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The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Family History
‣ Childhood
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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It may not be irrelevant to mention that Miss Michell, Sir Bysshe’s first wife, was my grandfather’s first cousin; and that my mother bore the same degree of consanguinity to Miss Pilfold; their fathers being brothers; which circumstances I mention in order to account for the intimacy of our families, and mine with Bysshe, as he was always called. Among the letters of an aunt of mine, was found one [See Appendix No. 1] from him, written in his eleventh year, and which I give entire, not so much on account of its merit, or as a literary curiosity, but to show the early regard he entertained for me, the playfulness of his character as a boy, and the dry humour of franking the letter, his father then being member of Parliament for the Rape of Bramber; nor is it less valuable to show his early fondness for a boat.

He was most engaging and amiable as a child; such as he, afterwards thinking perhaps of himself, describes:—
He was a gentle boy,
And in all gentle sports took joy;
Oft in a dry leaf for a boat,
With a small feather for a sail,
His fancy on that spring would float,
If some invisible breeze might stir
Its marble calm.—Rosalind and Helen.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was brought up in retirement at Field Place, and received the same education as his elder sisters, being instructed in the rudiments of Latin and Greek by Mr. Edwards, the clergyman of Warnham, (the parish in which they lived), a good old man, but of very limited intellects, and whose preaching might have been edifying if his Welch pronunciation had made it intelligible; at all events, his performance of the service was little calculated to inspire devotion. At ten years of age he was sent to Sion House, Brentford, where I had preceded him. This school, though not a “Dotheboys-hall,” was conducted with the greatest regard to economy. A slice of bread with an “idée” of butter smeared on the surface, and “thrice skimmed skyblue,”
to use an expression of
Bloomfield the poet, was miscalled a breakfast. The supper, a repetition of the same frugal repast; and the dinner, at which it was never allowed to send up the plate twice without its eliciting an observation from the distributor, that effectually prevented a repetition of the offence, was made up generally of ingredients that were anonymous. The Saturday’s meal, a sort of pie, a collect from the plates during the week. This fare, to a boy accustomed to the delicacies of the table, was not the most attractive; the whole establishment was in keeping with the dietry part of it, and the system of the lavations truly Scotch.

The lady of the house was by no means a Mrs. Squeers—I do not remember seeing her five times whilst I was at the seminary of learning,—she was too fine to have anything to do with all the dirty details of the household; she was, or was said to be, connected with the Duke of Argyle—I never knew one of the Scottish nation who did not claim relationship, or clanship, with the noble
duke. She was given out for a sprig of nobility at any rate; another sister, an old maid, the factotum of the establishment, was an economist of the first order.

Exchanging for the caresses of his sisters an association with boys, mostly the sons of London shopkeepers, of rude habits and coarse manners, who made game of his girlishness, and despised him because he was not “one of them;” not disposed to enter into their sports, to wrangle, or fight; confined between four stone walls, in a playground of very limited dimensions—a few hundred yards—(with a single tree in it, and that the Bell tree, so called from its having suspended in its branches, the odious bell whose din, when I think of it, yet jars my ears,) instead of breathing the pure air of his native fields, and rambling about the plantations and flower gardens of his father’s country seat—the sufferings he underwent at his first outset in this little world were most acute.

Sion House was indeed a perfect hell to him.
Fagging, that vestige of barbarous times, in the positive sense of the word, as adopted in public schools, was not in strict use; that is, the boys of the higher classes had not expressly chosen and particular slaves; but perhaps there was in operation here, another and a worse form of government—a democracy of tyrants—instead of the rule of a few petty sovereigns; and although here the elder boys did not oblige their juniors to perform for them offices the most menial, to clean their coats and shoes, they forced them to bowl to them at cricket, and run after their balls until they were ready to drop with fatigue—to go out of bounds for them to the circulating library, or purchase with dictionaries and other books sold by weight to the grocer, bread and cheese to stay their cravings of hunger, and to receive the punishment of the transgression, if caught in the fact. And more than one of these petty despots (there were young men at the school of seventeen or eighteen) used to vent on his victims his ill-humours in
harsh words, sometimes in blows. Poor
Shelley! he was always the martyr, and it was under the smart of this oppression that he wrote:—
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.

