Percy Bysshe Shelley

Frederic W. H. Myers, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 4:348-56.

The title of "the poets' poet," which has been bestowed for various reasons on very different authors, applies perhaps with a truer fitness to Shelley than to any of the rest. For all students of Shelley must in a manner feel that they have before them an extreme, almost an extravagant, specimen of the poetic character; and the enthusiastic love, or contemptuous aversion, which his works have inspired has depended mainly on the reader's sympathy or distaste for that character when exhibited in its unmixed intensity.

And if a brief introductory notice is to be prefixed to a selection from those poems, it becomes speedily obvious that it is on Shelley's individual nature, rather than on his historical position, that stress must be laid. Considered as a link in the chain of English literature, his poetry is of less importance than we might expect. It is not closely affiliated to the work of any preceding school, nor, with one or two brilliant exceptions, has it modified subsequent poetry in any conspicuous way. It is no doubt true that Shelley, belonging to that group of poets whose genius was awakened by the stirring years which ushered in this century, shows traces of the influence of more than one contemporary. There are echoes of Wordsworth in Alastor, echoes of Moore in the lyrics, echoes even of Byron in the later poems. But, with the possible exception of Wordsworth, whose fresh revelation of Nature supplied poetic nutriment even to minds quite alien from his own, none of these can be said to have perceptibly modified either the substance or the style of Shelley's works as a whole.

Nor, again, will it be useful to dwell at length here on the special characteristics of each of his poems in order. They show indeed much apparent diversity both of form and content. Alastor is the early reflection of the dreamy and solitary sidle of its author's nature. The Revolt of Islam embodies in a fantastic tale the poet's eager rebellion against the cruelties and oppressions of the world. In Prometheus Unbound these two strains mingle in their highest intensity. The drama of The Cenci shows Shelley's power of dealing objectively with the thoughts and passions of natures other than his own. Adonais, his elegy on the death of Keats, is the most carefully finished, and the most generally popular, of his longer pieces. And in the songs and odes which he poured forth during his last years, his genius, essentially lyrical, found its most unmixed and spontaneous expression. But in fact the forms which Shelley's poems assumed, or the occasions which gave them birth, are not the points on which it is most important to linger. It is in "the one Spirit's plastic stress" which pervades them all, — in the exciting and elevating quality which all in common possess, — that the strange potency of Shelley lies.

For although the directly traceable instances of this great poets influence on the style of his successors may be few or unimportant, it by no means follows that the impression left by his personality has been small. On the contrary, it has, I believe, been deeply felt by most of those who since his day have had any share of poetic sensibility as at once an explanation and a justification of the points in which they feel themselves different from the mass of mankind. His character and his story, — more chequered and romantic than Wordsworth's, purer and loftier than Byron's, — are such as to call forth in men of ardent and poetic temper the maximum at once of sympathetic pity and sympathetic triumph.

For such men are apt to feel that they have a controversy with the world. Their virtue, — because it is original rather than reflected, — because it rests on impulse rather than on tradition, — seems too often to be counted for nothing at all by those whose highest achievement is to walk mechanically along the ancient ways. Their eagerness to face the reality of things, without some touch of which religion is but a cajoling dream, is denounced as heresy or atheism. Their enthusiasm for ideal beauty, without some touch of which love is but a selfish instinct, is referred to the promptings of a less dignified passion. The very name of their master Plato is vulgarised into an easy sneer. And nevertheless the wisest among them perceive that all this must be, and is better thus. The world must be arranged to suit the ordinary man, for though the man of genius is more capable of being pained, the ordinary man is more likely to be really injured by surroundings unfitted for his development. In society, as in nature, the tests which any exceptional variation has to encounter should be prompt and severe. It is better that poets should be

Cradled into poesy by wrongs,
And learn in suffering what they teach in song,

than that a door should be opened to those who are the shadow of that of which the poet is the reality, — who are only sentimental, only revolutionary, only uncontrolled. It is better that the world should persecute a Shelley than that it should endure a St. Just.

