Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1083
Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792–1822
(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Victor and The Hermit of Marlow) English poet, essayist, dramatist, and novelist. See also The Cenci Criticism and Percy Bysshe Shelley Literary Criticism.
Shelley was a major poet of the English Romantic period. His foremost works, including The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound, Adonais, and The Triumph of Life, are recognized as leading expressions of radical thought written during the Romantic age, while his odes and shorter lyrics are considered among the greatest in the English language.
Born in Horsham, Sussex, Shelley was educated at University College, Oxford. Before the age of twenty he had published two Gothic novels, Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, and two collections of verse, Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire—written with his sister—and Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, coauthored with his Oxford friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg. In 1811 Shelley and Hogg were expelled from Oxford for publishing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism, an event that estranged him from his family and left him without financial means. Later that year he eloped with Harriet Westbrook, a schoolmate of his sister. During the next three years Shelley and Harriet were actively involved in political and social reform in Ireland and Wales, with Shelley writing radical pamphlets in which he set forth his views on liberty, equality, and justice. In 1814 Shelley remarried Harriet in England to ensure the legality of their union and the legitimacy of their children. Weeks later, however, he fell in love with Mary Godwin, the daughter of the radical English philosopher William Godwin and his first wife, the feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. Shelley and Mary eloped to Europe, accompanied by Mary's stepsister, Jane (Claire) Clairmont. On their return, Shelley entered into a financial agreement with his family that ensured him a regular income. When Harriet declined to join his household as a "sister," he provided for her and their two children, but continued to live with Mary. In 1816 Shelley, Mary, and Claire traveled to Lake Geneva to meet with the poet Lord Byron. Shelley returned to England in the fall, and shortly thereafter Harriet drowned herself in Hyde Park. Shelley then legalized his relationship with Mary and sought custody of his children, but the Westbrook family successfully blocked him in a lengthy lawsuit. Citing his poem Queen Mab, in which he denounced established society and religion in favor of free love and atheism, the Westbrooks convinced the court that Shelley was morally unfit for guardianship. In 1818, motivated by ill
health, financial worries, and the fear of losing custody of his and Mary's two children, Shelley relocated his family to Italy. Renewing his friendship with Byron, who was also living in Italy, Shelley became part of a circle of expatriots known as the "Satanic School" because of their defiance of English social and religious conventions and promotion of radical ideas in their works. Shelley and Mary remained in Italy until Shelley's death in a boating accident off the coast of Lerici in 1822.
Shelley's first mature work, Queen Mab, was printed in 1813, but not distributed due to its inflammatory subject matter. It was not until 1816, with the appearance of Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude, and Other Poems—a visionary and semi-autobiographical work—that he earned recognition as a serious poet. Shelley's next lengthy work, Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City, is an account of a bloodless revolution led by a brother and sister. It was immediately suppressed by the printer because of its controversial content, and Shelley subsequently revised the work as The Revolt of Islam, minimizing its elements of incest and political revolution. In 1819 Shelley wrote two of his most ambitious works, the verse dramas Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci. In Prometheus Unbound—which is usually regarded as his masterpiece—Shelley transformed the Aeschylean myth of Prometheus into an allegory on the origins of evil and the possibility of regenerating nature and humanity through love. The Cenci differs markedly from Prometheus Unbound in tone and setting. Shelley based this tragedy on the history of a sixteenth-century Italian Count who raped his daughter and was in turn murdered by her. Although Shelley hoped for a popular success on the English stage, his controversial treatment of the subject of incest outraged critics, preventing the play from being produced. One of Shelley's best-known works, Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, was written in 1821 as a tribute to Shelley's contemporary, Keats. In the same year, Shelley wrote Epipsychidion, in which he chronicled his search for ideal beauty through his relationships with women. Shelley's last work, The Triumph of Life, was left unfinished at his death. Despite its fragmentary state, many critics consider The Triumph of Life a potential masterpiece and evidence of a pessimistic shift in Shelley's thought. In addition to his long poems and verse dramas, Shelley wrote numerous short lyrics that have proved to be among his most popular works, among them "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," "Ode to the West Wind," and "Ode to the Skylark."
The history of Shelley's critical reputation has been characterized by radical shifts. During his lifetime his work was frequently censured because of his atheism and unorthodox philosophy, as well as widespread rumors about his personal life. Those few critics who voiced their admiration of his talents were ironically responsible for further inhibiting his success by causing him to be associated in the public mind with the despised "Cockney School" of poets belittled by John Gibson Lockhart and others in Blackwood's Magazine. Nevertheless, Shelley was known and admired by many of his contemporaries, including Byron, Keats, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey. Critics in the late nineteenth century for the most part ignored Shelley's radical politics, celebrating instead the spiritual and aesthetic qualities of his poetry. In the Victorian age he was highly regarded as the poet of ideal love, and the Victorian notion of the poet as a sensitive, misunderstood genius was modeled largely after Shelley. His works, however, again fell into disfavor around the turn of the century. Many critics objected to his seemingly vague imagery, nebulous philosophy, careless technique, and, most of all, his apparent intellectual and emotional immaturity. In the late 1930s Shelley's reputation began to revive as scholars came to recognize the complexity of his philosophy. Modern commentators have generally focused on his imagery, use of language, and technical achievements, in addition to his exploration of the political and social phenomena of his time.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 290
Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire [as Victor, with Elizabeth Shelley] 1810
Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson [with Thomas Jefferson Hogg] 1810
Queen Mab 1813
Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude, and Other Poems 1816
"Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" 1817; published in periodical The Examiner
Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century 1818; also published in revised form as The Revolt of Islam, 1818
The Cenci (verse drama) 1819
Rosalind and Helen: A Modern Eclogue, with Other Poems 1819
Prometheus Unbound, with Other Poems (verse drama and poetry) 1820
Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats 1821
Hellas (verse drama) 1822
"Julian and Maddalo" 1824; published in Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (poetry and verse drama) 1824
The Triumph of Life 1824; published in Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley
"The Witch of Atlas" 1824; published in Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley
The Masque of Anarchy 1832
The Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (poetry, verse dramas, and essays) 1847
The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 10 vols, (poetry, verse dramas, essays, and translations) 1924–1930
The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 2 vols, to date. 1972–
Other Major Works
Zastrozzi (novel) 1810
The Necessity of Atheism (essay) 1811
St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian (novel) 1811
An Address to the Irish People (essay) 1812
A Declaration of Rights (essay) 1812
A Refutation of Deism (dialogue) 1814
An Address to the People on the Death of Princess Charlotte [as The Hermit of Marlow] (essay) 1817
A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote [as The Hermit of Marlow] (essay) 1817
A Defence of Poetry (essay) 1840; published in Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations, and Fragments by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations, and Fragments by Percy Bysshe Shelley. 2 vols, (essays, letters, translations, and prose) 1840
The Letters. 2 vols, (letters) 1964
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SOURCE: "Shelley as a Lyric Poet," in Fraser's Magazine, Vol. 20, July, 1879, pp. 38–53.
[In the following essay, originally presented as a lecture at the theater of the Museum at Oxford, Shairp comments on Shelley's lyrics, which he considers intensely personal in nature.]
The effort to enter into the meaning of Shelley's poetry is not altogether a painless one. Some may ask, Why should it be painful? Cannot you enjoy his poems merely in an aesthetic way, take the marvel of their aërial movement and the magic of their melody, without scrutinising too closely their meaning or moral import? This, I suppose, most of my hearers could do for themselves, without any comment of mine. Such a mere surface, dilettante way of treating the subject would be useless in itself, and altogether unworthy of this place. All true literature, all genuine poetry, is the direct outcome, the condensed essence, of actual life and thought. Lyric poetry for the most part is—Shelley's especially was—the vivid expression of personal experience. It is only as poetry is founded on reality that it has any solid value; otherwise it is worthless. Before, then, attempting to understand Shelley's lyrics I must ask what was the reality out of which they came—that is, what manner of man Shelley was, what were his ruling views of life, along what lines did his thoughts move?
Those who knew Shelley best speak of the sweetness and refinement of his nature, of his lofty disinterestedness, his unworldliness. They even speak of something like heroic self-forgetfulness. These things we can in sort believe, for there are in his writings many traits that look like those qualities. And yet one receives with some decided reserve the high eulogies of his friends; for we feel that these were not generally men whose moral estimates of things we would entirely accept, and his life contained things that seem strangely at variance with such qualities as they attribute to him. When Byron speaks of his purity of mind we cannot but doubt whether Byron was a good judge of purity. We must, moreover, on the evidence of Shelley's own works demur; for there runs through his poems a painful taint of supersubtilised impurity, of aweless shamelessness, which we never can believe came from a mind truly pure. A penetrating taint it is, which has evilly affected many of the higher minds who admire him, in a way which Byron's own more commonplace licentiousness never could have done.
One of his biographers has said that in no man was the moral sense ever more completely developed than in Shelley, in none was the perception of right and wrong more acute. I rather think that the late Mr. [Walter] Bagehot was nearer the mark when he asserted that in Shelley the conscience never had been revealed—that he was almost entirely without conscience. Moral susceptibilities and impulses, keen and refined, he had. He was inspired with an enthusiasm of humanity after a kind; hated to see pain in others, and would willingly relieve it; hated oppression, and stormed against it, but then he regarded all rule and authority as oppression. He felt for the poor and the suffering, and tried to help them, and willingly would have shared with all men the vision of good which he sought for himself. But these passionate impulses are something very different from conscience. Conscience first reveals itself when we become aware of the strife between a lower and a higher nature within us—a law of the flesh warring against the law of the mind. And it is out of this experience that moral religion is born, the higher law rather leading up and linking us to One whom that law represents. As Canon Mozely has said, 'it is an introspection on which all religion is built—man going into himself and seeing the struggle within him; and thence getting self-knowledge, and thence the knowledge of God.' Of this double nature, this inward strife between flesh and spirit, Shelley knew nothing. He was altogether a child of impulse—of impulse, one, total, all-absorbing. And the impulse that came to him he followed whithersoever it went, without questioning either himself or it…. But this pe culiarity, which made him so little fitted to guide either his own life or that of others, tended, on the other hand, very powerfully to make him pre-eminently a lyric poet. How it fitted him for this we shall presently see. But abandonment to impulse, however much it may contribute to lyrical inspiration, is a poor guide to conduct; and a poet's conduct in life, of whatever kind it be, quickly reacts on his poetry. It was so with Shelley.
It is painful to recall the unhappy incidents, but we cannot understand his poetry if we forget them. 'Strongly moralised,' Mr. Symonds tells us, his boyhood was; but of a strange—I might say, an unhuman—type the morality must have been which allowed some of the chief acts of his life. His father was no doubt a commonplace and worldlyminded squire, wholly unsympathetic with his dreamy son; but this cannot justify the son's unfilial and irreverent conduct towards his parent, going so far as to curse him for the amusement of coarse Eton companions. Nobility of nature he may have had, but it was such nobility as allowed him, in order to hurl defiance at authority, to start atheist at Eton, and to do the same more boldly at Oxford, with what result you know. It allowed him to engage the heart of a simple and artless girl, who entrusted her life in his keeping, and then after two or three years to abandon her and her child—for no better reason, it would seem, than that she cared too little for her baby, and had an unpleasant sister, who was an offence to Shelley. It allowed him first to insult the religious sense of his fellow men by preaching the wildest atheism, then in the poem Laon and Cythna, which he intended to be his gospel for the world, to outrage the deepest instincts of our nature by introducing a most horrible and unnatural incident. A moral taint there is in this, which has left its trail in many of his after poems. The furies of the sad tragedy of Harriet Westbrook haunted him till the close, and drew forth some strains of weird agony; but even in these there is no manly repentance, no self-reproach that is true and human-hearted. After his second marriage he never repeated the former offence, but many a strain in his later poems, as in Epipsychidion, and in his latest lyrics, proves that constancy of affection was not in him, nor reckoned by him among the virtues. Idolators of Shelley will, I know, reply, 'You judge Shelley by the conventional morality of the present day, and, judging him by this standard, of course you harshly condemn him. But it was against these very conventions which you call morality that Shelley's whole life was a protest. He was the prophet of something truer or better than this.' To this I answer that Shelley's revolt was not against the conventional morality of his own time, but against the fundamental morality of all time. Had he merely cried out against the stifling political atmosphere and the dry, dead orthodoxy of the Regency and the reign of George IV., and longed for some ampler air, freer and more life-giving, one could well have understood him, even sympathised with him. But he rebelled not against the limitations and corruptions of his own day, but against the moral verities which two thousand years have made good, and which have been tested and approved not only by eighteen Christian centuries, but no less by the wisdom of Virgil and Cicero, of Aristotle and Sophocles. Shelley may be the prophet of a new morality, but it is one which never can be realised till moral law has been obliterated from the universe and conscience from the heart of man.
A nature which was capable of the things I have alluded to, whatever other traits of nobility it may have had, must have been traversed by some strange deep flaw, marred by some radical inward defect. In some of his gifts and impulses he was more,—in other things essential to goodness, he was far less,·—than other men; a fully developed man he certainly was not. I am inclined to believe that, for all his noble impulses and aims, he was in some way deficient in rational and moral sanity. Many of you will remember Hazlitt's somewhat cynical description of him. Yet, to judge by his writings, it looks like truth. He had 'a fire in his eye, a fever in his blood, a maggot in his brain, a hectic flutter in his speech, which mark out the philosophic fanatic. He is sanguine-complexioned and shrill-voiced.' This is just the outward appearance we could fancy for his inward temperament. What was that temperament?
He was entirely a child of impulse, lived and longed for high-strung, intense emotion—simple, all-absorbing, allpenetrating emotion, going straight on in one direction to its object, hating and resenting whatever opposed its progress thitherward. The object which he longed for was some abstract intellectualised spirit of beauty and loveliness, which should thrill his spirit continually with delicious shocks of emotion.
This yearning, panting desire is expressed by him in a thousand forms and figures throughout his poetry. Again and again the refrain recurs—
He sought not mere sensuous enjoyment, like Keats, but keen intellectual and emotional delight—the mental thrill, the glow of soul, the 'tingling of the nerves,' that accompany transcendental rapture. His hungry craving was for intellectual beauty, and the delight it yields; if not that, then for horror, anything to thrill the nerves, though it should curdle the blood and make the flesh creep. Sometimes for a moment this perfect abstract loveliness would seem to have embodied itself in some creature of flesh and blood; but only for a moment would the sight soothe him—the sympathy would cease, the glow of heart would die down—and he would pass on in the hot, insatiable pursuit of new rapture. 'There is no rest for us,' says the great preacher, 'save in quietness, confidence, and affection.' This was not what Shelley sought, but something very different from this.
The pursuit of abstract ideal beauty was one form which his hungry, insatiable desire took. Another passion that possessed him was the longing to pierce to the very heart the mystery of existence. It has been said that before an insoluble mystery, clearly seen to be insoluble, the soul bows down and is at rest, as before an ascertained truth. Shelley knew nothing of this. Before nothing would his soul bow down. Every veil, however sacred, he would rend, pierce the inner shrine of being, and force it to give up its secret. There is in him a profane audacity, an utter awelessness…. Reverence was to him another word for hated superstition. Nothing was to him inviolate. All the natural reserves he would break down. Heavenward, he would pierce to the heart of the universe and lay it bare; manward, he would annihilate all the precincts of personality. Every soul should be free to mingle with any other, as so many raindrops do. In his own words,
The fountains of our deepest life shall be
Confused in passion's golden purity.
However fine the language in which such feelings may clothe themselves, in truth they are wholly vile; there is no horror of shamelessness which they may not generate. Yet this is what comes of the unbridled desire for 'tingling pulses,' quivering, panting, fainting sensibility, which Shelley everywhere makes the supreme happiness. It issues in awelessness, irreverence, and what some one has called 'moral nudity.'
These two impulses, both combined with another passion, he had—the passion for reforming the world. He had a real, benevolent desire to impart to all men the peculiar good he sought for himself—a life of free, unimpeded impulse, of passionate, unobstructed desire. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity—these of course; but something far beyond these—absolute Perfection, as he conceived it, he believed to be within every man's reach. Attainable, if only all the growths of history could be swept away, all authority and government, all religion, all law, custom, nationality, everything that limits and restrains, and if every man were left open to the uncontrolled expansion of himself and his impulses. The end of this process of making a clean sweep of all that is, and beginning afresh, would be that family, social ranks, government, worship, would disappear, and then man would be king over himself, and wise, gentle, just, and good. Such was his temperament, the original emotional basis of Shelley's nature; such, too, some of the chief aims towards which this temperament impelled him. And certainly these aims do make one think of the 'maggot in his brain.' But a temperament of this kind, whatever aims it turned to, was eminently and essentially lyrical. Those thrills of soul, those tingling nerves, those rapturous glows of feeling, are the very substance out of which high lyrics are woven.
The insatiable craving to pierce the mystery, of course, drove Shelley to philosophy for instruments to pierce it with. During his brief life he was a follower of three distinct schools of thought. At first he began with the philosophy of the senses, was a materialist, adopting Lucretius as his master and holding that atoms are the only realities, with perhaps a pervading life of nature to mould them—that from atoms all things come, to atoms return. Yet even over this dreary creed, without spirit, immortality, or God, he shouted a jubilant 'Eureka,' as though it were some new glad tidings.
From this he passed into the school of Hume—got rid of matter, the dull clods of earth, denied both matter and mind, and held that these were nothing but impressions, with no substance behind them. This was liker Shelley's cast of mind than materialism. Not only dull clods of matter, but personality, the 'I' and the 'thou,' were by this creed eliminated, and that exactly suited Shelley's way of thought. It gave him a phantom world.
From Hume he went on to Plato, and in him found still more congenial nutriment. The solid, fixed entities—matter and mind—he could still deny, while he was led on to believe in eternal archetypes behind all phenomena, as the only realities. These Platonic ideas attracted his abstract intellect and imagination, and are often alluded to in his later poems, as in Adonais. Out of this philosophy it is probable that he got the only object of worship which he ever acknowledged, the Spirit of Beauty. Plato's idea of beauty changed into a spirit, but without will, without morality, in his own words:—
That Light whose smile kindles the universe,
That Beauty in which all things work and move,
That Benediction which the eclipsing curse
Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love
Which, through the web of being blindly wove
By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of
The fire for which all thirst.
To the moral and religious truths which are the backbone of Plato's thought he never attained. Shelley's thought never had any backbone. Each of these successively adopted philosophies entered into and coloured the successive stages of Shelley's poetry; but through them all his intellect and imagination remained unchanged.
What was the nature of that intellect? It was wholly akin and adapted to the temperament I have described as his. Impatient of solid substances, inaccessible to many kinds of truth, inappreciative of solid, concrete facts, it was quick and subtle to seize the evanescent hues of things, the delicate aromas which are too fine for ordinary perceptions. His intellect waited on his temperament, and, so to speak, did its will—caught up one by one the warm emotions as they were flung off, and worked them up into the most exquisite abstractions. The rush of throbbing pulsations supplied the materials for his keen-edged thought to work on, and these it did mould into the rarest, most beautiful shapes. This his mind was busy doing all his life long. The real world, existence as it is to other minds, he recoiled from—shrank from the dull, gross earth which we see around us—nor less from the unseen world of Righteous Law and Will which we apprehend above us. The solid earth he did not care for. Heaven—a moral heaven—there was that in him which would not believe in. So, as Mr. Hutton has said, his mind made for itself a dwelling-place midway between the two, equally remote from both, some interstellar region, some cold, clear place—
Pinnacled dim in the intense inane—
which he peopled with ideal shapes and abstractions, wonderful or weird, beautiful or fantastic, all woven out of his own dreaming phantasy.
This was the world in which he was at home; he was not at home with any reality known to other men. No real human characters appear in his poetry; his own pulsations, desires, aspirations, supplied the place of these. Hardly any actual human feeling is in them; only some phase of evanescent emotion, or the shadow of it, is seized—not even the flower of human feeling, but the bloom of the flower or the dream of the bloom. A real landscape he has seldom described, only his own impression of it, or some momentary gleam, some tender light, that has fleeted vanishingly over earth and sea he has caught. Nature he used mainly to cull from it some of its most delicate tints, some faint hues of the dawn or the sunset clouds, to weave in and colour the web of his abstract dream. So entirely at home is he in this abstract shadowy world of his own making, that when he would describe common visible things he does so by likening them to those phantoms of the brain, as though with these last alone he was familiar. Virgil likens the ghosts by the banks of Styx to falling leaves—
Quam multa in silvis auctumni frigore primo
Lapsa cadunt folia.
Shelley likens falling leaves to ghosts. Before the wind the dead leaves, he says—
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.
Others have compared thought to a breeze. With Shelley the breeze is like thought; the pilot spirit of the blast, he says—
We see thus that nature as it actually exists has little place in Shelley's poetry. And man, as he really is, may be said to have no place at all.
Neither is the world of moral or spiritual truth there—not the living laws by which the world is governed—no presence of a Sovereign Will, no all-wise Personality, behind the fleeting shows of time. The abstract world which his imagination dwelt in is a cold, weird, unearthly, inhuman place, peopled with shapes which we may wonder at, but cannot love. When we first encounter these we are fain to exclaim, Earth we know, and Heaven we know, but who and what are ye? Ye belong neither to things human nor to things divine. After a very brief sojourn in Shelley's ideal world, with its pale abstractions, most men are ready to say with another poet, after a voyage among the stars—
In that dear green earth, and the men who have lived or still live on it, in their human hopes and fears, in their faiths and aspirations, lies the truest field for the highest imagination to work in. That I believe to be the haunt and main region for the songs of the greatest poets. The real is the true world for a great poet, but it was not Shelley's world.
Yet Shelley, while the imaginative mood was on him, felt this ideal world of his as real as most men feel the solid earth, and through the pallid lips of its phantom people and dim abstractions he pours as warm a flood of emotion as ever poet did through the rosiest lips and brightest eyes of earth-born creatures. Not more real to Burns were his bonny Jean and his Highland Mary, than to Shelley were the visions of Asia and Panthea, and the Lady of the Sensitive Plant, while he gazed on them. And when his affections did light, not on these abstractions, but on creatures of flesh and blood, yet so penetrated was his thought with his own idealism, that he lifted them up from earth into that rarefied atmosphere, and described them in the same style of imagery and language as that with which he clothes the phantasms of his mind. Thus it will be seen that it was a narrow and limited tract over which Shelley's imagination ranged—that it took little or no note of reality, and that boundless as was its fertility and power of resource within its own chosen circle, yet the widest realm of mere brain creation must be thin and small compared with existing reality both in the seen and the unseen worlds.
We can now see the reason why Shelley's long poems are such absolute failures, his short lyrics so strangely succeed. Mere thrills of soul were weak as connecting bonds for long poems. Distilled essences and personified qualities were poor material out of which to build up great works. These things could give neither unity, nor motive power, nor human interest to long poems. Hence the incoherence which all but a few devoted admirers find in Shelley's long poems, despite their grand passages and their splendid imagery. In fact, if the long poems were to be broken up and thrown into a heap, and the lyric portions riddled out of them and preserved, the world would lose nothing, and would get rid of not a little offensive stuff. An exception to this judgment is generally made in favour of the Cenci: but that tragedy turns on an incident so repulsive that, notwithstanding its acknowedged power, it can hardly give pleasure to any healthy mind.
On the other hand, single thrills of rapture, which are such insufficient stuff to make long poems out of, supply the very inspiration for the true lyric. It is this predominance of emotion, so unhappy to himself, which made Shelley the lyrist that he was. When he sings his lyric strains, whatever is most unpleasant in him is softened down, if it does not wholly disappear. Whatever is most unique and excellent in him comes out at its best—his eye for abstract beauty, the subtlety of his thought, the rush of his eager pursuing desire, the splendour of his imagery, the delicate rhythm, the matchless music. These lyrics are gales of melody blown from a far-off region, that looks fair in the distance. Perhaps those enjoy them most who do not inquire too closely what is the nature of that land, or know too exactly the theories and views of life of which these songs are the effluence; for if we come too near we might find that there was poison in the air. Many a one has read those lyrics and felt their fascination without thought of the unhappy experience out of which they have come. They understood 'a beauty in the words, but not the words.' I doubt whether any one after very early youth, any one who has known the realities of life, can continue to take Shelley's best songs to heart, as he can those of Shakespeare or the best of Burns. For, however we may continue to wonder at the genius that is in them, no healthy mind will find in them the expression of its truest and best thoughts. Other lyric poets, it has been said, sing of what they feel. Shelley in his lyrics sings of what he wants to feel. The thrills of desire, the gushes of emotion, are all straining after something seen afar but unattained, something distant or future; or they are passionate despair, utter despondency for something hopelessly gone. Yet it must be owned that those bursts of passionate desire after ideal beauty set our pulses a-throbbing with a strange vibration even when we do not really sympathise with them. Even his desolate wails make those seem for a moment to share his despair who do not really share it. Such is the charm of his impassioned eloquence and the witchery of his music.
Let us turn now to look at some of his lyrics in detail. The earliest of them, those of 1814, were written while Shelley was under the depressing spell of materialistic belief, and at the time when he was abandoning poor Harriet Westbrook. For a time he lived under the spell of that ghastly faith, hugging it, yet hating it; and its progeny are seen in the lyrics of that time, such as 'Death,' 'Mutability,' 'Lines in a Country Churchyard.' These have a cold, clammy feel. They are full of 'wormy horrors,' as though the poet were one
as though by dwelling amid these things he had hoped to force some lone ghost
And what does it all come to?—what is the lesson he reads there?—
That is all that the belief in mere matter taught Shelley, or ever will teach anyone.
As he passed on, the clayey, clammy sensation is less present. Even Hume's impressions are better than mere dust, and the Platonic ideas are better than Hume's impressions. When he came under the influence of Plato his doctrine of ideas, as eternal existences and the only realities, exercised over Shelley the charm it always has had for imaginative minds; and it furnished him with a form under which he figured to himself his favourite belief in the Spirit of Love and Beauty as the animating spirit of the universe—that for which the human soul pants. It is the passion for this ideal which leads Alastor through his long wanderings to die at last in the Caucasian wilderness without attaining it. It is this which he apostrophises in the 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,' as the power which consecrates all it shines on, as the awful loveliness to which he looks to free this world from its dark slavery. It is this vision which reappears in its highest form in Prometheus Unbound, the greatest and most attractive of all Shelley's longer poems. That drama is from beginning to end a great lyrical poem, or I should rather say a congeries of lyrics, in which perhaps more than anywhere else Shelley's lyrical power has reached its highest flight. The whole poem is exalted by a grand pervading idea, one which in its truest and deepest form is the grandest we can conceive—the idea of the ultimate renovation of man and the world. And although the powers and processes and personified abstractions which Shelley invoked to effect this end are ludicrously inadequate, as irrational as it would be to try to build a solid house out of shadows and moonbeams, yet the end in view does impart to the poem something of its own elevation. Prometheus, the representative of suffering and struggling humanity, is to be redeemed and perfected by union with Asia, who is the ideal of beauty, the light of life, the spirit of love. To this spirit Shelley looked to rid the world of all its evil and bring in the diviner day. The lyric poetry, which is exquisite throughout, perhaps culminates in the well-known exquisite song in which Panthea, one of the nymphs, hails her sister Asia, as
The reply of Asia to this song is hardly less exquisite. Everyone here will remember it:—
In these two lyrics you have Shelley at his highest perfection. Exquisitely beautiful as they are, they are, however, beautiful as the mirage is beautiful, and as unsubstantial. There is nothing in the reality of things answering to Asia. She is not human, she is not divine. There is nothing moral in her—no will, no power to subdue evil; only an exquisite essence, a melting loveliness. There is in her no law, no righteousness; something to enervate, nothing to brace the soul. After her you long for one bracing look on the stern, severe countenance of Duty, of whom another poet sang—
Perfect as is the workmanship of those lyrics in Prometheus and many another, their excellence is lessened by the material out of which they are woven being fantastic, not substantial, truth. Few of them lay hold of real sentiments which are catholic to humanity. They do not deal with permanent emotions which belong to all men and are for all time, but appeal rather to minds in a particular stage of culture, and that not a healthy stage. They are not of such stuff as life is made of. They will not interest all healthy and truthful minds in all stages of culture and in all ages. To do this, however, is, I believe, a note of the highest style of lyric poem.
