Page images
[graphic][ocr errors][subsumed][ocr errors][merged small]

Keats was the martyr of poetry, but Shelley was the martyr of opinion. Keats dared to write in a new vein, to disregard all the old canons of criticism, to pour out his heart, and all his fancies, in that way only which seemed naturally to belong to them; and this was cause enough to bring down upon him the vengeance of all the rule-and-line men of literature. But, besides this, Keats kept suspicious company. Hunt and Shelley were notorious radioals; and Hunt and Shelley were his friends. “Tell me what company you keep, and I will tell you what you are,” is an old proverb, and was in John Keats's case most promptly applied. But Shelley was perhaps the most daring as he was the most splendid offender of modern times. Born of a good family, educated in the highest schools of orthodoxy, it was to the public, which looked for a new champion of the old state of things, a most exasperating circumstance that, in his very teens, he should set all these expectations, and all the prospects of his own worldly advantage, at defiance, and boldly avow himself the champion of atheism. The fact is every way to be deplored. It became the source of blight and misery to himself through his whole life. It alienated his friends and family; it occasioned an excitement of fiery bigotry and party wrath, which, in their united virulence, were poured upon his head, and destroying the sale of his works, greatly dispirited him, and so diminished the amount, and perhaps in no slight degree the joyous and buoyant spirit of what he did write. Who shall say, wouderful as are the works of Shelley, all accomplished amid ill-health and the bitterest persecutions, before the age of thirty, and most of them before the age of twenty-six, what he would have produced, had he written with the encouraging feeling of a generous public with him? And when we regard the whole affair impartially, it was the public which was really the greatest offender after all. On the part of Shelley, it was a rash and boyish action. It was the act of a really fine aud noble spirit led away, and so far led wrong, by its impetuous indignation against popular delusions and impositions. He was not the first man, nor will he be the last, whom the spirit of a virtuous zeal precipitates into an offence against virtue itself. In him it was meant to be no such thing. He was honest as he was zealous, and the world ought to have respected his honesty if it could not his opinions. It should have endeavoured to show him by calm and sound reason, that he was wrong as to the existence of a God, and by its charity and forbearance, that Christianity was true. There can be little doubt what effect a wise conduct like this would have had on a nature like his. As it was, spite of all the outrageous cries of infidel, blasphemer, and atheistic wretch, with which he was pursued, time showed a wonderful change in his opinions on these matters.

The world should have recollected that it professed to be a Christian world, and it should not have let the spirit and conduct of the iufidel put it to shame by its superior liberality and goodness. Our Saviour nowhere preached or commanded persecution, but to bless those who curse us, and do good to those who hate us and despitefully use us. The world did not do thus ; it left poor Shelley to show this conduct to it. Christ left a glorious example to all time—why is the Christian world blind to it? He declared a glorious doctrine on the treatment of unbelievers—why is the world deaf to it? He declared that he was come to seek and save that which was lost, and to die for the conversion of those who mocked and denied him. He nowhere left us the whip, the gag, or the sword of extermination. He brought no such things with him out of heaven, but the great corrector-patience, the great weaponcharity. When his disciples ran and called upon him to silence those who performed miracles, and yet did not follow him, he gave a reply which never should be forgotten while the sun rises and sets ;=“Let them alone ; yo know not what manner of spirit ye

It was Shelley who showed the spirit of the Christian, and the 80-called Christian world the spirit of the infidel.

Shelley, indeed, was a good and noble creature. He had, spite of his scepticism, clearly and luminously stamped on his front the highest marks of a Christian ; for the grand distinction appointed by Christ was-love. Shelley was a Christian spite of himself. We learn from all who knew him that the Bible was his most favourite

are of."

book. He venerated the character of Christ, and no man more fully carried out his precepts. His delight was to do good, to comfort and assist the poor. It was his zeal for truth and for the good of mankind, which led him, in his indignation against those who oppressed them and imposed upon them, to leap too far in his attack on those enemies, and pass the borders which divide truth from error.

