Mr. Shelley's style is to poetry what astrology is to natural science — a passionate dream, a straining after impossibilities, a record of fond conjectures, a confused embodying of vague abstractions, — a fever of the soul, thirsting and craving after what it cannot have, indulging its love of power and novelty at the expense of truth and nature, associating ideas by contraries, and wasting great powers by their application to unattainable objects.
Poetry, we grant, creates a world of its own; but it creates it out of existing materials. Mr. Shelley is the maker of his own poetry — out of nothing. Not that he is deficient in the true sources of strength and beauty, if he had given himself fair play (the volume before us, as well as his other productions, contains many proofs to the contrary): But, in him, fancy, will, caprice, predominated over and absorbed the natural influences of things; and he had no respect for any poetry that did not strain the intellect as well as fire the imagination — and was not sublimed into a high spirit of metaphysical philosophy. Instead of giving a language to thought, or lending the heart a tongue, he utters dark sayings, and deals in allegories and riddles. His Muse offers her services to clothe shadowy doubts and inscrutable difficulties in a robe of glittering words, and to turn nature into a brilliant paradox. We thank him — but we must be excused. Where we see the dazzling beacon-lights streaming over the darkness of the abyss, we dread the quicksands and the rocks below. Mr. Shelley's mind was of "too fiery a quality" to repose (for any continuance) on the probable or the true — it soared "beyond the visible diurnal sphere," to the strange, the improbable, and the impossible. He mistook the nature of the poet's calling, which should be guided by involuntary, not by voluntary impulses. He shook off, as an heroic and praiseworthy act, the trammels of sense, custom, and sympathy, and became the creature of his own will. He was "all air," disdaining the bars and ties of mortal mould. He ransacked his brain for incongruities, and believed in whatever was incredible. Almost all is effort, almost all is extravagant, almost all is quaint, incomprehensible, and abortive, from aiming to be more than it is. Epithets are applied, because they do not fit: subjects are chosen, because they are repulsive: the colours of his style, for their gaudy, changeful, startling effect, resemble the display of fire-works in the dark, and, like them, have neither durability, nor keeping, nor discriminate form. Yet Mr. Shelley, with all his faults, was a man of genius; and we lament that uncontrollable violence of temperament which gave it a forced and false direction. He has single thoughts of great depth and force, single images of rare beauty, detached passages of extreme tenderness; and, in his smaller pieces, where he has attempted little, he has done most. If some casual and interesting idea touched his feelings or struck his fancy, he expressed it in pleasing and unaffected verse: but give him a larger subject, and time to reflect, and he was sure to get entangled in a system. The fumes of vanity rolled volumes of smoke, mixed with sparkles of fire, from the cloudy tabernacle of his thought. The success of his writings is therefore in general in the inverse ratio of the extent of his undertakings; inasmuch as his desire to teach, his ambition to excel, as soon as it was brought into play, encroached upon, and outstripped his powers of execution.
Mr. Shelley was a remarkable man. His person was a type and shadow of his genius. His complexion, fair, golden, freckled, seemed transparent with an inward light, and his spirit within him
—so divinely wrought,
That you might almost say his body thought.
He reminded those who saw him of some of Ovid's fables. His form, graceful and slender, drooped like a flower in the breeze. But he was crushed beneath the weight of thought which he aspired to bear, and was withered in the lightning-glare of a ruthless philosophy! He mistook the nature of his own faculties and feelings — the lowly children of the valley, by which the skylark makes its bed, and the bee murmurs, for the proud the mountain-pine, in which the eagle builds its eyry, "and dallies with the wind, and scorns the sun." — He wished to make of idle verse and idler prose the frame-work of the universe, and to bind all possible existence in the visionary chain of intellectual beauty—
More subtle web Arachne cannot spin,
Nor the fine nets, which oft we woven see
Of scorched dew, do not in th' air more lightly see.
