Gateway to the Classics: English Literature for Boys and Girls by H. E. Marshall
English Literature for Boys and Girls by  H. E. Marshall

Shelley—The Poet of Love

W HEN Byron wandered upon the Continent he met and made friends with another poet, a greater than himself. This poet was called Percy Bysshe Shelley, and of him I am going to tell you something in this chapter.

On the 4th of August, 1792, Percy Bysshe Shelley was born at Field Place, near the village of Warnham, in Sussex. His father, "a well-meaning, ill-doing, wrong-headed man," was of a good family, and heir to a baronetcy. His mother was a beautiful woman.

Of the early childhood of Bysshe we know nothing, except that at the age of six he was daily taught Latin by a clergyman.

When we next hear of him he is a big boy, the hero of the nursery with four little sisters, and a wee, toddling, baby brother, to all of whom he loved to play big brother. His sisters would often sit on his knee and listen to the wonderful tales he told. There were stories of the Great Tortoise which lived in a pond near. True, the Great Tortoise was never seen, but that made it all the more mysterious and wonderful, and any unusual noise was put down to the Great Tortoise. There were other stories about the Great Old Snake which lived in the garden. This really was seen, and perhaps it was the same serpent which two hundred years before had been known to lurk about the countryside. "He could jut out his neck an ell," it was said, "and cast his venom about four rods; a serpent of countenance very proud, at the sight or hearing of men or cattle, raising his head seeming to listen and look about with great arrogancy." But if it was this same serpent it had lost its venom, and in the days when Bysshe and his sisters played about the garden, they looked upon it as a friend. One day, however, a gardener killed it by mistake, when he was cutting the grass with a scythe. So there was an end of the Great Old Snake. But the Tortoise and the Snake were not the only wonderful things about Field Place. There was a big garret which was never used, with beneath it a secret room, the only entrance to which was through a plank in the garret floor. This, according to the big brother, was the dwelling-place of an alchemist "old and grey with a long beard." Here with his lamp and magic books he wrought his wonders, and "Some day" the eager children were promised a visit to him. Meanwhile Bysshe himself played the alchemist, and with his sisters dressed up in strange costumes to represent fiends or spirits he ran about with liquid fire until this dangerous play was stopped. Then he made an electric battery and amused himself by giving his sisters "shocks" to the secret terror of at least one of them whose heart would sink with fear when she saw her brother appear with a roll of brown paper, a bit of wire, and a bottle. But one day she could not hide her terror any longer, and after that the kind big brother never worried her any more to have shocks.

Sometimes, too, their games took them further afield, and led by Bysshe the children went on long rambles through woods and meadows, climbing walls and scrambling through hedges, and coming home tired and muddy. Bysshe was so happy with his sisters and little brother that he decided to buy a little girl and bring her up as his own. One day a little gypsy girl came to the back door, and he thought she would do very well. His father and mother, however, thought otherwise, so the little girl was not bought.

But the boy who was so lively with his sisters, at times was quiet and thoughtful. Sometimes he would slip out of the house on moonlight nights. His anxious parents would then send an old servant after him, who would return to say that "Master Bysshe only took a walk, and came back again." A very strange form of amusement it must have seemed to his plain matter-of-fact father.

But now these careless happy days came to an end, or only returned during holiday times, for when Bysshe was ten years old he was sent to school.

Shelley went first to a private school, and after a year or two to Eton, but at neither was he happy. And although he had been so merry at home, at school he was looked upon as a strange unsociable creature. He refused to fag for the bigger boys. He never joined in the ordinary school games, and would wander about by himself reading, or watching the clouds and the birds. He read all kinds of books, liking best those which told of haunted castles, robbers, giants, murderers, and other eerie subjects. He liked chemistry too, and was more than once brought into trouble by the daring experiments he made. Shelley was very brave and never afraid of anything except what was base and low. To the few who loved him he was gentle, but most of his schoolfellows took delight in tormenting him. And when goaded into wrath he showed that he could be fierce.

