Percy Bysshe Shelley

PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY, eldest son of Sir Timothy Shelley, Baronet, of Castle Goring, Sussex, was born in that county, on the 4th of August, 1792. At the age of thirteen he was sent to Eton, where he was distinguished from his schoolfellows by a melancholy and reserved disposition, and an abstinence from every amusement natural to youth. He soon began to develop a rigid, unconventional tenacity of character, in relation to what he deemed reason and justice of things, and he was in consequence, at an earlier period than usual, removed to the University of Oxford. Here his penetrating and inquisitive mind displayed more fully that pertinacious but conscientious eccentricity, which forbade his assent to the most common truths without investigation; and, in consequence of publishing a pamphlet, in which he attacked the ordinarily received notions of the being of God, he was expelled from the university, on his refusal to retract his opinions. This step drew upon him the displeasure of his family, whose total discountenance of him soon after followed, on his marriage, at the age of about seven teen or eighteen, with a lady equally young. The union ended in misery to both; after the birth of two children they separated by mutual consent, and Mrs. Shelley subsequently destroying herself, the subject of our memoir was looked upon as her murderer, and spoken of with proportionate obloquy.

A perusal of Mr. Godwin's Political Justice, had first induced Shelley to adopt the systematic rule of conduct, by which he subsequently squared all his actions, at the sacrifice of every worldly interest. His conduct was, in consequence, equally noble and extraordinary; and though, it is said, 'he had only to become a yea and nay man in the house of commons, to be one of the richest men in Sussex,' he declined it to live upon a comparative pittance. After a visit to Italy, where he formed a friendship with lord Byron, and composed his Rosalind and Helen, and Ode to the Euganean Hill, he returned to England, and married the daughter of Mr. Godwin, with whom he resided for some time at Great Marlow, in Buckinghamshire. Here he was remarkable for his unostentatious charity; and he not only administered pecuniary relief to the poor, but visited them when sick in their beds, having previously gone the round of the hospitals, on purpose to be able to practice on occasion. At Marlow, he composed the Revolt of Islam, his introduction to which, addressed to his wife, is, perhaps, one of the most beautiful and touching pieces of poetry ever composed. About this time he was deprived of the guardianship of his two children, in consequence of his alleged sceptical notions, and of certain peculiar opinions respecting the intercourse of the sexes. After his separation from them, which deeply affected him, and increased his disgust towards the institutions of his country, he returned, with his family by his second wife, to Italy, where he joined lord Byron and Leigh Hunt in a periodical called The Liberal. In June, 1822, he visited the former, at Pisa, and, on the 7th of July, set off, in a boat, on his return to his own family, at Lerici, in the bay of Spezzia; when a tremendous storm came on, and, in a week afterwards, the body of Shelley, with those of Mr. Williams and a seaman, his only companions, were washed on shore near Villa Reggio. Their remains, after having been interred by the Italian authorities, were, at the request of their respective friends, dug up, and reduced to ashes, when those of Shelley were deposited in the Protestant burial ground at Rome, near the grave of Keats.

