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HOME > Religious Fiction > The Death of the Moth, and other essays > “Not One of Us” ** A review of SHELLEY; HIS LIFE AND WORK, by Walter Edwin Peck, October 1927
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“Not One of Us” ** A review of SHELLEY; HIS LIFE AND WORK, by Walter Edwin Peck, October 1927
“Not One of Us” ** A review of SHELLEY; HIS LIFE AND WORK, by Walter Edwin Peck, October 1927

Professor Peck does not apologize for writing a new life of Shelley, nor does he give any reason for doing what has been so thoroughly done already, nor are the new documents that have come into his hands of any great importance. And yet nobody is going to complain that here are two more thick, illustrated, careful and conscientious volumes devoted to the retelling of a story which everyone knows by heart. There are some stories which have to be retold by each generation, not that we have anything new to add to them, but because of some queer quality in them which makes them not only Shelley’s story but our own. Eminent and durable they stand on the skyline, a mark past which we sail, which moves as we move and yet remains the same.

Many such changes of orientation toward Shelley have been recorded. In his own lifetime all except five people looked upon him, Shelley said, “as a rare prodigy of crime and pollution, whose look even might infect.” Sixty years later he was canonized by Edward Dowden. By Matthew Arnold he was again reduced to the ordinary human scale. How many biographers and essayists have since absolved him or sentenced him, it is impossible to say. And now comes our turn to make up our minds what manner of man Shelley was; so that we read Professor Peck’s volumes, not to find out new facts, but to get Shelley more sharply outlined against the shifting image of ourselves.

If such is our purpose, never was there a biographer who gave his readers more opportunity to fulfil it than Professor Peck. He is singularly dispassionate, and yet not colourless. He has opinions, but he does not obtrude them. His attitude to Shelley is kind but not condescending. He does not rhapsodize, but at the same time he does not scold. There are only two points which he seems to plead with any personal partiality; one, that Harriet was a much wronged woman; the other, that the political importance of Shelley’s poetry is not rated sufficiently high. Perhaps we could spare the careful analysis of so many poems. We scarcely need to know how many times mountains and precipices are mentioned in the course of Shelley’s works. But as a chronicler of great learning and lucidity, Professor Peck is admirable. Here, he seems to say, is all that is actually known about Shelley’s life. In October he did this in November he did that; now it was that he wrote this poem it was here that he met that friend. And, moulding the enormous mass of the Shelley papers with dexterous fingers, he contrives tactfully to embed dates and facts in feelings, in comments, in what Shelley wrote, in what Mary wrote, in what other people wrote about them, so that we seem to be breasting the full current of Shelley’s life and get the illusion that we are, this time, seeing Shelley, not through the rosy glasses or the livid glasses which sentiment and prudery have fixed on our forerunners’ noses, but plainly, as he was. In this, of course, we are mistaken; glasses we wear, though we cannot see them. But the illusion of seeing Shelley plain is sufficiently exhilarating to tempt us to try to fix it while it lasts.

There is an image of Shelley’s personal appearance in everybody’s picture gallery. He was a lean, large-boned boy, much freckled, with big, rather prominent blue eyes. His dress was careless, of course, but it was distinguished; “he wore his clothes like a gentleman.” He was courteous and gentle in manner, but he spoke in a shrill, harsh voice and soon rose to the heights of excitement. Nobody could overlook the presence of this discordant character in the room, and his presence was strangely disturbing. It was not merely that he might do something extreme, he might, somehow, make whoever was there appear absurd. From the earliest days normal people had noticed his abnormality and had done their best, following some obscure instinct of self-preservation, to make Shelley either toe the line or else quit the society of the respectable. At Eton they called him “mad Shelley” and pelted him with muddy balls. At Oxford he spilt acid over his tutor’s carpet, “a new purchase, which he thus completely destroyed,” and for other and more serious differences of opinion he was expelled.

After that he became the champion of every down-trodden cause and person. Now it was an embankment; now a publisher; now the Irish nation; now three poor weavers condemned for treason; now a flock of neglected sheep. Spinsters of all sorts who were oppressed or aspiring found in him their leader. The first years of his youth thus were spent in dropping seditious pamphlets into old women’s hoods; in shooting scabby sheep to put them out of their misery; in raising money; in writing pamphlets; in rowing out to sea and dropping bottles into the water which when broken open by the Town Clerk of Barnstable were found to contain a seditious paper, “the contents of which the mayor has not yet been able to ascertain.” In all these wanderings and peregrinations he was accompanied by a woman, or perhaps by two women, who either had young children at the breast or were shortly expecting to become mothers. And one of them, it is said, could not contain her amusement when she saw the pamphlet dropped into the old woman’s hood, but burst out laughing.

The picture is familiar enough; the only thing that changes is our attitude toward it. Shelley, excitable, uncompromising, atheistical, throwing his pamphlets into the sea in the belief that he is going to reform the world, has become a figure which is half heroic and wholly delightful. On the other hand, the world that Shelley fought has become ridiculous. Somehow the untidy, shrill-voiced boy, with his violence and his oddity has succeeded in making Eton and Oxford, the English government, the Town Clerk and Mayor of Barnstable, the country gentlemen of Sussex and innumerable obscure people whom we might call generically, after Mary’s censorious friends, the Booths and the Baxters — Shelley has succeeded in making all these look absurd.

But, unfortunately, though one may make bodies and institutions look absurd, it is extremely difficult to make private men and women look anything so simple. Human relationships are too complex; human nature is too subtle. Thus contact with Shelley turned Harriet Westbrook, who should have been the happy mother of a commonplace family, into a muddled and bewildered woman, who wanted both to reform the world and yet to possess a coach and bonnets, and was finally drawn from the Serpentine on a winter’s morning, drowned in her despair. And Mary and Miss Hitchener, and Godwin and Claire, and Hogg and Emilia Viviani, and Sophia Stacey and Jane Williams — there is nothing tragic about them, perhaps; there is, indeed, much that is ridiculous. Still, their association with Shelley does not lead to any clear and triumphant conclusion. Was he right? Were they right? The whole relationship is muddy and obscure; it baffles; it teases.

One is reminded of the private life of another man whose power of conviction was even greater than Shelley’s, and more destructive of normal human happiness. One remembers Tolstoy and his wife. The alliance of the intense belief of genius with the easy-going non-belief or compromise of ordinary humanity must, it seems, lead to disaster and to disaster of a lingering and petty kind in which the worst side of both natures is revealed. But while Tolstoy might have wrought out his philosophy alone or in a monastery, Shelley was driven by something yielding and enthusiastic in his temperament to entangle himself with men and women. “I think one is always in ............
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