But in whatever mood the man of poetic temper may contemplate his own relation to society, he will be tempted to dwell upon, even to idealise, the character and achievements of Shelley. Perhaps he is dreaming, as many men have innocently dreamt who had not strength enough to make their dream come true, of the delight of justifying what the world calls restless indolence by some apparition of unlooked-for power; of revealing the central force of self-control which has guided those eager impulses along an ordered way,

As the sun rules, even with a tyrant's gaze
The unquiet republic of the maze
Of Planets struggling fierce toward Heaven's free wilderness;—

of giving, in short, to motives misconstrued and character maligned the noble vindication of some work whose sincerity and virtue enshrine it in the heart of a great people. In such a mood he will turn proudly to Shelley as to one who knew to the uttermost the poet's sorrow, and has received the poet's reward; one who, assailed by obloquy, misjudged, abandoned and accursed, replied by strains which have become a part of the highest moments of all after generations, an element (if I may be allowed the expression) in the religion of mankind.

Or if the mood in which the lover of poetry turns to Shelley be merely one in which that true world in which he fain would dwell seems in danger of fading into a remote unreality amid the gross and pressing cares of every day, he will still be tempted to cling to and magnify the poet of Prometheus Unbound, because he offers so uncompromising a testimony to the validity of the poetic vision, because he carries as it were the accredited message of a dweller among unspeakable things.

We need not therefore wonder if among poets and imaginative critics we find the worship of Shelley carried to in extraordinary height. I quote as a specimen some words of a living poet himself closely akin to Shelley in the character of his genius. "Shelley out-sang all poets on record but some two or three throughout all time; his depths and heights of inner and outer music are as divine as nature's, and not sooner exhaustible. He was alone the perfect singing-god; his thoughts, words, deeds, all sang together.... The master singer of our modern race and age; the poet beloved above all other poets, being beyond all other poets — in one word, and the only proper word — divine."

The tone of this eulogy presupposes that there will be many readers to agree and to enjoy. And, in fact, the representatives of this school of criticism are now so strong, and their utterance so confident, that the easiest course in treating of Shelley would be simply to accept their general view, and to ignore that opposite opinion which, if not less widely held, finds at any rate less eloquent exposition. But it is surely not satisfactory that literary judgments should thus become merely the utterances of the imaginative to the imaginative, of the aesthetic to the aesthetic, that "poetry and criticism," in Pope's words, should be "by no means the universal concern of the world, but only the affair of idle men who write in their closets, and of idle men who read there."

We should surely desire that poetry should become "the universal concern of the world" at least thus far; that those who delight in its deeper mysteries should also be ready to meet plain men on the common ground of plain good sense; should see what they see, listen to what they say, and explain their own superior insight in terms intelligible to all. If clear-headed but unimaginative readers are practically told that the realm of poetry is a fairy-land which they cannot enter, they will retaliate by calling it a "Cloud-cuckoo-town" built in the air. The sight of our esoteric raptures will only incite them to use the term "poetry" as the antithesis, not of prose, but of common-sense and right reason.

