Shelley as a Freshman

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Percy Bysshe Shelley

From a chalk drawing after the original painting by Miss Curran

If one were to name ten of the greatest English poets beginning with Chaucer and ending with Tennyson, the name of Shelley would be included, although he died before he was thirty years old. Hogg, a friend of Shelley's, has given us an interesting account of their meeting when both were freshmen at Oxford.

"At the commencement of Michaelmas Term," writes Hogg, "that is, at the end of October in the year 1801, I happened one day to sit next a freshman at dinner; it was his first appearance in hall. His figure was slight, and his aspect remarkably youthful, even at our table, where all were very young. He seemed thoughtful and absent. He ate little and had no acquaintance with any one. I know not how we fell into conversation, for such familiarity was unusual, and, strange to say, much reserve prevailed in a society where there could not possibly be occasion for any." This conversation led into a heated discussion of the merits of German and Italian literature. When the time for leaving the dining hall had come, Hogg invited his new acquaintance over to his rooms. During the transit the thread of the argument was lost, and while Hogg was lighting the candles Shelley frankly said that he was not competent to argue the point, as he had little knowledge of either German or Italian literature. Then Hogg with equal ingenuousness confessed that he knew but little of Italian and nothing of German literature.

So the talk went merrily on. Shelley said it made little difference whether Italian or German literature were the more worthy, for all literature, what was it but vain trifling? What is the study of language but the study of words, of phrases, of the names of things? How much better and wiser to study things themselves!

"I inquired," says Hogg, "a little bewildered, how this was to be effected. He answered, 'Through the physical sciences, and especially through chemistry,' and raising his voice, his face flushing as he spoke, he discoursed, with a degree of animation that far outshone his zeal in defense of the Germans, of chemistry and chemical analysis." While this is going on Hogg studies the youthful speaker. What manner of man is this brilliant guest? "It was a sum of many contradictions. His figure was slight and fragile, and yet his bones were large and strong. He was tall, but he stooped so much that he seemed of low stature. His clothes were expensive and made after the most approved mode of the day; but they were tumbled, rumpled, unbrushed. His gestures were abrupt, and sometimes violent, occasionally even awkward, yet more frequently gentle and graceful. His complexion was delicate and almost feminine, of the purest red and white; yet he was tanned and freckled by exposure to the sun, having passed the autumn, as he said, in shooting. His features, his whole face and particularly his head, were, in fact, unusually small, yet the last appeared of a remarkable bulk, for his hair was long and bushy, and in fits of absence, and in the agonies (if I may use the word) of anxious thought, he often rubbed it fiercely with his hands, or passed his fingers quickly through his locks unconsciously, so that it was singularly wild and rough. In times when it was the mode to imitate stage-coachmen as closely as possible in costume, and when the hair was invariably cropped, like that of our soldiers, this eccentricity was very striking. His features were not symmetrical (the mouth, perhaps, excepted), yet was the effect of the whole extremely powerful. They breathed an animation, a fire, an enthusiasm, a vivid and preternatural intelligence, that I never met with in any other countenance. Nor was the moral expression less beautiful than the intellectual, for there was a softness, a delicacy, a gentleness, and especially (though this will surprise many) that air of profound religious veneration that characterizes the best works, and chiefly the frescoes of the great masters of Florence and Rome."

The next day Hogg pays a visit to Shelley's rooms. The furniture was new and the walls were freshly papered, but everything in the room was in confusion. "Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical instruments, clothes, pistols, linen, crockery, ammunition, and phials innumerable, with money, stockings, prints, crucibles, bags, and boxes, were scattered on the floor in every place, as if the young chemist, in order to analyze the mystery of creation, had endeavored first to reconstruct the primeval chaos. The tables, and especially the carpet, were already stained with large spots of various hues, which frequently proclaimed the agency of fire. An electrical machine, an air pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope, and large glass jars were conspicuous amidst the mass of matter. Upon the table by his side were some books lying open, several letters, a bundle of new pens, and a bottle of japan ink, that served as an ink-stand, a piece of deal, lately part of the lid of a box, with many chips, and a handsome razor that had been used as a knife. There were bottles of soda-water, sugar, pieces of lemon, and the traces of an effervescent beverage. Two piles of books supported the tongs, and these upheld a small glass retort above an argand lamp. I had not been seated many minutes before the liquor in the vessel boiled over, adding fresh stains to the table, and rising in fumes with a disagreeable odor. Shelley snatched the glass quickly, and dashing it in pieces among ashes under the grate, increased the unpleasant and penetrating effluvium."

Hogg and Shelley soon became fast friends and met every evening. "I was enabled," writes Hogg, "to continue my studies in the evening in consequence of a very remarkable peculiarity. My young and energetic friend was then overcome by extreme drowsiness, which speedily and completely vanquished him; he would sleep from two to four hours, often so soundly that his slumbers resembled a deep lethargy; he lay occasionally upon the sofa, but more commonly stretched upon the rug before a large fire, like a cat, and his little round head was exposed to such fierce heat, that I used to wonder how he was able to bear it. Sometimes I have interposed some shelter, but rarely with any permanent effect, for the sleeper usually contrived to turn himself, and to roll again into the spot where the fire glowed the brightest. His torpor was generally profound, but he would sometimes discourse incoherently for a long while in his sleep. At six he would suddenly compose himself, even in the midst of an animated narrative or of earnest discussion, and he would lie buried in entire forgetfulness, in a sweet and mighty oblivion, until ten, when he would suddenly start up, and rubbing his eyes with great violence, and passing his fingers swiftly through his long hair, would enter at once into a vehement argument, or begin to recite verses, either of his own composition or from the works of others, with a rapidity and an energy that were often quite painful. During the period of his occultation I took tea, and read or wrote without interruption. He would sometimes sleep for a shorter time, for about two hours, postponing for the like period the commencement of his retreat to the rug, and rising with tolerable punctuality at ten, and sometimes, though rarely, he was able entirely to forego the accustomed refreshment."

After supper, which Shelley would take upon awaking at ten, the two friends would talk and read together until two o'clock.