Shelley HTML version

Chapter II. Principal Writings
The true visionary is often a man of action, and Shelley was a very peculiar combination
of the two. He was a dreamer, but he never dreamed merely for the sake of dreaming; he
always rushed to translate his dreams into acts. The practical side of him was so strong
that he might have been a great statesman or reformer, had not his imagination,
stimulated by a torrential fluency of language, overborne his will. He was like a boat (the
comparison would have pleased him) built for strength and speed, but immensely
oversparred. His life was a scene of incessant bustle. Glancing through his poems, letters,
diaries, and pamphlets, his translations from Greek, Spanish, German, and Italian, and
remembering that he died at thirty, and was, besides, feverishly active in a multitude of
affairs, we fancy that his pen can scarcely ever have been out of his hand. And not only
was he perpetually writing; he read gluttonously. He would thread the London traffic,
nourishing his unworldly mind from an open book held in one hand, and his ascetic body
from a hunch of bread held in the other. This fury for literature seized him early. But the
quality of his early work was astonishingly bad. An author while still a schoolboy, he
published in 1810 a novel, written for the most part when he was seventeen years old,
called 'Zastrozzi', the mere title of which, with its romantic profusion of sibilants, is
eloquent of its nature. This was soon followed by another like it, 'St. Irvyne, or the
Rosicrucian'. Whether they are adaptations from the German [2] or not, these books are
merely bad imitations of the bad school then in vogue, the flesh-creeping school of
skeletons and clanking chains, of convulsions and ecstasies, which Miss Austen, though
no one knew it, had killed with laughter years before.[3] "Verezzi scarcely now
shuddered when the slimy lizard crossed his naked and motionless limbs. The large
earthworms, which twined themselves in his long and matted hair, almost ceased to
excite sensations of horror"--that is the kind of stuff in which the imagination of the
young Shelley rioted. And evidently it is not consciously imagined; life really presented
itself to him as a romance of this kind, with himself as hero--a hero who is a hopeless
lover, blighted by premature decay, or a wanderer doomed to share the sins and sorrows
of mankind to all eternity. This attitude found vent in a mass of sentimental verse and
prose, much of it more or less surreptitiously published, which the researches of
specialists have brought to light, and which need not be dwelt upon here.
[2 So Mr. H. B. Forman suggests in the introduction to his edition of Shelley's Prose
Works. But Hogg says that he did not begin learning German until 1815.]
[3 'Northanger Abbey', satirising Mrs. Radcliffe's novels, was written before 1798, but
was not published until 1818.]
But very soon another influence began to mingle with this feebly extravagant vein, an
influence which purified and strengthened, though it never quite obliterated it. At school
he absorbed, along with the official tincture of classical education, a violent private dose
of the philosophy of the French Revolution; he discovered that all that was needed to
abolish all the evil done under the sun was to destroy bigotry, intolerance, and
persecution as represented by religious and monarchical institutions. At first this