Percy Bysshe Shelley.

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With Introduction and Notes






_Adonais_ is the first writing by Shelley which has been included in the
_Clarendon Press Series_. It is a poem of convenient length for such a
purpose, being neither short nor decidedly long; and - leaving out of
count some of the short poems - is the one by this author which
approaches nearest to being 'popular.' It is elevated in sentiment,
classical in form, - in substance, biographical in relation to Keats, and
in some minor degree autobiographical for Shelley himself. On these
grounds it claimed a reasonable preference over all his other poems, for
the present method of treatment; although some students of Shelley,
myself included, might be disposed to maintain that, in point of
absolute intrinsic beauty and achievement, and of the qualities most
especially characteristic of its author, it is not superior, or indeed
is but barely equal, to some of his other compositions. To take, for
instance, two poems not very different in length from _Adonais_ - _The
Witch of Atlas_ is more original, and _Epipsychidion_ more abstract in

I have endeavoured to present in my introductory matter a comprehensive
account of all particulars relevant to _Adonais_ itself, and to Keats as
its subject, and Shelley as its author. The accounts here given of both
these great poets are of course meagre, but I assume them to be not
insufficient for our immediate and restricted purpose. There are many
other books which the reader can profitably consult as to the life and
works of Shelley; and three or four (at least) as to the life and works
of Keats. My concluding notes are, I suppose, ample in scale: if they
are excessive, that is an involuntary error on my part. My aim in them
has been to illustrate and elucidate the poem in its details, yet
without travelling far afield in search of remote analogies or
discursive comment - my wish being rather to 'stick to my text': wherever
a difficulty presents itself, I have essayed to define it, and clear it
up - but not always to my own satisfaction. I have seldom had to discuss
the opinions of previous writers on the same points, for the simple
reason that of detailed criticism of _Adonais_, apart from merely
textual memoranda, there is next to none.

It has appeared to me to be part of my duty to point out here and there,
but by no means frequently, some special beauty in the poem;
occasionally also something which seems to me defective or faulty. I am
aware that this latter is an invidious office, which naturally exposes
one to an imputation, from some quarters, of obtuseness, and, from
others, of presumption; none the less I have expressed myself with the
frankness which, according to my own view, belongs to the essence of
such a task as is here undertaken. _Adonais_ is a composition which has
retorted beforehand upon its actual or possible detractors. In the poem
itself, and in the prefatory matter adjoined to it, Shelley takes
critics very severely to task: but criticism has its discerning and
temperate, as well as its 'stupid and malignant' phases.


_July, 1890._


The life of Percy Bysshe Shelley is one which has given rise to a great
deal of controversy, and which cannot, for a long time to come, fail to
be regarded with very diverse sentiments. His extreme opinions on
questions of religion and morals, and the great latitude which he
allowed himself in acting according to his own opinions, however widely
they might depart from the law of the land and of society, could not but
produce this result. In his own time he was generally accounted an
outrageous and shameful offender. At the present date many persons
entertain essentially the same view, although softened by lapse of
years, and by respect for his standing as a poet: others regard him as a
conspicuous reformer. Some take a medium course, and consider him to
have been sincere, and so far laudable; but rash and reckless of
consequences, and so far censurable. His poetry also has been subject to
very different constructions. During his lifetime it obtained little
notice save for purposes of disparagement and denunciation. Now it is
viewed with extreme enthusiasm by many, and is generally admitted to
hold a permanent rank in English literature, though faulty (as some
opine) through vague idealism and want of backbone. These are all points
on which I shall here offer no personal opinion. I shall confine myself
to tracing the chief outlines of Shelley's life, and (very briefly) the
sequence of his literary work.