Another thing to be observed is, that while the imagery of Shelley's lyrics is so splendid and the music of their language so magical, both of these are at that point of over-bloom which is on the verge of decay. The imagery, for all its splendour, is too ornate, too redundant, too much overlays the thought, which has not strength enough to uphold such a weight. Then, as to the music of the words, wonderful as it is, all but exclusive admirers of Shelley must have felt at times as if the sound runs away with the sense. In some of the Prometheus lyrics the poet, according to Mr. [J. A.] Symonds, seems to have 'realised the miracle of making words, detached from meaning, the substance of a new ethereal music' This is, to say the least, a dangerous miracle to practise. Even Shelley, overborne by the power of melodious words, would at times seem to approach perilously near the borders of the unintelligible, not to say the nonsensical. What it comes to, when adopted as a style, has been seen plainly enough in some of Shelley's chief followers in our own day. Cloyed with overloaded imagery, and satiated almost to sickening with alliterative music, we turn for reinvigoration to poetry that is severe even to baldness.
The Prometheus Unbound was written in Italy, and during his four Italian years Shelley's lyric stream flowed on unremittingly, and enriched England's poetry with many lyrics unrivalled in their kind, and evoked from its language a new power. These lyrics are on the whole his best poetic work. To go over them in detail would be impossible, besides being needless. Perhaps his year most prolific in lyrics was 1820, just two years before his death. Among the products of this year were, the Sensitive Plant, more than half lyrical, the 'Cloud,' the 'Skylark,' 'Love's Philosophy,' 'Arethusa,' 'Hymns of Pan and Apollo,' all in his best manner, with many besides these. About the lyrics of this time two things are noticeable: more of them are about things of nature than heretofore, and there are several on Greek subjects.
Of all modern attempts to reinstate Greek subjects I know nothing equal to these, except perhaps one or two of the Laureate's happiest efforts. They take the Greek forms and mythologies, and fill them with modern thought and spirit. And perhaps this is the only way to make Greek subjects real and interesting to us; for if we want the very Greek spirit we had better go to the originals and not to any reproductions.
You remember how he makes Pan sing—
Of the lyrics on natural objects the two supreme ones are the 'Ode to the West Wind' and the 'Skylark.' Of this last nothing need be said. Artistically and poetically it is unique, has a place of its own in poetry; yet may I be allowed to express a misgiving about it which I have long felt, and others may feel too? For all its beauty, perhaps one would rather not recall it when hearing the skylark's song in the fields on a bright spring morning. The poem is not in tune with the bird's song and the feelings it does and ought to awaken. The rapture with which the strain springs up at first dies down before the close into Shelley's ever-haunting morbidity. Who wishes, when hearing the real skylark, to be told that
If personal feeling is to be inwrought into the living powers of nature, let it be such feeling as is in keeping with the object, appropriate to the theme in hand.
Such is that personal invocation with which Shelley closes his grand 'Ode to the West Wind,' written the previous year, 1819—
This ode ends with some vigour, some hope; but that is not usual with Shelley. Everyone must have noticed how almost habitually his intensest lyrics—those which have started with the fullest swing of rapture—die down before they close into a wail of despair. It is as though, when the strong gush of emotion had spent itself, there was no more behind, nothing to fall back upon, but blank emptiness and desolation. It is this that makes Shelley's poetry so unspeakably sad—sad with a hopeless sorrow that is like none other. You feel as though he were a wanderer who has lost his way hopelessly in the wilderness of a blank universe. His cry is, as Mr. Carlyle long since said, like 'the infinite inarticulate wailing of forsaken infants.' In the wail of his desolation there are many tones—some wild and weird, some defiant, some full of despondent pathos.
The lines written in 'Dejection,' on the Bay of Naples, in 1818, are perhaps the most touching of all his wails: the words are so sweet they seem, by their very sweetness, to lighten the load of heart-loneliness:—
Who that reads these sighing lines but must feel for the heart that breathed them! Yet how can we be surprised that he should have felt so desolate? Every heart needs some real stay. And a heart so sensitive, a spirit so finely touched, as Shelley's needs, far more than unsympathetic and narrow natures, a refuge amid the storms of life. But he knew of none. His universe was a homeless one, had no centre of repose. His universal essence of love, diffused throughout it, contained nothing substantial—no will that could control and support his own. While a soul owns no law, is without awe, lives wholly by impulse, what rest, what central peace, is possible for it? When the ardours of emotion have died down, what remains for it but weakness, exhaustion, despair? The feeling of his weakness woke in Shelley no contriteness or brokenness of spirit, no self-abasement, no reverence. Nature was to him really the whole, and he saw in it nothing but 'a revelation of death, a sepulchral picture, generation after generation disappearing and being heard of and seen no more.' He rejected utterly that other 'consolatory revelation which tells us that we are spiritual beings, and have a spiritual source of life,' and strength, above and beyond the material system. Such a belief, or rather no belief, as his can engender only infinite sadness, infinite despair. And this is the deep undertone of all Shelley's poetry.
I have dwelt on his lyrics because they contain little of the offensive and nothing of the revolting which here and there obtrudes itself in the longer poems. And one may speak of these lyrics without agitating too deeply questions which at present I would rather avoid. Yet even the lyrics bear some impress of the source whence they come. Beautiful though they be, they are like those fine pearls which, we are told, are the products of disease in the parent shell. All Shelley's poetry is, as it were, a gale blown from a richly gifted but unwholesome land; and the taint, though not so perceptible in the lyrics, still hangs more or less over many of the finest. Besides this defect, they are very limited in their range of influence. They cannot reach the hearts of all men. They fascinate only some of the educated, and that probably only while they are young. The time comes when these pass out of that peculiar sphere of thought and find little interest in such poetry. Probably the rare exquisiteness of their workmanship will always preserve Shelley's lyrics, even after the world has lost, as we may hope it will lose, sympathy with their substance. But better, stronger, more vital far are those lyrics which lay hold on the permanent, unchanging emotions of man—those emotions which all healthy natures have felt and always will feel, and which no new stage of thought or civilisation can ever bury out of sight.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2344
SOURCE: "Percy Bysshe Shelley," in Poets: The Interpreters of Their Age, George Bell & Sons, 1892, pp. 300–11.
[In the following excerpt, Swanick discusses Shelley's concern with social reform as reflected in his verse.]
Possessed by a spirit of implacable hostility to oppression and intolerance, under all their manifestations, Shelley, like Byron, may be regarded, under one aspect of his genius, as representing the destructive temper of the Revolution. Both believed in the ultimate triumph of [French] Democracy. Byron has recorded his conviction that "There will be bloodshed like water, and tears like mist, but that the people will conquer in the end"; nevertheless, while holding this opinion theoretically, he does not appear to have been cheered by any vision of a brighter future;—with him the spirit of revolt is predominant.
Shelley, on the contrary, having adopted, with passionate earnestness, the underlying principles of the Revolution, especially that of universal brotherhood, and cherishing unswerving faith in the coming Millennium, proclaimed, through the medium of impassioned verse, the final regeneration of mankind through righteousness, patient endurance, gentleness and love. This faith in the ultimate triumph of Right over Wrong, of Truth over Error, and of Love over Hatred, became one of the ruling and inspiring passions of his life, and hence he may perhaps be not inaptly characterized as the poet of aspiration and of hope.
These ideas being out of harmony with the reactionary spirit of the time which, in its recoil from the excesses of the Revolution, manifested a tendency to selfish and apathetic indifference to the higher interests of humanity, Shelley's poems, in which they were embodied, met with no immediate acceptance. Eventually, however they have doubtless been instrumental, with other agencies, in rekindling that enthusiasm of humanity (an expression originating with him) which, at the outbreak of the Revolution, had fired the nobler spirits of the age, and which, under the form of helpful beneficence, forms so striking a feature of the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Thus, in the fulness of time, has been realized his own fervent prayer, embodied in his magnificent "Ode to the West Wind."
"This poem," it has been truly said, "is the clarion-cry of hope in the presence of tumultuous ruin and inevitable decay."
The poetry of Shelley, like that of Byron, strikingly illustrates his individuality; accordingly there are two memorable moments of his early life recorded in his verse which, to quote the words of his latest biographer, "were the consecration of his boyhood."
The story of the first occurs in the Dedication, prefixed to the Revolt of Islam, and records how, with the recognition of the prevalence in life of tyranny and wrong, came his high resolve to dedicate himself to the cause of Liberty, and to do unflinching battle with her deadly foes.
This passage "strikes the key-note of the predominanting sentiment of Shelley throughout his whole life,—his sympathy with the oppressed!"
"The inspiration of this memorable moment was to elevate and purify Shelley's moral being;—it was hardly less essential that he should dedicate his imagination to the spirit of beauty; this also was accomplished; we read the record of this second spiritual crisis in the 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.'"
These two moments may be regarded as introducing Shelley into two distinct spheres of emotion, his enthusiasm of humanity and his love of ideal beauty. These two masterpassions, under the influence of one or other of which he habitually lived and worked, formed two independent sources of inspiration, giving birth to two series of poems, the one embodying his aspirations for humanity, and the other reflecting his personal emotions, which were always coloured by his passionate feeling for the Beautiful.
How fervent was Shelley's sympathy with human progress, and how devoted and disinterested was his determination to lose no opportunity of forwarding the cause he had so much at heart, appears from his visit to Ireland in 1812.
Cherishing the conviction, as stated by himself, that the failure of the French Revolution might be traced to the want of a previous moral movement, fitting the people for the possession of freedom, he came to Ireland not as a public agitator, but as a preacher of morality.
Accordingly, in his Addresses to the Irish nation, he advocates the great principle that political Reform must be based, not upon expediency, but upon virtue and wisdom. In the excited state of public feeling, however, these elevated views, set forth with impassioned eloquence, met with little response; and the young visionary, saddened by the spectacle of squalid misery which met him in the streets of Dublin, and recognizing that he must be content to labour for the future, bade farewell to Ireland, after a sojourn there of seven weeks.
Among the poems of Shelley wherein he appears as the philanthropist fired with zeal for the regeneration of mankind, attention must be called to Queen Mab, his first important work, written when he was eighteen, issued privately in 1813, and published surreptitiously in 1821.
Against the publication of this juvenile poem he earnestly protested, on the ground "that he could unreservedly condemn its intemperate spirit, and acknowledge its crudity, in all that concerns moral and political speculation, as well as in the subtler discriminations of metaphysical and religious doctrine."
Notwithstanding this disclaimer on the part of its author, great interest attaches to this early production, not only as illustrating in an eminent degree the more striking characteristics of his genius, his wonderful imaginative power, and his passionate love of visionary beauty, but also as exhibiting what may be regarded as the actuating principles of his life, namely, his intense sympathy with human progress and his faith in human perfectibility; it illustrates also the bitter hatred fostered by his unhappy experience at school and at college, with which, at that time, he regarded all traditional beliefs, and established institutions, the source, as he imagined, of the misery which everywhere prevailed, and against which, with the precipitate rashness and the fearless audacity of youth, he proclaimed irreconcilable war.
With reference to this poem, I may, in justice to Shelley, quote the following words of Robert Browning: "There are growing pains, accompanied by temporary distortion, of the soul also." "Nor will men persist in confounding any more than God confounds, with genuine infidelity and an atheism of the heart, those passionate, impatient struggles of a boy towards distant truth and love, made in the dark."
The Revolt of Islam, while embodying Shelley's profoundest convictions, social, ethical, and political, is also interesting as revealing, through the character of Laon (the idealized portrait of himself), the hopes and aspirations with which in previous years he had entered upon his Irish campaign; notwithstanding the ill-success which had attended that expedition, he cherished unswerving faith in the principles which then actuated him, and the triumph of which he regarded as essential to the redemption of humanity.
Deeply impressed by the misery which prevailed in England at the close of the war, and indignant at the reactionary policy of the government, he felt that, through the medium of impassioned verse, he had a message to deliver, involving the happiness not only of England, but of Mankind.
It was in this spirit that, amid the solitudes of Marlow, The Revolt of Islam was composed. With what unremitting ardour he devoted himself to his self-imposed task may be imagined when he speaks of the poem as "that which grew, as it were, from 'the agony and bloody sweat' of intellectual travail." In the preface which accompanied the poem, he states that it was undertaken "in the view of kindling within the bosoms of his readers a virtuous enthusiasm for those doctrines of liberty and justice, that faith and hope in something good, which neither violence, nor misrepresentation, nor prejudice can ever totally extinguish among mankind."
"It was his desire," to quote the words of his biographer, "to present the true ideal of revolution—a national movement based on moral principle, inspired by a passion of justice and a passion of charity, unstained by blood, unclouded by turbulence, and using material force only as the tranquil putting forth, in act, of spiritual powers."
Among the regenerating principles embodied in this poem, one to which Shelley attached supreme importance is the equality of the sexes.
"Can man be free if woman be a slave?" Accordingly, a prominent part in the work of redemption is assigned to Cythna, the heroine. Together with his hatred of oppression and intolerance, this poem reveals also his faith in the contagion of goodness, in the power of noble sentiments, when embodied in thrilling words, to quell the evil passions in the human heart, and to awaken its latent sympathies with the Right and True; hence his belief in the possibility of a bloodless revolution.
It must, however, be confessed that, notwithstanding the nobleness of its dominant ideas, notwithstanding its thrilling incidents, the music of its verse, and the splendour of its descriptions, among which that of the conflict between the eagle and the serpent, in the first canto, and of the wonderful cloud-scape at the beginning of the eleventh canto, are truly magnificent—the poem as a whole is unsatisfactory. The characters are too visionary and the incidents too remote from actual experience to awaken the sympathy and to sustain the interest of the reader.
"The central motive of Laon and Cythna," it has been truly said, "is surrounded by so radiant a photosphere of imagery and eloquence that it is difficult to fix our gaze upon it, blinded as we are by the excess of splendour."
Among the poems embodying Shelley's "passion for reforming mankind," the highest rank must unquestionably be assigned to his master-work, Prometheus Unbound. Prometheus, in Shelley's drama, is the idealized representative of Humanity, under its noblest aspect of heroic self-sacrifice. Jupiter is the incarnation of selfishness and oppression, under their various manifestations, including unjust legislation and other social evils, which impede the progress and development of the human race, and to which he attributed, in great measure, the wretchedness and misery which everywhere prevailed. Accordingly, with his fall, a new era is inaugurated, in which gentleness, virtue, wisdom, endurance, and undying hope shall prevail, and wherein, under their guidance, men shall attain to the perfection for which they were designed, and become like their glorious prototype,
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free.
The universe is represented as sympathizing with the emancipation of humanity. "The world, in which the action is supposed to move, rings with spirit voices; and what these spirits sing is melody more purged of mortal dross than any other poet's ear has caught, while listening to his own heart's song or to the rhythms of the world."
While thus embodying in immortal verse, his belief in the regeneration and perfectibility of man, Shelley was one of the first to recognize the importance of intellectual and spiritual agencies in accomplishing the emancipation and elevation of the masses. Accordingly, in his Masque of Anarchy, in reply to the question, What art thou, Freedom? he replies:
Literary criticism being foreign to my purpose, and having already alluded to the serious blemishes by which the beauty of some portions of Shelley's poetry is marred, I shall not pursue the subject; nor shall I call attention to those painful aspects of his private life which the admirers of his genius cannot but deplore, and which may doubtless be in some measure attributed to the false notions respecting the relations of the sexes which characterized the ethical school to which he had attached himself. Having, moreover, dwelt at some length upon his longer poems, giving expression to his burning hopes for the regeneration of mankind, I must pass over, with only a cursory notice, the numerous productions which represent other phases of his genius. Among these The Cenci, reflecting in its revolting subject the enduring antagonism between Good and Evil, embodied also in his Prometheus Unbound, bears witness to his power as a dramatist.
In Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude, a poem "permeated by the personality of Shelley," he represents the universe as imbued with that spirit of ideal beauty, the vision of which had, in his boyhood, formed so memorable an epoch. In this noteworthy poem he portrays the enthusiastic lover of this visionary beauty, haunted for ever by the loveliness which, gleaming through material objects, ever eludes its votary, and who, yearning to assuage the thirst for sympathy, awakened by his own passionate dream, traverses the world in pursuit of his ideal, and failing to realize it, passes away, aimless and hopeless.
The underlying idea of the poem, which has been characterized as describing "the Nemesis of solitary souls," is thus expressed by his biographer: "Shelley, in Alastor, would rebuke the seeker for beauty and the seeker for truth, however high-minded, who attempts to exist without human sympathy, and he would rebuke the ever unsatisfied idealist in his own heart."
Very beautiful are the "Lines written among the Euganean Hills"; The Sensitive Plant; Epipsychidion; Adonais, and many other of Shelley's master-works; in my judgment, however, the palm must be accorded to his wonderful lyrics; his exquisite lines "To a Skylark," "To Night," his "Ode to the West Wind," "The Cloud," The Last Chorus of Hellas, and many others, which, for ethereal music and poetic fire, are unsurpassed in the wide range of English literature.
Thus, for all time, to the genuine lover of poetry, Shelley's master-works will be objects of enthusiastic admiration, while to the philanthropist he will be dear, in that, in a selfish and reactionary age, he cherished unswerving faith in the ultimate triumph of freedom, justice, truth and love, and with a prophet's fervour proclaimed the future reign of righteousness and peace.
His vision of a happier social state, based upon human brotherhood, and to be brought about by the gradual operation of moral causes, more especially through the sovereign and all-conquering agency of love; a vision embodied in magnificent poetry may perhaps be regarded as Shelley's chief contribution to the cause of human progress.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6382
SOURCE: "Shelley," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 100, No. 3, September, 1907, pp. 347–56.
[Symons was a critic, poet, dramatist, short story writer, and editor who first gained notoriety in the 1890s as an English decadent. Eventually, he established himself as one of the most important critics of the modern era. Symons provided his English contemporaries with an appropriate vocabulary with which to define the aesthetic of symbolism in his book The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899); furthermore, he laid the foundation for much of modern poetic theory by discerning the importance of the symbol as a vehicle by which a "hitherto unknown reality was suddenly revealed. " In the following essay, Symons provides an overview of the philosophy behind Shelley's verse.]
"I have the vanity to write only for poetical minds," Shelley said to Trelawny, "and must be satisfied with few readers." "I am, and I desire to be, nothing," he wrote to Leigh Hunt, while urging him to "assume a station in modern literature which the universal voice of my contemporaries forbids me either to stoop or to aspire to." Yet he said also, "Nothing is more difficult and unwelcome than to write without a confidence of finding readers"; and, "It is impossible to compose except under the strong excitement of an assurance of finding sympathy in what you write." Of the books which he published during his lifetime, some were published without his name, some were suppressed at the very moment of publication. Only The Cenci went into a second edition. Without readers, he was without due recognition from the poets of his time. Byron was jealous, if we may believe Trelawny, but neither Keats nor Wordsworth nor Leigh Hunt nor Southey nor Landor seems ever to have considered him seriously as a rival. We must go to the enthusiastic unimportant Wilson, to find an adequate word of praise; for to Wilson "Mr. Shelley was a poet, almost in the very highest sense of that mysterious word." The general public hated him without reading him, and even his death did not raise him from oblivion. But Time has been on his side, and to-day the general reader, if you mention the word poet to him, thinks of Shelley.
It is only by reading contemporary writings and opinions in published letters of the time,—such as Southey's when he writes to Shelley, that the manner in which his powers for poetry "have been employed is such as to prevent me from feeling any desire to see more of productions so monstrous in their kind, and pernicious in their tendency,"—that we can, with a great effort, realize the aspect under which Shelley appeared to the people of his time. What seems to us abnormal in its innocence was to them abnormal in guilt; they imagined a revolution behind every invocation to liberty, and saw [William] Godwin charioted in the clouds of Prometheus Unbound. They saw nothing else there, and Shelley himself had moments when he thought that his mission was a prophet's rather than a poet's. All this, which would mean so little to-day, kept Shelley at that time from ever having an audience as a poet. England still feared thought, and still looked upon poetry as worth fearing.
No poet has defined his intentions in poetry more carefully than Shelley. "It is the business of the poet," he said, in the preface to The Revolt of Islam, "to communicate to others the pleasure and the enthusiasm arising out of those images and feelings in the vivid presence of which, within his own mind, consists at once his inspiration and his reward." But, he says further, "I would only awaken the feelings, so that the reader should see the beauty of true virtue, and be incited to those enquiries which have led to my moral and political creed, and that of some of the subtlest intellects in the world." In the preface to Prometheus Unbound he says, "Didactic poetry is my abhorrence; nothing can be equally well expressed in prose that is not tedious and supererogatory in vein. My purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence." Writing to Godwin, he says, acutely, "My power consists in sympathy, and that part of the imagination which relates to sentiment and contemplation…. I am formed … to appre hend minute and remote distinctions of feeling, whether relative to external nature or the living beings which surround us, and to communicate the conceptions which result from considering either the moral or the material universe as a whole." And we are told by Mrs. Shelley that "he said that he deliberated at one time whether he should dedicate himself to poetry or metaphysics."
Shelley was born to be a poet, and his "passion for reforming the world," as well as what he fancied to be his turn for metaphysics, were both part of a temperament and intelligence perhaps more perfectly fitted for the actual production of poetry than those of any other poet. All his life Shelley was a dreamer; never a visionary. We imagine him, like his Asia on the pinnacle, saying,
The mist, to Shelley, was part of what he saw; he never saw anything, in life or art, except through a mist. Blake lived in a continual state of vision, Shelley in a continual state of hallucination. What Blake saw was what Shelley wanted to see; Blake never dreamed, but Shelley never wakened out of that shadow of a dream which was his life.
His poetry is indeed made out of his life; but what was his life to Shelley? The least visible part of his dreams. As the Fourth Spirit sings in Prometheus Unbound,—
Nor seeks nor finds he mortal blisses,
But feeds on the aërial kisses
Of shapes that haunt thought's wilderness.
He lived with ardor among ideas, aspirations, and passions in which there was something at once irresponsible and abstract. He followed every impulse, without choice or restraint, with the abandonment of a leaf in the wind. "O lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!" was his prayer to the west wind and to every influence. Circumstances meant so little to him that he was unconscious of the cruelty of change to sentiment, and thus of the extent of his cruelty to women. He aimed at moral perfection, but was really of a perfect æsthetic selfishness. He was full of pity and generosity, and desired the liberation and uplifting of humanity; but humanity was less real to him than his own witch of Atlas. He only touched human action and passion closely in a single one of his works; and he said of The Cenci, "I don't think much of it. My object was to see how I could succeed in describing passions I have never felt."
To Shelley the word love meant sympathy, and that word, in that sense, contains his whole life and creed. Is this not why he could say,—
True love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away?
It is a love which is almost sexless, the love of an enthusiastic youth, or of his own hermaphrodite. He was so much of a sentimentalist that he could conceive of incest without repugnance, and be so innocently attracted by so many things which, to one more normally sexual, would have indicated perversity. Shelley is not perverse, but he is fascinated by every problem of evil, which draws him to contemplate it with a child's inquiring wonder of horror. No poet ever handled foulness and horror with such clean hands or so continually. The early novels are filled with tortures, the early poems profess to be the ravings of a hanged madwoman; Alastor dwells lingeringly on death, Queen Mab and The Revolt of Islam on blood and martyrdom; madness is the centre of "Julian and Maddalo," and a dungeon of Rosalind and Helen; the first act of Prometheus celebrates an unearthly agony, and The Cenci is a mart and slaughter-house of souls and bodies; while a comic satire is made up wholly out of the imagery of the swine-trough. Shelley could touch pitch and be undefiled; he writes nobly of every horror; but what is curious is that he should so persistently seek his beauty in such blackness. That a law or tradition existed was enough for him to question it. He does so in the name of abstract liberty, but curiosity was part of his impulse. A new Adam in Eden, the serpent would have tempted him before Eve. He wanted to "root out the infamy" of every prohibition, and would have tasted the forbidden fruit without hunger.
And Shelley was the same from the beginning. In the notes to Queen Mab he lays down with immense seriousness the rules on which his life was really to be founded. "Constancy has nothing virtuous in itself," he tells us, "independently of the pleasure it confers, and partakes of the temporizing spirit of vice in proportion as it endures tamely moral defects of magnitude in the object of its indiscreet choice." Again: "the connection of the sexes is so long sacred as it contributes to the comfort of both parties, and is naturally dissolved when its evils are greater than its benefits." This doctrine of "the comfort of both parties" was what Shelley always intended to carry out, and he probably supposed that it was always the fault of the "other party" when he failed to do so. Grave charges have been brought against him for his cruelty to women, and in particular to Harriet; and it is impossible to forgive him, as a reasonable man, for his abandonment of Harriet. But he was never at any time a reasonable man, and there was never a time when he was not under one form or another of hallucination. It was not that he was carried away irresistibly by a gross passion, it was that he had abandoned himself like a medium to a spiritual influence. A certain selfishness is the inevitable result of every absorption; and Shelley, in every new rapture, was dizzy with it, whether he listened to the skylark in the sky or to the voice of Mary calling to him from the next room. In life, as in poetry, he was the slave of every impulse, but a slave so faultlessly obedient that he mastered every impulse in achieving it, so that his life, which seems casual, was really what he chose to make it, and followed the logic of his being.
Shelley had intuition rather than instinct, and was moved by a sympathy of the affections rather than by passion. His way of falling into and out of love is a sign that his emotions were rapid and on the surface, not that they were deep or permanent. The scent or music of love came to him like a flower's or bird's speech; it went to his head, it did not seize on the heart in his body. It must have filled him with astonishment when Harriet drowned herself, and he could never have really understood that it was his fault. He lived the life of one of those unattached plants which float in water; he had no roots in the earth, and he did not see why anyone should take root there. His love for women seems never to have been sensuous, or at least to have been mostly a matter of sympathies and affinities; if other things followed, it seemed to him natural that they should, and he encouraged them with a kind of unconsciousness. Emilia Viviani, for whom he wrote the sacred love-song of the Epipsychidion, would have embarrassed him, I doubt not, if she had answered his invocation practically. He would have done his best for her, and, at the same time, for Mary.
Epipsychidion celebrates love with an icy ecstasy which is the very life-blood of Shelley's soul; there are moments, at the beginning and end, when its sympathy with love passes into the actual possession. But for the most part it is a declaration, not an affirmation; its love is sisterly, and can be divided; it says for once, exultingly and luxuriously and purely, the deepest thing that Shelley had to say, lets out the secret of his feminine or twy-fold soul, and is the epitaph of that Antigone with whom "some of us have in a prior existence been in love." Its only passion is for that intellectual beauty to which it is his greater hymn, and, with Emilia Viviani, he confessed to have been the Ixion of a cloud. "I think," he said in a letter, "one is always in love with something or other; the error, and I confess it is not easy for spirits cased in flesh and blood to avoid it, consists in seeking in a mortal image the likeness of what is, perhaps, eternal." In the poem he has done more than he meant to do, for it is the eternal beauty that it images for us, and no mortal lineaments. Just because it is without personal passion, because it is the worship of a shadow for a shadow, it has come to be this thing fearfully and wonderfully made, into which the mystical passion of Crashaw and the passionate casuistry of Donne seem to have passed as into a crucible:—
Thou art the wine whose drunkenness is all
We can desire, O Love!
and the draught is an elixir for all lovers.
That part of himself which Shelley did not put into Epipsychidion he put into Adonais. In that pageantry of sorrow, in which all temporal things mourn for the poet, and accept the consolation of eternity, there is more of personal confession, more of personal foreboding, than of grief for Keats, who is no less a cloud to him than Emilia Viviani, and whom indeed we know he did not in any sense properly appreciate, at his actual value. The subtlest beauty comes into it when he speaks of himself, "a pardlike spirit beautiful and swift," with that curious self-sympathy which remains not less abstract than his splendid and consoling Pantheism, which shows by figures a real faith in the truth and permanence of beauty. Shelley says of it and justly, "it is a highly wrought piece of art, and perhaps better, in point of composition, than anything I have written." The art is conscious, and recreates Lycidas with entire originality; but the vessel of ancient form carries a freshly lighted flame.
Shelley, when he died, left unfinished a splendid fragment, The Triumph of Life which, inspired by Petrarch, as Adonais was inspired by Milton, shows the deeper influence of Dante. It ends with an interrogation, that interrogation which he had always asked of life and was about to ask of death. He had wanted to die, that he might "solve the great mystery." His last poem comes to us with no solution, but breaks off as if he died before he could finish telling the secret which he was in the act of apprehending.
