SHELLEY is the only poet who appeared to form a theory of the universe perfectly consistent with itself, and to have acted up to the convictions so formed, in defiance alike of the warning of his friends, and the menaces of society. There was no sophistry in his character. He maintained his boyish ingenuousness, untainted by a single shadow of hypocrisy, all through his life. He wore his heart upon his sleeve for every fool to peck at. His thoughts were reflected in his acts; and might be scanned through his features as clearly as the tints of the over-arching sky may be traced in the depths of the crystal lakes beneath. As he felt, so he sang. There was, consequently, greater unity between his intellectual convictions and his poetry than ever existed in any other individual; both appearing as the product of the same striving after truth, and blending even the feelings of the heart with the cold light of a spiritual philosophy. As his opinions were in conflict with those upon which the principal institutions of society were built, he roused a host of enemies, who left him little rest either day or night, but who were continually galling him with the shafts of poisoned malice. Hence, his life was a scene of perpetual anxiety and struggle. By constitution frail and delicate, he was about the last person fitted to endure the buffets which this throwing down the gauntlet against society brought on himself. But nothing could make Shelley swerve from his course. With a sublime impersonation of Promethean will, he was prepared to encounter every form of persecution, in carrying what he believed to be the torch of truth down into the darkest recesses of the human mind, and annihilating, at their source, the mists of prejudice and superstition at once and for ever.
Astronomers say that if the axis of the earth could be brought upon a line with the equator, instead of being twenty-three-and-a-half degrees removed from it, we should have perpetual spring. Storms would cease, diseases be unknown, and man return to the golden age. Shelley thought that society had equally deflected from the right path, to the great misery of man, and that it might be brought back to the unerring line of justice, reason, and love. All his life was an effort in this direction. He sought, by applying the lever of spiritual conviction to the heart of man, to remove the world to its right place again. The evil which Christianity traced to the sin engrafted upon every offshoot of humanity by the conditions of its birth, was to Shelley an accident which might be expelled from creation, if man would only remain true to the harmonies of his nature. To elicit these harmonies; to show their accordance with the universe of which man was designed as the crowning feature, and not a mere blotch upon its surface; to demonstrate that evil was factitious and transient, and good alone natural and permanent, was the aim of Shelley's life, and the object of all his writings. If he erred, it was on the side of philanthropy. If he stumbled, it was through excess of love. The light which led him astray was pre-eminently light from heaven.
To understand Shelley's principles, and enter into the spirit of his poetry, the mind must be to some extent imbued with the Alexandrine philosophy. He did not believe in the existence of matter. The external universe to him was a phantasm. All the outward manifestations of sense were spiritual embodiments, either alone existing in the mind's ideal sense of such, or as the outward moulds of beings as incorporeal as itself. Space and time were the mere conditions of sensuous intuition, and fell to pieces with the material phenomena to which they fixed the limits of a beginning and an end. We have only to rise above the empirical notions of sense to annihilate such vulgar conceptions as limits, and wander about like disembodied spirits with the whole of immensity for our dwelling-place. If all external forms are an illusion, so is death, which is the commencement of a new life, the entrance on another cycle of being, or the mere absorption of the outward embodiments in the folds of another more adapted to the spirit's growth. But presiding over all these plastic shapes of weird creation, ever collapsing and re-clothing themselves with new forms, there was a spirit of beauty directing everything to some fit end, and sustaining, between the relations of each, that law of harmonious development which ought to have its reflex in the moral world. The whole hierarchy of spiritual ministrants, whether endued with self-consciousness or not, employed in the perpetual regeneration of love and beauty in the world, and each working in proper sequence, under agents gradually culminating in the essence or fountain of good, Shelley blended, with all he realized of beauty and truth, in the springs of creation, and in the restorative elements of the universe. In like manner, evil had its wide-spread agencies, ever active for mischief, operating in powerful combination, which it was the duty of man, in unison with the law of love, to banish from creation. Shelley believed himself, what every man ought to be, an apostle for that purpose, and certainly executed his mission in an unflinching spirit. Nearly every line of his poetry, as well as every act of his life, seemed aimed at extinguishing evil among mankind.
