1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Anonymous, "Criticism: Percy Bysshe Shelley" New-York Literary Gazette and American Athenaeum 1 (1 October 1825) 53-54.



Mr. SHELLEY was one of those unfortunate beings in whom the imagination had been exalted and developed at the expense of the reasoning faculty; and with the confidence, or presumption, of talent, he as perpetually obtruding upon that public whose applause he still courted, the startling principles of his religious and political creed. He naturally encountered the fate which even the highest talent cannot avert, when it sets itself systematically in array against opinions which men have been taught to believe and to venerate, and principles with which the majority of mankind are persuaded the safety of society is connected. He was denounced as a poetical "enfant perdu" by the Quarterly, and passed over in silence by other periodical works, which, while they were loth to censure, felt that they could not dare to praise. Whether abuse of this nature may not engender, or, at all events, increase the evil it professes to cure; and whether in the case of Shelley, as in that of another great spirit of the age, his contemporary and his friend, this contempt for received opinions, at first affected, may not have been rooted and made real by the virulence with which it was assailed, is a question which it is difficult to answer. But now, when death, the great calmer of men's minds, has removed from this scene of critical warfare its unfortunate subject, — when we can turn to the passages of pure and exquisite beauty, which brighten even the darkest and wildest of his poetical wanderings, with that impartiality which it was vain to expect while the author lived, and wrote, and raved, and reviled, — what mind of genius or poetical feeling would not wish that his errors should he buried with him in the bosom of the Mediterranean, and lament that a mind so fruitful of good as well as of evil, should have been taken from us, before its fire had been tempered by experience, and its troubled but majestic elements had subsided into calmness?

We doubt not that Mr. Shelley, like many other speculative reformers and species, ventured in theory to hazard opinions which in his life he contradicted. His domestic habits seem to have been as different as possible from those which, in the dreams of a distempered fancy, he has sometimes dwelt upon with an alarming frequency and freedom; as if the force of nature and early associations had asserted their paramount sway, in the midst of his acquired feelings, and compelled him, while surrounded by those scenes, and in the presence of those beings among whom their pure impulses are most strongly felt, to pay homage to their power.

His perfection of poetical expression will always give to Shelley an original and distinct character among the poets of the age; and in this, we have little hesitation in saying, that we consider him decidedly superior to them all. Every word he uses, even though the idea he labours to express be vague, or exaggerated, or unnatural, is intensely poetical. In no writer of the age is the distinction between poetry and prose so strongly marked: deprive his verses of the rhymes, and still the exquisite beauty of the language, the harmony of the pauses, the arrangement of the sentences, is perceptible. This is in itself a talent of no ordinary kind, perfectly separate in its nature, though generally found united with that vigour of imagination which is essential to a great poet, and in Shelley it overshadows even his powers of conception, which are unquestionably very great. It is by no means improbable, however, that this extreme anxiety to embody his ideas in language of a lofty and uncommon cast, may have contributed to that which is undoubtedly the besetting sin of his poetry, its extreme vagueness and obscurity, and its tendency to allegory and personification.

Hence it is in the vague, unearthly, and mysterious, that the peculiar power of his mind is displayed. Like the Goule in the Arabian Tales, he leaves the ordinary food of men, to banquet among the dead, and revels with a melancholy delight in the gloom of a churchyard and the cemetery. He is in poetry what Sir Thomas Browne is in prose, perpetually hovering on the confines of the grave, prying with a terrible curiosity into the secrets of mortality, and speculating with painful earnestness on every thing that disgusts or appalls mankind.

But when, abandoning these darker themes, he yields himself to the description of the softer emotions of the heart, and the more smiling scenes of Nature, we know no poet who has felt more intensely, or described with more glowing colours the enthusiasm of love and liberty, or the varied aspects of Nature. His descriptions have a force and clearness of painting which are quite admirable; and his imagery, which he accumulates and pours forth with the prodigality of genius, is, in general, equally appropriate and original.