LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Death of Harriet
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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After a year’s abode in the Principality, Shelley betook himself to London, where he arrived in the spring of 1813. In a letter dated 21st June, Cooke’s hotel, Dover-street, he says, “Depend on it that no artifice of my father’s shall seduce me to take a life interest in the estate; I feel with sufficient force, that I should not by such conduct be guilty alone of injustice
to myself, but to those who have assisted me by kind offices and advice during my adversity.”

In another letter, dated the same month, he says, “The late negociations between myself and my father have been abruptly broken off by the latter. This I do not regret, as his caprice and intolerance would not have suffered the wound to heal.” These letters were addressed to my father, and a relation of mine, who visited him at his hotel, and dined with him on the 6th of July, 1813, says that he was become from principle and habit a Pythagorean, and confined himself strictly to a vegetable diet. He was always abstemious, but had completely renounced wine.

Mrs. Shelley was confined of a daughter at this hotel. He was at that time in great pecuniary straits, which it seems that Sir Timothy did nothing to alleviate; on the contrary, was hardened to his necessities, by which he hoped to profit in the hard bargain which he was endeavouring, as it appears, to exact from him. His privations must have been extreme, during the en-
suing winter and spring; for his
lawyer says in a letter, dated April, 1814,—“Mr. Shelley is entitled to a considerable landed property in Sussex, under a family settlement, but which is previously liable to the life estates of his grandfather and father, both of whom are living; upon which property, as his family cannot, during the lifetime of his grandfather, assist him, he has used the utmost of his endeavours to raise money for the payment of his debts, without success.” How he continued under these circumstances to exist, I know not, but in the Spring of 1814, a separation took place by mutual consent between himself and wife, and she was delivered over to the care of her father and sister, then resident in Bath, whither Mr. Westbrook had retired on giving up business.

In looking back to this marriage of Shelley’s with an individual neither adapted to his conditional life, nor fitted for his companionship by accomplishments or manners, it is surprising, not that it should have ended in a separation,
but that for so long a time, (for time is not to be calculated by years,) he should have continued to drag on a chain, every link of which was a protraction of torture.

It was not without mature deliberation, and a conviction common to both, of their utter incapacity of rendering the married state bearable to each other, that they came to a resolve, which, the cold, formal English world, with its conventionalities, under any circumstances short of legally proved infidelity, stamps as a dereliction of duty on the side of the man. Ours is the only country where the yoke of marriage, when it is an iron one, weighs down and crushes those who have once thrown it over their necks. It may be compared to the leaden mantle in the Inferno. It is true that the Roman Catholic religion in some countries, such as Italy and France, except by the express permission, rarely obtained, (though it was in the case of the Countess Guiccioli,) of the Pope, does not allow divorces; but separations, tantamount to them,
constantly take place by mutual agreement, without placing the parties in a false position as regards society. Spain has emancipated herself from the inextricability of the chain. In Poland and Russia remarriages are of daily occurrence. But let us look into Protestant lands, for we are yet Protestants, and we shall find that inmost of the states in Germany, nothing is easier than to dissolve the tie. The marriage laws in Prussia are very liberal. In Norway the parties cannot be disunited under three years. In Sweden one year’s notice suffices. But with us, not even confirmed insanity is sufficient to dissolve a marriage! Our laws admit of but one ground for divorces, and who with any fine feeling would like to drag through the mire of public infamy, her who had once been dear to him—the mother, perhaps, of his children? How long will our statute-book continue to uphold this barbarous and unnatural law, on the very doubtful plea, according to
Dr. Wheatley and others, that marriage is of divine institution—a law
a disgrace to our civilization, the source of more miseries than all “that flesh is heir to!”

Ill-omened and most unfortunate, indeed, was the union! He had joined himself to one utterly incapable of estimating his talents—one destitute of all delicacy of feeling, who made his existence
“A blight and a curse;”
one who had “a heart, hard and cold,”
“Like weight of icy stone,
That crushed and withered his.”

