollier, September 6, 1819. 'I have read ... Keats's poem.... Much praise is due to me for having read it, the author's intention appearing to be that no person should possibly get to the end of it. Yet it is full of some of the highest and the finest gleams of poetry: indeed, everything seems to be viewed by the mind of a poet which is described in it. I think, if he had printed about fifty pages of fragments from it, I should have been led to admire Keats as a poet more than I ought—of which there is now no danger.' Shelley regarded the Hymn to Pan, in the first Book of Endymion, as affording 'the surest promise of ultimate excellence.'

The health of Keats having broken down, and consumption having set in, Shelley wrote to him from Pisa urging him to come over to Italy as his guest. Keats did not however go to Pisa, but, along with the young painter Joseph Severn, to Naples, and thence to Rome. I here subjoin Shelley's letter.

'Pisa—27 July, 1820.


'I hear with great pain the dangerous accident you have undergone [recurrence of blood-spitting from the lungs], and Mr. Gisborne, who gives me the account of it, adds that you continue to wear a consumptive appearance. This consumption is a disease particularly fond of people who write such good verses as you have done, and with the assistance of an English winter, it can often indulge its selection. I do not think that young and amiable poets are bound to gratify its taste: they have entered into no bond with the Muses to that effect. But seriously (for I am joking on what I am very anxious about) I think you would do well to pass the winter in Italy, and avoid so tremendous an accident; and, if you think it as necessary as I do, so long as you continue to find Pisa or its neighbourhood agreeable to you, Mrs. Shelley unites with myself in urging the request that you would take up your residence with us. You might come by sea to Leghorn (France is not worth seeing, and the sea is particularly good for weak lungs)—which is within a few miles of us. You ought, at all events, to see Italy; and your health, which I suggest as a motive, may be an excuse to you. I spare declamation about the statues and paintings and ruins, and (what is a greater piece of forbearance) about the mountains and streams, the fields, the colours of the sky, and the sky itself.

'I have lately read your Endymion again, and even with a new sense of the treasures of poetry it contains—though treasures poured forth with indistinct profusion. This people in general will not endure; and that is the cause of the comparatively few copies which have been sold. I feel persuaded that you are capable of the greatest things, so you but will. I always tell Ollier to send you copies of my books. Prometheus Unbound I imagine you will receive nearly at the same time with this letter. The Cenci I hope you have already received: it was studiously composed in a different style.

"Below the good how far! but far above the great!"

In poetry I have sought to avoid system and mannerism. I wish those who excel me in genius would pursue the same plan.

'Whether you remain in England, or journey to Italy, believe that you carry with you my anxious wishes for your health and success—wherever you are, or whatever you undertake—and that I am

'Yours sincerely,


Keats's reply to Shelley ran as follows:—

'Hampstead—August 10, 1820.


'I am very much gratified that you, in a foreign country, and with a mind almost over-occupied, should write to me in the strain of the letter beside me. If I do not take advantage of your invitation, it will be prevented by a circumstance I have very much at heart to prophesy. There is no doubt that an English winter would put an end to me, and do so in a lingering hateful manner. Therefore I must either voyage or journey to Italy, as a soldier marches up to a battery. My nerves at present are the worst part of me: yet they feel soothed that, come what extreme may, I shall not be destined to remain in one spot long enough to take a hatred of any four particular bedposts.

'I am glad you take any pleasure in my poor poem—which I would willingly take the trouble to unwrite if possible, did I care so much as I have done about reputation.

'I received a copy of The Cenci, as from yourself, from Hunt. There is only one part of it I am judge of—the poetry and dramatic effect, which by many spirits nowadays is considered the Mammon. A modern work, it is said, must have a purpose; which may be the God. An artist must serve Mammon: he must have "self-concentration"—selfishness perhaps. You, I am sure, will forgive me for sincerely remarking that you might curb your magnanimity, and be more of an artist, and load every rift of your subject with ore. The thought of such discipline must fall like cold chains upon you, who perhaps never sat with your wings furled for six months together. And is not this extraordinary talk for the writer of Endymion, whose mind was like a pack of scattered cards? I am picked up and sorted to a pip. My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk.