The theory of the perfectibility of the human race led Shelley to make war upon all the elements of society opposed to its realization; and the animosity which the struggle provoked, threw him with ten-fold force back upon the resources of nature. Had Shelley been the lion of social circles, he still would have worshipped nature with impassioned enthusiasm; but when nearly every door was slammed in his face, when society regarded him as an explosive individual, — a kind of Titanic Sampson, bent upon pulling its framework to pieces, in order that he might bury man beneath its ruins, the marvels of the universe bound his soul with tenfold Circeian spells. His life seems to have been passed in wooing Nature under all her forms. In calm moon-light, in storm and tempest, at the uprising of the dawn, or during the fleeting draperies of twilight, Shelley, with the eagerness of a painter, watched every changing streak of colour, every purple gleam of light, every flickering attenuation of shadow, as if he were inhaling not breath from the atmosphere, but inspiration. Shelley, indeed, studied natural phenomena so intensely, as if he thought that some deeper glimpse into the mysteries of nature, some further solution of the problem of existence, and of the enigma of life and death, was to be obtained by this zealous scrutiny of her features. He appeared to regard the elemental powers with the eye of an ancient Greek, and drank in their sounds, as if they brought to his soul reliable information from another sphere. At all events, his philosophy assured him there was a kinship between the soul of man and the active forces of nature; and if we regard his frail tenement and the mighty soul which seemed to rend its shell as lightning tears a cloud, it would seem, to have required little imagination on his part, to have regarded himself but a short remove from an elemental god. All these characteristics, together with his sense of world abandonment, the poet has described in language unrivalled for force, beauty, and tenderness, in any literature:—
'Midst others of less note, came one frail form,
A phantom among men; companionless
As the last cloud of an expiring storm,
Whose thunder is its knell; he, as I guess,
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.
A pard-like spirit, beautiful and swift,—
A love in desolation masked; — a power
Girt round with weakness; it can scarce uplift
The weight of the superincumbent hour.
It is a dying lamp, a falling shower,
A breaking billow; even while we speak,
Is it not broken? on the withering flower
The killing sun smiles brightly: on a cheek
The life can burn in blood, even while the heart may break.
His head was bound with pansies over-blown,
And faded violets, white, and pied, and blue,
And a light spear topped with a cyprus cone,
Round whose rude shaft dark ivy tresses grew,
Yet dripping with the forest's noon-day dew,
Vibrated, as the ever-beating heart
Shook the weak hand that grasped it: Of that crew
He came the last, neglected and apart,
A herd-abandoned deer, struck by the hunter's dart.
The passion of other poets for Nature has been more or less of a dilettante character. It has always given way under the strain of much physical inconvenience. Wordsworth never lingered among beautiful scenery, unless the solid comforts of an inn could be found in the immediate neighbourhood. Moore had an eye for the artistic combination of glen, mountain, and lake, but he must contemplate them from a gilded ottoman with a Brussels underneath his feet. With Shelley such things were simply ignored. His whole being was swallowed up in the thought of the divine loveliness before him. His ascetic diet, his absolute scorn of the pleasures of the table, gave him in this respect advantage over his contemporaries. He encountered all weathers, endured every kind of social inconvenience, in order to track the foot-prints of loveliness and grandeur wherever they could be found. Alpine storms, and sea tempests; the roar of the ocean upon romantic coasts, where rugged rocks in their wildness emulated the jagged clouds reflecting from their burnished faces the splendours of a Claudean sunset;these were his home, and he appeared to enjoy them the more, as they were shut out from the luxuries of conventional society. When Shelley saw a grand spot, where Nature revelled in majestic and Titanic wonders, it was a matter of very little moment to him that there was no decent habitation in the place. If there was a hut, he could live in that, and if there was not, he could make one. It was in this spirit he pedestrianised Switzerland, and settled upon some of the wildest parts of the Italian coast, after having familiarized his mind with the beauties of Killarney, the luxuriant valleys of Wales, the wood-encircling lakes of Cumberland, and the beech-covered lawns of Marlow and Windsor. Even when comfortably housed in any of these localities, Shelley did not, like his contemporaries, compose his verse in an easy chair upon a well-carpeted floor, with a curtained window in front of his desk, letting in upon him vistas of beautiful scenery, while excluding the drenching rain or the oppressive glare of the heat; neither did he compose his sea pictures, like Campbell, in a well-furnished room overlooking the waves, contenting himself with occasional glimpses of Neptune, through the double lens of his telescope. Shelley made his skiff, or the cavern, and when inland, the wood and the hedge copse, his study. Armed with pencil, and a book of blank paper, while a tempest was brewing in the black sky, or Nature lulled asleep in noontide sultriness, he would fling himself into the heart of her tumult or repose, and dot down his conceptions as they came into his mind. In this manner he composed his "Revolt of Islam," with the Thames rocking his boat under the beeches of Marlow, and the "Witch of Atlas" while out in a pedestrian excursion to San Pelegrino. The "Prometheus Unbound " was similarly written while gazing on the fragments of the Roman world, seated on the plinths of the baths of Caracalla; and the "Triumphs of Life," while gliding along the purple Mediterranean, or exploring by moonlight in his little shallop, the caves which fringe the rock-bound gulf of Spezia. Hence, Shelley's life was an eminently poetic life, as his philosophy was an eminently poetic philosophy. In the ardour with which he flung himself into the embraces of his art, in the rapt enthusiasm with which he drank in every aspect of the beautiful and the grand until it became a part of his being, in the yearning devotion with which he idolized Nature, and drenched himself with inspiration at her source, Shelley surpasses every other poet of whom history has left record. Had he lived in more classical times, he might have been sculptured as a tenth muse, with a globe and a lyre symbolizing the mysterious harmonies between the soul and the universe.
