LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Queen Mab
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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His days and nights at Oxford were dedicated to incessant study and composition, and soon after his arrival, he sent me a volume of poems published at Parkers’, entitled the “Posthumous works of my Aunt Margaret Nicholson,” in which were some stanzas to Charlotte Corday. It might easily be perceived that he had been reading the French revolutionary writers, from the terror of this wild, half-mad production, the poetry of which was well worthy the subject.

The author of “Shelley at Oxford,” gives the following account of this extraordinary effort:—“A mad washerwoman named Peg Nicholson, had attempted to stab King George the Third, with a carving knife—the story has been long forgotten, but it was then fresh in the recollection of every one; it was proposed that we
should ascribe the poems to her. The poor woman was still living, and in green vigour, within the walls of Bedlam, but since her existence must be incompatible, there could be no harm in putting her to death, and in creating a nephew and administrator to his aunt’s poetical works.

“The idea gave an object and purpose to our burlesque, for Shelley, although of a grave disposition, had a certain sly relish in a practical joke, so that it was ingenious and abstruse, and of a literary nature. To ridicule the strange mixture of sentimentality with the murderous fury of revolutionists, that was so powerful in the compositions of the day, amused him much, and the proofs were altered again to adapt them to their new scheme, but still without any notion of publication. But the bookseller was pleased with the whimsical conceit, and asked to be permitted to publish the book on his own account, promising inviolate secrecy, and as many copies gratis as might be required. After some hesitation, permission was granted, upon the plighted honour of the trade. In a few days, or rather in
a few hours, a noble quarto appeared,—it consisted of a small number of pages, it is true, but they were of the largest size, of the thickest, the whitest, and the smoothest drawing paper. The poor maniac laundress was grandly styled the late
Mrs. Margaret Nicholson, widow; and the sonorous name of Fitzvictor had been culled for the inconsolable nephew and administrator; and to add to his dignity, the waggish printer had picked up some huge types of so unusual a form, that even an antiquary could not spell the words at the first glance. The effect was certainly striking. Shelley had torn open the large square bundle before the printer’s boy quitted the room, and holding out a copy with his hands, he ran about in an extacy of delight, gazing on the superb title-page.

“The first poem was a long one, condemning war in the lump, puling trash that might have been written by a quaker, and could only have been published in sober sadness by a society for the diffusion of that kind of knowledge which they deemed useful—useful for some end which
they have not been pleased to reveal, and which unassisted reason is wholly incapable to discover. It contained many odes and other pieces professing an ardent attachment to freedom, and proposing to stab all who were less enthusiastic than the supposed authoress. There were some verses about sucking in them, to these I objected, as unsuitable to the gravity of an university, but
Shelley declared they would be the most impressive of all.

“A few copies were sent as a special favour to trusty and sagacious friends at a distance, whose gravity would not permit them to suspect a hoax,—they read and admired, being charmed with the wild notes of liberty; some indeed presumed to censure mildly certain papers, as having been thrown off in too bold a vein. Nor was a certain success wanting; the remaining copies were rapidly sold in Oxford, at the aristocratic price of half-a-crown per half dozen pages. We used to meet gownsmen in High Street, reading the goodly volume, as-they walked, pensive, with grave and sage delight,—some of them per-
haps more pensive, because it seemed to pourtray the instant overthrow of all royalty, from a king to a court-card.

“What a strange delusion to admire such stuff—the concentrated essence of nonsense! It was indeed a kind of fashion to be seen reading it in public, as a mark of nice discernment, of a delicate and fastidious taste in poetry, and the very criterion of a choice spirit!”

Without stopping to enquire whether Mr. Hogg might not be mistaken in the sort of appreciation in which this regicide production was held, one can hardly conceive, in comparing this with Queen Mab, which Shelley says was written at 18, in 1809, that they were by the same hand. Though begun, it was not completed till 1812, nor the notes appended to it till the end of 1811, or the beginning of the succeeding year. It has been said, though I do not affirm it, that for these he was much indebted to Godwin; and certainly the correctness, I might say the elegance of the style which they display, and the mass of
information they contain on subjects with which, in 1809, he could not have been conversant, seems shew that he must have had some powerful assistance in the task. Queen Mab is undoubtedly a more extraordinary effort of genius than any on record,—and when I say this, I do not forget the early productions of
Pope, of Chatterton, or Kirke White. It is the more wonderful when we consider, that vivid and truthful as his descriptions of nature are, he had never been made familiar with her wonders. Mrs. Shelley is mistaken in saying that at the period of writing Queen Mab, he had been a great traveller in England, Scotland, and Ireland. In fact he had never been 50 miles from his native home, but the country round Horsham is one of exceeding beauty, and imagination supplied what was wanting in reality. And I have often heard him say, that a poet has an instinctive sense of the truth of things, or, as he has expressed more fully the sentiment in his admirable Treatise on Poetry, “He participates in the Eternal, the Infinite, and the One. As far
as relates to his conception, time, and place, and number are not. Poetry is an interpretation of a divine nature, through our own; it compels us to feel that which we perceive, and to imagine that which we know; it creates anew the universe; it justifies the bold words of
Tasso: ‘Non merita nome di Creatore, se non Iddio ed il Poeta.’”

