MoboReader > History > Shelley

   Chapter 2 2

Shelley By Sydney Waterlow Characters: 47434

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

The true visionary is often a man of action, and Shelley was a very peculiar combination of the two. He was a dreamer, but he never dreamed merely for the sake of dreaming; he always rushed to translate his dreams into acts. The practical side of him was so strong that he might have been a great statesman or reformer, had not his imagination, stimulated by a torrential fluency of language, overborne his will. He was like a boat (the comparison would have pleased him) built for strength and speed, but immensely oversparred. His life was a scene of incessant bustle. Glancing through his poems, letters, diaries, and pamphlets, his translations from Greek, Spanish, German, and Italian, and remembering that he died at thirty, and was, besides, feverishly active in a multitude of affairs, we fancy that his pen can scarcely ever have been out of his hand. And not only was he perpetually writing; he read gluttonously. He would thread the London traffic, nourishing his unworldly mind from an open book held in one hand, and his ascetic body from a hunch of bread held in the other. This fury for literature seized him early. But the quality of his early work was astonishingly bad. An author while still a schoolboy, he published in 1810 a novel, written for the most part when he was seventeen years old, called 'Zastrozzi', the mere title of which, with its romantic profusion of sibilants, is eloquent of its nature. This was soon followed by another like it, 'St. Irvyne, or the Rosicrucian'. Whether they are adaptations from the German (2) or not, these books are merely bad imitations of the bad school then in vogue, the flesh-creeping school of skeletons and clanking chains, of convulsions and ecstasies, which Miss Austen, though no one knew it, had killed with laughter years before. (3) "Verezzi scarcely now shuddered when the slimy lizard crossed his naked and motionless limbs. The large earthworms, which twined themselves in his long and matted hair, almost ceased to excite sensations of horror"-that is the kind of stuff in which the imagination of the young Shelley rioted. And evidently it is not consciously imagined; life really presented itself to him as a romance of this kind, with himself as hero-a hero who is a hopeless lover, blighted by premature decay, or a wanderer doomed to share the sins and sorrows of mankind to all eternity. This attitude found vent in a mass of sentimental verse and prose, much of it more or less surreptitiously published, which the researches of specialists have brought to light, and which need not be dwelt upon here.

(2 So Mr. H. B. Forman suggests in the introduction to his

edition of Shelley's Prose Works. But Hogg says that he did

not begin learning German until 1815.)

(3 'Northanger Abbey', satirising Mrs. Radcliffe's novels,

was written before 1798, but was not published until 1818.)

But very soon another influence began to mingle with this feebly extravagant vein, an influence which purified and strengthened, though it never quite obliterated it. At school he absorbed, along with the official tincture of classical education, a violent private dose of the philosophy of the French Revolution; he discovered that all that was needed to abolish all the evil done under the sun was to destroy bigotry, intolerance, and persecution as represented by religious and monarchical institutions. At first this influence combined with his misguided literary passions only to heighten the whole absurdity, as when he exclaims, in a letter about his first disappointed love, "I swear, and as I break my oaths, may Infinity, Eternity, blast me-never will I forgive Intolerance!" The character of the romance is changed indeed; it has become an epic of human regeneration, and its emotions are dedicated to the service of mankind; but still it is a romance. The results, however, are momentous; for the hero, being a man of action, is no longer content to write and pay for the printing: in his capacity of liberator he has to step into the arena, and, above all, he has to think out a philosophy.

An early manifestation of this impulse was the Irish enterprise already mentioned. Public affairs always stirred him, but, as time went on, it was more and more to verse and less to practical intervention, and after 1817 he abandoned argument altogether for song. But one pamphlet, 'A Proposal for putting Reform to the Vote' (1817), is characteristic of the way in which he was always labouring to do something, not merely to ventilate existing evils, but to promote some practical scheme for abolishing them. Let a national referendum, he says, be held on the question of reform, and let it be agreed that the result shall be binding on Parliament; he himself will contribute 100 pounds a year (one-tenth of his income) to the expenses of organisation. He is in favour of annual Parliaments. Though a believer in universal suffrage, he prefers to advance by degrees; it would not do to abolish aristocracy and monarchy at one stroke, and to put power into the hands of men rendered brutal and torpid by ages of slavery; and he proposes that the payment of a small sum in direct taxes should be the qualification for the parliamentary franchise. The idea, of course, was not in the sphere of practical politics at the time, but its sobriety shows how far Shelley was from being a vulgar theory-ridden crank to whom the years bring no wisdom.