Percy Bysshe Shelley came of a junior and comparatively undistinguished
branch of a very old and noted family. His branch was termed the
Worminghurst Shelleys; and it is only quite lately[1] that the
affiliation of this branch to the more eminent and senior stock of the
Michelgrove Shelleys has passed from the condition of a probable and
obvious surmise into that of an established fact. The family traces up
to Sir William Shelley, Judge of the Common Pleas under Henry VII,
thence to a Member of Parliament in 1415, and to the reign of Edward I,
or even to the Norman Conquest. The Worminghurst Shelleys start with
Henry Shelley, who died in 1623. It will be sufficient here to begin
with the poet's grandfather, Bysshe Shelley. He was born at Christ
Church, Newark, North America, and raised to a noticeable height,
chiefly by two wealthy marriages, the fortunes of the junior branch.
Handsome, keen-minded, and adventurous, he eloped with Mary Catherine,
heiress of the Rev. Theobald Michell, of Horsham; after her death he
eloped with Elizabeth Jane, heiress of Mr. Perry, of Penshurst. By this
second wife he had a family, now represented, by the Baron de l'Isle and
Dudley: by his first wife he had (besides a daughter) a son Timothy, who
was the poet's father, and who became in due course Sir Timothy Shelley,
Bart., M.P. His baronetcy was inherited from his father Bysshe - on whom
it had been conferred, in 1806, chiefly through the interest of the Duke
of Norfolk, the head of the Whig party in the county of Sussex, to whose
politics the new baronet had adhered.

Mr. Timothy Shelley was a very ordinary country gentleman in essentials,
and a rather eccentric one in some details. He was settled at Field
Place, near Horsham, Sussex, and married Elizabeth, daughter of Charles
Pilfold, of Effingham, Surrey; she was a beauty, and a woman of good
abilities, but without any literary turn. Their first child was the
poet, Percy Bysshe, born at Field Place on Aug. 4, 1792: four daughters
also grew up, and a younger son, John: the eldest son of John is now the
Baronet, having succeeded, in 1889, Sir Percy Florence Shelley, the
poet's only surviving son. No one has managed to discover in the parents
of Percy Bysshe any qualities furnishing the prototype or the nucleus of
his poetical genius, or of the very exceptional cast of mind and
character which he developed in other directions. The parents were
commonplace: if we go back to the grandfather, Sir Bysshe, we encounter
a man who was certainly not commonplace, but who seems to have been
devoid of either poetical or humanitarian fervour. He figures as intent
upon his worldly interests, accumulating a massive fortune, and spending
lavishly upon the building of Castle Goring; in his old age, penurious,
unsocial, and almost churlish in his habits. His passion was to domineer
and carry his point; of this the poet may have inherited something. His
ideal of success was wealth and worldly position, things to which the
poet was, on the contrary, abnormally indifferent.

Shelley's schooling began at six years of age, when he was placed under
the Rev. Mr. Edwards, at Warnham. At ten he went to Sion House School,
Brentford, of which the Principal was Dr. Greenlaw, the pupils being
mostly sons of local tradesmen. In July, 1804, he proceeded to Eton,
where Dr. Goodall was the Head Master, succeeded, just towards the end
of Shelley's stay, by the far severer Dr. Keate. Shelley was shy,
sensitive, and of susceptible fancy: at Eton we first find him
insubordinate as well. He steadily resisted the fagging-system, learned
more as he chose than as his masters dictated, and was known as 'Mad
Shelley,' and 'Shelley the Atheist.' It has sometimes been said that an
Eton boy, if rebellious, was termed 'Atheist,' and that the designation,
as applied to Shelley, meant no more than that. I do not feel satisfied
that this is true at all; at any rate it seems to me probable that
Shelley, who constantly called himself an atheist in after-life,
received the epithet at Eton for some cause more apposite than
disaffection to school-authority.

He finally left Eton in July, 1810. He had already been entered in
University College, Oxford, in April of that year, and he commenced
residence there in October. His one very intimate friend in Oxford was
Thomas Jefferson Hogg, a student from the county of Durham. Hogg was
not, like Shelley, an enthusiast eager to learn new truths, and to apply
them; but he was a youth appreciative of classical and other literature,
and little or not at all less disposed than Percy to disregard all
prescription in religious dogma. By demeanour and act they both courted
academic censure, and they got it in its extremest form. Shelley wrote,
probably with some co-operation from Hogg, and he published anonymously
in Oxford, a little pamphlet called _The Necessity of Atheism_; he
projected sending it round broadcast as an invitation or challenge to
discussion. This small pamphlet - it is scarcely more than a
flysheet - hardly amounts to saying that Atheism is irrefragably true,
and Theism therefore false; but it propounds that the existence of a God
cannot be proved by reason, nor yet by testimony; that a direct
revelation made to an individual would alone be adequate ground for
convincing that individual; and that the persons to whom such a
revelation is not accorded are in consequence warranted in remaining
unconvinced. The College authorities got wind of the pamphlet, and found
reason for regarding Shelley as its author, and on March 25, 1811, they
summoned him to appear. He was required to say whether he had written it
or not. To this demand he refused an answer, and was then expelled by a
written sentence, ready drawn up. With Hogg the like process was
repeated. Their offence, as entered on the College records, was that of
'contumaciously refusing to answer questions,' and 'repeatedly declining
to disavow' the authorship of the work. In strictness therefore they
were expelled, not for being proclaimed atheists, but for defying
academic authority, which required to be satisfied as to that question.
Shortly before this disaster an engagement between Shelley and his first
cousin on the mother's side, Miss Harriet Grove, had come to an end,
owing to the alarm excited by the youth's sceptical opinions.

