Percy Bysshe Shelley

  (1792-1822)

Parents, Childhood, Early Character, and Education

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelly

Birth and family
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born at Field Place, Warnham near Horsham, Sussex, the eldest child of Timothy Shelley (MP), and grandson of the eponymous Bysshe Bysshe Shelley, a wealthy landowner. His mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of a Sussex landowner, Charles Pilford of Effingham Place. He had one brother and four sisters.

Engraving Timothy Shelley
Timothy Shelley (1753-1844), by George Romney

  Engraving Elizabeth Shelley
Elizabeth Shelley (1763-1846) née Pilfold, by George Romney

Of Bysshe's paternal grandfather, Thomas Medwin, Bysshe's cousin, writes:

... his affectionate son Timothy, received every morning a bulletin of his (father's) health, till he became one of the oldest heir-apparents in England, and began to think his father immortal.

The same author writes of Timothy himself, Bysshe's father, that he:

... entered himself at University College, Oxford, and after the usual routine of academical studies, by which he little profited, made The Grand Tour. He was one of those travellers, who, with so much waste of time, travel for the sake of saying they have travelled; and, after making a circuit of Europe, return home, knowing no more of the countries they have visited than the trunks attached to their carriages..... He was a disciple of Chesterfield and La Rochefaucauld, reducing all politeness to forms and moral virtue to expediency... he once told his son ... that he would provide for as many natural children as he chose to get, but that he would never forgive his making a mésalliance. (TMLS, p12-13)

His mother, Elizabeth, was brought up 'by her childless aunt, Lady Poole, the wife of the well known father of the turf', Sir Ferdinando Poole. Though the Poole family seat was in Cheshire, Sir Ferdinando leased a large estate at Lewes in Sussex, where he bred racehorses, including the celebrated racehorse Waxy. She was, according to Bysshe's friend Hogg, 'a lady of rare beauty'.

They were married in October 1791, when she was 28 and he 38. That the husband was, as Medwin's account above indicates, not of the brightest, is corroborated by Bysshe's later attitudes towards him. Writing to his friend Hogg, whom he was encouraging to pursue his younger sister, Elizabeth, he opines:

Your letter was sent to my Mother last post day, I am well assured that she will do nothing prejudicial to our interests, she is a good worthy woman, and altho she may in some cases resemble the fish and pheasant ladies honored with your animadversions of this morning, yet there is one altitude which they have attained to, to which I think she cannot soar. Intolerance. I have heard frequently from her since my arrival here; she is of opinion that my father could not by ordinary means have become acquainted with your visit to Horsham ... I regard the whole as a finesse to which I had supposed the Honble Members head piece quite unequal. (SHCII, p851)

The reference to 'the Honble Members head piece' is to his father's intellectual capability, which he clearly regards as limited.

With regard to his later profession of atheism, for promoting which he was expelled from Oxford, his mother's reaction is rather liberal and enlightened, if a little simplistic. He quotes her as saying:

I think prayer and thanksgiving is of no use. If a man is a good man, atheist or Christian he will do very well in whatever future state awaits us.

His father, who told Bysshe's maternal uncle that he was himself an atheist, is not welcomed into the fold by Bysshe, who comments:

.... he is a disgrace to reason, and I am sorry that the cause [of atheism] has gained weakness by the accession of weakness. (SHCII, 785, BGSG p112)

At the time of the problems that occurred with his expulsion from Oxford University (see below), It is fairly clear that his mother tried to quieten the violence of his reaction to his father, and probably made the same efforts with regard to Timothy. Bysshe writes to Hogg:

I wrote you on Sunday ... Reason have you to say that I was violent... I was Mad! you know that very little sets my horrid spirits in motion; I drank a glass or two of wine at my Mothers instigation, then began raving ... She to quiet me gave me Pens Ink and Paper. I wrote to you. (SHC II, p810)

It appears also that Captain Pilfold, Bysshe's mother's brother, entered the fray as a mediator between Bysshe and his father. He writes of his father:

He looks rather blue today, but the Capt keeps him in tol(erable) order.

and after the receipt by his father of an anonymous letter accusing him and Bysshe's mother of getting drunk, and his mother of being more intimate with Edward Graham, a musician who had gained the patronage of the Shelley family, than with her husband, he observes:

We all laughed heartily and thought it a good opportunity of making up. But he is as inveterate as ever. (L I, 85)

The 'we' is probably Bysshe, his mother, Captain John Pilfold and Edward Graham. In the circumstances, it is difficult to see what his father could see as funny in the occurrence. Cameron speculates further that the letter was actually sent by Bysshe himself, basing his opinion on Bysshe's 'penchant for pseudonymous letter writing', an idea corroborated by Timothy Shelley's suspicion of letters received from his son, later writing to Whitton the solicitor about 'the perturbed state of P.B.'s mind' and stating that 'I will not open a letter from him, and be cautious how I open any in other handwriting for fear he should endeavour to deceive'. (Ingpen I, 347)

Bysshe's contempt for his father is further expressed in a poem enclosed in a letter to the same Edward Graham, relating the same events. His father is 'Killjoy'.

As you will see, I wrote to you
As is most fitting, right and due,
With Killjoy's frank; old Killjoy he
Is eaten up with jealousy,
His brows so dark, his ears so blue!
And all this fury is for you.
Yes, Graham, thine is sure the name
On Spanish fields so dear to fame
Which sickening Killjoy scarce can hear
Without a mingled pang of fear.

Killjoy's frank is the MP's stamp which grants free postage.
The Graham alluded to is Lt-Gen Thomas Graham, who was one of the British commanders during the Peninsula War.

...

A good man bears his heaven about him,
An idiot's pride won't move without him,
And pride may justly be called Hell
Since 'twas from Pride that Satan fell....

John Addington Symonds opines about Timothy:

In the capacity to understand a nature which deviated from the ordinary type so remarkably as Shelley's, he was utterly deficient; and perhaps we ought to regard it as his misfortune that fate made him the father of a man who was among the greatest portents of originality and unconventionality that this century has seen. Toward an ordinary English youth, ready to sow his wild oats at college, and willing to settle at the proper age and take his place upon the bench of magistrates, Sir Timothy Shelley would have shown himself an indulgent father; and it must be conceded by the poet's biographer that if Bysshe Bysshe had but displayed tact and consideration on his side, many of the misfortunes which signalized his relations with his father would have been avoided. (JASS, p12)

Summarising, Symonds writes:

Gifted with the untameable individuality of genius, and bent on piercing to the very truth beneath all the shams and fictions woven by society and ancient usage, he was driven by the circumstances of his birth and his surroundings into an exaggerated warfare with the world's opinions. His too frequent tirades against - The Queen of Slaves,/ The hood-winked Angel of the blind and dead,/ Custom, - owed much of their asperity to the early influences brought to bear upon him by relatives who prized their position in society, their wealth, and the observance of conventional decencies, above all other things. (JASS, p12)

In all, it would seem that by the age of nineteen, Shelley was set against his father with a passion, perhaps blaming him for the appalling childhood he had suffered in the schools to which he had been sent.

Early character

His sister younger Hellen records several incidents characteristic of Shelley during his boyhood. She recounts that her brother:

.. would frequently come to the nursery, and was full of a peculiar kind of pranks. One piece of mischief, for which he was rebuked, was running a stick through the ceiling of a low passage to find some new chamber, which could be made effective for some flights of his vivid imagination. The tales, to which we have sat and listened, eveing after evening, seated onhis knee, when we came to the dining-room for dessert, werre anticipated with that pleasing dread, which so excites the minds of children, and fastens so strongly and indelibly on the memory.(THLS, p 7)

She further recalls that he would entertain his sisters with stories about an old, grey-bearded alchemist who lived in the garret, and about a Great Tortoise that lived in Warnham Pond. He would also dress up his sisters as spirits and fiends, and lead processions carrying a flaming stove around the house.

Bysshe himself describes a boy in Rosalind and Helen, a description which Medwin thinks to apply to him quite aptly:

... He was a gentle boy
And in all gentle sports took joy;
Oft in a dry leaf for a boat,
With a small feather for a sail,
His fancy on that spring would float,
If some invisible breeze might stir
Its marble calm...

