« PreviousContinue »
with in making me a convert to this last opinion of yours, which, so long as I have a living and daily witness to its futility before me, I fear will be insurmountable. The second accusation (the abruptness of our departure) has more foundation, though in its spirit it is not less false and futile than the first. It must indeed, I confess it, have appeared insensible and unfeeling; it must have appeared an ill return for all the kind greetings we had received at your house, to leave it in haste and coldness — to leave even the enlightened and zealous benevolence of Godwin ever [active] for good, and never deterred or discouraged in schemes for rectifying our perplexed affairs — to bid not one adieu to one of you ; but, had you been placed in a situation where you might justly have balanced all our embarrassments, qualms, and fluctuations, had seen the opposite motives combating in our minds for mastery, had felt some tithe of the pain with which at length we submitted to a galling yet unappealable necessity, you would have sympathized rather than condemned, have pitied rather than criminated us unheard. Say the truth : did not a sense of the injustice of our supposed unkindness add some point to the sarcasms which we found occasionally in your last letter ?
“ If all my laughs were not dreadful, Sardonic grins, disgraceful to the most hideous of Cheshire cats, I should certainly laugh at two things in your last letter. The one is, “not knowing whether it is proper to write to me,” lest — God knows what might happen; and the other is, comparing our movement to that of a modern novel. Now, a novel (modern or ancient) never moves but as the reader moves, and I, being a reader, if I take up one of these similitudes of our progress, never can get beyond the third line in the second page; therefore, you ought rather to have compared a novel to a snail than to us. Now, my dear Fanny, do not be
my laughs, my criticisms, or my queries. They proceed from levity, my proper view of things, and my desire of setting them before you in what I consider a right light.
“ Your questions shall be answered with precision ; and, if hope in my quality as a man be not too tremendous, I shall acquire from the result an interesting and valuable correspondent. “ With much esteem, your true friend,
"P. B. SHELLEY. “ To Miss Fanny Godwin.” The following letter of literary advice from Godwin to Shelley possesses great interest :
" Dec. 10th, 1812. 66 MY DEAR SHELLEY,
“I sit down the sooner to answer your very kind and excellent letter, because, if you are really desirous to make an experiment of a plan of my recommending, it would be unfair and unjust in me to withhold the information you ask.
“ The light in which I should wish every man, every young man in particular, to consider the study of history, is as a means of becoming acquainted with whatever of noble, useful, generous,
and admirable, human nature is capable of designing and performing. To see all this illustrated by examples carrying it directly into act, is, perhaps, superior to all the theories and speculations that can possibly be formed. History, in its most comprehensive sense, is a detail of all that man has done in solitude or in society, so far as it can be rendered matter of record. It is our own fault, therefore, if we do not select and dwell upon the best. This is so much matter of feeling among all who read history, that it is universally agreed that, next to the history of our own country, the histories of Greece and Rome most deserve to be studied. Why? Because in them the achievements of the human species have been most admirable; in Rome, in high moral and social qualities; in Greece, both in them and also in literature and art.
“ The just way of criticizing man, in my opinion, is analogous to the right way of criticizing works of literature and art. When you talk to me of Milton and Shakspeare, I should begin with saying: Let us set their faults out of our view ; not that they are never to be considered, but that this makes no part of what is most peculiar in them. Faults are like paper and ink; no book can exist without them; but they have nothing to do, in the first instance, with deciding upon the merits of an author. Put a new book into my hands, and the first question I shall ask you, if I question you wisely, is : What are its excellencies? Does it exhibit any grand views ? Does it contain any beautiful passages ? Here all the good and all the honor lies. Just so is man. I am bound first to examine whether there were really great and high qualities in Cato, in Regulus, in Brutus, in Solon, in Themistocles; and when I have made my very heart familiar with the conception of these, I will then proceed, if you like, to the examination of those defects by which they were allied to the weakness and errors of our common nature. A true student is a man seated in his chair, and surrounded with a sort of intrenchment and breastwork of books. It is for boarding-school misses to read one book at a time. Particularly when I am sifting out facts, either of science or history, I must place myself in the situation of a man making a book, rather than reading books.
When I have studied the Grecian history in Homer, in Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Plutarch, together with those of the moderns that are most capable, or most elaborate, in unfolding or appreciating the materials the ancients have left us, I shall then begin to know what Greece
I need not, of course, mention how superior is the information and representation of contemporaries to those who come afterwards and write their stories over again. The compilers are a sort of middle class between the real authors and the makers of dictionaries. True reading is investigation — not a passive reception of what our author gives us, but an active inquiry, appreciation, and digestion of his subject.
“ Yet there is a certain difficulty in this. We ought first to take a comprehensive survey of every subject, and a private
view of every author who, for his own merits, is worth our studying. Hence it follows that there are various processes to be successively performed by him who would master the history of any one country or memorable period; and hence it appears (what has been observed in various forms by many writers) that it is almost impossible for any man to get fully to the end of any subject. There is another rule, that, both from experience and reason, I should strongly recommend to any one desirous of becoming a student, and that is, to have three or four different studies for different parts of the day, or, if you will, to be taken up in a sort of rotation in each day. Such a plan adds wonderfully to the stimulus moving us, and to the progress actually made. I have for the greater part of my life read at least for one hour a day in some Greek, and for one hour in some Latin, author; and I am sure I have done twice as much as I should have done in any other way of proceeding
“ You ask me concerning some of our elder writers, and I will therefore very briefly mention a few. I observed to you that Shakspeare had many contemporary dramatists, any one of which would have done for almost the best man of any other age. Such were Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster, Ford, Dekker, Heywood, and Massinger. Then what illustrious poets had those times in Spenser, Drayton, and Daniel ! not to mention the minor poets (I mean in quantity), such as Davies and Donne. Chapman's Homer has infinitely more fire than any other translation I have ever read. He was thoroughly invested and penetrated with the sacredness of the poetic character.
“ To proceed from poetry to prose. Shakspeare, Bacon, and Milton are the three greatest contemplative characters that this island has produced. Therefore, as I put Shakspeare and Milton at the head of our poetry, I put Bacon and Milton at the head of our prose. Yet what astonishing prose writers had we in Sir Thomas Browne and Jeremy Taylor! not to mention two others, only inferior to them, Robert Burton and Isaac Walton. Hobbes and Shelton, also, as prose translators may almost rank with Chapman in verse.
“ Those were the times when authors thought. Every line is pregnant with sense, and the reader is inevitably put to the expense of thinking likewise. The writers were richly furnished with conception, imagination, and feeling; and out of the abundance of their hearts flowed the lucubrations they committed to paper. You have what appears to me a false taste in poetry. You love a perpetual sparkle and glittering, such as are to be found in Darwin, and Southey, and Scott, and Campbell."
Some light is thrown on the peculiar literary tastes and antipathies of Shelley by a letter which he wrote about this time to Mr. Hookham, commissioning that gentleman to purchase certain books for him. The disgust of history here confessed has probably been shared by all minds which have longed for a state of ideal perfection ; but the young student resolved to follow the advice of his self-chosen guide, whose words the reader bas just perused.
Tanyralt, Dec. 17th, 1812. 6 MY DEAR SIR,
“ You will receive the Biblical Extracts * in a day or two by the twopenny post. I confide them to the care of a person going to London. Would not Daniel J. Eaton publish them? Could the question be asked him in any manner ?
“ I am also preparing a volume of minor poems, respecting whose publication I shall request your judgment, both as pubkisher and friend. A very obvious question would be — Will they sell or not? Subjoined is a list of books which I wish you to send me very soon. I am determined to apply myself
* This work has never been published. — ED.