Perhaps some lurking sense of his own deficiencies in the lofty walk which he attempted, irritated his impatience and his desires; and urged him on, with winged hopes, to atone for past failures, by more arduous efforts, and more unavailing struggles. With all his faults, Mr. Shelley was an honest man. His unbelief and his presumption were parts of a disease, which was not combined in him either with indifference to human happiness, or contempt for human infirmities. There was neither selfishness nor malice at the bottom of his illusions. He was sincere in all his professions; and he practised what he preached — to his own sufficient cost. He followed up the letter and the spirit of his theoretical principles in his own person, and was ready to share both the benefit and the penalty with others. He thought and acted logically, and was what he professed to be, a sincere lover of truth, of nature, and of human kind. To all the rage of paradox, he united an unaccountable candour and severity of reasoning: in spite of an aristocratic education, he retained in his manners the simplicity of a primitive apostle. An Epicurean in his sentiments, he lived with the frugaiity and abstemiousness of an ascetick. His fault was, that he had no deference for the opinions of others, too little sympathy with their feelings (which he thought he had a right to sacrifice, as well as his own, to a grand ethical experiment) — and trusted too implicitly to the light of his own mind, and to the warmth of his own impulses. He was indeed the most striking example we remember of the two extremes described by Lord Bacon as the great impediments to human improvement, the love of Novelty, and the love of Antiquity. "The first of these (impediments) is an extreme affection of two extremities, the one Antiquity, the other Novelty; wherein it seemeth the children of time do take after the nature and malice of the father. For as he devoureth his children, so one of them seeketh to devour and suppress the other; while Antiquity envieth there should be new additions, and Novelty cannot be content to add, but it may deface. Surely the advice of the Prophet is the true direction in this matter: Stand upon the old ways, and see which is the right and good way, and walk therein. Antiquity deserveth that reverence, that men should make a stand thereupon, and discover what is the best way; but when the discovery is well taken, then to take progression. And to speak truly, 'Antiquitas seculi Juventas mundi.' These times are the ancient times, when the world is ancient, and not those which we count ancient, 'ordine retrogrado,' by a computation backwards from ourselves." (ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING, Book I. p. 46.) — Such is the text: and Mr. Shelley's writings are a splendid commentary on one half of it. Considered in this point of view, his career may not be uninstructive even to those whom it most offended; and might be held up as a beacon and warning no less to the bigot than the sciolist. We wish to speak of the errors of a man of genius with tenderness. His nature was kind, and his sentiments noble; but in him the rage of free inquiry and private judgment amounted to a species of madness. Whatever was new, untried, unheard of, unauthorized, exerted a kind of fascination over his mind. The examples of the world, the opinion of others, instead of acting as a check upon him, served but to impel him forward with double velocity in his wild and hazardous career. Spurning the world of realities, he rushed into the world of nonentities and contingencies, like air into a vacuum. If a thing was old and established, this was with him a certain proof of its having no solid foundation to rest upon: if it was new, it was good and right. Every paradox was to him a self-evident truth; every prejudice an undoubted absurdity. The weight of authority, the sanction of ages, the common consent of mankind, were vouchers only for ignorance, error, and imposture. Whatever shocked the feelings of others, conciliated his regard; whatever was light, extravagant, and vain, was to him a proportionable relief from the dulness and stupidity of established opinions. The worst of it however was, that he thus gave great encouragement to those who believe in all received absurdities, and are wedded to all existing abuses: his extravagance seeming to sanction their grossness and selfishness, as theirs were a full justification of his folly and eccentricity. The two extremes in this way often meet, jostle, — and confirm one another. The infirmities of age are a foil to the presumption of youth; and "there the antics sit," mocking one another-the ape Sophistry pointing with reckless scorn at "palsied eld," and the bed-rid hag, Legitimacy, rattling her chains, counting her beads, dipping her hands in blood, and blessing herself from all change and from every appeal to common sense and reason! Opinion thus alternates in a round of contradictions: the impatience or obstinacy of the human mind takes part with, and flies oft to one or other of the two extremes "of affection" and leaves a horrid gap, a blank sense and feeling in the middle, which seems never likely to be filled up, without a total change in our mode of proceeding. The martello-towers with which we are to repress, if we cannot destroy, the systems of fraud and oppression should not be castles in the air, or clouds in the verge of the horizon, but the enormous and accumulated pile of abuses which have arisen out of their own continuance. The principles of sound morality, liberty and humanity, are not to be found only in a few recent writers, who have discovered the secret of the greatest happiness to the greatest numbers, but are truths as old as the creation. To be convinced of the existence of wrong, we should read history rather than poetry: the levers with which we must work out our regeneration are not the cobwebs of the brain, but the warm, palpitating fibres of the human heart. It is the collision of passions and interests, the petulance of party-spirit, and the perversities of self-will and self-opinion that have been the great obstacles to social improvement — not stupidity or ignorance; and the caricaturing one side of the question and shocking the most pardonable prejudices on the other, is not the way to allay heats or produce unanimity. By flying to the extremes of scepticism, we make others shrink back, and shut themselves up in the strongholds of bigotry and superstition — by mixing up doubtful or offensive matters with salutary and demonstrable truths, we bring the whole into question, flyblow the cause, risk the principle, and give a handle and a pretext to the enemy to treat all philosophy and all reform as a compost of crude, chaotic, and monstrous absurdities. We thus arm the virtues as well as the vices of the community against us; we trifle with their understandings, and exasperate their self-love; we give to superstition and injustice all their old security and sanctity, as if they were the only alternatives of impiety and profligacy, and league the natural with the selfish prejudices of mankind in hostile array against us. To this consummation, it must be confessed that too many of Mr. Shelley's productions pointedly tend. He makes no account of the opinions of others, or the consequences of any of his own; but proceeds — tasking his reason to the utmost to account for every thing, and discarding every thing as mystery and error for which he cannot account by an effort of mere intelligence — measuring man, providence, nature, and even his own heart, by the limits of the understanding — now hallowing high mysteries, now desecrating pure sentiments, according as they fall in with or exceeded those limits; and exalting and purifying, with Promethean heat, whatever he does not confound and debase.
