1848 ca. ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Edgar Allan Poe, "Marginalia CXXXV" 1848 ca; Works (1853) 3:543-44.



If ever mortal "wreaked his thoughts upon expression," it was Shelley. If ever poet sang — as a bird sings — earnestly — impulsively — with utter abandonment — to himself solely-and for the mere joy of his own song — that poet was the author of "The Sensitive Plant." Of art — beyond that which is instinctive with genius — he either had little or disdained all. He really disdained that Rule which is an emanation from Law, because his own soul was Law in itself. His rhapsodies are but the rough notes — the stenographic memoranda of poems — memoranda which, because they were all-sufficient for his own intelligence, he cared not to be at the trouble of writing out in full for mankind. In all his works we find no conception thoroughly wrought. For this reason he is the most fatiguing of poets. Yet he wearies in saying too little rather than too much. What in him, seems the diffuseness of one idea, is the conglomerate concision of many: and this species of concision it is, which renders him obscure. With such a man, to imitate was out of the question. It would have served no purpose; for he spoke to his own spirit alone, which would have comprehended no alien tongue. Thus he was profoundly original. His quaintness arose from intuitive perception of that truth to which Bacon alone has given distinct utterance: — "There is no exquisite Beauty which has not some strangeness in its proportions." But whether obscure, original, or quaint, Shelley had no affectations. He was at all times sincere.

From his ruins, there sprang into existence, affronting the heavens, a tottering and fantastic pagoda, in which the salient angles, tipped with mad jangling bells, were the idiosyncratic faults of the original — faults which cannot be considered such in view of his purposes, but which are monstrous when we regard his works as addressed to mankind. A "school" arose — if that absurd term must still be employed — a school — a system of rules upon the basis of the Shelley who had none. Young men innumerable, dazzled with the glare and bewildered by the "bizarrerie" of the lightning that flickered through the clouds of "Alastor" had no trouble whatever in heaping up imitative vapors, but, for the lightning, were forced to be content with its spectrum, in which the "bizarrerie" appeared without the fire. Nor were mature minds unimpressed by the contemplation of a greater and more mature; and thus, gradually, into this school of all Lawlessness — of obscurity, quaintness and exaggeration — were interwoven the out-of-place didacticism of Wordsworth, and the more anomalous metaphysicianism of Coleridge. Matters were now fast verging to their worst; and at length, in Tennyson poetic inconsistency attained its extreme. But it was precisely this extreme (for the greatest truth and the greatest error are scarcely two points in a circle) which, following the law of all extremes, wrought in him (Tennyson) a natural and inevitable revulsion; leading him first to contemn, and secondly to investigate, his early manner, and finally to winnow, from its magnificent elements, the truest and purest of all poetical styles. But not even yet is the process complete; and for this reason in part, but chiefly on account of the mere fortuitousness of that mental and moral combination which shall unite in one person (if ever it shall) the Shellyan abandon and the Tennysonian poetic sense, with the most profound Art (based both in Instinct and Analysis) and the sternest Will properly to blend and rigorously to control all — chiefly, I say, because such combination of seeming antagonisms will be only a "happy chance" — the world has never yet seen the noblest poem which, possibly, can be composed.