Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


 

THE WORLD OF BOOKS: A New Life of Shelley*


 

Shelley, the Man and the Poet. From the French of Felix Rabbe. [1888] London: Ward & Downey.

 

Within the last year or two there have been most valuable additions to our store of Shelley literature. The most important of these works is, of course, the monumental Life, by Prof. Dowden, which sets at rest many fiercely disputed questions, and which must forever remain the final authority as to the particulars of Shelley’s career. Prof. Dowden’s work, however, is too extended for the general reader. It is interesting, but more interesting is the work before us. Interesting is too mild a term for this work of M. Rabbe; it is fascinating. At the same time it is full enough for anyone but the specialist; and its accuracy is unimpeachable, as it depends frankly on Prof. Dowden’s verdict in disputed cases. M. Rabbe is in closest sympathy with his subject, whom he reverences aright, and is not afraid to acknowledge as the greatest of English poets since Milton. This view is one which still excites loud opposition; but I am very confident that future generations will accept it without question.

How directly counter to common opinion is this estimate by M. Rabbe—an estimate which will find, I think, no one dissenter among those who have made a full and intelligent study of Shelley! "Happier than other poets, perchance no less gifted than he, had they likewise possessed his faith, he never suffered shipwreck on the rocks of doubt and despair; he stands at the antipodes of scepticism, misanthropy and solitary, fruitless melancholy—a clarion-voice of faith, hope and love. Give me but a lever, he exclaims with Archimedes, and I will move the world." And as he was convinced that such a lever could never be found among fragile and perishable things, he sought it in the only faculty which escapes the attacks of circumstance and time—the unconquerable strength of man’s spirit and his will, emanating from that universal spirit in Nature, which is God. In this sense he may be termed the most spiritual, the most ideal, the most religious of poets."

They who regard Shelley as an atheist, are only those who fail to understand quite perspicuous English, or who know Shelley only by hearsay or by the introduction to "Queen Mab." To judge a man by the crude production of his boyhood, a work that he himself condemned utterly, and sought earnestly to suppress, cannot be called "sweet reasonableness," to say the least of it. That Shelley was profoundly in sympathy with the inmost spirit of Christianity, and at war only with those whom he regarded as perverters and corrupters of this spirit, will be plain to any who read Shelley as a whole. His utter antagonism to naturalism, his intensely spiritual attitude, will be obvious to the reader of the "Adonais."

In his treatment of the lamentable episode with Harriet, Shelley’s French critic shows himself both delicate and just. In the eyes of some, it was Shelley who was wholly to blame for the tragedy. Others, again, hold poor Harriet solely responsible. To arrive at a just estimate, we must consider many little known facts. Shelley, as the disciple of William Godwin, did not believe that marriage was right. Harriet Westbrook shared his views. She threw herself on Shelley’s protection, declaring that she was the victim of domestic tyranny, and begged Shelley to carry her off. The rash and chivalrous poet, not yet out of his teens, though not in love with the girl one whit, believed himself honor bound to respond. And at once he married Harriet, seeing that her position would be painful if she were allowed to live according to her convictions. Harriet was attractive, amiable, in love with her husband, and for a time all went well, her fundamental lack of sympathy not obtruding itself violently upon Shelley’s absorption in his work. The estrangement commenced with the birth of their first child, toward whom Harriet displayed a marked insensibility. This neglect was the subject of continual remonstrance on Shelley’s part, under which Harriet’s attitude of contemptuous indifference grew rapidly. After a time Harriet went away with her sister—who seems to have been the cause of much mischief in the house. Shelley repeatedly urged his wife’s return, even in such appealing terms as these:

O trust for once no erring guide!
   Bid the remorseless feeling flee;
‘Tis malice, ‘tis revenge, ‘tis pride,
   "Tis anything but thee;
O deign a noble pride to prove,
And pity, if thou canst not love.

But Harriet turned a deaf ear. It must be remembered that Shelley and Harriet both regarded the marriage tie as one that might be dissolved at will. At this time Shelley was given information which seemed to explain Harriet’s growing heartlessness. She was unfaithful to him, he was given reason to believe. His constant companion at his period was a woman in every way capable of comprehending his genius and aiding its growth. This was Mary Godwin, between whom and Shelley there grew up an absorbing passion. With his and her views on marriage, and with their belief in Harriet’s infidelity, it is not altogether strange that they took the course they did. Shelley announced his intentions to Harriet, at the same time pledging himself to secure her comfortable maintenance. Harriet waited a year, expecting that Shelley would tire of Mary Godwin and return to her; then, finding this expectation vain, she formed another connection, which turned out unhappily. After this disappointment, her thoughts recurred to the idea of suicide, which she had always supported as justifiable; and she drowned herself in the Serpentine. The shock was a terrible one to Shelley, and left its ineffaceable traces on his after life. He came to believe that in his first suspicions he had wronged Harriet, and his remorse was bitter. A knowledge of all the facts, and a clear perception of the mental attitudes, beliefs and characters of the persons concerned, will alone justify one in judging Shelley’s conduct in this matter. The stainless purity of his life in every other regard, his clean-mindedness, his hatred of profligacy, his unimpeachable sincerity of act and purpose, must be borne in mind to correct and temper our censure of this one fault. And in defence of Harriet, on the other hand, it must be remembered how difficult is the lot of one attempting to fill too large a sphere. The error which would lay all the blame upon Shelley, is an error of bigotry and ignorance; but still more intolerable is the error which would lay blame wholly upon Harriet.

As a critic of Shelley’s poetry, M. Rabbe displays a keenness of insight and a subtility of appreciation which are marvellous when we consider that to him the language of Shelley is an alien tongue. Perhaps in no fellow-countryman has Shelley found a more adequate critic than in this discriminating and eloquent Frenchman.

 


"The World of Books: A New Life of Shelley," Progress 1:29 (Saint John, N.B.), 17 November 1888, 6 [back]