LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley
At Marlow: 1817
Family History
Shelley at Eton
Taste for the Gothic
Shelley’s Juvenilia
Queen Mab
Shelley at Oxford
First Marriage
Death of Harriet
Chancery Suit
Switzerland: 1814
Alastor; Geneva: 1816
Byron and Claire
‣ At Marlow: 1817
Italy: 1818
Naples, Rome: 1819
The Cenci
Florence: 1819
Vol I Appendix
Vol II Front Matter
Pisa: 1820
Poets and Poetry
Pisa: 1821
Shelley and Keats
Williams, Hunt, Byron
Shelley and Byron
Poetry and Politics
Byron and his Friends
The Pisan Circle
Casa Magni
Death of Shelley
Lerici: 1822
Burial in Rome
Character of Shelley
Vol II Appendix
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On Shelley’s arrival in London, one of the few persons with whom he was intimate was Leigh Hunt. His acquaintance with him commenced, I believe, in 1813, and it now ripened into the closest intimacy. It was indeed an epoch in his life. Leigh Hunt was at that time joint editor of the far-famed Examiner, and which made him in the eyes of Lord Byron (but more so in those of his future biographer, Mr. Moore, who always had the hell of reviews before him,) a person of some consequence and weight in the literary world.

Leigh Hunt was then living at Hampstead, and here Shelley also, I believe, first met Keats.

I have been furnished by a lady, who, better even than Leigh Hunt, knew Keats, with the means of supplying many interesting particulars respecting him; so well indeed did she know him, that she might have furnished materials for that life of him promised by Mr. Brown, who unfortu-
nately died in New Zealand before it was completed, and where Keats’s MSS. and papers are said to have been lost. Keats was left fatherless at an early age, and when he came to years of discretion, was apprenticed to an apothecary, but the sight of suffering humanity, and the anatomical school, soon disgusted him with the pursuit, and he abandoned the profession of medicine, but not originally to follow the ill-named flowery paths of poetry; for an authentic anecdote is told of him, corroborative of this remark. One day, sitting dreamily over his desk, he was endeavouring to while away a tedious hour by copying some verses from memory; one of his brother apprentices looking over his shoulder, said, “Keats, what are you a poet?” It is added, he was much piqued at the accusation, and replied, “Poet indeed! I never composed a line in my life.” The same story is told of
Walter Scott, who in crossing over one of the Scotch lakes, endeavoured to put his ideas into verse, but on landing had only made two bad rhymes, and observed to
the friend who accompanied him, “I shall never do for a poet.” But Keats, no less than the Wizard of the North, falsified his own prophecy. Keats was ever a constant reader of
Shakspeare, and I have before me a folio edition of the great dramatist’s works, with notes and comments on Troilus and Cressida, and containing at the end of the volume an ode, evidently a very early attempt, which, properly for his fame, he did not publish. He might also have forborne giving to the world some other of the short poems, his first attempts in the art. We are certainly indebted for the discovery of the poetic vein in him to Leigh Hunt, and his encouragement of his young friend. But it is equally owing to Leigh Hunt that the disciple enrolled himself in what has been termed the Cockney school, and fell into a pale imitation of the Elizabethan writers, and the adoption of a language, neither Shakspearean nor Spencerian—a language neither belonging to his own time, nor to society. How well does Quintilian designate some author of his day
who had a similar mania! “Sepultam scribendi artem suscitat, obliteratas restituit literas, antiquos renovat apices, abrogatas recudit literarum formulas, et ingens opus, rei literaricæ miraculum quod stupeat, &c.” Thus, in the words of
Dr. Johnson, speaking of two of his contemporaries, he “affected the obsolete when it was not worthy of revival, and thought his language more poetical, as it was more removed from common use.” Such was the prevailing fault of Endymion, an unreadable poem, only redeemed by the Hymn to Pan, and a few scattered passages, Oases in the misty desert of an outworn mythology. Shelley told me that he and Keats had mutually agreed, in the same given time, (six months each,) to write a long poem, and that the Endymion, and Revolt of Islam were the fruits of this rivalry. But I shall have much to say on the subject of these poems, in the course of these memoirs; and with this introduction of the reader to Keats, let me turn to Shelley, and his eventful history.


