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These pages are dedicated to the poet's namesake, my step-daughter, Shelley, in the hope they may afford her consolation and enlightenment.

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The Spiritual Atheist

Percy Bysshe Shelley
by Alfred Clint

Based on the biography by John Addington Symonds and on Notes to the Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Mary Shelley

      HAIL to thee, blithe spirit!	 
        Bird thou never wert -	 
      That from heaven or near it	 
        Pourest thy full heart	 
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.	         
      Higher still and higher	 
        From the earth thou springest,	 
      Like a cloud of fire;	 
        The blue deep thou wingest,	 
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.	  

The lines in red are quotes from his widow, Mary Shelley;
those in blue from John Addington Symmonds.



Eton College from the river by Leigh Sampson, 1891

In 1805 Shelley went from Sion House to Eton. At this time Dr. Keate was headmaster and Shelley's tutor was a Mr. Bethel, "one of the dullest men in the establishment." Shelley was not popular either with his teachers or his elder school-fellows, although the boys of his own age are said to have adored him. Mrs. Shelley writes:

He was all passion, passionate in his resistance to an injury, passionate in his love:

This vehemence of temperament he displayed by organizing a rebellion against fagging, which no doubt won for him the applause of his juniors and equals. It was not to be expected that a lad intolerant of rule and disregardful of restriction, who neglected punctuality in the performance of his exercises, while he spent his leisure in translating half of Pliny's history, should win the approbation of pedagogues.

Dr John Keate
Dr John Keate
Headmaster of Eton
"He used birching to restore
order and strengthen the
authority of the masters."

At the same time the inspired opponent of the fagging system, the scorner of games and muscular amusements, could not hope to find much favour with such martinets of juvenile convention as a public school is wont to breed. At Eton, as elsewhere, Shelley's uncompromising spirit brought him into inconvenient contact with a world of vulgar usage, while his lively fancy invested the commonplaces of reality with dark hues borrowed from his own imagination.

Tamed by affection, but unconquered by blows, what chance was there that Shelley should be happy at a public school?

There is no doubt that a nature like his, at once loving and high-spirited, had much to suffer. However we may also trace at this early epoch of his life that untamed intellectual ambition - that neglect of the immediate and detailed for the transcendental and universal - which was a marked characteristic of his genius, leading him to fly at the highest while he overleaped the facts of ordinary human life.

From his earliest years, all his amusements and occupations were of a daring nature. He delighted to exert his powers, not as a boy, but as a man; and so with manly powers and childish wit, he dared and achieved attempts that none of his comrades could even have conceived. His understanding and the early development of imagination never permitted him to mingle in childish plays; and his natural aversion to tyranny prevented him from paying due attention to his school duties. But he was always actively employed; and although his endeavours were prosecuted with puerile precipitancy, yet his aim and thoughts were constantly directed to those great objects which have employed the thoughts of the greatest among men; and though his studies were not followed up according to school discipline, they were not the less diligently applied to.

Prometheus Unbound
Prometheus Unbound
by Rockwell Kent

This high-soaring ambition was the source both of his weakness and his strength in art, as well as in his commerce with the world of men. The boy who despised discipline and sought to extort her secrets from nature by magic, was destined to become the philanthropist, who dreamed of revolutionizing society by eloquence, and the poet who invented in Prometheus Unbound forms of grandeur too colossal to be animated with dramatic life.

A strong interest in experimental science had been already excited in him at Sion House by the exhibition of an orrery; and this interest grew into a passion at Eton. Experiments in chemistry and electricity, of the simpler and more striking kind, gave him intense pleasure - the more so perhaps because they were forbidden. On one occasion he set the trunk of an old tree on fire with a burning-glass: on another, while he was amusing himself with a blue flame, his tutor came into the room and received a severe shock from a highly-charged Leyden jar.

During the holidays Shelley carried on the same pursuits at Field Place.

His own hands and clothes were constantly stained and corroded with acids, and it only seemed too probable that some day the house would be burned down, or some serious mischief happen to himself or others from the explosion of combustibles.