There are two kinds of imagination, that which embodies and that which disembodies. Shelley's is that which disembodies, filling mortal things with unearthly essences or veiling them with unearthly raiment. Wordsworth's imagination embodies, concentrating spirit into man, and nature into a wild flower. Shelley is never more himself than in the fantasy of "The Witch of Atlas," which he wrote in three days, and which is a song in seventy-eight stanzas. It is a glittering cobweb, hung on the horns of the moon's crescent, and left to swing in the wind there. What Fletcher would have shown and withdrawn in a single glimpse of magic, Shelley calls up in a vast wizard landscape which he sets steadily before us. He is the enchanter, but he never mistakes the images which he calls up for realities. They are images to him, and there is always between him and them the thin circle of the ring. In Prometheus Unbound, where he has made a mythology of his own by working on the stable foundation of a great myth of antiquity, his drama is a cloudy procession of phantoms, seen in a divine hallucination by a poet whose mind hovered always in that world
The shapes hover, pause, and pass on unflagging wings. They are not symbols, they are not embodiments of powers and passions; they are shining or shadowy images of life and death, time and eternity; they are much more immaterial than judgment or mercy, than love or liberty; they are phantoms, "wrapped in sweet sounds as in bright veils," who pass, murmuring "intelligible words and music wild"; but their music comes from somewhere across the moon or under the sea, and their words are without human passion. The liberty which comes to Prometheus is a liberty to dream forever with Asia in a cave; the love which sets free the earth is, like the music, extralunar; this new paradise is a heaven made only for one who is, like Shelley,
The imagination which built this splendid palace out of clouds, of sunset and sunrise, out of air, water, and fire, has unbodied the human likeness in every element, and made the spirit of the earth itself only a melodious voice, "the delicate spirit" of an eternal cloud, "guiding the earth through heaven." When the "universal sound like wings" is heard, and Demogorgon affirms the final triumph of good, it is to an earth dying like a drop of dew and to a moon shaken like a leaf. And we are left "dizzy as with delight," to rise, like Panthea,
It was among these forms of imagination,—
as he sees them in Adonais, that Shelley most loved to walk; but when we come to what Browning calls "the unrivalled Cenci," we are in another atmosphere, and in this atmosphere, not his own, he walks with equal certainty. In the preface to The Cenci Shelley defines in a perfect image the quality of dramatic imagination. "Imagination," he says, "is as the immortal God which should assume flesh for the redemption of mortal passion." And, in the dedication, he distinguishes it from his earlier works, "visions which impersonate my own apprehensions of the beautiful and the just." The Cenci is the greatest play written in English since The Duchess of Malfy, but, in the work of Shelley, it is an episode, an aside, or, as he puts it in his curious phrase, "a work of art." "Julian and Maddalo" is not less a work of art, and, for Shelley, an exception. In "Julian and Maddalo" and in the Letter to Maria Gisburne he has solved the problem of the poem which shall be conventional speech and yet pure poetry. It is astonishing to think that "Julian and Maddalo" was written within a year of Rosalind and Helen. The one is Byron and water, but the other is Byron and fire. It has set the pattern of the modern poem, and it was probably more difficult for him to do than to write Prometheus Unbound. He went straight on from the one to the other, and was probably unconscious quite how much he had done. Was it that a subject, within his personal interests and yet of deep significance, came to him from his visit to Byron at Venice, his study of Byron's mind there, which, as we know, possessed, seemed to overweigh, him? Shelley required no impetus, but he required weight. Just as the subject of Prometheus Unbound, an existing myth into which he could read the symbol of his own faith, gave him that definite unshifting substance which he required, and could not invent, so, no doubt, this actual substance in "Julian and Maddalo" and the haunting historic substance of The Cenci possessed him, drawing him down out of the air, and imprisoning him among human fortunes. There is no doctrine and no fantasy in either, but imagination speaking human speech.
And yet, as Browning has pointed out, though Prometheus, Epipsychidion, and the lyrics are "the less organized matter," the "radiant elemental foam and solution" of Shelley's genius, it is precisely in these, and not in any of the more human works, that we must look for the real Shelley. In them it is he himself who is speaking, in that "voice which is contagion to the world." The others he made, supremely well; but these he was.
What he made he made so well because he was so complete a man of letters, in a sense in which no other of his contemporaries was. Wordsworth, when he turned aside from his path, wandered helplessly astray. Byron was so helplessly himself that when he wrote plays he wrote them precisely in the manner which Shelley rightly protested that he himself had not: "under a thin veil converting names and actions into cold impersonations of his own mind." But Shelley could make no such mistake in form. It may be doubted whether the drama of real life would ever have become his natural medium; but, having set himself to write such a drama, he accepted the laws or limitations of the form to the extent of saying, "I have avoided with great care, in writing this play, the introduction of what is commonly called mere poetry." In so doing he produced a masterpiece, but knew himself too well to repeat it.
And he does not less adequately whatever he touches. Shelley had no genius for fun or caricature, but in Swellfoot the Tyrant, in Peter Bell the Third, he develops a satirical joke with exquisite literary skill. Their main value is to show how well he could do the things for which he had no aptitude. The Mask of Anarchy is scarcely more important as a whole, though more poignant in detail. It was done for an occasion, and remains, not as an utterance, but for its temper of poetic eloquence. Even Hellas, which he called "a mere improvise," and which was written out of a sudden political enthusiasm, is remembered, not for its "figures of indistinct and visionary delineation," but for its "flowery and starry" choruses. Yet not one of the four was written for the sake of writing a piece of literature; each contains a condemnation, a dogma, or a doctrine.
To Shelley doctrine was a part of poetry; but then, to him doctrine was itself the voice of ecstasy. He was in love not only with love, but with wisdom; and as he wished everyone to be good and happy, he was full of magics and panaceas, Demogorgons or Godwins, which would rejuvenate or redeem the world. There was always something either spiritual or moral in his idea of beauty; he never conceived of aesthetics as a thing apart from ethics; and even in his descriptions he is so anxious to give us the feeling before the details, that the details are as likely as not to go out in a rosy mist.
There are pictures in Shelley which remind us of Turner's. Pure light breaks into all its colors and floods the world, which may be earth or sea or sky, but is, above all, rapture of color. He has few twilights but many dawns; and he loves autumn for its wild breath and broken colors. Fire he plays with, but air and water are his elements; thoughts of drowning are in all his work, always with a sense of strange luxury. He has, more than any poet, Turner's atmosphere; yet seems rarely, like Turner, to paint for atmosphere. It is part of his habitual hallucination; it comes to him with his vision or message, clothing it.
He loved liberty and justice with an impersonal passion, and would have been a martyr for many ideals which were no more to him than the substance itself of enthusiasm. He went about the world, desiring universal sympathy, to suffer delicious and poignant thrills of the soul, and to be at once sad and happy. In his feeling for nature he has the same vague affection and indistinguishing embrace as in his feeling for humanity; the daisy, which was the eye of day to Chaucer, is not visible as a speck in Shelley's wide landscapes; and though in one of his subtlest poems he has noticed "the slow soft toads out of damp corners creep," he is not minutely observant of whatever is not in some way strange or unusual. Even his significant phrase about "the worm beneath the sod" is only meant as a figure of the brain. His chief nature poem, "The Skylark," loses the bird in the air, and only realizes a voice, an "unbodied joy"; and The Sensitive Plant is a fairy, and the radiant illustration of "a modest creed."
In a minute study of the details of Shelley's philosophy, Mr. Yeats has reminded us, "in ancient times, it seems to me that Blake, who for all his protest was glad to be alive, and ever spoke of his gladness, would have worshipped in some chapel of the Sun, and that Keats, who accepted life gladly, though 'with a delicious, diligent indolence,' would have worshipped in some chapel of the Moon, but that Shelley, who hated life because he sought 'more in life than any understood,' would have wandered, lost in a ceaseless reverie, in some chapel of the Star of infinite desire." Is not Shelley's whole philosophy contained in that one line, "the desire of the moth for the star"? He desired impossible things, and his whole theory of a reorganization of the world, in which anarchy was to be a spiritual deliverer, was a dream of that golden age which all mythologies put in the past. It was not the Christian's dream of heaven, nor the Buddhist's of Nirvana, but a poetical conception of a perfected world, in which innocence was lawless, and liberty selfless and love boundless, and in which all was order and beauty, as in a lovely song or stanza, or the musical answering of line and line in drama. He wrote himself down an atheist, and Browning thinks that in heart he was always really a Christian, so unlimited were his ideals, so imaginary his paradises. When Shelley thought he was planning the reform of the world, he was making literature, and this is shown partly by the fact that no theory or outcry or enthusiasm is ever strong enough to breathe through the form which carries it like a light in a crystal.
The spirit of Shelley will indeed always be a light to every seeker after the things that are outside the world. He found nothing, he did not even name a new star. There is little actual wisdom in his pages, and his beauty is not always a very vital kind of truth. He is a bird on the sea, a sea-bird, a winged diver, swift and exquisite in flight, an inhabitant of land, water, and sky; and to watch him is to be filled with joy, to forget all mean and trivial things, to share a rapture. Shelley teaches us nothing, leads us no-where, but cries and flies round us like a sea-bird.
Shelley is the only poet who is really vague, and he gets some of his music out of that quality of the air. Poetry, to him, was an instinctive utterance of delight, and it recorded his lightest or deepest mood with equal sensitiveness. He is an unconscious creator of joy, and the mood most frequent with him is the joy of sadness. His poetry, more than that of any poet, is the poetry of the soul, and nothing in his poetry reminds us that he had a body at all, except as a nerve sensitive to light, color, music, and perfume. His happiness is
To nurse the image of unfelt caresses
Till dim imagination just possesses
The half-created shadow,
and to come no nearer to reality. Poetry was his atmosphere, he drew his breath in it as in his native element. Because he is the one perfect illustration of the poetic nature, as that nature is generally conceived, he has sometimes been wrongly taken to be the greatest of poets. His greatness may be questioned, not his authenticity.
Shelley could not write unpoetically. Wordsworth, who is not more possessed than Shelley with ideas of instruction, moral reformation, and the like, drops constantly out of poetry into prose; Shelley never does. Not only verse but poetry came to him so naturally that he could not keep it out, and the least fragment he wrote has poetry in it. Compare him, not only with Wordsworth, but with Keats, Coleridge, Byron, Landor, with every poet of his period, and you will find that while others may excel him in almost every separate poetical quality, none comes near him in this constant level of general poetical excellence.
Is it an excellence or an acquirement? No doubt it was partly technique, the technique of the born executant. It is too often forgotten that technique, like talent, must be born, not made, if it is to do great work. Shelley could not help writing well, whatever he wrote; he was born to write. He was the one perfectly equipped man of letters of his circle, and he added that accomplishment to his genius as a poet. There was nothing he could not do with verse as a form, and his translations from Greek, from Spanish, or from German, are not less sensitive to the forms which he adapted. He had a sound and wide literary culture, and, with curious lack of knowledge, a generalized appreciation of art. He wrote a Defence of Poetry which goes far beyond Sidney's and is the most just and noble eulogy of poetry that exists. His letters have grace and facility, and when Matthew Arnold made his foolish joke about his prose being better than his verse (which is as untrue as to say that Milton's prose was better than his verse), he was no doubt rightly conscious that Shelley might have expressed in prose much of the actual contents of his poetry. What would have been lost is the rarest part of it, in its creation of imaginative beauty. It is that rare part, that atmosphere which belongs to a region beyond technique, which, more certainly than even his technique, was what never left him, what made it impossible for him to write unpoetically.
No poetry is more sincere than Shelley's, because his style is a radiant drapery clinging closely to the body which it covers. What he has to express may have little value or coherence, but it is the very breath of his being, or, it may be, the smoke of that breath. He says rightly, in one of his earliest prefaces, that he has imitated no one, "designing that even if what I have produced be worthless, it should still be properly my own." There is no poet, ancient or modern, whom he did not study; but, after the first boyish bewitchment by what was odd in Southey's Thalaba, and a casual influence here and there, soon shaken off, whatever came to him was transformed by his inner energy, and became his own. Every poem, whatever else it is, is a personal expression of feeling. There is no egoism of the passionate sort, Catullus's or Villon's; his own passions are almost impersonal to him, they turn to a poem in the mere act of giving voice to themselves. It is his sincerity that so often makes him superficial. Shelley is youth. Great ideas or deep emotions did not come to him, but warm ideas and eager emotions, and he put them straight into verse. You cannot imagine him elaborating a mood, carving it, as Keats does, on the marble flanks of his Grecian urn.
Shelley is the most spontaneous of poets, and one of the most careless among those who, unlike Byron, are artists. He sings naturally, without hesitation, liquidly, not always flawlessly. There is something in him above and below literature, something aside from it, a divine personal accident. His technique, in lyrics, is not to be compared with Coleridge's, but where Keats speaks he sings.
The blank verse of Shelley, at its best in Prometheus Unbound, has none of the sweetly broken music of Shakespeare or of the organ harmonies of Milton. It is a music of aërial eloquence, as if sounded by
The small, clear, silver lute of the young spirit
That sits i' the morning star.
There is in it a thrilling music, rarer in liquid sound than that of any other poet, and chastened by all the severity that can clothe a spirit of fire and air, an Ariel loosed from Prospero. Can syllables turn to more delicate sound and perfume than in such lines as these:—
When swift from the white Seythian wilderness
A wind swept forth wrinkling the Earth with frost:
I looked and all the blossoms were blown down.
If words can breathe, can they breathe a purer breath than in these strange and simple lines in which every consonant and every vowel have obeyed some learned spell unconscious of its witchcraft? Horror puts on all the daintiness of beauty, losing none of its own essence, as when we read how
And out of this "music of lyres and flutes" there rises a symphony of many instruments, a choral symphony, after which no other music sounds for a time musical. Nor is it only for its music—
Clear, silver, icy, keen, awakening tones
Which pierce the sense and live within the soul—
that this blank verse has its power over us. It has an illumined gravity, a shining crystal clearness, a luminous motion, with, in its ample tide, an "ocean-like enchantment of strong sound," and a measure and order as of the paces of the boundless and cadenced sea.
But it is, after all, for his lyrics that Shelley is best remembered, and it is perhaps in them that he is at his best. He wrote no good lyrical verse, except a few stanzas, before the age of twenty-three, when he wrote the song beginning, "The cold earth slept below," in which we find, but for a certain concentration, all the poetic and artistic qualities of "A widow bird sat mourning on a bough," which belongs to the last year of his life. In the summer of the year 1816, he wrote the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," and had nothing more to learn. In a letter to Keats he said, "in poetry I have sought to avoid system and mannerism," and in the lyrical work written during the six remaining years of his life there will be found a greater variety, a more easily and continually inventive genius, than in the lyrical work of any other English poet. This faculty which came to him without warning, like an awakening, never flags, and it is only for personal, not for artistic reasons, that it ever exercises itself without a continual enchantment. There are, among these supreme lyrics, which no one but Shelley could have either conceived or written, others, here and there, in which the sentimentalist which was in Shelley the man improvises in verse as Thomas Moore would have improvised if he could. He could not; but to compare with his best lyrics a lyric of Shelley's such as, "The keen stars were twinkling," is to realize how narrow, as well as how impassable, is the gulf between what is not, and what just is, poetry. In the clamorous splendor of the odes there is sometimes rhetoric as well as poetry, but is it more than the tumult and overflow of that poetry? For spiritual energy the "Ode to the West Wind," for untamable choric rapture the "Hymn to Pan," for soft brilliance of color and radiant light the "Lines written among the Euganean Hills," are not less incomparable than the rarest of the songs (such songs as "To-Night," or "The golden gates of sleep unbar," or "When the lamp is shattered," or "Swiftly walk over the western wave"), in which the spirit of Fletcher seems returned to earth with a new magic from beyond the moon. And all this work, achieved by a craftsman as if for its own sake, will be found, if read chronologically, with its many fragments, to be in reality a sort of occasional diary. If ever a poet expressed himself fully in his verse, it was Shelley. There is nothing in his life which you will not find written somewhere in it, if only as "the ghost of a forgotten form of sleep." In this diary of lyrics he has noted down whatever most moved him, in a vivid record of the trace of every thrill or excitement, on nerves, or sense, or soul. From the stanzas, "To Constantia singing," to the stanzas, "With a guitar, to Jane," every woman who moved him will have her place in it; and everything that has moved him when, as he said in the preface to The Revolt of Islam, "I have sailed down mighty rivers, and seen the sun rise and set, and the stars come forth whilst I have sailed night and day down a rapid stream among mountains." This, no doubt, is his way of referring to the first and second travels abroad with Mary, and to the summer when he sailed up the Thames to its source,—the time of his awakening. And in all this, made day by day out of the very substance of its hours, there will not be a single poem in which the occasion will disturb or overpower the poetical impulse, in which the lyrical cry will be personal at the expense of the music. Or, if there is one such poem, it is that most intimate one which begins: "The serpent is shut out of Paradise." Is there, in this faultless capacity, this inevitable transposition of feeling into form, something lacking, some absent savor? Is there, in this evocation of the ghost of every thrill, the essence of life itself?
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7925
SOURCE: "Shelley's View of Poetry: A Lecture," in The Albany Review, Vol. 11, February, 1908, pp. 511–30.
[In the following essay, which was originally presented as a lecture, Bradley comments on Shelley's adherence in his work to the poetics he set out in his essay Defence of Poetry.]
The ideas of Wordsworth and of Coleridge about poetry have often been discussed and are familiar. Those of Shelley are much less so, and in his eloquent exposition of them there is a radiance which almost conceals them from many readers. I wish, at the cost of all the radiance, to try to see them and show them rather more distinctly. Even if they had little value for the theory of poetry, they would still have much as material for that theory, since they allow us to see something of a poet's experience in conceiving and composing. And, in addition, they throw light on some of the chief characteristics of Shelley's own poetry.
His poems in their turn form one of the sources from which his ideas on poetry are to be gathered. We have also some remarks in his letters and in prose pieces not devoted to this subject. We have the prefaces to those of his works which he himself published. And lastly, we have the Defence of Poetry. This essay was written in reply to an attack on the poetry of the time by Shelley's friend Peacock,—not a favourable specimen of Peacock's writing. The Defence, we can see, was hurriedly composed, and it remains a fragment, being only the first of three projected parts. It contains a good deal of historical matter, highly interesting but too extensive to be considered here. Being polemical, it no doubt exaggerates such of Shelley's views as collided with those of his antagonist. But, besides being the only full expression of these views, it is the most mature, for it was written little more than a year before his death. It appears to owe very little either to Wordsworth's Prefaces or to Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, but there are a few reminiscences of Sidney's Apology, which Shelley had read just before he wrote his own Defence; and it shows, like much of his mature poetry, how deeply he was influenced by the more imaginative dialogues of Plato.
Any one familiar with the manner in which Shelley in his verse habitually represents the world could guess at his general view of poetry. The world to him is a melancholy place, a "dim vast vale of tears," illuminated in flashes by the light of a hidden but glorious power. Nor is this power, as that favourite metaphor would imply, wholly outside the world. It works within it as a soul contending with obstruction and striving to penetrate and transform the whole mass. And though the fulness of its glory is concealed, its nature is known in outline. It is the realised perfection of everything good and beautiful on earth; or, in other words, all such goodness and beauty is its partial manifestation. "All," I say: for the splendour of nature, the love of lovers, all affections and virtues, every good action and just law, the wisdom of philosophy, the creations of art, the truths deformed by superstitious religion, are equally operations or appearances of this hidden power. It is of the first importance for the understanding of Shelley to realise how strong in him is the sense and conviction of this unity in life: it is one of his Platonic traits. The Intellectual Beauty of his "Hymn" is absolutely the same thing as the Liberty of his "Ode," the Great Spirit of Love that he invokes to bring freedom to Naples, the One which in Adonaïs he contrasts with the Many, the Spirit of Nature of Queen Mab, and the Vision of Alastor and Epipsychidion. The skylark of the famous stanzas is free from our sorrows, not because it is below them, but because, as an embodiment of that perfection, it knows the rapture of love without its satiety, and understands death as we cannot. The voice of the mountain, if a whole nation could hear it with the poet's ear, would "repeal large codes of fraud and woe"; it is the same voice as the reformer's and the martyr's. And in the far-off day when the "plastic stress" of this power has overcome the last resistance and is all in all, outward nature, which now suffers with man, will be redeemed with him, and man, in becoming politically free, will become also the perfect lover. Evidently, then, poetry, as the world now is, must be one of the voices of this power, or one tone of its voice. To use the language so dear to Shelley, it is the revelation of those eternal ideas which lie behind the manycoloured, ever-shifting veil that we call reality or life. Or rather, it is one such revelation among many.
When we turn to the Defence of Poetry we meet substantially the same view. There is indeed a certain change; for Shelley is now philosophising and writing prose. Thus we hear nothing at first of that perfect power at the heart of things, and Shelley begins by considering poetry as a creation rather than a revelation. But we soon find that this creation is no mere fancy; it represents "those forms which are common to universal nature and existence," and "a poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth." We notice, further, that the more voluntary and conscious work of invention and execution is regarded as quite subordinate in the creative process. It is a process in which the mind, obedient to an influence which it does not understand and cannot control, is driven to produce images of perfection which rather form themselves in it than are formed by it. The greatest stress is laid on this influence or inspiration; and in the end we learn that the origin of the whole process lies in certain exceptional moments when visitations of thought and feeling, elevating and delightful beyond all expression, but always arising unforeseen and departing unbidden, reach the soul; that these are, as it were, the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own; and that the province of the poet is to arrest these apparitions, to veil them in language, to colour every other form he touches with their evanescent hues, and so to "redeem from decay the visitations of the divinity in man."
Even more decided is the emphasis laid on the unity of all the forms in which the ideal appears. Indeed, throughout a large part of the essay, that "Poetry" which Shelley is defending is something very much wider than poetry in the usual sense. He is attacking the notion that poetry and its influence steadily decline as civilisation advances, and
that they are giving place, and ought to give place, to reasoning and the pursuit of utility. And he maintains, on the contrary, that imagination was, is, and always will be, the prime source of everything that has intrinsic value in life. Reasoning, he declares, cannot create, it can only operate upon the products of imagination; and, further, the predominance of mere reasoning and mere utility has become in great part an evil; for while it has deluged us with material goods and moral truths, we distribute the goods iniquitously and fail to apply the truths, because, for want of imagination, we have not sympathy in our hearts and do not feel what we know. In defending poetry, therefore, he means to defend not merely literature in verse, but whatever prose writing is allied to it in substance and form; all the other fine arts; and, in addition, all actions, inventions, institutions, and even ideas and moral dispositions, which imagination brings into being in its effort to satisfy the longing for perfection. Painters and musicians are poets. Plato and Bacon, even Herodotus and Livy, were poets, however large may be the part of their works which is not poetry. So were the men who invented the arts of life, constructed laws for tribes or cities, disclosed, as sages or founders of religion, the excellence of justice and love. And every one, Shelley would say, who, perceiving the beauty of an imagined virtue or deed, translates the image into a fact, is so far a poet. For all these things come from imagination.
Shelley's exposition of this, which is probably the most original part of his theory, is not very clear; but, if I understand his meaning, that which he takes to happen in all these cases might be thus described. The imagination—that is to say, the soul imagining—has before it, or feels within it, something which, answering perfectly to the soul's nature, fills it with delight and a desire to realise what delights it. This something, for want of a better name, we may call an idea, though it is not a fully conscious idea. The reason why these ideas thus delight the imagining soul is that they are, in fact, images or forebodings of its own perfection—of itself become perfect, in one aspect or another. These aspects are as various as the elements and forms of its own inner life and outward existence; and so the idea may be that of the perfect harmony of will and feeling (a virtue), or of the perfect union of soul with soul (love), or of the perfect order of certain social relations or forces (a law or institution), or of the perfect adjustment of intellectual elements (a truth); and so on. The formation and expression of any such idea is thus the work of Poetry in the widest sense; while at the same time (as we must add, to complete Shelley's thought) any such idea is a gleam or apparition of the perfect Intellectual Beauty.
I choose this particular title of the hidden power in order to point out (what the reader is left to observe for himself) that the imaginative idea is always regarded by Shelley as beautiful. It is an end in itself, not a mere means; it is immediately attractive; and it has the formal characters of beauty. For, as will have been noticed in the instances given, it is always the image of an order, or harmony, or unity in variety, of the elements concerned. Shelley sometimes even speaks of their "rhythm." For example, he uses this word in reference to an action; and I quote the passage because, though it occurs at some distance from the exposition of his main view, it illustrates it well. He is saying that the true poetry of Rome, unlike that of Greece, did not fully express itself in poems. "The true poetry of Rome lived in its institutions: for whatever of beautiful, true and majestic they contained, could have sprung only from the faculty which creates the order in which they consist. The life of Camillus; the death of Regulus; the expectation of the senators, in their god-like state, of the victorious Gauls; the refusal of the Republic to make peace with Hannibal after the battle of Cannæ"—these he describes as "a rhythm and order in the shows of life," an order not arranged with a view to utility or outward result, but due to the imagination, which, "beholding the beauty of this order, created it out of itself according to its own idea."
If this, then, is the nature of Poetry in the widest sense, how does the poet, in the special sense, differ from other unusually creative souls? Not essentially in the inspiration and general substance of his poetry, but in the kind of expression he gives to them. In so far as he is a poet, his medium of expression, of course, is not virtue, or action, or law; poetry is one of the arts. And again, it differs from the rest, because its particular vehicle is language. We have now to see, therefore, what Shelley has to say of the form of poetry, and especially of poetic language.
First, he claims for language the highest place among the vehicles of artistic expression, on the ground that it is the most direct and also the most plastic. It is itself produced by imagination instead of being simply encountered by it, and it has no relation except to imagination; whereas any more material medium has a nature of its own, and relations to other things in the material world, and this nature and these relations intervene between the artist's conception and his expression of it in the medium. It is to the superiority of its vehicle that Shelley attributes the greater fame which poetry has always enjoyed as compared with other arts. He forgets (if I may interpose a word of criticism) that the media of the other arts have, on their side, certain advantages over language, and that these perhaps counterbalance the inferiority which he notices. He would also have found it difficult to show that language, on its physical side, is any more a product of imagination than stone or pigments. And his idea that the medium in the other arts is an obstacle intervening between conception and expression is, to say the least, one-sided. A sculptor, painter, or musician, would probably reply that it is only the qualities of his medium that enable him to express at all; that what he expresses is inseparable from the vehicle of expression; and that he has no conceptions which are not from the beginning sculpturesque, pictorial, or musical. It is true, no doubt, that the medium is an obstacle as well as a medium; but this is also true of language.
But to resume. Language, Shelley goes on to say, receives in poetry a peculiar form. As it represents in its meaning a perfection which is always an order, harmony, or rhythm, so it itself, as so much sound, is an order, harmony, or rhythm. It is measured language, which is not the proper vehicle for the mere recital of facts or for mere reasoning. For Shelley, however, this measured language is not of necessity metrical. The order or measure may remain at the stage which it reaches in beautiful prose, like that of Plato, the melody of whose language, Shelley declares, is the most intense it is possible to conceive. It may again advance to metre; and metrical form, according to Shelley, is convenient, popular, and preferable, especially in poetry containing much action. But he will not have any new great poet tied down to it. It is not essential, while measure is absolutely so. For it is no mere accident of poetry that its language is measured, nor does a delight in this measure mean little. As sensitiveness to the order of the relations of sounds is always connected with sensitiveness to the order of the relations of thoughts, so also the harmony of the words is scarcely less indispensable than their meaning to the communication of the influence of poetry. "Hence," says Shelley, "the vanity of translation: it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its colour and odour, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet." Strong words to come from the translator of the Hymn to Mercury and of Agathon's speech in the Symposium! And is not all that Shelley says of the difference between measured and unrhythmical language applicable, at least in some degree, to the difference between metrical and merely measured language? Could he really have supposed that metre is no more than a "convenience," which contributes nothing of any account to the influence of poetry? But I will not criticise. Let me rather point out how surprising, at first sight, and how significant, is Shelley's insistence on the importance of measure or rhythm. No one could assert more absolutely than he the identity of the general substance of poetry with that of moral life and action, of the other arts, and of the higher kinds of philosophy. And yet it would be difficult to go beyond the emphasis of his statement that the formal element (as he understood it) is indispensable to the effect of poetry.