Settling in lodgings in London, and parting from Hogg, who went to York
to study conveyancing, Percy pretty soon found a substitute for Harriet
Grove in Harriet Westbrook, a girl of fifteen, schoolfellow of two of
his sisters at Clapham. She was exceedingly pretty, daughter of a
retired hotel-keeper in easy circumstances. Shelley wanted to talk both
her and his sisters out of Christianity; and he cultivated the
acquaintance of herself and of her much less juvenile sister Eliza,
calling from time to time at their father's house in Chapel Street,
Grosvenor Square. Harriet fell in love with him: besides, he was a
highly eligible _parti_, being a prospective baronet, absolute heir to a
very considerable estate, and contingent heir (if he had assented to a
proposal of entail, to which however he never did assent, professing
conscientious objections) to another estate still larger. Shelley was
not in love with Harriet; but he liked her, and was willing to do
anything he could to further her wishes and plans. Mr. Timothy Shelley,
after a while, pardoned his son's misadventure at Oxford, and made him a
moderate allowance of £200 a-year. Percy then visited a cousin in Wales,
a member of the Grove family. He was recalled to London by Harriet
Westbrook, who protested against a project of sending her back to
school. He counselled resistance. She replied in July 1811 (to quote a
contemporary letter from Shelley to Hogg), 'that resistance was useless,
but that she would fly with me, and threw herself upon my protection.'
This was clearly a rather decided step upon the damsel's part: we may
form our own conclusions whether she was willing to unite with Percy
without the bond of marriage; or whether she confidently calculated upon
inducing him to marry her, her family being kept in the dark; or whether
the whole affair was a family manoeuvre for forcing on an engagement and
a wedding. Shelley returned to London, and had various colloquies with
Harriet: in due course he eloped with her to Edinburgh, and there on
28th August he married her. His age was then just nineteen, and hers
sixteen. Shelley, who was a profound believer in William Godwin's
_Political Justice_, rejected the institution of marriage as being
fundamentally irrational and wrongful. But he saw that he could not in
this instance apply his own pet theories without involving in discredit
and discomfort the woman whose love had been bestowed upon him. Either
his opinion or her happiness must be sacrificed to what he deemed a
prejudice of society: he decided rather to sacrifice the former.

For two years, or up to an advanced date in 1813, the married life of
Shelley and Harriet appears to have been a happy one, so far as their
mutual relation was concerned; though rambling and scrambling,
restricted by mediocrity of income (£400 a year, made up between the two
fathers), and pestered by the continual, and to Percy at last very
offensive, presence of Miss Westbrook as an inmate of the house. They
lived in York, Keswick in Cumberland, Dublin (which Shelley visited as
an express advocate of Catholic emancipation and repeal of the Union),
Nantgwillt in Radnorshire, Lynmouth in Devonshire, Tanyrallt in
Carnarvonshire, London, Bracknell in Berkshire: Ireland and Edinburgh
were also revisited. Various strange adventures befell; the oddest of
all being an alleged attempt at assassination at Tanyrallt. Shelley
asserted it, others disbelieved it: after much disputation the
biographer supposes that, if not an imposture, it was a romance, and, if
not a romance, at least a hallucination, - Shelley, besides being wild in
talk and wild in fancy, being by this time much addicted to
laudanum-dosing. In June 1813 Harriet gave birth, in London, to her
first child, Ianthe Eliza (she married a Mr. Esdaile, and died in 1876).
About the same time Shelley brought out his earliest work of importance,
the poem of _Queen Mab_: its speculative audacities were too extreme for
publication, so it was only privately printed.