In person, Mr. Shelley was tall and slight, of a consumptive constitution, and subject to spasmodic pains, the violence of which would sometimes force him to lie on the ground till they were over. The marks of premature thought and trouble were more visible in his frame than his countenance, which, says the writer from whom we have before quoted, had a certain seraphical character, that would have suited a portrait of John the Baptist, or the angel whom Milton describes as " holding a reed tipped with fire." ' He had a small, but well-shaped face, with a fair and delicate complexion, cheeks not devoid of color, and large animated eyes, that had almost an appearance of wildness. His voice was weak and shrill, and had a peculiar effect on those who heard it for the first time. He passed a solitary and temperate life; rising early in the morning, and retiring to bed at ten o'clock, having, in the meantime written, studied, and read to his wife, and taken sparingly of his meals, which consisted, at dinner, of vegetables, as he partook neither of meat nor wine. His purse, though he possessed but a very limited income, was at the service of all who needed it; it was not uncommon with him, says our previous authority, to give away all his ready money, and be compelled to take a journey on foot, or on the top of a stage, no matter during what weather. He allowed to a literary acquaintance a pension of L100 per annum; but says Mr. Leigh Hunt, the princeliness of his disposition was seen most in his behavior to myself, who am proud to relate, that Mr. Shelley once made me a present of L1,400 to extricate me from debt, and his last sixpence was ever at my service, had I chosen to share it.' The following anecdote is told of lord Byron, and some of his contemporaries; Shelley, at the time, being on a visit to his house at Hampstead As I approached my door,' said Mr. Hunt, I heard strange and alarming shrieks, mixed with the voice of a man. The next day it was reported, by the gossips, that Mr. Shelley, no Christ ian (for it was he who was there), had brought some very strange female into the house, no better of course than she ought to be. The real Christ ian had puzzled them: Mr. Shelley, in coming to our house that night, had found a woman, lying near the top of the hill, in fits. It was a fierce winter night, with snow upon the ground, and winter loses nothing of its fierceness at Hampstead. My friend, always the promptest, as well as most pitying, on these occasions, knocked at the first houses he could reach, in order to have her taken in, but the invariable answer was that they could not do it. At last, my friend sees a carriage driving up to a house at a little distance. The knock is given; the warm door opens; servants and lights pour forth. Now, thought he, is the time. He puts on his best ad dress ' which anybody might recognize for that of the highest gentleman, as well as an interesting individual, and plants himself in the way of an elderly person, who is stepping out of the carriage with his family. He tells his story; and asks him if he will go and see the poor woman. No, sir; there's no necessity for that sort of thing, depend on it; imposters swarm everywhere, the thing cannot be done. Sir, your conduct is extra ordinary." Sir,' cried Mr. Shelley, at last, forcing the flourishing householder to stop, out of astonishment, I am sorry to say that your conduct is not extraordinary; and, if my own seems to amaze you, I will tell you something that may amaze you a little more, and, I hope, will frighten. It is such men as madden the spirits and patience of the poor and wretched; and, if ever a convulsion comes in this country, which is very probable, recollect what I tell you; you will have your house, that you refuse to put this miserable woman into, burnt over your head.' God bless me, sir! dear me, sir!' exclaimed the frightened wretch, and fluttered into his mansion. The woman was then brought to our house, which was at some distance, and down a bleak path; the next day my friend sent her comfortably home;' and, adds Mr. Hunt, this was one of the most ordinary of Shelley's actions.

As a poet, we think Shelley has never been surpassed; and we could point out many of his passages which are without their equal, even if we look for their parallel in the works of Shakespeare, Byron, and Milton. But the wild speculative sublimity of his thoughts, the refined intellectuality of his ideas, and the mysterious intertexture of sentiment with feeling, which are the characteristics of his poetry, will always hinder him from becoming popular. Yet, with all this, there is a simplicity about his writings, as remarkable, it has been observed, as its views and speculations are remote and peculiar. A very just notion of his style has been taken by the biographer to whom we have before alluded, who observes, that in all Shelley's works there is a wonderfully sustained sensibility, and a language lofty and fit for it. He has the art,' continues the same authority, of using the stateliest words and the most learned idioms without incurring the charge of pedantry, so that passages of more splendid and sonorous writing are not to be selected from any writer since the days of Milton; and yet, when he descends from his ideal world, and comes home to us in our humble bowers, and is yearning after love and affection, he attunes the most natural feelings to a style so proportionate, and withal to a modulation so truly musical, that there is nothing to surpass it in the lyrics of Beaumont and Fletcher.' In addition to the works before mentioned, Shelley is the author of Queen Mab, Alastor, Prometheus Unbound, the tragedy of The Cenci, and a volume of posthumous poems.