Shelley soon began to write, and while still at school, at the age of sixteen, he published a novel for which he received £40. A little later he and one of his sisters published a book of poems together.

From Eton Shelley went to Oxford. Here he remained for a few months reading hard. "He was to be found, book in hand, at all hours; reading in season and out of season; at table, in bed, and especially during a walk." But he read more what pleased himself than what pleased the college authorities. He wrote too, and among the things he wrote was a little leaflet of a few pages which seemed to the fellows of his college a dangerous attack upon religion. They summoned Shelley to appear before them, and as he refused to answer their questions he was expelled. Shelley had given himself the name of Atheist. It is a very ugly name, meaning one who denies the existence of God. Looking back now we can see that it was too harsh and ugly a name for Shelley. The paper for which he was expelled, even if it was wicked, was the work of a rash, impetuous boy, not the reasoned wickedness of a grown man. But the deed was done, and Shelley was thrown out into the world, for his father, sorely vexed and troubled, not knowing how to control his wild colt of a son, refused to allow him to return home. So Shelley remained in London. Here he went often to visit his sisters at school, and came to know one of their school friends, Harriet Westbrook. She was a pretty, good-tempered girl of sixteen with "hair like a poet's dream." Shelley thought that she too was oppressed and ill-used as he had been. She loved him, he liked her, so they decided to get married, and ran away to Scotland and were married in Edinburgh. Shelley was nineteen and his little bride sixteen.

This boy and girl marriage was a terrible mistake, and three years later husband and wife separated.

I can tell you very little more of Shelley's life, some of it was wrong, much of it was sad, as it could hardly fail to be following on this wrong beginning. When you grow older you will be able to read it with charity and understanding. Meantime keep the picture of the kindly big brother, and imagine him growing into a lovable and brave man, into a poet who wins our hearts almost unawares by the beauty of his poetry, his poetry which has been called "a beautiful dream of the future." Of some of it I shall now tell you a little.

Very early Shelley began to publish poetry, but most of it was not worthy of a truly great poet. His first really fine poem is Alastor.  It is written in blank verse, and represents a poet seeking in vain for his ideal of what is truly lovely and beautiful. Being unable to find that which he seeks, he dies. The poem is full of beautiful description, but it is sad, and in the picture of the poet we seem to see Shelley himself. Other long poems followed, poems which are both terrible and beautiful, but many years must pass before you try to read them. For Shelley's poetry is more vague, his meaning more elusive, than that of almost any other poet of whom we have spoken. It is rather for Shelley's shorter poems, his lyrics, that I would try to gain your love at present, for although he wrote The Cenci, the best tragedy of his time, a tragedy which by its terror and pain links him with Shakespeare, it is as a lyric poet that we love Shelley. "Here," says another poet, "Shelley forgets that he is anything but a poet, forgets sometimes that he is anything but a child. . . . He plays truant from earth, slips through the wicket of fancy into heaven's meadow, and goes gathering stars." And of all our poets, Shelley is the least earthly, the most spiritual. But he loved the beautiful world, the sea and sky, and when we have heard him sing of the clouds and the skylark, of the wind and the waves of—

"The fresh Earth in new leaves drest,

And the starry night;

Autumn evening, and the morn

When the golden mists are born,"

when we have heard him sing of these, and have understood with our heart, they have an added meaning for us. We love and understand the song of the skylark better for having heard Shelley sing of it.

"Hail to thee, blithe spirit!

Bird thou never wert,

That from heaven, or near it,

Pourest thy full heart

In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

"Higher still and higher,

From the earth thou springest

Like a cloud of fire;

The deep blue thou wingest,

And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

"In the golden lightening

Of the sunken sun,

O'er which clouds are brightening,

Thou dost float and run;

Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.