Mr. Shelley died, it seems, with a volume of Mr. Keats's poetry grasped with one hand in his bosom! These are two out of four poets, patriots and friends, who have visited Italy within a few years, both of whom have been soon hurried to a more distant shore. Keats died young; and "yet his infelicity had years too many." A canker had blighted the tender bloom that o'erspread a face in which youth and genius strove with beauty. The shaft was sped — venal, vulgar, venomous, that drove him from his country, with sickness and penury for companions, and followed him to his grave. And yet there are those who could trample on the faded flower — men to whom breaking hearts are a subject of merriment — who laugh loud over the silent urn of Genius, and play out their game of venality and infamy with the crumbling bones of their victims! To this band of immortals a third has since been added! — a mightier genius, a haughtier spirit, whose stubborn impatience and Achilles-like pride only Death could quell. Greece, Italy, the world, have lost their poet-hero; and his death has spread a wider gloom, and been recorded with a deeper awe, than has waited on the obsequies of any of the many great who have died in our remembrance. Even detraction has been silent at his tomb; and the more generous of his enemies have fallen into the rank of his mourners. But he set like the sun in his glory; and his orb was greatest and brightest at the last; for his memory is now consecrated no less by freedom than genius. He probably fell a martyr to his zeal against tyrants. He attached himself to the cause of Greece, and dying, clung to it with a convulsive grasp, and has thus gained a niche in her history; for whatever she claims as hers is immortal, even in decay, as the marble sculptures on the columns of her fallen temples!
The volume before us is introduced by an imperfect but touching Preface by Mrs. Shelley, and consists almost wholly of original pieces, with the exception of Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude, which was out of print; and the admirable Translation of the May-day Night, from Goethe's Faustus.
Julian and Maddalo (the first Poem in the collection) is a Conversation or Tale, full of that thoughtful and romantic humanity, but rendered perplexing and unattractive by that veil of shadowy or of glittering obscurity, which distinguished Mr. Shelley's writings. The depth and tenderness of his feelings seems often to have interfered with the expression of them, as the sight becomes blind with tears. A dull, waterish vapour, clouds the aspect of his philosophical poetry, like that mysterious gloom which he has himself described as hanging over the Medusa's Head of Leonardo da Vinci. The metre of this poem, too, will not be pleasing to every body. It is in the antique taste of the rhyming parts of Beaumont and Fletcher and Ben Jonson — blank verse in its freedom and unbroken flow, falling into rhymes that appear altogether accidental — very colloquial in the diction — and sometimes sufficiently prosaic. But it is easier showing than describing it. We give the introductory passage.
I rode one evening with Count Maddalo
Upon the bank of land which breaks the flow
Of Adria towards Venice: a bare strand
Of hillocks, heaped from ever-shifting sand,
Matted with thistles and amphibious weeds,
Such as from earth's embrace the salt ooze breeds,
Is this; an uninhabited sea-side,
Which the lone fisher, when his nets are dried,
Abandons; and no other object breaks
The waste, but one dwarf tree and some few stakes
Broken and unrepaired, and the tide makes
A narrow space of level sand thereon,
Where 'twas our wont to ride while day went down,
This ride was my delight. I love all waste
And solitary places; where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be:
And such was this wide ocean, and this shore
More barren than its billows; and yet more
Than all, with a remember'd friend I love
To ride as then I rode; — for the winds drove
The living spray along the sunny air
Into our faces; the blue heavens were bare,
Stripped to their depths by the awakening North;
And, from the waves, sound like delight broke forth
Harmonising with solitude, and sent
Into our hearts aerial merriment.
So, as we rode, we talked; and the swift thought,
Winging itself with laughter, lingered not,
But flew from brain to brain, — such glee was ours,
Charged with light memories of remembered hours,
None slow enough for sadness: till we came
Homeward, which always makes the spirit tame. &c.
Meanwhile the sun paused ere it should alight
O'er the horizon of the mountains — Oh!
How beautiful is sunset, when the glow
Of heaven descends upon a land like thee,
Thou paradise of exiles, Italy!
Thy mountains, seas, and vineyards, and the towers
Of cities they encircle! — It was ours
To stand on thee, beholding it: and then,
Just where we had dismounted, the Count's men
Were waiting for us with the gondola.