Thomas Jefferson Hogg
Thomas Jefferson Hogg
later in life

This taste for science Shelley long retained. If we may trust Mr. Hogg's memory, the first conversation which that friend had with him at Oxford consisted almost wholly of an impassioned monologue from Shelley on the revolution to be wrought by science in all realms of thought. His imagination was fascinated by the boundless vistas opened to the student of chemistry. When he first discovered that the four elements were not final, it gave him the acutest pleasure: and this is highly characteristic of the genius which was always seeking to transcend and reach the life of life withdrawn from ordinary gaze. On the other hand he seems to have delighted in the toys of science, playing with a solar microscope, and mixing strangest compounds in his crucibles, without taking the trouble to study any of its branches systematically. In his later years he abandoned these pursuits. But a charming reminiscence of them occurs in that most delightful of his familiar poems, the Letter to Maria Gisborne.

Whoever should behold me now, I wist,
Would think I were a mighty mechanist,
Bent with sublime Archimedean art
To breathe a soul into the iron heart
Of some machine portentous, or strange gin,
Which by the force of figured spells might win
Its way over the sea, and sport therein;
For round the walls are hung dread engines, such
As Vulcan never wrought for Jove to clutch

While translating Pliny and dabbling in chemistry, Shelley was not wholly neglectful of Etonian studies. He acquired a fluent, if not a correct, knowledge of both Greek and Latin, and astonished his contemporaries by the facility with which he produced verses in the latter language. His powers of memory were extraordinary, and the rapidity with which he read a book, taking in seven or eight lines at a glance, and seizing the sense upon the hint of leading words, was no less astonishing. Impatient speed and indifference to minutiae were indeed among the cardinal qualities of his intellect. To them we may trace not only the swiftness of his imaginative flight, but also his frequent satisfaction with the somewhat less than perfect in artistic execution.

That Shelley was not wholly friendless or unhappy at Eton may be gathered from numerous small circumstances. Hogg says that his Oxford rooms were full of handsome leaving books, and that he was frequently visited by old Etonian acquaintances. We are also told that he spend the 40 pounds gained by his first novel, Zastrozzi, on a farewell supper to eight school-boy friends. A few lines, too, might be quoted from his own poem, the Boat on the Serchio, to prove that he did not entertain a merely disagreeable memory of his school life.

                     Those bottles of warm tea--
   (Give me some straw)--must be stowed tenderly;
   Such as we used, in summer after six,
   To cram in greatcoat pockets, and to mix
   Hard eggs and radishes and rolls at Eton,                  
   And, couched on stolen hay in those green harbours
   Farmers called gaps, and we schoolboys called arbours,
   Would feast till eight.

Yet the general experience of Eton must have been painful; and it is sad to read of this gentle and pure spirit being goaded by his coarser comrades into fury, or coaxed to curse his father and the king for their amusement.

The Ghost Dance
The Ghost Dance by Ralph Blakelock

It may be worth mentioning that he was called "the Atheist" at Eton; and though Hogg explains this by saying that "the Atheist" was an official character among the boys, selected from time to time for his defiance of authority, yet it is not improbable that Shelley's avowed opinions may even then have won for him a title which he proudly claimed in after-life. To allude to his boyish incantations and nocturnal commerce with fiends and phantoms would scarcely be needful, were it not that they seem to have deeply tinged his imagination. While describing the growth of his own genius in the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, he makes the following reference to circumstances which might otherwise be trivial:

   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 call'd on poisonous names with which our youth is fed,
   I was not heard, I saw them not -
   When, musing deeply on the lot
   Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
   All vital things that wake to bring
   News of birds and blossoming, -
   Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
   I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!
Dr James Lind
Dr James Lind

Among the Eton tutors was one whose name will always be revered by Shelley's worshippers; for he alone discerned the rare gifts of the strange and solitary boy, and Shelley loved him. Dr. Lind was an old man, a physician, and a student of chemistry. Shelley spent long hours at his house, conversing with him, and receiving such instruction in philosophy and science as the grey-haired scholar could impart. The affection which united them must have been of no common strength or quality; for when Shelley lay ill of a fever at Field Place, and had conceived the probably ill-founded notion that his father intended to place him in a mad-house, he managed to convey a message to his friend at Eton, on the receipt of which Dr. Lind travelled to Horsham, and by his sympathy and skill restored the sick boy's confidence.

It may incidentally be pointed out that this story, credited as true by Lady Shelley in her Memorials, shows how early an estrangement had begun between the poet and his father. We look, moreover, vainly for that mother's influence which might have been so beneficial to the boy in whom "love and life were twins, born at one birth."

