Read CHAPTER VI - GODWIN AND SHELLEY of Shelley‚ Godwin and Their Circle , free online book, by H. N. Brailsford, on

In a letter written in 1811 Shelley records how he suddenly heard with “inconceivable emotion” that Godwin was still alive. He “had enrolled his name on the list of the honourable dead.” Godwin, to quote Hazlitt’s rather cruel phrase, had “sunk below the horizon,” in his later years, and enjoyed “the serene twilight of a doubtful immortality.” Serene unfortunately it was not. With a lonely home and two little girls to care for, Godwin thought once more of marriage. Twice his wooing was unsuccessful, and the philosopher who believed that reason was omnipotent, tried in vain in long, elaborate letters to argue two ladies into love. His second wife came unsought. As he sat one day at his window in the Polygon, a handsome widow spoke to him from the neighbouring balcony, with these arresting words, “Is it possible that I behold the immortal Godwin?” They were married before the close of the year (1801).

Mrs. Clairmont was a strange successor to Mary Wollstonecraft. She was a vulgar and worldly woman, thoroughly feminine, and rather inclined to boast of her total ignorance of philosophy. A kindly and loyal wife she may have been, but she was jealous of Godwin’s friends, and would tell petty lies to keep them apart from him. She brought with her two children of a former marriage Charles (who was unhappy in this strange home and went early abroad) and Jane. On this clever, pretty and mercurial daughter all her partiality was lavished; and the unhappy girl, pampered by a philistine mother in a revolutionary atmosphere, was at the age of seventeen seduced by Byron, and became the mother of the fairy child, Allegra. The second Mrs. Godwin was the stepmother of convention, and treated both Fanny Imlay and Mary Godwin with consistent unkindness. It was the fate of the gentle, melancholy and lovable Fanny to take her own life at the age of twenty-two (1816). The destiny of these children, all gifted with what the age called sensibility, has served as the text of many a sermon against “the new philosophy.” No one, however, can read the documents which this strange household left behind, without feeling that the parent of the disaster in their lives was not their philosophic father, but this commonplace “womanly woman,” who flattered, intrigued, and lied. In 1803, there was born of this second marriage, a son, William, who inherited something of his father’s ability. He became a journalist, and died at the early age of twenty-nine, after publishing a novel of some promise, Transfusion, steeped in the same romantic fancies which colour Mary Shelley’s more famous Frankenstein.

With the cares of this family on his shoulders Godwin began to form the habit of applying to his wealthy friends for aid. In judging this part of his conduct, one must bear in mind both his own doctrine about property, and the practice of the age. Godwin was a communist, and so, in some degree, were most of his friends. When he applied to Wedgwood, the philosophic potter of Etruria, or to Ritson, the vegetarian, or in later years to Shelley for money, he was simply giving virtue its occasion, and assisting property to find its level. He practised what he preached, and he would himself give with a generosity which seemed prodigal, to his own relatives, to promising young men, and even to total strangers. He supported one disciple at Cambridge, as he had educated Cooper in his younger days. It was the prevailing theory of the age that men of genius have the right to call on society in the persons of its wealthier members for support. Helvetius, himself a rich man, had maintained this view. Southey and Coleridge acted on it. Dr. Priestley, universally respected both for his character and his talents, received large gifts from friends, admirers, members of his congregation and aristocratic patrons. To Godwin, profoundly individualistic as he was, a post in the civil service, or even a professorship, would have seemed a more degrading form of charity than this private benevolence.

Partly to mend his fortunes, partly to furnish himself with an occupation when his mind refused original work, Godwin in 1805 turned publisher. It was a disastrous inspiration, due apparently to his wife, who believed herself to possess a talent for business. The firm was established in Skinner Street, Holborn, and specialised in school books and children’s tales. They were well-printed, and well-illustrated, and Godwin, writing under the pseudonym of Edward Baldwin, to avoid the odium which had now overtaken his own name, compiled a series of histories with his usual industry and conscientious finish. Through years darkened with misfortune and clouded by failing health, he worked hard at the business of publishing. His capital was never adequate, though his friends and admirers twice came to his aid with public subscriptions. In 1822 he was evicted for arrears of rent, and in 1825 the unlucky venture came to an end.

