Percy Bysshe Shelley

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 225-32.

The subject of Alastor, Shelley's earliest acknowledged poem, and one of his best, is, like that of Wordsworth's Prelude, the development of a poet's mind, but much more vaguely and indefinitely brought before us. Even in this youthful production we have much of the mastery of diction, the picturesqueness of description, and the majestic imaginative gorgeousness or grace for which his maturer writings were distinguished. Its general aim is visionary and obscure, unless it may be found in a search after ideal perfection — some unapproachable and unattainable good — some Utopia of the imagination. Equally peculiar in thought, style, and invention, and even less attractive than Alastor, from the absence of human interest — however higher as a literary effort — was the allegorical poem, entitled The Revolt of Islam. It was an unhappy attempt to blend poetry with metaphysics; — unhappy, as in it the former has been almost sacrificed to the latter, and much fine thought and imagery thus literally entombed. He is anything but lucid or happy in the management of the plot or the arrangement of the incidents; but where it escapes from its so-called philosophy, which, when comprehensible, is utterly weak and worthless, the poem exhibits various passages remarkable for high imaginative passionate earnestness, or picturesque beauty; while some of its narrative portions are of almost equal excellence, as the early loves of Laon and Cythna — the portrait of the tyrant Othman sitting alone, with the little child in his palace hall — and the river voyage, towards the conclusion of the last canto.

The next production of this wayward, misguided, and singular man was his tragedy of The Cenci, — in subject, sufficiently indicative of the morbid perversion of his taste — in execution, the most able and elaborate of all his writings. Not only in exquisite description, but in dramatic energy, it may stand comparison with almost anything recent times have produced; but these excellencies are rendered literally nugatory, from the repulsive horror with which its successive scenes are approached. To the intellectual sublime, it is what the Newgate Calendar is to the moral sublime; and because sheer monstrosities have been depictured, nay, minutely dwelt on in the grosser writings of former ages, it seems to have been thought that no apology was necessary for transferring them to our own. In the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles to be sure, in the Hippolytus of Euripides, in the Bride of Messina of Schiller, in the Mirra of Alfieri, in the Manfred and Parisina of Byron, and in one or two of our early dramatists, the same dangerous tract of thought has been glimpsed upon; but surely these are only as lurid beacons to warn right feeling and tasteful propriety from such a bleak and forbidding territory. No man can plead any better apology for the use of such machinery, for the purpose of exciting the tragic emotions of pity or terror, than he could, were be to exhibit the rack and guillotine on the stage, and to describe all the horrible minutiae of inquisitorial torture. Except for the diseased state of Shelley's temperament, such things could not possibly have been, even with him — for he also possessed feelings at times apparently totally in opposition to these; and I can quite agree with Mr. Leigh Hunt, when he says of this same tragedy, that — "Otherwise besides grandeur and terror, there are things in it lovely as heart can worship; and the author showed himself able to draw both men and women, whose names would have become 'familiar in our months as household words.' The utmost might of gentleness, and of the sweet habitudes of domestic affection, was never mere balmily impressed through the tears of the reader, than in the unique and divine close of that dreadful tragedy. Its loveliness, being that of the highest reason, is superior to the madness of all the crime that has preceded it, and leaves nature in a state of reconcilement with her ordinary course."

With much of the beautiful and true — with much of animation and force of passion, and fine touches of nature and picturesque description, the eclogue of Rosalind and Helen has the same detracting qualities of the perverted in taste and the repulsive as well the extravagant in incident.

