1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Sumner Lincoln Fairfield, in "The Young Poets of Britain" Philadelphia Monthly Magazine 2 (September 1828) 321-27.



SHELLEY, the eldest son of a British baronet, began his fatal career by espousing the most dreadful doctrines in morals, politics and religion. While yet a youthful member of the university, with a daring rashness, not more reprehensible for its impiety than folly, he compiled from the works of the French and German atheists, and printed and published a pamphlet, every line of which was equally odious to the rational unbeliever and the true-hearted Christian. Though yet in his boyhood, when Shelley was summoned before the magnates of his college to answer to the general accusation, far from seeking escape under a denial of the act or penitence for its accomplishment, he openly defied the gray-haired theologians, and attempted to vindicate the creed of Voltaire. The immediate consequence of his fool-hardiness may be readily imagined; he was expelled the university, shunned by former friends, deserted by his father, and driven forth upon the world, without wisdom to direct or funds to support him. "The world was not his friend nor the world's law;" his unreserved opinions were directly opposed to the established religious and political, canons of his native land; and, in the recklessness of unrelieved distress, he was fain to adopt the society and profligate career of associates, who were unrestrained in their excesses by any present or future fear. Thus the natural but impolitic indignation of his father only ratified the evil which he intended to correct, and haughty impenitence sprung up beneath the burden of his misery.

One would suppose that mankind, however they scorn precept, might be instructed by example; but age follows age and generation after generation disappears, and the same follies are still predominant. Punishment to be salutary, should be tempered by mercy, especially when inflicted by a paternal hand; for ten thousand instances illustrate the unremembered truth, that the fiery spirit of youth can never be redeemed from the peril of disobedience by the stern commands or even the curses of a father. Forgetful of this, the offended baronet offered his outcast son no refuge from his miseries, sought no knowledge of his pursuits, and appeared regardless of the fate that might attend him. From the deep humiliation of a spirit, waiting to be again received into favour, to the dark haughtiness of a banished heart, there is a quick and fearful transition. Day after day followed each other not more regularly than Shelley listened for the knock of the postman, but no tidings came. He enquired; his father had been in London, but had gone again. He wrote; but no answer followed. His humbled spirit was exasperated; he earned money by advocating atheism and opposing government in the radical prints; he felt himself abandoned, and in turn he abandoned all who had ceased to care for him. In a twelvemonth, he ran away from London with a boarding-school beauty, and spent many months in Scotland with as much pleasure as unwedded lovers, who live in defiance of the laws of God, can expect to receive from his hand.

He had now put the seal upon his father's ban; but he little cared what he or the world thought, so long as he was blessed by the smiles of his beloved. These were doomed to vanish soon. During his temporary absence, the partner of his guilt, actuated by the horror of her situation, threw herself into a deep river and was brought out a corpse. On such a mind as Shelley's this awful consummation was calculated to produce the most disastrous effects. Trouble and affliction, however accumulated, never melted his nature nor rendered it pliable to the touches of reason and loving-kindness. He gazed upon each successive stroke of the thunderbolt upon each molehill added to the mountain of his curses, as a newer and more exciting impulse to revenge; and the most charitable construction we can extend to his writings is the belief that his manifold disasters, vicissitudes and trials thoroughly deranged his mind, and led him to look upon the world as his sworn enemy, and, like Rousseau, to desire to grapple with the Being whose existence he denied, but whose omnipotence he felt. He plunged into the darkness of his creed; he revelled in unintelligible mysteries; he united his woes in most touching strains; and the bitterness of his spirit pervaded every stanza of his poetry. His mind was restless and sought relief from any thing that could engage his powers; his fine energies were, therefore, wasted in bewildered gropings through the darkness of future destiny and moaning discontent over every thing on earth. He rushed from England to Italy and from Italy to England, like an unblest spirit. Neither the charm of Byron's friendship nor the kind-heartedness of Leigh Hunt could compose his troubled mind nor relieve his bursting heart. Like Savage, he wandered beyond the knowledge of his friends, and more than once the heir of a baronetcy and 3000 a year was doomed to make the streets of London his only shelter, while cold and hungry, weary and alone.

In the midst of these distresses his "Queen Mab" appeared; and the withering severity of all orthodox reviewers attended his poem with the same immitigable reiteration as persecution pursued the ill-fated but gifted author. The metaphysical mysteriousness, the sceptical sentiments, the vague terrors and church-yard horrors of that poem were all obvious to the dimmest perception, while its hidden beauty, its delicate refinement of thought and imagery and its admirable idiomatic style, were as little perceptible to superficial readers as the clear water of the river is to the clown who hobbles over the ice. Shelley was disgusted with society in all its forms; he was dissatisfied with the existence of every thing natural, moral and political; he confounded the reformer with the poet, and, in the latter capacity, imagined an Arcadian Utopia, which, in the former, he proposed to people with every grace and charity. His deviations from the canons of criticism and the social laws were soon deterred by the giants who guarded them; and the friendless poet was thrown back upon himself with a mighty arm which might have crushed him but dared not.

