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The Search for Shelley

ISSUE:  Spring 1928
Shelley: His Life and Work. By Walter Edwin Peck. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. Two vols. $12.50.

This is peculiarly a moment of revaluations. Thoughtful men are testing anew with great care and patience this philosophical concept, that religious dogma; this social convention, that political method; this scientific assumption, that pedagogic process. Even our canons of criticism are themselves being criticised by minds that believe and spirits that feel that nothing, as Bacon puts it, “is finished till all is finished.”

Certainly, criticism and literary gossip, or even the expression of a cultured person’s self-recognised prejudice, are very different things. Criticism has been well defined as “the statement of the concrete in terms of the abstract,” and again, as “a distinctive branch of literature, having a function, an equipment, a standard, and a method of its own.” Matthew Arnold admirably defines it as “a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” We would suggest that true literary criticism is the judgment of a free and sensitive mind, formed after it has understood the issues of a case, has read the briefs of advocates, has weighed the evidences, and has related the matter in hand to the long history and discipline of art. Nor can even this be all. One sometimes grows weary of the cool precision and balanced discretion of much that passes under the name of criticism.That lover of Keats and Shelley, Sidney Lanier, once wrote of the “timid solicitudes” with which his critics would “rarefy in one line any enthusiasm they may have condensed in another,” and charged them with “forever conciliating the yet unrisen ghosts of possible mistakes.”

Professor Peck’s new biography of Shelley is an exceptionally patient and persistent attempt to enlarge our understanding of a difficult and famous figure. Because the personality of a great poet, like the values of his highest poetry, must remain for us inexhaustible, we can and we must continue to retouch the portrait, correct the focus, revise the canon. And yet, valuable as hitherto unused documents may be in enabling us to do so, and important in their due degrees and relationships as are all items of really relevant information, we sometimes fail to see that sources are not quite the same thing as the currents and tides themselves. Just as a legal judgment cannot guarantee itself as a spiritually valid judgment, so formal criticism as such is worth comparatively little to either art or humanity. To understanding must be added love—the sort of love that Blake shows in his critical sayings, and Hazlitt, and Lamb, and Coleridge, and Keats, and Shelley himself. He who does not imaginatively sympathise with the artistic work he is criticising, who does not “create in the footsteps of the creator,” is not likely to evaluate that work truly nor to recognise its faults and its excellences for what they really are. “Love and judgment,” says Swinburne, “must be one in those who would look into such high and lovely things.”

It seems reasonable to infer, after reading the whole of Professor Peck’s long treatment of Shelley, that the author does not regard himself as a Shelleyan. Moreover, despite its obviously careful research the critical usefulness of the work is lessened by not a few faults of organization, content and style. The organization, which is closely chronological (although other methods have justified themselves in history, fiction, and biography), does not group its chapters into sections or “Books” so as to present the several parts of Shelley’s life in coherent fashion. Rather, the work plods along, chapter by chapter, date by date, until the end is reached. Even in the chapter-titles adopted there is too often undue emphasis on mere physical background or temporal accompaniment rather than on the intellectual or spiritual adventure most characteristic of the poet’s growth. The materials for the patterning are present, in no stinted measure, but the patterning itself is far to seek. So strictly is the chronological scheme employed that eleven “inter-chapters” interrupt the narrative of as many biographical chapters in order to discuss “the sources and significance” of eleven of Shelley’s works as their respective date-moments are reached. Yet it is difficult to understand why the first of these interchapters is devoted to that boyish poem, “The Wandering Jew,” while Shelley’s first published prose romance, “Zastrozzi,” is treated at length in the latter half of the interrupted third chapter and the discussion of “Adonais” is later given a similar arrangement. The whole work comprises fourteen chapters proper, with the eleven interchapters—twenty-five chapters in all numbering 833 pages, with appendices of 140 additional pages and a well made index of 43 pages.

