1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Anonymous, "Literature of the Nineteenth Century: Percy Bysshe Shelley" Literary Magnet 3 (1825) 163-64.



The name of Shelley and Genius have become synonymous. If there was ever a spirit "who shook off a mortal coil," it was that of the author of Queen Mab. Of this magnificent poem, we are most tenacious of giving our opinion, so unbounded is our admiration, so highly excited is our fancy, when we recur to it. A new world seems to be opened to the mind, new feelings throb within us: we are alternately attracted by its beauty, and lost in its extent: we roam like an insect through a flower-garden, sipping at one sweet, and then at another — but never resting on any, so varied, so enticing are the objects that on every side surround us. Would that we could say, that our feelings were undivided. Painful must be our task, then, in pouring forth a eulogy to the memory of this highly-gifted author, that we should find occasion to express unqualified censure. The philosophical, or, to speak more plainly, the irreligious principles throughout, are of the most unworthy and unamiable description. It is not for us, as mortals, to judge of his errors — he must render an account of the talents which were placed in trust to him at a tribunal where the voice of the world's admiration availeth him not, but where the frailty of human nature, the inequality of genius, when compared with judgment, will meet with its true allowances. It is for us to regard him as a poet — not as a man. Endowed with a powerful imagination, a quick and most extraordinary sensibility, Mr. Shelley, early in life, possessed all the endowments of a poet: his first productions were, however, crude and raw: gifted with taste, he weighed them in the balance of his own mind, and saw their deficiency. For some years afterward, he applied himself with all the energy of his wonderful mind to the study of the ancients, from whose ever-flowing fountains he enriched the springs of his own thoughts. The improvement was manifest: his style became full to overflowing of classical associations, and rich with allegorical fancies, and as celebrated for its grasp and depth of thought, as for the luxuriance of its ornament. His "Adonais," an elegy on the death of Keats, is a tribute as worthy of the heart it proceeded from, as it is to the memory to which it is addressed. Mournfully affecting, it boasts of all the author's affluence of diction, and intensity of feeling. His "Hellas" is another gem in the diadem of his fame; it is Nature in the loveliest garb of art, wild and romantic, unearthly, and yet of the most absorbing interest. His "Prometheus unbound" will also remain evidence of the splendour of the era it originated in, when the many who are now enjoying the fame that was denied the author, have passed from the world, and with them every trace and recollection it was once inhabited by them.

The reason that may be assigned for Mr. Shelley's want of popularity, is his obscurity, a fault, which whether proceeding from a natural imperfection of the author's, or the reader's mind, we will not determine. It may be in a great measure traced to the profundity and subtleness of his philosophical reveries, that are diffused throughout his poetry. Were it not for this most unfortunate minglement of qualities, which, though springing from the same source, are widely apart from each other, we would venture to affirm, that, next to Lord Byron, Shelley would have become the most celebrated poet of his time. Lord Byron identified himself more with the passions and feelings of earth — Shelley sought to lift the mind above its surface: which has been most successful, the world has both known and felt. In paying this tribute to the departed spirit of this highly-gifted individual, we will, in corroboration of our remarks, extract the following beautiful poem [The Magic Car], which we suspect is not so well known as it deserves.