1826 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Edgar, "Shelley and his Poetry" Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction 7 (8 April 1826) 215-17.



Poor Shelley is a melancholy subject to write or to think about. That he was a man of singular genius, none who has read his poems or any one of them will question. Miserable that such talent should have been frittered away and scattered as a hopeless wreck on the waters of human life! More miserable still, that he died in his early days, leaving the world no evidence that better things were working, and a brighter light of truth dawning in his powerful mind, before he passed away.

I never saw any memoir of Shelley, and shall not attempt anything like one here; but it would gratify, and instruct too many who admire his genius, and sometimes form an absurd wish to imitate him in peculiarities, which had he lived and given his mind a fair opportunity of calmly investigating truth, he would have been among the first to renounce. In the hope that some correspondent of the MIRROR, who may know much more about the matter than myself, may step forward and present something like a regular memoir of Shelley, it is my purpose at present, to give a few remarks upon some of his writings, which, however much all rightly constituted minds may lament their aberrations from correct principle and common sense, would have placed him in a very high rank as a poet, had not the works of Byron rolled away like a torrent every pretension that arose from any other quarter to poetic eminence.

At an early age, I am informed that he entered at University College, Oxford, and published very soon after his matriculation, at his own expense, a pamphlet, entitled A Defence of Atheism. What became of it no one knows, but that it was a paltry juvenile crudity, the result of profound ignorance, there can be no question. Oblivion has long ago cast her pall over it. Inquiry was soon made respecting the author; no attempt at concealment was made; the proper authorities charged Shelley with the act, and he declared that he was convinced of the truth of the statements contained in the said pamphlet, and ready to defend them; there was, of course, no alternative: he was expelled from the University. It may be presumed that about this time he composed Queen Mab, with notes abundant; the thing is clever in some parts as a poem, and considering it as the production of a young man of eighteen, very promising, as far talent goes; but he appears to have spent some labour on the notes, and truly they are very ridiculous. The most contemptible effort at argument against Christianity pervades them. He once, it seems, admired the founder of our faith, but as his mind acquired new lights on the subject, be rejected his former opinion as erroneous, and sagely settled the matter by deciding that our Saviour was an impostor, and the object of his life was to acquire the kingdom of Judea, for which he ultimately lost his life! "Ohe! jam satis!" I should think most meanly of the faculties of any man who will honour these pages with a perusal, if, after this, a single word more were requisite to convince him, that such objections as were this misguided man's, to revealed truth, are worth an attempt at refutation.

The Revolt of Islam, which he introduces as his first serious appeal to the public, is a singularly wild and curious poem. Passages might be quoted from it, were it my design to embellish this paper with poesy, of surpassing power and beauty. I like, however, the introductory address to Mary — as well as any part of it; there is a sweetness and affection about it, that is very delightful.

So now my summer-task is ended, Mary,
And I return to thee, mine own heart's home, &c.

The object of the work, he states to be most praiseworthy, "to kindle within the bosoms of his readers a virtuous enthusiasm for all that is excellent and desirable among mankind;" the world is out of joint, and the spirit stirred within him to restore it to health, soundness, and perfection, liberty and justice; a high and comprehensive morality are words he is ever and anon declaiming about. None but Mr. Percy Byshe Shelley knew anything about the nostrums for achieving the salvation of miserable, blind, deluded mortals. Out he sets therefore upon the work of knight-errantry, placarding by way of preface to the poem, his ample qualification for the great adventure. No one could enter the field, he thinks, with so much prospect of success as a poet. The education of a poet, her seems assuredly to have enjoyed, he had been familiar from boyhood with mountains and lakes the magnificent ocean, the stillness of the forest; he had trodden the glaciers of the Alps, and lived under the eye of Mont Blanc; he had sailed down mighty rivers, and seen the sun rise and set, and the stars come forth; and his converse had been among the hum of his fellow men, there he watched the passions which rise and spread, and sink and change amongst assembled multitudes. He had witnessed the fell havock and desolation of war, had conversed with glorious intellects of the olden time, mingled with the gifted spirits of the modern world. Such are the sources from which he drew his poetry — such the sources from which he imbibed his extraordinary opinions upon theological subjects, strengthened and confirmed, as they doubtless were, by a life, exhibiting anything but the purity — the high and comprehensive morality of which he vaunts so loudly. Misguided man! It is, alas! but too much the interest of such, that Christianity should be a system of falsehood and trickery! If the contrary of such a proposition be true, the alternative for them cannot be contemplated without a shudder. The wishes are verily fine logicians, they cozen the reason into dotage; but they cannot lull the voice of conscience — they cannot hush to rest the worm that never slumbers — nor quench the flame that will never die.

Shelley never read with a humble and subdued mind, amid all his various reading, one book, the most interesting and important, and splendid that was ever given to man — THE BIBLE. We know the consequences — knowledge and genius were sacrificed at the shrine of guilt; there was no true, firm foundation — there was no "anchor of the soul, sure and steadfast" for him. To him the glorious and tremendous, and beautiful works of nature, brought no reminiscences of that Almighty Being who "stretched out the Heavens as a curtain, and laid the foundation of the deep." He commenced with the wonders of creation, walked amid the solitudes of the groves; but his soul within him was restless and desolate, because he walked not with his God, and sought not by

These stupendous scaffoldings, Creation's golden steps
To climb to him.

Not so did Henry Martin the devoted missionary, not so did Charles Wolfe, the affectionate, the gifted minister of God's holy word, as they laboured in the varied and arduous work of instruction and enlightening their fellow mortals. In the magnificence of nature, they heard the voice of God; they communed with him with their own hearts, and experienced that perfect peace which they only can rationally expect to find, who seek it in the holy and consistent life of faith the Christ the Saviour. They died young, like Shelley, but what was loss to their friends who loved them — to the which could so ill spare them — was ceaseless gain to their own souls. At the prospect of death we know how poor Shelley quailed, how utterly he was unmanned, and his courage failed when the storm arose on the waters; but to the former truly great and brilliant characters, the grave had long lost its victory and death the sting, ere they were struck by the one, and sunk into the other. "Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright, for their end is peace."