These years were crowded with literary work, for neither “Baldwin” nor Godwin allowed their common pen to idle. Two elaborate historical works enjoyed and deserved a great reputation in their day, though subsequent research has rendered them obsolete a Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (1803) and a History of the Commonwealth of England from its Commencement to the Restoration of Charles II. (1824-8). It is not easy for modern taste to do justice to Godwin’s novels; but on them his contemporary fame chiefly rested, and publishers paid for them high though diminishing prices. They all belong to the romantic movement; some have a supernatural basis, and most of them discover a too obvious didactic purpose. St. Leon (1799), almost as popular in its day as Caleb Williams, mingles a romance of the elixir of life and the philosopher’s stone with an ardent recommendation of those family affections which Political Justice had depreciated. Fleetwood (1805) makes war on debauchery with sincere and impressive dulness. Mandeville (1817), Cloudesley (1830) and Deloraine (1833) are dead beyond the reach of curiosity, yet the Radical critics of his day, including Hazlitt, tried hard to convince themselves that Godwin was a greater novelist than the Tory, Scott. It remains to mention Godwin’s two attempts to conquer the theatre with Antonio (1800) and Faulkener (1807). Neither play lived, and Antonio, written in a sort of journalese, cut up into blank verse lines, was too frigid to survive the first night. Godwin’s disappointment would be comical if it were not painful. He regarded these deplorable tragedies as the flower of his genius.

Through these years of misfortune and eclipse, the friendships which Godwin could still retain were his chief consolation. The published letters of Coleridge and Lamb make a charming record of their intimacy. Whimsical and affectionate in their tone, they are an unconscious tribute as much to the man who received them as to the men who wrote them. Conservative critics have talked of Godwin’s “coldness” because he could reason. But the abiding and generous regard of such a nature as Charles Lamb’s is answer enough to these summary valuations. But Godwin’s most characteristic relationship was with the young men who sought him out as an inspiration. He would write them long letters of advice, encouragement, and criticism, and despite his own poverty, would often relieve their distresses. The most interesting of them was an adventurous young Scot named Arnot who travelled on foot through the greater part of Europe during the Napoleonic wars. The tragedy which seemed always to pursue Godwin’s intimates drove another of them, Patrickson, to suicide while an undergraduate at Cambridge. Bulwer Lytton, the last of these admiring young men, left a note on Godwin’s conversational powers in his extreme old age, which assures us that he was “well worth hearing,” even amid the brilliance of Lamb, Hunt, and Hazlitt, and could display “a grim jocularity of sarcasm.”

One of these relationships has become historical, and has coloured the whole modern judgment of Godwin. It would be no exaggeration to say that Godwin formed Shelley’s mind, and that Prometheus Unbound and Hellas were the greatest of Godwin’s works. That debt is too often forgotten, while literary gossip loves to remind us that it was repaid in cheques and post-obits. The intellectual relationship will be discussed in a later chapter; the bare facts of the personal connection must be told here. Political Justice took Shelley’s mind captive while he was still at Eton, much as it had obsessed Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth. The influence with him was permanent; and Queen Mab is nothing but Godwin in verse, with prose notes which quote or summarise him. A correspondence began in 1811, and the pupil met the master late in 1812, and again in 1813. They talked as usual of virtue and human perfectibility; and as the intimacy grew, Shelley, whose chief employment at this time was to discover and relieve genius in distress, began to place his present resources and future prospects at Godwin’s disposal. It was not an unnatural relationship to arise between a grateful disciple, heir to a great fortune, and a philosopher, aged, neglected, and sinking under the burden of debt.

Shelley’s romantic runaway match with Harriet Westbrook had meanwhile entered on the period of misery and disillusion. She had lost her early love of books and ideas, had taken to hats and ostentation, and had become so harsh to him that he welcomed absence. It is certain that he believed her to be also in the vulgar sense of the word unfaithful. At this crisis, when the separation seemed already morally complete, he met Mary Godwin, who had been absent from home during most of his earlier visits. She was a young girl of seventeen, eager for knowledge and experience, and as her father described her, “singularly bold, somewhat imperious and active of mind,” and “very pretty.” They rapidly fell in love. Godwin’s conduct was all that the most conventional morality could have required of him. His theoretical views of marriage were still unorthodox; he held at least that “the institution might with advantage admit of certain modifications.” But nine years before in the preface to Fleetwood he had protested that he was “the last man to recommend a pitiful attempt by scattered examples to renovate the face of society.” He seems, indeed, to have forgotten his own happy experiment with Mary Wollstonecraft, and protests with a vigour hardly to be expected from so stout an individualist against the idea, that “each man for himself should supersede and trample upon the institutions of the country in which he lives. A thousand things might be found excellent and salutary if brought into general practice, which would in some cases appear ridiculous and in others attended with tragical consequences if prematurely acted upon by a solitary individual.”

