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The Silent Isle - Chapter 46 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1441

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 46

CHAPTER XLVI

I have been reading all the old Shelley literature lately, Hogg and Trelawny and Medwin and Mrs. Shelley, and that terrible piece of analysis, _The Real Shelley_. Hogg's _Life of Shelley is an incomparable book; I should put it in the first class of biographies without hesitation. Of course, it is only a fragment; and much of it is frankly devoted to the sayings and doings of Hogg; it is none the worse for that. It is an intensely humorous book, in the first place. There are marvellous episodes in it, splendid extravaganzas like the story of Hogg's stay in Dublin, where he locked the door of his bedroom for security, and the boy Pat crept through the panel of the door to get his boots and keep them from him, and a man in the room below pushed up a plank in the floor that he might converse, not with Hogg, but with the man in the room above him; there is the anecdote of the little banker who was convinced that Wordsworth was a poet because he had trained himself to write in the dark if he woke up and had an inspiration. There is the story of the Chevalier D'Arblay, and his departure to France; and the description of his correspondence, in which he said for years that he was inconsolable and suffering inconceivable anguish at being obliged to absent himself from his wife; yet never able to assign any reason for his stay. Then, too, the whole book is written in the freshest and most crisp style, with a rare zest, that gives the effect of the conversation of an irrepressibly impudent and delightful person. The picture of Shelley himself is delightfully drawn; it is a perfect mixture of rapturous admiration of Shelley's fine qualities, with an acute perception of his absurdities. The picture of Shelley at Oxford, asleep before the fire, toasting his little curly head in the heat, or reading the _Iliad by the glow of the embers, seems to bring one nearer to the poet than anything else that is recorded of him. I cannot think why the book is not more universally known; it seems to me one of the freshest pieces of biography in the language.

Trelawny's Memorials are interesting, and contain the solemn and memorable scene of the cremation of Shelley's remains--one of the most vivid and impressive narratives I know. Then there are the chapters of Leigh Hunt's Autobiography which deal with Shelley, a little overwrought perhaps, but real biography for all that, and interesting as bringing out the contrast between the simplicity and generosity of Shelley and the affectation, bad breeding, and unscrupulous selfishness of Byron. Medwin's Biography and Mrs. Shelley's Memorials are worthless, because they attempt to idealise and deify the poet; and then there is _The Real Shelley_, which is like a tedious legal cross-examination of a highly imaginative and sensitive creature by a shrewd and boisterous barrister.

It would be very difficult to compose a formal biography of Shelley, because he was such a vague, imaginative, inconsistent creature. The documentary evidence is often wholly contradictory, for the simple reason that Shelley had no conception of accuracy. He did not, I am sure, deliberately invent what was not true; but he had a very lively imagination, and was capable of amplifying the smallest hints into elaborate theories; his memory was very faulty, and he could construct a whole series of mental pictures which were wholly inconsistent with facts. It seems clear, too, that he was much under the influence of opium at various times, and that his dreams and fancies, when he was thus affected, presented themselves to him as objective facts. But, for all that, it is not at all difficult to form a very real impression of the man. He was one of those strange, unbalanced creatures that never reach maturity; he was a child all his short life; he had the generosity, the affection, the impulsiveness of a child, and he had, too, the timidity, the waywardness, the excitability of a child. If a project came into his mind, he flung himself into it with the whole force of his nature; it was imperatively necessary that he should at once execute his design. No considerations of prudence or common-sense availed to check him; life became intolerable to him if he could not gratify his whim. His abandonment of his first wife, his elopement with Mary Godwin, are instances of this; what could be more amazing than his deliberate invitation to his first wife, after his flight with Mary, that she should come and join the party in a friendly way? He preserved, too, that characteristic of the child, when confronted with a difficult and disagreeable situation, of saying anything that came into his head which seemed to offer a solution; the child does not invent an elaborate falsification; it simply says whatever will untie the knot quickest, without reference to facts. If we bear in mind this natural and instinctive childlikeness in Shelley, we have the clue to almost all his inconsistencies and entanglements. Most people, as they grow up, and as the complicated fabric of society makes itself clear to them, begin to arrange their life in sympathy with conventional ideals. They learn that if they gratify their inclinations unreservedly, they will have a heavy price to pay; and on the whole they find it more convenient to recognise social limitations, and to get what pleasure they can inside the narrow enclosure. But Shelley never grasped this fact. He believed that all the difficulties of life and most of its miseries would melt away if only people would live more in the light of simple instinct and impulse. He never had any real knowledge of human beings. The history of his life is the history of a series of extravagant admirations for people, followed by no less extravagant disillusionments. Of course, his circumstances fostered his tendencies. Though he was often in money difficulties, he knew that there was always money in the background; indeed, he was too fond of announcing himself as the heir to a large property in Sussex. One cannot help wondering what Shelley's life would have been if he had been born poor and obscure, like Keats, and if he had been obliged to earn his living. Still more curious it is to speculate what would have become of him if he had lived to inherit his baronetcy and estates. He was anticipating his inheritance so fast that he would probably have found himself a poor man; but, on the other hand, his powers were rapidly maturing. He would have been a terrible person to be responsible for, because one could never have known what he would do next; all one could have felt sure of would have been that he would carry out his purpose, whatever it might be, with indomitable self-will. It is also curious to think what his relations would have been with his wife. Mrs. Shelley was a conventional woman, with a high ideal of social respectability. A woman who used to make a great point of attending the Anglican services in Italy was probably morbidly anxious to atone, if possible, for the one error of her youth. It is difficult to believe that Shelley would have continued to live with his wife for very long. Even his theory of free love was a very inconsistent one. The essence of it is that the two parties to the compact should weary of their union simultaneously. Shelley seems to have felt that he had a right to break off relations whenever he felt inclined; how he would have viewed it if his partner had insisted on leaving him for another lover, while his own passion was still unabated, is not so clear. He would no doubt have overwhelmed her with moral indignation.