"The pale purple even

Melts around thy flight;

Like a star of heaven,

In the broad daylight,

Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight.

. . . . . .

"All the earth and air

With thy voice is loud,

As, when night is bare,

From one lonely cloud

The moon rains out her beams, and heaven is overflowed.

"What thou art we know not;

What is most like thee?

From rainbow clouds there flow not

Drops so bright to see,

As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.

"Like a poet hidden

In the light of thought,

Singing hymns unbidden,

Till the world is wrought

In sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:

"Like a high-born maiden

In a palace tower,

Soothing her love-laden

Soul a secret hour

With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower.

. . . . . .

"Teach us, sprite or bird,

What sweet thoughts are thine;

I have never heard

Praise of love or wine

That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.

. . . . . .

"We look before and after,

And pine for what is not:

Our sincerest laughter

With some pain is fraught;

The sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

"Yet if we could scorn

Hate, and pride, and fear;

If we were things born

Not to shed a tear,

I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

"Better than all measures

Of delightful sound,

Better than all treasures

That in books are found,

Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!

"Teach me half the gladness

That thy brain must know;

Such harmonious madness

From my lips would flow,

The world would listen then, as I am listening now!"

As we listen to the lark singing we look upward and see the light summer clouds driving over the blue sky. They, too, have a song which once the listening poet heard.

"I bring fresh showers for the thirsty flowers,

From the seas and the streams;

I bear light shades for the leaves when laid

In their noonday dreams.

From my wings are shaken the dews that waken

The sweet buds every one,

When rocked to rest on their mother's breast,

As she dances about the sun.

I wield the flail of the lashing hail,

And whiten the green plains under,

And then again I dissolve it in rain,

And laugh as I pass in thunder.

"I sift the snow on the mountains below,

And their great pines groan aghast,

And all the night 'tis my pillow white,

While asleep in the arms of the blast.

Sublime on the towers of my skiey bowers,

Lightning my pilot sits,

In a cavern under is fettered the thunder,

It struggles and howls at fits;

Over earth and ocean with gentle motion

This pilot is guiding me,

Lured by the love of the genii that move

In the depths of the purple sea;

Over the rills, and the crags, and the hills,

Over the lakes and the plains,

Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream,

The spirit he loves remains;

And I all the while bask in heaven's blue smile,

Whilst he is dissolving in rains.

. . . . . .

"I bind the sun's throne with the burning zone,

And the moon's with a girdle of pearl:

The volcanoes are dim, and the stars reel and swim

When the whirlwinds my banner unfurl

From cape to cape, with a bridge-like shape,

Over a torrent sea,

Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof,

The mountains its columns be.

The triumphal arch through which I march,

With hurricane, fire, and snow,

When the powers of the air are chained to my chair,

In the million-coloured bow;

The sphere-fire above its soft colours wove,

While the moist earth was laughing below.

"I am the daughter of earth and water,

And the nursling of the sky:

I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;

I change, but I cannot die.

For after the rain, when with never a stain,

The pavilion of heaven is bare,

And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams,

Build up the blue dome of air,

I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,

And out of the caverns of rain,

Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,

I arise and unbuild it again."

That is one of Shelley's happiest poems. For most of his poems have at least a tone of sadness, even the joyous song of the skylark leaves us with a sigh on our lips, "our sincerest" laughter with some pain is fraught." But The Cloud  is full only of joy and movement, and of the laughter of innocent mischief. It is as if we saw the boy Shelley again.

We find his sadness, too, in his Ode to the West Wind,  but it ends on a note of hope. Here are the last verses—

"Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

"Will take from both a deep autumnal tone,

Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, spirit fierce,

My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

"Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth;

And by the incantation of this verse,

"Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawakened earth

"The trumpet of a prophecy! O wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"

Shelley sang of Love as well as of the beauty of all things. Here is a little poem, some lines of which are often quoted—

"One word is too often profaned

For me to profane it,

One feeling too falsely disdained

For thee to disdain it,

One hope is too like despair

For prudence to smother,

And Pity from thee more dear

Than that from another.

