LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shelley at Eton
Family History
‣ Shelley at Eton
Taste for the Gothic
Shelley’s Juvenilia
Queen Mab
Shelley at Oxford
First Marriage
Death of Harriet
Chancery Suit
Switzerland: 1814
Alastor; Geneva: 1816
Byron and Claire
At Marlow: 1817
Italy: 1818
Naples, Rome: 1819
The Cenci
Florence: 1819
Vol I Appendix
Vol II Front Matter
Pisa: 1820
Poets and Poetry
Pisa: 1821
Shelley and Keats
Williams, Hunt, Byron
Shelley and Byron
Poetry and Politics
Byron and his Friends
The Pisan Circle
Casa Magni
Death of Shelley
Lerici: 1822
Burial in Rome
Character of Shelley
Vol II Appendix
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But to return to Zion House, and perhaps I have dwelt long enough on the first epoch of the life of the Poet. I was removed to a public school, with only one regret—to part from him; and Shelley shortly afterwards
was sent to Eton. So much did we mutually hate Sion House, that we never alluded to it in after life; nor shall I have much to say about Eton. The pure system of fagging was here, as it still is, carried on in all its rankness; and, as it is the maxim of jurisprudence, that custom makes law—that tradition stands in the place of, and has the force of law—has continued to defy all attempts to put it down. By the way, in one of the military colleges, hardly a year ago, a young man was rolled up in a snow-ball, and left in his room during the time the other cadets were at church. The consequence was, that though restored to animation, he still is, and is likely to remain all his life, a cripple. The authorities, to whom an appeal was made against this barbarous treatment, refused to interfere. Shelley,
Mrs. Shelley says, “refusing to fag at Eton, was treated with revolting cruelty by masters and boys. This roused, instead of taming his spirit, and he rejected the duty of obedience, when it was enforced by menaces and punishment.”


“To aversion to the society of his fellow-creatures, such as he found them, collected together in societies, where one egged on the other to acts of tyranny, was joined the deepest sympathy and compassion; while the attachment he felt to individuals, and the admiration with which he regarded their prowess and virtue, led him to entertain a high opinion of the perfectibility of human nature; and he believed that all could reach the highest grade of moral improvement, did not the customs and prejudices of society foster evil passions and excuse evil actions.”

That the masters would not listen to his complaints, if he made any, I readily believe; and the senior boys no doubt resented, as contumacy, and infringement of their rights, Shelley’s solitary resistance to them, and visited him with condign punishment. It has been said that he headed a conspiracy against this odious and degrading custom, but I have enquired of some Etonians, his contemporaries, and find that there is no foundation for the report. Indeed,
what could a conspiracy of the junior boys, however extensive, effect by numbers against a body so much their superiors in age and physical force?

Tyranny produces tyranny, in common minds; and it is well known in schools, that those boys who have been the most fagged, become the greatest oppressors; not so Shelley: he says:—
And then I clasped my hands, and looked around,
But none was near to mark my streaming eyes,
Which poured their warm drops on the sunny ground;
So without shame I spake—“I will be wise
And just and free—and mild—if in me lies
Such power: for I grow weary to behold
The selfish and the strong still tyrannize,
Without reproach or check.

The boy, so delicately organized, with so nervous a temperament, under the influence of a chronic melancholy, whose genius was a sort of malady; this child, so strong and yet so feeble, suffered in every way. Like the martyrs, who smiled in the midst of torture, he sought refuge
in his own thoughts, in the heaven of his own soul, and perhaps this inward life aided him in his search after those mysteries to which he afterwards clung with a faith so unshaken.

It is well known how few boys profit much by these great public schools, especially by Eton, the most aristocratic of them all. He says—
Nothing that my tyrants knew or taught
I cared to learn.

But an exception to these, Mrs. Shelley says, was one of the masters, Dr. Lind, whom he had in mind, in the old man who liberates Laon from his tower in the revolt of Islam, (and she might have added the Hermit in Prince Athanase,) who befriended and supported him, and whose name he never mentioned without love and veneration, and with whom Shelley says he read the Symposium.
Then Plato’s words of light in thee and me
Lingered, like moonlight in the moonless East,
For we had just then read—thy memory
Is faithful now—the story of the Feast.
But though he did not distinguish himself highly at Eton, owing perhaps to his want of emulation, and ambition of shining above his fellows in the class; he passed through the school with credit. He had been so well grounded in the classics, that it required little labour for him to get up his daily lessons. With these, indeed, he often went before his master unprepared, his out-of-school hours being occupied with other studies.

Stories are told of his chemical mishaps.—I have before me two notes from his father to mine, written in 1808. Shelley had sent for some book on chemistry, which happened to be in my father’s library, but which fell into the hands of his tutor and was sent back. Sir Timothy Shelley says—“I have returned the book on chemistry, as it is a forbidden thing at Eton!” Might not this extraordinary prohibition have the more stimulated Shelley to engage in the pursuit?

He made himself a tolerable French scholar, and during the last year worked hard at German,
that most difficult of modern, I might say of all tongues, and in which, with his astonishing verbal memory, he soon made great advances.