The character of Shelley's poetry is just what might be expected from this interfusion of a poetic life with a poetic philosophy. Of man's ways in society we get little, but of man in relation to his higher destinies, and of those aspects of the universe which throw light upon his nature in the abstract, we get everything. Shelley does not appear, in his poetry, to interest himself much about human concerns in any phase of society, except so far as they served to illustrate his peculiar views of human perfectibility. To sit down, like Scott, to versify romantic stories for the amusement of his species, seemed to Shelley a degradation of his art. He felt the mantle of the seer and prophet upon him, endowing him with the power, through the instrumentality of the lyre, to awaken man from the depths of his degradation, to the beauty of that higher life which awaited him when escaped from the bonds of prejudice and custom. He obeyed no law, but the dictates of his reason and the pure impulses of his heart. Poetry was to Shelley the great lever by which men's minds were to be incited to the accomplishment of their moral regeneration. Hence, his principal pieces contain an actual foreshadowing of the change, a development of the reason upon which it was to be based, a presentiment of the forces by which it was to be brought about. He seems to have regarded his art, even more than the old Greek dramatist, as a species of revelation, unveiling man's relation with the infinite, and befitting him for the subjugation of evil in others, by the extinction of selfishness in himself. In this respect, the only modern poet who approaches him is Wordsworth. But Wordsworth's convictions were singularly wanting in unity of purpose, mingling a little bit of Alexandrianism, here, and a little bit of the Thirty-nine Articles there, dovetailing a strange regard for liberal institutions abroad, with a strong aversion to them at home, until the whole structure of his teaching resembled a piece of tesselated mosaic, rather curious to look at, but utterly unsafe to stand upon. But Shelley's principles were pre-eminently harmonious and self-coherent. He carried his philosophical system, with logical sequence, into man's social relations, until the universal spirit of love and liberty, pervading all organic laws, became also paramount in the political structures of society; and these views, interlacing nature and human institutions in one consentaneous framework, he enforced with a flood of poetry so unsurpassingly grand in its effulgence, so abstract and spiritual in its loveliness, that if it failed to enchant all hearts, the defect is to be ascribed to the obtuseness of the popular mind to the metaphysical distinctions in which his conceptions were enshrined, and not to the conceptions themselves, or to the shaping of that imaginative power in which he surpassed all his contemporaries. Shelley's unpopularity arose from the fact, not so much that he was obscure, but that the national mind was dull. The old Greek dramatist was a grand intellectual force in his time; but to the modern reader, the old Greek dramatist, with his views about fate and destiny, his elemental deities, and his abstract personifications is about as uninteresting and unintelligible a personage as he can cope with. He is the poet of the past. In the same manner, Shelley imaged a state of society and built his views upon a system of human perfectibility, which can only be contemplated by an inversion of everything which absorbs the interest of the present. He is the poet of the future. It would, therefore, be manifestly unfair to judge of either in reference to the tastes of an age incapable of fathoming the recesses of their thoughts; or to test the quality of their genius by any other standard than the fitness of that genius to represent the peculiar views of which they were the exponents.
The "Revolt of Islam," the only narrative poem Shelley wrote of any length, is invested with an apocalyptic character. An abscess had formed on Shelley's lungs. His physician only gave him a few months to live. He resolved to employ that time on some great work which would convey to posterity his own views of how their redemption was to be effected, and in what manner the first apostles of the new scheme of ideal regeneration were to meet their fate. But like all apocalyptic writings, these views are conveyed to us through a series of dreams, or rapt visions, which set the comprehension of ordinary readers, as well as the rules of art, at defiance. He imagines two lovers in Turkish Greece impelling, by the ardour of their genius, the population to cast off the yoke of their tyrants, and inaugurate for their species a new reign of love and benevolence. They momentarily succeed in the attempt, but not before the hero has been left for dead, and the heroine driven to frenzy by the embraces of a master whom she loathed. Their final victory, however, is only achieved to be overthrown by a combination of foreign despots. The lovers, after a few days of ecstatic intercourse, give themselves up to the conquerors, and are burnt alive. Their death, however, is phenomenal only. Shelley introduces them to us in the supernal world, of which this is but a shadow, enjoying the rapturous feast of bliss, a foretaste of which they had struggled to secure for humanity. There is, consequently, a greater unity about the piece than at first sight might appear. It may be regarded as a sort of apocalypse to the Alexandrine philosophy. It opens and it terminates in the ante-natal and posthumous world. The actions of Laon and Cythna are revealed to us in a series of visions, representing the force of intellectual conviction and moral truth over the minds of men. The outside world is phantasmal only, and is dealt with as such. Human action is represented of such stuff as dreams are made of. The only abiding realities are spiritual truths, and that fervent mingling of soul with soul which is expressed by the word love. Hence, Shelley's conviction that, against these two breastplates, the tyrants' sword and the bigot's hate were destined early to prove powerless for ever.