 

Early education
In 1798 (6) he was sent to study under the local vicar, Evan Edwards, 'a good man, but of very limited intellects, and whose preaching might have been edifying if his Welsh pronunciation had made it intelligible' (TMLS, p14), and in 1802 (10) he entered Sion House Academy in Isleworth, where he was remembered by his cousin Medwin as rather effeminate, but very animated:

This school though not a 'Dotheboys Hall' was conducted with the greatest regard to economy. A slice of bread with an idée of butter smeared on the surface, and 'thrice skimmed sky-blue' to use an expression of Bloomfield the poet, was miscalled a breakfast. The supper, a repetition of the same frugal repast; and the dinner, at which it was never allowed to send up the plate twice without its eliciting an observation from the distributor, that effectually prevented a repetition of the offence, was made up generally of ingredients that were anonymous. The Saturday's meal, a sort of pie, a collect from the plates during the week. This fare, to a boy accustomed to the delicacies of the table, was not the most attractive; the whole establishment was in keeping with the dietary part of it, and the system of lavations truly Scotch. (TMLS, p15)

The hapless Shelley was thus abandoned by his parents to a school-hell:

Exchanging for the caresses of his sisters an association with boys, mostly the sons of London shopkeepers, of rude habits and coarse manners, who made game of his girlishness, and despised him because he was not 'one of them'; not disposed to enter into their sports, to wrangle, or fiight; confined between four stone walls, in a playground of very limited dimensions - a few hundred yards .... the sufferings he underwent at his first outset in this little world were most acute... Sion House was indeed a perfect hell to him... Poor Shelley! He was always the martyr. (TMLS, p15)

Day after day, week after week -
I walked about like a corpse alive -
Alas! sweet friend! you must believe
This heart is stone - it did not break.

from Rosalind and Helen

Medwin, who has suffered much under the examination of later biographers for his inaccuracies, observes with a broadness of vision which his critics consistently lack:

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. I very early learned to penetrate into this soul sublime - why may I not say divine, for what is there that comes nearer to God than genius in the heart of a child? (TMLS, p23)

He continues:

..we used to walk together up and down his favourite spot, and there he would outpour his sorrows to me, with observations far beyond his years, and which, according to his after ideas, seemed to have sprung from an antenatal life.

Bysshe devoured books, at first 'blue' books (so called on account of their blue cover), published by the Minerva Press, which could be 'bought for sixpence and comprised stories of haunted castles, bandits, murderers, and other grim personages - a most exciting and interesting food for boys' minds'. But this stock of books was soon exhausted, and he and his cousin surreptitiously resorted to a 'low circulating' library in the nearby town of Brentford where they found novels by Richardson, Fielding and Smollett, which, however, proved to be too 'realistic' for Bysshe's taste. He found Anne Radclyffe's gothic novels more congenial, and was enraptured by Zofloya, or the Moor by Rosa Matilda (Charlotte Dacre), which work inspired his own novels Zastrozzi (1810) and The Rosicrucian (1811).

Engraved illustration for Zastrozzi, Cecil Keeling
Engraved illustration for Zastrozzi, Cecil Keeling

Bysshe himself writes in 1816:

While yet a boy, I sought for ghosts, and sped
Thro' many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I called on poisonous names with which our youth is fed:
I was not heard, I saw them not...

from Hymn to Beauty

It was also at Sion House that he first developed an interest in astrology and science, becoming fascinated by the solar microscope, presented at the school by Adam Walker, who had published, among other things, A System of Familiar Philosophy in Twelve Lectures, containing the elements and the practical uses to be drawn from the chemical properties of matter: the principles and application of mechanics; of hydrostatics; of hydraulics; of pneumatics; of magnetism; of electricity; of optics; and of astronomy, including every material modern discovery and improvement to the present time.

Eton

Entering Eton in 1804 (12), he was subjected to bullying and victimisation by his fellow pupils, to which treatment he would respond by becoming enraged.

His friend, Thomas Hogg following Mary Shelley, writes:

On being placed at Eton, Shelley had to undergo aggravated miseries from his systematic and determined resistance to that law of a public school, denominated fagging. It were long to discuss the merits of the question now. To show how the most obedient fags become the worst tyrants; or how it is detrimental to the disposition, both of the elder and the younger boys: of the one, that they should capriciously command; of the other, that they should slavishly and fearfully obey. Shelley would never obey. (THLS, p 27)

He also observes:

His heart was set on the acquirement of knowledge, and his time was spent in that exercise. At the very time that he neglected the rules of school-attendance, he translated half of Pliny's Natural History into English. His money was employed, either in purposes of benevolence, or in the purchase of books, or instruments.

