Review of George Barnett Smith’s Shelley: A Critical Biography

[Unsigned] Review of Shelley: a Critical Biography, by  George Barnett Smith. Athenaeum (17 November 1877): 621-22.

[NOTE: In addition to demonstrating her abiding interest in Shelley, as well as her acerbic wit, this dismissive review of Smith’s biography prompted the publisher of William Michael Rossetti’s 1870 edition of Shelley’s poetry to request that he undertake his own biography of the poet. Rossetti’s 27 November 1877 diary entry notes that a delegate from the publisher  called on him to recommend he undertake “a really adequate Life of Shelley,” having been motivated to do so by “the Athenaeum article about Barnett Smith’s Shelley book (Miss Blind’s), + to the eulogium therein of my memoir.” Rossetti did expand his 1870 memoir of Shelley when he brought out a revised edition of The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1878, which also grew from two to three volumes and incorporated corrections based on Blind’s 1870 Westminster Review essay on the earlier edition.]

EVIDENTLY Shelley is becoming popular; indeed he must be popular already, for a work like Mr. Barnett Smith’s to be published. Shelley’s audience no longer consists for the greater part of a sympathetic circle of students and lovers of poetry, but must have become far wider, or there would have been no demand for this new biography, and if no demand it may be surmised that Mr. Barnett Smith would have been in no hurry to supply the market. In a certain sense, therefore, we ought to be grateful to him for having aimed at popularizing a subject that for long was not only far removed from the sympathies of the British public, but generally regarded by it with suspicion and dislike. Whatever helps to familiarize this nation with one of the noblest, most ideal figures in its literary history, whatever helps to disperse the ignorant prejudice interposing between it and a glorious poet, ought to be cordially welcomed.

Mr. Barnett Smith might have rendered his work more serviceable, if, instead of expatiating in a general way on the incidents of Shelley’s life, he had told the story of that life itself. Those who are already familiar with all its details will hardly derive any fresh information, critical or otherwise, from Mr. Smith’s book; whereas those who only vaguely know a few general outlines of the poet’s life might have derived both instruction and amusement from a well-told biography. As it is, the work contains absolutely nothing new for those who know Shelley well, while from those who do not too much previous information is taken for granted.

In spite of the number of memorial volumes and editions of Shelley, of which, by the way, Mr. Barnett Smith complains, a completely satisfactory life of Shelley remains yet to be written. The reader who would survey the poet’s life as a whole, must piece his information together from a number of scattered materials. He will, in fact, to a certain degree, have to perform the labors of a biographer by trying to evolve from the mass of heterogeneous and often contradictory statements what may appear to him a true likeness of the author of ‘Prometheus Unbound’ and ‘Epipsychidion.’ In order to do this, he will have to make allowance for the different aspects of Shelley’s character seized upon by his various biographers.

Thus, for example, Mr. Hogg’s ‘Shelley’ differs to a certain degree from the Shelley of Mr. Peacock or the ‘Shelley Memorials.’ Mr. Hogg is a humorist, and all that was wild, extraordinary, and fanciful in Shelley’s character had for him so great a charm that its deeper aspects were apparently left unnoticed. Mr. Hogg has often been severely blamed by subsequent writers for defacing his valuable materials and invaluable personal knowledge by exaggerations and misstatements. But, with all its faults, where is there another work on the subject that takes so strong a hold of the imagination—that gives so vivid and vigorous a picture of the poet’s personality? Mr. Hogg had the advantage of being the intimate friend of Shelley at Oxford, and all that relates to the latter’s college life is inimitably told. Yet, whatever the reader’s enjoyment of the droll anecdotes and quaint humour which impart such a sparkle to Mr. Hogg’s narrative, it cannot be denied that he was wrong about one matter of essential importance—the style and manner in which it became him to write of such a man as Shelley.

‘Shelley’s Early Life,’ by Mr. D. F. MacCarthy, published in 1872, is another contribution towards the story of the poet’s youth. If Shelley’s college life is the chief point of interest in Mr.  Hogg’s work, that of Mr. MacCarthy’s centers in the poet’s expedition to Ireland, whither he went in the wild hope of furthering Catholic Emancipation and the repeal of the Union. Mr. MacCarthy, however, greatly overrates the importance of his work. For having, as he thinks, come upon the traces of a problematic poem of Shelley’s (the existence of which has never yet been proved), he compares the achievement to that of Adams and Le Verrier; but ill-natured critics might more reasonably discover an affinity to that other astronomer who boasted of having observed a monster moving across the sun, which, however, turned out to be only a fly caught in his telescope; still the astronomer’s fly was at least a tangible fact. Nevertheless, Mr. MacCarthy had done service in showing that Shelley’s agitation in Ireland was of a more practical character than the generality of his biographers are disposed to give him credit for. In so far it is valuable as a corrective to Mr. Hogg’s account of the Irish journey, an account too much resembling in some respects the exploits of Don Quixote to be a fair description of one who in his “Address to the Irish People” and “Declaration of Rights” evinces political sagacity.

