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Tales from the Library: Shelley and Univ

etching of Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822)

This is the second of our pair of Treasures written to mark the bicentenary of the death of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), discussing the poet’s turbulent relationship with Univ. This second Treasure focuses on literary accounts of his time here (read the first treasure).

Two main literary sources provide first-hand accounts of Shelley’s time at Univ. The first is a biography of Shelley, written by his close friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792-1862). The second is a short account, only a page long, in the memoirs of Elizabeth Grant (1797-1885), the niece of the then Master at Univ, who happened to be staying with her Uncle at the time that Shelley was sent down. From these two accounts we can get an insightful, if vastly differing, picture of Shelley’s time at Univ and of his expulsion for writing (though, really, for refusing to deny that he wrote) The Necessity of Atheism.

Figure 1. Title page The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley – Click for larger image

Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s Recollections

Hogg, as Shelley’s friend, is strongly of the opinion that Shelley was wronged when he was forced to leave Oxford. His biography aims to prove this, casting Shelley in the role of misunderstood and underappreciated genius, and providing some fascinating anecdotes and insights into his character along the way. For example:

Certain misguided persons, who, unhappily for themselves, were incapable of understanding the true character of Shelley, have published many false and injurious calumnies respecting him – some for hire, others drawing largely out of the inborn vulgarity of their own minds, or from the necessary malignity of ignorance – but no one ever ventured to say that he was not a good judge of an orange!  (Hogg, 1906, p. 146)

Whilst we get many similar anecdotes from Hogg, this treasure will focus on the time Shelley spent at Univ, and the parts of Hogg’s account which relate to the college and the University of Oxford, starting with the day they met. In last month’s treasure, we noted that Shelley did not begin paying for food in college until the week of the 19 October 1810. From Hogg, we can add to this a description of Shelley’s first meal in hall:

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. […] We have often endeavoured in vain to recollect in what manner our discourse began  (p. 44)

Though unable to remember how they began conversing, Hogg recounts that they quickly descended into an argument about whether German or Italian literature was the better, only to end the argument once each admitted to having only read the works they were arguing for in translation. “So eager was our dispute,” Hogg writes, “that when the servants came to clear the tables, we were not aware that we had been left alone” (p. 44). So began a friendship which would change the course of their time in Oxford; and, indeed, their lives.

book text as seen in page copy

Figure 2 – Click for larger image

Hogg recounts his first impression of Shelley, whom he describes as the “sum of many contradictions”, and writes “I seemed to have found in him all those intellectual qualities which I had vainly expected to meet with in an University” (p. 46). He finishes by describing Shelley’s voice: “intolerably shrill, harsh, and discordant”, and concludes “I shall never be able to endure his voice; it would kill me” (p. 46-47). For Hogg’s full description of Shelley, see Figure 2.

Hogg soon surmounted his dislike of Shelley’s voice, for having only known him a couple of days he felt he had found in Shelley someone “whose thirst for knowledge was so intense, and his activity in the pursuit of it so wonderful and so unwearied”, that “he amply atoned for the disappointment I had felt on my arrival in Oxford” (p. 55).

Regarding the University and those employed by it, Hogg has very little to say in their favour, although it is impossible to say whether that opinion was retroactively applied after his and Shelley’s expulsion. Many of his comments reflect badly on the fellows and tutors at the time, whom he describes as “destitute of the attractions of manner” (p.68), ‘lazy’ (p. 111), and, quoting Shakespeare, “the heavygaited toads” (p. 179). Univ is named and defamed in a particularly brutal passage:

Our college was denominated University College, but Liberty Hall would have been a more correct and significant name. Universal laziness was the order of the day, except so far as half-a-dozen scholars were concerned, who subsisted, in some measure, on eleemosynary* foundations, and were no acquisition to the society; such people being usually the vulgar relatives or friends of the vulgar authorities of the place. In the evening unceasing drunkenness and continual uproar prevailed. –  (p. 173) *charitable

Hogg’s main objection to the University, perhaps a surprising view for a student to take, is that it was not challenging enough! Not enough was taught, no one put the correct emphasis on learning, and he and Shelley were the only two in college who believed in reading and education for their own sake, instead of for the passing of exams. Indeed, they even complained about ‘the diminution of the academical year by frequent, protracted, and most inconvenient vacations’ (p. 66)! Concluding one of his complaints about the University, he finishes:

The languid course of chartered laziness was ill suited to the ardent activity and glowing zeal of Shelley. (p. 157)

book text as seen in page copy

Figure 3 – Click for larger image

Shelley’s room at Univ, located on Staircase I Room 2 (now the Shelley Guest Room), is described by Hogg as looking as though Shelley “had endeavoured first to re-construct the primeval chaos” (p. 54). The first time Hogg visits these rooms, he finds a scout “engaged in the vain attempt of setting the apartment in order” (p. 53). There were burn marks on the carpets, scientific equipment on every surface, and books being used to support further experiments (for the full description, see figure 3).

Such was Shelley’s devotion to learning, that when it became clear he would not be satisfied by the University’s teaching, Shelley ‘began forthwith to set himself to work’ (p157). Hogg makes a great deal of his friend’s knowledge and ability, spending pages reporting their conversations and highlighting the effort Shelley put into educating himself:

In the nine centuries that elapsed from the time of our great founder, Alfred, to our days, there never was a student who more richly merited the favour and assistance of a learned body, or whose fruitful mind would have repaid with a larger harvest, the labour of careful and judicious cultivation. And such cultivation he was well entitled to receive. […] No student ever read more assiduously. He was to be found, book in hand, at all hours; reading in season and out of season; at table, in bed, and especially during a walk; not only in the quiet country, and in retired paths; not only at Oxford, in the public walks, and High Street, but in the most crowded thoroughfares of London. (p. 84)

Shelley first focussed on the physical sciences, then later on metaphysics, and seems to have spent all his time reading works which he felt would progress these studies regardless of whether they related to any work being set for him by his tutors at Oxford. Early on, Hogg reports one of the many conversations he has with Shelley, in which Shelley says:

[I]t would be a cruel calamity […] to be compelled to quit our calm and agreeable retreat. Not only would it be a sad mortification, but a real misfortune, for if I remain here I shall study more closely and with greater advantage than I could in any other situation that I can conceive. – (p. 66).

sketch of a man in a wool cap

Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792-1862)

This is a powerful lament, made more effective if the reader knows Shelley’s eventual fate. This may simply be an intentional rhetorical device, however, as there is no way of knowing whether these are actually Shelley’s words, or whether Hogg has given them to him to throw subsequent events into a harsher light.

Either way, Shelley was forced to leave Univ before the full course of his four years; before, even, the completion of one year. Finding Shelley absent from his rooms on Lady-day (25 March), Hogg was gathering the books they might spend the morning studying, when Shelley returned, ‘terribly agitated.’ Once he could speak, announced Shelley announced, ‘I am expelled!’ (p. 168). This turn of events clearly came as a shock to both parties, but Hogg implies it was especially hard for Shelley.

Shelley was full of spirit and courage, frank and fearless; but he was likewise shy, unpresuming, and eminently sensitive. I have been with him in many trying situations of his afterlife, but I never saw him so deeply shocked and so cruelly agitated as on this occasion. (p. 168)

Hogg describes the writing of the offending Pamphlet as follows:

We had read together attentively several of the metaphysical works that were most in vogue at that time, as Locke Concerning Human Understanding, and Hume’s Essays, particularly the latter, of which we had made a very careful analysis, as was customary with those who read the Ethics and the other treatises of Aristotle for their degrees. Shelley had the custody of these papers, which were chiefly in his handwriting, although they were the joint production of both in our common daily studies. From these, and from a small part of them only, he made up a little book, and had it printed, I believe, in the country, certainly not at Oxford. (p. 163)

In Hogg’s telling, Shelley’s purpose in printing this pamphlet was that he might send it to academics under a false name, enclosed with a letter explaining that he had stumbled across it and what did they think, and thus could learn the art of debate by subsequently countering their dismissals. Shelley argued “for the love of argument, […] he loved truth, and sought it everywhere” (p.165). Hogg is keen to emphasise that “His little pamphlet was never offered for sale; it was not addressed to an ordinary reader, but to the metaphysician alone” (p. 165).

