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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

Dedication to Mary Shelley
    So now my summer-task is ended, Mary,
And I return to thee, mine own heart's home;
As to his Queen some victor Knight of Faery,
Earning bright spoils for her enchanted dome;
Nor thou disdain, that ere my fame become                            
A star among the stars of mortal night,
If it indeed may cleave its natal gloom,
Its doubtful promise thus I would unite
With thy beloved name, thou Child of love and light.


Amid the torturing distractions of the Chancery suit about his children, and the still more poignant anguish of his own heart, and with the cloud of what he thought swift-coming death above his head, Shelley worked steadily, during the summer of 1817, upon his poem of Laon and Cythna. Six months were spent in this task. To borrow Mrs. Shelley's words:

Draft of Laon and Cythna
Draft of Laon and Cythna

He chose for his hero a youth nourished in dreams of liberty, whose actions are in direct opposition to the opinions of the world; but who is animated by an ardent love of virtue, and a resolution to confer political and intellectual freedom on his fellow-creatures. He created for this youth a woman such as he delighted to imagine - full of enthusiasm for the same objects; and they both, with will unvanquished, and the deepest sense of the justice of their cause, met adversity and death. There exists in this poem a memorial of a friend of his youth. 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.

Great Marlow 1794 by Joseph Farington

During the year 1817 we were established at Marlow in Buckinghamshire. Shelley's choice of abode was fixed chiefly by this town being at no great distance from London, and its neighbourhood to the Thames. The poem was written in his boat, as it floated under the beech groves of Bisham, or during wanderings in the neighbouring country, which is distinguished for peculiar beauty. The chalk hills break into cliffs that overhang the Thames, or form valleys clothed with beech; the wilder portion of the country is rendered beautiful by exuberant vegetation; and the cultivated part is peculiarly fertile.

Another view of Marlow 1794 by Joseph Farington

With all this wealth of Nature which, either in the form of gentlemen's parks or soil dedicated to agriculture, flourishes around, Marlow was inhabited (I hope it is altered now) by a very poor population. The women are lacemakers, and lose their health by sedentary labour, for which they were very ill paid. The Poor-laws ground to the dust not only the paupers, but those who had risen just above that state, and were obliged to pay poor-rates. The changes produced by peace following a long war, and a bad harvest, brought with them the most heart-rending evils to the poor. Shelley afforded what alleviation he could. In the winter, while bringing out his poem, he had a severe attack of ophthalmia, caught while visiting the poor cottages. I mention these things,--for this minute and active sympathy with his fellow-creatures gives a thousandfold interest to his speculations, and stamps with reality his pleadings for the human race.

Eugenean Hills
The Eugenean Hills

Whenever Shelley could, he composed in the open air. The terraces of the Villa Cappuccini at Este and the Baths of Caracalla were the birthplace of Prometheus. The Cenci was written on the roof of the Villa Valsovano at Leghorn. The Cascine of Florence, the pine-woods near Pisa, the lawns above San Guiliano, and the summits of the Euganean Hills, witnessed the creation of his loveliest lyrics; and his last great poem, the Triumph of Life, was transferred to paper in his boat upon the Bay of Spezia.

Gulf of Spezia 1884 by Henry Roderick Newman

If Alastor had expressed one side of Shelley's nature, his devotion to Ideal Beauty, Laon and Cythna was in a far profounder sense representative of its author. All his previous experiences and all his aspirations - his passionate belief in friendship, his principle of the equality of women with men, his demand for bloodless revolution, his confidence in eloquence and reason to move nations, his doctrine of free love, his vegetarianism, his hatred of religious intolerance and tyranny - are blent together and concentrated in the glowing cantos of this wonderful romance.

The hero, Laon, is himself idealized, the self which he imagined when he undertook his Irish campaign. The heroine, Cythna, is the helpmate he had always dreamed, the woman exquisitely feminine, yet capable of being fired with male enthusiasms, and of grappling the real problems of our nature with a man's firm grasp.

Zeus and Hera
Zeus and Hera on Mount Ida by Andreas Lens
Greek Gods who committed incest

In the first edition of the poem he made Laon and Cythna brother and sister, not because he believed in the desirability of incest, but because he wished to throw a glove down to society, and to attack the intolerance of custom in its stronghold. In the preface, he tells us that it was his purpose to kindle in the bosoms of his readers "a virtuous enthusiasm for those doctrines of liberty and justice, that faith and hope in something good, which neither violence nor misrepresentation, nor prejudice, can ever wholly extinguish among mankind;" to illustrate "the growth and progress of individual mind aspiring after excellence, and devoted to the love of mankind;" and to celebrate Love "as the sole law which should govern the moral world."