Meanwhile it had been revealed to him that "intolerance" was the cause of all evil, and, in the same flash, that it could be destroyed by clear and simple reasoning. Apply the acid of enlightened argument, and religious beliefs will melt away, and with them the whole rotten fabric which they support-crowns and churches, lust and cruelty, war and crime, the inequality of women to men, and the inequality of one man to another. With Shelley, to embrace the dazzling vision was to act upon it at once. The first thing, since religion is at the bottom of all force and fraud, was to proclaim that there is no reason for believing in Christianity. This was easy enough, and a number of impatient argumentative pamphlets were dashed off. One of these, 'The Necessity of Atheism', caused, as we saw, a revolution in his life. But, while Christian dogma was the heart of the enemy's position, there were out-works which might also be usefully attacked:-there were alcohol and meat, the causes of all disease and devastating passion; there were despotism and plutocracy, based on commercial greed; and there was marriage, which irrationally tyrannising over sexual relations, produces unnatural celibacy and prostitution. These threads, and many others, were all taken up in his first serious poem, 'Queen Mab' (1812-13), an over-long rhapsody, partly in blank verse, partly in loose metres. The spirit of Ianthe is rapt by the Fairy Mab in her pellucid car to the confines of the universe, where the past, present, and future of the earth are unfolded to the spirit's gaze. We see tyrants writhing upon their thrones; Ahasuerus, "the wandering Jew," is introduced; the consummation on earth of the age of reason is described. In the end the fairy's car brings the spirit back to its body, and Ianthe wakes to find

"Henry, who kneeled in silence by her couch,

Watching her sleep with looks of speechless love,

And the bright beaming stars

That through the casement shone."

Though many poets have begun their careers with something better than this, 'Queen Mab' will always be read, because it gives us, in embryo, the whole of Shelley at a stroke. The melody of the verse is thin and loose, but it soars from the ground and spins itself into a series of etherial visions. And these visions, though they look utterly disconnected from reality, are in fact only an aspect of his passionate interest in science. In this respect the sole difference between 'Queen Mab' and such poems as 'The West Wind' and 'The Cloud' is that, in the prose of the notes appended to 'Queen Mab', with their disquisitions on physiology and astronomy, determinism and utilitarianism, the scientific skeleton is explicit. These notes are a queer medley. We may laugh at their crudity-their certainty that, once orthodoxy has been destroyed by argument, the millennium will begin; what is more to the purpose is to recognise that here is something more than the ordinary dogmatism of youthful ignorance. There is a flow of vigorous language, vividness of imagination, and, above all, much conscientious reasoning and a passion for hard facts. His wife was not far wrong when she praised him for a "logical exactness of reason." The arguments he uses are, indeed, all second-hand, and mostly fallacious; but he knew instinctively something which is for ever hidden from the mass of mankind-the difference between an argument and a confused stirring of prejudices. Then, again, he was not content with abstract generalities: he was always trying to enforce his views by facts industriously collected from such books of medicine, anatomy, geology, astronomy, chemistry, and history as he could get hold of. For instance, he does not preach abstinence from flesh on pure a priori grounds, but because "the orang-outang perfectly resembles man both in the order and number of his teeth." We catch here what is perhaps the fundamental paradox of his character-the combination of a curious rational hardness with the wildest and most romantic idealism. For all its airiness, his verse was thrown off by a mind no stranger to thought and research.

We are now on the threshold of Shelley's poetic achievement, and it will be well before going further to underline the connection, which persists all through his work and is already so striking in 'Queen Mab', between his poetry and his philosophical and religious ideas.

Like Coleridge, he was a philosophical poet. But his philosophy was much more definite than Coleridge's; it gave substance to his character and edge to his intellect, and, in the end, can scarcely be distinguished from the emotion generating his verse. There is, however, no trace of originality in his speculative writing, and we need not regret that, after hesitating whether to be a metaphysician or a poet, he decided against philosophy. Before finally settling to poetry, he at one time projected a complete and systematic account of the operations of the human mind. It was to be divided into sections-childhood, youth, and so on. One of the first things to be done was to ascertain the real nature of dreams, and accordingly, with characteristic passion for a foundation of fact, he turned to the only facts accessible to him, and tried to describe exactly his own experiences in dreaming. The result showed that, along with the scientific impulse, there was working in him a more powerful antagonistic force. He got no further than telling how once, when walking with Hogg near Oxford, he suddenly turned the corner of a lane, and a scene presented itself which, though commonplace, was yet mysteriously connected with the obscurer parts of his nature. A windmill stood in a plashy meadow; behind it was a long low hill, and "a grey covering of uniform cloud spread over the evening sky. It was the season of the year when the last leaf had just fallen from the scant and stunted ash." The manuscript concludes: "I suddenly remembered to have seen that exact scene in some dream of long-Here I was obliged to leave off, overcome with thrilling horror." And, apart from such overwhelming surges of emotion from the depths of sub-consciousness, he does not seem ever to have taken that sort of interest in the problems of the universe which is distinctive of the philosopher; in so far as he speculated on the nature and destiny of the world or the soul, it was not from curiosity about the truth, but rather because correct views on these matters seemed to him especially in early years, an infallible method of regenerating society. As his expectation of heaven on earth became less confident, so the speculative impulse waned. Not long before his death he told Trelawny that he was not inquisitive about the system of the universe, that his mind was tranquil on these high questions. He seems, for instance, to have oscillated vaguely between belief and disbelief in personal life after death, and on the whole to have concluded that there was no evidence for it.

