There are few men of genius who have so misused their powers as Shelley. There are few whose character is so little understood on this side of the Atlantic, as is that of this extraordinary poet. He is here considered as a dark, selfish unbeliever; who defiled every subject he touched upon; under whose hands the marble assumed only hideous forms; who de lighted to degrade, and blight, and destroy the loveliest works of nature. He is thought a man without principle, and a poet without merit.
There are few men who have received so much ill treatment and hard accusation as Shelley, without in good measure deserving them. There are very few men, with intentions really pure and honest and honourable, who have done so much that is to be regretted, and suffered so much that might have been avoided. Though a great deal that he did was exceedingly wrong, yet he seems always to have been acting under so strong an impression that he is doing what is right; sacrifices so much in order to arrive at those very ends for which we chiefly blame him, that no one can rise from the consideration of his character with the conviction that he was a bad man. We pity him for the blind fatality by which he seems to have been led, and mourn for that waywardness of fancy and disposition which lost to the world powers of so high an order as Shelley unquestionably possessed.
Shelley was an amiable man. The testimony of all who knew him tends to establish this point. His wife loved him with an affection which nothing but great kindness and tenderness could have awakened, and lamented him with a degree of sorrow that indicates alike his worth, and her sensibility. Whatever may have been his actions, his motives appear to have been always pure.
As to the poems he has left behind him, it is impossible in a short notice properly to consider them. The school to which he belonged, or rather which he established, can never become popular. His poems will probably be read for some time by scholars, but even they will eventually neglect them.
It requires too great a stretch of mind to follow all the windings of his thought. There is too much obscurity and intricacy in his writings. In passages where he condescends to be intelligible, he is often splendid, and sometimes sublime. But most frequently his volumes are closed in despair. We cannot grope our way unaided through gloom and darkness, where even Mr. Shelley himself, we fear, could scarcely have guided us. Writing that we cannot help understanding is always more agreeable than that which we can never be sure we do not mistake.
In many of his shorter pieces, Shelley was eminently successful, and a number of his translations are excellent. Of his larger poems, "Alastor" is the best. It is in these that he chiefly failed. He aimed at too much. He aspired after that which he was not only incapable of attaining, but which few ever approached. He was ambitious of awing and startling his readers, and his ambition leads him where his genius was unable to follow. The visions he imperfectly conceived are rendered still more obscure by a necessarily imperfect expression of them. We sometimes, for pages, cannot get a glimpse at the author's meaning. Occasional passages of great strength and beauty can never compensate for general obscurity; and therefore Shelley will be for many years wondered at, but not long read.
There are few men in the whole course of literary history in whom our feelings and sympathies are more interested than they are in Shelley. He is a striking example of the mischief that misdirected genius can cause to its possessor. In his heart every thing was pure and gentle and generous. In his mind, every thing was wild, extravagant, and diseased. We cannot help respecting the man, though we disapprove of many of his actions. We cannot help admiring the poet, though we are wearied by many of his writings.