Зображення сторінки
[blocks in formation]

The intimacy with Shelley, which also was not of Godwin's seeking, was destined to have a far more abiding influence on the lives of both. The first notice of Shelley in the Godwin Diaries is under date Jan. 6, 1811. “Writel to Shelly.” It is the only time his name is so spelt, his letter was in answer to Shelley's first letter, in which he introduced himself, and was written at once, when he was not quite clear about the name of his correspondent.

Shelley was at this time living at Keswick, in the earlier and happier days of his marriage with Harriet Westbrook, and his eager and restless spirit prompted him to form the acquaintance, by letter, with others whom he believed to be like himself enthusiasts in the cause of humanity, of liberty, and progress. He had already, in this manner, made the acquaintance of Leigh Hunt, when, in January 1811, he wrote thus to Godwin :

P. B. Shelley to William Godwin.

KESWICK, Jan. 3, 1811. You will be surprised at hearing from a stranger. No introduction has, nor in all probability ever will, authorize that which common thinkers would call a liberty. It is, however, a liberty which, although not sanctioned by custom, is so far from being reprobated by reason, that the dearest interests of mankind imperiously demand that a certain etiquette of fashion should no

longer keep ‘man at a distance from man,' and impose its flimsy barriers between the free communication of intellect. The name of Godwin has been accustomed to excite in me feelings of reverence and admiration. I have been accustomed to consider him. as a luminary too dazzling for the darkness which surrounds him, and from the earliest period of my knowledge of his principles, I have ardently desired to share in the footing of intimacy that intellect which I have delighted to contemplate in its emanations. Considering, then, these feelings, you will not be surprised at the inconceivable emotion with which I learned your existence and your dwelling. I had enrolled your name on the list of the honourable 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 still planning the welfare of human kind. I have but just entered on the scene of human operations, yet my feelings and my reasonings correspond with what yours were. My course has been short, but eventful. I have seen much of human prejudice, suffered much from human persecution, yet I see no reason hence inferable which should alter my wishes for their renovation. The ill treatment I have met with has more than ever impressed the truth of my principles on my judgment. I am young : I am ardent in the cause of philanthropy and truth : do not suppose that this is vanity. I am not conscious that it influences the portraiture. I imagine myself dispassionately describing the state of my mind. I am young : you have gone before me, I doubt not are a veteran to me in the years

of persecution. Is it strange that, defying persecution as I have done, I should outstep the limits of custom's prescription, and endeavour to make my desire useful by friendship with William Godwin ? I pray you to answer this letter. Imperfect as it may be, my capacity, my desire, is ardent, and unintermitted. Half-anhour would be at least humanity employed in the experiment. I may mistake your residence. Certain feelings, of which I may be an inadequate arbiter, may induce you to desire concealment, I may not in fine have an answer to this letter. If I do not, when I come to London I shall seek for you. I am convinced I could

[blocks in formation]

represent myself to you in such terms as not to be thought wholly unworthy of your friendship. At least, if any desire for universal happiness

has any claim upon your preference, that desire I can exhibit. Adieu. Adieu. I shall earnestly await your answer.


The answer to this is lost, but it appears from the diary that the correspondence was frequent. From Keswick Shelley went to Dublin, and devoted himself to the cause of Irish Patriotism, with his usual chivalry, and perhaps even less than his usual discretion. Godwin did all that he could, not by any means to change Shelley's principles, but to inculcate prudence and discretion in the mode of carrying them out. The following letters serve well to show their writer's political standpoint, though it may be doubted if they had much effect on the vehement young dreamer to whom they were addressed. In fact, very shortly after the last was written, Shelley had made Ireland too hot to hold him, for venturing to suggest that even Protestants were entitled to toleration. The police warned him that he had better quit the country, and after a while he settled for a time his wandering household at Lynmouth, in North Devon.

William Godwin to P. B. Shelley.

March 4, 1812. “MY GOOD FRIEND,—I have read all your letters (the first perhaps excepted) with peculiar interest, and I wish it to be understood by you unequivocally that, 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.

“ In your last letter you say, 'I publish because I will publish

about you.

nothing that shall not conduce to virtue, and therefore my publications, as far as they do influence, shall influence for good.'

“Oh, my friend, how short-sighted are the views that dictated this sentence! Every man, in every deliberate action of his life, imagines he sees a preponderance of good likely to result. This is the law of our nature, from which none of us can escape.

You do not in this point generically differ from the human beings

Mr Burke and Tom Paine, when they. wrote on the French Revolution, perhaps equally believed that the sentiments they supported were essentially conducive to the welfare of man. When Mr Walsh resolved to purloin to his own use a few thousand pounds, with which to settle himself and his family and children in America, he tells us that he was for some time anxious that the effects of his fraud should fall upon Mr. Oldham rather than upon Sir Thomas Plumer, because, in his opinion, Sir Thomas was the better man. And I have no doubt that he was fully persuaded that a greater sum of happiness would result from these thousand pounds being employed in settling his innocent and lovely family in America, than in securing to his employer the possession of a large landed estate.

“ In the pamphlet you have just sent me, your views and mine as to the improvement of mankind are decisively at issue. You profess the immediate objects of your efforts to be the organization of a society whose institution shall serve as a bond to its members.' If I may be allowed to understand my book on Political Justice, it's pervading principle is, that association is a most ill-chosen and ill-qualified mode of endeavouring to promote the political happiness of mankind. And I think of your pamphlet, however commendable and lovely are many of its sentiments, that it will either be ineffective to its immediate object, or that it has no very remote tendency to light again the flames of rebellion and war.

“ Discussion, reading, enquiry, perpetual communication: these are my favourite methods for the improvement of mankind, but associations, organized societies, I firmly condemn. You may well tell the adder not to sting :

[ocr errors]


[merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

as tell organized societies of men, associated to obtain their rights and to extinguish oppression,-prompted by a deep aversion to inequality, luxury, enormous taxes, and the evils of war,—to be innocent, to employ no violence, and calmly to await the progress of truth. I never was at a public political dinner, a scene that I have now not witnessed for many years, that I did not see how the enthusiasm was lighted up, how the flame caught from man to man, how fast the dictates of sober reason were obliterated by the gusts of passion, and how near the assembly was, like Alexander's compotatores at Persepolis, to go forth and fire the city, or, like the auditors of Anthony's oration over the body of Cæsar, to apply a flaming brand to the mansion of each several conspirator.

“ Discussion and conversation on the best interests of society are excellent as long as they are unfettered, and each man talks to his neighbour in the freedom of congenial intercourse as he happens to meet with him in the customary haunts of men, or in the quiet and beneficent intercourse of each other's fireside. But they become unwholesome and poisonous when men shape themselves into societies, and become distorted with the artifices of organization. It will not then long be possible to reason calmly and dispassionately : men will heat each other into impatience and indignation against their oppressors; they will become tired of talking for ever, and will be in a hurry to act. If this view of things is true, applied to any country whatever, it is peculiarly and fearfully so when applied to the fervent and impetuous character of the Irish.

“One principle that I believe is wanting in you, and in all our too fervent and impetuous reformers, is the thought that almost every institution and form of society is good in its place and in the period of time to which it belongs. How many beautiful and admirable effects grew out of Popery and the monastic institutions

« НазадПродовжити »