At the same time, it is essential to a just appreciation of him, either as man or poet, to see how all his opinions and feelings were shaped by philosophy, and by the influence of one particular doctrine. This doctrine was Platonism. He first went through a stage of devotion to what he calls "the sceptical philosophy," when his writings were full of schoolboy echoes of Locke and Hume. At this time he avowed himself a materialist. Then he succumbed to Bishop Berkeley, who convinced him that the nature of everything that exists is spiritual. We find him saying, with charming pompousness, "I confess that I am one of those who are unable to refuse their assent to the conclusions of those philosophers who assert that nothing exists but as it is perceived." This "intellectual system," he rightly sees, leads to the view that nothing whatever exists except a single mind; and that is the view which he found, or thought that he found, in the dialogues of Plato, and which gave to his whole being a bent it was never to lose. He liked to call himself an atheist; and, if pantheism is atheism, an atheist no doubt he was. But, whatever the correct label, he was eminently religious. In the notes to 'Queen Mab' he announces his belief in "a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe," and religion meant for him a "perception of the relation in which we stand to the principle of the universe"-a perception which, in his case, was accompanied by intense emotion. Having thus grasped the notion that the whole universe is one spirit, he absorbed from Plato a theory which accorded perfectly with his predisposition-the theory that all the good and beautiful things that we love on earth are partial manifestations of an absolute beauty or goodness, which exists eternal and unchanging, and from which everything that becomes and perishes in time derives such reality as it has. Hence our human life is good only in so far as we participate in the eternal reality; and the communion is effected whenever we adore beauty, whether in nature, or in passionate love, or in the inspiration of poetry. We shall have to say something presently about the effects of this Platonic idealism on Shelley's conception of love; here we need only notice that it inspired him to translate Plato's 'Symposium', a dialogue occupied almost entirely with theories about love. He was not, however, well equipped for this task. His version, or rather adaptation (for much is omitted and much is paraphrased), is fluent, but he had not enough Greek to reproduce the finer shades of the original, or, indeed, to avoid gross mistakes.

A poet who is also a Platonist is likely to exalt his office; it is his not merely to amuse or to please, but to lead mankind nearer to the eternal ideal-Shelley called it Intellectual Beauty-which is the only abiding reality. This is the real theme of his 'Defence of Poetry' (1821), the best piece of prose he ever wrote. Thomas Love Peacock, scholar, novelist, and poet, and, in spite of his mellow worldliness, one of Shelley's most admired friends, had published a wittily perverse and paradoxical article, not without much good sense, on 'The Four Ages of Poetry'. Peacock maintained that genuine poetry is only possible in half-civilised times, such as the Homeric or Elizabethan ages, which, after the interval of a learned period, like that of Pope in England, are inevitably succeeded by a sham return to nature. What he had in mind was, of course, the movement represented by Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge, the romantic poets of the Lake School, whom he describes as a "modern-antique compound of frippery and barbarism." He must have greatly enjoyed writing such a paragraph as this: "A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilised community. ... The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward. The brighter the light diffused around him by the progress of reason, the thicker is the darkness of antiquated barbarism in which he buries himself like a mole, to throw up the barren hillocks of his Cimmerian labours." These gay shafts had at any rate the merit of stinging Shelley to action. 'The Defence of Poetry' was his reply. People like Peacock treat poetry, and art generally, as an adventitious seasoning of life-ornamental perhaps, but rather out of place in a progressive and practical age. Shelley undermines the whole position by asserting that poetry-a name which includes for him all serious art-is the very stuff out of which all that is valuable and real in life is made. "A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth." "The great secret of morals is love, or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful that exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination." And it is on the imagination that poetry works, strengthening it as exercises strengthen a limb. Historically, he argues, good poetry always coexists with good morals; for instance, when social life decays, drama decays. Peacock had said that reasoners and mechanical inventors are more useful than poets. The reply is that, left to themselves, they simply make the world worse, while it is poets and "poetical philosophers" who produce "true utility," or pleasure in the highest sense. Without poetry, the progress of science and of the mechanical arts results in mental and moral indigestion, merely exasperating the inequality of mankind. "Poetry and the principle of Self, of which money is the visible incarnation, are the God and mammon of the world." While the emotions penetrated by poetry last, "Self appears as what it is, an atom to a universe." Poetry's "secret alchemy turns to potable gold the poisonous waters which flow from death through life." It makes the familiar strange, and creates the universe anew. "Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

