1845 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Percy Bysshe Shelley

George Gilfillan, in Gallery of Literary Portraits (1845) 89-91.



Between Keats and Shelley there exist many more points of similarity. Both were men of trembling sensibility, and a genius almost feminine in its delicacy: both sinned in point of extravagance of imagery; both exhibited a promise which the most mature of their productions did not fulfil; both were essentially young poets; both, nevertheless, have left behind them imperishable monuments of their powers; both, throughout their brief being, had to struggle with the infirmities of a feeble body and a fevered spirit; and of both, alas! the "sun went down while it was yet day." They were, the one the Wordsworth, and the other the Coleridge of a new school of Lakers, not inferior to the first; yet were they essentially distinct. Shelley, by one bound, attained early a manliness of thought and diction which Keats never altogether reached. His genius was fed, besides, by a far wider erudition, and came forth shining in the hues of German and Grecian lore, with neither of which the inspired apothecary's boy was acquainted, save through the dull medium of translations. Sustained, too, by a more determined and heroic spirit, Shelley bore the ordeal of attack much better than the trembling youth, who, when the bunch of early flowers, and "weeds of glorious feature," which he meekly presented, was spurned, had nothing left but to die. But if Keats could not have sustained the long enthusiasm of the Revolt of Islam, nor have elaborated the masterful Cenci, it lay alike out of the power of Shelley, or perhaps of any of the poets of the day, to produce Hyperion, in its colossal magnificence, its unearthly calm, with its statuesque shapes, its eloquence of despair, and all the rich beauties, austere splendours, and high original purpose, which excite your wonder that a dying boy could wear the buskins of Eschylus, the thunder-shod shaker of the Grecian stage. Superior as Shelley is in sustained stateliness, in sounding march, in extent of knowledge, power of intellect, and purity of taste, and free as he is from his rival's babyism of manner, affectations of style, endless sinkings away from the finest eloquence, to the sheerest drivel; all those faults, in short, which in Keats' own words, "denote a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished;" still, there are even in the worst works of the author of Endymion, such quaint originalities, such dim grandeurs, single lines so unutterably sweet, single thoughts so piercingly profound; so much, in fine, of that pure element of power which clings to the memory and the heart, according to his own line, "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever—" as, taken in connexion with his age, justify and compel the prognostic, that had he but outlived the fearful tenderness of his sensibilities, and out-soared the onset of his foes, Adonais would, in the "heaven of song," have sat above Alastor.