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In later life, Charles MacFarlane recalled the moment more or less exactly. He was standing in the Royal Bourbon Museum in Naples in February 1819, admiring a statue assumed to be of Agrippina, when someone at his shoulder murmured words. The remark had something to do with the statue’s gracefulness, little enough in itself, though it seemed ‘that sort of commonplace which is not heard from the vulgar’. MacFarlane remembered rather the voice, soft and strangely touching. The speaker was a gentleman of twenty-five or twenty-six, English, thin, with a delicate and negligent, even wild, appearance. They had not been introduced.
Falling in together, they wandered from statue to statue for the rest of the afternoon. His new escort talked avidly of Beauty, Justice, the Venus di Medici (‘all over a goddess!’), love of the Ideal and the astonishments of modern archaeology. At the end he shook MacFarlane’s hand, thanked him heartily, and disappeared. MacFarlane realised that he still had no idea who his ‘unknown friend’ had been. No name had been proffered, no visiting card. Instead he was left with fragments of deep thought, like leaves from a private notebook.
His mysterious companion had a past. You could learn from his acquaintances that he was Percy Bysshe Shelley, born at Field Place, Horsham, Sussex, in 1792, the first son of Timothy Shelley, landowner, sometime MP for New Shoreham and, since 1815, a baronet.The family was large: Shelley had four younger sisters and a brother 14 years his junior. He had been schooled at Syon House Academy and Eton, where he excelled in Latin composition; and at University College, Oxford, where after one term, in March 1811, he had been expelled with his best friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, for writing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. He had eloped the next August, aged nineteen, with a schoolgirl of sixteen, Harriet Westbrook; and then, that marriage having failed, had run off in 1814 with the almost-as-young Mary Godwin, daughter of William Godwin, the philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, a champion of the rights of women. With Mary and her sixteen-year-old step-half-sister, Jane (later Claire) Clairmont, he had journeyed for six weeks through France and Germany in a sort of ménage à trois, and had set up a household with the girls on returning. As a result of this extraordinary behaviour his father had severed all connection with him, leaving Shelley for a time almost destitute; and despite his eventual marriage to Mary Godwin, the Lord Chancellor in 1817 had deprived him, on the double grounds of immorality and atheism, of the two infant children of his first marriage.
From boyhood he had written poems, as well as political tracts and the odd romantic novel. According to taste these were tedious, blasphemous or immoral, though a few saw beauty and genius in them. For a while, fearing that he had Jacobin tendencies and meant to revolutionise England in the style seen so recently in France, the government watched him, but most of his writings proved too obscure to be subversive. Disheartened and discredited, and convinced (for he had never retracted either his atheism or his singular notions of morality) that his two children by Mary Godwin would also be taken from him, he had left England in March 1818 for Italy. And there he seemed likely to remain.
MacFarlane later learned a little of this, including Shelley’s name, from mutual friends who formally introduced them. On a subsequent day they drove out in a carriage as far as Pompeii, hurtling crazily along to the ruins and back, and visited a macaroni factory where his companion, like a schoolboy, exulted in the giant levers that pressed out the pasta and, as he left, gave his small change to beggars. Of his life, condition and history he continued to provide no details. Much of the afternoon was spent sitting by the sea on curious lava rocks, watching until sunset the tranquil waves breaking on the sand, in the sort of enforced intimacy in which English gentlemen may sometimes feel induced to talk of schooldays or love affairs. In all that time, Shelley said nothing. MacFarlane, looking at his sad, lined face, concluded that he should not break the silence.
Shelley’s past seemed hateful to him. For most of his life he looked passionately forward, taking, as his friend Hogg observed at Oxford, ‘no pleasure in the retrospect’. He read history occasionally, but out of duty rather than pleasure; his historical dramas were aberrations in his career. The ‘record of crimes & miseries’ that men had left on earth was testimony merely to the worst of human nature. Facts, Shelley wrote, in poetry or history or in the lives of men, ‘are not what we want to know’. Sometimes he used the word ‘cered’ of memories, to imply that he had coated them, like corpses, with impermeable wax.
