« PreviousContinue »
on the score of his origin, he felt inclined to see in every man of birth a sort of natural enemy;"* and, in his after period of failing health, a certain irritable suspiciousness took possession of him. It seems clear too that he set a very mediocre value upon Shelley's poetic performances; indeed, he regarded him apparently as a mere effervescent tiro, to whom a word or two of good advice, but hardly of encouragement, would be appropriate. On his receiving a copy of The Cenci, the only remark he made, having the character of direct criticism, in his letter of acknowledgment, was—" 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." And then further on: “I am in expectation of Prometheus every day. Could I have but my own wish effected, you would have it still in manuscript, or be but now putting an end to the second act.”+ These phrases may have been strictly sincere, and therefore so far proper for Keats to write : but they were certainly grudging, from the still younger author of so imperfect a production (however glorious in poetic potentialities) as Endymion to the author of such a masterpiece of all sorts of power as The Cenci: even Alastor must, in point of maturity, be placed a good deal ahead of Endymion. When we weigh all the habitual jealousies between rival poets, along with the something very like patronizing depreciation vouchsafed by Keats, we shall watch with a warmer glow of sympathy the flood of shining generosity and impetuous loving admiration which the celestial soul of Shelley poured through Adonais. His detailed critical opinion of Keats will be more appositely introduced when we come to speak of that poem.
XVI.—THE CHANCERY SUIT. Meanwhile a Chancery suit had been commenced to determine whether Mr. Percy Bysshe Shelley or Mr. Westbrook was the more proper person to elicit such intellectual and moral faculties as the ruling power of the universe might have gifted the poet's first two children with. In the eyes of a bandaged Justice the retired hotel-keeper proved to be clearly better fitted for this function than the author in esse of Alastor, and in posse of the Triumph of Life.
Mr. Westbrook refused to give up, at Shelley's request, the
Leigh Hunt's Autobiography, pp. 266-7.
+ Shelley Memorials, p. 143.
two children to his keeping-and every considerate person will respect the motives and feelings of the father of the unfortunate Harriett in this matter; and in their name he filed a petition in Chancery, alleging that Shelley had deserted his wife, was in opinion an atheist, and intended to bring up the children in accordance with his own views. Queen Mab was cited in proof of the author's condemnable speculations concerning religion and the relation of the sexes. The petition also stated that Mr. Westbrook had lately invested £2000 four per cents in the names of trustees, to be handed over eventually to the children, and the dividends applied meantime to their maintenance and education. Shelley's legal adviser in this suit was Mr. Longdill; and Brougham is stated to have been employed as counsel -on which side I do not find recorded. It would appear that Shelley drew up his own replication to the petition, for he speaks of “my Chancery-paper,” as “a cold, forced, unimpassioned, insignificant piece of cramped and cautious argument.”*
The judgment of Lord Chancellor Eldon was delivered on or about the 23d of August.† The most essential passages run as follows :-“ I have carefully looked through the answer of the defendant, to see whether it affects the representation, made in the affidavits filed in support of the petition, and in the exhibits referred to, of the principles and conduct in life of the father in this case.
I do not perceive that the answer does affect the representation, and no affidavits are filed against the petition. ... There is nothing in evidence before me sufficient to authorize me in thinking that this gentleman has changed, before he has arrived at twenty-five, the principles he avowed at nineteen; and I think there is ample evidence, in the papers and in conduct, that no such change has taken place. ... This is a case in which, as the matter appears to me, the father's principles cannot be misunderstood ; in which his conduct, which I cannot but consider as highly immoral, has been established in proof, and established as the effect of those principles-conduct nevertheless which he represents to himself and to others, not as conduct to be considered as immoral, but to be recommended and observed in practice, and as worthy of approbation. I con
* See p. 254.
+ According to Medwin, 17th March ; and this date reappears in other publica. tions. But a letter from Mr. Longdill, dated 5th August 1817, cited in the Shelley Memorials, p. 75, proves the earlier date to be incorrect.
sider this, therefore, as a case in which the father has demonstrated that he must and does deem it to be a matter of duty which his principles impose on him to recommend, to those whose opinions and habits he may take upon himself to form, that conduct, in some of the most important relations of life, as moral and virtuous, which the law calls upon me to consider as immoral and vicious-conduct which the law animadverts upon as inconsistent with the duties of persons in such relations of life, and which it considers as injuriously affecting both the interests of such persons and those of the community. I cannot, therefore, think that I shall be justified in delivering over these children, for their education, exclusively to what is called the “ care' to which Mr. Shelley wishes it to be entrusted.”* It is stated that the poet had intended to place the children with a lady thoroughly qualified for such a post, Mrs. Longdill. The order of the Court of Chancery proceeded to restrain the father or his agents from taking possession of the infants, or intermedling with them till further orders. The case could have been carried by appeal into the House of Lords ; but probably Shelley felt that he should obtain no redress there, and he dropped further proceedings. He did not, however, lose sight of practical contingencies which might affect the case ; for we find him, as late as 26th January 1819, and all the way from Naples, writing to Nir. Peacock : “ We have reports here of a change in the English ministry. To what does it amount? for, besides my national interest in it, I am on the watch to vindicate my most sacred rights, invaded by the Chancery Court."
