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The Tragic Life and Death of Shelley


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A beautiful boy with brilliant blue eyes drew a circle on the ground, placed in its centre a saucer containing alcohol, and set it alight.

As a bluish flame leapt upwards and enveloped the young Etonian he began an incantation:

"Demons of the air and of fire...."

"What on earth are you doing, Shelley?"

Unabashed, the youth met the stern gaze of his master, and said:

"Please sir, I'm raising the devil!"

Young Shelley, born with a mind aflame with ideas and ideals, was nevertheless troubled with visions appallingly horrible; and when he was free from them he would prepare himself for their return. One preparation was a deliberate attempt to raise the Spirit of Evil.

To shock the pious the youth taught his four pretty sisters and three-year-old brother to exclaim, "The Devil!" But he shocked his mother, who had been the prettiest girl in the county (though she had no love for the Muses), by spending his youth in the woods with his books, instead of ranging with a gun, or fighting, as became the son of a gentleman born in the days of Napoleon.

With imagination incarnate, this fiery rebel contrived all through his life "to raise the devil" wherever he went. "Yet," said his friend Byron, who knew him thoroughly, "he was without exception the best and least selfish man I ever knew."

Never did Shelley speak a word which he thought was untrue; never did he wilfully do an act which in his own judgment was wrong. As he saw right so he did it. That was his gravest fault, for it led him to snap his fingers at custom and convention, and to become a misfit and a danger in every society.

Yet his spirit was warmed with a genuine and unforced inspiration. Intoxicated with the love of beauty, he was prolific and versatile; none of the great poets left behind them a finer array of exquisite lyrics than did he. For an intense sense of fragile beauty his Witch of Atlas is perhaps his finest work; there is nothing comparable with it in the English language. Writing in the ruins of the Baths of Garacella in Rome, Shelley produced his masterpiece, Prometheus Unbound, which shows how his hero escaped from the false god of religion. In this tremendous poem he embodied his most daring and deepest perceptions in forms of surpassing beauty. He even inspired a best-seller of our own time, when he wrote: "If winter comes, can spring be far behind?" Shelley's work ranks with that of Goethe or Victor Hugo, and takes precedence to that of Wordsworth, Byron, Browning or Tennyson. His spirit soared pure and free as he drove through a life which was a jumble of beauty and madness, crusading against the evils he saw, usually with disastrous results. Yet this flaming phenomenon, this combination of prophet, poet and lover, stood alone. The greatest lyrical genius of the age was treated as a militant maniac, an undesirable character, a precocious monster. He died discouraged, believing that both he and his poetry were rejected by the world.

Poor tragic Shelley! From the word "go" he set his face against established institutions. He knew that to take the place which he now holds as leader of the reform movement which followed the French Revolution, he had to outrage his contemporaries. And so this exquisite singer, with the temper of an innovator and the spirit of a martyr, attacked the churches and religion, though had he lived, and been rightly handled, he might have become another Saul of Tarsus. He had so many visions, every one but the true one. Going about to convert the world to his own impossible ideas of right and wrong, he closed to himself the avenues of revelation. Though his standards of life may have been higher than theirs, his contemporaries refused to listen to one who they considered to be principally an apostle of atheism and free love. He conquered the world by his poetic genius, but he lost it by his erratic life.

Untamed and militant, he defied convention, and he defied authority, actively and passively, sometimes with fierce invective, sometimes with an exaggerated humility that was even more exasperating defiance. Yet when his wife asked one of her friends to name a school to which she could send his son, and the friend supposed that she was looking for an institution where he would be taught to think for himself, she exclaimed, with all the tumultuous memories of the past lying heavy on her mind:

"Think for himself! Oh, my God! Tell me a school where my son will be taught, to think like other people!"

Mary Shelley had learned by hard and bitter experience, by life with an original thinker who unwaveringly declined to conform, that to be different from one's fellows is always the cardinal sin. The experience must have been salutary, for she herself had been the most daringly radical woman of her time. But like Shelley, she had paid too heavily in social ostracism for being unusual.