Compassion for his fellow creatures was the ruling motive that originated this poem. “His sympathy was excited by the misery with which the world is bursting. He witnessed the sufferings of the poor, and was aware of the evils of ignorance. He desired to induce every rich man to despoil himself of superfluity, and to erect a brotherhood of property and science, and was ready to be the first to lay down the advantages of birth. He looked forward to a sort of millennium of freedom and brotherhood. He saw in a fervent call on his fellow creatures to share alike the blessings of the Creator, to love and serve each other, the noblest work that life and time
permitted.” Such was the spirit that dictated
Queen Mab!

Although by some anachronisms, I shall here, for the sake of avoiding recurrences and repetitions, dispose of the subject. Intimate and confidential as we were, Shelley never showed me a line of Queen Mab, which may, in some degree, be accounted for by his knowing that our opinions on very many of the theories, or rather hypotheses, contained in that book, were as wide apart as the poles, and that he was sensible that I should have strongly objected to his disseminating them. Not that, although he did print, he ever published Queen Mab—confining himself to sending copies of it to many of the writers of the day; but falling into the hands of a piratical bookseller, it soon got a wide circulation from his reprint. It is certain that in its present form, Shelley would never have admitted it into a collection of his works, and the modification of some of his opinions—though, in the main, he never changed the more important ones—would have
prevented him from putting forth those crude speculations of his boyish days. That such was the case, we may judge from a letter addressed to the editor of the
Examiner, bearing date June 22nd, 1821, wherein he says:

“Having heard that a poem entitled Queen Mab has been surreptitiously published in London, and that legal proceedings have been instituted against the publisher, I request the favour of your insertion of the following explanation of the affair as it relates to me:—

“A poem, entitled Queen Mab, was written by me at the age of eighteen, I dare say in a sufficiently intemperate spirit, but even then was not intended for publication, and a few copies only were struck off to be distributed among my personal friends. I have not seen this production for several years. I doubt not that it is perfectly worthless in point of literary composition; that in all that concerns moral and political speculations, as well as in the subtler discriminations of metaphysical and religious doctrine, it is still
more crude and immature. I am a devoted enemy to religious, political, and domestic oppression, and I regret this publication, not so much from literary vanity, as because I fear it is better fitted to injure than to serve the sacred cause of freedom. I have directed my solicitor to apply for an injunction to restrain the sale, but after the precedent of
Mr. Southey’s Wat Tyler—a poem written, I believe, at the same age, and with the same unreflecting enthusiasm—with little hope of success.”

I may here remark, that it is singular and unaccountable that the editor of the Examiner should not have complied with Shelley’s wishes in giving publicity to this letter, which could not but have proved beneficial to Shelley. He had so completely forgotten this poem of his youth, that in a letter to Mr. Horace Smith, he says, “If you happen to have a copy of Clarke’s edition of Queen Mab for me, I should like to see it. I hardly know what this poem may be about. I fear it is rather rough.” This letter bears date Sept. 14th, 1821.


I have marked in italics the passages in these extracts that show his change of opinions—his regret of the publication as a literary composition, and his fear of its tendency, although perhaps Mrs. Shelley is right in including Queen Mab among her lamented husband’s works, from its wide dissemination, and her utter inability to suppress it. Everything is valuable that came from his pen, inasmuch as it assists to show the progress of his master-mind, the elements on which the superstructure of his philosophy was reared. I cannot help observing, en passant, that a copy of Queen Mab was hunted out by his father-in-law, and that the proceedings in Chancery, which I shall have to detail at some length, were principally based on the opinions laid down in that work.

