LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
[Horace Smith]
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. IX.
New Monthly Magazine  Vol. 81  (November 1847)  288-094.
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Forsan et hæc olim meminisse juvabit.
percy bysshe shelley, continued and concluded.

Though I had occasional interviews with Shelley after this commencement of our acquaintance, his wandering life prevented my seeing much of him until the year 1817, when I gladly accepted an invitation to pass a few days with him at Marlow, in Buckinghamshire, where he was settled. Since his first arrival in London, his circumstances had materially altered. He was now united to his second wife, whose talents justified her illustrious descent as the daughter of Godwin and Mary Wolstencroft; while her virtues and her amiability, blessing their union with a domestic happiness which suffered no intermission up to the moment of her husband’s death, infused a reconciling sweetness into the previously bitter cup of his life. At one time he had been reduced to such extremity of destitution as to be in danger of actual starvation; but, by consenting to cut off a portion of the entail on the estate to which he was entitled, he secured for himself an income of a thousand a year, which would have been more than competent, had his all-loving heart and ever-open hand allowed him to limit his charities. Denying himself all luxuries, and scarcely ever tasting any other food than bread, vegetables, and water, this good Samaritan wandered to the various prisons for debtors, and to the obscure haunts of poverty, to seek deserving objects for the exercise of his unwearied and lavish charity.

In Misery’s darkest caverns known,
His ready help was ever nigh,
Where helpless Anguish pour’d the groan,
And lonely Want retired to die.

Captain Medwin has related an affecting instance of his youthful generosity, in pawning his beautiful solar microscope to raise five pounds for the relief of a poor old man; but the time had now arrived when, for the purposes of his unbounded benevolence, the strictest economising of his liberal income proved insufficient, and he had recourse to the ruinous expedient of raising money upon post obits. I can speak with certainty to his having bestowed upwards of five thousand pounds on eminent and deserving men of letters, gracing his munificence by the delicacy and tact with which he conferred it. And this large sum was exclusive of innumerable smaller donations to less distinguished writers, and of his regular alms to miscellaneous claimants and established pensioners. He loved to recount the rich legacies bequeathed to Cicero and to Pliny the Younger, by strangers whom their writings had delighted or instructed,

Note.—In our last “Greybeard’s Gossip” the papers entitled “Shelley at Oxford,” inserted in this Magazine several years ago, were erroneously attributed to Captain Medwin. They were written by Mr. Hogg.
A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.289
as evidencing a prevailing literary taste among the ancients much more liberal than our own; but, he added, that as no one could be sure of surviving the parties whom he wished to benefit, and still less certain that the Litter could afford to wait, it was much better that such intentions should be carried into immediate execution. “Solas quas dederis semper habebis opes,” what you have given away is the only wealth you will always keep, seemed to be the motto of his life. No wonder that among such a nation of Mammonites as the English, a man so utterly self-denying and unworldly should be viewed as a sort of lusus naturæ. No wonder that rich curmudgeons maligned him, for there was a daily beauty in his life that made theirs ugly. No wonder that the writer of this record, educated in the sordid school of mercantile life, could hardly trust the evidence of his senses when he saw this extraordinary being, living like the austerest anchorite, denying himself all the luxuries appropriate to his birth and station, that he might appropriate his savings to the relief of his fellow creatures; and silently showing, for he never made a proclamation of his bounties, that, despising riches on his own account, he only valued them so far as they enabled him to minister to the relief of others.

For several years Shelley had scrupulously refrained from the use of animal food, not upon the Pythagorean or Brahminical doctrine that such a diet necessitates a wanton, and, therefore, a cruel, destruction of God’s creatures, but from an impression that to kill the native “burghers of the wood,” or tenants of the flood and sky, that we may chew their flesh and drink their blood, tends to fiercen ana animalise both the slaughterer and devourer. This morbid sensibility, and the mistaken conclusion to which it led, did not permanently condemn him to an ascetical Lent; but he was ever jealous of his body, ever anxious to preserve the supremacy of his mind, ever solicitous to keep the temple pure, and holy, and undefiled by any taint of grossness that might debase the soul enshrined within it. Zealously devout and loyal was the worship that he tendered to the majesty of intellect.