The author of the papers entitled “P. B. Shelley at Oxford,” says, that on visiting him “he was writing the usual exercise, which is presented once a week—a Latin translation of a paper in the Spectator; he soon finished it, and as he held it before the fire to dry, I offered to take it from him; he said it was not worth looking at, but I persisted, through a certain scholastic curiosity, to examine the Latinity of my new acquaintance. He gave it me. The Latin was sufficiently correct, but the version was paraphrastic; which I observed; he assented, and said it would pass muster, and he felt no interest in such efforts, and no desire to excel in them. I also noticed many portions of heroic verse, and several entire verses, and these I pointed out as defects in a prose composition. He smiled archly, and added in his peculiar whisper: ‘Do you think they will observe them?’ I inserted
them intentionally, to try their ears. I once showed up a theme at Eton, to old
Keate, in which there were a great many verses, but he observed them, scanned them, and asked why I had introduced them—I answered that I did not know they were there—this was partly true and partly false, and he believed me, and immediately applied to me a line in which Ovid says of himself:
Et quid tentabam dicere, versus erat.
Shelley then spoke of the facility with which he composed Latin verses, and taking the paper out of my hand, he began to put the entire translation into verse. He would sometimes open at hazard a prose writer, as Livy or Sallust, and by changing the position of the words, and occasionally substituting others, he would transmute several sentences from prose to verse, to heroic, or more commonly elegiac verse, for he was particularly charmed with the graceful and easy flow of the latter, with surprising rapidity
and readiness.” That he had certainly arrived at great skill in the art of versification, I think I shall be able to prove by the following specimens I kept among my treasures, which he gave me in 1808 or 9. The first is the Epitaph in
Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard, probably a school task.

Hic, sinu fessum caput, hospitali,
Cespitis, dormit juvenis, nec illi
Fata ridebant, popularis ille
Nescius auræ.
Musa non vultu, genus, arroganti,
Rusticâ natum grege despicata,
Et suum, tristis, puerum, notavit
Indoles illi bene larga, pectus
Veritas sedem sibi vindicavit,
Et pari, tantis meritis, beavit
Munere, cœlum.
Omne, quod mæstis habuit, miserto
Corde, largivit lacrymam, recepit,
Omne, quod Cœlo voluit, fidelis
Pectus amici.
Longivus, sed tu, fuge, curiosas,
Cæteros laudes, fuge, suspicari,
Cæteras culpas, fuge, velle tractos
Sede tremendâ.
Spe tremescentes, recubant, in illâ.
Sede, virtutes, pariter que culpæ,
In sui, Patris gremio, tremendâ
Sede, Deique.

The second specimen of his versification is of a totally different character, and shows a considerable precocity.

Inter marmoreas, Leonora, pendula colles,
Fortunata nimis, Machina, dicit horas.
Quà manibus, premit illa duas, insensa, papillas.
Cur mihi sit dígito tangere, amata, nefas.

Though these two poems may not bear strict criticism, and fall short of those produced by Canning or Lord Wellesley at the same age, Shelley proved himself an excellent Latin scholar, by translating in his leisure hours, several Books of Pliny the Elder, “the enlightened and benevolent,” as he styled him, that Encyclopædist whose
works he greatly admired, and whose chapter “De Deo” was the first germ of his ideas respecting the Nature of God. Shelley had intended to make a complete version of his “
Natural History,” but stopped short at the chapters on Astronomy, which Dr. Lind, whom he consulted, told him the best scholars could not understand. No author is more difficult to render than Pliny the Elder, for I remember it took me half a day to translate one passage, that most beautiful one, about the nightingale; but Shelley’s MS and what a MS.! what a free, splendid hand he wrote—was almost pure. I could wish that Mrs. Shelley, if she possess this early production, would give some specimens of what was a remarkable effort for a mere boy. His knowledge of Greek was at that time superficial, but he, in after years, became sensible, as I have often heard him say, of the great inferiority of Latin authors—of the Latin language,—and learned to draw from those richer fountains which he found inexhaustible—to form his lyrics
on the Choruses of
Sophocles and Æschylus, and his prose on Plato, which he considered a model of style.

Shelley made few, if any intimacies at Eton, and I never heard him mention in after life one of his class-fellows, and I believe their very names had escaped him,—unlike Lord Byron, who never forgot those in his own form, nor, indeed, what is still more remarkable, as proved in the instance of Proctor, the order in which those in a lower one stood. But Shelley’s companions were his books; not that he was either morose or unsocial, and must have had a rather large circle of friends, since his parting breakfast at Eton cost £50; and Mr. Hogg says “he possessed an unusual number of books, Greek and Latin, each inscribed with the name of the donor, which had been presented to him, according to the custom, on quitting Eton,”—a proof that Shelley had been popular among his school-fellows, “many of whom were then at Oxford, and they frequently called at his rooms, and
although he spoke of them with regard, he generally avoided their society, for it interfered with his beloved study, and interrupted the pursuits to which he ardently and devotedly attached himself.”

He told me the greatest delight he experienced at Eton, was from boating, for which he had, as I have already mentioned, early acquired a taste. I was present at a regatta at which he assisted, in 1809, and seemed to enjoy with great zest, A wherry was his beau ideal of happiness, and he never lost the fondness with which he regarded the Thames, no new acquaintance when he went to Eton, for at Brentford we had more than once played the truant, and rowed to Kew, and once to Richmond, where we saw Mrs. Jordan, in the Country Girl, at that theatre, the first Shelley had ever visited. It was an era in my life. But he had no fondness for theatrical representations; and in London, afterwards, rarely went to the play.