A few stories only he told frequently and with zest. One was of stabbing a boy in the hand with a knife (sometimes a fork) at Eton, pinning him viciously to his desk on some noble and desperate impulse; another was a fight, related at the highest pitch of horror, with an intruder in Wales who had tried to murder him. Neither may have been true. ‘His imagination’, one friend recalled, ‘often presented past events to him as they might have been, not as they were.’ Hogg’s view was less poetic and more blunt: ‘He was altogether incapable of rendering an account of any transaction whatsoever, according to the strict and precise truth, and the bare naked realities of actual life.’ Again, imagination was to blame. Indulgently, two of Shelley’s sisters remembered his boyhood account of a visit to some ladies in the village, their conversation, his wanderings in their garden along a winding turf bank and a filbert walk, when he had never been there.
In 1814, when they eloped and fled to France, Shelley and Mary Godwin began a joint journal. Very quickly his entries dwindled, then stopped. The few he made gave the doings of ‘S.’ in the third person, at one remove from himself. In 1816, Mary tried to persuade him to write a story based on his early life; he started, but could not keep it up, any more than he could follow her desire to put more human interest in his poems. Whatever he had been since birth he endeavoured to leave behind. He could not help it that his mother had a miniature of him, sweet and bright-eyed, with three rows of buttons on his best jacket; or that his four younger sisters were full of stories of him, the adored and bullying elder brother, with his terrifying tales and his rough garden games. His friend Edward Trelawny once told him that he had met two of his sisters at an evening party. Shelley, after giving him a hard, cold stare, walked away from him and out of the room.
His writings gave few more clues. Experiences of boyhood made a line here and there: shells found on the beach, a breathless run in the night woods, hard-boiled eggs and radishes stowed in his pockets, and a walk at school beside a mossy fence with a boy he thought ‘exquisitely beautiful’, their arms round each other’s shoulders. But such memories were no sooner found than they were suppressed again. All that mattered to him of his childhood he seemed to commit to a notebook in 1820, in several strongly underlined verses of the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha:
I myself also am a mortal man, like to all, & the offspring of him that was first made of the Earth.
And in my mothers womb was fashioned to be flesh in the time of ten months, being compacted in blood, of the seed of man and the pleasure that came with sleep.
And when I was born I drew in the common air, & fell upon the earth which is of like nature, & the first voice which I uttered was crying, as all others do
I was nursed in swaddling clothes & that with cares.
For there is no King that had any other beginning of birth.
His own beginning was as a Sussex boy. He had been pushed into existence in a first-floor bedroom at Field Place near Horsham, a red-brick Tudor house with Georgian attachments nestled in a snug dip of copses and lawns. There was no view, save of near slopes or outbuildings; his child’s world was circumscribed and close as a womb. A Sussex nurse with a flat, burring accent rocked him in her arms. He was embraced by Established Anglicanism in the nearby church at Warnham,crouched among yews and tombs. His ancestors lay there under slabs of black stone engraved with three whelk shells, the family arms, or were commemorated on marble plaques in the small, drab Shelley chapel, where those of his family who cared to could say their prayers.
Until the age of ten he was schooled in Warnham vicarage, a country education, though reams of Latin verses rang already in his head. He could put on rustic clothes and act the yokel for fun, toting a truss of hay on his shoulder and riding in farmers’ carts. Around him and into St Leonard’s Forest stretched Shelley fields, farms and stands of timber that would one day be his.
Here and there in his poems he placed Sussex touches: shadows outracing the wind on the long grass slopes of the Downs, a dog herding sheep to the corner of a field, spiders’ webs in hayrick and hedge, bats beating against the wired window of a dairy. Grey moths fluttered out of heaps of new-mown, still-moving grass; over the woods, a flock of rooks rose at the crack of a farmer’s gun. Small clouds in the sky were ‘crudded’, like a dish of curds, or scattered out quietly like sheep grazing. Several poems carried memories of water and flowers observed at Warnham pond through a grille of reeds, branches and his own small fingers locked against the sun. A nightingale’s song, too, might suddenly catch him,
And now to the hushed ear it floats
Like field smells known in infancy,
Then failing, soothes the air again.