Now that they are dead and on their pedestal of fame we sympathise with them and apostrophise their contemporaries; but had we known them we should probably have behaved as did everybody. For each successive genera-ion hates the person who dares to be different.

Though Shelley based his actions on what he affirmed to be incontrovertible logic, the logic of events always managed to upset his arguments. He could look back on his life and see a succession of grotesque defeats and tragedies, leading him ever forward to the culminating tragedy of his death.

The youth of Eton fought him individually and collectively, and defeated him. Yet it should be counted to him a victory that so intensively sensitive a spirit should have succeeded in passing through that school of brutal youth without being the cause of one or more tragedies. Towards the end his headmaster was the redoubtable Keate, who enjoyed nothing more than flogging the young aristocrats of England. In Keate's barbarous reign the poetic youth, with fair curling hair and fine blue eyes, would be as much out of his element as earlier, when a victim of the bullies of the school.

Yet Shelley went out of his way to provoke hostility. He declined to fag, saying that such obedience would be an outrage on human dignity. No doubt it was, but human dignity had been outraged in this or other ways since the world began; and Eton intended to be outrageous still. Mad Shelley, as they called this strange boy, was made to pay for his revolt. Sometimes his tormentors would discover him reading or writing his poetry, reclining in the meadows; they would swoop down on him, chase him through the fields back to the college cloisters, and "nail" him to the wall with balls of mud. The fair hair that had just been streaming in the wind would now be streaming with slime.

Shelley looked like a girl and fought like a girl, with his hands open. Having clawed his way through Eton, he went to Oxford, where his experience was brief and tragic. The boy who startled Eton by refusing to fag, startled Oxford, its bishops, masters, deans, chaplains and dons, by pinning irreligious notices on chapel doors and publishing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism.

Bursting in on his bookseller one day, he dumped an armful of pamphlets on the counter and told the astonished tradesman that he wanted these sold to the public at sixpence each. He himself placed the pamphlets in the window to ensure that their importance did not escape the attention of clerical Oxford. Nor did it. Within a few minutes a Fellow of New College (the Rev. John Walker) stopped outside the shop and blinked. The Necessity of Atheism! He strode into the shop and demanded to know the meaning of the outrage. The fatherly shopkeeper now gave the matter his personal attention - for the first time. The astounded Walker demanded that the pamphlets be destroyed at once, and his command was obsequiously obeyed, for the bookseller had no wish to have his shop put out of bounds by the University.

Soon the Dean of his college sent for Shelley, who found awaiting him in the common room a group of offended priests. When the Dean produced a copy of Shelley's tract and asked him if he was the author, Shelley took exception to the rudeness and insolence of the official tone; he elected not to reply.

The Dean persisted, and Shelley told him to produce his evidence. But would Shelley deny that he wrote it? Shelley's answer was a blank refusal to say yes or no.

"Very well. You are expelled. You will please leave your college to-morrow morning at the very latest."

The sentence of expulsion, already drawn up and sealed with the college seal, was handed to him. Enraged at the intolerance of the Faculty, Shelley raced back to his rooms, threw himself on the sofa and, shaking with emotion, kept repeating, "Expelled! Expelled!" His friend Hogg sent a letter of protest to the Dean and was himself expelled for his interference.

Shelley's father, a respectable Member of Parliament, wrote his son a strong letter about his criminal opinions and improper acts, ordered him to return home at once, to have no further communication with Hogg, and to put himself under the care of a tutor. Indignant, the youth curtly refused "assent to both the proposals in your letter" and intimated that similar refusals would always be the fate of similar requests.

Had the Dean of the college, and Shelley's father, the M.P., thought that this iconoclastic youth was destined to become the supreme poet of the world since the French Revolution, they might have behaved with a little more tact. The fire of his white-hot intellectual passion might have been led into less revolutionary channels. But Shelley was unrestrainable. His hysterical assertiveness, his radiant enthusiasm, when pitted against what he considered to be intolerance, became a militant menace.

He swore an oath - calling upon Eternity to blast him if he broke it - that he would never forgive intolerance. It would be the only point on which he would allow himself to encourage revenge. Oh, how he wished he were the avenger to crush the Demon of Intolerance, to hurl him to his native hell, never to rise again. As he could not do that, he must gratify some of that insatiable craving in poetry.