The wild romantic treatment of this didactic motive makes the poem highly characteristic of its author. It is written in Spenserian stanzas, with a rapidity of movement and a dazzling brilliance that are Shelley's own. The story relates the kindling of a nation to freedom at the cry of a young poet-prophet, the temporary triumph of the good cause, the final victory of despotic force, and the martyrdom of the hero, together with whom the heroine falls a willing victim. It is full of thrilling incidents and lovely pictures; yet the tale is the least part of the poem; and few readers have probably been able either to sympathize with its visionary characters, or to follow the narrative without weariness. As in the case of other poems by Shelley - especially those in which he attempted to tell a story, for which kind of art his genius was not well suited - the central motive of Laon and Cythna is surrounded by so radiant a photosphere of imagery and eloquence that it is difficult to fix our gaze upon it, blinded as we are by the excess of splendour. Yet no one now can read the terrible tenth canto,

     'Tis said, a mother dragged three children then,
     To those fierce flames which roast the eyes in the head,
     And laughed, and died; and that unholy men,

     Feasting like fiends upon the infidel dead,
     Looked from their meal, and saw an Angel tread
     The visible floor of Heaven, and it was she!
     And, on that night, one without doubt or dread
     Came to the fire, and said, 'Stop, I am he!
     Kill me!' -

     They burned them both with hellish mockery.

or the lovely fifth,

     She stood beside him like a rainbow braided
     Within some storm, when scarce its shadows vast
     From the blue paths of the swift sun have faded;

     A sweet and solemn smile, like Cythna's, cast
     One moment's light, which made my heart beat fast,
     O'er that child's parted lips - a gleam of bliss,
     A shade of vanished days, - as the tears passed
     Which wrapped it, even as with a father's kiss

     I pressed those softest eyes in trembling tenderness

without feeling that a young eagle of poetry had here tried the full strength of his pinions in their flight. This truth was by no means recognized when Laon and Cythna first appeared before the public. Hooted down, derided, stigmatized, and howled at, it only served to intensify the prejudice with which the author of Queen Mab had come to be regarded.

I have spoken of this poem under its first name of Laon and Cythna. A certain number of copies were issued with this title; but the publisher, Ollier, not without reason dreaded the effect the book would make; he therefore induced Shelley to alter the relationship between the hero and his bride, and issued the old sheets with certain cancelled pages under the title of Revolt of Islam. It was published in January, 1818.

Zeus and Hera
Lodge At Lake Como by Aagaard Carl Frederic
the setting for Rosalind and Helen

While still resident at Marlow, Shelley began an autobiographical poem, Rosalind and Helen, which he finished afterwards in Italy. Its chief interest consists in the character of Lionel, drawn less perhaps exactly from himself than as an ideal of the man he would have wished to be. The poet in Alastor, Laon in the Revolt of Islam, Lionel in Rosalind and Helen, and Prince Athanase, are in fact a remarkable row of self-portraits, varying in the tone and scale of idealistic treatment bestowed upon them. Later on in life, Shelley outgrew this preoccupation with his idealized self, and directed his genius to more objective themes. Yet the autobiographic tendency, as befitted a poet of the highest lyric type, remained to the end a powerful characteristic.

Before quitting the first period of Shelley's development, it may be well to set before the reader a specimen of that self-delineative poetry which characterized it. I have chosen the lines in Rosalind and Helen which describe young Lionel:

                              To Lionel,
     Though of great wealth and lineage high,
     Yet through those dungeon walls there came
     Thy thrilling light, O Liberty!
     And as the meteor's midnight flame
     Startles the dreamer, sun-like truth
     Flashed on his visionary youth,
     And filled him, not with love, but faith.
     And hope, and courage mute in death;
     For love and life in him were twins,
     Born at one birth: in every other
     First life, then love its course begins,
     Though they be children of one mother;
     And so through this dark world they fleet
     Divided, till in death they meet:
     But he loved all things ever. Then
     He past amid the strife of men,
     And stood at the throne of armed power
     Pleading for a world of woe:
     Secure as one on a rock-built tower
     O'er the wrecks which the surge trails to and fro,
     'Mid the passions wild of human kind
     He stood, like a spirit calming them;
     For, it was said, his words could find
     Like music the lulled crowd, and stem
     That torrent of unquiet dream,
     Which mortals truth and reason deem,
     But IS revenge and fear and pride.
     Joyous he was; and hope and peace
     On all who heard him did abide,
     Raining like dew from his sweet talk,
     As where the evening star may walk
     Along the brink of the gloomy seas,
     Liquid mists of splendour quiver.
     His very gestures touch'd to tears
     The unpersuaded tyrant, never
     So moved before: his presence stung
     The torturers with their victim's pain,
     And none knew how; and through their ears,
     The subtle witchcraft of his tongue
     Unlocked the hearts of those who keep
     Gold, the world's bond of slavery.
     Men wondered, and some sneer'd to see
     One sow what he could never reap:
     For he is rich, they said, and young,
     And might drink from the depths of luxury.
     If he seeks Fame, Fame never crown'd
     The champion of a trampled creed:
     If he seeks Power, Power is enthroned
     'Mid ancient rights and wrongs, to feed
     Which hungry wolves with praise and spoil,
     Those who would sit near Power must toil;
     And such, there sitting, all may see.
John Keats
John Keats (oil on ivory)
by Joseph Severn