There were also certain things to be enjoyed. Mary Shelley relates:

He became intimate, also, at Eton, with a man whom he never mentioned except in terms of the tenderest respect. This was Dr Lind, a name well known among the professors of medical science. 'This man,' he has often said, 'is exactly what an old man ought to be. Free, calm-spirited, full of benevolence, and even of youthful ardour; his eye seemed to burn with supernatural spirit beneath his brow, shaded by his venerable white locks.... I owe to that man far, ah! far more than I owe to my father; he loved me, and I shall never forget our long talks, where he breathed the spirit of the kindest tolerance and the purest wisdom.

She also relates that Bysshe told her the following story:

Once, when I was very ill during the holidays, as I was recovering from a fever which had attacked my brain, a servant overheard my father consult about sending me to a private madhouse. I was a favourite among all our servants, so this fellow came and told me as I lay sick in bed. My horror was beyond words, and I might soon have been mad indeed, if they had proceeded in their iniquitous plan. I had one hope. I was master of three pounds in money, and, with the servant's help, I contrived to send an express to Dr. Lind. He came, and I shall never forget his manner on that occasion. His profession gave him authority; his love for me ardour. He dared my father to execute his purpose, and his menaces had the desired effect.

Oxford

Hogg gives a lively account of his meeting Shelley at Oxford, where they became best friends. He relates that, on first acquaintance he listened enthralled to Shelley discoursing first on chemistry and then on metaphysics.

'Ay, metaphysics,' he said, in a solemn tone, and with a mysterious air, 'that is a noble study indeed! If it were possible to make any discoveries there, they would be more valuable than any thing the chemists have done, or could do; they would disclose the analysis of mind, and not of mere matter!' Then rising from his chair, he paced slowly about the room, with prodigious strides, and discoursed of souls with still greater animation and vehemence than he had displayed in treating of gases - of a future state - and especially of a former state - of pre-existence, obscured for a time through the suspension of consciousness - of personal identity, and also of ethical philosophy, in a deep and earnest tone of elevated morality, until he suddenly remarked that the fire was nearly out, and the candles were glimmering in their sockets, when he hastily apologised for remaining so long.

Hogg comments on the state of disorder in Shelley's rooms:

Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical instruments, clothes, pistols, linen, crockery, ammunition, and phials innumerable, with money, stockings, prints, crucibles, bags, and boxes, were scattered on the floor and in every place; as if the young chemist, in order to analyse the mystery of creation, had endeavoured first to re-construct the primeval chaos. The tables, and especially the carpet, were already stained with large spots of various hues, which frequently proclaimed the agency of fire. An electrical machine, an air-pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope, and large glass jars and receivers, were conspicious amidst the mass of matter.

He continues:

He spoke frequently of poetry, and that there was the same animation, the same glowing zeal, which had characterised his former discourses, and was so opposite to the listless languor, the monstrous indifference, if not the absolute antipathy, to learning, that so strangely darkened the collegiate atmosphere.

And further:

His passionate fondness for the Platonic philosophy seemed to sharpen his natural affection for children, and his sympathy with their innocence. Every true Platonist, he used to say, must be a lover of children, for they are our masters and instructors in philosophy: the mind of a new-born infant, so far from being, as Locke affirms, a sheet of blank paper, is a pocket edition, containing every dialogue, a complete Elzevir Plato, if we can fancy such a pleasant volume; and, moreover, a perfect encyclopedia, comprehending not only the newest discoveries, but all those still more valuable and wonderful inventions that will hereafter be made! (THLS, p 238-9)

and again:

One Sunday we had been reading Plato together so diligently, that the usual hour of exercise passed away unperceived. we sallied forth hastily to take the air for half an hour before dinner. In the middle of Magdelen Bridge we met a woman with a child in her arms. Shelley was more attentive at that instant to our conduct in a life that was past, or to come, than to a decorous regulation of the present, according to the established usages of society, in that fleeting moment of eternal duration, styled the nineteenth century. With abrupt dexterity he caught hold of the child. The mother, who might well fear that it was about to be thrown over the parapet of the bridge into the sedgy waters below held it fast by its long train.

