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tion, such as one readily pronounces on a man guilty of actions like those specified above, is shown by a thorough examination of Shelley's life and character to be as unjustifiable as indiscriminate approval.
Shelley was, in truth, a man of quite abnormal type. . With certain qualities he was endowed to an extraordinary degree; others, which belong to the average man, were almost totally lacking in him. Owing to his extreme sensitiveness to certain aspects of life and his comparative blindness to others, he was not actuated by the same motives as other men or, rather, motives did not have the same relative weight with him as with others. He was, further, to an unusual degree the creature of impulse; yet he was not, like most creatures of impulse, dominated by ignoble and transitory aims. His actions, though the outcome of an unchecked will, were not sensual or consciously selfish, but directed, as far as his insight went, towards the benefiting of his fellows. Though justice, kindness, and forbearance were the objects of his passionate admiration and pursuit, yet, owing to his incapacity for understanding other people and his subjection to the impulse of the moment, he continually, both by his judgments and his actions, wronged those with whom he came in contact. It is difficult to characterize him without overstating or overlooking essential qualities ; hence the complex impression of his personality is best rendered directly from a record of his life. Such a record should be written rather from the point of view of Shelley himself than from that of a moralizing critic. A sketch as brief as the following can give only a small selection from the biographical material available. The selection is determined, not by the absolute importance of the facts chosen, but by their effectiveness in producing an impression of Shelley's character, and especially of those sides of it which most influenced his poetic work.
Percy Bysshe SHELLEY was born August 4, 1792, at Field Place, near Horsham, in Sussex. He came of gentle lineage; the Shelley family had belonged to the squirearchy of Sussex for centuries. His father, Timothy Shelley, was a county magnate and Whig member of parliament, puzzle-headed, irritable, not unkindly, man of a commonplace and narrow type. Shelley's mother was a woman of beauty, possessed of greater sense and ability than her husband, but commonplace, also, without breadth of knowledge or sympathy. Sir Bysshe Shelley, the poet's grandfather, had revived the fortunes of this branch of the family. In early years he had been possessed of great personal attractions and of much adroitness and push. He had begun life as an adventurer, and laid the foundations of his wealth by his two marriages -- on each occasion eloping with an heiress. As Percy knew him, he was an eccentric, avaricious old man living in a cottage in the village of Horsham. The desire to accumulate wealth, to found a family, to win social standing — such were the ruling motives of Sir Bysshe and his son Timothy.
In Field Place, among the surroundings which belong to an English country gentleman, Percy Shelley, the eldest child and heir, grew from infancy to boyhood. At the age of ten he was sent to a private boarding-school near Brentford. He was not an ordinary boy, was of a gentle and dreamy temperament, and, doubtless, seemed girlish to his companions. “He passed among his school fellows," writes
“ his cousin and fellow pupil, Thomas Medwin, " as a strange and unsocial being; for when a holiday relieved us from our tasks, and the other boys were engaged in such sports as the narrow limits of our prison court allowed, Shelley, who entered into none of them, would pace backwards and for
wards – I think I see him now along the southern wall, indulging in various vague and undefined ideas, the chaotic elements, if I may say so, of what afterwards produced so beautiful a world.” His life among other boys could scarcely have been very happy, but at school he found at least one kindred spirit. Shelley's description of this friend, though written in later life, reveals something of the boyish Percy himself.
There was a delicacy and a simplicity in his manners inexpressibly attractive. ... The tones of his voice were so soft and winning that every word pierced into my heart, and their pathos was so deep that in listening to him the tears have involuntarily gushed from my eyes. . .. I remember in my simplicity writing to my mother a long account of his admirable qualities and my own devoted attachment. I suppose she thought me out of my wits, for she returned no answer to my letter. I remember we used to walk the whole play hours up and down by some moss-covered palings, pouring out our hearts in youthful talk. We used to speak of the ladies with whom we were in love, and I remember our usual practice was to confirm each other in the everlasting fidelity in which we had bound ourselves towards them and towards each other. I recollect thinking my friend exquisitely beautiful. Every night when we parted to go to bed we kissed each other like children, as we still were.
In 1804 Shelley went to Eton, where he was even less in harmony with his environment than at Brentford. His gentleness and oddity exposed him to teasing and bullying. “I have seen him," writes a school fellow, “surrounded, hooted, baited like a maddened bull, and at this distance of time I seem to hear ringing in my ears the cry which Shelley was wont to utter in the paroxysms of revengeful anger.” “ His name,” says Dowden, “would suddenly be sounded through the cloisters, in an instant to be taken up by another and another voice, until hundreds joined in the clamor, and the
roof would echo and reëcho with. Shelley! Shelley! Shelley!' Then a space would be opened in which, as in a ring or alley, the victim must stand and exhibit his torture; or some urchin would dart in behind and by one dexterous push scatter at Shelley's feet the books which he held under his arm ; or mischievous hands would pluck at his garments; or a hundred fingers would point at him from every side, while still the outcry Shelley! Shelley!'rang against the walls. An access of passion — the desired result would follow, which, declares a witness of these persecutions, “made his eyes flash like a tiger's, his cheeks grow pale as death, his limbs quiver.'” He was a rebel against the fagging system, and thus, doubtless, deprived himself of the protection of elder and better disposed boys. Yet he, too, had pleasures and friends at Eton; he was fond of rambling with a chosen companion among the beautiful scenes of the neighborhood, such as the churchyard of Stoke Pogis, which is said to have inspired Gray's Elegy. In his studies he was not unsuccessful, though he never distinguished himself as an accurate scholar. His intellectual precocity was manifested in his reading of classical authors outside his school work and of Godwin and Franklin among English writers. It may have been through his studies of Godwin and Lucretius that he acquired the name of “ Atheist," by which he was known among his contemporaries at school. He was certainly a propagandist of revolutionary ideas at Eton, and, at least during the earlier years of his residence there, was on no very good terms either with teachers or taught. In scientific studies, which, of course, were not included in the school curriculum of those days, he was also interested; he made chemical experiments, and possessed an electric battery. But from his general character, as well as from references to these pursuits in his writings, we gather that he was not inspired by a genuinely scientific spirit, but was attracted by the stimulus which such pursuits afforded to his imagination, by his love of mystery, and by the vague possibilities of some tremendous discovery. His scientific interests led to the forming of a friendship with a certain Doctor Lind, of Windsor, whose idealized portrait appears in the Hermit of The Revolt of Islam and in Zonaras of Prince Athanase. There is a story told by Shelley that once during the holidays he had an attack of fever, and during convalescence heard remarks of the servants which showed that his father designed to send him to a private madhouse ; in great terror the boy despatched a messenger to Doctor Lind, who responded to the appeal, saw Mr. Timothy Shelley, and induced him to abandon the design. Whatever the basis for this story, the idea of malevolent plot against himself must have arisen from that tendency to illusions and that deeprooted suspicion of his father which haunted the poet throughout his life.
The isolation and persecutions of Shelley's boyhood were the prelude of similar trials in mature life; and, if we are to take literally some of his later poetic utterances, he had already embraced those lofty principles of justice, kindness, and forbearance which he proclaimed and sought to practice in later days:
Thoughts of great deeds were mine, dear Friend, when first
Were but one echo from a world of woes
And then I clasped my hands and looked around