As those who pause on some delightful way,
Tho' bent on pleasant pilgrimage, we stood,
Looking upon the evening and the flood,
Which lay between the city and the shore,
Paved with the image of the sky; the hoar
And aery Alps, towards the North, appeared,
Thro' mist, an heaven-sustaining bulwark, reared
Between the east and west; and half the sky
Was roofed with clouds of rich emblazonry,
Dark purple at the zenith, which still grew
Down the steep west into a wondrous hue
Brighter than burning gold, even to the rent
Where the swift sun yet paused in his descent
Among the many-folded hills — they were
Those famous Euganean hills, which bear,
As seen from Lido thro' the harbour piles,
The likeness of a clump of peaked isles—
And then, as if the earth and sea had been
Dissolv'd into one lake of fire, were seen
Those mountains towering, as from waves of flame,
Around the vaporous sun, from which there came
The inmost purple spirit of light, and made
Their very peaks transparent. "Ere it fade,"
Said my companion, "I will show you soon
A better station." So, o'er the lagune
We glided; and from that funereal bark
I leaned, and saw the city, and could mark
How from their many isles, in evening's gleam,
Its temples and its palaces did seem
Like fabrics of enchantment piled to Heaven.
I was about to speak, when — "We are even
Now at the point I meant" — said Maddalo,
And bade the gondolieri cease to row.
"Look, Julian, on the west, and listen well
If you hear not a deep and heavy bell."
I looked, and saw between us and the sun
A building on an island, such an one
As age to age might add, for uses vile—
A windowless, deformed, and dreary pile;
And on the top an open tower, where hung
A bell, which in the radiance swayed and swung,
We could just hear its hoarse and iron tongue:
The broad sun sank behind it, and it tolled
In strong and black relief. "What you behold
Shall be the madhouse and its belfrey tower,"—
Said Maddalo, "and even at this hour,
Those who may cross the water hear that bell,
Which calls the maniacs, each one from his cell,
To vespers," &c.
The broad star
Of day meanwhile had sunk behind the hill
And the black bell became invisible;
And the red tower looked grey; and all between,
The churches, ships, and palaces, were seen
Huddled in gloom. Into the purple sea
The orange hues of heaven sunk silently.
We hardly spoke, and soon the gondola
Conveyed me to my lodging by the way.
The march of these lines is, it must be confessed, slow, solemn, sad: there is a sluggishness of feeling, a dearth of imagery, an unpleasant glare of lurid light. It appears to us, that in some poets, as well as in some painters, the organ of colour (to speak in the language of the adepts) predominates over that of form; and Mr. Shelley is of the number. We have every where a profusion of dazzling hues, of glancing splendours, of floating shadows, but the objects on which they fall are bare, indistinct, and wild. There is something in the preceding extract that reminds us of the arid style and matter of Crabbe's versification, or that apes the labour and throes of parturition of Wordsworth's blank-verse. It is the preface to a story of Love and Madness — of mental anguish and philosophic remedies — not very intelligibly told, and left with most of its mysteries unexplained, in the true spirit of the modern metaphysical style — in which we suspect there is a due mixture of affectation and meagreness of invention.
This poem is, however, in Mr. Shelley's best and least mannered manner. If it has less brilliancy, it has less extravagance and confusion. It is in his stanza-poetry, that his Muse chiefly runs riot, and baffles all pursuit of common comprehension or critical acumen. The Witch of Atlas, the Triumph of Life, and Marianne's Dream, are rhapsodies or allegories of this description; full of fancy and of fire, with glowing allusions and wild machinery, but which it is difficult to read through, from the disjointedness of the materials, the incongruous metaphors and violent transitions, and of which, after reading them through, it is impossible, in most instances, to guess the drift or the moral. They abound in horrible imaginings, like records of a ghastly dream; — life, death, genius, beauty, victory, earth, air, ocean, the trophies of the past, the shadows of the world to come, are huddled together in a strange and hurried dance of words, and all that appears clear, is the passion and paroxysm of thought of the poet's spirit. The poem entitled the Triumph of Life, is in fact a new and terrific Dance of Death; but it is thus Mr. Shelley transposes the appellations of the commonest things, and subsists only in the violence of contrast. How little this poem is deserving of its title, how worthy it is of its author, what an example of the waste of power, and of genius "made as flax," and devoured by its own elementary ardours, let the reader judge from the concluding stanzas.
Grew dense with shadows to its inmost covers,
The earth was grey with phantoms, and the air
Was peopled with dim forms; as when there hovers
A flock of vampire-bats before the glare
Of the tropic sun, bringing, ere evening,
Strange night upon some Indian vale; — thus were
Phantoms diffused around; and some did fling
Shadows of shadows, yet unlike themselves,
Behind them; some like eaglets on the wing
Were lost in the white day; others like elves
Danced in a thousand unimagined shapes
Upon the sunny streams and grassy shelves;
And others sate chattering shrill like restless apes
On vulgar hands,———*———*———
Some made a cradle of the ermined capes
Of kingly mantles; some across the tire
Of pontiffs rode, like demons; others played
Under the crown which girded with empire
A baby's or an idiot's brow, and made
Their nests in it. The old anatomies
Sate hatching their bare broods under the shade
Of demon wings, and laughed from their dead eyes
To reassume the delegated power,
Array'd in which those worms did monarchize,
Who make this earth their charnel.