Shelley, however, nowhere considers this element more at length. He has no discussions, like those of Wordsworth and Coleridge, on diction. He never says, with Keats, that he looks on fine phrases like a lover. We hear of his deep-drawn sigh of satisfaction as he finished reading a passage of Homer, but not of his shouting his delight as he ramped through the meadows of Spenser, at some marvellous flower. When in his letters he refers to any poem he is reading he scarcely ever mentions particular lines or expressions, and we have no evidence that, like Coleridge and Keats, he was a curious student of metrical effects or the relations of vowel-sounds. I doubt if all this is wholly accidental. Poetry was to him so essentially an effusion of aspiration, love and worship, that we can imagine his feeling it almost an impiety to break up its unity even for purposes of study, and to give a separate attention to its means of utterance. And what he does say on the subject confirms this impression. In the first place, as I have mentioned, he lays great stress on inspiration; and his statements, if exaggerated and misleading, must reflect in some measure his own experience. No poem, however inspired, is, he declares, more than a feeble shadow of the original conception; for when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline. And so in a letter he speaks of the detail of execution destroying all wild and beautiful visions. Still, inspiration, if it declines, does not depart; and he appeals to the greatest poets of his day whether it is not an error to assert that the finest passages of poetry are produced by labour and study. These have their place only in the parts which form a connection between the inspired passages, and he speaks with contempt of the fifty-six various readings of the first line of the Orlando Furioso. He seems to exaggerate on this matter because in the Defence his foe is cold reason and calculation. In other places he writes more truly of the original conception as being obscure as well as intense; from which it would seem to follow that the feeble shadow, if darker, is at least more distinct than the original. He forgets, too, what is certainly the fact, that the poet in reshaping and revising is able to reawaken in some degree the inspiration of the first impulse. And we know from himself that his greatest works cost him a severe labour not confined to the execution, while his manuscripts show plenty of various readings, if never so many as fifty-six in one line.
Still, what he says is highly characteristic of his own practice in composition. He allowed the rush of his ideas to have its way, without pausing to complete a troublesome line or find a word that did not come; and the next day (if ever) he filled up the gaps and smoothed the ragged edges. And the result answers to his theory. Keats was right in telling him that he might be more of an artist. His language, indeed, unlike Wordsworth's or Byron's, is always that of a poet; we never hear his mere speaking voice; but he is frequently diffuse and obscure, and even in fine passages his constructions are sometimes trailing and amorphous. The glowing metal rushes into the mould so vehemently that it overleaps the bounds and fails to find its way into all the little crevices. But no poetry is more manifestly inspired, and even when it is plainly imperfect it is sometimes so inspired that it is impossible to wish it changed. It has the rapture of the mystic, and that is too rare to lose. Tennyson quaintly said of the hymn "Life of Life": "He seems to go up into the air and burst." It is true: and, if we are to speak of poems as fireworks, I would not compare "Life of Life" with a great set piece of Homer or Shakespeare which illumines the whole sky; but, all the same, there is no more thrilling sight than the heavenward rush of a rocket, and it bursts at a height no other fire can reach.
In addition to his praise of inspiration Shelley has some scattered remarks on another point which show the same spirit. He could not bear in poetic style any approach to artifice, or any sign that the writer had a theory or system of style. He thought Keats's earlier poems faulty in this respect, and there is probably a reference to Wordsworth in the following sentence from the Preface to the Revolt of Islam: "Nor have I permitted any system relating to mere words to divert the attention of the reader, from whatever interest I may have succeeded in creating, to my own ingenuity in contriving,—to disgust him according to the rules of criticism. I have simply clothed my thoughts in what appeared to me the most obvious and appropriate language. A person familiar with nature, and with the most celebrated productions of the human mind, can scarcely err in following the instinct, with respect to selection of language, produced by that familiarity." His own poetic style certainly corresponds with his intention. It cannot give the kind of pleasure afforded by what may be called without disparagement a learned and artful style, such as Virgil's or Milton's; but, like the best writing of Shakespeare and Goethe, it is, with all its individuality, almost entirely free from mannerism and the other vices of self-consciousness, and appears to flow so directly from the thought that one is ashamed to admire it for itself. This is equally so whether the appropriate style is impassioned and highly figurative or simple and even plain. It is indeed in the latter case that Shelley wins his greatest, because most difficult, triumph. In the dialogue part of "Julian and Maddalo" he has succeeded remarkably in keeping the style quite close to that of familiar though serious conversation, while making it nevertheless unmistakably poetic. And the Cenci is an example of a success less complete only because the problem was even harder. The ideal of the style of tragic drama in the nineteenth or twentieth century should surely be, not to reproduce with modifications the style of Shakespeare, but to do what Shakespeare did—to idealise, without transforming, the language of contemporary speech. Shelley in the Cenci seems to me to have come nearest to this ideal.
So much for general exposition. If now we consider more closely what Shelley says of the substance of poetry, a question at once arises. He may seem to think of poetry solely as the direct expression of perfection in some form, and accordingly to think of its effect as simply joy or delighted aspiration. Much of his own poetry, too, is such an expression; and we understand when we find him saying that Homer embodied the ideal perfection of his age in human character, and unveiled in Achilles, Hector, and Ulysses "the truth and beauty of friendship, patriotism, and persevering devotion to an object." But poetry, it is obvious, is not wholly, perhaps not even mainly, of this kind. What is to be said, on Shelley's theory, of his own melancholy lyrics, those "sweetest songs" that "tell of saddest thought"? What of satire, or the epic of conflict and war, or of tragic exhibitions of violent and destructive passion? Does not his theory reflect the weakness of his own practice, his tendency to portray a thin and abstract ideal instead of interpreting the concrete detail of nature and life; and ought we not to oppose to it a theory which would consider poetry simply as a representation of fact?
To this last question I should answer No. Shelley's theory, rightly understood, will take in, I think, everything really poetic. And to a considerable extent he himself shows the way to meet these doubts. He did not mean that the immediate subject of poetry must be perfection in some form. The poet, he says, can colour with the hues of the ideal everything he touches. If so, he may write of absolutely anything so long as he can so colour it, and nothing would be excluded from his province except such things, if such exist, in which no positive relation to the ideal, however indirect, can be shown or intimated. Thus, to take the instance of Shelley's melancholy lyrics, clearly the lament which arises from loss of the ideal, and mourns the evanescence of its visitations or the desolation of its absence, is indirectly an expression of the ideal; and so on. Shelley's theory is the simplest song of unhappy love or the simplest dirge. Further, he himself observes that, though the joy of poetry is often unalloyed, yet the pleasure of the "highest portions of our being is frequently connected with the pain of the inferior," that "the pleasure that is in sorrow is sweeter than the pleasure of pleasure itself," and that not sorrow only, but "terror, anguish, despair itself, are often the chosen expressions of an approximation to the highest good." That, then, which appeals poetically to such painful emotions will again be an indirect portrayal of the ideal; and it is clear, I think, that this was how Shelley in the Defence regarded heroic and tragic poetry, whether narrative or dramatic, with its manifestly imperfect characters and its exhibition of conflict and wild passion. He had, it is true, another and an unsatisfactory way of explaining the presence of these things in poetry; and I will refer to this in a moment. But he tells us that the Athenian tragedies represent the highest idealisms (his name for ideals) of passion and of power (not merely of virtue); and that in them we behold ourselves, "under a thin disguise of circumstance, stripped of all but that ideal perfection and energy which every one feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires, and would become." He writes of Milton's Satan in somewhat the same strain. The Shakespearean tragedy from which he most often quotes is one in which evil holds the stage, Macbeth; and he was inclined to think King Lear, which certainly is no direct portrait of perfection, the greatest drama in the world. Lastly, in the Preface to his own Cenci he truly says that the story is fearful and monstrous, but that "the poetry which exists in these tempestuous sufferings and crimes," if duly brought out, "mitigates the pain of the contemplation of moral deformity": so that he regards Count Cenci himself as a poetic character, and therefore as in some sense an expression of the ideal. He does not further explain his meaning. Perhaps it was that the perfection which poetry is to exhibit includes, together with those qualities which win our immediate and entire approval, others which are capable of becoming the instruments of evil. For these, the energy, power and passion of the soul, though they may be perverted, are in themselves elements of perfection; and so, even in their perversion or their combination with moral deformity, they retain their value, they are not simply ugly or horrible, but appeal through emotions predominantly painful to the same love of the ideal which is directly satisfied by pictures of goodness and beauty. Now to these various considerations we shall wish to add others; but if we bear these in mind, I believe we shall find Shelley's theory wide enough, and must hold that the substance of poetry is never mere fact, but is always ideal, though its method of representation is sometimes more direct, sometimes more indirect.
Nevertheless, he does not seem to have made his view quite clear to himself, or to hold to it consistently. We are left with the impression, not merely that he personally preferred the direct method (as he was, of course, entitled to do), but that his use of it shows a certain weakness, and also that even in theory he unconsciously tends to regard it as the primary and proper method, and to admit only by a reluctant after-thought the representation of imperfection. Let me point out some signs of this. He considered his own Cenci as a poem inferior in kind to his other main works, even as a sort of accommodation to the public. With all his modesty he knew what to think of the neglected Prometheus and Adonaïs, but there is no sign that he, any more than the world, was aware that the character of Cenci was a creation without a parallel in our poetry since the seventeenth century. His enthusiasm for some second-rate and third-rate Italian paintings, and his failure to understand Michael Angelo, seem to show the same tendency. He could not enjoy comedy: it seemed to him simply cruel: he did not perceive that to show the absurdity of the imperfect is to glorify the perfect. And, as I mentioned just now, he wavers in his view of the representation of heroic and tragic imperfection. We find in the Preface to Prometheus Unbound the strange notion that Prometheus is a more poetic character than Milton's Satan, because he is free from Satan's imperfections, which are said to interfere with the interest. And in the Defence a similar error appears. Achilles, Hector, Ulysses, though they exhibit ideal virtues, are, he admits, imperfect. Why, then, did Homer make them so? Because, he seems to reply, Homer's contemporaries regarded their vices (e.g. revengefulness and deceitfulness) as virtues. Homer accordingly had to conceal in the costume of these vices the unspotted beauty that he himself imagined; and, like Homer, "few poets of the highest class have chosen to exhibit the beauty of their conceptions in its naked truth and splendour." Now, this idea, to say nothing of its grotesque improbability in reference to Homer, and its probable baselessness in reference to most other poets, is quite inconsistent with that truer view of heroic and tragic character which was explained just now. It is an example of Shelley's tendency to abstract idealism or spurious Platonism. He is haunted by the fancy that if he could only get at the One, the eternal Idea, in complete aloofness from the Many, from life with all its change, decay, struggle, sorrow and evil, he would have reached the true object of poetry: as if the whole finite world were a mere mistake or illusion, the sheer opposite of the infinite One, and in no way or degree its manifestation. Life, he says—
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity;
but the other side, the fact that the many colours are the white light broken, he tends to forget, by no means always, but in one, and that not the least inspired, of his moods. This is the source of that thinness and shallowness of which his view of the world and of history is justly accused, a view in which all imperfect being is apt to figure as absolutely gratuitous, and everything and everybody as pure white or pitch black. Hence also his ideals of good, whether as a character or as a mode of life, resting as they do on abstraction from the mass of real existence, tend to lack body and individuality; and indeed, if the existence of the many is a mere calamity, clearly the next best thing to their disappearance is that they should all be exactly alike, and have as little character as possible. But we must remember that Shelley's strength and weakness are closely allied, and it may be that the very abstractness of his ideal was a condition of that quivering intensity of aspiration towards it in which Shelley's poetry is unequalled. We must not go for this to Homer and Shakespeare and Goethe; and if we go for it to Dante, we shall find, indeed, a mind far vaster than Shelley's, but that very dualism of which we complain in him, and the description of a heaven which, equally with Shelley's regenerated earth, is no place for mere mortality. In any case, as we have seen, although the weakness in his poetical practice occasionally appears also as a defect in his poetical theory, it is no necessary part of that theory.
I pass to his views on a last point. If the business of poetry is somehow to express ideal perfection, it may seem to follow that the poet should embody in his poems his beliefs about this perfection and the way to approach it, and should thus have a moral purpose and aim to be a teacher. And in regard to Shelley this conclusion seems the more natural because his own poetry allows us to see clearly some of his beliefs about morality and moral progress. Yet alike in his Prefaces and in the Defence he takes up most decidedly the position that the poet ought neither to affect a moral aim nor to express his own conceptions of right and wrong. "Didactic poetry," he declares, "is my abhorrence: nothing can be equally well expressed in prose that is not tedious and supererogatory in verse." "There was little danger," he tells us, "that Homer or any of the eternal poets" should make a mistake in this matter; but "those in whom the poetical faculty, though great, is less intense, as Euripides, Lucan, Tasso, Spenser, have frequently affected a moral aim, and the effect of their poetry is diminished in exact proportion to the degree in which they compel us to advert to this purpose." These statements may appeal to us, but are they consistent with Shelley's main views of poetry? To answer this question we must observe what exactly it is that he means to condemn.
Shelley was one of the few persons who can literally be said to love their kind. He held most strongly, too, that poetry does benefit men, and benefits them morally. The moral purpose, then, to which he objects cannot well be a poet's general purpose of doing moral as well as other good through his poetry—such a purpose, I mean, as he may cherish when he contemplates his life and his life's work. And, indeed, it seems obvious that nobody with any humanity or any sense can object to that, except through some intellectual confusion. Nor does Shelley mean, I think, to condemn even the writing of a particular poem with a view to a particular moral or practical effect; certainly, at least, if this was his meaning he was condemning some of his own poetry. Again, he cannot be referring to the portrayal of moral ideals, for that he regarded as one of the main functions of poetry; and in the very place where he says that didactic poetry is his abhorrence he also says, by way of contrast, that he has tried to familiarise the minds of his readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence. It appears, therefore, that what he is really attacking is the attempt to give, in the strict sense, moral instruction, to communicate doctrines, to offer argumentative statements of opinion on right and wrong, and more especially, I think, on controversial questions of the day. An example would be Wordsworth's discourse on education at the end of the Excursion, a discourse of which Shelley, we know, had a very low opinion. In short, his enemy is not the purpose of producing a moral effect, it is the appeal made for this purpose to the reasoning intellect. In effect he says to the poet: By all means aim at bettering men; you are a man, and are bound to do so; but you are also a poet, and therefore your proper way of doing so is not by reasoning and preaching. His idea is of a piece with his general championship of imagination, and it is quite consistent with his main view of poetry.
What, then, are the grounds of this position? They are not clearly set out, but we can trace several, and they are all solid. Reasoning on moral subjects, moral philosophy, was by no means "tedious" to Shelley; it seldom is to real poets. He loved it, and (outside his Defence) he rated its value very high. But he thought it tedious and out of place in poetry, because it can be equally well expressed in "unmeasured" language—much better expressed, one may venture to add. You invent an art in order to effect by it a particular purpose which nothing else can effect as well. How foolish, then, to use this art for a purpose better served by something else! I know no answer to this argument, and its application is far wider than that given to it by Shelley. Secondly, Shelley remarks that a poet's own conceptions on moral subjects are usually those of his place and time, while the matter of his poem ought to be eternal, or, as we say, of permanent and universal interest. This, again, seems true, and has a wide application; and it holds good even when the poet, like Shelley himself, is in rebellion against orthodox moral opinion; for his heterodox opinions will equally show the marks of his place and time, and constitute a perishable element in his work. Doubtless no poetry can be without a perishable element; but that poetry has least of it which interprets life least through the medium of systematic and doctrinal ideas. The veil which time and place have hung between Homer and Shakespeare and the general reader of to-day is almost transparent, while even a poetry so intense as that of Dante and Milton is impeded in its passage to him by systems which may be unfamiliar, and, if familiar, may be distasteful.
Lastly—and this is Shelley's central argument—as poetry itself is due to imaginative inspiration and not to reasoning, so its true moral effect is produced through imagination and not through doctrine. Imagination is, for Shelley, "the great instrument of moral good." The "secret of morals is love." It is not "for want of admirable doctrines that men hate and despise and censure and deceive and subjugate one another": it is for want of love. And love is "a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action or person not our own." "A man," therefore, "to be greatly good must imagine intensely and comprehensively." And poetry ministers to moral good, the effect, by acting on its cause, imagination. It strengthens imagination as exercise strengthens a limb, and so it indirectly promotes morality. It also fills the imagination with beautiful impersonations of all that we should wish to be. But moral reasoning does not act upon the cause, it only analyses the effect. And the poet has no right to be content to analyse what he ought indirectly to create. Here, again, in his eagerness, Shelley cuts his antitheses too clean, but the defect is easily made good, and the main argument is sound.
Limits of time will compel me to be guilty of the same fault in adding a consideration which is in the spirit of Shelley's. The chief moral effect claimed for poetry by Shelley is exerted, primarily, by imagination on the emotions; but there is another, exerted primarily through imagination on the understanding. Poetry is largely an interpretation of life; and, considering what life is, that must mean a moral interpretation. This, to have poetic value, must satisfy imagination; but we value it also (and, let me add, we value it as poetry the more) because it gives us knowledge, a wider comprehension, a new insight into ourselves and the world. Now, it may be held—and this view answers to a very general feeling among lovers of poetry now—that the most deep and original moral interpretation is not likely to be that which most shows a moral purpose or is most governed by reflective beliefs and opinions, and that as a rule we learn most from those who do not try to teach us, and whose opinions may even remain unknown to us: so that there is this weighty objection to the appearance of such purpose and opinions, that it tends to defeat its own intention. And the reason that I wish to suggest is this, that always we get most from the genius in a man of genius and not from the rest of him. Now, although poets often have unusual powers of reflective thought, the specific genius of a poet does not lie there, but in imagination. Therefore his deepest and most original interpretation is likely to come by the way of imagination. And the specific way of imagination is not to clothe in imagery consciously held ideas; it is to produce half-consciously a matter from which, when produced, the reader may extract ideas. Poetry (I must exaggerate to be clear), psychologically considered, is not the expression of ideas or of a view of life: it is their discovery or creation, or rather both discovery and creation in one. The interpretation contained in Hamlet or King Lear was not brought ready-made to the old stories. What was brought to them was the huge substance of Shakespeare's imagination, in which all his experience and thought was latent; and this, dwelling and working on the stories with nothing but a dramatic purpose, and kindling into heat and motion, gradually discovered or created in them a meaning and a mass of truth about life, which was brought to birth by the process of composition, but never preceded it in the shape of ideas, and probably never, even after it, took that shape to the poet's mind. And this is the interpretation which we find inexhaustibly instructive, because Shakespeare's genius is in it. On the other hand, however much from curiosity and personal feeling towards him we may wish to know his opinions and beliefs about morals or religion or his own poems or Queen Elizabeth, we have not really any reason to suppose that their value would prove extraordinary. And so, to apply this generally, the opinions, reasonings and beliefs of poets are seldom of the same quality as their purely imaginative product. Occasionally, as with Goethe, they are not far off it; but sometimes they are intense without being profound, and more eccentric than original; and often they are very sane and sound, but not very different from those of wise men without genius. And therefore poetry is not the place for them. For we want in poetry a moral interpretation, but not the interpretation we have already. As a rule the genuine artist's quarrel with "morality" in art is not really with morality, it is with a stereotyped or narrow morality; and when he refuses in his art to consider things from what he calls the moral point of view, his reasons are usually wrong, but his instinct is right.
Poetry itself confirms on the whole this contention, though doubtless in these last centuries a great poet's work will usually reveal more of conscious reflection than once it did. Homer and Shakespeare show no moral aim and no system of opinion. Milton was far from justifying the ways of God to men by the argumentation he put into divine and angelic lips; his truer moral insight is in the creations of his genius, e.g. the character of Satan or the picture of the glorious humanity of Adam and Eve. Goethe himself could never have told the world what he was going to express in the first part of Faust: the poem told him, and it is one of the world's greatest. He knew too well what he was going to express in the second part, and with all its wisdom and beauty it is scarcely a great poem. Wordsworth's original message was delivered, not when he was a Godwinian semi-atheist nor when he had subsided upon orthodoxy, but when his imagination, with a few hints from Coleridge, was creating a kind of natural religion; and this religion itself is more profoundly expressed in his descriptions of his experience than in his attempts to formulate it. The moral virtue of Tennyson is in poems like "Ulysses" and parts of "In Memoriam" where sorrow and the consciousness of a deathless affection or an unquenchable desire for experience forced an utterance; but he succeeded only partially when in the Idylls he tried to found a great poem on explicit ideas about the soul and the ravages wrought in it by lawless passion, because these ideas, however sound, were no product of his genius; and so the moral virtue of Shelley's poetry lay, not in his doctrines about the past and future of man, but in an intuition, which was the substance of his soul, of the unique value of love. In the end, for him, the truest name of that perfection called Intellectual Beauty, Liberty, Spirit of Nature, is Love. Whatever in the world has any worth is an expression of Love. Love sometimes talks. Love talking musically is Poetry.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6736
SOURCE: "Platonism in Shelley," in Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, Vol. 4, 1913, pp. 72–100.
[In the following excerpt, Winstanley discusses the Platonic elements in Shelley's works.]
Shelley was by nature one of the most studious of all English poets; from his Oxford days onwards Greek was his favourite reading and for Plato he had a natural affinity of mind. Hogg says of him:
It is no exaggeration to affirm that, out of the twenty-four hours, he frequently read sixteen…. Few were aware of the extent and still fewer of the profundity of his reading; in his short life and without ostentation he had in truth read more Greek than many an aged pedant…. A pocket edition of Plato, of Plutarch, of Euripides, without interpretation or notes … was his ordinary companion, and he read the text straightforward for hours.
Shelley's intellectual attitude and development can be best understood if we remember that he found his sustenance mainly in two types of authors; in the Materialist writers who prepared the way for the French Revolution—D'Alembert, Helvétius, Voltaire, Cabanis, &c.,—and in the Greek tragedians and Plato.
There is, of course, an enormous difference between the scientific agnosticism of the eighteenth century and the idealism of Plato; in his youth Shelley does not seem to have been able to choose between the two systems; in Queen Mab, for instance, Voltairean scepticism and Platonic idealism lie side by side in curious incongruity, and Shelley seems unaware of the extreme self-contradictions involved in his thought. As he advances in life, however, he becomes more and more a Platonist; in the revised version of Queen Mab entitled 'The Daemon of the World', the thought is purely Platonic, and scientific materialism, always alien to his true temper, became by degrees impossible to him; in the year of his death he wrote: 'The doctrines of the French and material philosophy are as false as they are pernicious.'
None the less, in certain respects, Shelley's revolutionary theories and his Platonism were not at all antagonistic: it should not be forgotten that the thinkers who brought about the French Revolution, indeed the very members of the Tiers État themselves, found their inspiration very largely in the institutions of Greece and Rome, were always quoting classical authors, even those but little known to-day, and followed or tried to follow Greek and Roman ideals of society, while the French Revolution itself was the most striking attempt ever recorded in history to re-model a great and important state on a philosophic basis; the French Revolution might almost have been defined as an attempt to turn from a feudal constitution of society to a classical one. The very thoroughness with which the process of reconstruction was attempted suggests to us such schemes as that of Plato's Republic, which hardly differed from existing Hellenic states (i.e. Sparta) more than the new France, desired and partly achieved by the revolutionaries, differed from the France of the preceding centuries.
Modern critics are often alienated from Shelley by what appears to them the wildness of his social and ethical speculations, but they should remember that, in the poet's era, speculations no less remarkable had been made the very foundation of vast social experiments. Again, many readers are exasperated by Shelley's daring departures from accepted conventions on the subject of sex, and are inclined in consequence to accuse him of being, in all such matters, mentally morbid and unsound. They do not remember that Shelley is the disciple of the thinker who was, above all others, most daring in such speculations; Shelley's innovations, excepting only in The Revolt of Islam, are unimportant compared with the audacity of the Republic and the Symposium. Plato, indeed, is remarkable among philosophers for his union of moral and ethical fineness with extreme daring in moral speculation, and this union is just as characteristic of the disciple Shelley as it is of the master.
We may perhaps divide the ideas which Shelley borrows from Plato into four main groups: (1) General religious and philosophical ideas; (2) Cosmic speculations; (3) Social and political ideas; (4) The theory of love.
In dealing with the first group it becomes at once evident that Shelley's religious system is, speaking generally, rather Greek and Platonic than Christian or Biblical. Shelley was one of those to whom the Hebraic ideal appears naturally repugnant, his antipathy to it being as innate as Milton's sympathy. He disliked narrow-mindedness and exclusiveness, he disliked all kinds of formalism, he had the Greek detestation of priestcraft, severity of all kinds he abhorred and severity in morals appeared to him a contradiction in terms; the Jehovah of the Bible he not merely repudiates as an object of worship, he goes much further, and takes Jehovah as a supreme example of the worst type of moral evil. In Queen Mab he says of the temple at Jerusalem, in language whose anger has robbed it of all semblance of poetry:
In Prometheus Unbound Jupiter symbolizes all these religions of fear and terror which, originally given power by the mind of man (Prometheus) now tyrannize over and torture it, and the faith of the Bible is eminent among them; it is probably that
Dark yet mighty faith, a power as wide
As is the world it wasted.
Shelley had no more sympathy with modern Hebraism than with ancient Hebraism. He loved Milton, since Milton was a Republican and a daring speculator in morals, but he declares [in Defence of Poetry]: 'Milton's Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture, is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments.'
Nor was this all! Shelley not only disliked Hebraism but—a much more serious loss—he was bitterly opposed to Christianity. There may have been nothing of the ancient Hebrew in his temperament, but there was certainly a great deal of the Christian, for he has many affinities even with St. Francis. But the school of thinkers whom Shelley so greatly admired—those of the Voltairean tradition—were opposed, quite inevitably, to historical Christianity. 'Let us not forget', says Lord Morley, 'that what Catholicism was accomplishing in France in the first half of the eighteenth century, was really not anything less momentous than the slow strangling of French civilization.' Their motto of 'Écrasez l'infâme' was, under the circumstances, unescapable. Shelley inherited from them this abhorrence: historical Christianity is to him always detestable. In Prometheus Unbound he carefully distinguishes between the character of Christ, the most nobly beautiful that has ever appeared upon earth, and the horrible superstition which has perverted his teaching into one of the worst agents of evil.
One came forth of gentle worth
Smiling on the sanguine earth;
His words outlived him, like swift poison
Withering up truth, peace, and pity,
… Hark that outcry of despair!
'Tis his mild and gentle ghost
Wailing for the faith he kindled.
It was in this sense no doubt—because he hated established religions—that Shelley called himself an atheist, but the whole structure of his mind was essentially religious. His religion was, however, Platonic both in its excellences and in what some might term its defects. Shelley like Plato believes in a supreme Power; it is beyond and above the world but also within, at once immanent and transcendent; it works from within the world, struggling with the obstructions of matter, transforming matter and moulding it to Its will. Like Plato, Shelley is vividly conscious of the unity of the world and of all life, and the underlying spirit, though it reveals itself in many forms, is everywhere and essentially the same. Plato contemplates it sometimes as the One in distinction to the many, sometimes as the supreme Good rising above all lesser goods, sometimes as the supreme Wisdom, sometimes as the supreme Beauty above all lesser beauties. Shelley too celebrates this spirit in many different ways. With him also it is the One in contradistinction to the many:
The One remains, the many change and pass.
It is immanent in the world and yet transcendent; it is that Power
Which wields the world with never-wearied Love
Sustains it from beneath and kindles it above.
In the very language of the Symposium Shelley describes it as the forming and formative spirit which compels matter to its will:
It is the supreme Love above all other loves, which is represented (again in the language of the Symposium) as being excellent only in proportion as they reflect it:
It is also (as in the Phaedrus) the supreme Wisdom.
Wisdom! thy irresistible children rise
To hail thee, and the elements they chain
And their own will to swell the glory of thy train.
O Spirit vast and deep as Night and Heaven!
Mother and soul of all to which is given
The light of life, the loveliness of being.
[Revolt of Islam]
As is the case with Plato, Shelley's conception of the Supreme is much less anthropomorphic and personal than the God of the Bible. Another point of importance is that both Plato and Shelley lay hold of the idea of Deity largely from the aesthetic side. The God of the Bible is preeminently a moral ruler, a just and stern judge. Plato, loving as few men have ever loved the glorious beauty of the visible world, admires most in the Creator the element of beauty; in the Symposium the supreme vision, the highest good, is represented as the culminating point of an ascent through different stages of aesthetic perception….
[Shelley's] favourite method of approach to the supreme Power is the aesthetic one; it is the Intellectual Beauty of his early 'Hymn':
Sudden thy shadow fell on me;
I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!
I vowed that I would dedicate my powers
To thee and thine—have I not kept the vow?
Again in Epipsychidion he speaks of Emily's beauty as being
In Adonais it is
That beauty in which all things work and move.
Again it should be noted that, as with Plato, Shelley's God is only doubtfully omnipotent; Plato does not appear to solve to his own satisfaction the problem of evil; faced with the dilemma that either 'He is not good or not omnipotent', Plato decides for the latter half of the dilemma and limits his Deity's omnipotence. In his later works, at least, he speaks as if there were a powerful spirit of evil interfering with the Supreme and marring its work. In the Timaeus the God of goodness has not merely helpers and subordinates but mighty opponents. In the Laws the beneficent principle of the world is matched against an evil principle which possesses contrary powers. In the Statesman we find it asserted that the evil principle at times prevails, and periods of universal disorder are said to alternate with orderly periods in which the divine goodness reigns without limitation or check. Plato even speaks occasionally as if matter were itself evil and responded with difficulty to the formative influence of the primal power.