From Dr. Lind Shelley not only received encouragement to pursue his chemical studies; but he also acquired the habit of corresponding with persons unknown to him, whose opinions he might be anxious to discover or dispute. This habit, as we shall see in the sequel, determined Shelley's fate on two important occasions of his life. In return for the help extended to him at Eton, Shelley conferred undying fame on Dr. Lind; the characters of Zonaras in Prince Athanase, and of the hermit in Laon and Cythna, are portraits painted by the poet of his boyhood's friend. As Mrs Shelley points out:

The character of the old man who liberates Laon from his tower prison, and tends on him in sickness, is founded on that of Doctor Lind, who, when Shelley was at Eton, had often stood by to befriend and support him, and whose name he never mentioned without love and veneration.

Harriet Grove
Harriet Grove

The months which elapsed between Eton and Oxford were an important period in Shelley's life. At this time a boyish liking for his cousin, Harriet Grove, ripened into real attachment; and though there was perhaps no formal engagement between them, the parents on both sides looked with approval on their love. What it concerns us to know about this early passion, is given in a letter from a brother of Miss Grove.

"Bysshe was at that time (just after leaving Eton) more attached to my sister Harriet than I can express, and I recollect well the moonlight walks we four had at Strode and also at St. Irving's; that, I think, was the name of the place, then the Duke of Norfolk's, at Horsham."

For some time after the date mentioned in this letter, Shelley and Miss Grove kept up an active correspondence; but the views he expressed on speculative subjects soon began to alarm her. She consulted her mother and her father, and the engagement was broken off. The final separation does not seem to have taken place until the date of Shelley's expulsion from Oxford; and not the least cruel of the pangs he had to suffer at that period, was the loss of one to whom he had given his whole heart unreservedly. The memory of Miss Grove long continued to haunt his imagination, nor is there much doubt that his first unhappy marriage was contracted while the wound remained unhealed. The name of Harriet Westbrook and something in her face reminded him of Harriet Grove; it is even still uncertain to which Harriet the dedication of Queen Mab is addressed:

Whose is the love that, gleaming through the world,
Wards off the poisonous arrow of its scorn?
      Whose is the warm and partial praise,
      Virtue's most sweet reward?

Beneath whose looks did my reviving soul
Riper in truth and virtuous daring grow?
      Whose eyes have I gazed fondly on,
      And loved mankind the more?

Harriet! on thine: - thou wert my purer mind;
Thou wert the inspiration of my song;
      Thine are these early wilding flowers,
      Though garlanded by me.

Then press into thy breast this pledge of love;
And know, though time may change and years may roll,
      Each floweret gathered in my heart
      It consecrates to thine.
Monk Lewis
Monk Lewis
Robert Southey
Robert Southey

In his childhood Shelley scribbled verses with fluency by no means unusual in the case of forward boys; and we have seen that at Sion House he greedily devoured the sentimental novels of the day. His favourite poets at the time of which I am now writing, were Monk Lewis and Southey; his favourite books in prose were romances by Mrs. Radcliffe and Godwin. He now began to yearn for fame and publicity. Miss Shelley speaks of a play written by her brother and her sister Elizabeth, which was sent to Matthews the comedian, and courteously returned as unfit for acting. She also mentions a little volume of her own verses, which the boy had printed with the tell-tale name of "H-ll-n Sh-ll-y" on the title-page. Medwin gives a long account of a poem on the story of the Wandering Jew, composed by him in concert with Shelley during the winter of 1809-1810. They sent the manuscript to Thomas Campbell, who returned it with the observation that it contained but two good lines: -

   It seemed as if an angel's sigh
   Had breathed the plaintive symphony.
Zofloya the Moor
Zofloya the Moor
15th Century romance
by Charlotte Dacre

Just before leaving Eton he finished a novel of Zastrozzi, which some critics trace to its source in Zofloya the Moor, perused by him at Sion House. The most astonishing fact about this incoherent medley of mad sentiment is that it served to furnish forth the 40-pound Eton supper already spoken of, that it was duly ushered into the world of letters by Messrs. Wilkie and Robinson on the 5th of June, 1810, and that it was seriously reviewed.

In the Michaelmas Term of 1810 Shelley was matriculated as a Commoner of University College, Oxford.

Mary shelley in her famous novel, Frankenstein, describes Oxford at that time:


The colleges are ancient and picturesque; the streets are almost magnificent; and the lovely Isis, which flows beside it through meadows of exquisite verdure, is spread forth into a placid expanse of waters, which reflects its majestic assemblage of towers, and spires, and domes, embosomed among aged trees.

