Shelley Sunday: ‘Shelley At Oxford’ [T.J.Hogg]

From Thomas J. Hogg’s biography of Shelley [Remember to take everything Hogg says with a grain of salt…]: Shelley At Oxford

“At the commencement of Michaelmas term—that is, at the end of October, in the year 1810, I happened one day to sit next to 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 anyone. I know not how it was that 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. We have often endeavoured in vain to recollect in what manner our discourse began, and especially by what transition it passed to a subject sufficiently remote from all the associations we were able to trace. The stranger had expressed an enthusiastic admiration for poetical and imaginative works of the German school; I dissented from his criticisms. He upheld the originality[Pg 7] of the German writings; I asserted their want of nature.

“What modern literature,” said he, “will you compare to theirs?”

I named the Italian. This roused all his impetuosity; and few, as I soon discovered, were more impetuous in argumentative conversation. So eager was our dispute that, when the servants came in to clear the tables, we were not aware that we had been left alone. I remarked that it was time to quit the hall, and I invited the stranger to finish the discussion at my rooms. He eagerly assented. He lost the thread of his discourse in the transit, and the whole of his enthusiasm in the cause of Germany; for, as soon as he arrived at my rooms, and whilst I was lighting the candles, he said calmly, and to my great surprise, that he was not qualified to maintain such a discussion, for he was alike ignorant of Italian and German, and had only read the works of the Germans, in translations, and but little of Italian poetry, even at second hand. For my part, I confessed, with an equal [Pg 8]ingenuousness, that I knew nothing of German, and but little of Italian; that I had spoken only through others, and, like him, had hitherto seen by the glimmering light of translations.

It is upon such scanty data that young men reason; upon such slender materials do they build up their opinions. It may be urged, however, that if they did not discourse freely with each other upon insufficient information—for such alone can be acquired in the pleasant morning of life, and until they educate themselves—they would be constrained to observe a perpetual silence, and to forego the numerous advantages that flow from frequent and liberal discussion.

I inquired of the vivacious stranger, as we sat over our wine and dessert, how long he had been at Oxford, and how he liked it? He answered my questions with a certain impatience, and, resuming the subject of our discussion, he remarked that, “Whether the literature of Germany or of Italy be the more original, or in a purer and more[Pg 9] accurate taste, is of little importance, for polite letters are but vain trifling; the study of languages, not only of the modern tongues, but of Latin and Greek also, is merely the study of words and phrases, of the names of things; it matters not how they are called. It is surely far better to investigate things themselves.” I inquired, 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 defence of the Germans, of chemistry and chemical analysis. Concerning that science, then so popular, I had merely a scanty and vulgar knowledge, gathered from elementary books, and the ordinary experiments of popular lecturers. I listened, therefore, in silence to his eloquent disquisition, interposing a few brief questions only, and at long intervals, as to the extent of his own studies and manipulations. As I felt,[Pg 10] in truth, but a slight interest in the subject of his conversation, I had leisure to examine, and, I may add, to admire, the appearance of my very extraordinary guest. It was a sum of many contradictions. His figure was slight and fragile, and yet his bones and joints were large and strong. He was tall, but he stooped so much that he seemed of a low stature. His clothes were expensive, and made according to 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 lastappeared 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[Pg 11] 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 characterises the best works, and chiefly the frescoes (and into these they infused their whole souls) of the great masters of Florence and of Rome. I recognised the very[Pg 12] peculiar expression in these wonderful productions long afterwards, and with a satisfaction mingled with much sorrow, for it was after the decease of him in whose countenance I had first observed it. I admired the enthusiasm of my new acquaintance, his ardour in the cause of science and his thirst for knowledge. I seemed to have found in him all those intellectual qualities which I had vainly expected to meet with in a University. But there was one physical blemish that threatened to neutralise all his excellence. “This is a fine, clever fellow!” I said to myself, “but I can never bear his society; I shall never be able to endure his voice; it would kill me. What a pity it is!” I am very sensible of imperfections, and especially of painful sounds, and the voice of the stranger was excruciating. It was intolerably shrill, harsh and discordant; of the most cruel intension. It was perpetual, and without any remission; it excoriated the ears. He continued to discourse on chemistry, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing[Pg 13] before the fire, and sometimes pacing about the room; and when one of the innumerable clocks, that speak in various notes during the day and the night at Oxford, proclaimed a quarter to seven, he said suddenly that he must go to a lecture on mineralogy, and declared enthusiastically that he expected to derive much pleasure and instruction from it. I am ashamed to own that the cruel voice made me hesitate for a moment; but it was impossible to omit so indispensable a civility—I invited him to return to tea. He gladly assented, promised that he would not be absent long, snatched his hat, hurried out of the room, and I heard his footsteps, as he ran through the silent quadrangle and afterwards along High Street.

