The two poets had now reached the fullness of their development. The elder had still some cantos of Don Juan to compose; these are so bitter in their hostility to England that even a Gallic taste can find them immoderate. The Vision of Judgment (October, 1821) is also mercilessly satirical, but Southey’s prior A Vision of Judgment (April, 1821) had provoked retaliation by calling Byron the leader of the “Satanic” school in English poetry; Byron cut him up with gusto and skill. In these final compositions he moved away from the romantic self-pitying melancholy of Childe Harold toward a more classic pose of reason and humor judging all—but moderation still escaped him. His letters—especially those to Murray—show a maturer mood, for there his caustic wit was tempered with critical self-scrutiny, as if he had discovered that modesty opens a door to wisdom.
He was modest about his poetry. “I by no means rank poetry or poets high in the scale of intellect. This may look like affectation, but it is my real opinion…. I prefer the talents of action—of war, or the senate, or even of science—to all the speculations of those mere dreamers.”108 He praised Shelley as a man, but thought much of his verse to be childish fantasy. He was anxious to be valued as a man rather than as a poet. He was painfully conscious of his appearance. He preferred riding to walking, for his right foot distracted attention from his handsome face. Dietetically his life was an alternation between eating to obesity and dieting to debility; so in 1806 his five feet eight and a half inches weighed 194 pounds; by 1812 he was down to 137; by 1818 he had swelled to 202. He was proud of his sexual achievements, and sent mathematical reports of them to his friends. He was a man of emotion; often lost his temper or self-control. His intellect was brilliant but unsteady; “the moment Byron reflects,” said Goethe, “he is a child.”109
In religion he began as a Calvinist; in Childe Harold he spoke of the Papacy with old-Protestant vigor as “the Babylonian whore.”110 In his twenties he read philosophy, liked Spinoza, preferred Hume, and declared, “I deny nothing, but doubt everything.”111 In 1811 he wrote to a proselytizing friend, “I will have nothing to do with your immortality”; ten years later he wrote, “Of the immortality of the soul it appears to me that there can be little doubt.”112 In Italy he fell in with the climate and the people, and began to think Catholically; when the Angelus rang he longed to share the peace that seemed for a moment to settle upon all native souls; “I have often wished that I had been born a Catholic.”113 Toward the end (1823) he talked, as in boyhood, of predestination and God.114
Having in adolescence lost his religious belief, and having found no moral mooring in literature or philosophy, he had no fulcrum from which to offer resistance to the sensations, emotions, or desires that agitated him. His free and agile intellect found persuasive reasons for yielding, or his temperament gave reason no time to display the wisdom of social restraints. Apparently he curbed his homosexual inclinations, and satisfied them with warm and faithful friendships; but he yielded to the charms of his sister; and inChilde Harold he boldly told of his love for
one soft breast
Which unto his was bound by stronger ties
Than the Church links withal.115
Condemned by English society for exceeding its permitted indulgences, or failing to cover them gracefully, he declared war upon British “hypocrisy” and “cant.” He satirized the upper classes as “formed of two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored.” He condemned the exploitation of labor by the factory owners, and sometimes he called for revolution:
“God save the King!” and kings,
For if he don’t I doubt if men will longer.
I think I hear a little bird, who sings,
The people by and by will be the stronger, …
and the mob
At last all sick of imitating Job….
I would fain say, “Fie on’t.”
If I had not perceived that revolution
Alone can save the earth from hell’s pollution.116
However, on second thought, he felt no attraction to democracy. He distrusted mobs, and feared that a revolution would bring a dictatorship worse than that of king or parliament. He saw some virtue in rule by an aristocracy of birth, and longed for an aristocracy purged, reasonable, trained, and competent. He himself never forgot that he was a lord; he soon checked any assumption of egalitarian familiarity; he knew that in social relations distance lends enchantment to the view.
His view of Napoleon changed with events. Till Bonaparte crowned himself emperor, and armed and surrounded himself with titles, Byron saw him as an excellent compromise between kings and mobs. Even with baubles, and those questionable invasions of Spain and Russia, Byron prayed for Napoleon to win against the Continental monarchies. He scolded the defeated Emperor for not killing himself instead of abdicating; but when Napoleon returned from Elba the poet again prayed for his victory against the Allies. Six years later, hearing of Napoleon’s death, he mourned: “His overthrow was a blow on the head to me. Since that period we have been the slaves of fools.”117
He was a baffling mixture of faults and virtues. He could in a rage be coarse and cruel; normally he was courteous, considerate, and generous. He gave recklessly to friends in need; to Robert Dallas he transferred copyrights worth a thousand pounds; another thousand enabled Francis Hodgson to avoid bankruptcy. Teresa Guiccioli, who saw him almost daily through four years, described him as a veritable angel through nine hundred pages.118 He, far more than Coleridge, was a “damaged archangel,” carrying in his flesh the flaws of his heritage, illustrating and redeeming them with an audacity of conduct, a profusion of verse, and a force of rebel thought that overwhelmed old Goethe into calling him “the greatest [literary] genius of our century.”119
By comparison Shelley was the “ineffectual angel” of historic phrase. Not quite ineffectual; who shall say that the leaves scattered by the incantation of his verse did not deposit some of the seeds that grew into religious toleration, the liberation of woman, the victories of science in technology and philosophy, the extension of the franchise, and the reform of Parliament that made the nineteenth a “wonderful century”?