Other poets besides Shelley have seen

"Through all that earthly dress

Bright shoots of everlastingness,"

and others have felt that the freedom from self, which is attained in the vision, is supremely good. What is peculiar to him, and distinguishes him from the poets of religious mysticism, is that he reflected rationally on his vision, brought it more or less into harmony with a philosophical system, and, in embracing it, always had in view the improvement of mankind. Not for a moment, though, must it be imagined that he was a didactic poet. It was the theory of the eighteenth century, and for a brief period, when the first impulse of the Romantic Movement was spent, it was again to become the theory of the nineteenth century, that the object of poetry is to inculcate correct principles of morals and religion. Poetry, with its power of pleasing, was the jam which should make us swallow the powder unawares. This conception was abhorrent to Shelley, both because poetry ought not to do what can be done better by prose, and also because, for him, the pleasure and the lesson were indistinguishably one. The poet is to improve us, not by insinuating a moral, but by communicating to others something of that ecstasy with which he himself burns in contemplating eternal truth and beauty and goodness.

Hitherto all the writings mentioned have been, except 'The Defence of Poetry', those of a young and enthusiastic revolutionary, which might have some interest in their proper historical and biographical setting, but otherwise would only be read as curiosities. We have seen that beneath Shelley's twofold drift towards practical politics and speculative philosophy a deeper force was working. Yet it is characteristic of him that he always tended to regard the writing of verse as a 'pis aller'. In 1819, when he was actually working on 'Prometheus', he wrote to Peacock, "I consider poetry very subordinate to moral and political science," adding that he only wrote it because his feeble health made it hopeless to attempt anything more useful. We need not take this too seriously; he was often wrong about the reasons for his own actions. From whatever motive, write poetry he did. We will now consider some of the more voluminous, if not the most valuable, results.

'Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude,' (4) is a long poem, written in 1815, which seems to shadow forth the emotional history of a young and beautiful poet. As a child he drank deep of the beauties of nature and the sublimest creations of the intellect, until,

"When early youth had past, he left

His cold fireside and alienated home,

To seek strange truths in undiscovered lands."

He wandered through many wildernesses, and visited the ruins of Egypt and the East, where an Arab maiden fell in love with him and tended him. But he passes on, "through Arabie, and Persia, and the wild Carmanian waste," and, arrived at the vale of Cashmire, lies down to sleep in a dell. Here he has a vision. A "veiled maid" sits by him, and, after singing first of knowledge and truth and virtue, then of love, embraces him. When he awakes, all the beauty of the world that enchanted and satisfied him before has faded:

"The Spirit of Sweet Human Love has sent

A vision to the sleep of him who spurned

Her choicest gifts,"

and he rushes on, wildly pursuing the beautiful shape, like an eagle enfolded by a serpent and feeling the poison in his breast. His limbs grow lean, his hair thin and pale. Does death contain the secret of his happiness? At last he pauses "on the lone Chorasmian shore," and sees a frail shallop in which he trusts himself to the waves. Day and night the boat flies before the storm to the base of the cliffs of Caucasus, where it is engulfed in a cavern. Following the twists of the cavern, after a narrow escape from a maelstrom, he floats into a calm pool, and lands. Elaborate descriptions of forest and mountain scenery bring us, as the moon sets, to the death of the worn-out poet-

"The brave, the gentle, and the beautiful,

The child of grace and genius! Heartless things

Are done and said i' the world, and many worms

And beasts and men live on... but thou art fled."

(4 "Alastor" is a Greek word meaning "the victim of an

Avenging Spirit.")

In 'Alastor' he melted with pity over what he felt to be his own destiny; in 'The Revolt of Islam' (1817) he was "a trumpet that sings to battle." This, the longest of Shelley's poems (there are 4176 lines of it, exclusive of certain lyrical passages), is a versified novel with a more or less coherent plot, though the mechanism is cumbrous, and any one who expects from the title a story of some actual rebellion against the Turks will be disappointed. Its theme, typified by an introductory vision of an eagle and serpent battling in mid-sky, is the cosmic struggle between evil and

good, or, what for Shelley is the same thing, between the forces of established authority and of man's aspiration for liberty, the eagle standing for the powerful oppressor, and the snake for the oppressed.

"When round pure hearts a host of hopes assemble

The Snake and Eagle meet-the world's foundations tremble."