For his conscientious opinion he sacrificed ease, honour, the world's esteem, ortune, and friendship. Never was there so generous a friend, so truly and purely poetical a nature. Others are poets in their books and closets ; the poet's soul in him was the spirit of all hours and all occasions. His conduct to his friend Hunt was a magnificent example of this. Mr. Hunt himself tells us that he at once presented him with fourteen hundred pounds to free him from embarrassments, and he meant to do more, an intention which his sou has nobly remembered. Where are the censorious zealots who can show like deeds? “He was," says Mr. Hunt,“ pious towards nature, towards his friends, towards the whole human race, towards the meanest insect of the forest. He did himself an injustice with the public in using the popular name of the Supreme Being inconsiderately. He identified it solely with the vulgar and tyrannical notions of a God, made after the worst human fashion, and did not sufficiently reflect that it was often used by a juster devotion to express a sense of the great Mover of the universe.”

The same generous, enthusiastic spirit was the living and glowing principle of his poetry. With an imagination capable of soaring into the highest and most ethereal regions, and drawing thence most gorgeous colours, and most sublime, spiritual, and beautiful imagery, he preached love and tenderness to the whole family of man, except to tyrants and impostors. For liberty of every kind he was ready to die. For knowledge, and truth, and kindness, he desired only to live. He was a rare instance of the union of the finest moral nature and the finest genius. If he erred, the world took ample vengeance upon him for it; while he conferred in return his amplest blessing on the world. It was long a species of heresy to mention his naine in society—that is passing fast away. It was next said that he never could become popular, and therefore the mischief he could do was limited. He is become popular, and the good that he is likely to do will be unlimited. The people read him ; though we may wonder at it, they comprehend him, —at least so far as the principles of freedom and progress are concerned ; and in these he will not lead them astray. He is the herald of advance, and every year must fix him more widely and firmly in men's hearts. How truly does he describo himself and his mission in Laon, the poet of the Revolt of Islam :

“ Yes, from the records of my youthful state,

And from the lore of bards and sages old,
From whatsoe'er my wakened thoughts create,
Out of the hopes of thine aspirings bold,
Have I collected language to unfold
Truth to my countrymen ; from shore to shore
Doctrines of human power my words have told ;

They have been heard, and men aspire to more
"Chan they have ever gained, or ever lost of yore.

"In secret chambers parents read, and weep,

My writings to their babes, no longer blind;
And young men gather when their tyrants sleep,
And vows of faith each to the other bind;
And marriageable maidens, who have pined
With love, till life seemed melting through their look,
A warmer zeal, a nobler hope now find;

And every bosom thus is rapt and shook,
Like autumn's myriad leaves in one swoln mountain brook.
“ Kind thoughts, and mighty hopes, and gentle deeds,

Abound, for fearless love, and the pure law
Of mild equality and peace succeeds
To faiths which long have held the world in awe,
Bloody, and false, and cold :-as whirlpools draw
All wrecks of ocean to their chasm, the sway
Or thy strong genius, Laon, which foresaw