And again:—
Day after day—week after week—
I walked about like a thing alive—
Alas! dear friend! you must believe
The heart is stone—it did not break.

We were about sixty school-fellows. I well remember the day when he was added to the number. A new arrival is always a great excitement to the other boys, who pounce upon a fresh man with the boldness of birds of prey. We all had had to pass through this ordeal, and the remembrance of it gave my companions a zest for torture. All tormented him with questionings. There was no end to their mockery, when they found that he was ignorant of pegtop or
marbles, or leap-frog, or hopscotch, much more of fives and cricket. One wanted him to spar, another to run a race with him. He was a tyro in both these accomplishments, and the only welcome of the Neophyte was a general shout of derision. To all these impertinences he made no reply, but with a look of disdain written in his countenance, turned his back on his new associates, and when he was alone, found relief in tears.

Shelley was at this time tall for his age, slightly and delicately built, and rather narrow chested, with a complexion fair and ruddy, a face rather long than oval. His features, not regularly handsome, were set off by a profusion of silky brown hair, that curled naturally. The expression of countenance was one of exceeding sweetness and innocence. His blue eyes were very large and prominent, considered by phrenologists to indicate a great aptitude for verbal memory. They were at times, when he was abstracted, as he often was in contemplation, dull, and, as it were,
insensible to external objects; at others they flashed with the fire of intelligence. His voice was soft and low, but broken in its tones,—when anything much interested him, harsh and immodulated; and this peculiarity he never lost. As is recorded of
Thomson, he was naturally calm, but when he heard of or read of some flagrant act of injustice, oppression, or cruelty, then indeed the sharpest marks of horror and indignation were visible in his countenance.

I have said that he was delicately framed, and it has been remarked, “that it is often noticed in those of very fine and susceptible genius. That mysterious influence, which the mind exercises over the body, seeming to prevent the growth of physical strength, when the intellect is kept ever alive, and the spirits continually are agitated.”

“As his port had the meekness of a maiden, the heart of the young virgin who had never crossed her father’s threshold to encounter the rude world, could not be more susceptible of all
the sweet charities than his. In this respect
Shelley’s disposition would happily illustrate the innocence and virginity of the Muses. He possessed a most affectionate regard for his relations, and particularly for the females of his family. It was not without manifest joy that he received a letter from his mother and sisters,”—for the two eldest he had an especial fondness, and I will here observe that one, unhappily removed from the world before her time, possessed a talent for oil-painting that few artists have acquired, and that the other bore a striking resemblance in her beauty and amiability, to his cousin, Harriet Grove, of whom I shall have to speak. Mr. Hogg mentions, on the occasion of Shelley’s seeing the attachment and tenderness of two sisters at Oxford, his feelings regarding the sisterly affections, and says he seems to have had his own in his eye. He on this occasion described their appearance, and drew a lovely picture of this amiable and innocent attachment; the dutiful regard of the younger,
which partook, in some degree, of filial reverence; but, as more fasile and familiar, and of the protecting, instinctively hoping fondness of the elder, that resembled maternal tenderness, but with less of reserve and more of sympathy.

As a proof of his great sweetness of disposition and feeling for others, I will cite an example of which I was an eye-witness. His sisters, on the occasion of a visit with himself to a young lady of their own age, and a near relation, who was shy, reserved, and awkward, behaved to her as he considered rudely, at which Shelley was much hurt, endeavoured to soothe her, and severely reprimanded his sisters, and persuaded his father, on his return home, to call and make apology for them.