And he was a quite human angel. He had a body, and yielded to its demands at least for two elopements, not to speak of Emilia Viviani. He was thin, troubled with ailments, and with a persistent pain in the back. Of course he was exceptionally sensitive—even more than Byron—to external and internal stimuli. Recall his letter to Claire Clairmont (January 16, 1821): “You ask me where I find my pleasures. The wind, the light, the air, the smell of a flower, affect me with violent emotions.”120
Like all of us, he was especially fond of himself. He confessed to Godwin (January 28, 1812): “My egotism seems inexhaustible.”121 In taking Mary Godwin, and asking his wife Harriet to subside into a sister, he pleased his desires like any other mortal, and revealed more of himself in explaining that Harriet accorded less than Mary with his philosophy and ideals. He was modest about his poetry, rating it below Byron’s. In friendship he was faithful and considerate to the end. Byron, in reporting Shelley’s death to Murray, wrote: “You were all brutally mistaken about Shelley, who was, without exception, the best and least selfish man I ever knew. I never knew one who was not a beast by comparison.”122 Hogg reported the poet as erratic, forgetting appointments and promises, and readily slipping into a meditation oblivious of time and place.123 He was generally accounted impractical, but he was not easily cozened in money matters, and he did not surrender his hereditary rights without a long struggle.
He was too high-strung to be a quite rational thinker, and too lacking in a sense of humor to question his own ideas. His constant lure was imagination; reality seemed so drear and gross compared with conceivable improvements that he tended to take refuge from reality in the Elysian Fields of his waking dreams. He proposed to do away with kings, lawyers, and priests; to convert to vegetarianism a world still in the hunting stage, and to free the love of the sexes from all trammels of law. He saw no obstacles to all this in the nature of man or in man’s biological past. “Shelley believed,” said his loving widow, “that mankind has only to will that there should be no evil, and there would be none…. This opinion he entertained … with fervent enthusiasm.”124 He almost ignored history, except to idealize the Greeks, and there he ignored the slaves.
We tend to exaggerate Shelley’s simplicity because we forget that death never allowed him to mature. Because of their premature end Byron and Shelley have come down to us as Romantic poets, as very gods of the Romantic movement in England; had they lived to be sixty they would probably have become conservative citizens, and might have come down to us with a humbler place in history than their early romantic deaths have earned for them.
Indeed, by the age of twenty-eight Shelley had already cooled to a respectable moderation. In 1820 he wrote a substantial essay called A Philosophical View of Reform, which was published a year later. “Poets and philosophers,” he announced, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”:125 poets because they are the voices of imagination, which, amid many absurdities, conceive new ideas that in time stir men to experiment and advance; philosophers because they bring to social problems the habit of calm reason and the perspective of years. Like Byron and every humane spirit of the time, Shelley had been revolted by the condition of the factory workers in England, and by the cold recipes of Malthus for controlling the population but leaving wages to be dictated by the law of supply and demand—i.e., by the number of unemployed competing for available jobs.126 He denounced both Protestantism and Catholicism for having failed to apply the spirit of Christ to the relations between rich and poor.127 He proposed to eliminate, by a levy on the rich, the national debt whose yearly interest charges required heavy taxes upon the general public.128 He pointed out that the increase of population between 1689 and 1819 had changed the proportion of voters to nonvoters, leaving the election of Parliament to an even smaller minority, practically disenfranchising the people.129 He forgave the landed aristocracy as rooted in law and time, and (perhaps with an eye to future Shelleys) he sanctioned a moderate transmission of wealth; but he scorned the rising plutocracy of manufacturers, merchants, and financiers.130 He repudiated Machiavelli’s exemption of governments from morality: “Politics are only sound when conducted on principles of morality. They are, in fact, the morality of nations.”131He called for “a republic governed by one assembly,” but, like his mentor Godwin, advised against violent revolution.132 He defended the French Revolution, praised Napoleon Consul, repudiated Napoleon Emperor, deplored the French defeat at Waterloo.
Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, written in 1821, did not find a publisher till 1840. Here the self-exiled poet, now omitting philosophers, exalted poets as the “supreme lawgivers of the world.”133 He had expressed this comforting opinion in his preface to Prometheus Unbound: “The great writers of our age are, we have reasons to suppose, the companions and forerunners of some unimagined change to our social condition or the opinions which cement it. The cloud of mind is discharging its collected lightning, and the equilibrium between institutions and opinions is now restoring, or is about to be restored.”134 Now he added: “Our own will be a memorable age in intellectual achievements, and we live among such philosophers [Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling—and Godwin] and poets [Goethe, Schiller, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley] as surpass beyond comparison any who have appeared since the last national struggle for civil and religious liberty” (1642).135
By contrast Shelley underestimated the role that science was beginning to take in remolding ideas and institutions. He warned against letting the progress of science, which merely improves our tools, outrun the development of literature and philosophy, which consider our purposes;136 so the “unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty” had further enriched the clever few, and had added to the concentration of wealth and power.137
Shelley’s discontent with his second father-in-law’s finances spread to Godwin’s philosophy. Having rediscovered Plato (he had translated the Symposium and the Ion), he passed from a naturalistic to a spiritual interpretation of nature and life. He now doubted the omnicompetence of reason, and had lost his enthusiasm for atheism. As he neared thirty he ceased to attack supernatural religion; now he thought, very much like the young Wordsworth, that nature was the outer form of a pervading inner soul. There might even be a kind of immortality: the vital force in the individual passes, at his death, into another form, but never dies.138