A Socialist on Shelley: Review of Henry Salt's Percy Bysshe Shelley - A Monograph
Justice, February 1888
A sketch of the principal events in the life of Shelley will be not less welcome to admirers of that gifted and enthusiastic singer of democracy because a number of biographies of the poet have already been published. Nearly all the previous biographies have been written by persons who, with perhaps the sincerest admiration for his genius and his writings, are entirely out of sympathy with his views on moral, social, political and theological questions. The writer of the present work, on the contrary, displays not only a poet’s enthusiasm of admiration for Shelley’s work but the profoundest sympathy with his ideas and aspirations. Mr. Salt is known to the readers of JUSTICE as a writer of poetry of no mean order, and his present production shows him to be no less gifted as a writer of prose.
The work does not profess to be more than a “sketch of the chief scenes of Shelley’s life,” the main object of which is to depict him “not, according to the common notion, as merely an impassioned singer and wild-hearted visionary, full of noble though misdirected enthusiasm, and giving promise of better things if his brief life had been prolonged, but rather as one who was charged with a sacred and indispensable mission, which was seriously undertaken and faithfully fulfilled.” How far the writer has succeeded in his object readers of the book must, of course, judge for themselves, but to our mind if he has failed in any measure it is due to the fact that his work is all too brief; one closes the book with a sigh of regret that there is not more of it. To Socialists every incident in the life of the writer of the “Masque of Anarchy” and the “Ode to the Men of England” is of interest, and to those of us who to-day are being persecuted for the heterodoxy of our views, there is a melancholy pleasure in reading of the fortitude with which one of the greatest masters of the English language bore persecution inflicted upon him for that he was—unconventional!
Speaking of Shelley’s career at Eton, and the hostility manifested towards him by his schoolfellows, the author points out what was the crime for which he was outlawed from the goodwill of his fellows. “Alas! it was a serious one; it was none other than the unpardonable sin of rebelling against that great deity of boys and men—custom. This elfish changeling, who answered to the name of Percy Bysshe Shelley, had already commenced, to his infinite discredit and discomfort, to hold and advance certain opinions of his own on the subject of the society in which his life was cast; and these opinions by no means coincided with the established Etonian creed, the full acceptance of which was an indispensable condition of schoolboy salvation.” The unhappy episode of his first marriage—a “marriage without love” as the author trimly styles it—has afforded a text from which Shelley’s detractors have preached many a sermon, while even his friends have only, as it were, apologised for it on the ground that the whole of the circumstances connected therewith were due to the eccentricities of genius.
We are glad that Mr Salt does not take this line. We do not see why geniuses should not conform to the rules which bind ordinary mortals, and if they do not so conform it clearly shows either that the rules are bad or that they themselves are wanting in some essential virtue. Mr. Salt does not claim for his hero to be tried by a different code of morals to that by which anyone else is judged; but he does claim for him that he acted consistently with the views he held—unconventional and heretical as these undoubtedly were—and in our opinion succeeds in completely vindicating him from those charges of selfishness, cruelty and neglect which have been so frequently made against him. None can deny the beauty of his poetry nor the grandeur of his ideals, but Shelley was more than idealist and poet, and the little book before us may help many who have been stirred by his poetry and fired by his enthusiasm to form a more correct estimate of the life and philosophy of that bright particular star of English literature whose light was extinguished—far too soon indeed—but not before his lifework was accomplished.
“Percy Bysshe Shelley—a monograph.” By H.S. Salt. Swan Sonnenschein and Co.