But in spite of all his faults there is something indescribably attractive about the personality of Shelley. His eager generosity, his loyalty, his tenderness are irresistible. One feels that he would have always responded to a frank and simple appeal. A foil for his virtues is provided by the character of Byron, whose nauseous affectations, animal coarseness, niggardliness, except where his own personal comfort was involved, and deep-seated snobbishness, makes Shelley into an angel of light. Shelley seems to have been almost the only person who ever evoked the true and frank admiration of Byron, and retained his regard. On the other hand, Shelley, who began by idolising Byron, seems to have gradually become aware of the ugly selfishness of his character.

But Shelley himself evokes a sort of deep compassionateness and affection, such as is evoked by an impulsive, headstrong, engaging child. One desires to have sheltered him, to have advised him, to have managed his affairs for him; one ends by forgiving him all, or nearly all. His character was essentially a noble one; he hated all oppression, injustice, arrogance, selfishness, coarseness, cruelty. When he erred, he erred like a child, not coldly and unscrupulously, but carried away by intensity of desire. It may seem a curious image, but one cannot help feeling that if Shelley had been contemporary with and brought into contact with Christ, he would have been an ardent follower and disciple, and would have been regarded with a deep tenderness and love; his sins would have been swiftly forgiven. I do not wish to minimise them; he behaved ungratefully, inconsiderately, wilfully. His usage of his first wife is a deep blot on his character. But in spite of his desertion of her, and his abduction of Mary Godwin, his life was somehow an essentially innocent one. It is possible to paint his career in dark colours; it is impossible to say that his example is an inspiring one; he is the kind of character that society is almost bound to take precautions against; he was indifferent to social morality, he was regardless of truth, neglectful of commercial honesty; but for all that one feels more hopeful about the race that can produce a Shelley. We must be careful not to condone his faults in the light of his poetical genius; but for all that, if Shelley had never written a line of his exquisite poetry, I cannot help feeling that if one had known him, one would have felt the same eager regard for him. One cannot draw near to a personality by a process of logic. But one fact emerges. There is little doubt that one of the most oppressive, injurious, detestable forces in the world is the force of conventionality, that instinct which makes men judge a character and an action, not by its beauty or by its merits, but by comparing it with the standard of how the normal man would regard it. This vast and intolerable medium of dulness, which penetrates our lives like a thick, dark mist, allowing us only to see the object in range of our immediate vision, hostile to all originality, crushingly respectable, that dictates our hours, our occupations, our amusements, our emotions, our religion, is the most ruthless and tyrannical thing in the world. Against this Shelley fought with all his might; his error was to hate it so intensely as to fail to see the few grains of gold, the few principles of kindness, of honesty, of consideration, of soberness, that it contains. He paid dearly for his error, in the consciousness of the contempt and infamy which were heaped upon his quivering spirit. But he did undoubtedly love truth, beauty, and purity. One has to get on the right side of his sins and indulgences, his grotesque political theories, his inconsistencies; but when once one has apprehended the real character, one is never in any doubt again.

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