« PreviousContinue »
ment which he developed at Eton, and which became his chief passion there, had as much to do with an impressible fancy, and with the fact that chemical practice was prohibited to the schoolboys in their chambers, as with scientific tendencies. He set fire to a tree on the common by lighting gunpowder with a burning-glass; and the incautious touching of an electrical machine in his room at Eton overthrew his tutor, Mr. Bethel, who had discovered the young rebel “ raising the devil” by a blue flame. The distinction of being one of the dullest men at the school has been attributed to Mr. Bethel, with whom the future author of Epipsychidion lodged. The rigid Dr. Keate was the Head Master at this period. He flogged Shelley liberally, and the scapegrace in return plagued him without stint.
Mysterious and semi-fathomable things happened to Shelley, either in person or in supposition, throughout his life. One of these occurred while he was at Eton. The only official person whom he really liked there was Dr. James Lind of Windsor, a physician, chemist, and tutor, and a man of erudition, who superintended the youth's scientific studies. “He loved me," said Shelley," and I shall never forget our long talks, where he breathed the spirit of the kindest tolerance and the purest wisdom.” He furnished the prototype of the old sage who releases Laon from the tower-prison, in the Revolt of Islam, and of Zonoras in Prince Athanase, Shelley, having been attacked by a fever which affected the brain, was about to be sent to a private madhouse by his father-so at least he overheard, or learned from a servant *—when Dr. Lind posted to Field Place at the dismayed patient's request, cured him, and dispelled the paternal purpose. Another story told by Shelley,+ and doubted by the recipient of the information, is that the immediate cause of his quitting Eton was that, in one of his fits of rage at some boyish persecutor, he struck a penknife through the misdemeanant's hand. According to his own account, this was his third Etonian catastrophe; he had been twice before expelled, but readmitted at his father's instance. The fact that he finally left
Compare the not entirely identical accounts in Hogg, Life of Shelley, vol. i. P. 32, and in the Shelley Memorials, pp. 9, 10. Apparently the whole affair of the madhouse was one of the poet's delusions.
† Peacock, in Fraser's Magazine, 1858, p. 647. The story is told also, with some degree of variation, by Mr. Thornton Hunt Atlantic nionthiy, February 1863, P. 192) He says that Shelley, in the course of his general resistance to the senior Scholars and school customs, was dared to pin a companion's hand to the table with
a fors, and did so.
Eton some time in 1809, a long interval before his going to Oxford in the autumn of 1810, suggests that he really was withdrawn from the former place with some degree of abruptness, for there is nothing to show that this interval was devoted to preparing for the university.
Immediately after leaving Eton (if not possibly before that event) he had managed to fall in love-which was indeed a feat almost certain to be achieved by a youth of such a disposition. In the summer of 1809 (ætatis sixteen or seventeen), he fell captive to his very charming young cousin Harriet Grove, who, with her brother, was on a visit to Field Place. She was the daughter of a clergyman, and was of the same age as Percy, and a good deal like him in face. She returned his affection, engaged or semi-engaged herself to him, and corresponded with him on returning to her home in Wiltshire.
Many further details might be given of Shelley's stay at Eton, did space admit. The one remaining fact essential to be noted is that he went there by the name not only of “Mad Shelley," but also of “ Shelley the Atheist.” This sounds like an important indication of the early and extreme development of Shelley's speculative opinions; and I think it would be unsafe to reject it as such altogether, though Mr. Hogg affirms that the name of atheist was bestowed at Eton upon any boy specially distinguished for setting the authorities at defiance, whether or not he entertained any opinion at all on the question of Deity. In Shelley's case, the title is said to have come to him in virtue of the firing of the tree, already alluded to. Something may also possibly have been due to the fact that he was known among his schoolfellows for a habit of “cursing his father and the king.” And here I will take leave to say that this, so far as his father was concerned, was simply a vile and detestable practice, learned partly from the venerable Sir Bysshe, and partly from the equally venerable Dr. Lind;
* and indeed that the poet's animus in regard to his father (for whom nevertheless he had had some affection in quite early years) was in various details derogatory to his character, intellect, and common sense. I think it the leastexcusable trait which has to be recorded of so great and loveable à man. Not long after leaving Eton, Shelley was asked to repeat the cursing process; which, after saying he
* 1.e., if Mr. Hogg's account is to be implicitly accepted: but I understand there are fair grounds for dubiety, as regards both Dr. Lind and Sir Bysshe Shelley.
had left it off, he finally consented to do, “and delivered, with vehemence and animation, a string of execrations, greatly resembling in its absurdity a papal anathema : the fulmination soon terminated in a hearty laugh.”* Of course, the whole thing was the freak of a schoolboy : but there are some freaks which neither schoolboys nor other persons are tolerated in--as the bestowal upon a father of such nicknames as “ Old Buck” and “ Killjoy."
