VI. ELOPEMENT I: SHELLEY, 1811–12

They took rooms at 15 Poland Street. Shelley’s father, in town for a session of Parliament, came to them there, and appealed to them to renounce their views. Finding Shelley unmoved, he bade him dismiss Hogg as an evil influence, return to the family home, and stay there “under such gentleman as I shall appoint, and attend to his instructions and directions.” Shelley refused. The father departed in anger and despair. He recognized Shelley’s abilities, and had looked forward to his taking an honorable place in Parliament. Hogg left for York to study law. Soon Shelley’s funds ran out. His sisters, then studying at Mrs. Fenning’s School in the Clapham district of London, sent him their pocket money. In May his father relented, and agreed to allow him £200 a year.

Among his sisters’ fellow students at Clapham was sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook, daughter of the prosperous owner of a tavern in Grosvenor Square. When she met Percy she was awed by his pedigree, his fluency of language, the range of his studies, the fascinating deviltry of his views. She soon agreed that God was dead and that laws were unnecessary nuisances. She read with fond tremors the rebel texts he lent her, and the translated classics revealing a wonderful civilization that had never heard of Christ. She invited him to her home. “I spend most of my time at Miss Westbrook’s,” Shelley wrote to Hogg in May, 1811. “She is reading Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique.”51 When her schoolmates discovered that her strange friend was an atheist they boycotted her as already smelling of hell. When she was caught with a letter from him she was expelled.

Early in August Shelley reported to Hogg: “Her father has persecuted her in a most horrible way, by endeavoring to compel her to go to school. She asked my advice; resistance was the answer, at the same time that I essayed to modify Mr. Westbrook in vain! And in consequence of my advice she has thrown herself on my protection.”52 Later he recalled the result: “She became evidently attached to me, and feared that I should not return her attachment…. It was impossible to avoid being much affected; I promised to unite my fate with hers.”53 Apparently he proposed a free-love union; she refused; he proposed marriage; she agreed. Her father refused consent. On August 25 the couple eloped, took the coach to Edinburgh, and there were married by the rites of the Scottish Church (August 28, 1811). Her father yielded to the fait accompli, and settled upon her an annuity of two hundred pounds. Her older sister Eliza came to live with her in York and (Shelley confessing himself a poor hand at practical matters) took charge of the new family’s funds. “Eliza,” he reported, “keeps our common stock of money, for safety, in some hole or corner of her dress,” and “gives it out as we want it.”54 Shelley was not quite happy at Eliza’s mastery, but took comfort in Harriet’s docility. “My wife,” he later wrote to Godwin, “is the partner of my thoughts and feelings.”55

Harriet and Eliza, with Hogg nearby, stayed in York while Shelley went to London to soften his father. Mr. Shelley had stopped his allowance on hearing of the elopement; now he renewed it, but forbade his son ever to enter the family home. Returning to York, Shelley found that his dear friend Hogg had attempted to seduce Harriet. She said nothing of this to her husband, but Hogg confessed, was forgiven, and departed. In November the trio left for Keswick, where Shelley became acquainted with Southey. “Here,” wrote Southey (January 4, 1812), “is a man who acts upon me as my own ghost would do. He is just what I was in 1794…. I told him that all the difference between us is that he is nineteen and I am thirty-seven.”56 Shelley found Southey amiable and generous, and read the older man’s poetry with pleasure. A few days later he wrote: “I do not think as highly of Southey as I did. It is to be confessed that to see him in his family … he appears in a most amiable light…. How he is corrupted by the world, contaminated by custom; it rends my heart when I think what he might have been.”57

He found some balm in reading Godwin’s Political Justice. When he learned that this once famous philosopher was now living in poverty and obscurity, he wrote to him a letter of worship:

I had enrolled your name in the list of the honorable dead. I had felt regret that the glory of your being had passed from this earth of ours. It is not so. You still live, and, I firmly believe, are planning the welfare of human kind. I have just but entered on the scene of human operations, yet my feelings and my reasonings correspond with what yours were …. I am young; I am ardent in the cause of philosophy and truth…. When I come to London I shall seek for you. I am convinced I could represent myself to you in such terms as not to be thought unworthy of your friendship ….

Adieu. I shall earnestly await your answer.58

Godwin’s reply is lost; but we may judge its tenor from his letter of March, 1812: “As far as I can yet penetrate into your character, I conceive it to exhibit an extraordinary assemblage of lovely qualities, not without considerable defects. The defects do and always have arisen chiefly from this source—that you are still very young, and that in certain essential respects you do not sufficiently perceive that you are so.” He advised Shelley not to publish every ebullition, and, if he published anything, not to put his name to it. “The life of a man who does this [publishes and signs] will be a series of retractions.”59

Shelley had already practiced restraint by keeping in manuscript, or in some privately printed copies, his first important composition—Queen Mab. “It was written by me at the age of eighteen—I dare say in a sufficiently intemperate spirit—but … was not intended for publication.”60 In 1810 he was still aflame with the French philosophes; he prefaced the poem with Voltaire’s angry motto Écrasez l’infâme!, and he borrowed many ideas from Volney’s Les Ruines, ou Méditations sur les révolutions des empires(1791).

As the poem begins, the maiden Ianthe is asleep. In a dream the Fairy Queen Mab comes down to her from the sky, takes her up to the stars, and asks her to contemplate, from that perspective, the past, present, and future of the earth. A succession of empires passes before her—Egypt, Palmyra, Judea, Greece, Rome … Leaping to the present, the Queen pictures a king (obviously the Prince Regent) who is “a slave even to the basest appetites”;61 she wonders that not one of the wretches who famish while he feasts “raises an arm to dash him from the throne”; and she adds a now famous verdict:

The man

Of virtuous soul commands not, nor obeys.

Power, like a desolating pestilence,

Pollutes whate’er it touches.62

The Queen also dislikes commerce and Adam Smith: “the harmony and happiness of man yields to the wealth of nations”; “all things are sold, even love.”63 She pictures the burning of an atheist; this frightens Ianthe; the Queen comforts her by assuring her, “There is no God.”64 Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, enters, and berates the God of Genesis for punishing billions of men, women, and children through thousands of years for one woman’s unintelligible sin.65 (Byron may have found suggestions here for hisCain; Shelley had sent him a privately printed copy.) Finally the Queen pictures a rosy future: love unbound by law, prisons empty and needless, prostitution gone, death without pain. Then she bids Ianthe return to the earth, preach the gospel of universal love, and have undiscourageable faith in its victory. Ianthe awakes. —It is a powerful poem, despite its juvenile thought and sometimes bombastic style; in any case a remarkable product for a lad of eighteen years. When, without the poet’s consent, Queen Mab was published in 1821, the radicals of England welcomed it as their plaint and dream. Within twenty years fourteen editions were issued by piratical firms.66

After a stay (February-March, 1812) in Ireland, where, with heroic impartiality, he worked for both Catholic and proletarian causes, Shelley and Harriet passed into Wales. Oppressed by the poverty there, they went to London to raise funds for Welsh charities. He took this opportunity to pay his respects to Godwin, who was so pleased with him that the two families frequently played host to each other. After short return visits to Ireland and Wales, the younger couple settled in London. There, March 24, 1814, to insure the legitimacy of any son and heir they might have, Shelley and Harriet were remarried, now by a Church of England rite. Some time before, on her birthday, he had addressed to her a poetic renewal of his vows:

Harriet! let death all mortal ties dissolve;

But ours shall not be mortal! …

Virtue and Love! unbending Fortitude,

Freedom, Devotedness, and Purity!

That life my spirit consecrates to you.67

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