The author seldom undertakes purely critical excursions. He has been so industrious in discovering literary parallels and cross-references that some of these must needs appear rather strained and unconvincing. He says, for example, of “Stanzas: April, 1814,” that they begin vigorously, and “rise suddenly after a second and third stanza of mediocre quality to two stanzas of rare beauty and striking rhythm.” (I, 359) Most students of Shelley will surely agree that the third stanza is much more satisfying than the fourth. He cites approvingly (II, 42) Stopford Brooke’s tiresome analysis of “the strength and weakness” of “Laon and Cythna.” In a rather petulant paragraph (II, 116) he asks what “pure poetry” may be and emphasises Shelley’s passion for reform as the chief reason for his fame. Again, he assures us that “The Cenci” is not a good stage-play and that it is not adapted even to the theatre of our own time; yet it was powerfully produced at the Empire Theatre in London in 1926 (only five years after the Barrymore performance), with Sybil Thorndike and Hubert Carter in the chief roles. In his remarks on “Prometheus Unbound” (II, 125-143), which ignore the Greek influence and contain no reference to the aesthetic problem involved in the addition of the Fourth Act, he declares that “of the ‘plot’ of the Fourth Act it may simply be said that there is none.” And he thinks (II, 172) that the verdict of most readers of the “Ode to Liberty” will be “that its pinions had never raised it even approximately, near the terrible beauty of the utmost heights of song.”

It can hardly be said that the attempts to “divide” the “Ode to a Skylark” and “Adonais” are even pedagogically successful. In the latter case Dr. Peck makes the arbitrary assertions that in stanzas xliv to xlvi “Pantheism is discarded for the Christian doctrine of personal survival after death,” and that in stanzas xlvii to li “the reviewer is asked to visit the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, and there pay homage to the poet he had wronged.” The final paragraph of the discussion of “Adonais” (II, 227) is especially unfortunate.

Other lapses appear in Dr. Peck’s misunderstanding of Medwinis reference to Shelley’s “elder sisters” (I, 8). He says that Shelley and Hogg left Oxford on March 22,1811, but the true date is the 26th. He speaks of one of Laon’s deeds as “the sole act of violence countenanced by Shelley in any of his works” (II, 23), but a few pages farther on, mentions a similar act, and ignores the overthrow of Jupiter in “Prometheus Unbound,” and other instances. “Fourth” scene is used for “third” (II, 138). And we are asked to believe that the Huntington Library MS. of the “Ode to the West Wind” proves that Shelley “could and did revise, invariably, for the better.” We italicise the adverb.

The poet’s changing relations with Harriet Westbrook, however, create the problem which Professor Peck attacks most vigorously, and repeatedly. He sides with Harriet against her husband on much the same grounds as those presented by Mark Twain, whose essay is largely # unfair to the intention of Dowden’s work and is a misguided if spirited defence of a quite unreal Harriet. Professor Peck, who is nearer the evidence than Mark Twain could have been, supports and sometimes quotes the latter, and would agree with Amy Lowell that Shelley “brutally deserted” Harriet. Indeed, he describes the abandonment as “sudden, selfish, deliberate.” He makes much of Shelley’s reference, in a letter to Fanny Godwin, to “the ease and simplicity” of Harriet’s habits, but fails to answer the account of his colleague,1 Mr. Roger Ingpen (based largely, of course, on Hogg) of the later development in Harriet of extravagant ways. Professor Peck presents (I, 345) a list of six charges that other biographers have made against Harriet, only two of which, we agree, are really important. One is that Harriet had been unfaithful to Shelley, in March, 1814; the other, that Eliza Westbrook persisted in remaining as a member of the Shelley household in spite of the poet’s “unbounded abhorrence for this miserable wretch.” The first of these charges Professor Peck meets by calling for the evidence, apart from the references contained in Shelley’s letter to Mary of January 11th, 1817, and Godwin’s letter to Baxter of May 12th, 1817. True, no certain evidence is available, yet was Shelley (who actually invited Harriet, calling himself her “firm and constant friend,” to join him and Mary in Switzerland) the sort of man to produce such proof duringthe snit in Chancery for the recovery of his children after Harriet’s death, as Professor Peck thinks that he must have done if he had actually possessed it? Dr. Peck does not quote Shelley’s words of 1820 to the remonstrant Southey in which he solemnly takes God to witness that he is “innocent of ill, either done or intended; the consequences you allude to flowed in no respect from me. If you were my friend, I could tell you a history that would make you open your eyes; but I shall certainly never make the public my familiar confidant.” As Mary said, in her note to “Alastor,” “in all he did, he, at the time of doing it, believed himself justified to his own conscience.” And Shelley’s answer to the plaintiffs in the suit referred to above was that “this Defendant and his . . . late wife agreed in consequence of certain differences between them to live separate and apart from each other, but this Defendant denies that he deserted his said wife otherwise than by separating from her as aforesaid.” Dr. Peck asserts that the poet also “deserted” his and Harriet’s children; but Shelley explained to the court that he had strongly desired to have the children with him during Harriet’s life, but had yielded for the time to Harriet’s wish to keep them with her, and that he had never “in any way abandoned or deserted them or had any intention of so doing.” Why should not this explanation be accepted?