'I am in expectation of Prometheus every day. Could I have my own wish effected, you would have it still in manuscript, or be but now putting an end to the second Act. I remember you advising me not to publish my first blights, on Hampstead Heath. I am returning advice upon your hands. Most of the poems in the volume I send you [this was the volume containing Lamia, Hyperion, &c.] have been written above two years, and would never have been published but for hope of gain: so you see I am inclined enough to take your advice now.

'I must express once more my deep sense of your kindness, adding my sincere thanks and respects for Mrs. Shelley. In the hope of soon seeing you I remain

'Most sincerely yours,


It may have been in the interval between writing his note Of invitation to Keats, and receiving the reply of the latter, that Shelley penned the following letter to the Editor of the Quarterly Review—the periodical which had taken (or had shared with Blackwood's Magazine) the lead in depreciating Endymion. The letter, however, was left uncompleted, and was not dispatched. (I omit such passages as are not directly concerned with Keats):—


'Should you cast your eye on the signature of this letter before you read the contents, you might imagine that they related to a slanderous paper which appeared in your Review some time since.... I am not in the habit of permitting myself to be disturbed by what is said or written of me.... The case is different with the unfortunate subject of this letter, the author of Endymion, to whose feelings and situation I entreat you to allow me to call your attention. I write considerably in the dark; but, if it is Mr. Gifford that I am addressing, I am persuaded that, in an appeal to his humanity and justice, he will acknowledge the fas ab hoste doceri. I am aware that the first duty of a reviewer is towards the public; and I am willing to confess that the Endymion is a poem considerably defective, and that perhaps it deserved as much censure as the pages of your Review record against it. But, not to mention that there is a certain contemptuousness of phraseology, from which it Is difficult for a critic to abstain, in the review of Endymion, I do not think that the writer has given it its due praise. Surely the poem, with all its faults, is a very remarkable production for a man of Keats's age ; and the promise of ultimate excellence is such as has rarely been afforded even by such as have afterwards attained high literary eminence. Look at book 2, line 833, &c., and book 3, lines 113 to 120; read down that page, and then again from line 193[8]. I could cite many other passages to convince you that it deserved milder usage. Why it should have been reviewed at all, excepting for the purpose of bringing its excellences into notice, I cannot conceive; for it was very little read, and there was no danger that it should become a model to the age of that false taste with which I confess that it is replenished.

'Poor Keats was thrown into a dreadful state of mind by this review, which, I am persuaded, was not written with any intention of producing the effect—to which it has at least greatly contributed—of embittering his existence, and inducing a disease from which there are now but faint hopes of his recovery. The first effects are described to me to have resembled insanity, and it was by assiduous watching that he was restrained from effecting purposes of suicide. The agony of his sufferings at length produced the rupture of a blood-vessel in the lungs, and the usual process of consumption appears to have begun. He is coming to pay me a visit in Italy; but I fear that, unless his mind can be kept tranquil, little is to be hoped from the mere influence of climate.

'But let me not extort anything from your pity. I have just seen a second volume, published by him evidently in careless despair. I have desired my bookseller to send you a copy: and allow me to solicit your especial attention to the fragment of a poem entitled Hyperion, the composition of which was checked by the review in question. The great proportion of this piece is surely in the very highest style of poetry. I speak impartially, for the canons of taste to which Keats has conformed in his other compositions are the very reverse of my own. I leave you to judge for yourself: it would be an insult to you to suppose that, from motives however honourable, you would lend yourself to a deception of the public.'

The question arises, How did Shelley know what he here states—that Keats was thrown, by reading the Quarterly article, into a state resembling insanity, that he contemplated suicide, &c.? Not any document has been published whereby this information could have been imparted to Shelley: his chief informant on the subject appears to have been Mr. Gisborne, who had now for a short while returned to England, and some confirmation may have come from Hunt. As to the statements themselves, they have, ever since the appearance in 1848 of Lord Houghton's Life of Keats, been regarded as very gross exaggerations: indeed, I think the tendency has since then been excessive in the reverse direction, and the vexation occasioned to Keats by hostile criticism has come to be underrated.

