Chapter 58 from Mammonart, by Upton Sinclair:
The Angel of Revolt
Percy Bysse Shelley was born in 1792, which made him four years younger than Byron. His father was the richest baronet in the county of Sussex, a great landlord and a ferocious Tory, who typified the spirit of the age and drove his son almost to madness.
The boy was sent to school at Eton, a dreadful place inhabited by gnomes who wear all day the clothes which our little rich boys wear to evening parties, and the hats which our grown-up rich boys wear to the opera. They had a system of child slavery known as “fagging,” and Shelley revolted against it and was tortured. He was a swift, proud spirit, made frantic by the sight or even the thought of tyranny; so sensitive that he swooned at the scent of the flowers in Alpine valleys. He was gifted with a marvelous mind, ravenous for knowledge, and absorbing it at incredible speed.
He went to Oxford, where at the age of nineteen he published a pamphlet entitled, “The Necessity for Atheism.” A reading discloses that the title might have been “The Necessity for Abolishing Ecclesiasticism Masquerading as Christianity.” But it is not likely that such a change of title would have helped Shelley, who was unceremoniously kicked out of the university, and cast off by the Tory baronet who controlled his purse-strings.
So we find him, an outcast in London, living in lodgings and almost starving. He met a girl of sixteen, the daughter of a coffee-house proprietor, and hoping to convert her to his sublime faith, he ran away and married her. At the age of twenty we find him in Ireland, issuing an “Address to the Irish People” and circulating it on the streets. The scholarly critics of Shelley speak of this as the absurd extravagance of boyhood; whereas it was plain common sense and the obvious moral duty of every English poet. Infinitely touching it is to read this pamphlet, and note its beauty of spirit and sublimity of faith, not exceeded by the utterances of Jesus. All that was wrong with Shelley’s advice was that it was too good both for Ireland and England. For distributing it Shelley’s servant was sent to jail for six months.
The poet’s wife had no understanding of his ideals, and the couple was unhappy. After two years of married life, Shelley met the sixteen-year-old daughter of Godwin, revolutionary philosopher, and ran away with her. That was the crime of his life, for which he was condemned to infamy by his own time, and has hardly yet been pardoned. Two years later, his former wife drowned herself; and the British lord chancellor deprived the poet of the custody of their two children, on the ground that he was an unfit person. We shall discuss the ethics of this affair later on. Suffice it for the moment to say that Shelley, broken in heart but not in will, fled to the Continent for refuge, and devoted the last four years of his life to the task of overthrowing the British caste system. A hundred years have passed, and he has not yet succeeded; but let no one be too sure that he will not succeed in the end!
He lived in Switzerland and Italy, and worked with desperate intensity, so that he brought on tuberculosis. There are no four years in the life of any other writer which gave us such treasures of the mind and spirit. The critics of Shelley judge him by his boyhood and his horrible scandal. But taking these last years, the impression we get is of maturity of mind, dignity of spirit, firmness of judgment. If you want to know this Shelley, read the wonderful letters he wrote from Switzerland. read his essay, recently discovered and published, “A Philosophical View of Reform,” in which the whole program of radical propaganda is laid out with perfect insight and beauty of utterance. Read “The Defense of Poetry,” one of the finest pieces of eloquence in English. Note the soundness of his critical judgment, which erred in only one respect – an under-estimate of his own powers. He was humble to Byron, a lesser person both as poet and as man.
One after another Shelley now poured out the marvelous works on which his fame is based. He took the old myth of Aeschylus and wrote a drama, “Prometheus Unbound,” which might be described as the distilled essence of revolt, the most modern of philosophical dramas proclaiming the defiance of the human spirit to all ordained gods. At the other extreme, and written in the same year, was “The Cenci,” a tragic story out of Renaissance Italy, human and simple, therefore poignant and real. The poet Keats died, and Shelley wrote “Adonais” – and those who think that art exists for art’s sake and beauty for beauty’s sake, make note that here is a work which combines all the perfections of poetry, and yet has a moral, a fighting message.
He wrote also political comedies in the style of Aristophanes – representing English society by an ecstatic chorus of pigs. So savage is this lashing that even today English critics keep silence about “Swellfoot the Tyrant.” The odious fat lecher, King George IV, was sued for divorce by his wife, Queen Caroline, and it was a most horrible scandal, which Britain hardly dared to whisper. I remember when I was a student in college, twenty-five years ago, searching the libraries in an effort to find out the contents of the “Green Bag” which figures in Shelley’s drama; but no commentator would tell me – and I don’t know yet!
Shelley has the qualities of sublimity and fervor; also he has the defects of these qualities – he is often windy and wordy and unreal. But in his last miraculous years he shed these faults, and produced lyrics of such loveliness that he is today the poet of poets, the soul companion of generous and idealistic youth. In his “Mask of Anarchy” are songs of revolt which have reached the workers – and which therefore English critics still find it necessary to deprecate! A couple of years ago was celebrated in London the anniversary of Shelley’s death, and there assembled a great number of people of the sort who would have skinned him while he was alive. A famous editor, Mr. J. C. Squires, took occasion to quote the poem: “Men of England, wherefore plow?” How obviously foolish! If the men of England did not plow, they would starve! But it just happens that Shelley did not say that; what he said was: “Men of England, wherefore plow for the lords who lay ye low?” And five million, five hundred thousand labor votes echo: “Wherefore?”