An hour soon elapsed, whilst the table was cleared and the tea was made, and I again heard the footsteps of one running quickly. My guest suddenly burst into the room, threw down his cap, and as he stood shivering and chafing his hands over the fire, he declared how much[Pg 14] he had been disappointed in the lecture. Few persons attended; it was dull and languid, and he was resolved never to go to another.

“I went away, indeed,” he added, with an arch look, and in a shrill whisper, coming close to me as he spoke—“I went away, indeed, before the lecture was finished. I stole away, for it was so stupid, and I was so cold that my teeth chattered. The Professor saw me, and appeared to be displeased. I thought I could have got out without being observed, but I struck my knee against a bench and made a noise, and he looked at me. I am determined that he shall never see me again.”

“What did the man talk about?”

“About stones! about stones!” he answered, with a downcast look and in a melancholy tone, as if about to say something excessively profound. “About stones! stones, stones, stones!—nothing but stones!—and so drily. It was wonderfully tiresome, and stones are not interesting things in themselves!”

[Pg 15]We took tea, and soon afterwards had supper, as was usual. He discoursed after supper with as much warmth as before of the wonders of chemistry; of the encouragement that Napoleon afforded to that most important science; of the French chemists and their glorious discoveries, and of the happiness of visiting Paris and sharing in their fame and their experiments. The voice, however, seemed to me more cruel than ever. He spoke, likewise, of his own labours and of his apparatus, and starting up suddenly after supper, he proposed that I should go instantly with him to see the galvanic trough. I looked at my watch, and observed that it was too late; that the fire would be out, and the night was cold. He resumed his seat, saying that I might come on the morrow early, to breakfast, immediately after chapel. He continued to declaim in his rapturous strain, asserting that chemistry was, in truth, the only science that deserved to be studied. I suggested doubts. I ventured to question the pre-eminence of the science, and even[Pg 16] to hesitate in admitting its utility. He described in glowing language some discoveries that had lately been made; but the enthusiastic chemist candidly allowed that they were rather brilliant than useful, asserting, however, that they would soon be applied to purposes of solid advantage.

“Is not the time of by far the larger proportion of the human species,” he inquired, with his fervid manner and in his piercing tones, “wholly consumed in severe labour? And is not this devotion of our race—of the whole of our race, I may say (for those who, like ourselves, are indulged with an exemption from the hard lot are so few in comparison with the rest, that they scarcely deserve to be taken into account)—absolutely necessary to procure subsistence, so that men have no leisure for recreation or the high improvement of the mind? Yet this incessant toil is still inadequate to procure an abundant supply of the common necessaries of life. Some are doomed actually to want them, and many are compelled to be content with[Pg 17] an insufficient provision. We know little of the peculiar nature of those substances which are proper for the nourishment of animals; we are ignorant of the qualities that make them fit for this end. Analysis has advanced so rapidly of late that we may confidently anticipate that we shall soon discover wherein their aptitude really consists; having ascertained the cause, we shall next be able to command it, and to produce at our pleasure the desired effects. It is easy, even in our present state of ignorance, to reduce our ordinary food to carbon, or to lime; a moderate advancement in chemical science will speedily enable us, we may hope, to create, with equal facility, food from substances that appear at present to be as ill adapted to sustain us. What is the cause of the remarkable fertility of some lands, and of the hopeless sterility of others? A spadeful of the most productive soil does not to the eye differ much from the same quantity taken from the most barren. The real difference is probably very slight; by[Pg 18] chemical agency the philosopher may work a total change, and may transmute an unfruitful region into a land of exuberant plenty. Water, like the atmospheric air, is compounded of certain gases; in the progress of scientific discovery a simple and sure method of manufacturing the useful fluid, in every situation and in any quantity, may be detected. The arid deserts of Africa may then be refreshed by a copious supply and may be transformed at once into rich meadows and vast fields of maize and rice. The generation of heat is a mystery, but enough of the theory of caloric has already been developed to induce us to acquiesce in the notion that it will hereafter, and perhaps at no very distant period, be possible to produce heat at will, and to warm the most ungenial climates as readily as we now raise the temperature of our apartments to whatever degree we may deem agreeable or salutary. If, however, it be too much to anticipate that we shall ever become sufficiently skilful to command such a prodigious supply of[Pg 19] heat, we may expect, without the fear of disappointment, soon to understand its nature and the causes of combustion, so far at least, as to provide ourselves cheaply with a fund of heat that will supersede our costly and inconvenient fuel, and will suffice to warm our habitations, for culinary purposes and for the various demands of the mechanical arts. We could not determine without actual experiment whether an unknown substance were combustible; when we shall have thoroughly investigated the properties of fire, it may be that we shall be qualified to communicate to clay, to stones, and to water itself, a chemical recomposition that will render them as inflammable as wood, coals and oil; for the difference of structure is minute and invisible, and the power of feeding flame may, perhaps, be easily added to any substance, or taken away from it. What a comfort would it be to the poor at all times, and especially at this season, if we were capable of solving this problem alone, if we could furnish them with a competent supply of heat![Pg 20] These speculations may appear wild, and it may seem improbable that they will ever be realised to persons who have not extended their views of what is practicable by closely watching science in its course onward; but there are many mysterious powers, many irresistible agents with the existence and with some of the phenomena of which all are acquainted. What a mighty instrument would electricity be in the hands of him who knew how to wield it, in what manner to direct its omnipotent energies, and we may command an indefinite quantity of the fluid. By means of electrical kites we may draw down the lightning from heaven! What a terrible organ would the supernal shock prove, if we were able to guide it; how many of the secrets of nature would such a stupendous force unlock. The galvanic battery is a new engine; it has been used hitherto to an insignificant extent, yet has it wrought wonders already; what will not an extraordinary combination of troughs, of colossal magnitude, a well-arranged system of hundreds of[Pg 21] metallic plates, effect? The balloon has not yet received the perfection of which it is surely capable; the art of navigating the air is in its first and most helpless infancy; the aërial mariner still swims on bladders, and has not mounted even the rude raft; if we weigh this invention, curious as it is, with some of the subjects I have mentioned, it will seem trifling, no doubt—a mere toy, a feather in comparison with the splendid anticipations of the philosophical chemist; yet it ought not altogether to be contemned. It promises prodigious facilities for locomotion, and will enable us to traverse vast tracts with ease and rapidity, and to explore unknown countries without difficulty. Why are we still so ignorant of the interior of Africa?—why do we not despatch intrepid aëronauts to cross it in every direction, and to survey the whole peninsula in a few weeks? The shadow of the first balloon, which a vertical sun would project precisely underneath it, as it glided silently over that hitherto unhappy country, would virtually[Pg 22] emancipate every slave, and would annihilate slavery for ever.”

