1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Percy Bysshe Shelley

A. P., "Literary Memoir of Shelley" Living Poets of England: Specimens of the Living British Poets (1827) 2:366-70.



P. B. SHELLEY, or the Snake, as Byron familiarly called Shelley, was as a man a devoted friend, of gentle manners, amiable, melancholy, but not sullen; affectionate, and if he ever was severe, severe only to himself; sober as a brahmin, and yet when wielding the pen, resembling a young Titan in audacity; waging war, both in verse and prose, on heaven, and human institutions. While he was still at school, and at an age when the soul, surrounded by natural impulses, attaches itself alternately to the most opposite illusions, and when there does not exist an error, which it is not liable to embrace or abandon for, another, or for a truth, and that without hypocrisy, young Shelley had the misfortune to seek food for his reveries in the philosophical systems of Spinoza, Payne and Godwin. He became their convert, and from that moment consecrated his expanding reason and his poetical talent to the service of atheism. The consequence, it seems to me, has proved that a better feeling in reserve, secured his imagination from the chilling influence which those desolating doctrines could not avoid exerting over his poetry.

Discontented with every thing as it stood, and dreaming of a perfectibility which he could scarcely define to himself, Shelley wished in the first instance to overthrow and destroy the social fabric, in the hope that some preserving Pharos might arise from the ruins. He did not seek atheism in religion and anarchy in empires as a final object, but solely as a means of regeneration. It was like desiring to burn a town, in order to rebuild it on a more regular plan, and embellish it with new temples, consecrated to new gods. Society treated Shelley as an enemy. The theologians of Oxford expelled him from the university, and his father from the paternal mansion. Becoming himself a father, he was deprived of his children by the chancellor, under sanction of the law against atheism.

Shelley, seeing himself without asylum, and even without bread, sold his father his rights of inheritance for an annuity. After living a solitary life for some time in the country, he finally exiled himself to Italy, to which he had previously made one voyage. It was in Switzerland that he became acquainted with Lord Byron, and it was there, also, that at the foot of one of these sublime mountains, which appear to elevate man to a communication with heaven, he had the temerity to subscribe himself an Atheist in the Album of Mount Anvert.

It is surprising, after the details of such a life, and such principles to find in the verses of this demagogue, this infidel, this atheist, a vein of poetry so contemplative and so mystic, so sweet a charm of tenderness and melancholy, and an expression at once so natural and so impassioned of the purest emotions. There are, certainly, declamatory passages by the side of others of great energy and animation; and there is an occasional obscurity in some of the visions of a spirit too deeply imbued with a feeling of disappointment, and with personal anxieties. Shelley appears, in short, like a kind of Manfred, or Faustus, who suffers the penalty of having aspired to gather the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. If, on the one hand, by reason of his hatred to all those barriers which religion and social institutions raise against the impatient independence of man, Shelley may be said to belong to the Satanic school, on the other, his early admiration of the lake poets, whom he visited and studied, has tinctured his style, and even his thoughts; and the natural beauties of rural scenery, or the simplicity of childhood, inspire him with the same enthusiasm as the wild dreams of his adventurous spirit. Shelley has depicted himself with more obvious delineation in his Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude. Alastor is a young enthusiast, who has vainly sought in the works of the philosophers, and in foreign climates, the living impersonation of a beau ideal which has no existence; and he dies despairingly, on finding that he has spent his life in a dream. The descriptive parts of this allegory occasionally exhibit an admirable vividness and richness.

The Revolt of Islam conveys us to the paradise of the Genius of Good; for Shelley, in renouncing the Christian's heaven, creates a new heaven and new deities for his otherwise latitudinarian philosophy. The souls of virtuous and illustrious men, reciprocally commemorate the sacrifices and the labours which have earned for them the crowns of the just. A young Greek and his beloved, record how, after having delivered their natal city from tyranny, fickle victory had suddenly replaced tyranny on the throne. The object of the poet is to prove that they have already been happy in their martyrdom, since it has given them the hope of leaving to more fortunate avengers the task of breaking the chains of slavery. In the midst of all the adventures of this pair of lovers, the recollection of their love originating in early childhood, inspires the poet with the conception of a delightful picture. Shelley himself was a mere boy, when he became a husband for the first time. He united himself by his second marriage with a daughter of the famous Godwin.

Nothing could be more pathetic than his species of eclogue, entitled Rosalind and Helena, especially the tale of Rosalind, if it were not spoiled by an affected design of the poet, to legitimatize an incestuous love between brother and sister, to condemn the marriage tie, as an institution against nature, and to brand that privilege which law confers on the human will, of surviving itself by a legacy.

What does the abuse of a right prove against the goodness of a right? It is true, one sympathizes with Rosalind on the subject of the frightful persecution she endures from her old, and miserly, and wicked husband; one may blamelessly participate the terror and hatred which this person imparts to his wife and children; a hatred and terror, depicted in hues of gloomy energy; but the same institution which has united Rosalind to her tyrant, sanctions the chaste affection of a happier married couple and protects them from the designs of the powerful of the earth, who are compelled to respect the domestic hearths of the humblest of their vassals.

