A very lengthy biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley appeared recently, and the biographer thought it his duty to give the most minute and peculiar details concerning the poet’s private life. In consequence, the book is a deplorable one in many respects, and no plain-minded person can read it without feeling sorry that our sweet singer should be presented to us in the guise of a weak-minded hypocrite. One critic wrote a great many pages in which he bemoans the dreary and sordid family-life of the man who wrote the “Ode to the West Wind.” I can hardly help sympathizing with the critic, for indeed Shelley’s proceedings rather test the patience of ordinary mortals, who do not think that poetic–or rather artistic–ability licenses its possessor to behave like a scoundrel. Shelley wrote the most lovely verse in praise of purity; but he tempted a poor child to marry him, deserted her, insulted her, and finally left her to drown herself when brutal neglect and injury had driven her crazy. Poor Harriet Westbrook! She did not behave very discreetly after her precious husband left her; but she was young, and thrown on a hard world without any strength but her own to protect her. While she was drifting into misery the airy poet was talking sentiment and ventilating his theories of the universe to Mary Godwin. Harriet was too “shallow” for the rhymester, and the penalty she paid for her shallowness was to be deceived, enticed into a rash marriage, brutally insulted, and left to fare as well as she might in a world that is bitterly cruel to helpless girls. The maker of rhymes goes off gaily to the Continent to enjoy himself heartily and write bewitching poems; Harriet stays at home and lives as best she can on her pittance until the time comes for her despairing plunge into the Serpentine. It is true that the poet invited the poor creature to come and stay with him; but what a piece of unparalleled insolence toward a wronged lady! The admirers of the rhymer say, “Ah, but Harriet’s society was not congenial to the poet.” Congenial! How many brave men make their bargain in youth and stand to it gallantly unto the end? A simple soul of this sort thinks to himself, “Well, I find that my wife and I are not in sympathy; but perhaps I may be in fault. At any rate, she has trusted her life to me, and I must try to make her days as happy as possible.” It seems that supreme poets are to be exempt from all laws of manliness and honour, and a simple woman who cannot babble to them about their ideals and so forth is to be pitched aside like a soiled glove! Honest men who cannot jingle words are content with faith and honour and rectitude, but the poet is to be applauded if he behaves like a base fellow on finding that some unhappy loving creature cannot talk in his particular fashion. We may all be very low Philistines if we are not prepared to accept rhymers for chartered villains; but some of us still have a glimmering of belief in the old standards of nobility and constancy. Can any one fancy Walter Scott cheating a miserable little girl of sixteen into marriage, and then leaving her, only to many a female philosopher? How that noble soul would have spurned the maundering sentimentalist who talked of truth and beauty, and music and moonlight and feeling, and behaved as a mean and bad man! Scott is more to my fancy than is Shelley.
Again, this poet, this exquisite weaver of verbal harmonies, is represented to us by his worshippers as having a passion for truth; whereas it happens that he was one of the most remarkable fibbers that ever lived. He would come home with amazing tales about assassins who had waylaid him, and try to give himself importance by such blustering inventions. “Imagination!” says the enthusiast; but among commonplace persons another word is used. “Your lordship knows what kleptomania is?” said a counsel who was defending a thief. Justice Byles replied, “Oh, yes! I come here to cure it.” Some critical justice might say the same of Shelley’s imagination. We are also told that Shelley’s excessive nobility of nature prevented him from agreeing with his commonplace father; and truly the poet was a bad and an ungrateful son. But, if a pretty verse-maker is privileged to be an undutiful son, what becomes of all our old notions? I think once more of the great Sir Walter, and I remember his unquestioning obedience to his parents. Then we may also remember Gibbon, who was quite as able and useful a man as Shelley. The historian loved a young French lady, but his father refused consent to their marriage, and Gibbon quietly obeyed and accepted his hard fate. The passion sanctified his whole life, and, as he says, made him more dear to himself; he settled his colossal work, and remained unmarried for life. He may have been foolish: but I prefer his behaviour to that of a man who treats his father with contumely and ingratitude even while he is living upon him. We hear much of Shelley’s unselfishness, but it does not appear that he ever denied himself the indulgence of a whim. The “Ode to the West Wind,” the “Ode Written in Dejection near Naples,” and “The Skylark” are unsurpassed and unsurpassable; but I can hardly pardon a man for cruelty and turpitude merely because he produces a few masterpieces of art.