IV.-EARLIEST WRITINGS. Percy Shelley was an uncommon sort of boy, appetent of knowledge (such as suited his own taste), and very rapid in acquiring it, and with impulses and characteristics indicative of genius. He is said to have learned the classical languages as if by intuition-his memory, which was always an excellent one for all sorts of things, retaining whatever he once learned. Still, it does not appear that he as yet exhibited any exceptional originating aptitude or precocity of mind; and certainly, if we look to his earliest writings, such as are preserved in our Appendix, the suggestions which they yield to us are not those of a great capacity or a premature gift-but on the contrary of very shallow incentives puffing up feeble faculties into meaningless forms of self-expression. The child who wrote the Verses on a Cat, at perhaps eight or nine years of age, was indeed a ready and sprightly versifier, superior to his years; but, from this simple and pleasing outpouring of a child, we sink down, in the following compositions lasting up to and beyond Shelley's departure from Oxford, into the inflated balderdash of a boy, unmarked either by right perceptions, by any genuine direction of taste, or by promising execution. There is case of a certain kind, but slavering is a notoriously easy process. Probably the verses preserved are but a small minority of what Shelley wrote in these opening years. At one time-precise boyish age and subject unknown-he and his sister Elizabeth secretly wrote a play, and sent it to Mathews the comedian ; who returned it, opining that " it would not do for acting.” Presumably not. Another considerable attempt was The Wandering Jew, which he wrote together with Medwin about 1809; next to no remains of Shelley's section of it are now accessible, but a safe instinct certifies us that it was nonsense.
A true curiosity of literature is Shelley's first published book, the novel named Zastrozzi-one of “a great many” (so says Lady Shelley) which he composed about this time. He wrote it at the age of sixteen, with some co-operation (it is stated) from Miss Grove—which however I should doubt, having regard to dates. It is a wild story of a virtuous Verezzi, persecuted and ruined by the effervescent passion of a guilty siren," Matilda Contessa de Laurentini, in league with a mysterious and dark-browed Zastrozzi, who has, in chapter the last, a family grudge to clear off. Some deep-buried romance named Zofloya, or the Moor (there is great force of suggestion in the letter 2) is recorded to have been the model of Zastroszi. A curiosity of literature this novel would be, if merely on the ground of its authorship, and of its gorgeous absurdity ; but, when we leam that there was actually a publisher in human form, Mr. Robinson of Paternoster Row, to pay £ 40 or so for the privilege of publishing it, thus furnishing forth “a magnificent banquet (not of the Barmecide class] given to eight friends” by the Etonian romancist, and that human reviewers were capable of criticizing it, and deprecating its supposed immoralities (which are in fact few or none), Zastrozzi glides from a curiosity into a phænomenon of literature. There is a delicious reserve of tone in the terms which Shelley used a few years later, 10th January 1812, in forwarding his two novels to the philosopher Godwin :* “From a reader, I became a writer of romances. Before the age of seventeen I had published two, St Irvyne and Zastrozzi, each of which, though quite uncharacteristic of me as now I am, yet serves to mark the state of my mind at the period of their composition. I shall desire them to be sent to you : do not, however, consider this as any obligation to yourself to misapply your valuable time.” If Godwin did misapply his valuable time, and read Zastrozzi, he must have been a sight for the gods and the glorified spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft during that process.
The only purpose which Zastrozzi can serve at the present day—except to raise a hearty laugh-is to furnish a few indica
Hogg, Life of Shelley, vol. ii. p. 55. Shelley is wrong in saving St Irvine (whatever may have been the case with Zastrozzi) was published before he had attained seventeen years of age; it came out in December 1810, when the author was past eighteen. This is not the only instance in which he understated his age, whether through negligence of mind or possibly with a spice of coxcombry.
From an expression in a letter of Shelley's dated 10th December 1812 (Shelley Memorials, p. 45), it appears that he had by then ceased to be "a reader of romances." But he did not entirely exclude them from his after perusal.
tions how far Shelley's antichristian opinions had been developed at that early date. We must, however, remember that some portions of the romance are ascribed to Miss Grove's authorship. The wicked Zastrozzi, we find, is in one passage an unbeliever in immortality, for which he is distinctly reprobated by the correct-minded author : further on he is not a total unbeliever, but over-page figures as an atheist. Materialism and atheism are denounced by the narrator at a later stage, and there is a passage, in the ordinary religious tone, concerning divine mercy consequent upon repentance. Thus nothing but orthodoxy, though toying on the verge of the atheistic precipice, attaches to Shelley from the investigation of the bad characters of his novel. But the virtuous though “infatuated ” Verezzi yields a less respectable Shelleyan result : he dares to think that “ love like ours wants not the vain ties of human laws,” or in plain English the marriage ceremony.
Nobody now will or ought to read Zastrozzi save as a curious study conducive to an exact knowledge of Shelley : nobody can read his first volume of verse, for it has entirely disappeared from human ken.* At some time in the year 1810 Shelley called upon a London publisher, Stockdale, and asked to be assisted out of a hobble, as he had commissioned a Horsham printer to strike off 1480 copies (!) of a volume of poems, for which, as he now found, he was unable to pay. Stockdale consented that the book should be transferred to himself; and it was soon announced in the Morning Chronicle of 18th September 1810, under the name of Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire, and was published in due course. There really was a second author, besides Shelley ; possibly Miss Grove. But lo! when the book was out, it was found to embody productions by a third author, and then one of considerable name, and much admired by Shelley, Matthew Gregory Lewis, the author of The Monk and of Tales of Terror; Victor, or' Cazire, or both of them, had been making free with the sepulchral stock-inhand of that potent necromancer. Shelley withdrew the volume from circulation after a hundred copies or so had got about ;
• Everything that is known on this subject is due solely to Mr. Garnett: see his anicle in Macmillan's Magazine, June 1860, Shelley in Pall Mall. He has kindly informed me moreover that a gentleman connected with the Shelley family says that Percy "wrote and printed another book of verse about the same time. Dot remember the title, but thought a copy might still be in existence.”
“Quis desiderio sit modus aut pudor
Tam cari capitis ?"