Tried by the ordinary rules of art, perhaps, no poem, in any language, contains so many beauties, mingled with so many preposterous blemishes, as the "Revolt of Islam." The incidents are few, and those of a character to shock all notions of reality. Shelley seems to have had an idea that mankind were to be instigated, by a simple discourse, to rise in a body against the whole established structure of society, and overthrow in an hour the building which had taken decades of centuries to construct. A few words from the lips of a vagrant girl were sufficient to make a whole generation rise up against their old habits and prejudices, to break asunder the iron links of prescription and usage, out of some fancied dream of realizing, in a moment, the dream of general communism of property and universal brotherhood of love. The French revolution seems to have put into his head fancies of this nature. But the French revolution had its origin in grinding taxation, the oppression of the nobles, the exactions of the court, as well as in the writings of two or three generations of bold spirits, each waxing warmer in tone and more unbridled in expression, until the focus was reached of that fire which lifted society from the foundation upon which it had rested for centuries. But the complex action of these causes was far different from the wild ravings of a woman, to whose simple words the poet attributes efforts for transcending anything ascribed to the apostles of Rome, or the sibyls of Greece. It is no less marvellous when whole troops of ferocious men are proceeding to glut their revenge in the blood of their tyrants, that they should be turned aside from the act, by having their minds directed to its inutility; or to find infuriated slaves, armed to the teeth, changed into docile lambs, by being allowed to escape punishment for their crimes. It is unfortunate that Shelley should have reduced into action his Quixotic ideas as to the effect of charity and magnanimity of spirit upon depraved multitudes to so great an extent as to have built up a great poem upon the notion, that the Spanish knight's method of freeing criminals from their chains, and turning them loose on society, was the best way to regenerate his species.
If Laon's "Experiences" are too visionary for belief, those of Cythna, the heroine of the story, surpass all the marvels of Arabian fiction. How, in a frenzy, she is transported from the Harem, by a diver who conducts her to a cave beneath the rocks of the sea, where she is fed by an eagle; and how she is lifted up again by an earthquake, upon a rock in the centre of the bleak ocean, — all this extravagance, I conjecture, must be taken to be nothing but the wild incoherency of her thoughts; but it is interwoven with the main action of the poem, wherein it only ought to have been mortised as an episode. The child, which is the fruit of the Harem adventure, and which cuts a conspicuous figure in the sea-cave, connects the tyrant of the golden city with Cythna, and forms a further link in the unity of the piece, by committing suicide at the funeral pile of the two lovers, in order to join them in the next world. Poets have a licence to play tricks with nature, whenever they deal in enchantments, or call into action the weird powers. But this interweaving of dreams with imaginative pictures, this piling of vision upon vision, without any solid substratum to support the cloudy fabric, utterly destroys verisimilitude, and with it everything like human interest in the characters of the poem. Could we take the story out of its unreal framework and interweave the actors with a plot of flesh and blood creation, this poem would outshine any other of similar extent in the language. But as it stands, its beauties gleam upon us, across its airy cloud-rack, like the fitful sun-light on an April day. The hopes of freedom's dawn thus shoot their vivid streaks across the night of slavery, which is represented as winter wearing upon its slumbering face a dream of spring:—
Such are the thoughts which, like the fires that glare
In storm-encompassed isles, we cherish yet
In this dark ruin. Such were mine even there;
As in its sleep some odorous violet,
While yet its leaves with nightly dews are wet,
Breathes in prophetic dreams of day's uprise,
Or as ere Scythian frost in fear has met
Spring's messengers descending from the skies,
The buds foreknow their life-this hope must ever rise.
[C. vii., st. 37.]
The picture of Cythna who wanders with Laon,
Where earth and ocean meet
Beyond the aerial mountains, whose vast cells
The unreposing billows ever beat,
Through forests wide and old, and lawny dells
Where boughs of incense droop over the emerald wells,
[C. vi., st. 25.]
will hold its own against any other in the language:—
She moved upon this earth a shape of brightness,
A power, that from its objects scarcely drew
One impulse of her being-in her lightness
Most like some radiant cloud of morning dew,
Which wanders through the waste air's pathless blue,
To nourish some far desert; she did seem
Beside me, gathering beauty as she grew,
Like the bright shade of some immortal dream
Which walks, when tempest sleeps, the wave of life's dark stream.
[C. ii., st. 23.]