The poet of the future was scorned in his lifetime, as no other great Englishman in history. He was the byword of the literary wits of London; “Prometheus Unbound,” they said, an excellent name: who would bind it? By Sir Walter Scott and his ruffians of the Tory “Review,” Shelley’s name could not be spoken without crossing yourself. The poet Moore cried out in horror – Tommy, a little snob of the drawing-rooms, who “dearly loved a lord.” And Wordsworth, ignorant and bigoted, living among his peasants, reading nothing; and Southey, turncoat and prig. Even Byron made no fight for Shelley’s fame; while Byron’s friends, the fashionable idlers of the Continent, rebuked him for keeping such disreputable company.
Even two generations later the evil spell was not broken. Matthew Arnold, standard English critic, read about Shelley’s friends, and lifted his scholarly hands and cried: “What a set!” It did not occur to the critic to ask what other kind of set Shelley might have had. What people had he to choose among? Arnold had not tried being a radical, so as to see what queer people swarm about you – especially when you are known to have an income of four thousand pounds a year, and to give away nearly all of it! A poet who believes everything good about his fellows, and who lives in dreams of exalted nobleness, is the last person in the world to discover the faults of those who gather about him. And after he has made the discovery, he remains a dreamer; instead of casting them off, in the fashion of the good, respectable world, he clings to them, trying to help them, often in spite of themselves.
Shelley believed in “free love,” and tried out his theories; and that horrified Matthew Arnold, who said after reading the record, “One feels sickened forever of the subject of irregular relationships.” Quite so; I also have seen people try out this theory, and have felt sickened. But consider the question, in which way will the race more quickly acquire knowledge as to the rights and wrongs of sex – if men say honestly what they believe, and tell frankly what they do, or if they preach one code and practice another, and hide their sins in a dark corner?
Shelley followed the former course; he was young, and knew no older person who understood him and could give him wise advice. He believed that if your heart was full of generosity and kindness and unselfishness and a burning sense of justice, you could trust your desires, even those of love. He tried it, and filled his life with pain and tragedy. And seventy or eighty years later comes an eminent and well-established critic, and in solemn tones protests that it is a crime against good taste to give us these facts! Let poets follow the plan of Wordsworth, who sowed his one wild oat in a foreign land, and put a heavy stone of silence over the crop, and became a Tory laureate and pillar of Christianity!
In the course of a hundred years we have got all the details of Shelley’s two marriages; we know that when he eloped with Harriet Westbrook, his first wife, he told her his ideas on the subject of love. She professed to agree with him; but, of course, being a sixteen-year-old child, that meant nothing. She was ignorant, and in no way fitted to be the life companion of a great poet. When Shelley left her he took care of her and the two children; her suicide two years later was caused by the fact that she had an unhappy love affair with another man, and was with child by this man.
Here is a problem which will not be solved in our time, nor for a long time to come: what is to be done when two people have loved, and one ceases to love whie the other goes on loving? For the present, our only task is to get straight the facts about Shelley’s case; the central fact being that he was damned for holding a revolutionary opinion and acting on it. If all he had wanted was to indulge his passions and keep out of trouble, the way was clear before him; the old Tory baronet, his father, had explained with brutal frankness that he would never pardon a marriage with a woman below Shelley’s rank in life, but he was willing to assume responsibility for the support of any number of illegitimate children the poet might wish to bring into existence. Such was the moral code against which Shelley revolted; such was the world in which he tried to live according to the principles of justice, freedom, and love.
Shelley died at the age of thirty, drowned in a storm while sailing a boat; and with him perished the finest mind the English race had produced. I make this statement deliberately, knowing the ridicule it will excite; but I ask you, before you decide: take the men of genius of England one by one, wipe out their lives after the age of thirty, and see what you have left. Will you take Shakespeare? You will know him as the author of “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece” and “Love’s Labor Lost” and “The Comedy of Errors,” and possibly “Richard III” and some sonnets. Will you take Milton, with “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” and “Comus” and “Lycidas,” and nothing else? Will you go to the Continent, and take Goethe, who outlived Shelley? What would you think of Goethe if you had only “Goetz” and “Werther” and a few lyric poems?
Shelley was one among the sons of Rousseau who did not falter and turn back to feudalism, Catholicism, or mysticism of any sort. He fixed his eyes upon the future, and never wavered for a moment. He attacked class privilege, not merely political, but industrial; and so he is the coming poet of labor. Some day, and that not so far off, the strongholds of class greed in Britain will be stormed, and when the liberated workers take up the task of making a new culture, they will learn that there was one inspired saint in their history who visioned that glad day, and gave up everything in life to bring it nearer. They will honor Shelley by making him their poet-laureate, and hailing him as the supreme glory of English letters.
by Tony Christini