It is in his own writings, and from them his life may be drawn as in a mirror, that the best insight is to be found of the character of the first Mrs. Shelley. He calls her
“A mate with feigned sighs,
Who fled in the April hour.”
In the bitterness of his soul, he exclaims:
“Alas! that love should be a blight and snare
To those who seek all sympathies in one;
Such one I sought in vain,—then black despair,
The shadow of a starless night, was thrown
Over the world in which I moved alone.”
And we find her in the
Epipsychidion thus allegorised:
“Then one whose voice was venomed melody
Sate by a well, under blue nightshade-bowers.
Her touch was as electric poison—flame
Out of her looks into my vitals came,
And from her living cheeks and bosom flew
A killing air that pierced like honeydew
Into the core of my green heart, and lay
Upon its leaves, until as hair grown grey
On a young brow, they hid its unblown prime
With ruins of unseasonable time.”

The beautiful fragment on Love which appeared originally in the Athenæum, and may be found among the Prose Works, proves with what a lacerated heart he poured out his love, in aspiration for an object who could sympathise with his; and how pathetically does he paint his yearning after such a being, when he says:—

“I know not the internal constitution of other men. I see that in some external attributes they resemble me; but when misled by that appearance, I have thought to appeal to something in common, and unburthen my inmost
soul, I have found my language misunderstood, like one in a desert and savage land. The more opportunities they have afforded me for experience, the wider has appeared the interval between us, and to a greater distance have the points of sympathy been withdrawn. With a spirit ill fitted to sustain such proofs, trembling and feeble through its tenderness, I have everywhere sought sympathy, and found only repulse and disappointment.” And after a description of what he did seek for in this union, he adds, “
Sterne says, that if he were in a desert, he would love some cypress. No sooner is this want or power dead, than man becomes the living sepulchre of himself, and what yet survives is the mere wreck of what he was.”

The disappointed hopes that gave birth to this eloquence of passion, may be more than conjectured. To love, to be beloved, became an insatiable famine of his nature, which the wide circle of the universe, comprehending beings of such inexhaustible variety and stupendous mag-
nitude of excellence, appeared too narrow and confined to satiate.

It was with the recollection of these withered feelings, that he afterwards, in his desolation, thus apostrophised a wild swan that rose from a morass in the wilderness:—
Thou hast a home,
Beautiful bird! thou voyagest to thine home!
Where thy sweet mate will twine her downy neck
With thine, and welcome thy return with eyes
Bright in the lustre of their own fond joy.”

The example of the most surpassing spirits that have ever appeared, Dante, Shakspeare, and Milton, proves that poets have been most unfortunate in their matrimonial choice, not, as Moore would endeavour to establish, because such are little fitted for the wedded state, but because in the condition of society, which Shelley characterises as “a mixture of feudal savageness and imperfect civilisation,” women are unequally educated, and are hence on an inequality with men, and unable to form a just estimate
of their genius, or to make allowances for those eccentricities of genius, those deviations from the standard of common minds which they have set up.

Mr. Moore is a married man, and as such his opinion is worth quoting, though I cannot agree with him in his deductions, that poets should never marry. He says, that “those who have often felt in themselves a call to matrimony, have kept aloof from such ties, and the exercise of the softer duties and rewards of being amiable reserved themselves for the high and hazardous chances of being great.”—He adds, that “to follow poetry, one must forget father and mother, and cling to it alone;” and he compares marriage to “the wormwood star, whose light filled the waters on which it fell, with bitterness.”

But if a poetical temperament unfits mankind from entering into the married state, and if those who possess it are to be debarred from those sympathies which are the only leaven in
the dull dough of mortality,—if they are to he made responsible for all the misery of which such unions are often the fertile source, it would, in his view, be only fair to consider that poetesses are to be visited with a similar measure of reproach; and, alas! how many of the female writers of this and former days, have found marriage anything but a bed of roses!
Charlotte Smith, L. E. L., Mrs. Hemans, Mrs. Norton, stand at the head of the long catalogue with us. In America, Mrs. Butler and Mrs. Sigourney. In Germany, beginning with the Karschin, their name is legion. In France, two examples suffice—De Stael and George Sand. Were they alone to blame? Who will venture to cast the first stone at them? Surely not Mr. Moore, who is too gallant, and too fond of the sex, to raise a whisper against their good fame? Lady Byron also is a poetess,—good, bad, or indifferent,—and on the principle, that acids neutralise each other, that remarkable case ought, on the principle of the homoeopathic system, to have proved
an exception to the general rule, instead of being the rule itself.

