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Chapter I. Shelley and His Age
In the case of most great writers our interest in them as persons is derived from out
interest in them as writers; we are not very curious about them except for reasons that
have something to do with their art. With Shelley it is different. During his life he
aroused fears and hatreds, loves and adorations, that were quite irrelevant to literature;
and even now, when he has become a classic, he still causes excitement as a man. His
lovers are as vehement as ever. For them he is the "banner of freedom," which,
"Torn but flying,
Streams like a thunder-cloud against the wind."
He has suffered that worst indignity of canonisation as a being saintly and superhuman,
not subject to the morality of ordinary mortals. He has been bedaubed with pathos.
Nevertheless it is possible still to recognise in him one of the most engaging personalities
that ever lived. What is the secret of this charm? He had many characteristics that belong
to the most tiresome natures; he even had the qualities of the man as to whom one
wonders whether partial insanity may not be his best excuse--inconstancy expressing
itself in hysterical revulsions of feeling, complete lack of balance, proneness to act
recklessly to the hurt of others. Yet he was loved and respected by contemporaries of
tastes very different from his own, who were good judges and intolerant of bores--by
Byron, who was apt to care little for any one, least of all for poets, except himself; by
Peacock, who poured laughter on all enthusiasms; and by Hogg, who, though slightly
eccentric, was a Tory eccentric. The fact is that, with all his defects, he had two qualities
which, combined, are so attractive that there is scarcely anything they will not redeem--
perfect sincerity without a thought of self, and vivid emotional force. All his faults as
well as his virtues were, moreover, derived from a certain strong feeling, coloured in a
peculiar way which will be explained in what follows--a sort of ardour of universal
benevolence. One of his letters ends with these words: "Affectionate love to and from all.
This ought to be not only the vale of a letter, but a superscription over the gate of life"--
words which, expressing not merely Shelley's opinion of what ought to be, but what he
actually felt, reveal the ultimate reason why he is still loved, and the reason, too, why he
has so often been idealised. For this universal benevolence is a thing which appeals to
men almost with the force of divinity, still carrying, even when mutilated and obscured
by frailties, some suggestion of St. Francis or of Christ.
The object of these pages is not to idealise either his life, his characte, or his works. The
three are inseparably connected, and to understand one we must understand all. The
reason is that Shelley is one of the most subjective of writers. It would be hard to name a
poet who has kept his art more free from all taint of representation of the real, making it
nor an instrument for creating something life-like, but a more and more intimate echo or
emanation of his own spirit. In studying his writings we shall see how they flow from his
dominating emotion of love for his fellow-men; and the drama of his life, displayed
against the background of the time, will in turn throw light on that emotion. His
benevolence took many forms--none perfect, some admirable, some ridiculous. It was too
universal. He never had a clear enough perception of the real qualities of real men and