But to proceed: I was acquainted with Sir Thomas Lawrence, not the great painter, but a knight of Malta, whom I met first at Paris, and afterwards in London. He had purchased his knighthood in the French metropolis, where
an office was opened for the sale of these honours. Nobility of origin was held as an indispensable qualification for such titles; but it would seem that it was not very rigorously enforced, for in Sir Thomas’s case the proofs were defective on the paternal side, and it was with a consciousness of this fact that he wrote a sort of half-historical romance, entitled the
History of the Nairs, in which he endeavours to establish the supremacy of woman.

When I saw him in town, he was always wading at the British Museum, in the stagnant pool of genealogy, endeavouring in spite of his system, to discover the flaw in his escutcheon a mistake, and when he failed in so doing, used to contend that the only real nobility was in the female line. To what absurdity will not an idée fixe impart conviction, or the semblance of conviction!

After the publication of this strange History of the Nairs, he sent it with a letter to Shelley, referring him to a note in Queen Mab hostile to
matrimony, and taxing him with apostacy from his principles, in having twice entered that state. This epistle produced an answer; I have not the whole of it, though it was published by
Lawrence. Shelley says there, “I abhor seduction as much as I adore love; and if I have conformed to the uses of the world on the score of matrimony, it is” (the argument is borrowed, by the bye, from Godwin, in his Life of Mary Wolstonecraft,) “that disgrace always attaches to the weaker side.”

A decided anti-matrimonialist, the historian of the Nairs was by no means convinced by this argument. One evening he persuaded me to accompany him to the Owenite chapel, in Charlotte-street. In the ante-room, I observed a man at a table, on which were laid for sale, among many works on a small scale, this History of the Nairs, and Queen Mab, and after the discourse by Owen—a sort of doctrinal rather than moral essay, in which he promised his disciples a millennium of roast beef and fowls, and
three or four days’ recreation out of the seven, equal division of property, and an universality of knowledge by education,—we had an interview with the lecturer and reformer, whom I had met some years before at the house of a Northumberland lady. On finding that I was connected with
Shelley, he made a long panegyric on him, and taking up one of the Queen Mabs from the table, read, premising that it was the basis of one of his chief tenets, the following passage:

“How long ought the sexual connection to last? What law ought to specify the extent of the grievance that should limit its duration? A husband and wife ought to continue so long united as they love one another. Any law that should bind them to cohabitation for one moment after the decay of their affection, would be a most intolerable tyranny, and most unworthy of toleration.”

If Lord Melbourne did not hold similar opinions, he at least thought there was no harm in
encouraging them, by presenting
Mr. Owen to our Queen. The question is, whether, in the present state of society, and with the want of education that characterises the sect of which Mr. Owen is the founder, the Socialists, their tenets are, or are not pregnant with danger. This philanthropist, however, certainly is sincere in believing the contrary; and up to this time experience seems to have confirmed his belief. He has spent his life, and expended his fortune in inculcating them; and a more thoroughly amiable and moral man does not exist. “He has had but one object in both hemispheres,” (to use the words of Frederica Bremer,) “to help the mass of mankind to food and raiment, in order that the mass may make provision for their mental improvement; for when the necessary wants are satisfied, man turns to those of a more general and exalted kind. Hence, when the great daywork of the earth is done with men, the Sabbath will begin, in which a generation of tranquil worshippers will spread over the earth,
no longer striving after perishable treasures, but seeking those which are eternal; a people whose whole life will be devoted to the improvement of their mental powers, and to the worship of the Creator in spirit and in truth. Then the day will arrive in which the angels will say, ‘Peace upon Earth!!!’”

This edition of Queen Mab, that has led to the above quotation, bore the name of Brooks as publisher. It contains a beautiful frontispiece illustrative of the death of Ianthe, and as a motto, the well-known line from some Greek dramatist—probably Æschylus—which may be rendered:
Give me whereon to stand, I’ll move the earth.
Brooks did, or does, live at the bottom of Oxford Street, and I paid him more than one visit. He had a correspondent at Marlow, who knew
Shelley, but whose name I have forgotten, from whom he obtained a copy of Queen Mab, which, like the Wandering Jew, had probably been left by Shelley’s inadvertence in his abode here. This copy was exceedingly interlined,
very much curtailed and modified, as by a specimen given in a fragment entitled the “Demon of the World,” appended to “
Alastor;” and what is still more important and worthy of remark, with the Notes torn out. The copy had been revised with great care, and as though Shelley had an intention at the time of bringing out a new edition, an idea which his neglect of his labour shews he soon abandoned. This emendated work is a great curiosity, and has scattered about the pages rude pen-and-ink drawings of the most fantastic kind, proving the abstraction of his mind during this pursuit. It was a comment that led me to many speculations, suggesting a deep sense of the obloquy of which he had made himself the victim, and betokening a fluctuation of purpose, a hesitation and doubt of himself and of the truth or policy of his theories. That Mr. Brooks (he was the publisher if not the printer of the Owenites) did not make use of the refacciamenti or pentimate in his numerous reprints of Queen Mab, may easily be conceived, for these very
alterations were the only objectionable parts to him, and he would have thought it a sacrilege to have struck out a word of the original text, much less the notes. Queen Mab is indeed the gospel of the sect, and one of them told me, that he had found a passage in Scripture, that unquestionably applied to Shelley, and that the word Shiloh was pronounced in the Hebrew precisely in the same manner as his name.