Such was Shelley when noviciated at Sion House Academy. Our master, a Scotch doctor of law, and a divine, was a choleric man, of a sanguinary complexion, in a green old age; not wanting in good qualities, but very capricious in his temper, which, good or bad, was influenced
by the daily occurrences of a domestic life, not the most harmonious, and of which his face was the barometer, and his hand the index. He was a tolerable Greek and Latin scholar:
Homer, his cheval de bataille. He could construe fluently, in his own way, some plays of Æschylus—Schultz being his oracle—and several of those of Sophocles and Euripides, looking upon the text as immaculate, never sticking fast at any of its corruptions, but driving straight forwards, in defiance of obstacles. The brick wall of no chorus ever made him pull up. In reading the historians, he troubled himself as little with digressions or explanations of the habits and customs of the ancients, or maps. His Latin verses were certainly original, but neither Virgilian nor Ovidian, for I remember an inscription of his on a Scotch mull, which had been presented to him (he took an inordinate quantity of Scotch snuff) by one of his pupils, it ran thus:—Snuffbox loquitur:—
“Me, Carolus Mackintosh, de dono, dedit, alumnus,
Præceptor, præsensu, accipit atque tenet.”


Shelley certainly imbibed no love of the classics, much as he afterwards cultivated them, from this Dominie. The dead languages were to him as bitter a pill as they had been to Byron, but he acquired them, as it were intuitively, and seemingly without study, for during school-hours he was wont to gaze at the passing clouds,—all that could be seen from the lofty windows which his desk fronted—or watch the swallows as they flitted past, with longing for their wings; or would scrawl in his school-books—a habit he always continued—rude drawings of pines and cedars, in memory of those on the lawn of his native home. On these occasions, our master would sometimes peep over his shoulder, and greet his ears with no pleasing salutation.

Our pedagogue, when he was in one of his good humours, dealt also in what he called facetiæ, and when we came to the imprisonment of the winds in the Cave of Eolus, as described in the Æneid, used, to the merriment of the school, who enjoyed the joke much, to indulge
Cotton’s parody on the passage, prefacing it with an observation, that his father never forgave him for the Travestie—a punishment richly merited, and which ought to have been visited on the joker by his other pupils as it was by Shelley, who afterwards expressed to me his disgust at this bad taste, for he never could endure obscenity in any form.

A scene, that to poor Shelley, who instead of laughing had made a face at the silly attempt at wit, and which his preceptor had probably observed, has often recurred to me. A few days after this, he had a theme set him for two Latin lines on the subject of Tempestas. He came to me to assist him in the task. I had got a cribbing book, and of which I made great use—Ovid’s Tristibus. I knew that the only work of Ovid with which the doctor was acquainted was the Metamorphoses, the only one, indeed, read in that and other seminaries of learning, and by what I thought great good luck, happened to stumble on two lines exactly applicable to the
purpose. The hexameter I forget, but the pentameter ran thus:—
Jam jam tacturos sidera celsa putes.

When Shelley’s turn came to carry up his exercise, my eyes were turned on the Dominie. There was a peculiar expression in his features, which, like the lightning before the storm, portended what was coming. The spectacles, generally lifted above his dark and bushy brows, were lowered to their proper position, and their lenses had no sooner caught the said hexameter and pentameter than he read with a loud voice the stolen line, laying a sarcastic emphasis on every word, and suiting the action to the word by boxes on each side of Shelley’s ears. Then came the comment, “‘Jam jam,’—Pooh, pooh, boy! raspberry jam! Do you think you are at your mother’s?” Here a burst of laughter echoed through the listening benches. “Don’t you know that I have a sovereign objection to those two monosyllables, with which schoolboys cram their verses? haven’t I told you so a hundred
times already? ‘Tacturos sidera celsa putes,’—what, do the waves on the coast of Sussex strike the stars, eh?—‘celsa sidera,’—who does not know that the stars are high! Where did you find that epithet!—in your Gradus ad Parnassum, I suppose. You will never mount so high;” (another box on the ears, which nearly felled him to the ground)—“putes! you may think this very fine, but to me it is all balderdash, hyperbolical stuff;” (another cuff) after which he tore up the verses, and said in a fury, “There, go now, sir, and see if you can’t write something better.”

