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,
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
We find his sadness, too, in his Ode to the West Wind, but it
ends on a note of hope. Here are the last
Shelley sang of Love as well as of the beauty of all things.
Here is a little poem, some lines of which are often
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.
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
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.
He pictures himself, too, among the
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
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
Books To Read
Poems of Shelley, selected and arranged for use in schools,