1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Allan Cunningham, in "Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the last Fifty Years" The Athenaeum (16 November 1833) 771-72.



Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the most inspired and unfortunate of modern poets, claimed descent from a family of old standing in England: he was born in the year 1792; acquired all knowledge on which he set his heart with great readiness, and would have finished his education at Oxford, had he not been obliged to retire from college, because of the freedom of his religious speculations. He had before this give proofs of regard for the muse, and was become known for the ardour of his verse, as well as from its mysticism. On quitting college, he married a young woman, of whose beauty he was enamoured: his love was unfortunate: she died early, not without suspicion of having suffered from a broken heart; and whatever sorrow Shelley felt at her death, was not lessened by the rigour of the law, which deprived him of the society of his children, because he believed not all that the church believed. This aided in filling his mind with gloom and resentment. He carried his feeling into his poetry, and in The Revolt of Islam, and Prometheus Unbound, stories which some resolve not to understand, assailed all old and established things, whether of faith or government, and called loudly for reformation and change. His admirers, in these mystic strains, perceived a high and godlike philosophy; others saw a design to overturn church and state: nor were men wanting who called the poet mad, and his verses nonsense; but the bulk of mankind agreed that the poems were rapt, fiery, and energetic. As a poet, however, he is in nearly all things too shadowy and mystical: his Prometheus Unbound, for instance, is a magnificent riddle. His Cenci, however, comes from nature; and some of his smaller poems have a concise beauty and an antique grace about them, such as have seldom appeared since the time of Milton. He perished in a storm on the coast of Italy, and his body was burned, and the ashes placed in an urn. He was an accomplished gentleman — had great grandeur of imagination — a fine sensibility: was not without humour, and abounded in pathos, such as sinks at once to the heart.