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The Tragic Life and Death of Shelley page 2


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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.

They eloped to France, Mary and her sister Jane, and Shelley. In Paris they found themselves with insufficient money to buy a diligence, and so Shelley went to the cattle-market and bought himself a very small donkey. A curly-haired boy and two pretty girls travelling across France on a donkey made an amusing sight; more so when the donkey grew so tired with his heavy work that Shelley and Jane had to carry him. At the next village the ass was exchanged for a mule, beds were taken in an inn, and great rats leapt about the party as they tried to sleep.

Shelley wrote to Harriet and urged her to come out to them in Switzerland. The world might think the life he was living was immoral. But what did the world's opinion matter compared with the dictates of love and kindness? Harriet felt no inclination to reply. The three young exiles engaged two rooms for six months, but their new stove refused to burn, and so they agreed to return home at once. As was to be expected, they arrived in London penniless^ unable to pay their cab-fare, for Harriet had withdrawn all the money for his poetry and his father's tardy allowances standing to his credit in Shelley's bank. Harriet was very indignant at the news that Shelley had left her rival waiting in the cab below, while he came up to beg the money to pay the fare. But she softened and lent Shelley a few pounds which met his immediate needs, including the cost of furnished lodgings in a dirty street.

When the news of the elopement came to Godwin he was: furious with Shelley, but the unabashed poet replied that he was only giving practical effect to the teaching contained in Godwin's own book. That was almost as infuriating to Godwin as Shelley's advice had been to the Irish Catholics, whom the poet tried to help in their efforts towards emancipation. Shelley coolly told them that one religion was as good as another. Whilst his Catholic friends were hurt and angry at this piece of impudence, the Irish Government officials - who had been warned that Shelley was a dangerous agitator - were greatly amused to hear that the poet was also telling the Irish to be sober and tolerant. That was a joke. Shelley came back from Ireland defeated.

With the death of Shelley's grandfather, the poet's father became Sir Timothy Shelley, Bart. Shelley decided to go home and investigate his position under his grandparent's will. The baronet refused him admission, so Shelley sat on his father's doorstep and read Milton's Comus. His cousin stole out and gave him details of the will, which had put him outside the reach of poverty for a while. He gave Harriet 200 a year, and undertook to pay the debts of Mary's father. At the same time he reminded Godwin that his young family must not be confounded with prostitutes and seducers, for they were innocent, benevolent and united. Moreover, Godwin must talk no more of forgiveness, for Shelley's "blood boiled in his veins and his gall rose against all human beings" when he thought of what he, their benefactor and ardent lover, had endured of enmity and contempt from Godwin and all mankind.

But there was more enmity and contempt and bitter sorrow coming for Shelley. Mary's half-sister Fanny wrote her a curious letter of farewell saying that she did not propose to return. Fanny went to Swansea, put up at an hotel, and swallowed laudanum. Her bedroom door had to be forced. Godwin's new wife took care to let Shelley know that Fanny's suicide had been caused by her love for him. In that period, when he was turning from Harriet towards Mary, Shelley probably had shown sufficient passing interest in Fanny to arouse hopes that were blighted when the poet eloped with her step-sister.

To get over his grief, and perhaps to quieten his twinges of conscience, Shelley went to stay at Hampstead with Leigh Hunt, who later was to figure prominently at his strange funeral.

On his return to Mary he found a mysterious letter relating to Harriet, who had not been heard of for some time. It showed that while gentle Fanny was contemplating suicide in Wales, because of her unrequited love for Shelley, Harriet was preparing to commit suicide in London, and for the same unhappy reason. Shelley's peculiar view of the relations of the sexes had indeed raised the devil!

Poor deserted, erring Harriet! She had written to her sister telling her that she must not regret what she intended to do. But she was so lowered in the opinion of every one, and too wretched to exert herself, to recover what she had lost. Why should she drag on a miserable existence embittered by past recollections, "and not one ray of hope to rest on for the future?" She had not written to Shelley. "Oh, no! What would it avail? My wishes and my prayers would not be attended to by him. And yet, should he receive this, perhaps he may grant my request to let lanthe (their daughter) remain with you (Harriet's sister).... My dear Bysshe, let me conjure you, by the remembrance of our days of happiness, to grant my last wish.... Do not refuse.... I never could refuse you, and if you had never left me, I might have lived. But as it is, I freely forgive you, and may you enjoy that happiness which you have deprived me of.... Be happy, all of ye. So shall my spirit find rest and forgiveness...."

Unable to endure the loneliness of life apart from Shelley, she had lived first with an army officer, who was ordered to India, and then with a groom, who had deserted her. Harriet's parents, disgusted with her way of life, had taken her children away, and had refused her admission to their home. With the expectation of another baby, poor Harriet now threw herself into the Serpentine, and her troubles were ended. The new philosophy had brought inevitable Nemesis.

This second suicide horrified Shelley. He was thrown into an agony of mind; he spent an appalling night. Refusing to admit that his philosophy was all wrong, he endeavoured to justify himself.

He wrote to Mary, telling her that it was through her love that he could sustain himself against the weight of this horror, and of the unutterable villainy that had led to this terrible end. He refused to admit that he could have acted otherwise.

"I did my duty. Always on every occasion in life I have done what seemed to me the loyal and disinterested thing to do. When I left her I no longer loved her. I assured her existence to the utmost of my means, and even beyond them. Never have I treated her with unkindness... it is these odious Westbrooks alone.,.. Ought I to have sacrificed my sanity and my life to one who was unfaithful to me, and second-rate?"

When his friends told him that the answer was "No," he begged them to repeat it, for his conscience was telling him that had he made the great surrender, the real Shelley would have discovered himself. He would have understood that the way of revelation is the way of sacrifice. By running away from Harriet he had run away from the God whom he always sought but in whose existence he professed not to believe.