It is much to be desired that Mrs. Shelley should endeavour to obtain this Queen Mab of Mr. Brooks. I have no doubt that he would estimate it at a price far beyond my means, nor have I made any overtures to him for the purchase, invaluable as its acquisition would be to me at this moment.

Before leaving Queen Mab I have a few words to add:—

There is a vast deal of twaddle in Moore’s Life of Byron, respecting early scepticism, where he says, “It and infidelity rarely find an entrance into youthful minds,” adding, “It is fortunate
that these inroads are seldom felt in the mind till a period of life when the character, already formed, is out of the reach of their disturbing influence—when being the result, however erroneous, of thought and reasoning, they are likely to partake of the sobriety of the process by which they are acquired, and being considered but as matters of pure speculation, to have as little share in determining the mind towards evil, as too often the most orthodox creeds have at the same age of influencing it towards good.” What the sense of these words marked in italics may be, is beyond my comprehension. But in my way of thinking, it is when the reasoning powers are matured—the effervescence of youth has somewhat cooled down—when the self-sufficiency of scholarship, the pride of being thought to think differently from the generality of the world, the vanity of running a-muck against received opinions, has yielded to reason and judgment, and man begins to know that he knows nothing, that he ceases to arrogate to himself a superiority over his
fellows—learns to become humble and diffident; and this is not a state of mind that leads to doubt. But as to the unfrequency of scepticism in youth, Moore never laid down a more false or unphilosophical axiom. Why, he must have forgotten
Gibbon, and Southey, and Cowper, and Malherbe, and Coleridge, and Kirke White, and a hundred others, himself included, (vide Little’s Poems,) when he penned this startling and unborne-out proposition. If he means that, absorbed in dissipation, and carried away by their passions, most young men seldom reflect on subjects most worthy of reflection, I agree with him; but neither Byron nor Shelley were of this kind. They did not, as with the τολλος, take for granted what had been inculcated; they were not contented with impressions, they wished to satisfy themselves that their impressions were right, and both fell into scepticism, one from presumption and an overweening, foolish ambition of making himself out worse than he was; and Shelley from what he really thought “a matter of pure spe-
culation;” the result, however erroneous, to repeat Moore’s words; “of thought and reasoning.” Little dependence is however to be placed on the profession of faith contained in the two letters Byron wrote to
Mr. Dallas, at 20, (in 1808,) in which his object clearly was—an object he carried out all his life, with his biographer even more than any one else—mystification. Voltaire was his horn-book; but in the list of works he says he had studied in different languages, he only confesses to have read his Charles XII., though that scoffer at religion was his delight and admiration, and with him he fell into the slimy pool of materialism.

Shelley’s scepticism produced different fruits—he would never have joined with Matthews, Hobhouse, Scrope Davies, and “beasts after their kind,” in those orgies which were celebrated at Newstead, when with Byron for an Abbot, they travestied themselves in monkish dresses, and the apparatus of beads and crosses, and passed their nights in intemperance and debauchery. No, his
way of thinking never affected the purity of his morals. “Looking upon religion as it is professed, and above all practised, as hostile instead of friendly to the cultivation of those virtues that would make men brethren, he raised his voice against it, though by so doing he was perfectly aware of the odium he would incur, of the martyrdom to which he doomed himself.”
Mrs. Shelley beautifully remarks, “that older men, when they oppose their fellows, and transgress ordinary rules, carry a certain prudence or hypocrisy as a shield along with them; but youth is rash, nor can it imagine, while asserting what it believes to be right, that it should be denounced as vicious and pronounced as criminal. Had he foreseen such a fate, he was too enthusiastic, and too full of hatred of all the ills of life he witnessed, not to scorn danger.” That fate was at hand. But I anticipate.