The Prometheus Unbound, a lyrical drama in four acts, was intended, as we are told by Shelley himself, to make his hero "the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends." It hence differs from the lost drama of Aeschylus on the same subject, whose purpose was merely to commemorate the reconciliation of Jupiter with his victim, on his disclosing the danger threatened to his empire by the consummation of his marriage with Thetis. With much of the simple and severe Greek spirit, and with several splendid soliloquies, descriptions, and lyrical effervescences, it is, for the most part, unsubstantial and wire-drawn, and to me as unintelligible as not a few of the superlatively metaphysical reveries of Plato, Kant, and Coleridge, of which last amiable dreamer, Southey, judging from his own experiences, not unaptly says, in writing to a philosophical inquirer, "If you can get at the kernel of his Friend, and his Aids to Reflection, you may crack peach-stones without any fear of cracking your teeth." We have shadows of power, rather than power itself — little that is real or tangible, or appertaining either to the beauty or majesty of physical nature; nothing to touch our hearts, or awaken our sympathies. All is mystic, ideal, involved, remote, cloudy, or abstract. We have the sun, but it is hid in rolling vapours — we have the moon, but it shines only on glittering snow. So recondite does Shelley sometimes become, that even language itself, of which he was one of the greatest masters — greater, perhaps, than even Thomas de Quincey — occasionally breaks down under him; and his diction, from being smooth, and pearly, and transparent, gets harsh, perplexed, misty, or meaningless; as if, in his attempts to make his style Orphic and primeval, he passed, even in words, beyond the boundaries of creation and sunshine, into Chaos and old Night. He is, assuredly, the most ethereal of all our poets, alike in imagery and language; his imagery dealing principally with elemental nature, while his language, in delicate tenuity, seems almost fitted to describe dissolving views, as they "come like shadows, so depart."

The other larger productions of Shelley, his Queen Mab, his Adonais, his Hellas, his Witch of Atlas, and his Julian and Maddalo, are all more or less characterised by the same beauties and defects; and these defects, in my opinion, unfitted him for ever, successfully overcoming the difficulties of a long poem. Even now, he is principally remembered by his lesser works — his Sensitive Plant, his Skylark, his Cloud, his Marianne's Dream, his lines To a Lady with a Guitar, his Stanzas written in dejection at Naples, and his Lines to an Indian Air; and it has been well said of him, that "he has single thoughts of great depth and force, single images of rare beauty, detached passages of extreme tenderness; and that in his smaller pieces, where he has attempted little, he has done most." It would be difficult to excel several isolated stanzas in the Address to the Skylark; but The Sensitive Plant and The Cloud are, in my opinion, by far the most exquisite and original of all his conceptions: they approach, as nearly as possible, to what has been somewhat quaintly denominated "pure poetry;" and are as unique, in their wild ethereal beauty, as the Kilmeny of Hogg, or The Ancient Marinere of Coleridge.

I am aware, that quoting a few stanzas from the Sensitive Plant can only call to mind the pedant in the Facetiae of Hierocles, who carried about a brick with him in the market-place, as a specimen of the building he had for sale. But we venture on it, and take part of the catalogue of flowers.

A sensitive plant in a garden grew,
And the young winds fed it with silver dew;
And it opened its fan-like leaves to the light,
And closed them beneath the kisses of night.
And the spring arose on the garden fair,
Like the spirit of love felt everywhere.
And each flower and herb on earth's dark breast,
Rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.
The snow-drop, and then the violet
Arose from the ground with warm rain wet,
And their breath was mixed with fresh odour sent
From the turf, like the voice and the instrument.
Then the pied wind-flowers, and the tulip tall,
And narcissi, the fairest among them all,
Who gaze on their eyes in the stream's recess,
Till they die of their own dear loveliness;
And the Naiad-like lily of the vale,
Whom youth makes so fair, and passion so pale,
That the light of its tremulous bells is seen
Through their pavilions of tender green;
And the hyacinth purple, and white, and blue,
Which flung from its bells a sweet peal anew
Of music so delicate, soft, and intense,
It was felt like an odour within the sense;
And the rose, like a nymph to the bath addrest,
Which unveiled the depth of her glowing breast,
Till, fold after fold, to the fainting air
The soul of her beauty and love lay bare;
And the wand-like lily, which lifted up,
As a Moenad, its moonlight coloured cup,
Till the fiery star, which is its eye,
Gazed through clear dew on the tender sky;
And the jessamine faint, and the sweet tuberose,
The sweetest flower for scent that blows;
And all rare blossoms, from every clime,
Grew in that garden in perfect prime.

