1862 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Thomas Arnold, in A Manual of English Literature (1862; 1885) 425-26.



Percy Bysshe Shelley, born in 1792, embraced with fervour, even from his schoolboy days, both the destructive and the constructive ideas of the revolutionary school. He was enthusiastically convinced that the great majority of mankind was, and with trifling exceptions had always been, enslaved by custom, by low material thoughts, by tyranny, and by superstition, and he no less fervently believed in the perfectibility of the individual and of society, as the result of the bursting of these bonds, and of a philosophical and philanthropic system of education. Queen Mab, written when he was eighteen, but never published with his consent, represents the revolutionary fever when at its utmost heat; the court, the camp, the State, the Church, all are incurably corrupt; faith is the clinging curse which poisons the cup of human happiness; when that is torn up by the roots, and all institutions now in being have been abolished, then earth may become the "reality of heaven;" there will then be free scope for the dominion of love, and reason and passion will desist from their long combat. The metre is rimeless and irregular; but there are bursts of eloquent rushing verse, which for soul-fraught music cannot be surpassed. The Revolt of Islam (1817), a poem in twelve cantos, in the Spenserian stanza, though it has most beautiful passages, fails to rivet the interest through insufficiency of plot. It, too, has for its general drift the utter corruption and rottenness of all that is, involving the necessity for a nation that desired truly to live, of breaking the chains of faith and custom by which it was held. Peter Bell the Third (1819) is a satirical attack upon Wordsworth, who had grown in Shelley's opinion, far too conservative. To a mind like Shelley's it may be conceived how great was the attraction of the story of Prometheus, the great Titan who rebelled against the gods. To this attraction we owe the drama of Prometheus Unbound. His tragedy of The Cenci, written at Rome in 1820, shows great dramatic power, but the nature of the story renders it impossible that it should be represented on the stage. The lyrical drama of Hellas, written in 1821, was suggested by the efforts which the insurgent Greeks were then making to shake off the yoke of their Turkish tyrants. Adonais is a wonderfully beautiful elegy on his friend Keats. The Masque of Anarchy (1819) was written upon the news reaching him of what has been called the "Manchester Massacre." Epipsychidion (1821) is very lovely, but obscure. These are nearly all the longer poems. It is by his shorter pieces that Shelley is best known — The Cloud, To a Skylark, The Sensitive Plant, Stanzas written in dejection near Naples, and many others — in which that quality of ethereal and all-transmuting imagination, which especially distinguishes him from other poets, is most conspicuous. Having lived the last four years of his life in Italy, Shelley met with a premature death by drowning, in the Gulf of Spezzia, in the year 1822.