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fleeting distinction in the way of a peerage and a second baronetcy (the first baronetcy, in the older line, dates from 1611), and an eternal distinction in giving birth to the "poet of poets." The name Bysshe came into the family in the sixth generation after Edward Shelley; John Shelley, the then representative of the junior branch, having in 1692 married Helen, younger daughter and co-heiress of Roger Bysshe of Fen Place. His grandson was Bysshe Shelley, who was born in 1731, and became the poet's grandfather.
It was in the person of this Bysshe Shelley, and in the year 1806 (nearly fourteen years after the birth of the poet), that the second baronetcy came into the race. Sir Bysshe was then an old man, and the father of two families. By his first wife, Mary Katharine, heiress of the Rev. Theobald Mitchell of Horsham, he had a son Timothy (the poet's father) and a daughter. By his second wife, Elizabeth Jane Sydney, heiress of Mr. Perry of Penshurst, he had three sons and two daughters. This second family shall not concern us here; further than to say that it inherited from the mother the blood of Sir Philip and other Sydneys, and that the eldest son, John, assumed the name of Shelley-Sidney of Penshurst, was made a baronet, and was the father of Philip Charles Sidney, created Baron de l'Isle and Dudley.
The man who married two heiresses, became a baronet, and founded a second family of sufficient standing to receive a further baronetcy in the first generation, and a peerage in the second, was presumably not an altogether commonplace person: if we may trust the memoir-writers, Sir Bysshe Shelley, so far from being commonplace, was decidedly eccentric. He was tall, handsome, and clever; and represented, in the eyes of a younger generation, a gentleman of the old school. His place of birth was Christ's Church, Newark, in North America; in that country, having no fortune, he is said to have practised as a quack doctor, and to have owned a mill. He was penurious, yet spent lavishly upon building Castle Goring, which he left unfinished. A staunch adherent of the Whig house of Norfolk (the prime magnates in his part of the county of Sussex), he thus earned his baronetcy. For years before his death, which occurred on the 6th of January 1815, he had lived in retirement at Horsham, not on good terms with his eldest son Timothy, whom he would curse to his face with a will. He left him one of the
opulent heirs of the kingdom: £300,000 in the funds, and £20,000 per annum, being named as the amount which the vigorous old man "cut up for." Among several curious incidents of his life, the most odd of all* is that he eloped with both of his English wives: and two of his daughters also eloped. (A rumour was current of an American wife preceding both the English ones; and there is apparently something in this story, as a letter from Percy Shelley, dated in January 1812, and seen by myself, exists in MS., saying that his grandfather behaved very badly to "three wives.") Thus elopement was a tradition in the family; which we may bear in mind when another such performance comes to be spoken of—that of the poet. Sir Bysshe had no speculative opinions, unless in the way of negation, and cared nothing for the speculative opinions of others, however extreme: his grandson Percy and he were therefore on terms of mutual tolerance and mutual alienation. The less there was in common between them, the less call was there for positive antipathy: a shrug of the shoulders summed up all. Sir Bysshe was indeed on much better terms with his youthful and aspiring grandson and godson than with his own son Timothy. The same letter which I have referred to just above says that Sir Bysshe was "a complete atheist," and built all his hopes on annihilation.
Timothy Shelley was born in September 1753. In 1791 he married Elizabeth, a rare beauty, daughter of Charles Pilfold Esquire, of Effingham, Surrey, and had by her a family of two sons and five daughters. The eldest child was Percy Bysshe. The sisters (besides a Hellen who died in infancy) were named Elizabeth, Mary, Hellen (thus spelled in the family), and Margaret, and were all noted beauties; the latter three survive. The brother, John, born in March 1806, the youngest of all the family, died in November 1866. The mother was "mild and tolerant, yet narrow-minded;" + clever, and even intellectual, but not in the literary, still less the poetical, direction. She is stated to have been an excellent letter-writer.
The believer in Percy Bysshe Shelley naturally conceives a prepossession against the poet's father, with whom he would
* Medwin's Life of Shelley, vol. i., p. 8. I will here say, once for all, that Medwin is an inaccurate writer, and thus save myself the necessity of continually expressing, when I state anything on his authority, a doubt whether it is true or false. Shelley, in Hogg's Life, vol. i., p. 350.
or could not agree: but no doubt Sir Timothy had some of the ordinary good qualities of a human being and country gentleman. He was well reputed as a landlord and practical agriculturist, hospitable, kind (though sometimes capricious and violent) in his family and household, proud at first of his illustrious son's talents, and not precisely destitute of literary tastes. The style of his letters, however, shows him to have had no sort of natural or acquired facility, even in the most level forms of writing. This objection (if I may be excused for referring to so small a point) does not extend to handwriting: Sir Timothy wrote a capital free clear hand, as perceptible in his franking signature outside some of his son's letters. He had the air of the old school off and on; and has even been described as a disciple of Chesterfield and La Rochefoucauld, though that is not the impression which the general body of evidence concerning him leaves on the mind. He was a Christian as so many other people are a religious indifferentist who acquiesced in what he found established. As a member of Parliament, sitting for the borough of Shoreham, he made no figure, and voted according to his ducal and other party ties. Creature comforts and material interests were what he understood; he was fond of self-assertion and pompous interferences, and, like his father, a swearer, and capable of niggardliness, and of considerable oddity of demeanour. Nobody except himself, I believe, ever considered him, during his long life of ninety years, noticeable for any particular talent. That such a person was exceedingly ill adapted to stand in loco parentis to a divine phænomenon like Percy Shelley is flagrantly manifest; but there is nothing nefarious, nor even grossly stupid, in the character whose recorded outlines are sketched above, and we shall do well to enter upon the study of the poet's career without any conviction that he was foredoomed to spiteful or intentional persecution at his father's hands.
Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Shelley were settled at Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex; a mansion ever venerable to posterity, and which remains the property of the present baronet, the poet's son, though not just at present in his personal occupation.
II. BIRTH AND CHILDHOOD.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born at Field Place on the 4th of August 1792. To mention August 1792 is to carry back one's
mind to the overthrow of monarchy in France. On that day, in Paris, the insurrectionary directory of the Federators held a sitting at the Cadran Bleu, on the Boulevard, at Bancelin the restaurateur's, to concert measures for a rising: Santerre, Camille Desmoulins, and others, were present.* And perhaps the transaction going on within the penetralia of Field Place was of quite coequal importance to the cause of revolutionary free thought.
The infant received the name of Percy from an aunt distantly connected with the Northumberland family; Bysshe, as we have seen, from his grandfather. He was a beautiful boy, with ringlets, deep-blue eyes,† a snowy complexion, and exquisitely formed hands and feet; in disposition gentle and affectionate. But of his mere infancy no record remains; though we may conceive of him as fondling “the great old snake of Field Place”—a large ophidian specimen addicted to the garden of that mansion, and which, so tradition says, had been known as "the old snake" three hundred years before. Perhaps it had been wont to fraternize with a dragon which, according to a still extant pamphlet published in 1612, then haunted St Leonard's Forest, in the same district. At last the honoured veteran was accidentally killed by the gardener in mowing grass: doubtless to the bitter sorrow of Percy, whose curious love of snakes and serpents, noticeable time after time in his poems, may probably be traced to this unusual friend of his babbling years.
At six years of age he was sent to a day-school, kept by the Rev. Mr. Edwards of Warnham, and began learning Latin there. He felt some respect for this his earliest instructor, and hence in after days for country clergymen in general: indeed, there is a wondrous anecdote ‡ of a momentary velléité, on the part of the then author of Queen Mab, to enter the church himself.
At the age of ten Percy was transferred to Sion House School, Brentford, of which Dr. Greenlaw,§ a Scotchman and a clerical Doctor of Law, was the principal. For him also Shelley was not without a sort of respect, though disgusted with his coarse jests, and general hardness of mind as well as discipline. Here
* Hamel, Histoire de Robespierre, vol. ii. p. 362.
So says Miss Shelley (Hellen), and the portrait by Miss Curran gives the same colour. Mr. Thornton Hunt must be wrong in saying "brown" eyes.
Peacock, Fraser's Magazine, 1858, p. 656.
$"The Rev. Dr. Mackintosh," according to Mr. Middleton-(Shelley and his Writings, vol. i. p. 11). But I find this name in no other authority.
he re-encountered among the pupils Thomas Medwin, his second cousin on the mother's side, and some years his senior. Mostly the boys, numbering about sixty, were sons of local tradesmen; the system of the house was mean; the reception accorded to Shelley by his schoolfellows, and their subsequent treatment of him, full of taunting and petty persecution (for everything lumpish and sordid had a natural repulsion at contact with Percy Shelley); and his situation was one of proportional and acute misery. No distresses are more real or more poignant than those of childhood: the man who laughs at them with reason is the very boy who cowered under them, also not without reason. But there dawned one glorious moment in which Percy ceased to be the possible refined milksop, and became the incipient poetical demigod.
"Thoughts of great deeds were mine, dear friend, when first
My spirit's sleep. A fresh May-dawn it was,
From the near schoolroom voices that, alas!
The selfish and the strong still tyrannize
Heap knowledge from forbidden mines of lore;
I cared to learn,-but from that secret store
Shelley was noticeably subject to waking dreams at Sion House, and had at least one fit of somnambulism there, and others at a later date. He was not studious, and yet he soon outstripped his companions. With one of these he formed an enthusiastic friendship, which, however, had no sequel in his after years; he has recorded it in a short fragment of an Essay on Friendship, written not long before his death.†
* Revolt of Islam, p. 118. Lady Shelley (Shelley Memorials, p. 7) cites these verses as applicable to Shelley's sojourn at Eton. The authority of Medwin, however, who expressly refers them to Sion House instead (Shelley Papers, p. 3). appears the most conclusive that can be attained; and I think the opening lines would more naturally indicate the earlier period of boyhood.
Hogg, Life of Shelley, vol. i. pp. 22-24.