With such fervour did the slender, beardless stranger speculate concerning the march of physical science; his speculations were as wild as the experience of twenty-one years has shown them to be; but the zealous earnestness for the augmentation of knowledge, and the glowing philanthropy and boundless benevolence that marked them, and beamed forth in the whole deportment of that extraordinary boy, are not less astonishing than they would have been if the whole of his glorious anticipations had been prophetic; for these high qualities at least I have never found a parallel. When he had ceased to predict the coming honours of chemistry, and to promise the rich harvest of benefits it was soon to yield, I suggested that, although its results were splendid, yet for those who could not hope to make discoveries themselves, it did not afford so valuable a course of mental discipline as the moral sciences; moreover, that, if[Pg 23] chemists asserted that their science alone deserved to be cultivated, the mathematicians made the same assertion, and with equal confidence, respecting their studies; but that I was not sufficiently advanced myself in mathematics to be able to judge how far it was well founded. He declared that he knew nothing of mathematics, and treated the notion of their paramount importance with contempt.

“What do you say of metaphysics?” I continued; “is that science, too, the study of words only?”

“Ay, metaphysics,” he said, in a solemn tone, and with a mysterious air, “that is a noble study indeed! If it were possible to make any discoveries there, they would be more valuable than anything the chemists have done, or could do; they would disclose the analysis of mind, and not of mere matter!” Then, rising from his chair, he paced slowly about the room, with prodigious strides, and discoursed of souls with still greater animation and vehemence than he had displayed in[Pg 24] treating of gases—of a future state—and especially of a former state—of pre-existence, obscured for a time through the suspension of consciousness—of personal identity, and also of ethical philosophy, in a deep and earnest tone of elevated morality, until he suddenly remarked that the fire was nearly out, and the candles were glimmering in their sockets, when he hastily apologised for remaining so long. I promised to visit the chemist in his laboratory, the alchemist in his study, the wizard in his cave, not at breakfast on that day, for it was already one, but in twelve hours—one hour after noon—and to hear some of the secrets of nature; and for that purpose he told me his name, and described the situation of his rooms. I lighted him downstairs as well as I could with the stump of a candle which had dissolved itself into a lump, and I soon heard him running through the quiet quadrangle in the still night. That sound became afterwards so familiar to my ear, that I still seem to hear Shelley’s hasty steps.”

Source: Shelley At Oxford, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, this excerpt from Ch. 1 taken from digital copy at Project



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