Though the least effeminate of men, so far as personal and moral courage were concerned, the mind of Shelley was essentially feminine, some would say fastidious in its delicacy; an innate purity which not even the licence of college habits and society could corrupt. A fellow collegian thus writes of him: “Shelley was actually offended, and, indeed, more indignant than would appear to be consistent with the singular mildness of his nature, at a coarse and awkward jest, especially if it were immodest or uncleanly; in the latter case his anger was unbounded, and his uneasiness pre-eminent.”*

During one of our rambles in the noble woods near Marlow, we encountered two boys driving a squirrel from bough to bough by pelting it with stones. My companion, who was remarkably fond of children, (guess how his affectionate heart must have been lacerated by the forcible abstraction of his own), and who could not bear to see any sentient creature ill-used, reasoned so mildly with the urchins on their cruelty that they threw down their missiles and slunk away. On my expressing a hope that they would not soon forget a lesson so lovingly given, he shook his head, observing that before they got home they would probably en-

* New Monthly Magazine, vol. xxxv., p. 73.
290A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.
counter some of those who ought to set them a better example, amusing themselves by what are unfeelingly termed the sports of the field, and he congratulated himself that he had never been one of those amateur butchers—had never found a pleasure in wantonly slaying any of his animal brethren. The phrase sounded somewhat strange to me, but I found that he had previously adopted it in that fine invocation commencing his poem of “
Alastor,” which shows how completely he fraternised with universal Nature:

Earth, ocean, air, beloved brotherhood!
If our great mother have imbued my soul
With aught of natural piety to feel
Your love, and recompense the boon with mine:—
If dewy morn, and odorous noon and even,
With sunset and its gorgeous ministers,
And solemn midnight’s tingling silentness;—
If spring’s voluptuous pantings when she breathes
Her first sweet kisses, have been dear to me;
If no bright bird, insect, or gentle beast
I consciously have injured, but still loved
And cherished these my kindred,—then forgive
This boast, beloved brethren, and withdraw
No portion of your wonted favour now.

Never, never, shall I forget my last wandering with the poet, as we stretched far away from the haunts of men, beneath the high overarching boughs which, forming around us a Gothic temple, with interminable cloisters still opening as we advanced, seemed to inspire him with the love and the worship of nature, and to suggest a fuller disclosure of his religious views than he had hitherto imparted to me. Becoming gradually excited as he gave vent to his sentiments, his eyes kindled, he strode forward more rapidly, swinging his arms to and fro, and spoke with a vehemence and a rapidity which rendered it difficult to collect his opinions on particular points, though I have a clear recollection of their general tendency. However absurd and untenable may be the theory of atheism, he held it to be preferable to that nominal theism, which in fact is real demonism, being a deification of man’s worst passions, and the transfer to an imagined fiend of that worship which belongs to an all-loving God. He quoted Plutarch’s averment that even atheism is more reverent than superstition, inasmuch as it was better to deny the existence of Saturn as king of heaven, than to admit that fact, maintaining, at the same time, that he was such a monster of unnatural cruelty as to devour his own children as soon as they were born; and in confirmation of the same view he quoted a passage from Lord Bacon, asserting the superiority of reason and natural religion over perverted religion. Any attempt at an impersonation of the Deity, or any conception of Him otherwise than as the pervading spirit of the whole illimitable universe, he held to be presumptuous; for the finite cannot grasp the infinite. Perhaps he might not have objected to Coleridge’s grand definition of the Creator, as a circle whose centre is nowhere, and whose circumference is everywhere. Without asserting the absolute perfectability of human nature, he had a confident belief in its almost limitless improveability; especially as he was persuaded that evil, an accident, and not an inherent part of our system, might be so materially diminished as to give an incalculable increase to the sum of human happiness. All the present evils of
A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.291
mankind he attributed to those erroneous views of religion in which had originated the countless wars, the national hatreds, the innumerable public and private miseries that make history a revolting record of suffering and crime. Every national creed and form of worship, since the world began, had successively died away and been superseded; experience of the past justifies the same anticipation for the future; the feuds, and schisms, and separations in our own established faith are the rents and cracks that predict the approaching downfall of the temple. Now, if mankind, abandoning all those evanescent systems, could be brought universally to adopt that religion of Nature, which, finding its heavenly revelation in man’s own heart, teaches him that the best way to testify his love of the Creator is to love all that he has created;—that religion, whose three-leaved Bible is the earth, and sea, and sky—eternal and immutable Scriptures, written by God himself, which all may read and none can interpolate, there would be a total cessation of the odium theologicum which has been such a firebrand to the world, the human race, unchecked in its progress of improvement, would be gradually uplifted into a higher state, and all created beings, living together in harmony as one family, would worship their common Father in the undivided faith of brotherly love and the gratitude of peaceful happiness.