Mr. W. M. Rossetti, in his article on Shelley in the Fortnightly Review of 1872, was the first, we believe, to reprint the long-forgotten “Declaration of Rights,” which in many of its axioms he considers resembles the two most famous of similar documents in the history of the French Revolution—the one adopted by the Constituent Assembly in August, 1789, and the other proposed in April, 1973, by Robespierre.

Mr. Barnett Smith is at his best in his remarks on Shelley as a politician. He vindicates the common sense and political judgment of the poet, and ends by summing up his view of that side of Shelley’s character in the following words:—

Speaking generally, of course it may be said that Shelley’s political views were such as had been formulated in the systems of Paine and Godwin; but Shelley was Paine and Godwin with a large heart added; and certainly, while he was strengthened by their countenance, his own political conceptions were self-derived and a necessity, partly by reason of his mental constitution and partly as the result of his personal experience. Shelley’s politics grew with his growth; he had an innate sense of political justice, and a burning desire for equality; and those would do his spirit wrong could imagine that any circumstances of possible worldly success, or the dazzling possession of rank, could ever have caused him to apostatize from the simplicity of his political faith.

Mr. Smith fails to throw any new light on the domestic relations of Shelley. He touches but slightly on the latter’s marriage to Harriet Westbrook in 1811, his abrupt way of leaving her in July, 1814, and departure for the continent with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Our chief sources of information on these points are the facts as related by Peacock in Fraser’s Magazine of June, 1858, and January, 1860, and Lady Shelley’s account of the same in the ‘Shelley Memorials.’ Both writers had exceptional opportunities of knowing and judging of these painful passages in Shelley’s life, Mr. Peacock being on terms of the closest intimacy with Shelley just about the time of, and after, his rupture with his first wife, whereas Lady Shelley heard another version of the same events from the poet’s second wife herself. Each of these narratives is, no doubt, considerably colored by the personal bias of the writer.

Mr. Peacock, in spite of his Greek and his literary tastes, evidently failed from lack of sympathy to comprehend the inner workings of Shelley’s mind. Lady Shelley probably gives us a truer picture than Mr. Peacock of Shelley’s frame of mind before, and at the time of, his quitting Harriet. Certain letters in Mr. Hogg’s Life, written previous to Shelley’s acquaintance with Mary, seem to indicate that he was at the time a prey to intense mental anguish. If he exclaims somewhere that he will resign himself to his fate till his daughter Ianthe, become a woman, can be a companion to him, it surely points to the fact that there could have been but little congeniality between husband and wife. It is strange that Mr. Barnett Smith, professing as he does to write a critical biography, should not attempt at least to strike the balance between conflicting testimony extant on the subject. Had he done so he would have rendered signal assistance to any future biographer of Shelley. In his slight narrative of that period, he, on the whole, follows Lady Shelley’s version, and, admitting that Shelley experienced profound unhappiness in his ill-assorted first marriage, he thinks that he has been much maligned in this matter, although one cannot entirely exonerate the poet’s conduct from blame.

A story hitherto unpublished, and which comes to us on excellent authority, may perhaps serve to show that in one respect Shelley was less culpable than most people have hitherto been disposed to believe. Shelley has often been accused, and apparently not without cause, of having left Harriet destitute when he went abroad, and, indeed, of never having in any way taken thought, or properly provided, for her. It seems that when Shelley and Mary returned from their first visit to the [622] Continent in 1814, with means quite exhausted, they immediately went to their bank to draw out what might be there. But to their dismay, they found that the balance placed to their account had been already drawn. With dejected looks they came away, dolefully pondering whither they should next turn with their empty pockets. While walking in the direction of Hyde Park they suddenly encountered Harriet, and to her apparently they revealed the miserable plight they happened to be in. It was Harriet, it seems, who had just been to the bank and drawn all the ready money (little enough, no doubt) available at the time. She reproached Shelley and Mary for their conduct, but generally parted with the greater part of the money. There seems to be a substratum of fact in this anecdote, though probably dramatically embellished in some parts, and in that case it goes to prove that the term “noble animal,” which Shelley was in the habit of bestowing on Harriet, was not undeserved, and that Shelley, in giving Harriet full leave to draw on his bankers, had, at least as far as he could judge, provided for her.