Poor Shelley! I had been the cause of his misfortune—of what affected him more than this unjust punishment—the ridicule of the whole school; and I was half inclined to have opened my desk, and produced, to the shame of the ignorant pedagogue, the original line of the great Latin poet, which this Crispinus had so savagely abused, but terror, a persuasion that his penance would be light compared to mine, soon repressed the impulse.


Youthful feelings are not deep, but the impression of this scene long left a sting behind it; perhaps Shelley, in brooding over the prediction as to his incapacity for writing Latin verses, then resolved to falsify it, for he afterwards, as will appear by two specimens which I give in their proper place, became a great proficient in the art.

He passed among his schoolfellows as a strange and unsocial being, for when a holiday relieved us from our tasks, and the other boys were engaged in such sports as the narrow limits of our prison-court allowed, Shelley, who entered into none of them, would pace backwards and forwards—I think I see him now—along the southern wall, indulging in various vague and undefined ideas, the chaotic elements, if I may say so, of what afterwards produced so beautiful a world. I very early learned to penetrate into this soul sublime—why may I not say divine, for what is there that comes nearer to God than genius in the heart of a child? I, too, was the only one at the school with whom he could communicate
his sufferings, or exchange ideas: I was, indeed, some years his senior, and he was grateful to me for so often singling him out for a companion; for it is well known that it is considered in some degree a condescension for boys to make intimates of those in a lower form than themselves. Then we used to walk together up and down his favourite spot, and there he would outpour his sorrows to me, with observations far beyond his years, and which, according to his after ideas, seemed to have sprung from an antenatal life. I have often thought that he had these walks of ours in mind, when, in describing an antique group, he says, “Look, the figures are walking with a sauntering and idle pace, and talking to each other as they walk, as you may have seen a younger and an elder boy at school, walking in some grassy spot of the play-ground, with that tender friendship for each other which the age inspires.” If Shelley abominated one task more than another it was a dancing lesson. At a Ball at Willis’s rooms, where, among other pupils of Sala, I made one, an aunt of mine, to whom the
Letter No. 1, in the Appendix, was addressed, asked the dancing master why Bysshe was not present, to which he replied in his broken English, “Mon Dieu, madam, what should he do here? Master Shelley will not learn any ting—he is so gauche.” In fact, he contrived to abscond as often as possible from the dancing lessons, and when forced to attend, suffered inexpressibly.

Half-year after half-year passed away, and in spite of his seeming neglect of his tasks, he soon surpassed all his competitors, for his memory was so tenacious that he never forgot a word once turned up in his dictionary. He was very fond of reading, and greedily devoured all the books which were brought to school after the holidays; these were mostly blue books. Who does not know what blue books mean? but if there should be any one ignorant enough not to know what those dear darling volumes, so designated from their covers, contain, be it known, that they are or were to be bought for sixpence, and embodied stories of haunted castles, bandits, murderers, and other grim personages—a most exciting and
interesting sort of food for boys’ minds; among those of a larger calibre was one which I have never seen since, but which I still remember with a recouchè delight. It was “
Peter Wilkins.” How much Shelley wished for a winged wife and little winged cherubs of children!

But this stock was very soon exhausted. As there was no school library, we soon resorted, “under the rose,” to a low circulating one in the town (Brentford), and here the treasures at first seemed inexhaustible. Novels at this time, (I speak of 1803) in three goodly volumes, such as we owe to the great Wizard of the North, were unknown. Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett, formed the staple of the collection. But these authors were little to Shelley’s taste. Anne Ratcliffe’s works pleased him most, particularly the Italian, but the Rosa-Matilda school, especially a strange, wild romance, entitled “Zofloya, or the Moor,” a Monk-Lewisy production, where his Satanic Majesty, as in Faust, plays the chief part, enraptured him. The two novels he afterwards
wrote, entitled “
Zastrozzi” and the “Rosicrucian,” were modelled after this ghastly production, all of which I now remember, is, that the principal character is an incarnatian of the devil, but who, unlike the Monk, (then a prohibited book, but afterwards an especial favourite with Shelley) instead of tempting a man and turning him into a likeness of himself, enters into a woman called Olympia, who poisons her husband homoeopathically, and ends by being carried off very melodramatically in blue flames to the place of dolor.