Very soon after his arrival Shelley made the acquaintance of a man who was destined to play a prominent part in his subsequent history, and to bequeath to posterity the most brilliant, if not in all respects the most trustworthy, record of his marvellous youth. Thomas Jefferson Hogg was unlike Shelley in temperament and tastes. His feet were always planted on the earth, while Shelley flew aloft to heaven with singing robes around him, or the mantel of the prophet on his shoulders.

University College, Oxford
University College, Oxford

Hogg had much of the cynic in his nature; he was a shrewd man of the world, and a caustic humorist. Positive and practical, he chose the beaten path of life, rose to eminence as a lawyer, and cherished the Church and State opinions of a staunch Tory. Yet, though he differed so essentially from the divine poet, he understood the greatness of Shelley at a glance, and preserved for us a record of his friend's early days, which is incomparable for the vividness of its portraiture.

The pages which narrate Shelley's course of life at Oxford have all the charm of a romance. No novel indeed is half so delightful as that picture, at once affectionate and satirical, tender and humorous, extravagant and delicately shaded, of the student life enjoyed together for a few short months by the inseparable friends. Future biographers of Shelley will be content to lay their pens down for a season at this point, and let Hogg tell the tale in his own wayward but inimitable fashion.

At the commencement of Michaelmas term in the year 1810, I happened one day to sit next to a freshman at dinner; it was his first appearance in hall. His figure was slight, and his aspect remarkably youthful, even at our table, where all were very young. He seemed thoughtful and absent. He ate little, and had no acquaintance with any one.

The two young men began a conversation, which turned upon the respective merits of German and Italian poetry, a subject they neither of them knew anything about. After dinner it was continued in Hogg's rooms, where Shelley soon led the talk to his favourite topic of science.

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley
from an illustration bt A. S. Hartrick

As I felt, in truth, but a slight interest in the subject of his conversation, I had leisure to examine the appearance of my very extraordinary guest. It was a sum of many contradictions. His figure was slight and fragile, and yet his bones and joints were large and strong. He was tall, but he stooped so much, that he seemed of a low stature. His clothes were expensive, and made according to the most approved mode of the day; but they were tumbled, rumpled, unbrushed. His gestures were abrupt, and sometimes violent, occasionally even awkward, yet more frequently gentle and graceful. His complexion was delicate and almost feminine, of the purest red and white; yet he was tanned and freckled by exposure to the sun, having passed the autumn, as he said, in shooting. His features, his whole face, and particularly his head, were, in fact, unusually small; yet the last appeared of a remarkable bulk, for his hair was long and bushy, and in fits of absence, and in the agonies of anxious thought, he often rubbed it fiercely with his hands, or passed his fingers quickly through his locks unconsciously, so that it was singularly wild and rough.

In times when it was the mode to imitate stage-coachmen as closely as possible in costume, and when the hair was invariably cropped, like that of our soldiers, this eccentricity was very striking. His features were not symmetrical, yet was the effect of the whole extremely powerful. They breathed an animation, a fire, an enthusiasm, a vivid and preternatural intelligence, that I never met with in any other countenance.

Nor was the moral expression less beautiful than the intellectual; for there was a softness, a delicacy, a gentleness, and especially (though this will surprise many) that air of profound religious veneration, that characterizes the best works, and chiefly the frescoes of the great masters of Florence and of Rome. I recognized the very peculiar expression in these wonderful productions long afterwards, and with a satisfaction mingled with much sorrow, for it was after the decease of him in whose countenance I had first observed it.

One further detail Hogg pointedly insists upon. Shelley's voice

was excruciating; it was intolerably shrill, harsh and discordant.

University College
T. Malton's aquatint of the High Street
showing University College, Oxford, in 1802

At the same time its quality seems to have been less dissonant than thrilling; there is abundance of evidence to prove that he could modulate it exquisitely in the reading of poetry, and its tone proved no obstacle to the persuasive charms of his eloquence in conversation. Like all finely tempered natures, he vibrated in harmony with the subjects of his thought. Excitement made his utterance shrill and sharp. Deep feeling of the sense of beauty lowered its tone to richness; but the timbre was always acute, in sympathy with his intense temperament. All was of one piece in Shelley's nature. This peculiar voice, varying from moment to moment, and affecting different sensibilities in divers ways, corresponds to the high-strung passion of his life, his fine-drawn and ethereal fancies, and the clear vibrations of his palpitating verse. Such a voice, far-reaching, penetrating, and unearthly, befitted one who lived in rarest ether on the topmost heights of human thought.