Amiable and accommodating at first, and neither ill-educated nor stupid,
Harriet did not improve in tone as she advanced in womanhood. Her
sympathy or tolerance for her husband's ideals and vagaries flagged;
when they differed she gave him the cold shoulder; she wanted
luxuries - such as a carriage of her own - which he neither cared for nor
could properly afford. He even said - and one can hardly accuse him of
saying it insincerely - that she had been unfaithful to him: this however
remains quite unproved, and may have been a delusion. He sought the
society of the philosopher Godwin, then settled as a bookseller in
Skinner Street, Holborn. Godwin's household at this time consisted of
his second wife, who had been a Mrs. Clairmont; Mary, his daughter by
his first wife, the celebrated Mary Wollstonecraft; and his young son by
his second wife, William; also his step-children, Charles and Clare
Clairmont, and Fanny Wollstonecraft (or Imlay), the daughter of Mary
Wollstonecraft by her first irregular union with Gilbert Imlay. Until
May 1814, when she was getting on towards the age of seventeen, Shelley
had scarcely set eyes on Mary Godwin: he then saw her, and a sudden
passion sprang up between them - uncontrollable, or, at any rate,
uncontrolled. Harriet Shelley has left it on record that the advances
and importunities came from Mary Godwin to Shelley, and were for a while
resisted: it was natural for Harriet to allege this, but I should not
suppose it to be true, unless in a very partial sense. Shelley sent for
his wife, who had gone for a while to Bath (perhaps in a fit of
pettishness, but this is not clear), and explained to her in June that
they must separate - a resolve which she combated as far as seemed
possible, but finally she returned to Bath, staying there with her
father and sister. Shelley made some arrangements for her convenience,
and on the 28th of July he once more eloped, this time with Mary Godwin.
Clare Clairmont chose to accompany them. Godwin was totally opposed to
the whole transaction, and Mrs. Godwin even pursued the fugitives across
the Channel; but her appeal was unavailing, and the youthful and defiant
trio proceeded in much elation of spirit, and not without a good deal of
discomfort at times, from Calais to Paris, and thence to Brunen by the
Lake of Uri in Switzerland. It is a curious fact, and shows how
differently Shelley regarded these matters from most people, that he
wrote to Harriet in affectionate terms, urging her to join them there or
reside hard by them. Mary, before the elopement took place, had made a
somewhat similar proposal. Harriet had no notion of complying; and, as
it turned out, the adventurers had no sooner reached Brunen than they
found their money exhausted, and they travelled back in all haste to
London in September, - Clare continuing to house with them now, and for
the most part during the remainder of Shelley's life. Even a poet and
idealist might have been expected to show a little more worldly wisdom
than this. After his grievous experiences with Eliza Westbrook, the
sister of his first wife, Shelley might have managed to steer clear of
Clare Clairmont, the sister by affinity of his second partner in life.
He would not take warning, and he paid the forfeit: not indeed that
Clare was wanting in fine qualities both of mind and of character, but
she proved a constant source of excitement and uneasiness in the
household, of unfounded scandal, and of harassing complications.

In London Shelley and Mary lived in great straits, abandoned by almost
all their acquaintances, and playing hide-and-seek with creditors. But
in January 1815 Sir Bysshe Shelley died, and Percy's money affairs
improved greatly. An arrangement was arrived at with his father, whereby
he received a regular annual income of £1000, out of which he assigned
to Harriet £200 for herself and her two children - a son, Charles Bysshe,
having been born in November 1814 (he died in 1826). Shelley and Mary
next settled at Bishopgate, near Windsor Forest. In May 1816 they went
abroad, along with Miss Clairmont and their infant son William, and
joined Lord Byron on the shore of the Lake of Geneva. An amour was
already going on between Byron and Miss Clairmont; it resulted in the
birth of a daughter, Allegra, in January 1817; she died in 1822, very
shortly before Shelley. He and Mary had returned to London in September
1816. Very shortly afterwards, 9th of November, the ill-starred Harriet
Shelley drowned herself in the Serpentine: her body was only recovered
on the 10th of December, and the verdict of the Coroner's Jury was
'found drowned,' her name being given as 'Harriet Smith.' The career of
Harriet since her separation from her husband is very indistinctly
known. It has indeed been asserted in positive terms that she formed
more than one connexion with other men: she had ceased to live along
with her father and sister, and is said to have been expelled from their
house. In these statements I see nothing either unveracious or unlikely:
but it is true that a sceptical habit of mind, which insists upon
express evidence and upon severe sifting of evidence, may remain
unconvinced[2]. This was the second suicide in Shelley's immediate
circle, for Fanny Wollstonecraft had taken poison just before under
rather unaccountable circumstances. No doubt he felt dismay and horror,
and self-reproach as well; yet there is nothing to show that he
condemned his conduct, at any stage of the transactions with Harriet, as
heinously wrong. He took the earliest opportunity - 30th of December - of
marrying Mary Godwin; and thus he became reconciled to her father and to
other members of the family.