The passion of Laon and Cythna has a radiance flung around it of fiery depth and splendour which reveal all the glowing ardour of the poet's nature:—
The meteor showed the leaves on which we sate;
And Cythna's glowing arms, and the thick ties
Of her soft hair, which bent with gathered weight
My neck near hers; her dark and deepening eyes
Which (as twin phantoms of one star that lies
O'er a dim well, move, though the star reposes,)
Swam in our mute and liquid ecstasies;
Her marble brow, and eager lips, like roses,
With their own fragrance pale, which Spring but half uncloses.
The meteor to its far morass returned
The beating of our veins one interval
Made still; and then I felt the blood that burned
Within her frame, mingle with mine, and fall
Around my heart like fire; and over all
A mist was spread, the sickness of a deep
And speechless swoon of joy, as might befall
Two disunited spirits when they leap
In union from this earth's obscure and fading sleep.
[C. vi., sts. 34, 35.]
Her lips were parted, and the measured breath
Was now heard there; — her dark and intricate eyes
Orb within orb, deeper than sleep or death,
Absorbed the glories of the burning skies,
Which, mingling with her heart's deep ecstasies,
Burst from her looks and gestures; — and a light
Of liquid tenderness, like love, did rise
From her whole frame, — an atmosphere which quite
Arrayed her in its beams, tremulous, and soft, and bright.
She would have clasped me to her glowing frame;
Those warm and odorous lips might soon have shed
On mine the fragrance and the invisible flame
Which now the cold winds stole; — she would have laid
Upon my languid heart her dearest head;
I might have heard her voice, tender and sweet:
Her eyes mingling with mine, might soon have fed
My soul with their own joy. — One moment yet
I gazed — we parted then, never again to meet.
[C. xi., sts. 5, 6.]
Beauties of this sort abound in the poem, and when we consider the ethereal light in which even its tamest parts are steeped, and the fire and vigour with which the whole is executed, the regret is doubly felt that conceptions, which, if united with a better ground-plan, would have been as familiar to us as household words, should, as they stand gilding an unnatural fabric, promise to be the least popular of any in our literature.
The "Revolt of Islam" represented a defeat, which Shelley believed would be but temporary; for it was no part of his creed that vice and misery would always be in the ascendant in this world, that the great bulk of mankind would be for ever excluded from their inheritance, but that in the end, humanity would rise triumphant over most of the evils by which it is, at present, assailed. Wars would cease, diseases be exterminated, superstition banished, king-craft abolished, crime annihilated, and man rejoice in the plenitude of moral truth, of paternal concord, and intellectual freedom. This change in the human world would be attended by a sort of paloegenesis, with a corresponding change in the animal and terrestrial world. Every thing would cast off its evil nature as an outworn garment, and bask in the universal reign of love. Shelley seems to have been prepossessed with the idea that man only need to resume his own perfectibility, to ensure the universal triumph of good in the outward universe. The wild and predatory animals would either disappear, or transmute their fierce into gentle natures. Poisonous plants would become healthy, and noxious elements sound. The atmosphere would refuse to suck in pestilence, and no blasts would strike sterility into the womb of the earth. As before the pre-historic period, races existed in harmony with the totally different state of climate, and vegetation then existing; so if man were to undergo a change in his moral faculties, a corresponding change might be expected to follow in his physical condition, and both would necessitate a revolution in the spiritual and physical elements of the universe. As long as man, the highest product of creation, is rotten, the whole structure must be proportionally infirm; but make him sound, and the surrounding elements will partake of the perfection embodied in their loftiest manifestation. At least such is the scheme which the "Prometheus Unbound" presents to us; and though the conception of the drama is derived from Aeschylus, yet so different is Shelley's manner of treatment, to such an extent has he enlarged the boundaries of his subject, that it comes before us with the freshness of an original performance. According to the old story, Prometheus, for endowing the outcast race of men with the possession of the arts, was chained to a rock, and condemned by Jupiter to have his entrails gnawed by vultures, though he had assisted that potentate to usurp the throne of Olympus, from which Jove and Kronos had formerly expelled Saturn. It was evidently the design of Aeschylus, when Hercules, in the further expansion of the drama, by the order of the Fates, unbound Prometheus, to reconcile the justice of Jupiter with the punishment he had ungratefully inflicted upon an ally: for the father of God and men, whose usurpation was always represented by the poets as the establishment of order and anarchy, could not be supposed to have been represented, at their religious rites, as a ferocious tyrant. But Shelley seized upon the story as typical of the evils which humanity was undergoing from the rule of the present supposed god of the universe, who had usurped the place of Saturn, that is, of the spirit of universal love actuating the form of intellectual beauty. The usurper, drunk with excess of power, marries Thetis, and she gives birth to a hero who frees the human race, personified in Prometheus, from the numerous hosts of evils preying on his vitals, and restores the golden reign of Saturn with all the paradisal bliss from which man had been so ruthlessly excluded. Such are the outlines of the picture which Shelley has filled up with the most gorgeous poetry. Though the ordinary reader may fail to realize his acute metaphysical distinctions, or to bring the elemental power which he has endued with living forms within the regions of flesh and blood, still