Oxford Woodland
Woodland near Oxford

Shelley and Hogg from this time forward spent a large part of their days and nights together in common studies, walks and conversations. It was their habit to pass the morning, each in his own rooms, absorbed in private reading. At one o'clock they met and lunched, and then started for long rambles in the country. Shelley frequently carried pistols with him, and would stop to fix his father's franks upon convenient trees and shoot at them. The practice of pistol shooting, adopted so early in life, was afterwards one of his favourite amusements in the company of Byron. Hogg says that in his use of fire-arms he was extraordinarily careless.

How often have I lamented that Nature, which so rarely bestows upon the world a creature endowed with such marvellous talents, ungraciously rendered the gift less precious by implanting a fatal taste for perilous recreations, and a thoughtlessness in the pursuit of them, that often caused his existence from one day to another to seem in itself miraculous.

On their return from these excursions the two friends, neither of whom cared for dining in the College Hall, drank tea and supped together, Shelley's rooms being generally chosen as the scene of their symposia.

Shelley Memorial
Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford

These rooms are described as a perfect palace of confusion - chaos on chaos heaped of chemical apparatus, books, electrical machines, unfinished manuscripts, and furniture worn into holes by acids. It was perilous to use the poet's drinking-vessels, less perchance a seven-shilling piece half dissolved in aqua regia should lurk at the bottom of the bowl. Handsome razors were used to cut the lids of wooden boxes, and valuable books served to support lamps or crucibles; for in his vehement precipitation Shelley always laid violent hands on what he found convenient to the purpose of the moment. Here the friends talked and read until late in the night. Their chief studies at this time were in Locke and Hume and the French essayists.

The Meadows, Oxford
The Meadows, Oxford
by Richard Banks Harraden

Shelley's bias toward metaphysical speculation was beginning to assert itself. He read the School Logic with avidity, and practised himself without intermission in dialectical discussion. Hogg observes that in reasoning Shelley never lost sight of the essential bearings of the topic in dispute, never condescended to personal or captious arguments, and was Socratically bent on following the dialogue wherever it might lead, without regard for consequences.

Plato was another of their favourite authors. Although at the time Shelley had adopted the conclusions of materialism, he was at heart all through his life an idealist. Therefore the mixture of the poet and the sage in Plato fascinated him. The doctrine of anamnesis, which offers so strange a vista to speculative reverie, by its suggestion of an earlier existence in which our knowledge was acquired, took a strong hold upon his imagination; he would stop in the streets to gaze wistfully at babies, wondering whether their newly imprisoned souls were not replete with the wisdom stored up in a previous life. In the acquisition of knowledge he was then as ever unrelaxing.

Cheapside 1837

No student ever read more assiduously. He was to be found, book in hand, at all hours; reading in season and out of season; at table, in bed, and especially during a walk; not only in the quiet country, and in retired paths; not only at Oxford, in the public walks, and High Street, but in the most crowded thoroughfares of London. Nor was he less absorbed by the volume that was open before him, in Cheapside, in Cranbourne Alley, or in Bond Street, than in a lonely lane, or a secluded library. Sometimes a vulgar fellow would attempt to insult or annoy the eccentric student in passing. Shelley always avoided the malignant interruption by stepping aside with his vast and quiet agility.

With Shelley study was a passion, and the acquisition of knowledge was the entrance into a thrice-hallowed sanctuary.

The irreverent 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. The rapid and vigorous conversion of his soul to intellect can only be compared with the instantaneous ignition and combustion, which dazzle the sight, when a bundle of dry reeds, or other light inflammable substance, is thrown upon a fire already rich with accumulated heat.

As at Eton, so at Oxford, Shelley refused to keep the beaten track of prescribed studies, or to run in ordinary grooves of thought. For mathematics and jurisprudence he evinced a marked distaste.

The common business of the English Parliament had no attraction for him, and he read few newspapers. While his mind was keenly interested in great political questions, he could not endure the trivial treatment of them in the daily press. He used to speak with aversion of a Parliamentary career, and told Hogg that though this had been suggested to him, as befitting his position, by the Duke of Norfolk, he could never bring himself to mix with the rabble of the House. It is none the less true, however, that he entertained some vague notion of eventually succeeding to his father's seat.

