Oxford, Part 3 to the Life & Works of
Percy Bysshe Shelley
"Calling on the son of his old boarding-house-keeper, Mr. Shelley found that another son whom he had known was now in business as a bookseller; he marched off with Bysshe to the shop and ordered him to buy his books and stationary there. The handsome shop was almost opposite University College. To Henry Slatter and his partner he said, 'My son here has a literary turn; he is already an author, and do pray indulge him in his printing freaks.'"Shelley was soon settled in at Oxford. His rooms were located "in the south-west corner of the principal quadrangle." A fellow student, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, of whom we shall shortly hear more, wrote of these rooms:
"Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical instruments [scientific, as we would now call them], clothes, pistols, linen, crockery, ammunition, and phials innumerable, with money, stockings, prints, crucibles, bags and boxes, were scattered on the floor and in every place ... An electrical machine, an air-pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope, and large glass jars and receivers, were conspicuous amidst the mass of matter."9Of Shelley:
"His clothes were expensive ... but they were tumbled, rumpled, unbrushed. His gestures were abrupt, and sometimes violent, occasionally even awkward, yet more frequently gentle and graceful. ... 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."10Notwithstanding Shelley's possession of "philosophical instruments," in the days under review, it is not likely that Oxford was a place where intensive scientific investigation was carried out in respect to the natural world. It was still very much an educational institution under the strictures of religion. Every student, in order to gain admission, was obliged to sign the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. Robert Southey observed that "Oxford is a school for divinity, and for nothing else."11 The religious propensity of the times, as was fully reflected at Oxford, proved to be the rock which Shelley ran up upon.12
Within months of his arrival at Oxford, during the Christmas vacation Shelley delivered to his printers "a short specimen of logic" which bore the title "The Necessity of Atheism." It was printed up as a pamphlet and nowhere did the writer's name appear. To write and publish such a work, denying the existence of God, at the first of the 19th century, was inevitably to bring on trouble. This was especially so, since, to make a lark out of it, Shelley sent a copy of the pamphlet to everybody who was anybody at Oxford. He also sent a copy to every bishop in England. Though by reading the work no one could tell who wrote it, apparently Shelley made no secret of its authorship to his friends; soon it got around to the administrators of the university that the work was that of young Shelley. On March 25th of that year (1811), a meeting of the overseers was convened and Shelley was asked to appear before them. Shelley was given the chance to deny that the work was his; he refused to give it or to answer any of the questions put to him. It was, as Blunden pointed out, a "conflict of traditions and tempers."13 A bitter decision was made there and then: Shelley was expelled from Oxford. Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Shelley's student friend, much to his credit, took sides and supported his friend. Hogg, knowing that Shelley was at the meeting, got a message through to the university officers that he wished to appear before them directly Shelley should leave the room. After being invited in, he then proceeded to tell the officers that should they expel Shelley, they should expel him as well. They obliged Hogg; both Hogg and Shelley were sent packing. The next day, Shelley and Hogg took the coach to London.
One can but imagine what the family thought about these developments. Their blond-haired boy expelled from Oxford? It most certainly must have been on account of the influence of his friends, bad friends, and, in particular, Mr. Hogg, who was now living with Shelley at London. A message was sent to Shelley. It offered condolences and a suggestion that he take some time off and go on a voyage through the Greek Islands, then, presumably after such a change and rest, he might once again take up his studies. There was, however, a condition, viz. that he could not take Mr. Hogg with him. Shelley refused the offer. Then his father suggested he should come home to Field Place and there he might be put into "the care and society" of a gentleman tutor, a person to be picked by his father. Shelley also refused this offer. Shelley was now fixed in his political belief that the power in the country lay in the hands of those who are most distinguished by birth, fortune, or of a privileged order such as those associated with the Church of England. Shelley had rebuked the latter and was expelled from Oxford; he now rebuked his family, one of high birth and good fortune. Shelley, having spurned his father's advances, was cast out of the family as he was out of Oxford; he was thereafter to be on his own. Shelley never was to change his political beliefs and was never to be reconciled to his family.
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