It was towards the time of Harriet's suicide that Shelley, staying in
and near London, became personally intimate with the essayist and poet,
Leigh Hunt, and through him he came to know John Keats: their first
meeting appears to have occurred on 5th February, 1817. As this matter
bears directly upon our immediate theme, the poem of _Adonais_, I deal
with it at far greater length than its actual importance in the life of
Shelley would otherwise warrant.

Hunt, in his _Autobiography_, narrates as follows. 'I had not known the
young poet [Keats] long when Shelley and he became acquainted under my
roof. Keats did not take to Shelley as kindly as Shelley did to him.
Shelley's only thoughts of his new acquaintance were such as regarded
his bad health with which he sympathised [this about bad health seems
properly to apply to a date later than the opening period when the two
poets came together], and his poetry, of which he has left such a
monument of his admiration as _Adonais_. Keats, being a little too
sensitive on the score of his origin, felt inclined to see in every man
of birth a sort of natural enemy. Their styles in writing also were very
different; and Keats, notwithstanding his unbounded sympathies with
ordinary flesh and blood, and even the transcendental cosmopolitics of
_Hyperion_, was so far inferior in universality to his great
acquaintance that he could not accompany him in his daedal rounds with
Nature, and his Archimedean endeavours to move the globe with his own
hands [an allusion to the motto appended to _Queen Mab_]. I am bound to
state thus much; because, hopeless of recovering his health, under
circumstances that made the feeling extremely bitter, an irritable
morbidity appears even to have driven his suspicions to excess; and this
not only with regard to the acquaintance whom he might reasonably
suppose to have had some advantages over him, but to myself, who had
none; for I learned the other day with extreme pain ... that Keats, at
one period of his intercourse with us, suspected both Shelley and myself
of a wish to see him undervalued! Such are the tricks which constant
infelicity can play with the most noble natures. For Shelley let
_Adonais_ answer.' It is to be observed that Hunt is here rather putting
the cart before the horse. Keats (as we shall see immediately) suspected
Shelley and Hunt 'of a wish to see him undervalued' as early as February
1818; but his 'irritable morbidity' when 'hopeless of recovering his
health' belongs to a later date, say the spring and summer of 1820.

It is said that in the spring of 1817 Shelley and Keats agreed that each
of them would undertake an epic, to be written in a space of six months:
Shelley produced _The Revolt of Islam_ (originally entitled _Laon and
Cythna_), and Keats produced _Endymion_. Shelley's poem, the longer of
the two, was completed by the early autumn, while Keats's occupied him
until the winter which opened 1818. On 8th October, 1817, Keats wrote to
a friend, 'I refused to visit Shelley, that I might have my own
unfettered scope; meaning presumably that he wished to finish _Endymion_
according to his own canons of taste and execution, without being
hampered by any advice from Shelley. There is also a letter from Keats
to his two brothers, 22nd December, 1817, saying: 'Shelley's poem _Laon
and Cythna_ is out, and there are words about its being objected to as
much as _Queen Mab_ was. Poor Shelley, I think he has his quota of good
qualities.' As late as February 1818 He wrote, 'I have not yet read
Shelley's poem.' On 23rd January of the same year he had written: 'The
fact is, he [Hunt] and Shelley are hurt, and perhaps justly, at my not
having showed them the affair [_Endymion_ in MS.] officiously; and, from

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