A poet to the rescue

PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY (1792-1822), the poet, was a friend of the literary critic and essayist James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), who lived at various times in Hampstead, north London. Shelley’s poetry and other writing attracted the attention of radical thinkers including, for example, Karl Marx, who wrote:

“The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand them and love them rejoice that Byron died at 36, because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois. They grieve that Shelley died at 29, because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism.” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/eleanor-marx/1888/04/shelley-socialism.htm)

Hunt, who knew him well, wrote of the poet:

“Shelley was not only anxious for the good of mankind in general. We have seen what he proposed on the subject of Reform in Parliament, and he was always very desirous of the national welfare.”

I mention this about Shelley because it chimes with what is to follow.

The Vale of Health, Hampstead, north London

A few months ago, I acquired a copy of Leigh Hunt’s wordy but fascinating autobiography. After being released from a spell in prison in 1815 having libelled the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, Hunt moved to the Vale of Health in Hampstead. Shelley often used to visit Hunt there, sometimes staying at his home for several days. Hunt wrote that Shelley:

“… delighted in the natural broken ground, and in the fresh air of the place … Here also he swam his paper boats on the ponds, and delighted to play with my children…”

Hunt was returning to his home in the Vale of Health one evening after having been to the opera when he heard a woman shrieking and a man’s voice coming from within his house. The woman’s voice was that of a lady, whom Shelley had found lying:

“… near the top of the hill, in fits. It was a fierce winter night, with snow upon the ground; and winter loses nothing of its fierceness in Hampstead. My friend, always the promptest and the most pitying on these occasions, knocked on the first house he could reach, in order to have the woman taken in.”

Shelley’s request was turned down. Hunt continued:

“The poor woman was in convulsions; her son, a young man, lamenting over her. At last my friend sees a carriage driving up to a house at a little distance. The knock is given; the warm door opens; servants and lights pour forth…”

And Shelley asks for help employing the voice:

“… which anybody might recognise for that of the highest gentleman as well as of an interesting individual …”

He relates his story to the elderly gentleman emerging from his carriage and asks whether he will go and see the distressed female. The passenger replies:

“No, sir; there’s no necessity for that sort of thing, depend on it. Impostors swarm everywhere: the thing cannot be done; sir, your conduct is extraordinary.”

To which Shelley replied to the astonishment of the man who refused to provide assistance:

“Sir, I am very sorry to say that your conduct is not extraordinary; and if my own seems to amaze you, I will tell you something that will amaze you a little more, and I hope will frighten you. It is such men as you who madden the spirits and the patience of the poor and wretched; and if ever a convulsion comes in this country (which is very probable), recollect what I tell you: – you will have your house, that you refuse to put the miserable woman into, burnt over your head.”

By ‘convulsion’ Shelley meant revolution, something that England did not suffer as had France or later Russia and elsewhere. Leigh’s reporting of what Shelley said may help to show that whatever Marx saw in his writings was in harmony with his own ideas.

As for the poor woman, she was:

“… brought to our house, which was at some distance, and down a bleak path (it was in the Vale of Health); and Shelley and her son were obliged to hold her till the doctor could arrive.”

In case you are wondering how the woman got into such a sad state, Hunt informs us:

“It appeared that she had been attending this son in London, on a criminal charge made against him, the agitation of which had thrown her into fits on her return. The doctor said that she would have perished, had she laid there a short time longer.”

Now, I am no reader of poetry. I find that I enjoy it more if it is read to me. Further, I must confess that I am unfamiliar with Shelley’s works, but this story related by Hunt, has begun to endear the poet to me. Shelley not only met Hunt in Hampstead but also in Italy on the 1st of July 1822, where they, along with Lord Byron, made plans to start a new journal “The Liberal”. On the 8th of July, Shelley died at sea when the boat he was travelling in sunk.

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