“Accursed,” said Schiller, “the folly of our nurses, who distort the imagination with frightful ghost stories, and impress ghastly pictures of executions on our weak brains, so that involuntary shudderings seize the limbs of a man, making them rattle in frosty agony,” &c. “But who knows,” he adds, “if these traces of early education be ineffaceable in us?” Schiller was, however, himself much addicted to this sort of reading. It is said of Collins that he employed his mind chiefly upon works of fiction
and subjects of fancy, and by indulging some peculiar habits of thought was universally delighted with those nights of imagination which pass the bounds of nature, and to which the mind is reconciled only by a passive acquiescence in popular tradition. He loved fairies, genii, giants, and monsters; he delighted to rove through the meanders of enchantment, to gaze on the magnificence of golden palaces, to repose by the waterfalls of Elysian gardens.
Milton, too, in early life, lived in a similar dream-land, was fond of high romance and gothic diableries; and it would seem that such contemplations furnish a fit pabulum for the development of poetical genius.

This constant dwelling on the marvellous, had considerable influence on Shelley’s imagination, nor is it to be wondered, that at that age he entertained a belief in apparitions, and the power of evoking them, to which he alludes frequently in his afterworks, as in Alastor:
By forcing some lone ghost,
My messenger, to render up the tale
Of what we are;
and in an earlier effusion:
Oh, there are genii of the air,
And genii of the evening breeze,
And gentle ghosts, with eyes as fair
As star-beams among twilight trees;
and again in the
Hymn to Intellectual Beauty:
While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead,
I called on poisonous names with which our youth is fed—
I was not heard—I saw them not.

After supping on the horrors of the Minerva press, he was subject to strange, and sometimes frightful dreams, and was haunted by apparitions that bore all the semblance of reality. We did not sleep in the same dormitory, but I shall never forget one moonlight night seeing Shelley walk into my room. He was in a state of somnambulism. His eyes were open, and he advanced with slow steps to the window, which, it being the height of summer, was open, I got
out of bed, seized him with my arm, and waked him—I was not then aware of the danger of suddenly rousing the sleep-walker. He was excessively agitated, and after leading him back with some difficulty to his couch, I sat by him for some time, a witness to the severe erethism of his nerves, which the sudden shock produced.

This was the only occasion, however, to my knowledge, that a similar event occurred at school, but I remember that he was severely punished for this involuntary transgression. If, however, he ceased at that time to somnambulize, he was given to waking dreams, a sort of lethargy and abstraction that became habitual to him, and after the accès was over, his eyes flashed, his lips quivered, his voice was tremulous with emotion, a sort of ecstacy came over him, and he talked more like a spirit or an angel than a human being.