Combined with his eager intellectual activity, there was something intermittent and fitful in the working of his mental faculties.

I was enabled to continue my studies in the evening, in consequence of a very remarkable peculiarity. My young and energetic friend was then overcome by extreme drowsiness, which speedily and completely vanquished him; he would sleep from two to four hours, occasionally upon the sofa, but more commonly stretched upon the rug before a large fire, like a cat; and his little round head was exposed to such a fierce heat, that I used to wonder how he was able to bear it. His torpor was generally profound, but he would sometimes discourse incoherently for a long while in his sleep. At six he would suddenly compose himself, even in the midst of a most animated narrative, or of earnest discussion; and he would lie buried in entire forgetfulness, in a sweet and mighty oblivion, until ten, when he would suddenly start up, and, rubbing his eyes with great violence, and passing his fingers swiftly through his long hair, would enter at once into a vehement argument, or begin to recite verses, either of his own composition or from the works of others, with a rapidity and an energy that were often quite painful.

At this time he had begun work on Queen Mab

   How wonderful is Death,
   Death, and his brother Sleep!
   One, pale as yonder waning moon
   With lips of lurid blue;
   The other, rosy as the morn
   When throned on ocean's wave
   It blushes o'er the world;
   Yet both so passing wonderful!

Shelley's moral qualities are described with no less enthusiasm than his intellectual and physical beauty. Love was the root and basis of his nature: this love, first developed as domestic affection, next as friendship, then as a youth's passion, now began to shine with steady lustre as an all-embracing devotion to his fellow-men.

Glowing philanthropy and boundless benevolence beamed forth in that extraordinary boy.
I have never found a parallel.

In no being was the perception of right and of wrong more acute.

As his love of intellectual pursuits was vehement, and the vigour of his genius almost celestial, so were the purity and sanctity of his life most conspicuous.

I never knew any one so prone to admire as he was, in whom the principle of veneration was so strong.

Shelley was offended at a coarse and awkward jest, especially if it were immodest, or uncleanly; in the latter case his anger was unbounded, and his uneasiness pre-eminent; he was, however, sometimes vehemently delighted by exquisite and delicate sallies, particularly with a fanciful, and perhaps somewhat fantastical facetiousness - possibly the more because he was himself utterly incapable of pleasantry.

I could never discern in him any more than two fixed principles. The first was a strong irrepressible love of liberty. The second was an equally ardent love of toleration of all opinions, but more especially of religious opinions; and he felt an intense abhorrence of persecution of every kind, public or private.

The testimony in the foregoing extracts is all the stronger, because it is given by a man not over-inclined to praise, and of a temperament as unlike the poet's as possible.

Hogg found him one day busily engaged in correcting proofs of some original poems. Shelley asked his friend what he thought of them, and Hogg answered that it might be possible by a little alteration to turn them into capital burlesques. The idea took the young poet's fancy; and the friends between them soon effected a metamorphosis in Shelley's serious verses, by which they became unmistakably ridiculous. Having achieved their purpose, they now bethought them of the proper means of publication.

George III
king George III

Upon whom should the poems, a medley of tyrannicide and revolutionary raving, be fathered? Peg Nicholson, a mad washerwoman, had recently attempted George the Third's life with a carving-knife. No more fitting author could be found. They would give their pamphlet to the world as her work, edited by an admiring nephew. The printer appreciated the joke no less than the authors of it. He provided splendid paper and magnificent type; and before long the book of nonsense was in the hands of Oxford readers. It sold for the high price of half-a-crown a copy; and, what is hardly credible, the gownsmen received it as a genuine production.

It was indeed a kind of fashion to be seen reading it in public, as a mark of nice discernment, of a delicate and fastidious taste in poetry, and the best criterion of a choice spirit.