it cannot be denied, with all their cloudland dreaminess and shadow, they are more real in their way than the allegorical personifications of Spenser, and subserve a more practical purpose as the exponents of a deep philosophy. They are the outward embodiments of vital forces which are intimately blended with the destinies of man. As such, the truthfulness of the conceptions must be tested by a reference to the ideas they are intended to convey, and the functions of those ideas in bringing about the changes they are designed to illustrate. In this respect, there can hardly be a doubt that Shelley ascended to the height of his subject. His embodiments are instinct with life. Their beauty is only such as could be caught by the rapt vision of a poet's eye. The marvellous groupings of his figures would suck the soul out of a sculptor. While their deep tenderness remind us of the faces of Raphael's madonnas, their voluptuous forms are hardly surpassed by the outlines of Titian himself. Nature dawns upon us in a series of spiritual visions, combining regions of fairy loveliness with the broad outlines of a philosophy, which aims at realizing all the magical colouring of the poet's visions, in the sphere of truth. That Shelley in his "Prometheus," as well as in his "Hellas," with reference to the poetry of his subject, and its ground-plan in the region of abstract thought, surpasses Aeschylus, few, I think, would be disposed to deny; but Aeschylus wrote for an audience who felt their own fortunes, and the folds of their social and religious life, indissolubly blent with the poet's conceptions, and who, on that account, could grasp them as substantial existences; but Shelley, for an audience, who regarded his conceptions as the airy phantoms of a dream, never likely to be realized. Hence, while the triumphs of the one are stereotyped in history, those of the other only exist in the mind of the metaphysician.
Had Shelley never descended into the regions of actual fact, it might have remained doubtful whether he could have constructed a story appealing powerfully to human interests with any success. But in the "Cenci" he has tested his strength in the highest walk of modern dramatic art, with a result unequalled since the days of Marlowe and Shakespeare. The interest is powerfully sustained to the end. The action never flags. The characters are as boldly conceived as they are accurately executed. The daring and fiend-like determination of Francesco, the timid and vacillating purposes of the brother, the ruffianism of Orsino, are all so many foils to set off Beatrice, the grand impersonation of sublime despair, whose purity sheds a halo of heroism round the fearful act she nerves others to perform as the only plank of escape from moral pollution. Now these characters are drawn in the most natural manner in the world. They do not rant or mouth fine sentiments unconnected with natural outburst of passion, or with the development of the plot, simply to show the author's poetic powers. Their words, as well as their acts, are simply such as would be expected from people of similar disposition, surrounded by similar circumstances. There is not a line of waste writing in the piece. The writer has made the characters unfold themselves, not from their language, but from their acts, while these are none other than are required for the natural development of the story in crystalline clearness and completeness. In the hands of Shakespeare, the plot would have assumed a wider basis. The facetious element would have been introduced, in which Shelley was woefully deficient. There would have been more grandeur in some parts, and more turgidity in others. But I hardly think the story would have been better told, or the characters more truthfully drawn. It is a marvel that Shelley, who never appears to have bestowed any study upon the Elizabethan dramatists, should in this, his first attempt, have equalled all but the foremost of them in that species of composition which he had designedly neglected, but upon which they had concentrated all their genius.
That Shelley evinced no lack of power in dealing with objects of human interest when he allowed such to enthral his nature, is evinced by many of his smaller pieces, most of which are gems of surpassing beauty, whose lustre is rather likely to be enhanced than to suffer by comparison with any other kindred productions in the language. For while, in these pieces, the actual is never lost sight of, it is robed with such ideal imagery as makes the material float in the splendours of spiritual creation. A rich light permeates every object, until the substantial form seems but the shadow of an ethereal element. The death of poor Keats, at once struck all the chords of his heart. The result was a monody which, for depth of feeling, for exquisite pathos, for the beautiful embodiments of the powers of nature, draped in the hues of a subtle philosophy, is unsurpassed in any literature. The "Adonais" may challenge comparison with "Lycidas," even in plaintive melody, or naive grace and tender simplicity. In every other quality Milton would be the first to admit his rival's superiority. The "Ode to the Skylark," and the lines on "Dejection in the Bay of Naples," evince his power in clothing mere sensations with grand imagery, whether excited by visions of joy, or tossed upon the rack of despair. His love ditties are the incarnation of passionate tenderness suffused with deep melancholy, so that we are perplexed to know which feeling is uppermost, or how so much joy and sadness can be intermingled without destroying each other. In the "Alastor," and the "Epipsychidion," the yearning of the soul after ideal beauty, both in feminine as well as in material creation, is imaged forth, with depth of fervour and a gorgeousness of colouring which presents a true image of the poet's life. Assuredly, if Shelley was wanting so often in making the inconstant play of the passions the burthen of his song, it was not for lack of capacity, but from his conviction that the muse ought to aim at the nobler flight of filching from heaven that light which was to unriddle the mysteries of creation.