The second or third year after Shelley’s domicile at Sion House, Walker gave a course of lectures in the great room at the academy, and
displayed his Orrery. This exhibition opened to Shelley a new universe of speculations; he was, till then, quite ignorant of astronomy; looking upon the stars as so many lights in heaven, as flowers on the earth, sent for our mere gratification and enjoyment; but if he was astonished at the calculations of the mathematician, and the unfolding of our System, he was still more delighted at the idea of a plurality of worlds. Saturn, which was then visible, and which we afterwards looked at through a telescope, particularly interested him, its atmosphere seeming to him an irrefragable proof of its being inhabited like our globe. He dilated on some planets being more favoured than ourselves, and was enchanted with the idea that we should, as spirits, make the grand tour through the heavens,—perhaps, to use the words of
Jean Paul Richter, “that as boys are advanced and promoted from one class to another, we should rise to a progressive state from planet to planet, till we became Gods.” But if his mind was thus opened, he was not less
charmed at the chemical experiments, particularly with the fact that earth, air, and water are not simple elements. This course of lectures ended with the solar microscope, which, whilst it excited his curiosity, constituted to most of us little spectators the most attractive part of the exhibition. The mites in cheese, where the whole active population was in motion—the wing of a fly—the vermicular animalcules in vinegar, and other minute creations still smaller, and even invisible to the naked eye, formed afterwards the subjects of many of our conversations; and that he had not forgotten the subject is proved by his making a solar microscope his constant companion, and an anecdote is told in reference to it, which places in a strong light his active benevolence:—“We were crossing the New Road,” says
Mr. Hogg, “when he said sharply, ‘I must call for a moment, but it will not be out of the way at all,’ and then dragged me suddenly towards the left. I enquired whither are we bound, and I believe I suggested the postpone-
ment of the intended visit till to-morrow. He answered that it was not at all out of our way. I was hurried along rapidly towards the left; we soon fell into an animated discussion respecting the nature of the virtue of the Romans, which in some measure beguiled the weary way. Whilst he was talking with much vehemence, and a total disregard of the people who thronged the streets, he suddenly wheeled about, and pushed me through a narrow door; to my infinite surprise I found myself in a pawnbroker’s shop. It was in the neighbourhood of Newgate street, for he had no idea whatever, in practice, either of time or space, nor did he in any degree regard method in the conduct of business. There were several women in the shop in brown and grey cloaks, with squalling children, some of them were attempting to persuade the children to be quiet, or, at least, to scream with moderation; others were enlarging and pointing out the beauties of certain coarse and dirty sheets that lay before them, to a man on the other side of the
counter. I bore this substitute for our proposed tea for some minutes with great patience, but, as the call did not promise to terminate speedily, I said to Shelley in a whisper, ‘Is not this almost as bad as the Roman virtue?’ Upon this he approached the pawnbroker: it was long before he obtained a hearing, and he did not find civility; the man was unwilling to part with a valuable pledge so soon, or perhaps he hoped to retain it eventually, or it might be the obliquity of his nature disqualified him for respectful behaviour. A pawnbroker is frequently an important witness in criminal proceedings; it has happened to me, therefore, to see many specimens of this kind of banker; they sometimes appeared not less respectable than other tradesmen—and sometimes I have been forcibly reminded of the first I ever met with by an equally ill-conditioned fellow. I was so little pleased with the introduction, that I stood aloof in the shop, and did not hear what passed between him and Shelley. On our way to Covent Garden, I expressed my surprise and
dissatisfaction at our strange visit, and I learned that when he came to London before, in the course of the summer, some old man had related to him a tale of distress—of a calamity which could only be alleviated by the timely application of ten pounds; five of them he drew from his pocket, and to raise the other five he had pawned his beautiful solar microscope! He related this act of beneficence simply and briefly as if it were a matter of course, and such indeed it was to him. I was ashamed of my impatience, and we strode along in silence.

“It was past ten when we reached the hotel, some excellent tea and a liberal supply of hot muffins in the coffee-room, now quiet and solitary, were the more grateful after the wearisome delay and vast deviation. Shelley often turned his head, and cast eager glances towards the door; and whenever the waiter replenished our teapot, or approached our box, he was interrogated whether any one had called. At last the desired summons was brought; Shelley drew forth some
bank notes, hurried to the bar, and returned as hastily, bearing in triumph under his arm a mahogany box, followed by the officious waiter, with whose assistance he placed it upon the bench by his side. He viewed it often with evident satisfaction, and sometimes patted it affectionately in the course of calm conversation. The solar microscope was always a favourite plaything, or instrument of scientific inquiry; whenever he entered a house his first care was to choose some window of a southern aspect, and if permission could be obtained by prayer or purchase, straightway cut a hole through the shutter to receive it. His regard for the solar microscope was as lasting as it was strong; for he retained it several years after this adventure, and long after he had parted with all the rest of his philosophical apparatus.”