Others more Humble, like falcons, sate upon the fist
Of common men, and round their heads did soar;
Or like small gnats and flies, as thick as mist
On evening marshes, thronged about the brow
Of lawyers, statesmen, priest and theorist;—
And others, like discoloured flakes of snow,
On fairest bosoms and the sunniest hair,
Fell, and were melted by the youthful glow
Which they extinguished———*———*———
The marble brow of youth was cleft
With care; and in those eyes where once hope shone,
Desire, even like a lioness bereft
Of her last cub, glared ere it died; each one
Of that great crowd sent forth incessantly
These shadows, numerous as the dead leaves blown
In autumn evening from a poplar tree.
Each like himself, and like each other were
At first; but some, distorted, seemed to be
Obscure clouds, moulded by the casual air;
And of this stuff the car's creative ray
Wrapt all the busy phantoms that were there,
As the sun shapes the clouds, &c.
Any thing more filmy, enigmatical, discontinuous, unsubstantial than this, we have not seen; nor yet more full of morbid genius and vivifying soul. We cannot help preferring The Witch of Atlas to Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude; for, though the purport of each is equally perplexing and undefined, (both being a sort of mental voyage through the unexplored regions of space and time), the execution of the one is much less dreary and lamentable than that of the other. In the "Witch," he has indulged his fancy more than his melancholy, and wantoned in the felicity of embryo and crude conceits even to excess.
And there lay Visions, swift, and sweet, and quaint,
Each in its thin sheath like a crysalis;
Some eager to burst forth, some weak and faint
With the soft burthen of intensest bliss
And odours in a kind of aviary
Of ever-blooming Eden-trees she kept,
Clipt in a floating net, a love-sick Fairy
Had woven from dew-beams while the moon yet slept;
As bats at the wired window of a dairy,
They beat their vans; and each was an adept,
When loosed and missioned, making wings of winds,
To stir sweet thoughts or sad in destined minds. p. 34.
We give the description of the progress of the "Witch's" boat as a slight specimen of what we have said of Mr. Shelley's involved style and imagery.
And down the streams which clove those mountains vast,
Around their inland islets, and amid
The panther-peopled forests, whose shade cast
Darkness and odours, and a pleasure hid
In melancholy gloom, the pinnace past:
By many a star-surrounded pyramid
Of icy crag cleaving the purple sky,
And caverns yawning round unfathomably.
And down the earth-quaking cataracts which shiver
Their snow-like waters into golden air,
Or under chasms unfathomable ever
Sepulchre them, till in their rage they tear
A subterranean portal for the river,
It fled — the circling sunbows did upbear
Its fall down the hoar precipice of spray,
Lighting it far upon its lampless way.
This we conceive to be the very height of wilful extravagance and mysticism. Indeed it is curious to remark every where the proneness to the marvellous and supernatural, in one who so resolutely set his face against every received mystery, and all traditional faith. Mr. Shelley must have possessed, in spite of all his obnoxious and indiscreet scepticism, a large share of credulity and wondering curiosity in his composition, which he reserved from common use, and bestowed upon his own inventions and picturesque caricatures. To every other species of imposture or disguise he was inexorable; and indeed it is his only antipathy to established creeds and legitimate crowns that ever tears the veil from his ideal idolatries, and renders him clear and explicit. Indignation makes him pointed and intelligible enough, and breathes into his verse a spirit very different from his own boasted spirit of Love.
The Letter to a Friend in London shows the author in a pleasing and familiar, but somewhat prosaic light; and his Prince Athanase, a Fragment, is, we suspect, intended as a portrait of the writer. It is amiable, thoughtful, and not much over-charged. We had designed to give an extract, but from the apparently personal and doubtful interest attached to it, perhaps it had better be read altogether, or not at all. We rather choose to quote a part of the Ode to Naples, during her brief revolution, — in which immediate and strong local feelings have at once raised and pointed Mr. Shelley's style, and "made of light-winged toys of feathered cupid," the flaming ministers of Wrath and Justice.
Naples! thou Heart of men which ever pantest
Naked, beneath the lidless eye of heaven!
Elysian City which to calm enchantest
The mutinous air and sea: they round thee, even
As sleep round Love, are driven!
Metropolis of a ruined Paradise
Long lost, late won, and yet but half regained!
What though Cimmerian Anarchs dare blaspheme
Freedom and thee! thy shield is as a mirror
To make their blind slaves see, and with fierce gleam
To turn his hungry sword upon the wearer.
A new Acteon's error
Shall their's have been — devoured by their own hounds!
Be thou like the imperial Basilisk
Killing thy foe with unapparent wounds!
Gaze on oppression, till at that dead risk
Aghast she pass from the Earth's disk,
Fear not, but gaze-for freemen mightier grow,
And slaves more feeble, gazing on their foe;
If Hope and Truth and Justice may avail,
Thou shalt be great — All hail!