Shelley addressed to Keats in Naples another letter, 'anxiously enquiring about his health, offering him advice as to the adaptation of diet to the climate, and concluding with an urgent invitation to Pisa, where he could assure him every comfort and attention.' Shelley did not, however, re-invite Keats to his own house on the present occasion; writing to Miss Clairmont, 'We are not rich enough for that sort of thing.' The letter to Miss Clairmont is dated 18 February, 1821, and appears to have been almost simultaneous with the one sent to Keats. In that case, Keats cannot be supposed to have received the invitation; for he had towards the middle of November quitted Naples for Rome, and by 18 February he was almost at his last gasp.

Shelley's feeling as to Keats's final volume of poems is further exhibited in the following extracts, (To Thomas Love Peacock, November, 1820.) 'Among the modern things which have reached me is a volume of poems by Keats; in other respects insignificant enough, but containing the fragment of a poem called Hyperion, I dare say you have not time to read it; but it is certainly an astonishing piece of writing, and gives me a conception of Keats which I confess I had not before.' (To Mrs. Leigh Hunt, 11 November, 1820.) 'Keats's new volume has arrived to us, and the fragment called Hyperion promises for him that he is destined to become one of the first writers of the age. His other things are imperfect enough, and, what is worse, written in the bad sort of style which is becoming fashionable among those who fancy that they are imitating Hunt and Wordsworth.... Where is Keats now? I am anxiously expecting him in Italy, when I shall take care to bestow every possible attention on him. I consider his a most valuable life, and I am deeply interested in his safety. I intend to be the physician both of his body and his soul,—to keep the one warm, and to teach the other Greek and Spanish. I am aware indeed, in part, that I am nourishing a rival who will far surpass me; and this is an additional motive, and will be an added pleasure.' (To Peacock, 15 February, 1821.) 'Among your anathemas of the modern attempts in poetry do you include Keats's Hyperion? I think it very fine. His other poems are worth little; but, if the Hyperion be not grand poetry, none has been produced by our contemporaries.' There is also a phrase in a letter to Mr. Ollier, written on 14 May, 1820, before the actual publication of the Lamia volume: 'Keats, I hope, is going to show himself a great poet; like the sun, to burst through the clouds which, though dyed in the finest colours of the air, obscured his rising.'

Keats died in Rome on 23 February, 1821. Soon afterwards Shelley wrote his Adonais. He has left various written references to Adonais, and to Keats in connexion with it: these will come more appropriately when I speak of that poem itself. But I may here at once quote from the letter which Shelley addressed on 16 June, 1821, to Mr. Gisborne, who had sent on to him a letter from Colonel Finch, giving a very painful account of the last days of Keats, and especially (perhaps in more than due proportion) of the violence of temper which he had exhibited. Shelley wrote thus: 'I have received the heartrending account of the closing scene of the great genius whom envy and ingratitude scourged out of the world. I do not think that, if I had seen it before, I could have composed my poem. The enthusiasm of the imagination would have overpowered the sentiment. As it is, I have finished my Elegy; and this day I send it to the press at Pisa. You shall have a copy the moment it is completed, I think it will please you. I have dipped my pen in consuming fire for his destroyers: otherwise the style is calm and solemn.