It can hardly, however, be maintained that Shelley was equal to the production of a grand representative poem, like "Don Juan," for instance, as he wanted the humorous element, without which any adequate representation of the conflicting interests of human life is clearly impossible. He also wanted that intimate experience with the world and its affairs, which alone can enable men to stereotype its pictures in the vivid imagery of expression. Even this is apparent in his delineation of love, in which the human, is always submerged in the ideal, tints of the passion. Shelley was the child of spirituality. The real world with its conventual forms, and its apparent absence of deep emotional sympathies, was entirely foreign to his nature. He did not take the pains to master it; it is, therefore, very much doubted whether he possessed the power. In this respect, he appears in disadvantageous contrast to Lord Byron, who entered into the spirit of social phenomena, and showed the depths of feeling in all their shivering nakedness, which it was the object of conventional forms to conceal. Shelley, doubtless, did not think the follies of society worth unmasking, while there was higher game to fly at. But Byron riots in the process, until the laying bare the manifold hypocrisies of custom, became the god of his intellectual life.
Byron and Shelley were, in most respects, the antithesis of each other; and had they not felt themselves linked together in one common fate, as the victims of the prejudices of their countrymen, as well as by congenial pursuits, the marvel would have been that characters so opposite could have cherished lasting sympathy for each other. Shelley always manifested a universal spirit of love for his kind; Byron a universal spirit of hatred. The nature of Shelley was all sweetness; that of Byron all bitterness. The one had a logical series of convictions, self-coherent and harmonious, which he enforced at all times upon everybody with whom he came into contact; the other had no belief whatever, but doubted of everything except the existence of evil. Shelley had little satire or facetiousness in his disposition; Byron was, by turns, caustic and humourous. Shelley steeped the material world in the colours of the ideal; Byron, the ideal world in the colours of the material. Shelley believed that everything was pure at its birth, and had gone wrong by accident, but only, in the order of time, to be restored to its original goodness; Byron believed that everything was radically wrong, by evil engendered in its nature, and would so continue to the end of the chapter. Byron exercised his art to amuse or astonish, Shelley to instruct and purify, his species. There can be no doubt in nearly all these points of contrast, the advantage is with Shelley. In poetic power, I do not know, except in the two classes of satire, and the representative poem, that he is inferior to his great contemporary. In the lyrical, as well as historical drama, Byron could not even approach him. If Byron had the advantage in the reproduction of actual passion, Shelley triumphs in self-sustained ideal power. Byron accomplished more, because he lived the longer. But it appears to me that Shelley evinced the grander poetic capacity. It is, also, only fair to consider that Shelley helped Byron to much of his ideal splendour, while his noble friend could not return the gift by inoculating Shelley with his world-wide experience.
Notwithstanding Byron's hostility to most of the institutions of his country, in his delineations of human passion, and his pictures of human life, he appealed to a large public who responded to his efforts by grand ovations of applause. But Shelley was unsustained by any sympathizing audience: even the most ethereal of his productions fell like dead fruit, unheeded to the ground. It was not that he enshrined his thoughts in the garb of a metaphysical philosophy; but he appeared to take a pleasure in representing his opinions to be as divergent from the popular creed as possible, as if it were a point with him to encounter the most virulent opposition, — to reap the widest harvest of disgust. His belief in a spirit of beauty and design, impregnating every part of the universe, and pre-determining everything for good, might have saved him from the stigma of atheism which he so resolutely brought upon himself. His view of the perfectibility of man being connected with the perfectibility of the universe, is, after all, but the direct counterpart of the doctrine of the Fall, which represents nature as rising in rebellion against man, as soon as man rose in rebellion against himself. The ardour with which Shelley looked forward to the extinction of evil, was only another exemplification of that yearning for the millennium which many enthusiastic divines believe will be brought about by other means. Shelley's views of the moral law, differed little, if anything, from the doctrines of the New Testament. Indeed, it would not be difficult to show that most of the views propounded by Shelley, had some analogy or kinship with those entertained by the orthodox of his day; the only difference being that both believed in the same agency under varying forms, and sought the final results by the employment of different factors. But Shelley had imbibed with his Alexandrian notions, enough, if not all, of that hostility to Christianity, manifested by the cultivators of the old philosophy to the nascent creed, which first pursued that philosophy to temporary destruction, and then applied its dead forms to leaven much of its new spirit. But Shelley was not the man to learn anything from so ghastly a source as history. He therefore encountered Christianity with the same virulence, as if this amalgamation had not taken place, — as if Proclus was still writing the Enneades, and Celsus was still thundering his indignation against Gregory Nazienzen. By this means he not only aroused useless antagonism, but prevented himself from sympathizing with much that was beautiful in the past, and many sources of spiritual loveliness which animated the present. The area of his aesthetic views was narrowed in proportion. Though most lavish in his charities, he appears to have had but a faint conception of the virtues arising from that proper discipline of the passions, which Christianity had impressed upon the world. If the popular belief inculcated a sage restraint in the cultivation of chastity, I fear that would have been reason enough with Shelley for counselling indulgence.