And there is much indeed both in the matter and style of Shelley's poems to which readers of this uninitiated class are apt to take exception. "We had always supposed," they say, — if I may condense many floating criticisms into an argument, as it were, of the "advocatus diaboli" in the case of Shelley's canonisation, — "we had always supposed that one main function of poetry, at least, was to irradiate human virtue with its proper, but often hidden, charm; that she depicts to us the inspiring triumph of man's higher over his lower self; that (in Plato's words) "by adorning ten-thousand deeds of men long gone she educates the men that are to be." But we find Shelley telling us, "You might as well go to a gin-shop for a leg of mutton as expect anything human or earthly from me." And his poems bear out this self-criticism. He is indeed fond of painting a golden age of human happiness; but of what does his millennium consist? and how is it attained? In the Witch of Atlas it is the fantastic paradise of a child's day-dream, summoned, like the transformation-scene in a pantomime, by the capricious touch of a fairy. In the Prometheus an attempt is made to deal more seriously with the sins and sorrows of men. But even there the knot of human destinies is cut and not unravelled; the arbitrary catastrophes of an improvised and chaotic mythology bring about a change in human affairs depending in no way on moral struggle or moral achievement, — on which every real change in human affairs must depend, — but effected apparently by the simple removal of priests and kings, — of the persons, that is to say, in whom the race, however mistakenly, has hitherto embodied its instincts of reverence and of order. And further, — to illustrate by one striking instance the pervading unreality of Shelley's ideals, — what does Prometheus himself, the vaunted substitute for any other Redeemer, propose to do in this long-expected and culminant hour? He begins at once "There is a cave," and proposes to retire thither straightway with the mysterious Asia, and "entangle buds and flowers and beams." "Ask for this great Deliverer now, and find him," — not surely occupied as a Milton or Aeschylus would have left that bringer of light to men! Nay, so constantly does this idea of a cave-life of beatific seclusion recur in Shelley's mind that it is even left uncertain whether Asia, amid competing offers of the same kind, can obey Prometheus' call. For hardly is his description over when Earth in her turn begins "There is a cavern," — and invites the mystic goddess to this alternative retreat. Nor is Asia's choice of caves ended here. For we have already heard of her as occupying with lone a submarine cavern, — as well as an Indian solitude, styled indeed a vale, but differing from the caves above-mentioned in no essential particular. And if this unreality, this aloofness from the real facts of life, pervades Shelley's crowning composition, what are we to say of Queen Mab and the Revolt of Islam? If we compare their characters and incidents with anything which earth has really to show we should be tempted to argue that their author had never seen a human being. And the one dramatic situation in which Shelley is so strong, — the situation which gives tragic intensity alike to his Cenci and his Prometheus, — hardly assures us of any more searching knowledge of mankind. For it is simply the opposition of absolute wickedness to absolute virtue.

"For the most part, then, Shelley's conception of the actual world seems to us boyish and visionary. Nor, on the other hand, does he offer us much more of wisdom when we desert the actual world for the ideal, — the realm of observation and experience for the realm of conjecture and intuition. We cannot, in fact, discover what he thought on the main spiritual problems which occupy mankind, while in his treatment of the beliefs of others there is often a violent crudity which boyishness can scarcely excuse. Now we do not demand of a poet a definite religion or a definite philosophy. But we are disappointed to find in so much lofty verse so little substance, — nothing, we may almost say, save a few crumbs from the banquet of Plato. The lark who so scorned our earth and heaven might have brought us, we think, some more convincing message from his empyrean air.

"And now as regards his style. We perceive and admit that Shelley's style is unique and inimitable. But it often seems to us inimitable only as Turner's latest pictures are inimitable; the work obviously of a great master, but work so diffused and deflected as to bear quite too remote a relation to the reality of things. We can believe that Shelley's descriptions of natural scenes, for instance, are full of delightful suggestiveness for the imaginative reader. But considered simply as descriptions we cannot admit that they describe. The objects on which our eyes have rested are certainly not so cystalline or so marmorial, so amethystine, pellucid, or resplendent, as the objects which meet us in Shelley's song. Nature never seems to be enough for him as she is, and yet we do not think that he has really improved on her.

"Again; we know that it is characteristic of the poetic mind to be fertile in imagery, and to pass from one thought to another by an emotional rather than a logical link of connection. But as regards imagery we think that Shelley might with advantage have remembered Corinna's advice to Pindar in a somewhat similar case, — "to sow with the hand, and not with the whole sack"; while as regards the connection of parts we think that though the poet (like one of his own magic pinnaces) may be in reality impelled by a rushing impulse peculiar to himself, he should nevertheless (like those pinnaces) carry a rag of sail, so that some breath of reason may at least seem to be bearing him along. We are aware that this hurrying spontaneity of style is often cited as a proof of Shelley's wealth of imagination. Yet in desiring from him more concentration, more finish, more self-control, we are not desiring that he should have had less imagination but more; that he should have had the power of renewing his inspiration on the same theme and employing it for the perfection of the same passage; so as to leave us less of melodious incoherence, — less of that which is perhaps poetry but is certainly nothing but poetry, — and more of what the greatest poets have left us, namely high ideas and noble emotions enshrined in a form so complete and exquisite that the ideas seem to derive a new truth, the emotions a new dignity, from the intensity with which they have existed in those master minds."