Dr. Peck objects to Shelley’s reticence about his past feelings for his first wife, when he was writing to Mary about poor Harriet’s end. His reticence “leaves us cold, amazed, wondering” (I, 505). And again, he argues that if Harriet had given Shelley cause for divorce, he would, in 1817, at the Chancery trial, “hardly have spared his dead wife’s memory when the custody of his two living children was at stake.” (II, 185). These statements do not persuade us that the biographer knows his man.

As to Eliza Westbrook, the author concedes that “she was perhaps the spark that set the magazine ablaze” and that she “should no doubt have withdrawn from the Shelley household earlier.” But if Harriet loved her husband deeply why did she not dismiss the trouble-making Eliza? And the list of points presented against Harriet is in any case incomplete. We should add three: (1) That the marriage was not based on reciprocal love, but was entered into at Harriet’s solicitation by a romantic and chivalrous youth of nineteen, who must have felt toward her much as Jules felt toward Phene in “Pippa Passes”:

If whoever loves
Must be, in some sort, god or worshipper,
The blessing or the blest one, queen or page,
Why should we always choose the page’s part?
Here is a woman with utter need of me,—
I find myself queen here, it seems!

(2) That Harriet had an honest but commonplace mind, and grew but little. (3) That Harriet never really saw the poet in Shelley. These three considerations, taken together, were enough to wreck the marriage. Do Professor Peck and other apologists for Harriet (whatever may be said of Shelley’s own faults of character and conduct) really regret this change, in the most intimate of all companionships, between Shelley and Harriet, with the corresponding change in the poet’s life and work; or are they not rather resenting the means by which the change was brought about—means concerning which our specific information is still too meagre to justify a judgment save in the light of the poet’s life-movement viewed as a whole?

The statement that “Shelley attempted to exonerate himself for his sudden attachment of 1814 by placing the blame upon Mary” (I, 367) is unsupported save by a letter from Harriet to her friend Catherine Nugent and by a sentence (which Professor Peck seems to misunderstand) in a lost letter from Shelley to Eliza. The former does not prove that Shelley actually so represented matters to Harriet, who had her natural wifely pride and who often exaggerated; nor does the latter mean that Shelley admitted what our author now asserts. Was he not rather trying charitably to anticipate Eliza’s probable point of view?

It is with real regret that we have expressed a less than favorable opinion of a work which must have taxed heavily the patience and perseverance of the writer. His readers must indeed approve the fidelity of the biographer to the requirements of his task, as he has conceived them. We must thank him also for the new material presented in the book proper and in the appendices, for his sound analysis of Elizabeth Hitchener’s character, and for his sincere effort to examine Shelley’s genius on its religious and reformatory sides. If the work does not yield a clear portrait of Shelley we must remind ourselves that no biography, “psy-chography” or other examination of a great figure—least of all, perhaps, of a poet—can be regarded as final or exhaustive. In the case of Shelley, the task has been essayed often and each contributor has played his part. Hogg has been chatty and human, Medwin gossipy yet informative, Peacock companionable, Dowden charitable and conscientious, Clutton-Brock urbane but casual, Maurois facile and gamesome, Mrs. Campbell frank and reasonable, while many briefer commentators have said some indispensable things. This at least may be said of the present biographer: that he has tried hard and long, and not always unsuccessfully, to balance the various accounts in the book-keeping of the Shelley problem.


  1. See Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Edited by Roger Ingpen. P. 422. Mr. Ingpen and Professor Peck are co-editors of the Julian Edition of Shelley’s works.


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