After almost incredible sufferings from poverty and persecution, Shelley was partially reconciled to his father; and about the same time, he allied himself to the beautiful, accomplished and gifted daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wolstonecraft. Educated in the doctrines of her intellectual but erring mother, and, with much of the mind, inheriting all the strong prejudices of her father, Miss Godwin affected to despise the chains of matrimony and to rise above the common vassalage of her sex; but, though she was the same faithful and devoted wife before as after the consummation of marriage, yet she did not pause to think what moral ruin the universal adoption of her creed and practice would spread over the world. It is most lamentable that the deism of Godwin and the libertinism of Wolstonecraft should have been associated, in such a mind as Miss Godwin's, with the self-accredited irresponsible atheism of Shelley. Had her deep affections united themselves lawfully to a pious and kindred heart, they might have won her to the cross she trampled on and the God whose being she denied; but, fascinated by the intellectual qualities of Shelley, and content to follow the example of her mother, she debased the spirit that might have soared to heaven and lost the friendship of all who respected the institutions of the society they adorned.

Upon a large annuity allowed him by his father. Shelley, with Miss Godwin, removed into the country; and many months passed away more happily than the misguided poet had heretofore experienced.

There he produced many poems, and, among others, that wonderful creation of genius, "Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude."

In this strange emanation, of high power, the poet has wandered through those invisible regions and drank at those fountains of eternal light, where his spirit always revels in ecstacy. Throughout the poem he has scattered much beautiful description, but we often turn away in wonder at the purpose of its introduction. The splendour of his imagination gleams upon a man of broken gems — gorgeous but valueless, and the gloom of his doubting heart hangs over his highest thought, like the smoke of the battle over the triumph of death. He yearns after something beyond attainment, and, like all who pursue the dictates of abstruse argument rather thin the impulses of an incorruptible heart, he is invariably unhappy while he exerts all the power of his mind to make his reader so. Leigh Hunt esteems this poem an one of the finest productions of the age. We do not object to the language, for that is pure old English, but to the dark thoughts and heathen sentiments of "Alastor;" and these will for ever deter the Christian from its perusal.

"The Cenci," a tragedy produced about this period, though it has met even with a severer fate than Miss Baillie's "De Monfort," or Mrs. Hemans's "Vespers of Palermo," or Coleridge's "Remorse," or Lamb's "Woodville," is pronounced by all who have read it one of the most powerful plays which have adorned English literature. The characters are beautifully delineated, the plot artfully managed, and the denouement judiciously accomplished. Had Shelley always written like this or never written any thing more, "The Cenci" might have held that exalted rank upon the stage aid in the closet, from which it is now excluded by the name of the author.

Unaccustomed to economy, and, like all men of genius, profuse in his liberality, Shelley was soon reduced to perplexing straits and obliged to leave England to recruit his finances in Italy. Here he became the familiar friend of Byron; and his wounded spirit was frequently consoled by the honest praises of the exile. Byron admired his genius but deprecated his sentiments; for amid all his errors, this master-genius never wandered from a secret credence, or, perhaps, apprehension of the truth revealed. His mind was too exalted not to seek an Almighty mind, and we have abundant reason to believe, that, in his latter years, he often lamented the scepticism of his youth. During the remainder of his brief and tumultuous life, Shelley reposed in quiet; but in the propagation of radicalism and infidelity, his mind was more active than ever. "The Revolt of Islam," if it would be comprehended with less study than the Principia of Newton, would do great injury to young unsettled minds; but fortunately the very title is incomprehensible to ordinary readers, and the whole production is a mass of absurdity. The most beautiful language is employed without purpose, and the finest images brought forth to array his visions of a political millenium.

The last production of Shelley was his elegy on the death of Keats. It is equally remarkable for its singular poetic beauty and its severe crimination of Croker, the savage reviewer of Keats. Mournfully he laments his departed friend, without apprehending that his words would soon be applicable to himself. Even while he poured out his lamentations, the doom had gone forth against him — and it was speedily fulfilled.

When he parted from Mrs. Shelley (such, at his request, she had become) to go upon a sailing excursion with Captain Williams, he little thought that a strict account of all his thoughts and deeds would be required of him before they met again. The day was beautiful and the sky serene, but a gust of wind suddenly arose, the boat upset and the friends were drowned. After a long immersion the body of Shelley was found and buried by Byron; and his wife, with two children, returned to London. "With the talents of an angel, a man may be a fool;" we wish Mrs. Shelley would remember that a woman may be the same, and present the world with no more such works as "Valperga" and "The Last Man." She possesses a noble mind and writes with almost unequalled power; but she, as well as Lady Morgan, must have made the discovery that the wanton sacrifice of all the heart (the household female heart especially) holds invaluable and sacred, tends but little to recommend her writings to millions whose only happiness lies beyond this world.

L.