Utopian dreams, perchance, visionary yearnings, too great and glorious ever to receive their consummation upon earth; but who shall describe the profound emotion with which I listened to them? As we wandered alone through the vast natural cathedral of the woods, our feet falling inaudibly upon the turf, so that all around was hushed, as if the earth itself were listening to the rapt enthusiast’s voice, while through the leafy openings overhead the blue sky seemed to smile benignly down upon him, who can wonder, although I was so many years older, that a solemn reverence began to mingle with my admiration of the singular youth by my side? When I gazed upon his beaming countenance, and saw his fragile frame excited by his theme until his bosom appeared to be “heaving beneath incumbent deity;” when I recalled his exquisite genius, his intellectual illumination, his exuberant philanthropy, his total renunciation of self, the courage and grandeur of his soul, combined with a feminine delicacy and purity, and an almost angelic amenity and sweetness, I could almost fancy that I had been listening to a spirit from some higher sphere, who had descended upon earth to inculcate a self-realising confidence in the lofty destinies of mankind, and to teach us how we might accelerate the advent of a new golden age “when all the different creeds and systems of the world would be amalgamated into one,—and liberated man would bow before the throne of his own aweless soul, or of the power unknown.”

Declining health, disgust at the forcible abstraction of his children, and at the social ostracism to which he was condemned by the bigotry and prejudices of his countrymen, determined him to seek a milder climate and a less intolerant people; and on the 12th of March, 1818, Shelley quitted England, never to return! In the first anguish of his heart, which was full of burning love for his children, and in his indignant resentment of the decree which tore them from his embraces, he had written a curse addressed to the Lord Chancellor, but it will be seen by the following extracts that, maddened as he was, he could not wind up a malediction without a blessing:—

292 A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.
I curse thee by a parent’s outraged love,
By hopes long cherish’d and too lately lost,
By gentle feelings thou could’st never prove,
By griefs which thy stern nature never cross’d:
By those unpractised accents of young speech,
Which he who is a father thought to frame
To gentlest lore, such as the wisest teach:—
Thou strike the lyre of mind! O grief and shame!
By all the happy see in children’s growth,
That undevelop’d flower of budding years,
Sweetness and sadness interwoven both,
Source of the sweetest hopes and saddest fears;
I curse thee, though I hate thee not; O slave!
If thou could’st quench the earth-consuming hell
Of which thou art a demon, on thy grave
This curse should be a blessing.—Fare thee well!

In the nominal criticisms upon Shelley’s works, which were neither more nor less than personal attacks embittered by the fiercest political and religious rancour, no taunt had been spared that could wound, no calumny that could vilify him. Mark the contrast between these un-Christian believers and the Christian unbeliever whom they so bitterly maligned.

lines to a critic.
Honey from silk-worms who can gather,
Or silk from the yellow bee?
The grass may grow in winter weather
As soon as hate in me.
Hate men who cant, and men who pray,
And men who rail like thee;
An equal passion to repay
They are not coy like me.
A passion like the one I prove
Cannot divided be,
I hate thy want of truth and love,
How can I then hate thee?

In the preface to “The Revolt of Islam,” Shelley says, alluding to these critical invectives, “I shall endeavour to extract from the midst of insult, and contempt, and maledictions, those admonitions which may tend to correct whatever imperfections my censurers may discover;” and in the same gentle and philosophic spirit he penned the following:

lines to a reviewer.
Alas! good friend, what profit can you see
In hating such a hateless thing as me?
There is no sport in hate when all the rage
Is on one side. In vain would you assuage
Your frowns upon an unresisting smile,
In which not e’en contempt lurks to beguile
Your heart by some faint sympathy of hate.—
Ah! conquer what you cannot satiate!

During the poet’s residence in Italy, I corresponded with him regularly on the subject of his poems, generally to make the same unfavour-
A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.293
able report as to their sale, and often to receive the same reply, that since he found the public refused to sympathise with his effusions, he should cease to emit them; but the injustice of the outer world had turned his thoughts inwards; he found in the muse both a recipient for his blighted affections, and a vent for his aspiring hopes; and he wrote on, in spite of neglect, and in defiance of abuse. Remembering his schoolboy’s vow, he determined to fulfil his mission. I had frankly confessed my opinion that his writings, too subtle and mystical, and even too imaginative, for the public taste, would have a better chance of success if they exhibited a greater variety of human character, and a more intelligible object.
Mrs. Shelley says, “More popular poets clothe the ideal with familiar and sensible imagery. Shelley loved to idealise the real, to gift the mechanism of the material universe with a soul and a voice, and to bestow such also on the most delicate and abstract emotions and thoughts of the mind.”* When this is extended to a long and not very intelligible allegory, the writer must content himself with an “audience fit, though few.” Confessing his preference of idealism to reality, Shelley says in one of his letters, “The ‘Epipsychidion’ is a mystery: as to real flesh and blood, you know that I do not deal in those articles; you might as well go to a gin-shop for a leg of mutton as expect any thing human or earthly from me.”†