Another anecdote relating to a later period of Shelley’s life may as well find its place here. All who have ever read ‘Epipsychidion’ must be familiar with the name of Emilia Viviani, the beautiful Italian lady who was immured by her father in the Convent of St. Anne at Pisa, where the Shelleys lived at the time, and whose hard fate inspired the poet with such burning indignation. With his usual ardor in the cause of the oppressed he at last bethought himself of a most singular scheme for liberating the unfortunate girl. Lady Mountcashel, a friend of the Godwins, who was residing at the time near the Shelleys, seems occasionally to have dressed herself as a man, and to have thoroughly looked the part. Now Shelley urged Lady Mountcashel to introduce herself into the convent in her masculine character, to woo and marry Emilia, and thus rescue her from the prison in which she was languishing.

The sad story of Emilia’s life is told at length in Medwin’s rambling and declamatory biography. Although Capt. Medwin enjoyed unusual opportunities of getting information at first hand as second cousin and schoolfellow of Shelley, yet he was without the necessary qualifications for his task, his memory being evidently defective, and his statements untrustworthy. Still the diligent student may glean sundry interesting traits of character from Medwin’s book. Mr. Middleton’s, on the other hand, is merely an inferior compilation, made up of other people’s materials.

Some valuable information as to Shelley’s character may be gathered from Leigh Hunt’s Autobiography, with which, if we mistake not, he incorporated certain articles he wrote on the subject in the Examiner. Leigh Hunt was better fitted than most of Shelley’s friends to give us a just and truthful portrait of the poet, and his sketch of the latter’s plain, self-denying, and noble daily routine adds considerably to our knowledge of, and respect for, Shelley’s every-day life.

Mr. Trelawny, in his ‘Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron,’ shows, on the whole, the most genuine appreciation of Shelley, both as a man and poet, of all those who wrote of him from personal knowledge. His graphic and vigorous description of the last days of Shelley’s life is simply invaluable, and while the idea it enables us to form agrees to some extent with the youthful outlines drawn by Mr. Hogg, it commends itself at once to the judgment as possessing what the other is lamentably deficient in—that conscientious adherence to facts and dignified tone which alone becomes the subject. We are glad to learn that Mr. Trelawny has been engaged in revising and enlarging his ‘Recollections,’ a new edition of which will shortly appear.

When it was said in the beginning of our article that there existed as yet no satisfactory biography of Shelley, an exception ought, perhaps, to have been made in favor of Mr. W. M. Rossetti’s substantial and conscientious Memoir. This Memoir, in which the writer, with the most scrupulous care, discusses every authenticated and doubtful detail of the poet’s life, investigating the statements of less careful biographers, and weighing the information supplied by preceding writers like evidence in a court of law, will remain a lasting record of the unremitting zeal and devotion of its author. In these respects as in the scope of its criticism, Mr. Rossetti’s Life is unrivalled. Nevertheless, it is not a biography, if by biography we mean the dramatically told story of a man’s life, in which the philosophical insight into the mainsprings of character and action shall be combined with the power of infusing the breath of life into its subject. Few, it is true, have succeeded in so arduous an undertaking, and nothing is rarer than a really first-rate biography, nothing more delightful either than such an achievement. Mr. Lewes’ ‘Life of Goethe,’ Mr. Carlyle’s ‘Life of Sterling,’ Mrs. Gaskell’s ‘Life of Charlotte Bronte’ are, perhaps, amongst the most eminently successful specimens of this class of literature.

Why should Shelley not be equally fortunate in a biographer? It is needless to say that he cannot be considered as such in the fact of Mr. Barnett Smith having undertaken the task. Nor can we admit that Mr. Smith has succeeded in the aim he professes to set himself in his opening remark, that

Biography will be an adjunct by whose aid we shall endeavor to get at the soul of the poet, and to unravel some of those tangled threads of character which puzzle most students of his nature, and which have even betrayed men of kindred gifts into unworthy aspersions upon his name.

The only way to get at the soul of Shelley is through his works. In no other poet, perhaps, is the interdependence between thought and action so close. His life helps us to interpret his poems, and his poems are the best commentary on his life.