Didst thou not start to hear Spain's thrilling paean
From land to land re-echoed solemnly,
Till silence became music? From the Aeean
To the cold Alps, eternal Italy
Starts to hear thine! The Sea
Which paves the desart streets of Venice, laughs
In light and music; widowed Genoa wan
By moonlight spells ancestral epitaphs,
Murmuring, where is Doria? fair Milan,
Within whose veins long ran
The vipers palysying venom, lifts her heel
To bruise his head. The signal and the seal
(If Hope and Truth and Justice can avail
Art Thou of all these hopes. — O hail!
Florence! beneath the sun,
Of cities fairest one,
Blushes within her bower for Freedom's expectation;
From eyes of quenchless hope
Rome tears the priestly cope,
As ruling once by power, so now by admiration,
An athlete stript to run
From a remoter station
For the high prize lost on Philippi's shore:—
As then Hope, Truth, and Justice did avail,
So now may Fraud and Wrong! — O hail!
Hear ye the march as of the Earth-born Forms
Arrayed against the everliving Gods?
The crash and darkness of a thousand storms
Bursting their inaccessible abodes
Of crags and thunder-clouds?
See ye the banners blazoned to the day,
Inwrought with emblems of barbaric pride?
Dissonant threats kill Silence far away,
The serene Heaven which wraps our Eden, wide
With iron light is dyed!
The Anarchs of the North lead forth their legions,
Like Chaos o'er creation, uncreating;
An hundred tribes nourished on strange religions
And lawless slaveries, — down the aerial regions
Of the white Alps, desolating,
Famished wolves that bide no waiting,
Blotting the glowing footsteps of old glory,
Trampling our columned cities into dust,
Their dull and savage lust
On Beauty's corse to sickness satiating—
They come! The fields they tread look black and hoary
With fire-from their red feet the streams run gory!
Great Spirit, deepest Love!
Which rulest and dost move
All things which live and are, within the Italian shore;
Who spreadest heaven around it,
Whose woods, rocks, waves, surround it:
Who sittest in thy star, o'er Ocean's western floor,
Spirit of beauty! at whose soft command
The sunbeams and the showers distil its foison
From the Earth's bosom chill;
O bid those beams be each a blinding brand
Of lightning! bid those showers be dews of poison!
Bid the Earth's plenty kill!
Bid thy bright heaven above,
Whilst light and darkness bound it,
Be their tomb who planned
To make it ours and thine!
Or with thine harmonising ardours fill
And raise they sons, as o'er the prone horizon
Thy lamp feeds every twilight wave with fire—
Be man's high hope and unextinct desire
The instrument to work thy will divine!
Then clouds from sunbeams, antelopes from leopards,
And frowns and fears from Thee
Would not more swiftly flee
Than Celtic wolves from the Ausonian shepherds.
Whatever, Spirit, from thy starry shrine
Thou yieldest or withholdest, O let be
This city of thy worship ever free!
This Ode for Liberty, though somewhat turbid and over-loaded in the diction, we regard as a fair specimen of' Mr. Shelley's highest powers — whose eager animation wanted only a greater sterness and solidity to be sublime. The poem is dated September 1820. Such were then the author's aspirations. He lived to see the result, — and yet Earth does not roll its billows over the heads of its oppressors! The reader may like to contrast with this the milder strain of the following stanzas, addressed to the same city in a softer and more desponding mood.
The sun is warm, the sky is clear,
The waves are dancing fast and bright,
Blue isles and snowy mountains wear
The purple noon's transparent light
Around its unexpanded buds;
Like many a voice of one delight,
The winds, the birds, the ocean floods,
The City's voice itself is soft, like Solitude's.
I see the Deep's untrampled floor
With green and purple seaweeds strown;
I see the waves upon the shore,
Like light dissolved in star-showers, thrown
I sit upon the sands alone,
The lightning of the noon-tide ocean
Is flashing round me, and a tone
Arises from its measured motion,
How sweet did any heart now share in my emotion.
Yet now despair itself is mild,
Even as the winds and waters are;
I could lie down like a tired child,
And weep away the life of care
Which I have borne and yet must bear,
Till death like sleep might steal on me,
And I might feel in the warm air
My cheek grow cold, and hear the sea
Breathe o'er my dying brain its last monotony.
Some might lament that I were cold,
As I, when this sweet day is gone,
Which my lost heart, too soon grown old,
Insults with this untimely moan;
They might lament — for I am one
Whom men love not, — and yet regret,
Unlike this day, which, when the sun
Shall on its stainless glory set,
Will linger, though enjoyed, like joy in memory yet.