The result was that the children were handed over to the guardianship of Mr. and Miss Westbrook, and more immediately to that of a clergyman of the Church of England, Dr. Hunie.+ Shelley, who never saw thenı again, had to set apart, out of his income of £ 1000 a year, £200 for the children, which
* The judgment of Lord Eldon, it will be observed, says nothing of desertion of Harrieti by Shelley. It has been stated to me that his lordship said during the proceedings something to the effect that “Shelley had left the children to starve, and the grandfather had taken them up, and had a right to keep them." But, as the Stikken judgment is silent on this point, I should presume that Lord Eldon either sockelrosely or was reported unprecisely.
† I find this name in a letter from Horatio Smith, dated 13th April 1821, given in the Shelley Memorials, p. 168. From the same book, p. 75, it appears that a Mr. Kendall was recommended as a guardian during the suit: whether he actually obtained the appointment in the first instance I cannot say.
sum was regularly deducted by Sir Timothy.* At one time, in 1821, some complication ensued ; and Shelley, then in Italy, found himself suddenly without a penny of incomings. The matter, however, was pretty soon set right through the intervention of Horatio Smith, and apparently without Sir Timothy's having been privy to the harsh and unneeded stoppage.
Of all the blows brought down upon Shelley by his conscientious adherence, in word and deed, to sincere convictions, this appears to have been the one which he felt most profoundly.. He was at this time almost domesticated with the family of Leigh Hunt, then residing at Lisson Grove ; and that affectionate and warmly loved and trusted friend attests that the bereaved father could never afterwards venture so much as to mention the children to him. He had some fears moreover that the son of his second marriage, William, would also be taken away, and he contemplated leaving England in consequence ; but nothing came of this. His indignation winged more than one quivering shaft of verse against Lord Eldon. About the same time he was made answerable for some of Harriett's liabilities, incurred without any knowledge on his part, and was in some danger of arrest : but this also passed over.
Mary meanwhile continued to reside at Marlow. Here her second child, Clara, was born on the 3d of September. Shelley was with her at the time ; and would walk, or perhaps row, down to Egham, a distance of about sixteen miles, to see the surgeon Mr. Furnivall, and, on arriving, would take no refreshment beyond a bowl of milk. His exceeding good-nature impressed this gentleman ; who considered indeed that Mary was somewhat too free and exacting in ordering her husband about, which he submitted to with the docility of a child. One is more inclined to smile over Shelley's étourderie than to attribute to him anything wilfully amiss when one learns that the larger part of the obstetrical bill remained unpaid at the time of the family's departure from Marlow to Italy, and for ever afterwards.t
The fewest words should here be hazarded or wasted regarding the rights or wrongs of the Lord Chancellor's decision. I understand that its legal validity has never been overruled, but that probably it would not now be allowed to count as a pre
* These are the sums named in the Shelley Memorials, P: 75. Yet it would seem afterwards, p. 168, that the sum for Shelley's own use was 1880, and for the children only £120 per annum. #lam indebted to Mr. Furnivall's son for these minor but characteristic details.
cedent. Previous writers have, with befitting fairness, pointed out that it proceeds on the grounds not solely nor strictly of speculative opinion, but of conduct framed according to opinion unrecanted. Without over-refining upon this point, we may say that logical minds which accept “saving faith” as principle are entitied, in the ratio of their logicality, to accept Lord Eldon's judgment as righteous; logical minds which affirm this to be unrighteous will, in the like ratio, demur to the theory of saving faith. It is a very spacious arena for discussion; and he who denounces the judgment or the judge in this English " Mortara case" without going several steps farther is presumably at least as much of a partisan as of a reasoner.
XVII.—THE REVOLT OF ISLAM. His reverses did not depress Shelley, but nerved him to greater exertions. While the Lord Chancellor was about to brand him as less fit for the most rudimentary duties of social life than any other man in England, he was preparing to prove himself one of the few men then living in the world predestined to immortality. Laon and Cythna, now known as The Revolt of Islam, was written in the summer and early autumn of 1817. It was composed chiefly as the poet was seated on a high promontory of Bisham Wood. The principal particulars regarding the genesis of the poem are to be found in its preface, dedication, and notes ; to these therefore I refer the reader.
Some copies of Laon and Cythna were ready for delivery by Christmas 1817; but, after a very few had been issued—it is generally said, only three, but one finds reason to believe there were rather more than this)--the publisher, Mr. Ollier, became alarmed at the audacities of the poem, especially its main incident of conjugal love between a brother and sister; and, under strong pressure from him, Shelley reluctantly consented to make some modifications. It has been said that he was at last “ convinced of the propriety”* of so doing : at any rate, he did it. The changes are not numerous, affecting only fifty-five lines besides the title-page and some passages in the preface. Captain Medwin-so he informs us—was told by Shelley that this poem, and the Endymion of Keats, were written in friendly rivalry; and that the compact was to produce both works within six months, which Shelley at all events very nearly managed.
* Shelley Memorials, p. 83.