The “Œdipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot the Tyrant,” was transmitted to me in manuscript, with a request that I would get it anonymously published. Though I thought it unworthy of Shelley’s genius, which was little adapted to satire, and still less to political pleasantry, I complied with his request, little suspecting the dilemma in which it would involve me. Scarcely had it appeared in the bookseller’s window, when a burly alderman called upon me on the part of “The Society for the Suppression of Vice,” to demand the name of the author, in order that he might be prosecuted for a seditious and disloyal libel. On my denying its liability to this accusation, and refusing to disclose the writer’s name, I was angrily apprised that unless I consented to give up the whole impression to the Society, an action would instantly be commenced against the publisher, who stood by the side of the alderman, in deep tribulation of spirit. To save an innocent man from fine and imprisonment, and the chance of ultimate ruin, I submitted to this insolent dictation of the Society, and made a holocaust of “Swellfoot the Tyrant,” at their Inquisition Office, in Bridge-street, Blackfriars.

By the following extract from “Stanzas written in Dejection near Naples,” it would seem as if the poet had a secret presentiment of his own death.
Yet now despair itself is mild,
Even as the winds and waters are;
I could lie down like a tired child,
And weep away the life of care
Which I have borne, and yet must bear,
Till death, like sleep, might steal on me,
And I might feel in the warm air
My cheek grow cold, and hear the sea
Breathe o’er my dying brain its last monotony.

* Poetical Works, p. 127. Essays and Letters, vol. ii., p. 333.
294A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.
Alas! the coming event had indeed cast its shadow before. The fatal catastrophe was made known to me by the following letter from a
mutual friend, then residing in Italy.

“Pisa, July 25, 1822,

“I trust that the first news of the dreadful calamity which has befallen us here will have been broken to you by report, otherwise I shall come upon you with a most painful abruptness; but Shelley, my divine-minded friend—your friend—the friend of the universe—he has perished at sea! He was in a boat, with his friend Captain Williams, going from Leghorn to Lerici, when a storm arose, and it is supposed the boat must have foundered. * * * * God bless him! I cannot help thinking of him as if he were still alive, so unearthly he always appeared to me, and so seraphical a thing of the elements; and this is what all his friends say. But what we all feel, your own heart will tell you. * * * * Our dear friend was passionately fond of the sea, and has been heard to say he should like it to be his death-bed.”

And in a subsequent letter from Albaro, near Genoa, the same party wrote to me, ”I am sure you will think the maxim of “Better late than never” a very good one, when you see the enclosed lock of hair. You will know whose it is. I cannot bear, yet, to put his name down upon paper more than I can help; and this is my best excuse for not having written sooner. With regard to himself, who left me so far behind in this as well as in other qualities, I am confident he must have written to you on the subject to which you refer. I have a strong recollection that he mentioned it to me. I know that you were one of the last persons he spoke of, and in a way full of kindness and acknowledgment.”

And now, methinks, the subject of this brief memoir might well be left to the operation of that charitable dictum which teaches us to say nothing unkind of the dead; but as some readers may still blame him, however sincere may have been his own convictions, for promulgating them, I will rest his defence on the following liberal passage from Lord Brougham’sLife of Hume.” “It may be a question whether his duty required him to make public the results of his speculations, when these tended to unsettle established faith, and might destroy one system of belief, without putting another in its place. Yet, if we suppose him to have been sincerely convinced that men were living in error and in darkness, it is not very easy to deny even the duty of endeavouring to enlighten them, and to reclaim.”

Much as Shelley was maligned by strangers, none of those who knew him personally have ever spoken of him except in terms of unbounded admiration and affection. Perhaps no one formed a juster estimate of his character, and no one was more competent to judge, than Lord Byron, who thus describes him: “He was the most gentle, most amiable, and least worldly-minded person I ever met; full of delicacy, disinterested beyond all other men, and possessing a degree of genius, joined to simplicity, as rare as it is admirable. He had formed to himself a beau ideal of all that is fine, high-minded, and noble; and he acted up to this ideal, even to the very letter. He had a most brilliant imagination, but a total want of worldly wisdom.”