"I can give not what men call love,

But wilt thou accept not

The worship the heart lifts above

And the Heavens reject not.

The desire of the moth for the star,

Of the night for the morrow,

The devotion of something afar

From the sphere of our sorrow?"

And when his heart was crushed with the knowledge of the wrong and cruelty in the world, it was through love alone that he saw the way to better and lovelier things. "To purify life of its misery and evil was the ruling passion of his soul," said one who loved him and knew him perhaps better than any living being. And it was through love and the beauty of love that he hoped for the triumph of human weal.

The ideas of the Revolution touched him as they had touched Byron and Wordsworth, and although Wordsworth turned away from them disappointed, Shelley held on hopefully.

"To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;

To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;

To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;

To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates

From its own wreck the thing it contemplates:

Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;

This, like thy glory, Titan! is to be

Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;

This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory!"

One of Shelley's last poems was an elegy called Adonais.  Under the name of Adonais, he mourns for the death of another poet, John Keats, who died at twenty-six. Shelley believed when he wrote the poem that Keats had been done to death by the cruel criticisms of his poems, that he had died of a broken heart, because the world neither understood nor sympathized with his poetry. Shelley himself knew what it was to suffer from unkind criticisms, and so he understood the feelings of another poet. But although Keats did suffer something from neglect and cruelty, he died of consumption, not of a broken heart.

Adonais  ranks with Lycidas  as one of the most beautiful elegies in our language. In it, Shelley calls upon everything, upon every thought and feeling, upon all poets, to weep for the loss of Adonais.

"All he had loved, and moulded into thought

From shape, and hue, and odour, and sweet sound,

Lamented Adonais. Morning sought

Her eastern watch-tower, and her hair unbound,

Wet with the tears which should adorn the ground,

Dimmed the aerial eyes that kindle day;

Afar the melancholy thunder moaned,

Pale ocean in unquiet slumber lay,

And the wild winds flew around, sobbing in their dismay.

. . . . . .

"The mountain shepherds came,

Their garlands sere, their magic mantles rent;

The Pilgrims of Eternity, whose fame

Over his living head like Heaven is bent,

An early but enduring monument,

Came, veiling all the lightnings of his song

In sorrow; from her wilds Ierne sent

The sweetest lyrist of her saddest wrong,

And love taught grief to fall like music from his tongue."

He pictures himself, too, among the mourners—

" 'Midst others of less note, came one frail Form,

A phantom among men, companionless

As the last cloud of an expiring storm,

Whose thunder is its knell."

Shelley mourned for Keats, little knowing that soon others would mourn for himself. Little more than a year after writing this poem he too lay dead.

Shelley had passed much of his time on the Continent, and in 1822 he was living in a lonely spot on the shores of the Bay of Spezia. He always loved the sea, and he here spent many happy hours sailing about the bay in his boat the Don Juan.  Hearing that a friend had arrived from England he sailed to Leghorn to welcome him.

Shelley met his friend, and after a week spent with him and with Lord Byron, he set out for home. The little boat never reached its port, for on the journey it was wrecked, we shall never know how. A few days later Shelley's body was thrown by the waves upon the sandy shore. In his pocket was found a copy of Keats's poems doubled back, as if he had been reading to the last moment and hastily thrust the book into his pocket. The body was cremated upon the shore, and the ashes were buried in the Protestant cemetery at Rome, not far from the grave of Keats. "It is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place." So Shelley himself had written in the preface to Adonais.

Over his grave was placed a simple stone with the date of his birth and death and the words "Cor Cordium"—heart of hearts. Beneath these words are some lines from the Tempest  which Shelley had loved—

"Nothing of him doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange."

Books To Read

Poems of Shelley,  selected and arranged for use in schools, by E. E. Speight.

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