After living some time under Leigh Hunt’s roof, in the spring of 1817, Shelley took a house at Marlow, and there passed nearly a year. His choice of Buckinghamshire, and of this town, as an abode, was chiefly owing to its being at an easy distance from London, and on the banks of his favorite river the Thames. Here it was, that in addition to Prince Athanase, some minor lyrics, and part of Rosalind and Helen, he composed “The Revolt of Islam,” and wrote a pamphlet, now lost, on the occasion of the Princess Charlotte’s death, entitled, “The Hermit of Marlow.” In the spring of 1835, I made an excursion to Marlow, in order to visit scenes, that were among the sources of inspiration of Laon and Cythna, as the first edition of The Revolt of Islam was entitled. The house he inhabited was pointed out to me, by almost the first person, a middle-aged man, of whom I enquired. It was in a retired street, and commanded no view—a comfortable abode, with gothic windows, and behind it a garden and shady
orchard plot, of some extent, carpeted with the greenest turf, which must have afforded a delightful retreat in the summer noon. Not only the town itself, with its church and bridge, and old buildings, is highly picturesque, but the environs are strikingly beautiful, and remarkable for their fine country seats; Daney, so called from a Danish camp having once existed here, whose entrenchment may still be traced,—Hanneker, built by
Inigo Jones, and many other noble residences, inhabited by families of wealth and distinction, diversify the landscapes, and make them an enchantment. Nor must I forget the fall of the river, over an artificial embankment immediately above the town, where the eye crossing the richest meadows, rests on the lovely beech groves of Bisham Abbey. “In no place are riches and poverty presented in more prominent contrast. Lace-making is the occupation of the poor, women being the operatives, who lose their health by sedentary labour, for which they are badly paid. The poor-laws ground to the dust
those who had just risen above pauperage, and were obliged to pay them. The changes produced by peace following a long war, were heavily felt; the trade which had been their support, flowing into other channels, produced great destitution and misery, which a bad harvest contributed to enhance.” Shelley had a very early sympathy for the working classes. I remember the very harrowing effect which
Southey’s Don Espriello’s Letters produced on him in 1810 or 1811; one of the most frightful, faithful pictures ever drawn of the wretchedness, vice, and immorality that seem necessary concomitants of an overproduction of manufactures. The impression this feelingly written work made on Shelley, was ineffaceable, and gave rise to the apostrophe in Queen Mab,—
“Commerce! beneath whose poison-breathing shade
No solitary virtue dares to spring,
But poverty and wealth with equal hand
Scatter their withering curses, and unfold
The doors of premature and violent death,
To pining famine, and full-fed disease,
To all that shares the lot of human life,
Which poisoned body and soul scarce drags the chain
That lengthens as it goes, and clanks behind.”
And again:
“His host of blind and unresisting dupes
The despot numbers, from his cabinet
These puppets of his schemes he moves at will,
Even as the slaves by force or famine driven,
Beneath a vulgar master, to perform
A task of cold and brutal drudgery—
Hardened to hope—insensible to fear—
Scarce living pulleys of a dead machine,
Mere wheels of work and articles of trade.”

In a note appended to these passages, penned with all that sincerity and conviction of truth, that uncompromising spirit that characterises all his writings, a note in which he deprecates the luxury of the rich, calling it “a remedy that aggravates, while it pollutes the countless divisions of society,” he adds that “the poor are set to labour—for what? Not for the food for which
they famish—not for the blankets for want of which their babes are frozen by the cold of their miserable hovels—not those comforts of civilization, without which, civilized man is far more miserable than the meanest savage, oppressed as he is by all its insidious evils, within the daily and taunting prospect of its innumerable benefits assiduously exhibited before him. No! for the pride of power—for the miserable isolation of pride, for the false pleasures of the hundredth part of society.”

In this town of Marlow, he had an opportunity, not of visiting quite such loathsome dens as described in these “Letters of a Spaniard,” where the factory lords stifle their victims in the great hotbeds of crime and pollution, Manchester and Leeds,—but he saw enough to shock and disgust him. He did all in his power to alleviate the condition of the poor lace-makers of Marlow; “he visited them in their damp and fireless abodes—he supplied them with blankets and coals and food and medicines, and from tending one of
the sick, caught the opthalmia, which nearly deprived him of sight.”

These facts I had confirmed by a lady still resident there, one of its great ornaments, who did ample justice to Shelley’s memory, and related many individual anecdotes of his benevolence and charity, that called for her warmest sympathy and admiration. I may add, that his name is still perpetuated among the inhabitants, who are proud of having harboured the poet, and counted him among their number. I was surprised indeed, considering the low and disgraceful state of education in England, to find that any of them were acquainted with his works, and hailed the circumstance as a pledge of his immortality,—and an immortal work is the Revolt of Islam.