On this view he acted. He forbade Shelley his house, and tried to make a reconciliation between him and Harriet. On July 28, 1814, Mary secretly left her father’s house, joined her lover, and began with him her life of ideal intimacy and devotion. Godwin felt and expressed the utmost disapproval, and for two years refused to meet Shelley, until at the close of 1816, after the suicide of the unhappy Harriet, he stood at his daughter’s side as a witness to her marriage. His public conduct was correct. In private he continued to accept money from the erring disciple whom he refused to meet, and salved his elderly conscience by insisting that the cheques should be drawn in another name. There Godwin touched the lowest depths of his moral degeneration. Let us remember, however, that even Shelley, who saw the worst of Godwin, would never speak of him with total condemnation. “Added years,” he wrote near the end of his life, “only add to my admiration of his intellectual powers, and even the moral resources of his character.” In the poetical epistle to Maria Gisborne, he wrote of

“That which was Godwin greater none than he
Though fallen, and fallen on evil times, to stand
Among the spirits of our age and land
Before the dread tribunal of To-come
The foremost, while Rebuke cowers pale and dumb.”

The end came to the old man amid comparative peace and serenity. He accepted a sinecure from the Whigs, and became a Yeoman Usher of the Exchequer, with a small stipend and chambers in New Palace Yard. It was a tribute as much to his harmlessness as to his merit. The work of his last years shows little decay in his intellectual powers. His Thoughts on Man (1831) collects his fugitive essays. They are varied in subject, suave, easy and conversational in manner, more polished in style than those of the Enquirer, if a good deal thinner in matter. They avoid political themes, but the idea of human perfectibility none the less pervades the book with an unaggressive presence, a cold and wintry sun. One curious trait of his more cautious and conservative later mind is worth noting. When he wrote Political Justice, the horizons of science were unlimited, the vistas of discovery endless. Now he questions even the mathematical data of astronomy, talks of the limitations of our faculties, and applauds a positive attitude that refrains from conjecture. His last years were spent in writing a book in which he ventured at length to state his views upon religion. Like Helvetius he perceived the advantages which an unpopular philosopher may derive from posthumous publication. Freed at last from the vulgar worries of debt and the tragical burden of personal ties, the fighting ended which had never brought him the joy of combat, the material struggle over which had issued in defeat, he became again the thing that was himself, a luminous intelligence, a humane thinker.

With eighty years of life behind him, and doubting whether the curtain of death concealed a secret, Godwin tranquilly faced extinction in April, 1836.

“To do my part to free the human mind from slavery,” that in his own words was the main object of Godwin’s life. The task was not fully discharged with the writing of Political Justice. He could never forget the terror and gloom of his own early years, and, like all the thinkers of the revolution, he coupled superstition with despotism and priests with kings as the arch-enemies of human liberty. The terrors of eternal punishment, the firmly riveted chains of Calvinistic logic, had fettered his own growing mind in youth; and to the end he thought of traditional religion as the chief of those factitious things which prevent mankind from reaching the full stature to which nature destined it. Paine had attempted this work from a similar standpoint, but Godwin, with his trained speculative mind, and his ideal of courtesy and persuasiveness in argument, thought meanly (as a private letter shows) of his friend’s polemics. It was an unlucky timidity which caused Mrs. Shelley to suppress her father’s religious essays when the manuscript was bequeathed to her for publication on his death. When, at length, they appeared in 1873 (Essays never before Published), the work which they sought to accomplish had been done by other pens. They possess none the less an historical interest; some fine pages will always be worth reading for their humane impulse and their manly eloquence; they help us to understand the influence which Godwin’s ideas, conveyed in personal intercourse, exerted on the author of Prometheus Unbound. There is little in them which a candid believer would resent to-day. Most of the dogmas which Godwin assailed have long since crumbled away through the sapping of a humaner morality and a more historical interpretation of the Bible.