This piece of symbolism became a sort of fixed language with him; "the Snake" was a name by which it amused him to be known among his friends. The clash of the two opposites is crudely and narrowly conceived, with no suggestion yet of some more tremendous force behind both, such as later on was to give depth to his view of the world conflict. The loves and the virtues of Laon and Cythna, the gifted beings who overthrow the tyrant and perish tragically in a counter-revolution, are too bright against a background that is too black; but even so they were a good opportunity for displaying the various phases through which humanitarian passion may run-the first whispers of hope, the devotion of the pioneer, the joy of freedom and love, in triumph exultation tempered by clemency, in defeat despair ennobled by firmness. And although in this extraordinary production Shelley has still not quite found himself, the technical power displayed is great. The poem is in Spenserian stanzas, and he manages the long breaking wave of that measure with sureness and ease, imparting to it a rapidity of onset that is all his own. But there are small blemishes such as, even when allowance is made for haste of composition (it was written in a single summer), a naturally delicate ear would never have passed; he apologises in the preface for one alexandrine (the long last line which should exceed the rest by a foot) left in the middle of a stanza, whereas in fact there are some eight places where obviously redundant syllables have crept in. A more serious defect is the persistence, still unassimilated, of the element of the romantic-horrible. When Laon, chained to the top of a column, gnaws corpses, we feel that the author of Zastrozzi is still slightly ridiculous, magnificent though his writing has become. It is hard, again, not to smile at this world in which the melodious voices of young eleutherarchs have only to sound for the crouching slave to recover his manhood and for tyrants to tremble and turn pale. The poet knows, as he wrote in answer to a criticism, that his mission is "to apprehend minute and remote distinctions of feeling," and "to communicate the conceptions which result from considering either the moral or the material universe as a whole." He does not see that he has failed of both aims, partly because 'The Revolt' is too abstract, partly because it is too definite. It is neither one thing nor the other. The feelings apprehended are, indeed, remote enough; in many descriptions where land, sea, and mountain shimmer through a gorgeous mist that never was of this earth, the "material universe" may perhaps be admitted to be grasped as a whole; and he has embodied his conception of the "moral universe" in a picture of all the good impulses of the human heart, that should be so fruitful, poisoned by the pressure of religious and political authority. It was natural that the method which he chose should be that of the romantic narrative-we have noticed how he began by trying to write novels-nor is that method essentially unfitted to represent the conflict between good and evil, with the whole universe for a stage; instances of great novels that are epics in this sense will occur to every one. But realism is required, and Shelley was constitutionally incapable of realism The personages of the story, Laon and the Hermit, the Tyrant and Cythna, are pale projections of Shelley himself; of Dr. Lind, an enlightened old gentleman with whom he made friends at Eton; of His Majesty's Government; and of Mary Wollstonecraft, his wife's illustrious mother. They are neither of the world nor out of it, and consequently, in so far as they are localised and incarnate and their actions woven into a tale, 'The Revolt of Islam' is a failure. In his next great poem he was to pursue precisely the same aims, but with more success, because he had now hit upon a figure of more appropriate vagueness and sublimity. The scheme of 'Prometheus Unbound' (1819) is drawn from the immortal creations of Greek tragedy.

He had experimented with Tasso and had thought of Job; but the rebellious Titan, Prometheus, the benefactor of mankind whom Aeschylus had represented as chained by Zeus to Caucasus, with a vulture gnawing his liver, offered a perfect embodiment of Shelley's favourite subject, "the image," to borrow the words of his wife, "of one warring with the Evil Principle, oppressed not only by it, but by all-even the good, who are deluded into considering evil a necessary portion of humanity; a victim full of fortitude and hope and the Spirit of triumph, emanating from a reliance in the ultimate omnipotence of Good." In the Greek play, Zeus is an usurper in heaven who has supplanted an older and milder dynasty of gods, and Prometheus, visited in his punishment by the nymphs of ocean, knows a secret on which the rule of Zeus depends. Shelley took over these features, and grafted on them his own peculiar confidence in the ultimate perfection of mankind. His Prometheus knows that Jupiter (the Evil Principle) will some day be overthrown, though he does not know when, and that he himself will then be released; and this event is shown as actually taking place. It may be doubted whether this treatment, while it allows the poet to describe what the world will be like when freed from evil, does not diminish the impressiveness of the suffering Titan; for if Prometheus knows that a term is set to his punishment, his defiance of the oppressor is easier, and, so far, less sublime. However that may be, his opening cries of pain have much romantic beauty:

"The crawling glaciers pierce me with the spears

of their moon-freezing crystals, the bright chains

Eat with their burning cold into my bones."

