1852 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Mary Russell Mitford, in "Poetry that Poets Love. Walter Savage Landor — Leigh Hunt — Percy Bysshe Shelley — John Keats" Recollections of a Literary Life; or Books, Places, and People (1852) 315-19.



The name of Percy Bysshe Shelley is united to that of Leigh Hunt by many associations. They were in Italy together; they were friends; and the survivor has never ceased to bewail the untimely catastrophe of that great poet. In how many senses does that early and sudden death appear untimely to our dim eyes! Doubtless all was wise, all just, all merciful; yet to our finite perceptions, he seemed snatched away just as his spirit was preparing to receive the truths to which it had before been blinded. However, this rests with an All-wise and an All-merciful Judge, and is far beyond our imperfect speculations.

In a literary point of view, there is no doubt but every succeeding poem showed the gradual clearing away of the mists and vapors with which, in spite of his exquisite rhythm, and a thousand beauties of detail, his fine genius was originally clouded.

The first time I ever met with any of his works, this vagueness brought me into a ludicrous dilemma. It was in the great library of Tavistock House that Mr. Perry one morning put into my hand a splendidly printed, and splendidly bound volume ("Alastor," I think), and desired me to read it, and give him my opinion: "You will at least know," said he, "whether it be worth any body else's reading."

Accordingly I took up the magnificent presentation copy, and read conscientiously until visitors came in. I had no marker, and the richly bound volume closed as if instinctively, so that when I resumed my task an the departure of the company, not being able to find my place, I was obliged to begin the book at the first line. More visitors came, and went, and still the same calamity befell me; again, and again, and again, I had to search in vain among a succession of melodious lines as like each other as the waves of the sea, for buoy or landmark, and had always to put back to shore, and begin my voyage anew. I do not remember having been ever in my life more ashamed of my own stupidity than when obliged to say to Mr. Perry, in answer to his questions as to the result of my morning's studies, that, doubtless, it was a very fine poem — only that I never could tell when I took up the book, where I had left off half an hour before; an unintended criticism, which, as characteristic both of author and reader, very much amused my kind and clever host.

Now, could such a calamity befall even the stupidest of young girls, in reading that perfection of clearness and dramatic construction, "The Cenci?" Ah! what a tragic poet was lost in that boatwreck! Could it have happened with the "Ode to the Skylark," an ode as melodious, as various, and as brilliant as the song of the bird it celebrates. Both seem soaring upward to Heaven, and pouring forth an unconscious hymn of praise and thanksgiving.

TO THE SKYLARK.
Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

Higher still and higher,
From the earth thou springest,
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,
O'er which clouds are brightening,
Thou dost float and run;
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.

The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of heaven,
In the broad daylight
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight.

Keen as are the arrows
Of that silver sphere,
Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear,
Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there.

All the earth and air
With thy voice is loud,
As, when night is bare,
From one lonely cloud
The moon rains out her beams, and heaven is oyerflowed.

What thou art we know not;
What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see,
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.

Like a poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:

Like a high-born maiden
In a palace tower,
Soothing her love-laden
Soul in secret hour
With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower:

Like a glow-worm golden
In a deli of dew,
Scattering unbebolden
Its aerial hue
Among the flowers and grass which screen it from the view:

Like a rose embowered
In its own green leaves,
By warm winds deflowered,
Till the scent it gives
Makes faint with too much sweet these heavy-winged thieves.

Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass,
Rain-awakened flowers
All that ever was
Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.

Teach us, sprite or bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.

Chorus hymeneal,
Or triumphal chant,
Matched with thine would be all
But an empty vaunt—
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.

What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fields, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind what ignorance of pain?

With thy clear, keen joyance
Languor can not be:
Shadow of annoyance
Never come near thee:
Thou lovest; but ne'er knew love's sad satiety.

Waking or asleep,
Thou of death must deem
Things more true and deep
Than we mortals dream,
Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

Better than all measures
Of delightful sound,
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow,
The world should listen then, as I am listening now.