Now in all this Shelley follows him. In The Revolt of Islam the whole poem illustrates the conflict between the powers of good and those of evil, symbolized by the fight between the eagle and the snake, the eagle being emblematic of evil and the snake of good. When Laon passes to heaven he stands
Before the immortal Senate, and the seat
Of that star-shining spirit …
The better Genius of the world's estate.
Moreover, in the same poem, the spirit of evil triumphs for a time—one of Plato's periods of disorder—since it has been aided by man, who has lent it power:
Well might men loathe their life …
For they all pined in bondage; body and soul,
Tyrant and slave, victim and torturer, bent
Before one Power, to which supreme controul
Over their will by their own weapons lent,
Made all its many names omnipotent.
This same conception—of the power for good struggling against and almost overcome by the power for evil—appears in Prometheus Unbound. Thus in the speech of Asia:
How glorious art thou, Earth! And if thou be
The shadow of some spirit lovelier still,
Though evil stain its work and it should be
Like its creation, weak yet beautiful.
In both poems the forces of evil not only predominate but predominate so far that, by the mass of mankind, they are worshipped as deities. In Prometheus Unbound (as in Plato's Statesman) the universe after a time purifies itself from this evil, and the divine goodness reigns without limitation or check.
The Greek legend of a preceding Golden Age—a reign of Saturn—is taken by Shelley as referring to a previous period of order before disorder began:
There was the Heaven and Earth at first
And light and love.
The period of 'disorder' succeeds and then the spirit of good once more becomes clearly and plainly predominant. Asia (typifying love) grows more and more beautiful. Panthea says to her:
The whole of the fourth Act is a celebration of this new reign of joy in man and nature. As the Spirits sing,
And the Semichorus sings of—
The Spirits which build a new earth and sea
And a heaven where yet heaven could never be.
Plato's idea of alternating periods of order and disorder is also utilized by Shelley in the great chorus of Hellas:
Just as Shelley is Platonic in his view of the Supreme so also he is Platonic in his conception of the soul and of the world to which the soul inherently belongs. Plato gives, of course, many different points of view. In some dialogues (Apology) he appears doubtful of the immortality of the soul, in others (Phaedo) he is practically certain of immortality but not quite clear as to the method or manner; in others again (Meno and Phaedrus) he develops his famous theories concerning the pre-existence of the soul and its reincarnation. In the Phaedrus he explains that the soul comes many times upon earth; in the intervals between its various lives it dwells in a heaven-world and, returning to the body, brings back with it prenatal memories.
Shelley, like his master, fluctuates in his belief concerning immortality; but he is, on the whole, much less assured and confident than Plato; he never seems to attain to the serene certainty of the Meno and Phaedrus. Both Plato and Shelley take what is essentially a spiritual view of the heaven-world; it represents to them a temper of mind, a condition of soul; only the pure can attain to the highest heaven, because only the pure have sufficient affinity with it; its very scenery is mind-stuff and soul-stuff; for this reason it is, as contrasted with the earth, an abode of greater reality; it is not so much another sphere, another world, as the true essence and real being of this; the soul having attained the heaven-world, is delivered from the darkness and 'errors' of the body; it beholds things as they really and essentially are and not the mere reflections of them which are all that we, in this world of matter, can ever hope to attain….
All men do not easily recall the things of the other world; they may have seen them for a short time only, or they may have been unfortunate when they fell to earth, and may have lost the memory of the holy things which they saw there through some evil and corrupting association.
The colourless and formless and intangible essence and only reality dwells encircled by true knowledge in this home, visible to the mind alone who is lord of the soul … knowledge absolute in existence absolute. [Phaedrus]
We find this conception in scores of passages in Shelley:
The painted veil which those who live call life.
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity
Until death tramples it to fragments. [Adonais]
Plato is always conscious of the life of the body as being, in comparison with the life of the soul, a mere darkness; in the unforgettable allegory of the Cave in the Republic he likens the whole race of men to beings imprisoned in a cave, weighted with chains, who have never beheld any true realities but only the shadows of such realities thrown vaguely upon a wall.
This allegory haunted Shelley; he wrote a poem (unfinished) upon the subject:
A portal as of shadowy adamant
Stands yawning on the highway of the life
Which we all tread, a cavern huge and great.
In the Triumph of Life he says—
Again, in Hellas he speaks of a joy which
Burst, like morning on dream, or like Heaven on death
Through the walls of our prison.
And again he speaks of himself as a sprite—
Imprisoned for no fault of his
In a body like a grave. ['With a Guitar']
Plato's idea of pre-existence is a fairly frequent one in Shelley:
Sometimes Shelley refers only to pre-existence in a heaven-world (Epipsychidion), sometimes to re-incarnation or the succession of births and deaths:
Or again (in Prince Athanase):—
Memories of an ante-natal life
Made this, where now he dwelt, a penal hell.
The same conception is used to shed an unearthly light over the dreadful character of Cenci:
I do not feel as if I were a man
But like a fiend appointed to chastise
The offences of some unremembered world.
Sometimes he trifles with it delicately:
Your guardian spirit, Ariel, who
From life to life, must still pursue
Your happiness. ['With a Guitar']
Both Plato and Shelley admit into their heaven-world, as one of its chief delights, intercourse with the souls of the great dead. In the Apology Socrates inquires 'What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer?'
So in Adonais Shelley represents his dead poet as meeting with the souls of those who also were gifted and unfortunate and perished young:
And in The Revolt of Islam the hero and heroine are welcomed by the noble dead:
Beneath, there sate on many a sapphire throne,
The Great, who had departed from mankind.
Both Plato and Shelley, though their view of heaven is essentially a spiritual one, do at times express it by means of popular myths, such as the one given in the Gorgias or (in the Republic) the wonderful vision of Er the Armenian. Shelley gives an Elysium in the close of The Revolt of Islam, The consideration of Plato's heaven leads us to what is his chief characteristic as a thinker: the extraordinary tenacity with which he lays hold upon the world of mind; to him the world of sense, vividly as he apprehends it, is always less real, less emphatically existent than the supersensuous world; it always appears as if to him 'mindstuff were the essential material of the universe. The common man feels as if the objects of sense were the realities and all mental things 'abstractions'; to Plato the things of the mind are the only true realities, and matter is, in comparison, 'the dream and the shade'. No one has apprehended the splendour of the outer world more fully than he, but, nevertheless, he regarded it in all its magnificent variety, as being only a dull copy of certain divine ideas which, in their eternal beauty, could be seen and realized only with the eyes of the soul. He dwells, by preference, amid abstractions: they are for him a world in themselves—brighter, more vivid, more beautiful and, above all, more real than the world of so-called reality.
Now Shelley exactly resembles Plato in this: the supersensuous world is always more real to him than the one of which he can with bodily fingers lay hold; this is the cause of that extreme 'tenuity' which so many of his critics have blamed in his poetry. It is noticeable that he does not, like most poets, illustrate mental processes by physical parallels, but the reverse. As he says himself in the preface to Prometheus Unbound: 'The imagery which I have employed will be found, in many instances, to have been drawn from the operations of the human mind or from those external actions by which they are expressed.'
In Hellas he describes 'thought' as the most enduring thing upon earth:
Before passing to Plato's theories concerning ethics and man in society it may be as well to pause for a moment over his cosmic speculations; these, to modern readers, seem mainly curiosities, but they are worthy of note as they had a considerable influence upon Shelley.
In the Timaeus Plato teaches that the entire universe is the self-evolution of an absolute intelligence; thinking in accordance with the laws of its own perfection, it creates and animates the universe. All parts of this universe are inspired by their own intelligences: the sun is the visible embodiment of the supreme spirit; the planets are all divine or are under the guidance of divine spirits; Plato speaks of the 'souls' of the seven planets; the Earth also is a divine being.
Shelley has embodied all these conceptions in his poetry. In the 'Hymn to Apollo' he shows a truly Greek and Platonic feeling for the sun as the chief source to the universe, not of light and of force only but also of intelligence:
Prometheus Unbound is full of Platonic imagery concerning the soul of the Earth and the souls of the planets. The Earth takes a real part in the action of the drama; as is the case with Plato, Shelley is not quite clear whether the Earth herself is living or whether she is inspired by a spirit.
Thus, in the first Act, it is the Earth herself who lives and converses:
She speaks of joy as running through all her 'stony veins' at the birth of Prometheus, and of her whole existence becoming poisoned by anger when Jupiter tortures him. As in the Timaeus, all those various existences which are contained in the Earth are only the transformations of the same soul of the world acting upon the same matter. In the fourth Act, however, the Earth is considered in its cosmic aspect, as not being in itself alive but inspired by a planetary spirit. Ione says:
and Panthea replies:
In the fourth act of Prometheus Unbound, Shelley, in the most magical way, blends his Platonism with the ideas of modern astronomy. In the Timaeus the law of gravitation is explained by Plato as being not only an attraction of lesser bodies to greater, but as having a magnetic power. Shelley avails himself of this idea: the Moon and the Earth he represents as living spirits, and the force of gravity which binds them together as the magnetic attraction of their love; the moon circles ever around the earth:
Gazing, an insatiate bride,
On thy form from every side.
In the same way as Plato in the Timaeus, Shelley represents the universe as being a congeries of intelligences of all grades
With regard to man's nature and general position in society, Shelley again shows certain resemblances to Plato. Plato's most scientific division of man's nature is the triple one of the Republic: into the rational and appetitive souls and the body. More usually, however, Plato speaks as if man were a dualism; like most men of strong passions, he is keenly conscious of the 'war in his members'; the famous allegory in the Phaedrus of the dark horse and the white horse, the one struggling against the other, represents a mood which is predominant in him. He would have found it difficult to say with Browning's Rabbi:
Nor soul helps flesh now more than flesh helps soul.
Shelley, also, is conscious of a similar dualism. In his Prometheus Unbound it forms positively the leading idea: Prometheus is the soul of man, his mind, noble and suffering; in Jupiter is exemplified the baser side of man, his lusts and concupiscence, his errors of mind and his sins of body. Prometheus—the intellect—has originally given power to Jupiter—the ancient religions, harsh superstitions and cruel faiths which, thus enthroned, have countenanced all lusts, persecutions and abominations, and tortured the nobler part of man; this nobler part endures in desolate protest unyielding and therefore finally triumphant. The action of Prometheus Unbound is essentially a mental action which explains why so many people fail to understand it as action at all, and why to Shelley it seems all-sufficient; Jupiter, it has been pointed out, does not really resist, when his hour has struck he sinks and falls; but, according to Shelley's thought, there has been, in reality, a long conflict—the good principle has struggled for ages against the evil one—and the passing away of Jupiter marks, in fact, the passing of an obsession from man's mind. The condition of man's soul at the beginning of the drama is like that of the 'unjust man' as described in the Republic, where all the lower principles are predominant.
We have pointed out that Plato's view of the supreme Being is a more 'aesthetic' one than that taken by the Christian religion; in the same way his view of morals is largely aesthetic, in the Republic he explains how virtue is a harmony and vice a disharmony of the soul, and how disgrace and dishonour attach to a character in which the lower principles predominate. This aesthetic view of virtue is quite consistent with the greatest nobility of ethic ideal; thus in the Gorgias Plato makes Socrates maintain that the unjust man, however triumphant, is less happy than the just, that it is better to suffer the cruellest injustice rather than to injure others. Socrates affirms that the wrong-doer is punished by his own soul which becomes wretched; he suffers from an ever-increasing accumulation of misery and sin.
So in Shelley's Prometheus the Furies are represented as utterly miserable, while Prometheus amid his tortures can still pity them:
I weigh not what ye do, but what ye suffer,
Being evil. Cruel was the power which called
You, or aught else so wretched, into light.
Plato thinks the possession of arbitrary power the most corrupting influence to which the soul of man can possibly be subject: he has all the usual Greek hatred of the tyrant but intensified to the utmost degree; in the Republic he gives a frightful picture of the soul of the tyrant:
He is the natural enemy of all who are high-minded, are valiant, who are wise or wealthy; he enslaves his fellow-citizens, and is surrounded with a body-guard of the abject. The tyrant is drunken, lustful and passionate; his desires are like young ravens crying aloud for food: he will destroy even his parents to gratify his lust: he will commit the foulest murder and eat forbidden food, or be guilty of any other horrid act. His rabble are thieves, burglars, and cut-purses; tyrants will associate only with their own flatterers and tools, and are never the friends of anybody; they are treacherous and unjust; they are the very type of the worst men who have ever appeared upon earth and, just as they are the wickedest, so also they are the most miserable; a city which is enslaved by a tyrant is in the most miserable condition, full of fear, lamentation and pain. The tyrant grows worse and worse from possessing power—more jealous, more faithless, and more impious; supremely miserable, he makes every one else miserable also.
This appalling picture of the tyrant is repeatedly copied by Shelley. In The Revolt of Islam the whole land is a desolation because governed by tyrants:—
The tyrant's guards resistance yet maintain,
Fearless, and fierce, and hard as beasts of blood,
They stand a speck amid the peopled plain;
Carnage and ruin have been made their food
From infancy—ill has become their good.
He describes the king:
the King, with gathered brow, and lips
Wreathed by long scorn, did inly sneer and frown
With hue like that when some great painter dips
His pencil in the gloom of earthquake and eclipse.
The tyrant is also full of treachery, and, even after he has sworn peace with the rebels, he betrays them and prevails upon his fellow tyrants to dispatch him soldiers:
… from the utmost realms of earth, came pouring
The banded slaves whom every despot sent
At that throned traitor's summons.
Jupiter again, among his other meanings, is a type of the tyrant, and the tortures he inflicts upon his noble victim are the natural result of his 'ill tyranny'.
Such is the tyrant's recompense; 'tis just!
He who is evil can receive no good,
And for a world bestowed, or a friend lost,
He can feel hate, fear, shame; not gratitude.
A picture of the tyrant more terrifying still because more human and more carefully studied is Count Cenci; arbitrary power corrupts him until his whole nature becomes a wild longing to torture those who should be most dear to him, to corrupt and ruin them and destroy their souls, and, as with Plato's tyrant, his unnatural hate is combined also with unnatural lust. Shelley has often been accused of exaggerating in his picture of Count Cenci, but to both Plato and Shelley it seemed impossible to exaggerate the wickedness of the man ruined by despotic power. A similar picture occurs in Hellas. Mahmud is another hideous type of the tyrant, his soul full of hate and lust and fear.
Plato was far beyond his time in the position he assigned to women: in the Republic he makes the wives of his guardians fully the equals of their husbands, sharing with them in all their pursuits, even in battle. So in The Revolt of Islam Cythna is fully the mate of Laon; she shares with him in his ideals of freedom; she also suffers imprisonment; she preaches revolution, she helps to inspire the nation, and finally when he, claiming the masculine privilege of sheltering her, has consented to death, she comes to share his fate. In depicting her, Shelley probably remembers also the warlike heroines of The Faerie Queene.
In the Republic Plato explains that philosophers make the best rulers of a state. Plato's conception of a philosopher was, however, essentially unlike our modern idea which suggests a professor or even a pedant; in Plato a 'philosopher' means a man of intellectual pursuits, a student, a thinker, almost certainly a lover and, very probably, a person of physical beauty.
Plato himself had been such a practical philosopher; he also had tried to assist in the government of a state, had fallen under the displeasure of a tyrant and, for a time, lost his liberty.
The 'philosopher' in Plato's sense is Shelley's ideal hero. Lionel, in 'Rosalind and Helen,' is one example: he has wealth and lineage, but is filled with the passion for liberty and inspired by love; he has a rich gift of eloquence and can sway men; he pleads against the oppressor and can move even 'the unpersuaded tyrant' to kindness.
The hero of Prince Athanase is similar; he was 'philosophy's accepted guest'. He is hated by the crowd but beloved by his friends; he and his teacher 'Zonoras' discourse together in the Platonic fashion; they read Plato's dialogues—the Symposium especially—and from them derive their inspiration. Laon is yet another example: like Plato's ideal philosopher he is 'the spectator of all time and all existence; he has the noblest gifts of nature and makes the highest use of them; … he does not fear death or think much of human life' [Republic, Book IX]. No ambition entices Laon, but he is compelled into action by the necessities of his country; he meets death with composure and tranquillity.
Shelley's general conception of society, so far as he develops one, is essentially Greek: it consists of a voluntary rule over voluntary subjects. The men who are exalted into rulers in Shelley's poems are always carried into power by the compulsion of circumstances and not by their own choice.
We may turn now to our last division of Platonic influence: the theory of love. Plato's distinctive teachings on this subject have depended mainly upon two circumstances: his philosophy of beauty and the extraordinarily high position which he ascribes to love as an inspiration in human life. Moreover, Plato blends his theory of love with his general metaphysics: he considers it not merely as something peculiar to man or to man and animals, but as a cosmic principle of the greatest nobility and power, involving man, as it were, incidentally. Of course Plato, with his myriad-mindedness, gives on this, as on so many other subjects, more than one point of view, but his most significant ideas can all be found in Shelley.
In the Phaedrus Socrates explains why beauty has such an enormous power over men; it is because they have previously beheld it in the heaven-world and, since sight is the keenest of the bodily senses, they are more powerfully stirred by beauty than by anything else: beholding it they are rapt beyond themselves and henceforward consumed with exalted desire. Such a vision is described many times in Shelley. In Alastor the hero receives the revelation of an ideal beauty, like nothing upon earth; henceforth he pursues it through the world and perishes in the vain effort to attain it.
Again, in The Revolt of Islam Laon describes Cythna:
In the Symposium Phaedrus explains that love is the source of the greatest benefits for both the lover and the beloved since they encourage each other in the practice of virtue; love implants the sense of honour and dishonour, and therefore impels to all noble deeds. Phaedrus points out that it inspired the heroes of the past—Orpheus, Achilles, Alkestis. So Shelley makes love an inspiration in his heroes. In Rosalind and Helen it exalts to noble deeds: Shelley says of his hero Lionel:
For love and life in him were twins,
Born at one birth.
Again, in The Revolt of Islam it is the chief inspiration of both Laon and Cythna; without it they would fail under the multitude of their sufferings.
In the Symposium Aristophanes dwells on the supreme need for union experienced by lovers; he puts it in a burlesque form, but its essential meaning is sincere enough—they desire a union so absolute that it becomes identity. So in The Revolt of Islam.
Or in Epipsychidion:
One hope within two wills, one will beneath
Two overshadowing minds, one life, one death,
One Heaven, one Hell, one immortality,
And one annihilation.
Again, in the Symposium love is treated by Socrates (quoting Diotima) as being an introduction to the highest wisdom: the lover proceeds by grades and stages until he achieves the supreme vision which includes in itself all wisdom and all knowledge.
So in The Revolt of Islam.
In me communion with this purest being
Kindled intenser zeal and made me wise
In knowledge, which in hers mine own mind seeing,
Left in the human world few mysteries.
This supreme vision is described again, and with great eloquence, in Prometheus Unbound. Asia typifies the ideal love of Plato: she is a revelation of supreme beauty, she lights and kindles the world, and the final bliss of Prometheus consists in his union with her:
and the kindling power of her presence is described in the song:
Life of Life! thy lips enkindle
With their love the breath between them.
Lamp of Earth! where'er thou movest
Its dim shapes are clad with brightness.
Shelley has been blamed for making his Titan a lover, and doubtless with justice; but we can only say that he substitutes a Platonic ideal for the sterner and grander conception of Aeschylus.
In the Symposium Eryximachus explains that love is a principle which extends through all nature; it rules over all things, divine as well as human. The course of the seasons is full of it; when evil love prevails the course of the seasons is disturbed, but when the true love prevails the course of the seasons brings to men, animals, and vegetables health and plenty.
This kind of cosmic love is described in Prometheus Unbound, where it pervades all the elements, extending from the greatest of things to the least. The Sensitive Plant, again, is a poem full of Platonic ideas: a cosmic love is evident in all parts of nature, and individualizes itself in the individual flowers:
The lady herself is more beautiful in mind even than in body, and her lovely body is really the creation of her mind:
Which, dilating, had moulded her mien and motion,
Like a sea-flower unfolded beneath the ocean.
She serves, as it were, as the soul of the garden, and, when she perishes, its beauty and its romance decay. The Sensitive Plant itself is a type of the Platonic inspiration:
It loves, even like Love, its deep heart is full,
It desires what it has not, the beautiful.
In 'The Witch of Atlas' there is a certain amount of Platonism; the witch herself is of a beauty so resplendent that, beside it, everything else seems shadowy:
For she was beautiful—her beauty made
The bright world dim, and everything beside
Seemed like the fleeting image of a shade.
There is also the suggestion that love tempers opposites:
Then by strange art she kneaded fire and snow
Together, tempering the repugnant mass
With liquid love—all things together grow
Through which the harmony of love can pass.
In Epipsychidion, however, we have Shelley's fullest expression of the Platonic theory of love: large portions of the poem are almost a paraphrase of the Phaedrus. Emilia is a winged soul soaring over the darkness of earth: she is an incarnation of a brighter beauty descending from a lovelier and more wonderful world:
Veiling beneath that radiant form of Woman
All that is insupportable in thee
Of light and love and immortality.
In the Phaedrus beauty is described as the only one of the ideas which has a perfectly clear and distinct image upon earth; so Emily is the
Veiled glory of this lampless universe.
She is the mirror which reflects most brightly the glory of the unseen world. The beauty of her mind is far greater than the beauty of her body, which is only its dim reflection; she is an image of the eternal beauty. She and the poet are like notes of music—formed for each other, though dissimilar. She raises the desires of the beholder to the vision of the supreme beauty; the beholder, exalted, is borne above himself and lifted to a higher world. The poet anticipates the ecstatic union of souls:
Till, like two meteors of expanding flame,
Those spheres instinct with it become the same,
Touch, mingle, are transfigured; ever still
Burning, yet ever inconsumable.
Towards the close of his life Shelley's mind, ever growing and developing, arrived at the conclusion that the great master who had taught him so much and whom he so loved was, notwithstanding all his glories, too much at the mercy of his own erotic impulses; he says in The Triumph of Life:
The star that ruled his doom was far too fair,
And life, where long that flower of Heaven grew not,
Conquered that heart by love, which gold or pain
Or age or sloth or slavery could subdue not.
Shelley was one of those men who are, by temperament, born Platonists, and it may be surmised that, had he never read a line of Greek or even heard of Plato, except by indirect tradition only, his work would still show a certain number of affinities. Natural resemblance and close study, taken together, have resulted in saturating his whole work with Platonic thought; the above essay has aimed at giving the main outlines of this Platonic influence, but there is still a considerable amount of detail which cannot, in the space here available, be fully discussed.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8889
SOURCE: "Shelley: Or the Poetic Value of Revolutionary Principles," in Winds of Doctrine: Studies in Contemporary Opinion, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926, pp. 155–85.
[Santayana was a Spanish-born philosopher, poet, novelist, and literary critic. His earliest published works were the poems of Sonnets, and Other Verses (1894). Although Santayana is regarded as no more than a fair poet, his facility with language is one of the distinguishing features of his later philosophical works. Written in an elegant, non-technical prose, Santayana's major philosophical work of his early career is the five-volume Life of Reason (1905–06). These volumes reflect their author's materialist viewpoint applied to such areas as society, religion, art, and science, and, along with Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923) and the four-volume Realms of Being (1927–40), put forth the view that while reason undermines belief in anything, an irrational animal faith suggests the existence of a "realm of essences" which leads to the human search for knowledge. Late in his life Santayana stated that "reason and ideals arise in doing something that at bottom there is no reason for doing." "Chaos," he wrote earlier, "is perhaps at the bottom of everything." In the following excerpt, Santayana provides an overview of the major philosophical tenets that inform Shelley's poetry.]
It is possible to advocate anarchy in criticism as in politics, and there is perhaps nothing coercive to urge against a man who maintains that any work of art is good enough, intrinsically and incommensurably, if it pleased anybody at any time for any reason. In practice, however, the ideal of anarchy is unstable. Irrefutable by argument, it is readily overcome by nature. It melts away before the dogmatic operation of the anarchist's own will, as soon as he allows himself the least creative endeavour. In spite of the infinite variety of what is merely possible, human nature and will have a somewhat definite constitution, and only what is harmonious with their actual constitution can long maintain itself in the moral world. Hence it is a safe principle in the criticism of art that technical proficiency, and brilliancy of fancy or execution, cannot avail to establish a great reputation. They may dazzle for a moment, but they cannot absolve an artist from the need of having an important subject-matter and a sane humanity.
If this principle is accepted, however, it might seem that certain artists, and perhaps the greatest, might not fare well at our hands. How would Shelley, for instance, stand such a test? Every one knows the judgment passed on Shelley by Matthew Arnold, a critic who evidently relied on this principle, even if he preferred to speak only in the name of his personal tact and literary experience. Shelley, Matthew Arnold said, was "a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating his wings in a luminous void in vain." In consequence he declared that Shelley was not a classic, especially as his private circle had had an unsavoury morality, to be expressed only by the French word sale, and as moreover Shelley himself occasionally showed a distressing want of the sense of humour, which could only be called bête. These strictures, if a bit incoherent, are separately remarkably just. They unmask essential weaknesses not only in Shelley, but in all revolutionary people. The life of reason is a heritage and exists only through tradition. Half of it is an art, an adjustment to an alien reality, which only a long experience can teach: and even the other half, the inward inspiration and ideal of reason, must be also a common inheritance in the race, if people are to work together or so much as to understand one another. Now the misfortune of revolutionists is that they are disinherited, and their folly is that they wish to be disinherited even more than they are. Hence, in the midst of their passionate and even heroic idealisms, there is commonly a strange poverty in their minds, many an ugly turn in their lives, and an ostentatious vileness in their manners. They wish to be the leaders of mankind, but they are wretched representatives of humanity. In the concert of nature it is hard to keep in tune with oneself if one is out of tune with everything.
We should not then be yielding to any private bias, but simply noting the conditions under which art may exist and may be appreciated, if we accepted the classical principle of criticism and asserted that substance, sanity, and even a sort of pervasive wisdom are requisite for supreme works of art. On the other hand—who can honestly doubt it?—the rebels and individualists are the men of direct insight and vital hope. The poetry of Shelley in particular is typically poetical. It is poetry divinely inspired; and Shelley himself is perhaps no more ineffectual or more lacking in humour than an angel properly should be. Nor is his greatness all a matter of aesthetic abstraction and wild music. It is a fact of capital importance in the development of human genius that the great revolution in Christendom against Christianity, a revolution that began with the Renaissance and is not yet completed, should have found angels to herald it, no less than that other revolution did which began at Bethlehem; and that among these new angels there should have been one so winsome, pure, and rapturous as Shelley. How shall we reconcile these conflicting impressions? Shall we force ourselves to call the genius of Shelley second rate because it was revolutionary, and shall we attribute all enthusiasm for him to literary affectation or political prejudice? Or shall we rather abandon the orthodox principle that an important subjectmatter and a sane spirit are essential to great works? Or shall we look for a different issue out of our perplexity, by asking if the analysis and comprehension are not perhaps at fault which declare that these things are not present in Shelley's poetry? This last is the direction in which I conceive the truth to lie. A little consideration will show us that Shelley really has a great subject-matter—what ought to be; and that he has a real humanity—though it is humanity in the seed, humanity in its internal principle, rather than in those deformed expressions of it which can flourish in the world.
Shelley seems hardly to have been brought up; he grew up in the nursery among his young sisters, at school among the rude boys, without any affectionate guidance, without imbibing any religious or social tradition. If he received any formal training or correction, he instantly rejected it inwardly, set it down as unjust and absurd, and turned instead to sailing paper boats, to reading romances or to writing them, or to watching with delight the magic of chemical experiments. Thus the mind of Shelley was thoroughly disinherited; but not, like the minds of most revolutionists, by accident and through the niggardliness of fortune, for few revolutionists would be such if they were heirs to a baronetcy. Shelley's mind disinherited itself out of allegiance to itself, because it was too sensitive and too highly endowed for the world into which it had descended. It rejected ordinary education, because it was incapable of assimilating it. Education is suitable to those few animals whose faculties are not completely innate, animals that, like most men, may be perfected by experience because they are born with various imperfect alternative instincts rooted equally in their system. But most animals, and a few men, are not of this sort. They cannot be educated, because they are born complete. Full of predeterminate intuitions, they are without intelligence, which is the power of seeing things as they are. Endowed with a specific, unshakable faith, they are impervious to experience: and as they burst the womb they bring ready-made with them their final and only possible system of philosophy.