Some such words as these will express the thoughts of many men whose opinions we cannot disregard without a risk of weakening, by our literary exclusiveness, the hold of poetry on the mass of mankind. But neither need we admit that such criticisms as these are unanswerable. Some measure of truth they do no doubt contain, and herein we must plead our poet's youth and immaturity as our best reply. That immaturity, as we believe, was lessening with every season that passed over his head. With the exception of Alastor (1815), — the first and most pathetic of Shelley's portraits of himself, — all his poems that possess much value were written in the last four and a-half years of his life (1818-22), and during those years a great, though not a uniform, progress is surely discernible. As his hand gains in cunning we see him retaining all his earliest magic, but also able from time to time to dismiss that excess of individuality which would be mannerism were it less spontaneous. The drama of Hellas, the last long poem which he finished, illustrates this irregular advance in power. It is for the most part among the slightest of his compositions, but in its concluding chorus, — Shelley's version of the ancient theme, "Alter erit tum Tiphys et altera quae vehat Argo," — we recognise, more plainly perhaps than ever before in his lyrics, that solidity and simplicity of treatment which we associate with classical masterpieces. And the lyrics of the last year of his life are the very crown of all that he has bequeathed. The delight indeed with which we hear them too quickly passes into regret, so plainly do they tell us that we have but looked on the poet's opening blossom; his full dower and glory have been reserved as a [Greek characters], a sight for the blest to see.

But there is much that has been said in Shelley's dispraise to which we shall need to plead no demurrer. We shall admit it; but in such fashion that our admission constitutes a different or a higher claim. If we are told of the crudity of his teaching and of his conceptions of life, we answer that what we find in him is neither a code nor a philosophy, but a rarer thing, — an example, namely (as it were in an angel or in a child), of the manner in which the littleness and the crimes of men shock a pure spirit which has never compromised with their ignobility nor been tainted with their decay. And in the one dramatic situation in which Shelley is confessedly so great, — the attitude of Beatrice resisting her father, of Prometheus resisting Zeus, — we say that we discern the noble image of that courageous and enduring element in the poet himself which gives force to his gentleness and dignity to his innocence, and which through all his errors, his sufferings, his inward and outward storms, leaves us at last with the conviction that "there is nothing which a spirit of such magnitude cannot overcome or undergo."

Again, if we are told of the vagueness or incoherence of Shelley's language, we answer that poetic language must always be a compromise between the things which can definitely be said and the things which the poet fain would say; and that when poet or painter desires to fill us with the sense of the vibrating worlds of spiritual intelligences which interpenetrate the world we see, — of those

Ten thousand orbs involving and involved,...
Peopled with unimaginable shapes....
Yet each intertranspicuous,—

it must needs be that the reflection of these transcendent things should come to us in forms that luxuriate into arabesque, in colours that shimmer into iridescence, in speech that kindles into imagery; while yet we can with little doubt discern whether he who addresses as is merely illuminating the mists of his own mind, or "has beheld" (as Plato has it) "and been initiated into the most blessed of initiations, gazing on simple and imperishable and happy visions in a stainless day."

And, finally, if we are told that, whatever these visions or mysteries may be, Shelley has not revealed them; that he has contributed nothing to the common faith and creed of men, — has only added to their aspiring anthem one keen melodious cry; — we answer that this common religion of all the world advances by many kinds of prophecy, and is spread abroad by the flying flames of pure emotion as well as by the solid incandescence of eternal truth. Some few souls indeed there are, — a Plato, a Dante, a Wordsworth, — whom we may without extravagance call stars of the spiritual firmament, so sure and lasting seems their testimony to those realities which life hides from us as sunlight hides the depth of heaven. But we affirm that in Shelley too there is a testimony of like kind, though it has less of substance and definition, and seems to float diffused in an ethereal loveliness. We may rather liken him to the dewdrop of his own song, which

becomes a winged mist
And wanders up the vault of the blue day,
Outlives the noon, and in the sun's last ray
Hangs o'er the sea, a fleece of fire and amethyst.

For the hues of sunset also have for us their revelation. We look, and the conviction steals over us that such a spectacle can be no accident in the scheme of things; that the whole universe is tending to beauty; and that the apocalypse of that crimsoned heaven may be not the less authentic because it is so fugitive, not the less real because it comes to us in a fantasy wrought but of light and air.