Mercury, Jupiter's messenger, is sent to offer him freedom if he will repent and submit to the tyrant. On his refusal, the Furies are let loose to torture him, and his agony takes the form of a vision of all the suffering of the world. The agony passes, and Mother Earth calls up spirits to soothe him with images of delight; but he declares "most vain all hope but love," and thinks of Asia, his wife in happier days. The second act is full of the dreams of Asia. With Panthea, one of the ocean nymphs that watch over Prometheus, she makes her way to the cave of Demogorgon, "that terrific gloom," who seems meant to typify the Primal Power of the World. Hence they are snatched away by the Spirit of the Hour at which Jove will fall, and the coming of change pulsates through the excitement of those matchless songs that begin:

"Life of life! thy lips enkindle

With their love the breath between them."

In the third act the tyrant is triumphing in heaven, when the car of the Hour arrives; Demogorgon descends from it, and hurls him to the abyss. Prometheus, set free by Hercules, is united again to Asia. And now, with the tyranny of wrongful power,

"The loathsome mark has fallen, the mall remains

Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man

Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,

Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king

Over himself; just, gentle, wise."

The fourth act is an epilogue in which, to quote Mrs. Shelley again, "the poet gives further scope to his imagination.... Maternal Earth, the mighty parent, is superseded by the Spirit of the Earth, the guide of our planet through the realms of sky; while his fair and weaker companion and attendant, the Spirit of the Moon, receives bliss from the annihilation of evil in the superior sphere." We are in a strange metaphysical region, an interstellar space of incredibly rarefied fire and light, the true home of Shelley's spirit, where the circling spheres sing to one another in wave upon wave of lyrical rapture, as inexpressible in prose as music, and culminating in the cry:

"To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;

To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;

To defy Power which seems omnipotent;

To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates

From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;

Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;

This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be

Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;

This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory."

On the whole, Prometheus has been over-praised, perhaps because the beauty of the interspersed songs has dazzled the critics. Not only are the personages too transparently allegorical, but the allegory is insipid; especially tactless is the treatment of the marriage between Prometheus, the Spirit of Humanity, and Asia, the Spirit of Nature, as a romantic love affair. When, in the last of his more important poems, Shelley returned to the struggle between the good and evil principles, it was in a different Spirit. The short drama of 'Hellas' (1821) was "a mere improvise," the boiling over of his sympathy with the Greeks, who were in revolt against the Turks. He wove into it, with all possible heightening of poetic imagery, the chief events of the period of revolution through which southern Europe was then passing, so that it differs from the Prometheus in having historical facts as ostensible subject. Through it reverberates the dissolution of kingdoms in feats of arms by land and sea from Persia to Morocco, and these cataclysms, though suggestive of something that transcends any human warfare, are yet not completely pinnacled in "the intense inane." But this is not the only merit of "Hellas;' its poetry is purer than that of the earlier work, because Shelley no longer takes sides so violently. He has lost the cruder optimism of the 'Prometheus', and is thrown back for consolation upon something that moves us more than any prospect of a heaven realised on earth by abolishing kings and priests. When the chorus of captive Greek women, who provide the lyrical setting, sing round the couch of the sleeping sultan, we are aware of an ineffable hope at the heart of their strain of melancholy pity; and so again when their burthen becomes the transience of all things human. The sultan, too, feels that Islam is doomed, and, as messenger after messenger announces the success of the rebels, his fatalism expresses itself as the growing perception that all this blood and all these tears are but phantoms that come and go, bubbles on the sea of eternity. This again is the purport of the talk of Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, who evokes for him a vision of Mahmud II capturing Constantinople. The sultan is puzzled:

"What meanest thou? Thy words stream like a tempest

Of dazzling mist within my brain";

but 'we' know that the substance behind the mist is Shelley's "immaterial philosophy," the doctrine that nothing is real except the one eternal Mind. Ever louder and more confident sounds this note, until it drowns even the cries of victory when the tide of battle turns in favour of the Turks. The chorus, lamenting antiphonally the destruction of liberty, are interrupted by repeated howls of savage triumph: "Kill! crush! despoil! Let not a Greek escape'" But these discords are gradually resolved, through exquisitely complicated cadences, into the golden and equable flow of the concluding song:

"The world's great age begins anew,

The golden years return,

The earth doth like a snake renew

Her winter weeds outworn:

Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam,

Like wrecks of a dissolving dream."

Breezy confidence has given place to a poignant mood of disillusionment.

"Oh, cease! must hate and death return?

Cease! must men kill and die?

Cease! drain not to its dregs the urn

Of bitter prophecy.

The world is weary of the past,

Oh, might it die or rest at last!"

Perhaps the perfect beauty of Greek civilisation shall never be restored; but the wisdom of its thinkers and the creations of its artists are immortal, while the fabric of the world

"Is but a vision;-all that it inherits

Are motes of a sick eye, bubbles and dreams."