Shelley was one of these spokesmen of the a priori, one of these nurslings of the womb, like a bee or a butterfly; a dogmatic, inspired, perfect, and incorrigible creature. He was innocent and cruel, swift and wayward, illuminated and blind. Being a finished child of nature, not a joint product, like most of us, of nature, history, and society, he abounded miraculously in his own clear sense, but was obtuse to the droll, miscellaneous lessons of fortune. The cannonade of hard, inexplicable facts that knocks into most of us what little wisdom we have left Shelley dazed and sore, perhaps, but uninstructed. When the storm was over, he began chirping again his own natural note. If the world continued to confine and obsess him, he hated the world, and gasped for freedom. Being incapable of understanding reality, he revelled in creating world after world in idea. For his nature was not merely pre-determined and obdurate, it was also sensitive, vehement, and fertile. With the soul of a bird, he had the senses of a man-child; the instinct of the butterfly was united in him with the instinct of the brooding fowl and of the pelican. This wingèd spirit had a heart. It darted swiftly on its appointed course, neither expecting nor understanding opposition; but when it met opposition it did not merely flutter and collapse; it was inwardly outraged, it protested proudly against fate, it cried aloud for liberty and justice.
The consequence was that Shelley, having a nature preformed but at the same time tender, passionate, and moral, was exposed to early and continual suffering. When the world violated the ideal which lay so clear before his eyes, that violation filled him with horror. If to the irrepressible gushing of life from within we add the suffering and horror that continually checked it, we shall have in hand, I think, the chief elements of his genius.
Love of the ideal, passionate apprehension of what ought to be, has for its necessary counterpart condemnation of the actual, wherever the actual does not conform to that ideal. The spontaneous soul, the soul of the child, is naturally revolutionary; and when the revolution fails, the soul of the youth becomes naturally pessimistic. All moral life and moral judgment have this deeply romantic character; they venture to assert a private ideal in the face of an intractable and omnipotent world. Some moralists begin by feeling the attraction of untasted and ideal perfection. These, like Plato, excel in elevation, and they are apt to despise rather than to reform the world. Other moralists begin by a revolt against the actual, at some point where they find the actual particularly galling. These excel in sincerity; their purblind conscience is urgent, and they are reformers in intent and sometimes even in action. But the ideals they frame are fragmentary and shallow, often mere provisional vague watchwords, like liberty, equality, and fraternity; they possess no positive visions or plans for moral life as a whole, like Plato's Republic. The Utopian or visionary moralists are often rather dazed by this wicked world; being well-intentioned but impotent, they often take comfort in fancying that the ideal they pine for is already actually embodied on earth, or is about to be embodied on earth in a decade or two, or at least is embodied eternally in a sphere immediately above the earth, to which we shall presently climb, and be happy for ever.
Lovers of the ideal who thus hastily believe in its reality are called idealists, and Shelley was an idealist in almost every sense of that hard-used word. He early became an idealist after Berkeley's fashion, in that he discredited the existence of matter and embraced a psychological or (as it was called) intellectual system of the universe. In his drama Hellas he puts this view with evident approval into the mouth of Ahasuerus:
But Shelley was even more deeply and constantly an idealist after the manner of Plato; for he regarded the good as a magnet (inexplicably not working for the moment) that draws all life and motion after it; and he looked on the types and ideals of things as on eternal realities that subsist, beautiful and untarnished, when the glimmerings that reveal them to our senses have died away. From the infinite potentialities of beauty in the abstract, articulate mind draws certain bright forms—the Platonic ideas—"the gathered rays which are reality," as Shelley called them: and it is the light of these ideals cast on objects of sense that lends to these objects some degree of reality and value, making out of them "lovely apparitions, dim at first, then radiant … the progeny immortal of painting, sculpture, and rapt poesy."
The only kind of idealism that Shelley had nothing to do with is the kind that prevails in some universities, that Hegelian idealism which teaches that perfect good is a vicious abstraction, and maintains that all the evil that has been, is, and ever shall be is indispensable to make the universe as good as it possibly could be. In this form, idealism is simply contempt for all ideals, and a hearty adoration of things as they are; and as such it appeals mightily to the powers that be, in church and in state; but in that capacity it would have been as hateful to Shelley as the powers that be always were, and as the philosophy was that flattered them. For his moral feeling was based on suffering and horror at what is actual, no less than on love of a visioned good. His conscience was, to a most unusual degree, at once elevated and sincere. It was inspired in equal measure by prophecy and by indignation. He was carried away in turn by enthusiasm for what his ethereal and fertile fancy pictured as possible, and by detestation of the reality forced upon him instead. Hence that extraordinary moral fervour which is the soul of his poetry. His imagination is no playful undirected kaleidoscope; the images, often so tenuous and metaphysical, that crowd upon him, are all sparks thrown off at white heat, embodiments of a fervent, definite, unswerving inspiration. If we think that the "Cloud" or the "West Wind" or the "Witch of the Atlas" are mere fireworks, poetic dust, a sort of bataille des fleurs in which we are pelted by a shower of images—we have not understood the passion that overflows in them, as any long-nursed passion may, in any of us, suddenly overflow in an unwonted profusion of words. This is a point at which Francis Thompson's understanding of Shelley, generally so perfect, seems to me to go astray. The universe, Thompson tells us, was Shelley's box of toys. "He gets between the feet of the horses of the sun. He stands in the lap of patient Nature, and twines her loosened tresses after a hundred wilful fashions, to see how she will look nicest in his song." This last is not, I think, Shelley's motive; it is not the truth about the spring of his genius. He undoubtedly shatters the world to bits, but only to build it nearer to the heart's desire, only to make out of its coloured fragments some more Elysian home for love, or some more dazzling symbol for that infinite beauty which is the need—the profound, aching, imperative need—of the human soul. This recreative impulse of the poet's is not wilful, as Thompson calls it: it is moral. Like the Sensitive Plant
It loves even like Love,—its deep heart is full;
It desires what it has not, the beautiful.
The question for Shelley is not at all what will look nicest in his song; that is the preoccupation of mincing rhymesters, whose well is soon dry. Shelley's abundance has a more generous source; it springs from his passion for picturing what would be best, not in the picture, but in the world. Hence, when he feels he has pictured or divined it, he can exclaim:
The joy, the triumph, the delight, the madness,
The boundless, overflowing, bursting gladness,
The vaporous exultation, not to be confined!
Ha! Ha! the animation of delight,
Which wraps me like an atmosphere of light,
And bears me as a cloud is borne by its own wind!
To match this gift of bodying forth the ideal Shelley had his vehement sense of wrong; and as he seized upon and recast all images of beauty, to make them more perfectly beautiful, so, to vent his infinite horror of evil, he seized on all the worst images of crime or torture that he could find, and recast them so as to reach the quintessence of distilled badness. His pictures of war, famine, lust, and cruelty are, or seem, forced, although perhaps, as in the Cenci, he might urge that he had historical warrant for his descriptions, far better historical warrant, no doubt, than the beauty and happiness actually to be found in the world could give him for his "Skylark", his Epipsychidion, or his Prometheus. But to exaggerate good is to vivify, to enhance our sense of moral coherence and beautiful naturalness; it is to render things more graceful, intelligible, and congenial to the spirit which they ought to serve. To aggravate evil, on the contrary, is to darken counsel—already dark enough—and the want of truth to nature in this pessimistic sort of exaggeration is not compensated for by any advantage. The violence and, to my feeling, the wantonness of these invectives—for they are invectives in intention and in effect—may have seemed justified to Shelley by his political purpose. He was thirsting to destroy kings, priests, soldiers, parents, and heads of colleges—to destroy them, I mean, in their official capacity; and the exhibition of their vileness in all its diabolical purity might serve to remove scruples in the half-hearted. We, whom the nineteenth century has left so tender to historical rights and historical beauties, may wonder that a poet, an impassioned lover of the beautiful, could have been such a leveller, and such a vandal in his theoretical destructiveness. But here the legacy of the eighteenth century was speaking in Shelley, as that of the nineteenth is speaking in us: and moreover, in his own person, the very fertility of imagination could be a cause of blindness to the past and its contingent sanctities. Shelley was not left standing aghast, like a Philistine, before the threatened destruction of all traditional order. He had, and knew he had, the seeds of a far lovelier order in his own soul; there he found the plan or memory of a perfect commonwealth of nature ready to rise at once on the ruins of this sad world, and to make regret for it impossible.
So much for what I take to be the double foundation of Shelley's genius, a vivid love of ideal good on the one hand, and on the other, what is complementary to that vivid love, much suffering and horror at the touch of actual evils. On this double foundation he based an opinion which had the greatest influence on his poetry, not merely on the subject-matter of it, but also on the exuberance and urgency of emotion which suffuses it. This opinion was that all that caused suffering and horror in the world could be readily destroyed: it was the belief in perfectibility.
An animal that has rigid instincts and an a priori mind is probably very imperfectly adapted to the world he comes into: his organs cannot be moulded by experience and use; unless they are fitted by some miraculous pre-established harmony, or by natural selection, to things as they are, they will never be reconciled with them, and an eternal war will ensue between what the animal needs, loves, and can understand and what the outer reality offers. So long as such a creature lives—and his life will be difficult and short—events will continually disconcert and puzzle him; everything will seem to him unaccountable, inexplicable, unnatural. He will not be able to conceive the real order and connection of things sympathetically, by assimilating his habits of thought to their habits of evolution. His faculties being innate and unadaptable will not allow him to correct his presumptions and axioms; he will never be able to make nature the standard of naturalness. What contradicts his private impulses will seem to him to contradict reason, beauty, and necessity. In this paradoxical situation he will probably take refuge in the conviction that what he finds to exist is an illusion, or at least not a fair sample of reality. Being so perverse, absurd, and repugnant, the given state of things must be, he will say, only accidental and temporary. He will be sure that his own a priori imagination is the mirror of all the eternal proprieties, and that as his mind can move only in one predetermined way, things cannot be prevented from moving in that same way save by some strange violence done to their nature. It would be easy, therefore, to set everything right again: nay, everything must be on the point of righting itself spontaneously. Wrong, of its very essence, must be in unstable equilibrium. The conflict between what such a man feels ought to exist and what he finds actually existing must, he will feel sure, end by a speedy revolution in things, and by the removal of all scandals; that it should end by the speedy removal of his own person, or by such a revolution in his demands as might reconcile him to existence, will never occur to him; or, if the thought occurs to him, it will seem too horrible to be true.
Such a creature cannot adapt himself to things by education, and consequently he cannot adapt things to himself by industry. His choice lies absolutely between victory and martyrdom. But at the very moment of martyrdom, martyrs, as is well known, usually feel assured of victory. The a priori spirit will therefore be always a prophet of victory, so long as it subsists at all. The vision of a better world at hand absorbed the Israelites in exile, St. John the Baptist in the desert, and Christ on the cross. The martyred spirit always says to the world it leaves, "This day thou shalt be with me in paradise."
In just this way, Shelley believed in perfectibility. In his latest poems—in Hellas, in Adonais—he was perhaps a little inclined to remove the scene of perfectibility to a metaphysical region, as the Christian church soon removed it to the other world. Indeed, an earth really made perfect is hardly distinguishable from a posthumous heaven: so profoundly must everything in it be changed, and so angel-like must every one in it become. Shelley's earthly paradise, as described in Prometheus and in Epipsychidion, is too festival-like, too much of a mere culmination, not to be fugitive: it cries aloud to be translated into a changeless and metaphysical heaven, which to Shelley's mind could be nothing but the realm of Platonic ideas, where "life, like a dome of many-coloured glass," no longer "stains the white radiance of eternity." But the age had been an age of revolution and, in spite of disappointments, retained its faith in revolution; and the young Shelley was not satisfied with a paradise removed to the intangible realms of poetry or of religion; he hoped, like the old Hebrews, for a paradise on earth. His notion was that eloquence could change the heart of man, and that love, kindled there by the force of reason and of example, would transform society. He believed, Mrs. Shelley tells us, "that mankind had only to will that there should be no evil, and there would be none." And she adds: "That man could be so perfectionised as to be able to expel evil from his own nature, and from the greater part of creation, was the cardinal point of his system." This cosmic extension of the conversion of men reminds one of the cosmic extension of the Fall conceived by St. Augustine; and in the Prometheus Shelley has allowed his fancy, half in symbol, half in glorious physical hyperbole, to carry the warm contagion of love into the very bowels of the earth, and even the moon, by reflection, to catch the light of love, and be alive again.
Shelley, we may safely say, did not understand the real constitution of nature. It was hidden from him by a cloud, all woven of shifting rainbows and bright tears. Only his emotional haste made it possible for him to entertain such opinions as he did entertain; or rather, it was inevitable that the mechanism of nature, as it is in its depths, should remain in his pictures only the shadowiest of backgrounds. His poetry is accordingly a part of the poetry of illusion; the poetry of truth, if we have the courage to hope for such a thing, is reserved for far different and yet unborn poets. But it is only fair to Shelley to remember that the moral being of mankind is as yet in its childhood; all poets play with images not understood; they touch on emotions sharply, at random, as in a dream; they suffer each successive vision, each poignant sentiment, to evaporate into nothing, or to leave behind only a heart vaguely softened and fatigued, a gentle languor, or a tearful hope. Every modern school of poets, once out of fashion, proves itself to have been sadly romantic and sentimental. None has done better than to spangle a confused sensuous pageant with some sparks of truth, or to give it some symbolic relation to moral experience. And this Shelley has done as well as anybody: all other poets also have been poets of illusion. The distinction of Shelley is that his illusions are so wonderfully fine, subtle, and palpitating; that they betray passions and mental habits so singularly generous and pure. And why? Because he did not believe in the necessity of what is vulgar, and did not pay that demoralising respect to it, under the title of fact or of custom, which it exacts from most of us. The past seemed to him no valid precedent, the present no final instance. As he believed in the imminence of an overturn that should make all things new, he was not checked by any divided allegiance, by any sense that he was straying into the vapid or fanciful, when he created what he justly calls "Beautiful idealisms of moral excellence."
That is what his poems are fundamentally—the "Skylark," and the "Witch of the Atlas," and the Sensitive Plant no less than the grander pieces. He infused into his gossamer world the strength of his heroic conscience. He felt that what his imagination pictured was a true symbol of what human experience should and might pass into. Otherwise he would have been aware of playing with idle images; his poetry would have been mere millinery and his politics mere business; he would have been a worldling in art and in morals. The clear fire, the sustained breath, the fervent accent of his poetry are due to his faith in his philosophy. As Mrs. Shelley expressed it, he "had no care for any of his poems that did not emanate from the depths of his mind, and develop some high and abstruse truth." Had his poetry not dealt with what was supreme in his own eyes, and dearest to his heart, it could never have been the exquisite and entrancing poetry that it is. It would not have had an adequate subject-matter, as, in spite of Matthew Arnold, I think it had; for nothing can be empty that contains such a soul. An angel cannot be ineffectual if the standard of efficiency is moral; he is what all other things bring about, when they are effectual. And a void that is alive with the beating of luminous wings, and of a luminous heart, is quite sufficiently peopled. Shelley's mind was angelic not merely in its purity and fervour, but also in its moral authority, in its prophetic strain. What was conscience in his generation was life in him.
The mind of man is not merely a sensorium. His intelligence is not merely an instrument for adaptation. There is a germ within, a nucleus of force and organisation, which can be unfolded, under favourable circumstances, into a perfection inwardly determined. Man's constitution is a fountain from which to draw an infinity of gushing music, not representing anything external, yet not unmeaning on that account, since it represents the capacities and passions latent in him from the beginning. These potentialities, however, are no oracles of truth. Being innate they are arbitrary; being a priori they are subjective; but they are good principles for fiction, for poetry, for morals, for religion. They are principles for the true expression of man, but not for the true description of the universe. When they are taken for the latter, fiction becomes deception, poetry illusion, morals fanaticism, and religion bad science. The orgy of delusion into which we are then plunged comes from supposing the a priori to be capable of controlling the actual, and the innate to be a standard for the true. That rich and definite endowment which might have made the distinction of the poet, then makes the narrowness of the philosopher. So Shelley, with a sort of tyranny of which he does not suspect the possible cruelty, would impose his ideal of love and equality upon all creatures; he would make enthusiasts of clowns and doves of vultures. In him, as in many people, too intense a need of loving excludes the capacity for intelligent sympathy. His feeling cannot accommodate itself to the inequalities of human nature: his good will is a geyser, and will not consent to grow cool, and to water the flat and vulgar reaches of life. Shelley is blind to the excellences of what he despises, as he is blind to the impossibility of realising what he wants. His sympathies are narrow as his politics are visionary, so that there is a certain moral incompetence in his moral intensity. Yet his abstraction from half of life, or from nine-tenths of it, was perhaps necessary if silence and space were to be won in his mind for its own upwelling, ecstatic harmonies. The world we have always with us, but such spirits we have not always. And the spirit has fire enough within to make a second stellar universe.
An instance of Shelley's moral incompetence in moral intensity is to be found in his view of selfishness and evil. From the point of view of pure spirit, selfishness is quite absurd. As a contemporary of ours has put it: "It is so evident that it is better to secure a greater good for A than a lesser good for that it is hard to find any still more evident principle by which to prove this. And if A happens to be some one else, and to be myself, that cannot affect the question." It is very foolish not to love your neighbour as yourself, since his good is no less good than yours. Convince people of this—and who can resist such perfect logic?—and presto all property in things has disappeared, all jealousy in love, and all rivalry in honour. How happy and secure every one will suddenly be, and how much richer than in our mean, blind, competitive society! The single word love—and we have just seen that love is a logical necessity—offers an easy and final solution to all moral and political problems. Shelley cannot imagine why this solution is not accepted, and why logic does not produce love. He can only wonder and grieve that it does not; and since selfishness and ill-will seem to him quite gratuitous, his ire is aroused; he thinks them unnatural and monstrous. He could not in the least understand evil, even when he did it himself; all villainy seemed to him wanton, all lust frigid, all hatred insane. All was an abomination alike that was not the lovely spirit of love.
Now this is a very unintelligent view of evil; and if Shelley had had time to read Spinoza—an author with whom he would have found himself largely in sympathy—he might have learned that nothing is evil in itself, and that what is evil in things is not due to any accident in creation, nor to groundless malice in man. Evil is an inevitable aspect which things put on when they are struggling to preserve themselves in the same habitat, in which there is not room or matter enough for them to prosper equally side by side. Under these circumstances the partial success of any creature—say, the cancer-microbe—is an evil from the point of view of those other creatures—say, men—to whom that success is a defeat. Shelley sometimes half perceived this inevitable tragedy. So he says of the fair lady in the Sensitive Plant:
All killing insects and gnawing worms,
And things of obscene and unlovely forms,
She bore in a basket of Indian woof,
Into the rough woods far aloof—
In a basket of grasses and wild flowers full,
The freshest her gentle hands could pull
For the poor banished insects, whose intent,
Although they did ill, was innocent.
Now it is all very well to ask cancer-microbes to be reasonable, and go feed on oak-leaves, if the oak-leaves do not object; oak-leaves might be poison for them, and in any case cancer-microbes cannot listen to reason; they must go on propagating where they are, unless they are quickly and utterly exterminated. And fundamentally men are subject to the same fatality exactly; they cannot listen to reason unless they are reasonable; and it is unreasonable to expect that, being animals, they should be reasonable exclusively. Imagination is indeed at work in them, and makes them capable of sacrificing themselves for any idea that appeals to them, for their children, perhaps, or for their religion. But they are not more capable of sacrificing themselves to what does not interest them than the cancer-microbes are of sacrificing themselves to men.
When Shelley marvels at the perversity of the world, he shows his ignorance of the world. The illusion he suffers from is constitutional, and such as larks and sensitive plants are possibly subject to in their way: what he is marvelling at is really that anything should exist at all not a creature of his own moral disposition. Consequently the more he misunderstands the world and bids it change its nature, the more he expresses his own nature: so that all is not vanity in his illusion, nor night in his blindness. The poet sees most clearly what his ideal is; he suffers no illusion in the expression of his own soul. His political Utopias, his belief in the power of love, and his cryingly subjective and inconstant way of judging people are one side of the picture; the other is his lyrical power, wealth, and ecstasy. If he had understood universal nature, he would not have so glorified in his own. And his own nature was worth glorifying; it was, I think, the purest, tenderest, richest, most rational nature ever poured forth in verse. I have not read in any language such a full expression of the unadulterated instincts of the mind. The world of Shelley is that which the vital monad within many of us—I will not say within all, for who shall set bounds to the variations of human nature?—the world which the vital monad within many of us, I say, would gladly live in if it could have its way.
Matthew Arnold said that Shelley was not quite sane; and certainly he was not quite sane, if we place sanity in justness of external perception, adaptation to matter, and docility to the facts; but his lack of sanity was not due to any internal corruption; it was not even an internal eccentricity. He was like a child, like a Platonic soul just fallen from the Empyrean; and the child may be dazed, credulous, and fanciful; but he is not mad. On the contrary, his camest playfulness, the constantdistraction of his attention from observation to daydreams, is the sign of an inward order and fecundity appropriate to his age. If children did not see visions, good men would have nothing to work for. It is the soul of observant persons, like Matthew Arnold, that is apt not to be quite sane and whole inwardly, but somewhat warped by familiarity with the perversities of real things, and forced to misrepresent its true ideal, like a tree bent by too prevalent a wind. Half the fertility of such a soul is lost, and the other half is denaturalised. No doubt, in its sturdy deformity, the practical mind is an instructive and not unpleasing object, an excellent, if somewhat pathetic, expression of the climate in which it is condemned to grow, and of its dogged clinging to an ingrate soil; but it is a wretched expression of its innate possibilities. Shelley, on the contrary, is like a palmtree in the desert or a star in the sky; he is perfect in the midst of the void. His obtuseness to things dynamic—to the material order—leaves his whole mind free to develop things æsthetic after their own kind; his abstraction permits purity, his playfulness makes room for creative freedom, his ethereal quality is only humanity having its way.
We perhaps do ourselves an injustice when we think that the heart of us is sordid; what is sordid is rather the situation that cramps or stifles the heart. In itself our generative principle is surely no less fertile and generous than the generative principle of crystals or flowers. As it can produce a more complex body, it is capable of producing a more complex mind; and the beauty and life of this mind, like that of the body, is all predetermined in the seed. Circumstances may suffer the organism to develop, or prevent it from doing so; they cannot change its plan without making it ugly and deformed. What Shelley's mind draws from the outside, its fund of images, is like what the germ of the body draws from the outside, its food—a mass of mere materials to transform and reorganise. With these images Shelley constructs a world determined by his native genius, as the seed organises out of its food a predetermined system of nerves and muscles. Shelley's poetry shows us the perfect but naked body of human happiness. What clothes circumstances may compel most of us to add may be a necessary concession to climate, to custom, or to shame; they can hardly add a new vitality or any beauty comparable to that which they hide.
When the soul, as in Shelley's case, is all goodness, and when the world seems all illegitimacy and obstruction, we need not wonder that freedom should be regarded as a panacea. Even if freedom had not been the idol of Shelley's times, he would have made an idol of it for himself. "I never could discern in him," says his friend Hogg, "any more than two principles. The first was a strong, irrepressible love of liberty…. The second was an equally ardent love of toleration … and … an intense abhorrence of persecution." We all fancy nowadays that we believe in liberty and abhor persecution; but the liberty we approve of is usually only a variation in social compulsions, to make them less galling to our latest sentiments than the old compulsions would be if we retained them. Liberty of the press and liberty to vote do not greatly help us in living after our own mind, which is, I suppose, the only positive sort of liberty. From the point of view of a poet, there can be little essential freedom so long as he is forbidden to live with the people he likes, and compelled to live with the people he does not like. This, to Shelley, seemed the most galling of tyrannies; and free love was, to his feeling, the essence and test of freedom. Love must be spontaneous to be a spiritual bond in the beginning and it must remain spontaneous if it is to remain spiritual. To be bound by one's past is as great a tyranny to pure spirit as to be bound by the sin of Adam, or by the laws of Artaxerxes; and those of us who do not believe in the possibility of free love ought to declare frankly that we do not, at bottom, believe in the possibility of freedom.
I never was attached to that great sect
Whose doctrine is that each one should select,
Out of the crowd, a mistress or a friend
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion; though it is the code
Of modern morals, and the beaten road
Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread
Who travel to their home among the dead
By the broad highway of the world, and so
With one chained friend, perhaps a jealous foe,
The dreariest and the longest journey go.
True love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away.
Love is like understanding that grows bright
Gazing on many truths…. Narrow
The heart that loves, the brain that contemplates,
The life that wears, the spirit that creates
One object and one form, and builds thereby
A sepulchre for its eternity!
The difficulties in reducing this charming theory of love to practice are well exemplified in Shelley's own life. He ran away with his first wife not because she inspired any uncontrollable passion, but because she declared she was a victim of domestic oppression and threw herself upon him for protection. Nevertheless, when he discovered that his best friend was making love to her, in spite of his free love principles, he was very seriously annoyed. When he presently abandoned her, feeling a spiritual affinity in another direction, she drowned herself in the Serpentine: and his second wife needed all her natural sweetness and all her inherited philosophy to reconcile her to the waves of Platonic enthusiasm for other ladies which periodically swept the too sensitive heart of her husband. Free love would not, then, secure freedom from complications; it would not remove the present occasion for jealousy, reproaches, tragedies, and the dragging of a lengthening chain. Freedom of spirit cannot be translated into freedom of action; you may amend laws, and customs, and social entanglements, but you will still have them; for this world is a lumbering mechanism and not, like love, a plastic dream. Wisdom is very old and therefore often ironical, and it has long taught that it is well for those who would live in the spirit to keep as clear as possible of the world: and that marriage, especially a free-love marriage, is a snare for poets. Let them endure to love freely, hopelessly, and infinitely, after the manner of Plato and Dante, and even of Goethe, when Goethe really loved: that exquisite sacrifice will improve their verse, and it will not kill them. Let them follow in the traces of Shelley when he wrote in his youth: "I have been most of the night pacing a church-yard. I must now engage in scenes of strong interest…. I expect to gratify some of this insatiable feeling in poetry…. I slept with a loaded pistol and some poison last night, but did not die." Happy man if he had been able to add, "And did not marry!"
Last among the elements of Shelley's thought I may perhaps mention his atheism. Shelley called himself an atheist in his youth; his biographers and critics usually say that he was, or that he became, a pantheist. He was an atheist in the sense that he denied the orthodox conception of a deity who is a voluntary creator, a legislator, and a judge; but his aversion to Christianity was not founded on any sympathetic or imaginative knowledge of it; and a man who preferred the Paradiso of Dante to almost any other poem, and preferred it to the popular Inferno itself, could evidently be attracted by Christian ideas and sentiment the moment they were presented to him as expressions of moral truth rather than as gratuitous dogmas. A pantheist he was in the sense that he felt how fluid and vital this whole world is; but he seems to have had no tendency to conceive any conscious plan or logical necessity connecting the different parts of the whole; so that rather than a pantheist he might be called a panpsychist; especially as he did not subordinate morally the individual to the cosmos. He did not surrender the authority of moral ideals in the face of physical necessity, which is properly the essence of pantheism. He did the exact opposite; so much so that the chief characteristic of his philosophy is its Promethean spirit. He maintained that the basis of moral authority was internal, diffused among all individuals; that it was the natural love of the beautiful and the good wherever it might spring, and however fate might oppose it.
To suffer …
To forgive …
To defy Power …
To love and bear; to hope, till hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This … is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free.
Shelley was also removed from any ordinary atheism by his truly speculative sense for eternity. He was a thorough Platonist. All metaphysics perhaps is poetry, but Platonic metaphysics is good poetry, and to this class Shelley's belongs. For instance:
Atheism or pantheism of this stamp cannot be taxed with being gross or materialistic; the trouble is rather that it is too hazy in its sublimity. The poet has not perceived the natural relation between facts and ideals so clearly or correctly as he has felt the moral relation between them. But his allegiance to the intuition which defies, for the sake of felt excellence, every form of idolatry or cowardice wearing the mask of religion—this allegiance is itself the purest religion; and it is capable of inspiring the sweetest and most absolute poetry. In daring to lay bare the truths of fate, the poet creates for himself the subtlest and most heroic harmonies; and he is comforted for the illusions he has lost by being made incapable of desiring them.