Though he strove to forget about Fanny and Harriet, the shock of their deaths on so sensitive a spirit must have been tremendous, One can trace his reactions to these blows during his later life. Towards its close, the manner of Harriet's death seemed to mingle with a presentiment of his own immediate end. But there was another major sorrow to come in connection with his dead wife. Shelley conceived it to be his duty to bring up her children, but Harriet's father started a suit in Chancery to prevent him. West-brook's counsel argued that Shelley, having deserted his wife, intended to bring up the children in his own atheistic and anti-social opinions, and that he was unfit to have a father's control over them. The Lord Chancellor agreed, and Shelley, having now married Mary, again departed from England, feeling himself a pariah and an exile.

Jane again accompanied the outcasts; she was now known to them as Claire; and she, too, because of her secret love for Shelley, had done a desperate thing! But Claire had no suicidal tendencies; she had thrown herself at Shelley's friend, Lord Byron, whose mistress she was for a brief while.

Shelley became very attached to Allegra, the little daughter of Claire and Lord Byron. His own son William had Mary's complexion, and Shelley's animated blue eyes. During their travels Mary had given birth to a second child, Clara, who had convulsive twitchings of the eyes and mouth - and no wonder! One dismal day she found herself sitting in the hall of a hotel in Padua, holding a baby who had just died in her arms!

They went to Naples, where Shelley wrote some beautiful verses, and on to Rome. All the time they felt themselves outcasts, friendless, loving the scenery but wondering what use it was unless they could mix freely with people and enjoy it. They envied the workmen who nodded to each other in the streets. Mary was expecting her third infant when, in Rome, little William fell ill, and was tenderly nursed by Shelley. Dysentery was followed by convulsions, and again - death. William was buried in the secluded and lovely Protestant Cemetery in Rome. As he stood weeping at the graveside, Shelley determined that he would be buried there by the side of his son.

Four deaths in a very short time - Fanny, Harriet, Baby Clara, William - no wonder Shelley's poems took on a deeper, richer note of sadness, and that he himself began to have long moods of melancholy. And now came further sorrow. Claire's daughter Allegra, kept in an Italian convent by Byron, against the wish of her mother, who wanted to have her educated in England, was neglected by the nuns, and died. Allegra's mother went frantic. Byron caused to be written on her tomb a Scriptural text: "I shall go to her, but she shall not return to me." The phrase haunted Shelley as he mourned, for gentle Fanny, for Harriet, for Clara, for William with the silken hair, and now for neglected Allegra. Mary noticed that her husband was becoming more melancholic.

But he had not changed his peculiar views on the relations of men and women. He once wrote:

"I never was attached to that great sect
Whose doctrine is that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest though fair and wise commend
To cold oblivion....

Both in England and in Italy there had been other women to stir his spirit. In Pisa he formed an intimacy with the Contessina Viviani, a girl who was pining in a convent, waiting for her father to choose her a husband; yet it was soon over, but not before Shelley's impassioned verse to the new charmer had got on Mary's nerves. Then Jane Williams, wife of a friend in the Dragoon Guards, attracted his interest. As he stood over the grave of his son William in Rome, Shelley had said that he would never recover his cheerfulness again. When Jane Williams was with him he said:

"The past and future were forgot." But when she was away:

"... The guardian angel gone,
The daemon reassumed his throne."

So long as Jane sang he was content, but when her singing ceased his spirit flagged and he was again questing for the ideal and the beautiful in some world far from ours, "where music and moonlight and feeling are one."

There came into his life at this time a remarkable man who had been in the Royal Navy, and had undergone many adventures. His name was Trelawney, and Byron employed him as a navigator. Shelley described him beautifully:

He was as is the sun in his fierce youth,
As terrible and lovely as a tempest."

Perhaps Trelawney's description of Shelley in Italy, in this the last year of his life, was equally apposite. He came "swiftly gliding in, blushing like a girl, a tall, thin stripling, held out both hands; and although I could hardly believe,, as I looked at his flushed feminine and artless face, that it could be the poet, I returned his warm pressure. After the ordinary greetings and courtesies he sat down and listened. I was silent from astonishment. Was it possible that this kind-looking beardless boy could be the veritable monster at war with all the world - excommunicated by the fathers of the church, deprived of his civil rights by the fiat of a grim Chancellor, discarded by every member of his family, and denounced by the rival sages of our literature as the founder of a Satanic school? I could not believe it; it must be a hoax. He was habited like a boy in a black jacket and trousers, which he seemed to have outgrown."

But Shelley thought of himself neither as boy nor monster, but as Ariel, a skylark, "sporting through the upper air and flooding the heavens with melody," while earth mouldered in clouds below. And though his mind constantly strayed to others in search of the beautiful and the ideal, his wife Mary said of him: "My Sheiley was an angel among his fellow-mortals, lifted far above the world, a celestial spirit given and taken away, for we were none of us worthy of him, and his words are an immortal testament to posterity."

Shelley's new friends now became alarmed for him. He asked Trelawney to secure for him a small amount, either of prussic acid or oil of bitter almonds, explaining that at the moment he had no intention of suicide, but it would be a comfort to hold in his possession that "golden key to the chamber of perpetual rest."

There was another peculiar incident. Mary, Jane and Claire were due to entertain a certain Captain Roberts, who was coming over from Genoa for luncheon. As the four were talking the visitor asked for Shelley, who had disappeared. Looking round, one of them saw the poet, naked and ashamed, crossing the room and trying to hide behind a maid-servant. Mary remonstrated indignantly, whereupon Shelley, always ready to prove himself right, came from his hiding, advanced to the table and explained his conduct to his own full satisfaction. Eton had called him "Mad Shelley."

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