We pass on to some of Mr. Shelley's smaller pieces and translations, which we think are in general excellent and highly interesting. His Hymn of Pan we do not consider equal to Mr. Keats's sounding lines in the Endymion. His Mont Blanc is full of beauties and of defects; but it is akin to its subject, and presents a wild and gloomy desolation. GINEVERA, a fragment founded on a story in the first volume of the "Florentine Observer," is like a troublous dream, disjointed, painful, oppressive, or like a leaden cloud, from which the big tears fall, and the spirit of the poet mutters deep-toned thunder. We are too much subject to these voluntary inflictions, these "moods of mind," these effusions of "weakness and melancholy," in the perusal of modern poetry. It has shuffled off, no doubt, its old pedantry and formality; but has at the same time lost all shape or purpose, except that of giving vent to some morbid feeling of the moment. The writer thus discharges a fit of the spleen or a paradox, and expects the world to admire and be satisfied. We are no longer annoyed at seeing the luxuriant growth of nature and fancy clipped into arm-chairs and peacocks' tails; but there is danger of having its stately products choked with unchecked underwood, or weighed down with gloomy nightshade, or eaten up with personality, like ivy clinging round and eating into the sturdy oak! The Dirge, at the conclusion of this fragment, is an example of the manner in which this craving after novelty, this desire "to elevate and surprise," leads us to "overstep the modesty of nature," and the bounds of decorum.
Ere the sun through heaven once more has roll'd,
The rats in her heart
Will have made their nest,
And the worms be alive in her golden hair,
While the spirit that guides the sun,
Sits throned in his flaming chair,
She shall sleep.
The "worms" in this stanza are the old and traditional appendages of the grave; — the "rats" are new and unwelcome intruders; but a modern artist would rather shock, and be disgusting and extravagant, than produce no effect at all, or he charged with a want of genius and originality. In the unfinished scenes of Charles I., (a drama on which Mr. Shelley was employed at his death) the radical humour of the author breaks forth, but "in good set terms" and specious oratory. We regret that his premature fate has intercepted this addition to our historical drama. From the fragments before us, we are not sure that it would be fair to give any specimen.
The TRANSLATIONS from Euripides, Calderon, and Goethe in this Volume, will give great pleasure to the scholar and to the general reader. They are executed with equal fidelity and spirit. If the present publication contained only the two last pieces in it, the Prologue in Heaven, and the May-day Night of the Faust (the first of which Lord Leveson Gower has omitted, and the last abridged, in his very meritorious translation of that Poem), the intellectual world would receive it with an All Hail! We shall enrich our pages with a part of the May-day Night, which the Noble Poet has deemed untranslateable.
CHORUS OF WITCHES.
The stubble is yellow, the corn is green,
Now to the brocken the witches go;
The mighty multitude here may be seen
Gathering, witch and wizard, below.
Sir Urean is sitting aloft in the air
Hey over stock and hey over stone!
'Twixt witches and incubi, what shall be done?
Tell it who dare! tell it who dare!
Upon a sow-swine, whose farrows were nine,
Old Baubo rideth alone.
Honour her to whom honour is due,
Old mother Baubo, honour to you!
An able sow, with old Baubo upon her,
Is worthy of glory, and worthy of honour!
The legion of witches is coming behind,
Darkening the night, and outspeeding the wind.
Which way comest thou?
The owl was awake in the white moonshine;
I saw her at rest in her downy nest,
And she stared at me with her broad, bright eye.
And you may now as well take your course on to Hell,
Since you ride by so fast, on the headlong blast.
She dropt poison upon me as I past.
Here are the wounds—
CHORUS OF WITCHES.
Come away! come along!
The way is wide, the way is long,
But what is that for a Bedlam throng?
Stick with the prong, and scratch with the broom!
The child in the cradle lies strangled at home,
And the mother is clapping her hands—
SEMI-CHORUS OF WIZARDS I.
We glide in
Like snails when the women are all away;
And from a house once given over to sin
Woman has a thousand steps to stray.
A thousand steps must a woman take,
Where a man but a single spring will make.
Come with us, come with us, from Felunsee.
With what joy would we fly, though the upper sky!
We are washed, we are 'nointed, stark naked are we,
But our toil and our pain is forever in vain.
The wind is still, the stars are fled,
The melancholy moon is dead ime magic notes, like spark on spark,
Drizzle, whistling through the dark.
Stay, oh stay!
What thronging, dashing, raging, rustling;
What whispering, babbling, hissing, bustling;
What glimmering, spurting, stinking, burning,
As Heaven and Earth were overturning.
There is a true witch-element about us.
Take hold on me, or we shall be divided—
Where are you?
FAUST (from a distance.)
What! I must exert my authority in the house.
Place for young Voland! Pray make way, good people.
Take hold on me, Doctor, and with one step
Let us escape from this unpleasant crowd:
They are too mad for people of my sort.
I see young witches naked there, and old ones
Wisely attired with greater decency.
Be guided now by me, and you shall buy
A pound of pleasure with a drachm of trouble.
I hear them tune their instruments — one must
Get used to this damned scraping.
Come, I'll lead you
Among them; and what there you do and see
As a fresh compact 'twixt us two shall be.
How say you now? This space is wide enough—
Look forth, you cannot see the end of it—
An hundred bonfires burn in rows, and they
Who throng around them seem innumerable;
Dancing and drinking, jabbering, making love,
And cooking are at work. Now tell me, friend,
What is there better in the world than this?