'Will your baby tell us anything about pre-existence, Madam?' he asked in a piercing voice, and with a wistful look. (THLS, 239)

Hogg goes on to marvel at Shelley's reverence for books:

The irreverant many cannot comprehend the awe - the careless apathetic worldling cannot imagine the enthusiasm - nor can the tongue that attempts only to speak of things visible to the bodily eye, express the mighty emotion that inwardly agitated him, when he approached, for the first time, a volume which he believed to be replete with the recondite and mystic philosophy of antiquity: his cheeks glowed, his eyes became bright, his whole frame trembled, and his entire attention was immediately swallowed up in the depths of contemplation.

Concerning the University of Oxford, Hogg comments:

Certain compositions were required at stated periods; but, however excellent they might be, they were never commended, - however deficient, they were never censured; and, being altogether unnoticed, there was no reason to suppose that they were ever read. (THLS, 259)

Shelley was at this time also occupying himself with writing poetry, which he showed to Hogg for criticism. Hogg duly obliged, telling him that they could only be published as 'burlesque poetry'. It took some time for Shelley to accept his friend's critique, but when he did, they set about reshaping the works in a semi-humorous fashion, '

... making them more and more ridiculous; by striking out the more sober passages; by inventing whimsical conceits; and especially by giving them what we called a dithyrambic character, which was effected by cutting some lines in two, and joining the different parts together that would agree in construction, but were the most discordant in sense.

Hogg continues:

When we had conferred a competent absurdity upon the proofs, we amused ourselves by proposing, but without the intention of executing our project, divers ludicrous titles for the work.... I hit upon a title at last, to which the pre-eminence was given, and we inscribed it upon the cover. A mad washerwoman, named Peg Nicholson, had attempted to stab the King, George the Third, with a carving knife; the story has long been forgotten, but it was then fresh in the recollection of every one; it was proposed that we should ascribe the poems to her.

 The bookseller called. Shelley told him that he had changed his mind about publication, but showed the man the proofs nevertheless.

The man was so much pleased with the whimsical conceit, that he asked to be permitted to publish the book on his own account...

They were published as Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson; being poems found amongst the papers of that noted female who attempted the life of the King in 1786, edited by John FizVictor, supposedly her nephew. The poems were generally anti-war and anti-monarchy political diatribes mixed with laments for unsuccessful love affairs, and the book soon sold out its edition of 250 copies at two shillings and sixpence each. Hogg points out the absurdity of the anti-war message being promulgated by a person who proposes to eliminate her opponents with a knife.

The next publication from the Shelley / Hogg co-operative was a short pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. In it, the two philosophers argue that it is of the greatest importance to investigate the basis for our belief in God, and that in order to do this we must first investigate the nature of belief. They go on to assert that belief is 'passive', not 'active', not 'an act of volition' and can be neither 'criminal' nor meritorious, that the strength of belief is proportionate to the 'degree of excitement', and that the degrees of excitement are three.

In fact, they list the three sources of belief: the senses, 'the decision of our own mind founded on our own experience', and the experience of others.

They argue that it therefore follows that anybody to whom the Deity has actually appeared has the strongest proof of His existence. The claims of Reason, on the other hand, are based on the argument that 'whatever is, must either have had a beginning or existed from all eternity', and since it is easier to suppose that the 'Universe has existed from all eternity, than to conceive a being capable of creating it', Reason does not support the idea of the existence of a Deity. The Testimony of others is also no firm basis for belief, since Reason tells us that it is more likely that the persons testifying have been deceived than that they have actually seen the Deity. These people furthermore imply that the Deity is 'irrational, for he commanded that he should be believed' and 'we can only command voluntary actions', and 'belief is not an act of volition'.

They conclude:

From this it is evident that having no proofs from any of the three sources of convictions: the mind cannot believe the existence of a God, it is also evident that as belief is a passion of the mind, no degree of criminality can be attached to disbelief...

It is almost unnecessary to observe, that the general knowledge of the deficiency of such proof cannot be prejudicial to society: Truth has always been found to promote the best interests of mankind. -- Every reflecting mind must allow that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity. Q.E.D.

Burlesque philosophy indeed. But the subject of the existence of God was not something to be freely debated in Oxford at that time. The provocation was compounded by the fact that Shelley had sent the pamphlet to all the Heads of college. He was summoned to appear before the college authorities, and, on refusing to deny authorship, summarily expelled from college, as was Hogg. Q.E.D. indeed.

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