Such was the genesis of Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson

Ambition, power, and avarice, new have hurl'd
Death, fate, and ruin, on ai bleeding world.
See! on yon heath what countless victims lie,
Hark! what loud shrieks ascend thro' yonder sky;
Tell then the cause, 'tis sure the avenger's rage
Has swept these myriads from lif'e's crowded stage:
Hark to  that groan, an anguished hero dies,
He shudderrs  in death's latest agonies;
Yet does a fleeting hectic flush his cheek,
Yet does his parting breath essay to speak - 
David  Hume
David Hume
Empiricist Philosopher

Shelley's next publication, or quasi-publication, was neither so innocent in substance nor so pleasant in its consequences. His favourite authors were Locke, Hume, and the French materialists. With the impulsiveness peculiar to his nature, he adopted the negative conclusions of a shallow nominalistic philosophy. It was a fundamental point with him to regard all questions, however sifted and settled by the wise of former ages, as still open; and in his inordinate thirst for liberty, he rejoiced to be the Deicide of a pernicious theological delusion. In other words, he passed at Oxford by one leap from a state of indifferentism with regard to Christianity, into an attitude of vehement antagonism. With a view to securing answers to his missives, he printed a short abstract of Hume's and other arguments against the existence of a Deity, presented in a series of propositions, and signed with a mathematically important "Q.E.D."

This document he forwarded to his proposed antagonists, expressing his inability to answer its arguments, and politely requesting them to help him. When it so happened that any incautious correspondents acceded to this appeal, Shelley fell with merciless severity upon their feeble and commonplace reasoning. The little pamphlet of two pages was entitled "The Necessity of Atheism"; and its proposed publication, beyond the limits of private circulation already described, is proved by an advertisement (February 9, 1811) in the "Oxford University and City Herald". It was not, however, actually offered for sale.

A copy of this syllabus reached a Fellow of another college, who made the Master of the University acquainted with the fact. On the morning of March 25, 1811, Shelley was sent for to the Senior Common Room, and asked whether he acknowledged himself to be the author of the obnoxious pamphlet. On his refusal to answer this question, he was served with a formal sentence of expulsion duly drawn up and sealed.

The college authorities have been blamed for unfair dealing in this matter. It is urged that they ought to have proceeded by the legal method of calling witnesses; and that the sentence was not only out of all proportion to the offence, but that it ought not to have been executed till persuasion had been tried.

University College
University College
Oxford's oldest college

Their question was probably intended to give the culprit an occasion for apology, of which they foresaw he would not avail himself. It is true that Shelley was amenable to kindness, and that gentle and wise treatment from men, whom he respected might possibly have brought him to retract his syllabus. But it must be remembered that he despised the Oxford dons with all his heart; and they were probably aware of this. He was a dexterous, impassioned reasoner, whom they little cared to encounter in argument on such a topic.

During his short period of residence, moreover, he had not shown himself so tractable as to secure the good wishes of superiors, who prefer conformity to incommensurable genius. It is likely that they were not averse to getting rid of him as a man dangerous to the peace of their society; and now they had a good occasion. Nor was it to be expected that the champion and apostle of Atheism - and Shelley was certainly both, in spite of Hogg's attempts to tone down the purpose of his document - should be unmolested in his propaganda by the aspirants to fat livings and ecclesiastical dignities.

Real blame, however, attaches to these men: first, for their dulness to discern Shelley's amiable qualities; and, secondly, for the prejudgment of the case implied in the immediate delivery of their sentence. Both Hogg and Shelley accused them, besides, of a gross brutality, which was, to say the least, unseemly on so serious an occasion. At the beginning of this century the learning and the manners of Oxford dons were at a low ebb; and the Fellows of University College acted harshly but not altogether unjustly, ignorantly but after their own kind, in this matter of Shelley's expulsion.

Hogg, who stood by his friend manfully at this crisis, and dared the authorities to deal with him as they had dealt with Shelley, adding that they had just as much real proof to act upon in his case, and intimating his intention of returning the same answer as to the authorship of the pamphlet, was likewise expelled. The two friends left Oxford together by coach on the morning of the 26th of March.

Oak door
Oak door at University College

Shelley felt his expulsion acutely. At Oxford he had enjoyed the opportunities of private reading which the University afforded in those days of sleepy studies and innocuous examinations. He delighted in the security of his "oak," and above all things he found pleasure in the society of his one chosen friend. He was now obliged to exchange these good things for the tumult and discomfort of London. His father, after clumsily attempting compromises, had forbidden his return to Field Place.

The whole fabric of his former life was broken up. The last hope of renewing his engagement with his cousin had to be abandoned. His pecuniary position was precarious, and in a short time he was destined to lose the one friend who had so generously shared his fate. Yet the notion of recovering his position as a student in one of our great Universities, of softening his father's indignation, or of ameliorating his present circumstances by the least concession, never seems to have occurred to him. He had suffered in the cause of truth and liberty, and he willingly accepted his martyrdom for conscience' sake.


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