PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY'S READING (1803)
THOMAS MEDWIN (17881869)
He was very fond of reading, and greedily devoured all the books which were brought to school after the holidays; these were mostly blue books. Who does not know what blue books mean? but if there should be any one ignorant enough not to know what those dear darling volumes, so designated from their covers, contain, be it known, that they are or were to be bought for sixpence, and embodied stories of haunted castles, bandits, murderers, and other grim personages a most exciting and interesting sort of food for boys’ minds; among those of a larger calibre was one which I have never seen since, but which I still remember with a recouché delight. It was Peter Wilkins. How much Shelley wished for a winged wife and little winged cherubs of children!
But this stock was very soon exhausted. As there was no school library [at Sion House school, where Shelley and Medwin were schoolmates], we soon resorted, ‘under the rose,’ to a low circulating one in the town (Brentford), and here the treasures at first seemed inexhaustible. Novels at this time, (I speak of 1803) in three goodly volumes, such as we owe to the great Wizard of the North [i.e. Sir Walter Scott], were unknown. Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett, formed the staple of the collection. But these authors were little to Shelley’s taste. Anne Ratcliffe’s works pleased him most, particularly the Italian, but the Rosa-Matilda school, especially a strange, wild romance, entitled Zofloya, or the Moor, a Monk-Lewisy production, where his Satanic Majesty, as in Faust, plays the chief part, enraptured him. The two novels he afterwards wrote, entitled Zastrozzi and [St Irvyne, or] The Rosicrucian, were modelled after this ghastly production, all of which I now remember, is, that the principal character is an incarnation of the devil, but who, unlike the Monk, (then a prohibited book, but afterwards an especial favourite with Shelley) instead of tempting a man and turning him into a likeness of himself, enters into a woman called Olympia, who poisons her husband homeopathically, and ends by being carried off very melodramatically in blue flames to the place of dolor.
‘Accursed,’ said Schiller, ‘the folly of our nurses, who distort the imagination with frightful ghost stories, and impress ghastly pictures of executions on our weak brains, so that involuntary shudderings seize the limbs of a man, making them rattle in frosty agony.’ &c. ‘But who knows,’ he adds, ‘if these traces of early education be ineffaceable in us?’ Schiller was, however, himself much addicted to this sort of reading. It is said of Collins that he employed his mind chiefly upon works of fiction and subjects of fancy, and by indulging some peculiar habits of thought, was universally delighted with those flights of imagination which pass the bounds of nature, and to which the mind is reconciled only by a passive acquiescence in popular tradition. He loved fairies, genii, giants, and monsters; he delighted to rove though the meanders of enchantment, to gaze on the magnificence of golden palaces, to repose by the waterfalls of Elysian gardens. Milton, too, in early life, lived in a similar dream-land, was fond of high romance and gothic diableries; and it would seem that such contemplations furnish a fit pabulum for the development of poetical genius.
This constant dwelling on the marvellous, had considerable influence on Shelley’s imagination, nor is it to be wondered, that at that age he entertained a belief in apparitions, and the power of evoking them, to which he alludes frequently in his afterworks, as in Alastor:
and in an earlier effusion:
By forcing some lone ghost,
My messenger, to render up the tale
Of what we are;
and again in the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty:
Oh, there are genii of the air,
And genii of the evening breeze,
And gentle ghosts, with eyes as fair
As star-beams among twilight trees;
While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
After supping on the horrors of the Minerva press, he was subject to strange, and sometimes frightful dreams, and was haunted by apparitions that bore all the semblance of reality. We did not sleep in the same dormitory, but I shall never forget one moonlight night seeing Shelley walk into my room. He was in a state of somnambulism. His eyes were open, and he advanced with slow steps to the window, which, it being the height of summer, was open. I got out of bed, seized him with my arm, and waked him -; I was not then aware of the danger of suddenly rousing the sleep-walker. He was excessively agitated, and after leading him back with some difficulty to his couch, I sat by him for some time, a witness to the severe erethism of his nerves, which the sudden shock produced.
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead,
I called on poisonous names with which our youth is fed
I was not heard I saw them not.
This was the only occasion, however, to my knowledge, that a similar event occurred at school, but I remember that he was severely punished for his involuntary transgression. If, however, he ceased at that time to somnambulize, he was given to waking dreams, a sort of lethargy and abstraction that became habitual to him, and after the accès was over, his eyes flashed, his lips quivered, his voice was tremulous with emotion, a sort of ecstacy came over him, and he talked more like a spirit or an angel than a human being.
Thomas Medwin, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2 vols (London: Thomas Cautley Newby, 1847), vol. 1, pp. 2934]
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