Shelley was well versed in the literature of Germany and Spain; he was also a profound Greek scholar; the task of repairing the loss of Aeschylus's Prometheus Delivered, was only fit for his genius or that of Lord Byron. Shelley's Prometheus, composed at Rome, is stamped with an antique character; but it is, nevertheless, an entirely modern allegory. His Prometheus resembles Milton's Satan more than the Greek Prometheus. This is enough to indicate who the Jupiter is that his Prometheus braves.

It was at Rome, also, that Shelley composed his tragedy of Cenci. In order to vie with all the horrors of Oedipus, and the family of Atreus, Shelley, in this performance, had nothing to do but literally adhere to the traditional narrative.

Fracisco Cenci, a rich Roman of the sixteenth century, passed his life in debauchery and all kinds of enormities; as often as justice, roused by the cry of a victim, bared the sword of punishment, he purchased impunity of Clement VIII. for 100,000 crowns. Enacting the part of executioner to his own family, he coolly conceived the design of incestuous commerce with his own daughter Beatrice. Beatrice and her mother-in-law conspire to get their common tyrant assassinated; two bravos whom they have hired, shrink from the task at the moment of performance; and Beatrice in despair, herself consummates the fearful sacrifice. Papal justice, less indulgent to the daughter than the father, condemns her to suffer the death decreed to parricide. Beatrice was as amiable as she was beautiful; and the contrast produces an eminently tragic heroine.

The reader trembles and pauses at the idea of justifying or condemning such an action committed under the impulse of such motives, but no poetry can diminish the feeling of disgust occasioned by the detail of Cenci's wickedness. An irresistible curiosity, notwithstanding, engages its in the development of those Italian characters of the sixteenth century, skilfully invested by Shelley with that superstition which combined with all their sensations. Thus Cenci, the father, dedicated within his palace walls, a chapel to St. Thomas, and caused masses to he said for the repose of his soul; and in the same manner his wife and daughter are profoundly occupied with the desire of making him confess before his assassination. We suppress the details; it is reported that the representation of the Eumenides of Euripides caused the abortion of the pregnant Athenian women who witnessed the representation.

Of all Shelley's poems, one only has been proscribed by the law courts; it is that, from supplying the notes to which Byron defends himself, while he eulogises the brilliancy of its colouring. Queen Mab is clandestinely sold, and scarce. We have never felt much dread of the sophistries of an atheism which borrows its incorporation from poetry; such poetry, in itself, supplies a refutation of its most specious principles. The muse must have both a worship and a belief. Shelley calls his unknown God, "universal love"; he is the same as our own, since he invests him with attributes, without which, we are unable to conceive the being whom we adore. The notes of Queen Mab are more hostile to Christianity than the poem; but they are, after all, nothing more than quotations from the philosophism of the age of Louis XV.

The plot of Queen Mab is as follows — A young female (Ianthe) is peaceably sleeping, while her lover (Henry) takes advantage of her sleep to admire her recumbent beauty. The Queen of the Fairies, who represents imagination, descends in her aerial car, and reveals to Ianthe the past, the present, and the future.

The soul of the mortal thus favoured by Titania, ascends the car of the latter, and with her traverses the immensity of worlds, in order to arrive at the palace of the Queen of Enchantment. The fairy conducts Ianthe to a rampart, whence they content, plate all the spheres of the universe, among which our earth appears reduced to the size of a scarcely visible speck.

The fairy describes the ruins of antient ages; the birth and fall of empires, she then reviews existing things, and the systems of human arrogance, attacking all creeds, turning all worships into vain mummeries, and converting all divinities into phantoms, which vanish at the touch of her wand, as the illusions of Armida's palace disappear before the radiance of Rinaldo's divine shield. Resorting to an eccentric fiction, the poet invokes the wandering Jew to appear, and once more curse the tyranny of that deity, to whom he formerly denied his pity. This is introducing one phantom to fight against another. Nor is this contradiction the only one which leaves the reader in the dark, as to the precise drift of the poet's intentions. As soon as all the dreams of popular beliefs are disposed of, the fairy explains the nature of the future, destined to fill that immense void, which, divested of all belief, is sufficient to terrify human imagination. There will no longer exist an almighty Creator but universal Love will preside over creation. All the enjoyments of the golden age, Olympus, terrestrial paradise, and christian heaven, will then be the reward of virtue. But in what is this said virtue to consist? We suppose the poet by virtue means the condition of a man in a state of nature. But it is after all no more than a dream.

Grand and sublime imagery, energetic sentiments, all the enthusiasm of mysticism, and some poetical declamation completes the essence of Queen Mab, the style of which is distinguished by brilliancy and harmony, but is more emphatic than precise. We shall not say what a mathematician said of the verses of Racine. "What does it all prove?" Queen Mab proves that Shelley had been a poet betimes, and that he deserved the eulogium of Byron; and fortunately it proves nothing against any religion whatever.