He had originally, it would seem, after the Divine Comedy, intended to have written it in terza rima, of which he made an experiment in Prince Athanase; but soon after abandoned that metre, as too monotonous and artificial, and
adopted instead the stanza of
Spencer, which he wields as none have ever done before him. The fragment of Prince Athanase is valuable, as the first conception of a great picture by a great master. In this sketch of the prince, we find the germs of the character of Laon. Athanase is a youth nourished in dreams of liberty, animated by a resolution to confer the boons of civil and religious liberty on his fellow men; and the poet doubtless meant to have created for him a companion endued with the same enthusiasm.

A lovelier creature than Cythna, heart never conceived—a purer love than those of Laon and Cythna words could not express. The story I shall not analyse—it is indeed treated with the simplicity of Grecian art, and might have furnished Canova or Thorwalsden with a subject for a series of bas reliefs.

This poem occupied six months. It was composed as he floated in his skiff on the Thames, reclined beneath its willow and alder fringed banks, or took refuge from the noonday solsti-
cian heats, in some island only the haunt of the swan. A Marlow gentleman told me,
Shelley spent frequently whole nights in his boat, taking up his occasional abode at a small inn down the river, which I imagine must have been at Cookham. We find everywhere scattered about this poem, strikingly faithful drawings of the scenery near and about Marlow; and with the Revolt of Islam in my hand, I for nearly a month, traversed the stream up and down, from the sequestered and solemn solitudes of the deep woods of Clifden, on the one hand, to the open sunniness of the enamelled meadows of Henley on the other, and often fancied myself in the very spots so graphically drawn. The opening in that most graceful dedication,—
“So now my summer task is ended, Mary,
And I return to thee,”—
proves that he had been passing this summer in great isolation from his family, and is a tribute to the virtues of one of the noblest-minded of
her sex,—“a child of glorious parents,” as he styles her, and inheriting much of the talent of both, which has gained for her a name, reflecting honour on either.

The life which Shelley led at Marlow, occasionally varied by short trips to London, was, as far as the society of the place was concerned, a most isolated one. Among his principal amusements, were boating and pistol practice, and it was complained that he “frightened the place from its propriety;” and one of his neighbours pretended that she was afraid of going out for fear of being shot; no doubt a very false alarm. Among his visitors may be mentioned, Mr. Peacock, and his old college friend, Mr. Hogg; to the latter of whom we are indebted for filling up so important a chasm in Shelley’s history, his Oxonian career,—materials, of which I have largely availed myself. The first of these gentlemen has not had the reputation to which Nightmare Abbey, and his other novels, justly entitled him. “They were too good for his age,”
Byron said. But there is a work of Mr. Peacock’s, to which a more glaring injustice has been done,—I allude to Rododendron. The first time I met with that exquisite poem, was at Paris, where I saw it lying on a lady’s table. She told me it was her favourite poem, and that she read it several times every year, and with increased pleasure.

It is something to have contributed to the happiness of one human being. Shelley agreed with her as to the merits of Rododendron, for he says,—“It is a book from which I confess, I expected extraordinary success.” But although containing passages that throw into shade all that Rogers and Campbell in their cold and stilted Didactics have produced, it fell dead from the press. Let the author console himself in this age of reviews and coteries, with the reflection, that the Epipsychidion met afterwards with a similar fate,—that it rose from its ashes, and that his may yet do so; if it should not, I hope that in the island where Ariosto places all the
lost treasures of earth, may be preserved among those neglected works, which have like straws been swept down the current of time, for the recreation of “the Translated” Rododendron.

In six months of this year, to write and correct the press of such a work as Laon and Cythna, was no slight task; perhaps the mental excitement gave a diversion to his thoughts, and it must have required a rare power of self-condensation and abstraction, to have enabled him to write under the different afflictions that beset him. The publicity of the proceedings in Chancery, coupled with the death of his wife, raised a host of detractors against him; Queen Mab was universally decried, his children made over to strangers—and to crown all, his health in a very precarious state. He had formed an idea that the situation of his house at Marlow was an insalubrious one—that a warm climate was absolutely essential to him; and this, and various other reasons, among which, the conviction that the breach between himself
and his relations was irreparable, weighing more than all the rest—induced him to come to a resolution of quitting England, with scarcely a hope of revisiting it.