It is curious that for three of his more considerable works Shelley should have chosen the form of drama, since the last thing one would say of him is that he had the dramatic talent. 'Prometheus' and 'Hellas', however, are dramas only in name; there is no thought in them of scenic representation. 'The Cenci' (1819), on the other hand, is a real play; in writing it he had the stage in view, and even a particular actress, Miss O'Neil. It thus stands alone among his works, unless we put beside it the fragment of a projected play about Charles I (1822), a theme which, with its crowd of historical figures, was ill-suited to his powers. And not only is 'The Cenci' a play; it is the most successful attempt since the seventeenth century at a kind of writing, tragedy in the grand style, over which all our poets, from Addison to Swinburne, have more or less come to grief. Its subject is the fate of Beatrice Cenci, the daughter of a noble Roman house, who in 1599 was executed with her stepmother and brother for the murder of her father. The wicked father, more intensely wicked for his grey hairs and his immense ability, whose wealth had purchased from the Pope impunity for a long succession of crimes, hated his children, and drove them to frenzy by his relentless cruelty. When to insults and oppression he added the horrors of an incestuous passion for his daughter, the cup overflowed, and Beatrice, faced with shame more intolerable than death, preferred parricide. Here was a subject made to Shelley's hand-a naturally pure and gentle soul soiled, driven to violence, and finally extinguished, by unnameable wrong, while all authority, both human and divine, is on the side of the persecutor. Haunted by the grave, sad eyes of Guido Reni's picture of Beatrice, so that the very streets of Rome seemed to echo her name-though it was only old women calling out "rags" ('cenci')-he was tempted from his airy flights to throw himself for once into the portrayal of reality. There was no need now to dip "his pen in earthquake and eclipse"; clothed in plain and natural language, the action unfolded itself in a crescendo of horror; but from the ease with which he wrote-it cost him relatively the least time and pains of all his works-it would be rash to infer that he could have constructed an equally good tragedy on any other subject than the injured Beatrice and the combination, which Count Francesco Cenci is, of paternal power with the extreme limit of human iniquity.

With the exception of 'The Cenci', everything Shelley published was almost entirely unnoticed at the time. This play, being more intelligible than the rest, attracted both notice and praise, though it was also much blamed for what would now be called its unpleasantness. Many people, among them his wife, regretted that, having proved his ability to handle the concrete, he still should devote himself to ideal and unpopular abstractions, such as 'The Witch of Atlas' (1821), a fantastical piece in rime royal, which seems particularly to have provoked Mrs. Shelley. A "lady Witch" lived in a cave on Mount Atlas, and her games in a magic boat, her dances in the upper regions of space, and the pranks which she played among men, are described in verse of a richness that bewilders because it leads to nothing. The poet juggles with flowers and gems, stars and spirits, lovers and meteors; we are constantly expecting him to break into some design, and are as constantly disappointed. Our bewilderment is of a peculiar kind; it is not the same, for instance, as that produced by Blake's prophetic books, where we are conscious of a great spirit fumbling after the inexpressible. Shelley is not a true mystic. He is seldom puzzled, and he never seems to have any difficulty in expressing exactly what he feels; his images are perfectly definite. Our uneasiness arises from the fact that, with so much clear definition, such great activity in reproducing the subtlest impressions which Nature makes upon him, his work should have so little artistic purpose or form. Stroke is accumulated on stroke, each a triumph of imaginative beauty; but as they do not cohere to any discoverable end, the total impression is apt to be one of effort running to waste.

This formlessness, this monotony of splendour, is felt even in 'Adonais' (1821), his elegy on the death of Keats. John Keats was a very different person from Shelley. The son of a livery-stable keeper, he had been an apothecary's apprentice, and for a short time had walked the hospitals. He was driven into literature by sheer artistic passion, and not at all from any craving to ameliorate the world. His odes are among the chief glories of the English language. His life, unlike Shelley's, was devoted entirely to art, and was uneventful, its only incidents an unhappy love-affair, and the growth, hastened by disappointed passion and the 'Quarterly Review's' contemptuous attack on his work, of the consumption which killed him at the age of twenty-six. He was sent to Italy as a last chance. Shelley, who was then at Pisa, proposed to nurse him back to health, and offered him shelter. Keats refused the invitation, and died at Rome on February 23, 1821. Shelley was not intimate with Keats, and had been slow to recognise his genius; but it was enough that he was a poet, in sympathy with the Radicals, an exile, and the victim of the Tory reviewers. There is not ill Adonais that note of personal bereavement which wails through Tennyson's 'In Memoriam' or Cowley's 'Ode on the Death of Mr. Hervey'. Much, especially in the earlier stanzas, is common form. The Muse Urania is summoned to lament, and a host of personified abstractions flit before us, "like pageantry of mist on an autumnal stream"-

"Desires and Adorations,

Winged Persuasions, and veiled Destinies,

Splendours and Glooms, and glimmering Incarnations

Of Hopes and Fears, and twilight Fantasies."