Shelley's views with regard to the relations which ought to exist between the two sexes, were doubtless imbibed, like most of his other notions respecting society, from Plato's Republic. Those relations he would have established upon the widest freedom consistent with man's moral development. No union, in his view, was legitimate unless based upon the mutual affection of both parties. When the bond of sympathy was broken, no matter whether on the part of both, or either, the union was dissolved in reality, and ought not to be allowed to drag on, after its soul was dead, a wretched legal existence. All forms of prostitution, all commingling of the sexes, which had mere convenience or lechery for its basis, Shelley regarded with the utmost aversion but when love had struck root in the tender feelings of the heart, — when it had taken up its home in the recesses of the soul, and generated from thence mutual fires, he was so prepossessed with the notion, of its right to proceed to any length it pleased, in defiance of present responsibilities or former engagements, that with his usual disingenuousness, he not only did not scruple to reduce the theory to practice, but introduced it into his domestic establishment. To some such source is to be ascribed those mistakes in his matrimonial connections, which threw such a blight over his subsequent career. His first wife was, doubtless, not so well suited to sympathize with his pursuits as Miss Godwin. Yet it was on this slender ground that Shelley thought himself justified in leaving her in an advanced stage of pregnancy, after she had borne him one child, in order to cohabit with another woman. Had there been a wide-growing estrangement, threatening a breach between the parties, this ungracious step would not have been without some excuse. But dates and documentary evidence are against this supposition. Shelley, after marrying Harriett Westbrook, in Holland, in 1811, went through a second marriage with that lady, in March, 1814, to legitimate the offspring in the eye of English law. Hardly four months after that act, he left England with Miss Godwin, whose acquaintance he had formed in the interim. From such facts, there can be only one inference, that Shelley thought every man entitled to abandon the partner whom he had apparently selected for life, upon meeting with another more congenial to his tastes; having, of course, made his first wife a suitable provision for her maintenance. The subsequent suicide which followed, after the return of the newly-engaged parties to England, when the connection began to assume the firmness of adamant, we are assured, was brought about by causes in which Shelley had no concern whatever. But who can dive into the recesses of a mind distracted with its own sorrows, and pretend to separate the entangled skein of motives so clearly as to enable him to say, these and these only led to the perpetration of the dire result?
A direct cause, or the "causa causans" of the calamity, the Godwin connection may not have been, but that it was the indirect cause, that is, one of the agents leading up to it, and without which the mischief could not possibly have happened, no one will be surely bold enough to deny. Such, indeed, appears to have been Shelley's view, as the rash act cast a profound gloom over his closing years, and filled his love strains with that sadness which reminds us of Ophelia's love dirge, as she was sinking with her rose-wreath into the embrace of death. The "Invocation to Misery," the beautiful "Ode to the Future," and some lines of heart-breaking tenderness over a life separation, which Shelley's editors have had the bad taste to inscribe to Harriet Grove, a casual sweetheart of his boyhood, were all written under a keen sense of the misfortune which his levity, or the practical embodiment of his theories, had brought upon him. Could Shelley have foreseen the consequence, he was too feeling a man not even to have sacrificed his own happiness, than entail wretchedness upon those whom he had sworn to shelter from its pangs. But with his peculiar convictions, he, doubtless, blamed society rather than himself, for the result, by fostering in woman, through its Draconian marriage laws, that chastity of principle, which regards fixity of tenure in wedlock, as the only foundation of her future happiness. Shelley may have, doubtless, reasoned himself into the conviction that he was doing his wife, no less than society, a service, by overturning a principle in his own person, which both mistook for the corner-stone of their security, but which was to him the perennial source of misery and pollution. He did not, therefore, go the wrong way with the torch pointing out the right way. He erred, as the best of us will assuredly err, when the promptings of the heart assume the guise of intellectual convictions. Unmitigated selfishness would never have led Shelley astray, had it not come to him in the form of an angel of light; and the reader may stand over his grave — as the writer has done, when the violets of the early Roman spring were steeping his dust in living fragrance — with the feeling that humanity has rarely enshrined a purer or loftier spirit.