During the year he spent at Marlow, Shelley was a frequent visitor at Leigh Hunt's Hampstead house, Shelley was a frequent visitor at Leigh Hunt's Hampstead house, where he made acquaintance with Keats, and the brothers Smith, authors of "Rejected Addresses". Hunt's recollections supply some interesting details:

"He rose early in the morning, walked and read before breakfast, took that meal sparingly, wrote and studied the greater part of the morning, walked and read again, dined on vegetables (for he took neither meat nor wine), conversed with his friends (to whom his house was ever open) again walked out, and usually finished with reading to his wife till ten o'clock, when he went to bed. This was his daily existence. His book was generally Plato, or Homer, or one of the Greek tragedians, or the Bible, in which last he took a great, though peculiar, and often admiring interest. One of his favourite parts was the book of Job."

Mrs. Shelley, in her note on the Revolt of Islam confirms this account of his Bible studies; and indeed the influence of the Old Testament upon his style may be traced in several of his poems.

Leigh Hunt gives a just notion of his relation to Christianity, pointing out that he drew a distinction between the Pauline presentation of the Christian creeds, and the spirit of the Gospels.

"His want of faith in the letter, and his exceeding faith in the spirit of Christianity, formed a comment, the one on the other, very formidable to those who chose to forget what Scripture itself observes on that point."

We have only to read Shelley's Essay on Christianity, in order to perceive what reverent admiration he felt for Jesus, and how profoundly he understood the true character of his teaching. He distinguished between Christ, who sealed the gospel of charity with his blood, and those Christians, who would be the first to crucify their Lord if he returned to earth.

That Shelley lived up to his religious creed is amply proved. To help the needy and to relieve the sick, seemed to him a simple duty, which he cheerfully discharged. "His charity, though liberal, was not weak. He inquired personally into the circumstances of his petitioners, visited the sick in their beds,.... and kept a regular list of industrious poor, whom he assisted with small sums to make up their accounts."

leigh Hunt
Leigh Hunt

A story told by Leigh Hunt about his finding a woman ill on Hampstead Heath, and carrying her from door to door in the vain hopes of meeting with a man as charitable as himself, until he had to house the poor creature with his friends the Hunts, reads like a practical illustration of Christ's parable about the Good Samaritan. Nor was it merely to the so-called poor that Shelley showed his generosity. His purse was always open to his friends. Peacock received from him an annual allowance of 100 pounds. He gave Leigh Hunt, on one occasion, 1400 pounds; and he discharged debts of Godwin, amounting, it is said, to about 6000 pounds. These instances of his generosity might be easily multiplied; and when we remember that his present income was 1000 pounds, out of which 200 pounds went to the support of his children, it will be understood not only that he could not live luxuriously, but also that he was in frequent money difficulties through the necessity of raising funds upon his expectations.

His self-denial in all minor matters of expenditure was conspicuous. Without a murmur, without ostentation, this heir of the richest baronet in Sussex illustrated by his own conduct those principles of democratic simplicity and of fraternal charity which formed his political and social creed.

Belvedere Apollo
Belvedere Apollo
Venus de Medici
Venus de Medici

A glimpse into the cottage at Great Marlow is afforded by a careless sentence of Leigh Hunt's. "He used to sit in a study adorned with casts, as large as life, of the Vatican Apollo and the celestial Venus." Fancy Shelley with his bright eyes and elf-locks in a tiny, low-roofed room, correcting proofs of Laon and Cythna, between the Apollo of the Belvedere and Venus de' Medici, life-sized, and as crude as casts by Shout could make them! In this house, Miss Clairmont, with her brother and Allegra, lived as Shelley's guests; and here Clara Shelley was born on the 3rd of September, 1817.

In the same autumn, Shelley suffered from a severe pulmonary attack. The critical state of his health, and the apprehension, vouched for by Mrs. Shelley, that the Chancellor might lay his vulture's talons on the children of his second marriage, were the motives which induced him to leave England for Italy in the spring of 1818.

     The billows on the beach are leaping around it,
     The bark is weak and frail,
     The sea looks black, and the clouds that bound it
     Darkly strew the gale.
     Come with me, thou delightful child,
     Come with me, though the wave is wild, 
     And the winds are loose, we must not stay,
     Or the slaves of the law may rend thee away.

     They have taken thy brother and sister dear,
     They have made them unfit for thee; 
     They have withered the smile and dried the tear
     Which should have been sacred to me.
     To a blighting faith and a cause of crime
     They have bound them slaves in youthly prime,
     And they will curse my name and thee 
     Because we fearless are and free.

He never returned. Four years only of life were left to him - years filled with music that will sound as long as English lasts.


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