Nonetheless, the pamphlet (titled The Necessity of Atheism, a fact Hogg does not mention in his account) caused enough of a stir in Oxford that the Master of Univ was forced to get involved. When Shelley refused to deny that he had written it, he was expelled.

Hogg wrote to the Master to object to Shelley’s expulsion; he gives this account of his subsequent conversation with the Master:

“Did you write this?” he asked, as fiercely as if I alone stood between him and the rich see of Durham. I attempted, submissively, to point out to him the extreme unfairness of the question; the injustice of punishing Shelley for refusing to answer it; that if it were urged upon me I must offer like refusal, as I had no doubt every man in college would – every gentleman, indeed, in the University; which, if such a course were adopted with all – and there could not be any reason why it should be used with one and not with the rest – would thus be stripped of every member. (p. 169)

For his refusal to deny that he wrote the pamphlet, Hogg was expelled alongside his friend.

Figure 4. Title page of Elizabeth Grant’s memoirs – Click for larger image

Elizabeth Grant’s Memories

For an alternate literary account of Shelley’s time at Univ, we turn to Elizabeth Grant. She was staying at Univ with her Uncle, the then Master, James Griffith, when Shelley was a student here. She touches on him in her memoir, beginning:

The ringleader in every species of mischief within our grave walls was Mr Shelley, afterwards so celebrated for better things, though I should think to the end half crazy. (Grant, 1898, p. 129)

This sets the tone for her further recollections of Shelley’s time at Univ. She describes him as “insubordinate”, “slovenly”, and without “proper regard for decency”, a very different account to that given by Hogg. Her account of Shelley, no doubt influenced by her uncle, gives us more of an understanding of his unpopularity amongst the tutors, as he was “always infringing some rule, the breaking of which he knew could not be overlooked” (p. 129). She also details his habit, on being reprimanded, of “making extraordinary gestures, expressive of his humility under reproof, as to overset first the gravity, and then the temper, of the lecturing tutor.”

Grant suggests that Shelley was expelled after “he proceeded so far in his improprieties as to paste up atheistical squibs on the Chapel door” (p. 167), an event which does not appear in Hogg’s account, nor in the account given by Ridley in last month’s treasure. She also recalls Shelley leaving Oxford with his father, Sir Timothy, who had to travel up and argue for his son’s expulsion to be kept private. Again, Hogg makes no mention of this, instead recounting that he and Shelley left Oxford together, early the next morning. Given Ridley describes Hogg and Shelley as parading around as though proud of their “anticipated fate”, it seems likely that Hogg’s account of their departure together is accurate, and Elizabeth Grant, only 13 years old at the time of these events, has misremembered the order in which events occurred.

Grant’s account concludes, rather optimistically, with the words:

Quiet was restored to our sober walls after this disturber of its peace had been got rid of. (p. 129)

An old lady in a shawl and bonnet

Elizabeth Grant (1797-1885)

Hogg does not let go of his time at Univ quite so easily. He claims that he has “long since forgiven” the institution which expelled them (Hogg, p. 179). But in spite of this, he still includes a passage which appears to call for the scourging of all those high up in the University, for the damage they did to Shelley (see figure 3).

And so the departure of Shelley from Univ was not the quiet and quickly forgotten event that the college might have hoped for.

Perhaps Hogg’s desire for justice for his friend would be lessened if he knew of the installation of the Shelley memorial at Univ, over 80 years after he and Shelley had been forced to leave so abruptly. (See our Treasure on the Shelley memorial). Certainly, Shelley has now become a part of college life in a way which he, and those who were here with him, would probably find quite surprising!

We are charged with seeming to say, “We are superior to everybody!” I acknowledge the truth of the charge, I accept the challenge; and I now say boldly, confidently, and without fear of contradiction, of my incomparable friend, “He was superior to everybody!” (Hogg, p. 194)


Grant, Elizabeth, Memoirs of a Highland Lady, ed. by Lady Strachey. London: John Murray, 1898. (Univ Library KCA/STR)

Hogg, Thomas Jefferson. The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley. The London Library. London: Routledge, 1906. (Univ Library KCA/SHE,H)

Published: 20 July 2022

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