As I have already said, the last residence of Shelley was on the Gulf of Spezzia. He had a boat built named the Ariel (by Byron, the Don Juan), boating being his favourite recreation; and on 1 July, 1822, he and Lieut. Williams, along with a single sailor-lad, started in her for Leghorn, to welcome there Leigh Hunt. The latter had come to Italy with his family, on the invitation of Byron and Shelley, to join in a periodical to be called The Liberal. On 8 July Shelley, with his two companions, embarked to return to Casa Magni. Towards half-past six in the evening a sudden and tremendous squall sprang up. The Ariel sank, either upset by the squall, or (as some details of evidence suggest) run down near Viareggio by an Italian fishing-boat, the crew of which had plotted to plunder her of a sum of money. The bodies were eventually washed ashore; and on 16 August the corpse of Shelley was burned on the beach under the direction of Trelawny. In the pocket of his jacket had been found two books—a Sophocles, and the Lamia volume, doubled back as if it had at the last moment been thrust aside. His ashes were collected, and, with the exception of the heart which was delivered to Mrs. Shelley, were buried in Rome, in the new Protestant Cemetery. The corpse of Shelley's beloved son William had, in 1819, been interred hard by, and in 1821 that of Keats, in the old Cemetery—a space of ground which had, by 1822, been finally closed.

The enthusiastic and ideal fervour which marks Shelley's poetry could not possibly be simulated—it was a part, the most essential part, of his character. He was remarkably single-minded, in the sense of being constantly ready to do what he professed as, in the abstract, the right thing to be done; impetuous, bold, uncompromising, lavishly generous, and inspired by a general love of humankind, and a coequal detestation of all the narrowing influences of custom and prescription. Pity, which included self-pity, was one of his dominant emotions. If we consider what are the uses, and what the abuses, of a character of this type, we shall have some notion of the excellences and the defects of Shelley. In person he was well-grown and slim; more nearly beautiful than handsome; his complexion brilliant, his dark-brown but slightly grizzling hair abundant and wavy, and his eyes deep-blue, large, and fixed. His voice was high-pitched—at times discordant, but capable of agreeable modulation; his general aspect uncommonly youthful.

The roll of Shelley's publications is a long one for a man who perished not yet thirty years of age. I append a list of the principal ones, according to date of publication, which was never very distant from that of composition. Several minor productions remain unspecified.

1810. Zastrozzi, a Romance. Puerile rubbish.

"   Original Poetry, by Victor and Cazire.
Withdrawn, and ever since unknown.

"   Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson.
Balderdash, partly (it would appear) intended as burlesque.

1811. St. Irvyne, or The Rosicrucian, a Romance.
No  better than Zastrozzi.

1813. Queen Mab. Didactic and subversive.

1817. Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude, and other Poems.
The earliest volume fully worthy of its author.

1818. Laon and Cythna—reissued as The Revolt of Islam.
An epic of revolution and emancipation in the
Spenserian Stanza.

1819. Rosalind and Helen, a modern Eclogue, and other Poems.
The character of 'Lionel' is an evident
idealisation of Shelley himself.

1819. The Cenci, a Tragedy. Has generally been regarded
as the finest English tragedy of modern date.

"   Prometheus Unbound, a Lyrical Drama, and other Poems.
The Prometheus ranks as at once the greatest and the most
thoroughly characteristic work of Shelley.

1819. Oedipus Tyrannus, or Swellfoot the Tyrant. A
Satirical Drama on the Trial of Queen Caroline.

1821. Epipsychidion. A poem of ideal love under a human personation.

"   Adonais.

1822. Hellas. A Drama on the Grecian War of Liberation.

1824. Posthumous Poems. Include Julian and Maddalo,
written in 1818, The Witch of Atlas, 1820, The
Triumph of Life, 1822, and many other compositions
and translations.

The Masque of Anarchy and Peter Bell the Third, both written by Shelley in 1819, were published later on; also various minor poems, complete or fragmentary. Peter Bell the Third has a certain fortuitous connexion with Keats. It was written in consequence of Shelley's having read in The Examiner a notice of Peter Bell, a Lyrical Ballad (the production of John Hamilton Reynolds): and this notice, as has very recently been proved, was the handiwork of Keats. Shelley cannot have been aware of that fact. His prose Essays and Letters, including The Defence of Poetry, appeared in 1840. The only known work of Shelley, extant but yet unpublished, is the Philosophical View of Reform: an abstract of it, with several extracts, was printed in the Fortnightly Review in 1886.

Contributed by Rossetti, William Michael


Terms Defined

Referenced Works