At first he scarcely seems to know what it is that he wants to say, but as he proceeds he warms to his work. The poets gather round Adonais' bier, and in four admirable stanzas Shelley describes himself as "a phantom among men," who

"Had gazed on Nature's naked loveliness,

Actaeon-like; and now he fled astray

With feeble steps o'er the world's wilderness,

And his own thoughts along that rugged way

Pursued, like raging hounds, their father and their prey."

The Quarterly Reviewer is next chastised, and at last Shelley has found his cue. The strain rises from thoughts of mortality to the consolations of the eternal:

"Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep!

He hath awakened from the dream of life.

'Tis we, who, lost in stormy visions, keep

With phantoms an unprofitable strife."

Keats is made "one with Nature"; he is a parce of that power

"Which wields the world with never wearied love,

Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above."

It is once more the same conviction, the offspring of his philosophy and of his suffering, that we noticed in Hellas, only here the pathos is more acute. So strong is the sense of his own misery, the premonition of his own death, that we scarcely know, nor does it matter, whether it is in the person of Keats or of himself that he is lamenting the impermanence of earthly good. His spirit was hastening to escape from "the last clouds of cold mortality"; his bark is driven

"Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng

Whose sails were never to the tempest given."

A year later he was drowned.

While the beauty of Adonais is easily appreciated, 'Epipsychidion', written in the same year, must strike many readers as mere moonshine and madness. In 'Alastor', the poet, at the opening of his career, had pursued in vain through the wilderness of the world a vision of ideal loveliness; it would now seem that this vision is at last embodied in "the noble and unfortunate Lady Emilia Viviani," to whom 'Epipsychidion' is addressed. Shelley begins by exhausting, in the effort to express her perfection, all the metaphors that rapture can suggest. He calls her his adored nightingale, a spirit-winged heart, a seraph of heaven, sweet benediction in the eternal curse, moon beyond the clouds, star above the storm, "thou Wonder and thou Beauty and thou Terror! Thou Harmony of Nature's art!" She is a sweet lamp, a "well of sealed and secret happiness," a star, a tone, a light, a solitude, a refuge, a delight, a lute, a buried treasure, a cradle, a violet-shaded grave, an antelope, a moon shining through a mist of dew. But all his "world of fancies" is unequal to express her; he breaks off in despair. A calmer passage of great interest then explains his philosophy of love:

"That best philosophy, whose taste

Makes this cold common hell, our life, a doom

As glorious as a fiery martyrdom,"

and tells how he "never was attached to that great sect," which requires that everyone should bind himself for life to one mistress or friend; for the secret of true love is that it is increased, not diminished, by division; like imagination, it fills the universe; the parts exceed the whole, and this is the great characteristic distinguishing all things good from all things evil. We then have a shadowy record of love's dealings with him. In childhood he clasped the vision in every natural sight and sound, in verse, and in philosophy. Then it fled, this "soul out of my soul." He goes into the wintry forest of life, where "one whose voice was venomed melody" entraps and poisons his youth. The ideal is sought in vain in many mortal shapes, until the moon rises on him, "the cold chaste Moon," smiling on his soul, which lies in a death-like trance, a frozen ocean. At last the long-sought vision comes into the wintry forest; it is Emily, like the sun, bringing light and odour and new life. Henceforth he is a world ruled by and rejoicing in these twin spheres. "As to real flesh and blood," he said in a letter to Leigh Hunt, "you know that I do not deal in those articles; you might as well go to a gin-shop for a leg of mutton as expect anything human or earthly from me." Yet it is certain that the figures behind the shifting web of metaphors are partly real-that the poisonous enchantress is his first wife, and the moon that saved him from despair his second wife. The last part of the poem hymns the bliss of union with the ideal. Emily must fly with him; "a ship is floating in the harbour now," and there is "an isle under Ionian skies," the fairest of all Shelley's imaginary landscapes, where their two souls may become one. Then, at the supreme moment, the song trembles and stops:

"Woe is me!

The winged words on which my soul would pierce

Into the heights of love's rare universe,

Are chains of lead around its flight of fire-

I pant, I sink, I tremble, I expire."

We have now taken some view of the chief of Shelley's longer poems. Most of these were published during his life. They brought him little applause and much execration, but if he had written nothing else his fame would still be secure. They are, however, less than half of the verse that he actually wrote. Besides many completed poems, it remained for his wife to decipher, from scraps of paper, scribbled over, interlined, and erased, a host of fragments, all valuable, and many of them gems of purest ray. We must now attempt a general estimate of this whole output.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top