We have seen that Shelley, being unteachable, could never put together any just idea of the world: he merely collected images and emotions, and out of them made worlds of his own. His poetry accordingly does not well express history, nor human character, nor the constitution of nature. What he unrolls before us instead is, in a sense, fantastic; it is a series of landscapes, passions, and cataclysms such as never were on earth, and never will be. If you are seriously interested only in what belongs to earth you will not be seriously interested in Shelley. Literature, according to Matthew Arnold, should be criticism of life, and Shelley did not criticise life; so that his poetry had no solidity. But is life, we may ask, the same thing as the circumstances of life on earth? Is the spirit of life, that marks and judges those circumstances, itself nothing? Music is surely no description of the circumstances of life; yet it is relevant to life unmistakably, for it stimulates by means of a torrent of abstract movements and images the formal and emotional possibilities of living which lie in the spirit. By so doing music becomes a part of life, a congruous addition, a parallel life, as it were, to the vulgar one. I see no reason, in the analogies of the natural world, for supposing that the circumstances of human life are the only circumstances in which the spirit of life can disport itself. Even on this planet, there are sea-animals and air-animals, ephemeral beings and self-centred beings, as well as persons who can grow as old as Matthew Arnold, and be as fond as he was of classifying other people. And beyond this planet, and in the interstices of what our limited senses can perceive, there are probably many forms of life not criticised in any of the books which Matthew Arnold said we should read in order to know the best that has been thought and said in the world. The future, too, even among men, may contain, as Shelley puts it, many "arts, though unimagined, yet to be." The divination of poets cannot, of course, be expected to reveal any of these hidden regions as they actually exist or will exist; but what would be the advantage of revealing them? It could only be what the advantage of criticising human life would be also, to improve subsequent life indirectly by turning it towards attainable goods, and is it not as important a thing to improve life directly and in the present, if one has the gift, by enriching rather than criticising it? Besides, there is need of fixing the ideal by which criticism is to be guided. If you have no image of happiness or beauty or perfect goodness before you, how are you to judge what portions of life are important, and what rendering of them is appropriate?
Being a singer inwardly inspired, Shelley could picture the ideal goals of life, the ultimate joys of experience, better than a discursive critic or observer could have done. The circumstances of life are only the bases or instruments of life: the fruition of life is not in retrospect, not in description of the instruments, but in expression of the spirit itself, to which those instruments may prove useful; as music is not a criticism of violins, but a playing upon them. This expression need not resemble its ground. Experience is diversified by colours that are not produced by colours, sounds that are not conditioned by sounds, names that are not symbols for other names, fixed ideal objects that stand for ever-changing material processes. The mind is fundamentally lyrical, inventive, redundant. Its visions are its own offspring, hatched in the warmth of some favourable cosmic gale. The ambient weather may vary, and these visions be scattered; but the ideal world they pictured may some day be revealed again to some other poet similarly inspired; the possibility of restoring it, or something like it, is perpetual. It is precisely because Shelley's sense for things is so fluid, so illusive, that it opens to us emotionally what is a serious scientific probability; namely, that human life is not all life, nor the landscape of earth the only admired landscape in the universe; that the ancients who believed in gods and spirits were nearer the virtual truth (however anthropomorphically they may have expressed themselves) than any philosophy or religion that makes human affairs the centre and aim of the world. Such moral imagination is to be gained by sinking into oneself, rather than by observing remote happenings, because it is at its heart, not at its fingertips, that the human soul touches matter, and is akin to whatever other centres of life may people the infinite.
For this reason the masters of spontaneity, the prophets, the inspired poets, the saints, the mystics, the musicians are welcome and most appealing companions. In their simplicity and abstraction from the world they come very near the heart. They say little and help much. They do not picture life, but have life, and give it. So we may say, I think, of Shelley's magic universe what he said of Greece; if it
"Frowns," says Shelley rhetorically, as if he thought that something timeless, something merely ideal, could be formidable, or could threaten existing things with any but an ideal defeat. Tremendous error! Eternal possibilities may indeed beckon; they may attract those who instinctively pursue them as a star may guide those who wish to reach the place over which it happens to shine. But an eternal possibility has no material power. It is only one of an infinity of other things equally possible intrinsically, yet most of them quite unrealisable in this world of blood and mire. The realm of eternal essences rains down no Jovian thunderbolts, but only a ghostly Uranian calm. There is no frown there; rather, a passive and universal welcome to any who may have in them the will and the power to climb. Whether any one has the will depends on his material constitution, and whether he has the power depends on the firm texture of that constitution and on circumstances happening to be favourable to its operation. Otherwise what the rebel or the visionary hails as his ideal will be no picture of his destiny or of that of the world. It will be, and will always remain, merely a picture of his heart. This picture, indestructible in its ideal essence, will mirror also the hearts of those who may share, or may have shared, the nature of the poet who drew it. So purely ideal and so deeply human are the visions of Shelley. So truly does he deserve the epitaph which a clear-sighted friend wrote upon his tomb: cor cordium, the heart of hearts.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1800
SOURCE: "Prometheus Unbound," in The Spectator, Vol. 150, No. 5464, March 17, 1933, pp. 366–67.
[Yeats was an Irish poet, playwright, and essayist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The leading figure of the Irish Renaissance, Yeats was also an active critic of his contemporaries' work. His critical essays appeared initially in the Dial magazine and were collected posthumously in Essays and Introductions (1961). Commentators observe that Yeats judged the works of others according to his own poetic values of sincerity, passion, and vital imagination. In the following essay, Yeats provides a personal account of the influence of Shelley's work.]
When I was a young man I wrote two essays calling Shelley's dominant symbol the Morning Star, his poetry the poetry of desire. I had meant to explain Prometheus Unbound, but some passing difficulty turned me from a task that began to seem impossible. What does Shelley mean by Demo-gorgon? It lives in the centre of the earth, the sphere of Parmenides, perhaps, in a darkness that sends forth "rays of gloom" as "light from the meridian sun"; it names itself "eternity." When it has succeeded Jupiter, "the supreme of living things," as he did Saturn, when he and it have gone to lie "henceforth in darkness," Prometheus is set free, nature purified. Shelley the political revolutionary expected miracle, the Kingdom of God in the twinkling of an eye like some Christian of the first century. He had accepted Berkeley's philosophy as expounded in Sir William Drummond's Academical Questions. The ultimate reality is not thought, for thought cannot create, but "can only perceive"; the created world is a stream of images in the human mind, the stream and cavern of his symbolism; this stream is Time. Eternity is the abyss which receives and creates. Sometimes the soul is a boat, and in this boat Asia sails against the current from age to youth, from youth to infancy, and so to the prenatal condition "Peopled by shapes too bright to see." In the fourth act this condition, man's first happiness and his last, sings its ecstatic song; and yet although the first and last it is always near at hand, "Tir n'an og is not far from any of you," as a country-woman said to me:
That garden sweet, that lady fair,
And all sweet shapes and odours there,
In truth, have never passed away;
'Tis we; 'tis ours are changed; not they.
Why then does Demo-gorgon, whose task is beneficent, who lies in wait behind "The mighty portal … whence the oracular vapour is hurled up which lonely men drink wandering in their youth," bear so terrible a shape, and not to the eyes of Jupiter, external necessity, alone, but to those of Asia, who is identical with the Venus-Urania of the Athanais. Why is Shelley terrified of the Last Day like a Victorian child? It was not terrible to Blake, "For the cherub with the flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the Tree of Life; and when he does the whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy, whereas it now appears finite and corrupt."
Demo-gorgon made his plot incoherent, its interpretation impossible, it was thrust there by that something which again and again forced him to balance the object of desire conceived as miraculous and superhuman, with nightmare. Shelley told his friends of attempts upon his life or his liberty, elaborating details between delusion and deceit, believed himself infected with elephantiasis because he had sat opposite a fat woman in an omnibus, encountered terrifying apparitions, one a woman with eyes in her breasts; nor did his friendships escape obsession, his admired Elizabeth Hutchinson became "the brown demon … an artful, superficial, ugly, hermaphroditical beast of a woman"; nor was Prometheus the only nightmare-ridden work; there is nothing in Swell-foot the Tyrant but the cold rhetoric of obsession; The Cenci for all its magnificent construction is made unendurable upon the stage by an artificial character, the scapegoat of his unconscious hatred. When somebody asked Aubrey Beardsley towards the end of his life why he secreted indecencies in odd corners of his designs, more than once necessitating the destruction of a plate, he answered "Something compels me to sacrifice to Priapus." Shelley, whose art is allied to that of the Salome drawings where sex is sublimated to an unearthly receptivity, though more ardent and positive, imagined under a like compulsion whatever seemed dark, destructive, indefinite. Blake, though he had his brown demons, kept his freedom in essentials; he had encountered with what seemed his physical eyes but one nightmare "sealy, speckled, very awful" and thought such could visit but seldom imaginative men. Shelley was not a mystic, his system of thought was constructed by his logical faculty to satisfy desire, not a symbolical revelation received after the suspension of all desire. He could neither say with Dante "Thy will is my peace," nor with Finn in the Irish story "the best music is what happens."
There is a form of mediation which permits an image or symbol to generate itself, and the images and symbols so generated build themselves up into coherent structures often beautiful and startling. When a young man I made an exhaustive study of this condition in myself and in others, choosing as a rule for the initiatory symbol a name or form associated with a Cabbalistic Sephiroth, or with one of the five traditional elements. Sometimes, though not in my own case, trance intervened and the structure attained a seeming physical solidity, this however seldom happened and was considered undesirable. Almost always, after some days or weeks of mediation, a form emerged in sleep or amid the ordinary affairs of life to show or speak some significant message, or at some moment a strange hidden will controlled the unconscious movements of the body. If the experimentalist had an impassioned purpose, some propaganda, let us say, and no critical sense, he might become obsessed by images, voices, that had, it seemed, for their sole object to guard his purpose or to express its contrary and threaten it. The mystic, upon the other hand, is in no such danger, he so lives whether in east or west whether he be Ramakrishna or Boehme, as to dedicate his initiatory image, and its generated images, not to his own but the Divine Purpose, and after certain years attains the Saints' miraculous life. There have been others unfitted for such a life by nature or station, who could yet dedicate their actions and acquire what William Morris has called lucky eyes; "all that he does unwitting he does well." There is much curious evidence to show that the Divine Purpose so invoked descends into the mind at moments of inspiration, not as spiritual life alone but as what seems a physical brightness. Perhaps everybody that pursues that life for however short a time, even, as it were, but touches it, experiences now and again during sleep bright coherent dreams where something is shown or spoken that grows in meaning with the passage of time. Blake spoke of this "Stronger and better light," called its source "the human form divine," Shelley's "harmonious soul of many a soul," or, as we might say, the Divine Purpose. The stationary, joyous energy of certain among his figures, "Christ Blessing" for instance, or of his own life when we regard it as a whole as contrasted with the sadness and disquiet of Shelley's, suggests radiating light. We understand why the first Christian painters encircled certain heads with light. Because this source or purpose is always an action, never a system of thought, its man can attend, as Shelley could not, to the whole drama of life, simplicities, banalities, intoxications, even lie upon his left side and eat dung, set free "from a multitude of opinions."
It was as a mystic that Blake wrote "Sweet joy befall thee," "Soft deceit and idleness," "The Holy Word walks among the ancient trees." Shelley's art shows that he was an unconverted man though certainly a visionary, what people call a "psychic"; his landscapes are vaporised and generalized by his purpose, his spirits have not the separated existence even of those that in "Manfred" curse and yet have "sweet and melancholy" voices. He was the tyrant of his own being, nor was it in all likelihood a part of the plan that it should find freedom, seeing that he worked as did Keats and Marlowe, uncorrecting and unhesitating, as though he knew the shortness of his life. That life, and all lives, would be unintelligible to me did I not think of them as an exfoliation prolonged from life to life; he sang of something beginning.
When I was in my early twenties Shelley was much talked about, London had its important "Shelley Society," The Cenci had been performed and forbidden, provincial sketching clubs displayed pictures by young women of the burning of Shelley's body. The orthodox religion, as our mothers had taught it, was no longer credible, those who could not substitute Connoisseurship, or some humanitarian or scientific pursuit found a substitute in Shelley. He had shared our curiosities, our political problems, our conviction that despite all experience to the contrary, love is enough; and unlike Blake, isolated by an arbitrary symbolism, he seemed to sum up all that was metaphysical in English poetry. When in middle life I looked back I found that he and not Blake, whom I had studied more and with more approval, had shaped my life, and when I thought of the tumultuous and often tragic lives of friends or acquaintance I attributed to his direct or indirect influence their Jacobin frenzies, their brown demons.
Another study of that time, less general, more confined to exceptional men, was that of Balzac as a social philosopher. When I was thirteen or fourteen I heard somebody say that he changed men's lives, nor can I think it a coincidence that an epoch founded in such thought as Shelley's ended with an art of solidity and complexity. Me at any rate he saved from the pursuit of a beauty that seeming at once absolute and external requires, to strike a balance, hatred as absolute. Yet Balzac is no complete solution for that can be found in religion alone. One of the sensations of my childhood was a description of a now lost design of Nettleship's, God creating Evil, a vast terrifying face, a woman and a tiger rising from the forehead. Why did it seem so blasphemous and so profound? It was many years before I understood that we must not demand even the welfare of the human race, nor traffic with divinity in our prayers. Divinity moves outside our antinomies, it may be our lot to worship in terror: "Did He who made the lamb make thee?"
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7249
SOURCE: "Revaluations (VIII): Shelley," in Scrutiny, Vol. 4, No. 2, September, 1935, pp. 150–80.
[Leavis was an influential twentieth-century English critic. His methodology combined close textual criticism with predominantly moral and social concerns; however, Leavis was not interested in the individual writer per se, but rather with the usefulness of his or her art in the scheme of civilization. In the following essay, Leavis discusses several notable critical attacks on Shelley's style.]
If Shelley had not received some distinguished attention in recent years (and he has been differed over by the most eminent critics) there might, perhaps, have seemed little point in attempting a restatement of the essential critical observations—the essential observations, that is, in the reading and appreciation of Shelley's poetry. For they would seem to be obvious enough. Yet it is only one incitement out of many when a critic of peculiar authority, contemplating the common change from being 'intoxicated by Shelley's poetry at the age of fifteen' to finding it now 'almost unreadable,' invokes for explanation the nature of Shelley's 'ideas' and, in reference to them, that much-canvassed question of the day, 'the question of belief or disbelief:
It is not so much that thirty years ago I was able to read Shelley under an illusion which experience has dissipated, as that because the question of belief or disbelief did not arise I was in a much better position to enjoy the poetry. I can only regret that Shelley did not live to put his poetic gifts, which were certainly of the first order, at the service of more tenable beliefs—which need not have been, for my purposes, beliefs more acceptable to me. [G. Santayana, "Shelley, Or the Poetic Value of Revolutionary Principles," Winds of Doctrine, 1936]
This is, of course, a personal statement; but perhaps if one insists on the more obvious terms of literary criticism—more strictly critical terms—in which such a change might be explained, and suggests that the terms actually used might be found unfortunate in their effect, the impertinence will not be unpardonable. It does, in short, seem worth endeavoring to make finally plain that, when one dissents from persons who, sympathizing with Shelley's revolutionary doctrines and with his idealistic ardours and fervour—with his 'beliefs,' exalt him as a poet, it is strictly the 'poetry' one is criticizing. There would also appear to be some reason for insisting that in finding Shelley almost unreadable one need not be committing oneself to a fashionably limited taste—an inability to appreciate unfashionable kinds of excellence or to understand a use of words that is unlike Hopkins's or Donne's.
It will be well to start, in fact, by examining the working of Shelley's poetry—his characteristic modes of expression—as exemplified in one of his best poems.
Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aery surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm.
The sweeping movement of the verse, with the accompanying pungency, is so potent that, as many can testify, it is possible to have been for years familiar with the Ode—to know it by heart—without asking the obvious questions. In what respects are the 'loose clouds' like 'decaying leaves'? The correspondence is certainly not in shape, colour or way of moving. It is only the vague general sense of windy tumult that associates the clouds and the leaves; and, accordingly, the appropriateness of the metaphor 'stream' in the first line is not that it suggests a surface on which, like leaves, the clouds might be 'shed,' but that it contributes to the general 'streaming' effect in which the inappropriateness of 'shed' passes unnoticed. What, again, are those 'tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean'? They stand for nothing that Shelley could have pointed to in the scene before him; the 'boughs,' it is plain, have grown out of the 'leaves' in the previous line, and we are not to ask what the tree is. Nor are we to scrutinize closely the 'stream' metaphor as developed: that 'blue surface' must be the concave of the sky, an oddly smooth surface for a 'surge'—if we consider a moment. But in this poetic surge, while we let ourselves be swept along, there is no considering, the image doesn't challenge any inconvenient degree of realization, and the oddness is lost. Then again, in what ways does the approach of a storm ('loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves,' 'like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing') suggest streaming hair? The appropriateness of the Maenad, clearly, lies in the pervasive suggestion of frenzied onset, and we are not to ask whether her bright hair is to be seen as streaming out in front of her (as, there is no need to assure ourselves, it might be doing if she were running before a still swifter gale: in the kind of reading that got so far as proposing to itself this particular reassurance no general satisfaction could be exacted from Shelley's imagery).
Here, clearly, in these peculiarities of imagery and sense, peculiarities analysable locally in the mode of expression, we have the manifestation of essential characteristics—the Shelleyan characteristics as envisaged by the criticism that works on a philosophical plane and makes judgments of a moral order. In the growth of those 'tangled boughs' out of the leaves, exemplifying as it does a general tendency of the images to forget the status of the metaphor or simile that introduced them and to assume an autonomy and a right to propagate, so that we lose in confused generations and perspectives the perception or thought that was the ostensible raison d'être of imagery, we have a recognized essential trait of Shelley's: his weak grasp upon the actual. This weakness, of course, commonly has more or less creditable accounts given of it—idealism, Platonism and so on; and even as unsentimental a judge as Mr. Santayana correlates Shelley's inability to learn from experience with his having been born a 'nature preformed,' a 'spokesman of the a priori,' 'a dogmatic, inspired, perfect and incorrigible creature.' It seems to me that Mr. Santayana's essay, admirable as it is, rates the poetry too high. But for the moment it will be enough to recall limitations that are hardly disputed: Shelley was not gifted for drama or narrative. Having said this, I realize that I had forgotten the conventional standing of The Cenci; but controversy may be postponed: it is at any rate universally agreed that (to shift tactfully to positive terms) Shelley's genius was 'essentially lyrical.'
This predicate would, in common use, imply a special emotional intensity—a vague gloss, but it is difficult to go further without slipping into terms that are immediately primitive and limiting. Thus there is certainly a sense in which Shelley's poetry is peculiarly emotional, and when we try to define this sense we find ourselves invoking an absence of something. The point may be best made, perhaps, by recalling the observation noted above, that one may have been long familiar with the 'Ode to the West Wind' without ever having asked the obvious questions; questions that propose themselves at the first critical inspection. This poetry induces—depends for its success on inducing—a kind of attention that doesn't bring the critical intelligence into play: the imagery feels right, the associations work appropriately, if (as it takes conscious resistance not to do) one accepts the immediate feeling and doesn't slow down to think.
Shelley himself can hardly have asked the questions. Not that he didn't expend a great deal of critical labour upon his verse. 'He composed rapidly and attained to perfection by intensive correction. He would sometimes write down a phrase with alterations and rejections time after time until it came within a measure of satisfying him. Words are frequently substituted for others and lines interpolated.' The 'Ode to the West Wind' itself, as is shown in the repository of fragments the preface to which supplies these observations, profited by the process described, which must be allowed to have been in some sense critical. But the critical part of Shelley's creative labour was a matter of getting the verse to feel right, and feeling, for Shelley as a poet, had—as the insistent concern for 'rightness,' the typical final product being what it is, serves to emphasize—little to do with thinking (though Shelley was in some ways a very intelligent man).
We have here, if not sufficient justification for the predicate 'essentially lyrical,' certainly a large part of the reason for Shelley's being found essentially poetical by the succeeding age. He counted, in fact, for a great deal in what came to be the prevailing idea of 'the poetical'…. The Romantic conceptions of genius and inspiration developed (the French Revolution and its ideological background must, of course, be taken into account) in reaction against the Augustan insistence on the social and the rational. When Wordsworth says that 'all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings' he is of his period, though the intended force of this dictum, the force it has in its context and in relation to Wordsworth's own practice, is very different from that given it when Shelley assents, or when it is assimilated to Byron's 'poetry is the lava of the imagination, whose eruption prevents an earthquake.' But Byron was for the young Tennyson (and the Ruskin parents) the poet, and Shelley (Browning's 'Suntreader') was the idol of the undergraduate Tennyson and his fellow Apostles, and, since the poetry of 'the age of Wordsworth' became canonical, the assent given to Wordsworth's dictum has commonly been Shelleyan.
The force of Shelley's insistence on spontaneity is simple and unequivocal. It will be enough to recall a representative passage or two from the Defence of Poetry:
for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakes to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our nature are unpropped either of its approach or its departure.
'Inspiration' is not something to be tested, clarified, defined and developed in composition,
but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet… The toil and delay recommended by critics can be justly interpreted to mean no more than a careful observation of the inspired moments, and an artificial convening of the spaces between their suggestions, by the intertexture of conventional expressions; a necessity only imposed by the limitedness of the poetical faculty itself …
The 'poetical faculty,' we are left no room for doubting, can, of its very nature, have nothing to do with any discipline, and can be associated with conscious effort only mechanically and externally, and when Shelley says that Poetry
is not subject to the control of the active powers of the mind, and that its birth and recurrence have no necessary connexion with consciousness or will
he is not saying merely that the 'active powers of the mind' are insufficient in themselves for creation—that poetry cannot be written merely by taking thought. The effect of Shelley's eloquence is to hand poetry over to a sensibility that has no more dealings with intelligence than it can help; to a 'poetic faculty' that, for its duly responsive vibrating (though the poet must reverently make his pen as sensitive an instrument as possible to 'observe'—in the scientific sense—the vibrations), demands that active intelligence shall be, as it were, switched off.
Shelley, of course, had ideas and ideals; he wrote philosophical essays, and it need not be irrelevant to refer, in discussing his poetry, to Plato, Godwin and other thinkers. But there is nothing grasped in the poetry—no object offered for contemplation, no realized presence to persuade or move us by what it is. Dr. A. C. Bradley, remarking that 'Shelley's ideals of good, whether as a character or as a mode of life, resting as they do on abstraction from the mass of real existence, tend to lack body and individuality,' adds: 'But we must remember that Shelley's strength and weakness are closely allied, and it may be that the very abstractness of his ideal was a condition of that quivering intensity of aspiration towards it in which his poetry is unequalled.' That is the best that can be respectably said. Actually, that 'quivering intensity,' offered in itself apart from any substance, offered instead of any object, is what, though it may make Shelley intoxicating at fifteen makes him almost unreadable, except in very small quantities of his best, to the mature. Even when he is in his own way unmistakably a distinguished poet, as in Prometheus Unbound, it is impossible to go on reading him at any length with pleasure; the elusive imagery, the high-pitched emotions, the tone and movement, the ardours, ecstasies and despairs, are too much the same all through. The effect is of vanity and emptiness (Arnold was right) as well as monotony.
The force of the judgment that feeling in Shelley's poetry is divorced from thought needs examining further. Any suspicion that Donne is the implied criterion will, perhaps, be finally averted if for the illuminating contrast we go to Wordsworth. Wordsworth is another 'Romantic' poet; he too is undramatic; and he too invites the criticism (Arnold, his devoted admirer, made it) that he lacks variety. 'Thought' will hardly be found an assertive presence in his best poetry; in so far as the term suggests an overtly active energy it is decidedly inappropriate. 'Emotion,' his own word, is the word most readers would insist on, though they would probably judge Wordsworth's emotion to be less lyrical than Shelley's. The essential difference, however—and it is a very important one—seems, for present purposes, more relevantly stated in the terms I used in discussing Wordsworth's 'recollection in tranquillity.' The process covered by this phrase was one of emotional discipline, critical exploration of experience, pondered valuation and maturing reflection. As a result of it an organization is engaged in Wordsworth's poetry, and the activity and standards of critical intelligence are implicit.
An associated difference was noted in the sureness with which Wordsworth grasps the world of common perception. The illustration suggested was 'The Simplon Pass' in comparison with Shelley's 'Mont Blanc' The element of Wordsworth in 'Mont Blanc' (it is perceptible in these opening lines) serves only to enhance the contrast:
The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters,—with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.
The metaphorical and the actual, the real and the imagined, the inner and the outer, could hardly be more unsortably and indistinguishably confused. The setting, of course, provides special excuse for bewildered confusion; but Shelley takes eager advantage of the excuse and the confusion is characteristic—what might be found unusual in 'Mont Blanc' is a certain compelling vividness. In any case, Wordsworth himself is explicitly offering a sense of sublime bewilderment, similarly inspired:
Black drizzling crags that spake by the wayside
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face …
He is, of course, recollecting in tranquillity; but the collectedness of those twenty lines (as against Shelley's one hundred and forty) does not belong merely to the record; it was present (or at least the movement towards it was) in the experience, as those images, 'one mind,' 'the same face'—epitomizing, as they do, the contrast with Shelley's ecstatic dissipation—may fairly be taken to testify.
This comparison does not aim immediately at a judgment of relative value. 'Mont Blanc' is very interesting as well as idiosyncratic, and is not obviously the product of the less rare gift. There are, nevertheless, critical judgments to be made—judgments concerning the emotional quality of Wordsworth's poetry and of Shelley's: something more than mere description of idiosyncrasy is in view. What should have come out in the comparison that started as a note on Wordsworth's grasp of the outer world is the unobtrusiveness with which that 'outer' turns into 'inner': the antithesis, clearly, is not altogether, for present purposes, a simple one to apply. What is characteristic of Wordsworth is to grasp surely (which, in the nature of the case, must be delicately and subtly) what he offers, whether this appears as belonging to the outer world—the world as perceived, or to inner experience. He seems always to be presenting an object (wherever this may belong) and the emotion seems to derive from what is presented. The point is very obviously and impressively exemplified in 'A slumber did my spirit seal,' which shows Wordsworth at his supreme height. Here (compare it with the 'Ode to the West Wind,' where we have Shelley's genius at its best; or, if something more obviously comparable is required, with Tennyson's 'Break, break, break') there is no emotional comment—nothing 'emotional' in phrasing, movement or tone; the facts seem to be presented barely, and the emotional force to be generated by them in the reader's mind when he has taken them in—generated by the two juxtaposed stanzas, in the contrast between the situations or states they represent.
Shelley, at his best and worst, offers the emotion in itself, unattached, in the void. 'In itself,' 'for itself—it is an easy shift to the pejorative implications of 'for its own sake'; just as, for a poet with the habit of sensibility and expression described, it was an easy shift to deserving them. For Shelley is obnoxious to the pejorative implications of 'habit': being inspired was, for him, too apt to mean surrendering to a kind of hypnotic rote of favourite images, associations and words. 'Inspiration,' there not being an organization for it to engage (as in Wordsworth, whose sameness is of a different order from Shelley's, there was) had only poetical habits to fall back on. We have them in their most innocent aspect in those favourite words: radiant, aërial, odorous, daedal, faint, sweet, bright, wingèd, -inwoven, and the rest of the fondled vocabulary that any reader of Shelley could go on enumerating. They manifest themselves as decidedly deplorable in 'The Cloud' and 'To a Skylark,' which illustrate the dangers of fostering the kind of inspiration that works only when critical intelligence is switched off. These poems may be not unfairly described as the products of switching poetry on. There has been in recent years some controversy about particular points in 'To a Skylark,' and there are a score or more points inviting adverse criticism. But this need hardly be offered; it is, or should be, so plain that the poem is a mere tumbled out spate ('spontaneous overflow') of poeticalities, the place of each one of which Shelley could have filled with another without the least difficulty and without making any essential difference. They are held together by the pervasive 'lyrical emotion,' and that this should be capable of holding them together is comment enough on the nature of its strength.
Cheaper surrenders to inspiration may easily be found in the collected Shelley; there are, for instance, gross indulgences in the basest Regency album taste. But criticism of Shelley has something more important to deal with than mere bad poetry; or, rather, there are badnesses inviting the criticism that involves moral judgments. It must have already appeared (it has virtually been said) that surrendering to inspiration cannot, for a poet of Shelley's emotional habits, have been very distinguishable from surrendering to temptation. The point comes out in an element of the favoured vocabulary not exemplified above: charnel, corpse, phantom, liberticide, aghast, ghastly and so on. The wrong approach to emotion, the approach from the wrong side or end (so to speak), is apparent here; Shelley would clearly have done well not to have indulged these habits and these likings: the viciousness and corruption are immediately recognizable. But viciousness and corruption do not less attend upon likings for tender ('I love Love'), sympathetic, exalted and ecstatic emotions, and may be especially expected to do so in a mind as little able to hold an object in front of it as Shelley's was.