The last name calls up a whole Iliad of woes. Yes, true it is, and “pity ’tis, ’tis true,” that two other poets must be added to the number of the unfortunates,—two the greatest of our times, Shelley and Byron. The world has long given up troubling itself about the causes of the domestic differences of “the three gods of poetry,” as they soon will about those of the two last; ceasing, ere long, to canvass Byron’s feverish existence, to speculate on his intrigues, or to think about Lady Byron or the first Mrs. Shelley, more than it now does la Signora Dante, Mrs. Shakspeare, or Mrs. Milton. But there was this difference in the destinies of the two poet-friends: Byron was separated from Lady Byron, by Lady Byron, against his will, after a short trial,—less than twelve months; Shelley and his wife parted by mutual consent, after a much longer test of the incompatibility of their tempers, and incapacity to render the duration
of their union anything but an intolerable tyranny; and it must not be forgotten, too, that isolation from society made them perfectly acquainted with each other’s dispositions and habits and pursuits. In both cases the world ranged itself on the weaker side; but if Byron had his measure of reproach and defamation, Shelley was persecuted with a more exceeding amount of obloquy, driven from his native land, placed under a ban by his friends and relations, and considered, as he says, “a rare prodigy of crime and pollution.” It is true that a tragic circumstance arose out of his separation, over which I could have wished, were it possible, to draw a veil; but as that may not be, and though by an anachronism, as I shall have no further occasion to mention the first
Mrs. Shelley, now advert to it.—She cut off her days by suicide.

De Quincey, speaking of this dreadful event, says, “It is one chief misery of a beautiful young woman separated from her natural protector, that her desolate situation attracts and stimulates the
calumnies of the malicious. Stung by these calumnies,” he adds, “and oppressed, as I have understood, by the loneliness of her abode, she threw herself into a pond and was drowned.” Now it must be remembered that the separation took place in the beginning of 1813, and that the catastrophe occurred nearly three years afterwards,—a long period for her to have brooded over her wrongs or misfortunes before they produced such frightful effects. Her fate was a dreadful misfortune to her who perished, and him who survived.

I have said in the “Shelley Papers,” that it is impossible to acquit Shelley of all blame in this calamity. From his knowledge of her character, he must have been aware, as has been said by another, “that she was an individual unadapted to an exposure to principles of action, which if even pregnant with danger when of self-organisation, are doubly so when communicated to minds altogether unfit for their reception;” and he should have kept an eye over her conduct.


But I have since had reason, from undoubted authority, to change this opinion. On their separation, he delivered her back into the hands of her father and eldest sister. He told them almost in these words, that “his wife and himself had never loved each other; that to continue to drag on the chain, would only be a protraction of torture to both, and that as they could not legally extricate themselves from the Gordian knot, they had mutually determined to cut it. That he wished her all happiness, and should endeavour by sympathy with another, to seek it himself. He added, that having received no fortune with her, and her father being in easy circumstances, he was not at the moment able to make her the allowance he could wish; that the sum he then gave her, was all he could command; that as the child was an infant, he should for a time leave it in their hands, and care; but should at a more advanced age, claim it; and they parted on good terms, though not without reproaches and harsh language from the father.”
Little or no blame as to the melancholy catastrophe that succeeded, could therefore be imputed to
Shelley; that must fall on her relations, who with the knowledge of her character and conduct, by advice, or other measures, ought to have watched over both. Having once confided her to their superintendence, he might consider, with many others similarly circumstanced, that his responsibility was over. That he did not do so, his compunction, which brought on a temporary derangement, proves. De Quincey, in speaking of this circumstance, to which I alluded in a memoir of Shelley, says that the mention of it arose from a wish to gratify a fugitive curiosity in strangers; and adds, that it appears from the peace of mind which Shelley is reported afterwards to have recovered for a time, that he could not have had to reproach himself with any harshness or neglect as contributing to the shocking catastrophe. Without any compunctious visitings, however, morbidly sensitive as he was, well might it painfully excite him. Such
a fate as hers, could not be contemplated even by the most indifferent stranger, without a deep sympathy; much more must the shock have come home to the feelings of one so intimately connected with her.

How pathetically does he in a dirge, not unworthy of Shakspeare, give vent to his agonised heart:
“That time is dead for ever, child!
Drowned, frozen, dead for ever;—
We look on the past,
And stare aghast,
At the spectres wailing pale and ghast
Of hopes that thou and I beguiled
To death on Life’s dark river.”