In introducing us, do you assume
The character of wizzard or of devil?
In truth, I generally go about
In strict incognito: and yet one likes
To wear one's orders upon gala days.
I have no ribbon at my knee; but here
At home, the cloven foot is honourable.
See you that snail there? — she comes creeping up,
And with her feeling eyes hath smelt out something—
I could not, if I would, mask myself here.
Come now, we'll go about from fire to fire:
I'll be the pimp and you shall be the lover. p. 409.
The preternatural imagery in all this medley is, we confess, (comparatively speaking) meagre and monotonous; but there is a squalid nudity, and a fiendish irony and scorn thrown over the whole, that is truly edifying. The scene presently after proceeds thus.
Why do you let that fair girl pass from you,
Who sung so sweetly to you in the dance?
A red mouse in the middle of her singing
Sprung from her mouth!
That was all right, my friend;
Be it enough that the mouse was not grey.
Do not disturb your hour of happiness
With close consideration of such trifles.
Then saw I—
Seest thou not a pale
Fair girl, standing alone, far, far away?
She drags herself now forward with slow steps,
And seems as if she moved with shackled feet
I cannot overcome the thought that she
Is like poor Margaret!
Let it be — pass on—
No good can come of it — it is not well
To meet it. — It is an enchanted phantom,
A lifeless idol; with its numbing look
It freezes up the blood of man; and they
Who meet its ghastly stare are turned to stone,
Like those who saw Medusa.
Oh, too true!
Her eyes are like the eyes of a fresh corpse
Which no beloved hand has closed, alas!
That is the heart which Margaret yielded to me—
Those are the lovely limbs which I enjoyed!
It is all magic, poor deluded fool;
She looks to every one like his first love.
Oh, what delight! what woe! I cannot turn
My looks from her sweet piteous countenance.
How strangely does a single blood-red line,
Not broader than the sharp edge of a knife,
Adorn her lovely neck!
Aye, she can carry
Her head under her arm upon occasion;
Perseus has cut it off for her! These pleasures
End in delusion!—
The latter part of the foregoing scene is to be found in both translations; but we prefer Mr. Shelley's, if not for its elegance, for its simplicity and force. Lord Leveson Gower has given, at the end of his volume, a translation of Lessing's Faust, as having perhaps furnished the hint for the larger production. There is an old tragedy of our own, founded on the same tradition, by Marlowe, in which the author has treated the subject according to the spirit of poetry, and the learning of his age. He has not evaded the main incidents of the fable (it was not the fashion of the dramatists of his day), nor sunk the chief character in glosses and episodes (however subtle or alluring), but has described Faustus's love of learning, his philosophic dreams and raptures, his religious horrors and melancholy fate, with appropriate gloom or gorgeousness of colouring. The character of the old enthusiastic inquirer after the philosopher's stone, and dealer with the Devil, is nearly lost sight of in the German play: its bold development forms the chief beauty and strength of the old English one. We shall not, we hope, be accused of wandering too far from the subject, if we conclude with some account of it in the words of a contemporary writer. "The Life and Death of Dr. Faustus, though an imperfect and unequal performance, is Marlowe's greatest work. Faustus himself is a rude sketch, but is a gigantic one. This character may be considered as a personification of the pride of will and eagerness of curiosity, sublimed beyond the reach of fear and remorse. He is hurried away, and, as it were, devoured by a tormenting desire to enlarge his knowledge to the utmost bounds of nature and art, and to extend his power with his knowledge. He would realize all the fictions of a lawless imagination, would solve the most subtle speculations of abstruse reason; and for this purpose, sets at defiance all mortal consequences, and leagues himself with demoniacal power, with 'fate and metaphysical aid.' The idea of witchcraft and necromancy, once the dread of the vulgar, and the darling of the visionary recluse, seems to have had its origin in the restless tendency of the human mind, to conceive of, and aspire to, more than it can achieve by natural means; and in the obscure apprehension, that the gratification of this extravagant and unauthorized desire can only be attained by the sacrifice of all our ordinary hopes and better prospects, to the infernal agents that lend themselves to its accomplishment. Such is the foundation of the present story. Faustus, in his impatience to fulfil at once, and for a few short years, all the desires and conceptions of his soul, is willing to give in exchange his soul and body to the great enemy of mankind. Whatever he fancies, becomes by this means present to his sense: whatever he commands, is done. He calls back time past, and anticipates the future: the visions of antiquity pass before him, Babylon in all its glory, Paris and Oenone: all the projects of philosophers, or creations of the poet, pay tribute at his feet: all the delights of fortune, of ambition, of pleasure and of learning, are centred in his person; and, from a short-lived dream of supreme felicity and drunken power, he sinks into an abyss of darkness and perdition. This is the alternative to which he submits; the bond which he signs with his blood! A the outline of the character is grand and daring, the execution is abrupt and fearful. The thoughts are vast and irregular, and the style halts and staggers under them." [Note: Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth.]