The book opens with a protest against the theory and practice of salutary delusions; and Godwin once more pours his scorn upon those who would cherish their own private freedom, while preserving popular superstitions, “that the lower ranks may be kept in order.” The foundation of all improvement is that “the whole community should run the generous race for intellectual and moral superiority.” Godwin would preserve some portion of the religious sense, for we can reach sobriety and humility only by realising “how frail and insignificant a part we constitute of the great whole.” But the fundamental tenets of dogmatic Christianity are far, he argues, from being salutary delusions. At the basis alike of Protestantism and Catholicism, he sees the doctrine of eternal punishment; and with an iteration that was not superfluous in his own day, he denounces its cruel and demoralising effects. It saps the character where it is really believed, and renders the mind which receives it servile and pusillanimous. The case is no better when it is neither sincerely believed nor boldly rejected. Such an attitude, which is, he thinks, that of most professing believers, makes for insincerity, and for an indifference to all honest thought and speculation. The man who dare neither believe nor disbelieve is debarred from thinking at all.

Worst of all, this doctrine of endless torment and arbitrary election involves a blasphemous denial of the goodness of God. “To say all, then, in a word, since it must finally be told, the God of the Christians is a tyrant.” He quotes the delightfully naïve reflection of Plutarch, who held that it was better to deny God than to calumniate Him, “for I had rather it should be said of me, that there was never such a man as Plutarch, than that it should be said that Plutarch was ill-natured, arbitrary, capricious, cruel, and inexorable.” A survey of Church History brings out what Godwin calls “the mixed character of Christianity, its horrors and its graces.” In much of what has come down to us from the Old Testament he sees the inevitable effects of anthropomorphism, when the religion of a barbarous age is reduced to writing, and handed down as the effect of inspiration. He cannot sufficiently admire the beauty of Christ’s teaching of a perfect disinterestedness and self-denial a doctrine in his own terminology of “universal benevolence.” But the disciples lived in a preternatural atmosphere, continually busied with the four Last Things, death, judgment, heaven, and hell; and they distorted the beauty of the Christian morality by introducing an other-worldliness, to which the ancients had been strangers. From this came the despotism of the Church based on the everlasting burnings and the keys, and something of the spirit of St. Dominic and the Inquisition can be traced, he thinks, even to the earliest period of Christianity. The Gospel sermons do not always realise the Godwinian ideal of rational persuasion.

Godwin’s own view is in the main what we should call agnostic: “I do not consider my faculties adequate to pronouncing upon the cause of all things. I am contented to take the phenomena as I behold them, without pretending to erect an hypothesis under the idea of making all things easy. I do not rest my globe of earth upon an elephant [a reference to the Indian myth], and the elephant upon a tortoise. I am content to take my globe of earth simply, in other words to observe the objects which present themselves to my senses, without undertaking to find out a cause why they are what they are.”

With cautious steps, he will, however, go a little further than this. He regards with reverence and awe “that principle, whatever it is, which acts everywhere around me.” But he will not slide into anthropomorphism, nor give to this Supreme Thing, which recalls Shelley’s Demogorgon, the shape of a man. “The principle is not intellect; its ways are not our ways.” If there is no particular Providence, there is none the less a tendency in nature which seconds our strivings, guarantees the work of reason, and “in the vast sum of instances, works for good, and operates beneficially for us.” The position reminds us of Matthew Arnold’s definition of God as “the stream of tendency by which all things strive to fulfil the law of their being.” “We have here,” writes Godwin, “a secure alliance, a friend that so far as the system of things extends will never desert us, unhearing, inaccessible to importunity, uncapricious, without passions, without favour, affection, or partiality, that maketh its sun to rise on the evil and the good, and its rain to descend on the just and the unjust.”

Amid the dim but rosy mist of this vague faith the old man went out to explore the unknown. A bolder and more rebellious thought was his real legacy to his age. It is the central impulse of the whole revolutionary school: “We know what we are: we know not what we might have been. But surely we should have been greater than we are but for this disadvantage [dogmatic religion, and particularly the doctrine of eternal punishment]. It is as if we took some minute poison with everything that was intended to nourish us. It is, we will suppose, of so mitigated a quality as never to have had the power to kill. But it may nevertheless stunt our growth, infuse a palsy into every one of our articulations, and insensibly change us from giants of mind which we might have been into a people of dwarfs.”

Let us write Godwin’s epitaph in his own Roman language. He stood erect and independent. He spoke what he deemed to be truth. He did his part to purge the veins of men of the subtle poisons which dwarf them.