This upboiling had followed his being jilted by his pretty cousin, Harriet Grove, on account of his eccentricities, which alienated everybody. He went to bed, taking with him a loaded pistol and various poisons; but for fear of causing grief to his doting sister Elizabeth, he changed his mind and made his vow to fight Intolerance.

Cut off by his father, and penniless, Shelley lived for awhile in London on his sisters' pocket money. These girls were at an Academy for Young Ladies on Clapham Common, and very soon their fellow-pupils made acquaintance with their wonderful brother. The poet had already become a vegetarian; he ate mostly bread; he often carried raisins in his pocket. He would arrive at this academy so laden and, with his shirt-collar open, and fair hair acurl, he would propound his astounding ideas to an adoring circle.

One of these girls was Harriet Westbrook; she was to bring more tragedy into Shelley's life. Harriet Number Two had fair brown hair and a complexion of milk and roses. Her father was a well-to-do hotelkeeper, because of which young Harriet was snobbishly despised by the young daughters of the gentry attending the school. When Harriet took to calling on Shelley in his rooms, and Shelley to calling on Harriet at her home, the lot of the girl at school became more difficult. For corresponding with an atheist Harriet was threatened with expulsion. It may have been snobbery or it may have been downright jealousy, but her schoolfellows now called her an abandoned wretch, and sent her to Coventry. Harriet contemplated suicide. She asked Shelley to tell her if, since there was no Law of God, the law of man had any right to forbid this course. Shelley was alarmed. He had been responsible for training her mind and changing her from a Methodist into an atheist. He advised her to refuse to return to school. She told him that she was madly in love and would like to elope with him. Hogg wrote advising Shelley to marry. Shelley was charmed by the lovely Harriet. Yet how could he be in love with anybody after the treatment he had received from his conventional cousin? But they eloped to Scotland, where they married.

When Hogg came to stay with them he fell in love with Harriet, and told her so. Harriet, not altogether displeased, confided the news to Shelley, who was neglecting her, for she could neither feel poetry nor understand philosophy. Shelley was astounded at such conduct in a friend who had been expelled from Oxford on his account. They talked the matter out and Hogg left abruptly. But it required more than a simple-minded, affectionate and lovely girl like Harriet to make this strange idealist happy. Tragedy was on the way, final tragedy for the exquisite Harriet.

Shelley needed a shrine at which to worship, and he found her. He had been stirred by reading a book entitled Political Justice by one Godwin, once a clergyman, now an atheist and a republican. This book against marriage and other things was written by one who knew his subject, for he was a much-married man. One of his daughters was the illegitimate Mary, a woman writer of genius, as intelligent as she was beautiful. Another member of his menage was the gentle Fanny, half-sister to Mary, the daughter of a lover of Mary's mother. Shelley became infatuated with Mary, and the two agreed to elope, for he was a firm believer in elopements.

But what of Harriet, whom he had trained to become the echo of his wild ideals. When she saw that she had lost her husband's interest she became difficult. Shelley accused her of having a heart of ice, of being unfaithful to him. He wrote:

"And one was true! Oh, why not true to me?"

He told himself that Harriet had only married him for the money he was expected to inherit. And so he turned to Mary to find for awhile in her the flawless beauty of whom all men dream. For he was above all else a lover questing through life for the perfect woman-soul. Yet he was no sensualist; he said that he could not understand why men chose to love like beasts when they might love like gods.

Harriet knew perfectly well that her husband was slipping from her, and her heart was breaking. He tried to prove to her that free love was true love, and that it was wrong for two persons who were not in love to continue to live together. Gentle as he often was, generous as he always was, Shelley seemed blind to the woman's side of the argument.

Poor Harriet knew that she was lost, but did not know how to save herself. Just as she knew that she was lost when Shelley persuaded her to give up her Methodism for his atheism. She burst into paroxysms of rage against Mary for luring her husband away by meeting him romantically in a churchyard. Mary had sympathetic understanding for Shelley, but none for poor Harriet.

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