So much for his taste in the delicate and refined of description: now for his power in the stern and severe:—

—I remember
Two miles on this side of the fort, the road
Crosses a deep ravine; 'tis rough and narrow,
And winds with short turns down the precipice;
And in its depth there is a mighty rock,
Which has, from unimaginable years,
Sustained itself with terror and with toil
Over a gulf, and with the agony
With which it clings seems slowly coming down;
Even as a wretched soul, hour after hour,
Clings to the mass of life; yet clinging, leans,
And, leaning, makes more dark the dread abyss
In which it fears to fall. Beneath this crag,
Huge as despair, as if in weariness
The melancholy mountain yawns. Below
You hear, but see not, the impetuous torrent
Raging among the caverns; and a bridge
Crosses the chasm; and high above these grow,
With intersecting trunks, from crag to crag,
Cedars and yews and pines, whose tangled hair
Is matted in one solid roof of shade
By the dark ivy's twine. At noonday here
'Tis twilight, and at sunset blackest night.

Such were Shelley's powers, when legitimately directed; but unfortunately it is rarely that he thus writes; and a much higher place has been claimed for the great mass of his verse than it seems to me to be at all entitled to. Gorgeous, graceful, and subtle qualities it indeed invariably possesses — and no one can be more ready to admit them than I am; but he had only a section of the essential properties necessary to constitute a master in the art. The finest poetry is that (whatever critical coteries may assert to the contrary, and it is exactly the same with painting and sculpture) which is most patent to the general understanding, and hence to the approval or disapproval of the common sense of mankind. We have only to try the productions of Shakspeare, of Milton, of Dryden, of Pope, of Gray and Collins, of Scott, Burns, Campbell, and Byron — indeed, of any truly great writer whatever in any language, by this standard — to be convinced that such must be the ease. Verse that will not stand being read aloud before a jury of common-sense men, is, — and you may rely upon the test — wanting in some great essential quality. It is here that the bulk of the poetry of Shelley — and not of him only, but of most of those who have succeeded him in his track as poets — is, when weighed in the balance, found wanting. And why? Because these writers have left the highways of truth and nature, and, seeking the by-lanes, have there, mistaking the uncommon for the valuable, bowed down to the idols of affectation and false taste.

I make this remark here, because I think that Shelley had much to do in the indoctrinating of those principles which have mainly guided our poetical aspirants of late years — sadly to their own disadvantage and the public disappointment. Shelley was undoubtedly a man of genius — of very high genius — but of a peculiar and unhealthy kind. It is needless to disguise the fact, and it accounts for all — his mind was diseased: he never knew, even from boyhood, what it was to breathe the atmosphere of healthy life, to have the "mens sana in corpore sano." His sensibilities were over acute; his morality was thoroughly morbid; his metaphysical speculations illogical, incongruous, incomprehensible — alike baseless and objectless. The suns and systems of his universe were mere nebulae; his continents were a chaos of dead matter; his oceans "a world of waters, and without a shore." For the law of gravitation — that law which was to preserve the planets in their courses — he substituted some undemonstrable dreamlike reflection of a dream, which he termed intellectual beauty. Life, according to him, was a phantasmagorial pictured vision — mere colours on the sunset clouds; and earth a globe hung on nothing — self-governing, yet, strange to say, without laws. It is gratuitous absurdity to call his mystical speculations a search after truth; they are no such thing; and are as little worth the attention of reasoning and responsible man as the heterogeneous reveries of nightmare. They are a mere flaring up in the face of all that Revelation has mercifully disclosed, and all that sober Reason has confirmed. Shelley's faith was a pure psychological negation, and cannot be confuted, simply because it asserts nothing; and, under the childish idea that all the crime, guilt, and misery of the world resulted from — what? — not the depravity of individuals, but from the very means, civil and ecclesiastical, by which these, in all ages and nations, have been at least attempted to be controlled, he seemed to take an insane delight in selecting, for poetical illustration, subjects utterly loathsome and repulsive; and which religion and morality, the virtuous and the pure, the whole natural heart and spirit of upright man, either rises up in rebellion against, or shrinks back from instinctively, and with horror.