At times he thought himself a countryman. In 1811, on his first marriage to Harriet Westbrook, he described himself in the register as ‘farmer, Sussex’. He told friends that he meant to manage his estates efficiently. When he later satirised the placid working folk of England he made them Sussex pigs in low-thatched sties, munching on rutabaga and red oats, while the government sharpened its knives to flay their bristled hides and make sausages from their spilling blood and guts.
In his first conversation with Hogg at Oxford (late, cold, the fire burning down), Shelley glowed with enthusiasm for agricultural chemistry. Breathlessly, he expatiated on the mystery of how some lands were fertile, others barren, when a spadeful of soil from one appeared the same as the other; on how food, so readily reduced to carbon, might be made from new, surprising substances; and on how, if water could be manufactured, the deserts of Africa might be transformed into ‘rich meadows and vast fields of maize and rice’. Later he read eagerly the lectures of Humphry Davy, the greatest chemist of the day, who believed that almost all soil could be made better. (‘Manure is useful’, Shelley noted, ‘and may be converted into organised bodies . . . Chemistry a correct instrument for agricultural improvement.’)
Pages of an 1819 pocketbook were also filled with notes on the yield per acre of potatoes and rutabaga, the chow of the pigs; to feed people on these would be more economical and more moral, he had concluded, than feeding them on meat. The regenerated earth Shelley dreamed of was covered with wheatfields, an image so captivating to him that he applied it also to the ‘pastured’ sea, newly reclaimed from Chaos:
like plains of corn
Swayed by the summer air.
At the deepest level, earth and himself were not so different. Their substance was shared. All matter, as he knew from his eager reading of Lucretius at school, was made of minute, permanent, primordial atoms, ‘first-beginnings’ of ‘single solidness’. These moved in a void, struck by random blows of Fate until they aggregated as minerals, or grasses, or inky-fingered boys. Water and air were made of far finer primordia, and aether, or subtle fire, of the smallest atoms there could be. But all were composed of the same ‘fixed seeds’, hard and indestructible, eternally gathering and dispersing. Shelley told classmates that he was never so delighted as to discover that there were no such chemical elements as earth, air, water and fire. As Lucretius put it, the same elements, changed only a little in their relations and combinations, made up both lignis . . . et ignis, trees and flame. And Shelley, such as he was.
Evidently, the seeds and their structures could never be seen with his naked eye. Yet as closely as was feasible, he stared at things. He got right down beside the plate to study pink fatty slabs of bacon or the jutting crag of a teacake. Pressed against fir trees, he inspected and licked the oozy runnels of resin. He read with his face only inches from the page, and watched tiny insects in the palm of his hand with fervent dedication.
Some friends thought he was short-sighted, with his large and slightly protuberant eyes. Mary in Italy ordered a gold-rimmed spyglass with a number 10 lens for myopia, perhaps for him. Yet Trelawny thought all his faculties ‘marvellously acute’, and Shelley himself sometimes complained not of dim vision but the reverse. Under ‘unnatural and keen excitement’, he once explained, ‘I find the very blades of grass & the boughs of distant trees present themselves to me with microscopical distinctness.’ Each object, somehow, had ‘being clearer than its own could be’. Yet after that clarity and intensity he would take for hours to the sofa, lethargic and miserable without knowing why.
His senses, supposedly, were the ultimate and only source of knowledge about the world. So taught Locke, Hume, Helvetius and a whole procession of later, mostly French, philosophers. Shelley had no other reference point on which he could depend; what he could neither see nor feel, he could not trust. To negate, as the immaterialists did, ‘that actual world to which our senses introduce us’ seemed absurd. The earth into which he had fallen crying—real, tangible and beautiful as it seemed—thrust itself at him, demanding to be believed.
One of his most treasured possessions, from boyhood onwards, was a solar microscope in a heavy mahogany box that projected, on a sheet or a wall, giant images of the animalculae that wriggled in vinegar, or the overlapping plates of a fly’s wing, or the mites entombed in cheese. In 1812, at the age of nineteen, he declared this instrument essential for his studies in ‘a branch of philosophy’. As he viewed his specimens, lining them up in the shaft of light thrown through a window-shutter, he was taking apart the tiny bits of a solidly material universe: entangling his swift wings in atoms, as he wrote of Lucretius later. And he himself was nothing else. Laid under a lens, he too would swarm and flicker as the primordia moved in him.
From the Hardcover edition.