This hope, compels all spirits to obey,

Which round thy secret strength now throng in wide array." This extraordinary man, and the most purely poetic genius of his age, scarcely excepting Keats; this great and fearless, and yet benign apostle of freedom, whose influence on succeeding ages it is impossible to calculate, mixed, it is true, with a sceptical leaven deeply to be deplored, was a descendant of a true poetic line, that of Sir Philip Sidney. He was born at Field-place, in Sussex, on the 4th of August, 1792. He was the eldest son of Sir Timothy Shelley, Bart., of CastleGoring in that county; and his son, Percy Florence Shelley, now bears the family title. His family connexions belonged to the Whig aristocrats of the House of Commons; and Mr. Hunt has, in the circumstances of such birth and connexion, hit perhaps upon the fact which solves the mystery of a mind like Shelley's rushing into the extreme course he did. “To a man of genius," he observes, “endowed with a metaphysical acuteness to discern truth and falsehood, and a strong sensibility to give way to his sense of it, such an origin, however respectable in the ordinary point of view, was not the very luckiest that could have happened for the purpose of keeping him within ordinary bounds. With what feelings is truth to open its eyes upon this world, amongst the most respectable of our mere party gentry? Among licensed contradictions of all sorts ? Among the Christian's doctrines and the worldly practices ? Among forhunters and their chaplains ? Among beneficed loungers, noli-episcopalian bishops, rakish old gentlemen, and more startling young ones, who are old in the folly of knowingness? In short, among all those professed demands of what is right and noble, mixed with real inculcations of what is wrong and full of hypocrisy ? * * Mr. Shelley began to think at a very early age, and to think too of these anomalies. He saw that at every step in life some compromise was expected between the truth which he was told he was not to violate, and a colouring and a double meaning of it, which forced him upon the violation."

This is, no doubt, the great secret of both the noble resolve of Shelley to burst at once loose from this conventional labyrinth, and of the length to which the impetus of his effort carried him. He saw that truth and falsehood were so intimately mixed in all the education, life, and purposes of the class by which he was surrounded,

that he suspected the same mixture in everything; and the very effort necessary to clear himself of this state of things, plunged him into the natural result of rejecting indiscriminately, in the case of Christianity, the grain with the chaff. At every school to which he was sent, he found the same system existing. Education was moulded to a great national plan, to a future support of a church and a party. The noble heart of the boy rebelled against this sacrifice of truth to interest, and I believe at every school to which he went, showed a firm resolve never to bend to it. He was brought up for the first seven or eight years in the retirement of Field-place with his sisters, receiving the same education as they; and hence, it is stated, he never showed the least taste for the sports or amusements of boys. Captain Medwin, who is a relative, tells us that it was not Eton, but Sion House, Brentford, to which he alludes in his introductory stanzas to the Revolt of Islam. Medwin was Shelley's school-fellow there, and says, “ this place was a perfect hell to Shelley. His pure and virgin mind was shocked by the language and manners of his new companions; but though forced to be with them, he was not of them."

“ Tyranny,” continues he, “generally produces tyranny in common minds,—not so with Shelley. Doubtless much of his hatred of oppression may be attributed to what he saw and suffered at this school ; and so odious was the recollection of the place to both of us, that we never made it a subject of conversation in after life. He was, as a schoolboy, exceedingly shy, bashful, and reserved ; indeed, though peculiarly gentle and elegant and refined in his manners, he never entirely got rid of his diffidence—and who would have wished he should ? With the character of true genius, he was ever modest, humble, and prepared to acknowledge merit wherever he found it, without any desire to shine himself by making a foil of others.”

Yet it was this gentle and shy boy, who had so early resolved to be “just, and free, and mild,” that was roused by his sense of truth, and his abhorrence of oppression, to make the most bold and determined stand against unjust and degrading customs, however sanctioned by time, place, or persons. At Eton, whither he went at the age of thirteen, he rose up stoutly in opposition to the system of fagging. He organized a conspiracy against it, and for a time compelled it to pause. While thus resisting school tyranny, he was reading deeply German romances and poetry; and to Birger's Leonora, and the ghost stories and legends of the Black Forest, has been traced his fondness for the romantic, the marvellous, and the mystic. His mind was rapidly unfolding, and to the high pitch of his moral nature and aims, these stanzas from the dedication to the Revolt of Islam bear touching testimony :

" Thoughts of great deeds were mine, dear friend, when first
The clouds that wrap this world from youth did pass.
I do remember well the hour which burst
My spirit's sleep: a fresh May-dawn it was
When I walked forth upon the glittering grass
And wept, I knew not why; until there rose
From the near school-room, voices, that, alas!

Were but one echo from a world of woes,
The harsh and grating strife of tyrants and of foes.

« PreviousContinue »