The transition from the lighter concerns of literary criticism to the diagnosis of radical disabilities and perversions, such as call for moral comment, may be conveniently illustrated from a favourite anthology-piece, 'When the lamp is shattered':
The first two stanzas call for no very close attention—to say so, indeed, is to make the main criticism, seeing that they offer a show of insistent argument. However, reading with an unsolicited closeness, one may stop at the second line and ask whether the effect got with 'lies dead' is legitimate. Certainly, the emotional purpose of the poem is served, but the emotional purpose that went on being served in that way would be suspect. Leaving the question in suspense, perhaps, one passes to 'shed'; 'shed' as tears, petals and coats are shed, or as light is shed? The latter would be a rather more respectable use of the word in connection with a rainbow's glory, but the context indicates the former. Only in the vaguest and slackest state of mind—of imagination and thought—could one so describe the fading of a rainbow; but for the right reader 'shed' sounds right, the alliteration with 'shattered' combining with the verse-movement to produce a kind of inevitability. And, of course, suggesting tears and the last rose of summer, it suits with the general emotional effect. The nature of this is by now so unmistakable that the complete nullity of the clinching 'so,' when it arrives—of the two lines that justify the ten preparatory lines of analogy—seems hardly worth stopping to note:
Nor is it surprising that there should turn out to be a song after all, and a pretty powerful one—for those who like that sort of thing; the 'sad dirges,' the 'ruined cell,' the 'mournful surges' and the 'dead seaman's knell' being immediately recognizable as currency values. Those who take pleasure in recognizing and accepting them are not at the same time exacting about sense.
The critical interest up to this point has been to see Shelley, himself (when inspired) so unexacting about sense, giving himself so completely to sentimental banalities. With the next stanza it is much the same, though the emotional clichés take on a grosser unction and the required abeyance of thought (and imagination) becomes more remarkable. In what form are we to imagine Love leaving the well-built nest? For readers who get so far as asking, there can be no acceptable answer. It would be unpoetically literal to suggest that, since the weak one is singled, the truant must be the mate, and, besides, it would raise unnecessary difficulties. Perhaps the mate, the strong one, is what the weak one, deserted by Love, whose alliance made possession once possible, now has to endure? But the suggestion is frivolous; the sense is plain enough—enough, that is, for those who respond to the sentiment. Sufficient recognition of the sense depends neither on thinking, nor on realization of the metaphors, but on response to the sentimental commonplaces: it is only when intelligence and imagination insist on intruding that difficulties arise. So plain is this that there would be no point in contemplating the metaphorical complexity that would develop if we could take the tropes seriously and tried to realize Love making of the weak one, whom it (if we evade the problem of sex) leaves behind in the well-built nest, a cradle, a home and a bier.
The last stanza brings a notable change; it alone in the poem has any distinction, and its personal quality, characteristically Shelleyan, stands out against the sentimental conventionality of the rest. The result is to compel a more radical judgment on the poem than has yet been made. In 'Its passions will rock thee' the 'passions' must be those of Love, so that it can no longer be Love that is being apostrophized. Who, then, is 'thee'? The 'frailest'—the 'weak one'—it would appear. But any notion one may have had that the 'weak one,' as the conventional sentiments imply, is the woman must be abandoned: the 'eagle home,' to which the 'well-built nest' so incongruously turns, is the Poet's. The familiar timbre, the desolate intensity (note particularly the use of 'bright' in 'bright reason'), puts it beyond doubt that Shelley is, characteristically, addressing himself—the 'pardlike Spirit beautiful and swift,' the 'Love in desolation masked,' the 'Power girt round with weakness.'
Characteristically: that is, Shelley's characteristic pathos is self-regarding, directed upon an idealized self in the way suggested by the tags just quoted. This is patently so in some of his best poetry; for instance, in the 'Ode to the West Wind.' Even there, perhaps, one may find something too like an element of luxury in the poignancy (at any rate, one's limiting criticism of the 'Ode' would move towards such a judgment); and that in general there must be dangers and weakness attending upon such a habit will hardly be denied. The poem just examined shows how gross may be, in Shelley, the corruptions that are incident. He can make self-pity a luxury at such a level that the conventional pathos of album poeticizing, not excluding the banalities about (it is plainly so in the third stanza) the sad lot of woman, can come in to gratify the appetite.
The abeyance of thought exhibited by the first three stanzas now takes on a more sinister aspect. The switching-off of intelligence that is necessary if the sentiments of the third stanza are to be accepted has now to be invoked in explanation of a graver matter—Shelley's ability to accept the grosser, the truly corrupt, gratifications that have just been indicated. The antipathy of his sensibility to any play of the critical mind, the uncongeniality of intelligence to inspiration, these clearly go in Shelley, not merely with a capacity for momentary self-deceptions and insincerties, but with a radical lack of self-knowledge. He could say of Wordsworth, implying the opposite of himself, that
But, for all his altruistic fervours and his fancied capacity for projecting his sympathies, Shelley is habitually—it is no new observation—his own hero: Alastor, Laon, The Sensitive Plant
(It loves, even like Love, its deep heart is full,
It desires what it has not, the Beautiful)
and Prometheus. It is characteristic that he should say to the West Wind,
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud,
About the love of such a nature there is likely at the best to be a certain innocent selfishness. And it is with fervour that Shelley says, as he is always saying implicitly, 'I love Love.' Mr. Santayana acutely observes: 'In him, as in many people, too intense a need of loving excludes the capacity for intelligent sympathy.' Perhaps love generally has less in it of intelligent sympathy than the lover supposes, and is less determined by the object of love; but Shelley, we have seen, was, while on the one hand conscious of ardent altruism, on the other peculiarly weak in his hold on objects—peculiarly unable to realize them as existing in their own natures and their own right. His need of loving (in a sense that was not, perhaps, in the full focus of Mr. Santayana's intention) comes out in the erotic element that, as already remarked in these pages, the texture of the poetry pervasively exhibits. There is hardly any need to illustrate here the tender, caressing, voluptuous effects and suggestions of the favourite vocabulary and imagery. The consequences of the need, or 'love,' of loving, combined, as it was, with a notable lack of self-knowledge and a capacity for ecstatic idealizing, are classically extant in Epipsy-chidion.
The love of loathing is, naturally, less conscious than the love of Love. It may fairly be said to involve a love of Hate, if not of hating: justification enough for putting it this way is provided by The Cenci, which exhibits a perverse luxury of insistence, not merely upon horror, but upon malignity. This work, of course, is commonly held to require noting as, in the general account of Shelley, a remarkable exception: his genius may be essentially lyrical, but he can, transcending limitations, write great drama. This estimate of The Cenci is certainly a remarkable instance of vis inertiae—of the power of conventional valuation to perpetuate itself, once established. For it takes no great discernment to see that The Cenci is very bad and that its badness is characteristic. Shelley, as usual, is the hero—here the heroine; his relation to Beatrice is of the same order as his relation to Alastor and Prometheus, and the usual vices should not be found more acceptable because of the show of drama.
Nor is this show the less significantly bad because Shelley doesn't know where it comes from—how he is contriving it. He says in his Preface that an idea suggested by Calderon is 'the only plagiarism which I have intentionally committed in the whole piece.' Actually, not only is the 'whole piece' Shakespearean in inspiration (how peculiarly dubious an affair inspiration was apt to be for Shelley we have seen); it is full of particular echoes of Shakespeare—echoes protracted, confused and woolly; plagiarisms, that is, of the worst kind. This Shakespeareanizing, general and particular, is—and not the less so for its unconsciousness—quite damning. It means that Shelley's drama and tragedy do not grow out of any realized theme; there is nothing grasped at the core of the piece. Instead there is Beatrice-Shelley, in whose martyrdom the Count acts Jove—with more than Jovian gusto:
I do not feels as if I were a man,
But like a fiend appointed to chastise
The offences of some unremembered world.
My blood is running up and down my veins;
A fearful pleasure makes it prick and tingle:
I feel a giddy sickness of strange awe;
My heart is beating with an expectation
Of horrid joy.
The pathos is of corresponding corruptness. The habits that enable Shelley to be unconscious about this kind of indulgence enable him at the same time to turn it into tragic drama by virtue of an unconscious effort to be Shakespeare.
There are, of course, touches of Webster: Beatrice in the trial scene is commonly recognized to have borrowed an effect or two from the White Devil. But the Shakespearean promptings are everywhere, in some places almost ludicrously assorted, obvious and thick. For instance, Act III Sc. ii starts (stage direction: 'Thunder and the sound of a storm') by being at line two obviously Lear. At line eight Othello comes in and carries on for ten lines; and he reasserts himself at line fifty. At line seventy-eight we get an effect from Macbeth to be followed by many more in the next act, during which, after much borrowed suspense, the Count's murder is consummated.
The quality of the dramatic poetry and the relation between Shelley and Shakespeare must, for reasons of space, be represented—the example is a fair one—by a single brief passage (Act V Sc. iv 1. 48):
This patently recalls Claudio's speech in Measure for Measure (Act III Sc. i):
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts
Imagine howling:—'tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.
The juxtaposition is enough to expose the vague, generalizing externality of Shelley's rendering. Claudio's words spring from a vividly realized particular situation; from the imagined experience of a given mind in a given critical moment that is felt from the inside—that is lived—with sharp concrete particularly. Claudio's 'Ay, but to die …' is not insistently and voluminously emotional like Beatrice's ('wildly')
but it is incomparably more intense. That 'cold obstruction' is not abstract; it gives rather the essence of the situation in which Claudio shrinkingly imagines himself—the sense of the warm body (given by 'cold') struggling ('obstruction' takes an appropriate effort to pronounce) in vain with the suffocating earth. Sentience, warmth and motion, the essentials of being alive as epitomized in the next line, recoil from death, realized brutally in the concrete (the 'clod' is a vehement protest, as 'clay,' which 'kneaded' nevertheless brings appropriately in, would not have been). Sentience, in the 'delighted spirit,' plunges, not into the delightful coolness suggested by 'bathe,' but into the dreadful opposite, and warmth and motion shudder away from the icy prison ('reside' is analogous in working to 'bathe'). The shudder is there in 'thrilling,' which also—such alliteration as that of 'thrilling region' and 'thick-ribbed' is not accidental in a Shakespearean passage of this quality—gives the sharp reverberating report of the ice as, in the intense cold, it is forced up into ridges or ribs (at which, owing to the cracks, the thickness of the ice can be seen).
But there is no need to go on. The point has been sufficiently enforced that, though this vivid concreteness of realization lodged the passage in Shelley's mind, to become at the due moment 'inspiration,' the passage inspired is nothing but wordy emotional generality. It does not grasp and present anything, but merely makes large gestures towards the kind of effect deemed appropriate. We are told emphatically what the emotion is that we are to feel; emphasis and insistence serving instead of realization and advertising its default. The intrusion of the tag from Lear brings out the vague generality of that unconscious set at being Shakespeare which Shelley took for dramatic inspiration.
Inspection of The Cenci, then, confirms all the worst in the account of Shelley. Further confirmation would not need much seeking; but, returning to the fact of his genius, it is pleasanter, and more profitable, to recall what may be said by way of explaining how he should have been capable of the worst. His upbringing was against him. As Mr. Santayana says: 'Shelley seems hardly to have been brought up; he grew up in the nursery among his young sisters, at school among the rude boys, without any affectionate guidance, without imbibing any religious or social tradition.' Driven in on himself, he nourished the inner life of adolescence on the trashy fantasies and cheap excitements of the Terror school. The phase of serious tradition in which, in incipient maturity, he began to practise poetry was, in a subtler way, as unfavourable: Shelley needed no encouragement to cultivate spontaneity of emotion and poetical abeyance of thought. Then the state of the world at the time must, in its effect on a spirit of Shelley's sensitive humanity and idealizing bent, be allowed to account for a great deal—as the sonnet, 'England in 1819,' so curiously intimates:
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,—
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring,—
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,—
A people starved and stabbed in the unfilled field,—
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield,—
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A Senate,—Time's worst statute unrepealed,—
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.
The contrast between the unusual strength (for Shelley) of the main body of the sonnet and the pathetic weakness of the final couplet is eloquent. Contemplation of the actual world being unendurable, Shelley devotes himself to the glorious Phantom that may (an oddly ironical stress results from the rime position) work a sudden miraculous change but is in any case as vague as Demogorgon and as unrelated to actuality—to which Shelley's Evil is correspondingly unrelated.
The strength of the sonnet, though unusual in kind for Shelley, is not of remarkably distinguished quality in itself; the kindred strength of The Mask of Anarchy is. Of this poem Professor Elton says [in Survey of English Literature, 1780–1830, Vol. II]: 'There is a likeness in it to Blake's [gift] which has often been noticed; the same kind of anvil-stroke, and the same use of an awkward simplicity for the purposes of epigram.' The likeness to Blake is certainly there—much more of a likeness than would have seemed possible from the characteristic work. It lies, not in any assumed broadsheet naïveté or crudity such as the account cited might perhaps suggest, but in a rare emotional intensity and force, deriving from a clear, disinterested and mature vision.
When one fled past, a maniac mind,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair,
And she cried out in the air:
'My father Time is weak and gray
With waiting for a better day;
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling with his palsied hands!
He has had child after child,
And the dust of death is piled
Over every one but me—
Misery, oh, Misery!'
Then she lay down in the street,
Right before the horses' feet,
Expecting, with a patient eye,
Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy.
These stanzas do not represent all the virtue of the poem, but they show its unusual purity and strength. In spite of 'Murder, Fraud and Anarchy,' there is nothing of the usual Shelleyan emotionalism—no suspicion of indulgence, insistence, corrupt will or improper approach. The emotion seems to inhere in the vision communicated, the situation grasped: Shelley sees what is in front of him too clearly, and with too pure a pity and indignation, to have any regard for his emotions as such; the emotional value of what is presented asserts itself, or rather, does not need asserting. Had he used and developed his genius in the spirit of The Mask of Anarchy he would have been a much greater, and a much more readable, poet.
But The Mask of Anarchy is little more than a marginal throw-off, and gets perhaps too much stress in even so brief a distinguishing mention as this. The poetry in which Shelley's genius manifests itself characteristically, and for which he has his place in the English tradition, is much more closely related to his weaknesses. It would be perverse to end without recognizing that he achieved memorable things in modes of experience that were peculiarly congenial to the European mind in that phase of its history, and are of permanent interest. The sensibility expressed in the 'Ode to the West Wind' is much more disablingly limited than current valuation allows, but the consummate expression is rightly treasured. The Shelleyan confusion appears, perhaps, at its most poignant in The Triumph of Life, the late unfinished poem. This poem has been paralleled with the revised Hyperion, and it is certainly related by more than the terza rima to Dante. There is in it a profounder note of disenchantment than before, a new kind of desolation, and, in its questioning, a new and profoundly serious concern for reality:
… their might
Could not repress the mystery within,
And for the morn of truth they feigned, deep night
Caught them ere evening …
For in the battle Life and they did wage,
She remained conqueror …
'Whence camest thou? and whither goest thou?
How did thy course begin?' I said, 'and why?
Mine eyes are sick of this perpetual flow
Of people, and my heart sick of one sad thought—
as one between desire and shame
Suspended, I said—If, as it doth seem,
Thou comest from the realm without a name
Into this valley of perpetual dream,
Show whence I came and where I am, and why—
Pass not away upon the passing stream.
But in spite of the camest struggle to grasp something real, the sincere revulsion from personal dreams and fantasies, the poem itself is a drifting phantasmagoria—bewildering and bewildered. Vision opens into vision, dream unfolds within dream, and the visionary perspectives, like those of the imagery in the passage of 'Mont Blanc,' shift elusively and are lost; and the failure to place the various phases or levels of visionary drift with reference to any grasped reality is the more significant because of the palpable effort. Nevertheless, the Triumph of Life is among the few things one can still read and go back to in Shelley when he has become, generally, 'almost unreadable.'
Shelley's part in the later notion of 'the poetical' has been sufficiently indicated. His handling of the medium assimilates him readily, as an influence, to the Spenserian-Miltonic line running through Hyperion to Tennyson. Milton is patently present in Alastor, the earliest truly Shelleyan poem; and Adonais—
Afar the melancholy thunder moaned,
Pale Ocean in unquiet slumber lay
—relates him as obviously to Hyperion as to Lycidas. Indeed, to compare the verse of Hyperion, where the Miltonic Grand Style is transmuted by the Spenserianizing Keats, with that of Adonais is to bring out the essential relation between the organ resonances of Paradise Lost and the pastoral melodizing of Lycidas. Mellifluous mourning in Adonais is a more fervent luxury than in Lycidas, and more declamatory ('Life like a dome of many-coloured glass'—the famous imagery is happily conscious of being impressive, but the impressiveness is for the spellbound, for those sharing the simple happiness of intoxication); and it is, in the voluptuous self-absorption with which the medium enjoys itself, rather nearer to Tennyson.
But, as was virtually said in the discussion of imagery from the 'Ode to the West Wind,' the Victorian poet with whom Shelley has some peculiar affinities is Swinburne.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8866
SOURCE: "Shelley's Naturalism," in The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poet1ry, The Macmillan Publishing Company, 1936, pp. 209–41.
[Beach was an American critic and educator who specialized in American literature and English literature of the Romantic and Victorian eras. In the following excerpt, he examines Shelley's naturalism and the widespread fascination with nature during the Romantic period.]
The word nature is much less frequent in Shelley than in Wordsworth. This is partly owing to the fact that he does not attempt, like Wordsworth, to trace the influence of natural objects in the development of his imagination. It is partly owing to the poetic quality which led him, in his mature work, to employ symbolism in places where Wordsworth used an abstract term. The entire scenery of Alastor symbolizes that nature which, to the over-sensitive soul of the poet, furnishes a refuge from the cruelty and misunderstanding of the world, but which in the long run proves his undoing. For Shelley brings to poetry a subtler spirit, a more complicated feeling; he sounds, in this poem, a strong note of romantic irony, and suggests that nature, whom he loves so fanatically as "mother of this unfathomable world," may be a fatal companion for a poet. In later poems—as well as in the earlier Queen Mab—nature is shown in a less dubious light. In "Mont Blanc" the sublime mountain symbolizes—
The west wind, in the famous "Ode," symbolizes the variegated power of natural phenomena and nature's promise of a world reborn to a spirit desolated by the wintry bleakness of the present. In "The Cloud" is symbolized the essential oneness of nature amid her manifold changes of form. In the ode "To a Skylark" is symbolized the gladness of natural creatures who are free from the "hate, and pride, and fear" which sadden and cloud the spirit of man. In Prometheus Unbound there is no need for specific reference to abstract nature since she is represented by one of the leading characters in the allegory; and the physical operations of nature are visibly presented in the masque by Earth and Moon and Ocean and other personifications.
The natural scenery of Shelley has a quality very different from Wordsworth's. It is less realistic, less familiar. It is an imaginative composite of features taken from nature and put together in a pattern suitable to the poet's thought and mood. For this reason Shelley is often felt to be less a poet of nature than Wordsworth; he does not follow nature so faithfully, but compels her to ends of his own. In a sense, however, he is more of a nature-poet. For he readily passes beyond the visible shows of nature to the larger cosmic operations in which she manifests her power and direction. His view is less confined to the surface of the earth where man dwells, more free to follow the movements of cloud and tide and lightning; he visits the secret caves of the earth and circles the orbits of the planets. He is more prone to dwell on the forces and processes—electricity, gravity, light, heat, chemical force, vegetation—by which nature is constituted an entity for scientist and mathematician. The sensuous appeal is as rich and constant in Shelley as in Wordsworth; but it is on a different level of experience, less familiar, and calling for a greater stretch of imagination. In the esthetic synthesis of universal nature with individual "beauteous forms," the element of scientific theory is greater and more constant, though Shelley's symbolism often requires a gloss. And in a larger proportion of cases, the word nature with him obviously refers to the philosophical abstraction.
THE ORDER OF NATURE
It may be considered unfortunate that the word nature is most frequently used, and the philosophy of nature most sharply defined, in an early and markedly inferior poem—Queen Mab—in which Shelley's imagination is thin and conventional, his language bald and feeble, and the "esthetic synthesis" most imperfectly brought about. But for all its crudeness, this poem does include many important elements—some of them abiding elements—in Shelley's philosophy of nature; in many ways it is a preliminary sketch for what he did so magnificently half a dozen years later in Prometheus Unbound. And perhaps we should be grateful that Shelley has left a document in which his ideas are so simply exposed to the simplest apprehension.
There are many references in Queen Mab to the laws of nature as conceived by science. Or rather the reference is to nature's law, as conceived by eighteenth-century materialists, with their penchant for generalizing and simplification, and their frequent confusion of two distinct meanings of the word. The heavenly bodies fulfill immutably "eternal nature's law." Nature can be relied on better than the Christian hell to deal out punishment to wrongdoers.
And all-sufficing nature can chastise
Those who transgress her law….
One of the "laws" of nature for Shelley at this period was for men to eat no animal food. The flesh of the lamb which man devoured, "still avenging nature's broken law,"
Kindled all putrid humours in his frame,
All evil passions, and all vain belief….
Nature had evidently established vegetarianism as her "law."
It will be seen that Shelley carries even farther than Wordsworth the concept of nature as a norm of conduct for human beings. The justice of man is but a feeble reflection—nay, often, perversion—of the justice of nature. Yet Shelley holds, with Rousseau and to some degree with Wordsworth, that the justice of nature may be found, if man will look candidly, in his own heart.
The poet Shelley does not tell us by what signs one may recognize the decrees of nature; but throughout the entire period of his writing he takes for granted that he can recognize them. In The Revolt of Islam he declares it to be—
In The Cenci the son of the Count considers that his father's crimes have freed him from the filial obligations which nature imposed upon him.
"He has cast Nature off, which was his shield,
And Nature casts him off, who is her shame."
The Lord Chancellor who refused to Shelley the custody of his own children has overthrown "Nature's landmarks." In Prometheus Unbound Shelley regards Truth, Liberty and Love as "Nature's sacred watchwords."
The operations of the universe in its entirety are an expression of "Nature's unchanging harmony." It is not by the decrees of nature that man is vicious and miserable. The youthful Shelley states more crudely than Rousseau, more crudely even than Godwin, the doctrine that it is false institutions that have corrupted the natural goodness of man.
Nature is the eternal, the changeless element in the universe. But it is inherent in her law to bring about the regeneration of a corrupt and ailing world. The fairy guide and prophet in Queen Mab assures the spirit of Ianthe that humanity will not be forever slavish and bloody.
Now, to the scene I show, in silence turn,
And read the blood-stained charter of all woe,
Which nature soon, with recreating hand,
Will blot in mercy from the book of earth.
This work of regeneration will be brought about by man whenever he consents to be reunited with nature and work in concert with her law.
How sweet a scene will earth become!
Of purest spirits, a pure dwelling-place,
Symphonious with the planetary spheres;
When man, with changeless nature coalescing,
Will undertake regeneration's work….
This bald and jejune statement in Queen Mab is of the utmost importance for the interpretation of Shelley's refined symbolism in Prometheus Unbound. For the central allegory of that poem has to do with the regeneration of the world which is to come about when man (Prometheus) "coalesces" with changeless nature (Asia). It is true that Asia stands for much more than mere nature as conceived in Queen Mab. She obviously stands for Love as well, and love conceived in a comprehensive platonic fashion. So that she may be said to represent, like Prometheus himself, one of the elements essential to an ideal humanity. But she is also associated in Shelley's allegory with the benevolent order of nature, from which it is possible for man to be temporarily divorced, but with which he must be reunited in order to secure his happiness and restore the world to its perfection.
The history of Shelley's naturalism is roughly parallel to that of Wordsworth's. Naturalism was at first even more dominant in Shelley's view; and it gradually tended to yield, as in Wordsworth, to a more mystical philosophy, made necessary largely by the difficult problems concerned with the nature and origin of the human spirit.
Shelley's naturalism was, in the beginning, of a much more extreme type than Wordsworth's. Wordsworth started with a sort of pantheism, derived mainly from current English poetry. Shelley started with a sort of atheism derived perhaps from current French philosophy. It is known that Shelley had been at an early age a diligent reader of Helvétius, d'Holbach, Condorcet, and Volney, as well as of the English Godwin; and from some or all of these he may have derived the view of nature expressed with so much definiteness—so much baldness and prosiness indeed—in Queen Mab.
In this poem the Fairy, who corresponds roughly to the didactic phantom of Volney's Ruines, conveys the Spirit of the girl Ianthe in his magic car into the midst of the astronomical heaven, which with its rolling and innumerable systems seems the most fitting temple for the "Spirit of Nature," though "not the lightest leaf that quivers to the passing breeze is less instinct with" this spirit. It is clear that Shelley, like other poets of his day, was most deeply impressed, among the operations of nature, with those which came within the compass of Newton's synthesis. But he too was eager to extend the conception of immutable law beyond physics and astronomy into the realm of human life and morality. The Fairy and the Spirit enter a Hall of Spells—a place of instruction, in which the secrets of the future are to be revealed. Then approaching the parapet which separates the palace from the heavenly abysses—
The great chain of nature is a commonplace of eighteenth-century philosophy. The phrase occurs in d'Holbach, for one, a writer from whom Shelley quotes extensively in the notes to Queen Mab. D'Holbach was bent on showing that man is himself the work of nature, subject to her laws, unable to extricate himself from their web, unable even to conceive getting clear from the cycle of natural law. In the first chapter of his Système de la Nature, d'Holbach points out what an error it is to try to distinguish between man as physical and man as a moral being. "Moral man is nothing but this physical being considered from a certain point of view," etc. In a later chapter d'Holbach makes out that the moral activity of man is identical in essence with the physical activity of matter.
La conservation est donc le but commun vers lequel toutes les energies, les forces, les facultés des êtres semblent continuellement dirigées. Les Physiciens ont nommé cette tendance ou direction, gravitation sur soi; Newton l'appelle force d'inertie; les Moralistes l'ont appellée dans l'homme amour de soi; qui n'est que la tendance à se conserver, le désir du bonheur, l'amour du bien-être et du plaisir, la promptitude à saisir tout ce qui paroît favorable à son être, et l'aversion marquées pour tour ce qui le trouble ou le menace; sentimens primitifs et communs de tous les êtres de l'espèce humain, que toutes leurs facultés s'efforcent de satisfaire, que toutes leurs passions, leurs volontés, leurs actions ont continuellement pour object et pour fin. Cette gravitation sur soi est donc une disposition nécessaire dans l'homme et dans tous les êtres, qui par des moyens divers, tendent à persévérer dans l'existence qu'ils ont reçue, tant que rien ne dérange l'ordre de leur machine ou sa tendance primitive.
A variant of this mechanical account of man's motivation is found in Volney's Ruines, which is known to have had a strong influence on several of Shelley's poems, and from which he quotes in the notes to Queen Mab. In Volney's fifth chapter, the wise phantom instructs the author that there is no use in man's referring his ills to fate, or to any obscure agents or mysterious causes.
Que l'homme connaisse ces lois! qu'il comprenne la nature des êtres qui l'environnent, et sa propre nature, et il connaîtra les moteurs de sa destinée; il saura quelles sont les causes de ses maux, et quelles peuvent en être les remèdes. Quand la puissance secrète qui anime l'univers forma le globe que l'homme habite, elle imprima aux êtres qui le compose des propriétés essentielles qui devinrent la règle de leurs mouvemens individuels, le lien de leurs rapports réciproques, la cause de l'harmonie de l'ensemble; par-là, elle établit un ordre régulier de causes et d'effects, de principes et de conséquences, lequel, sous une apparence de hasard, gouverne l'univers et maintient l'équilibre du monde: ainsi, elle attribua au feu le mouvement de l'activité…. elle ordonna à la flamme de monter, à la pierre de descendre, à la plante de végéter; à l'homme, voulant l'exposer au choc de tant d'êtres divers, et cependant préserver sa vie fragile, elle lui donna la faculté de sentir. Par cette faculté, toute action nuisible à son existence lui porta une sensation de mal et de douleur; toute action favorable, une sensation de plaisir et de bien-être. Par ces sensations, l'homme, tantôt détourné de ce qui blesse ses sens, et tantôt entrainé vers ce qui les flatte, a été nécessité d'aimer et de conserver sa vie. Ainsi, l'amour de soi, le désir du bien-être, l' aversion de la douleur, ont été les lois essentielles et primordiales imposés à l'homme par la NATURE même; les lois que la puissance ordonnatrice quelconque a établies pour le gouverner, et qui, semblables à celles du mouvement dans le monde physique, sont devenues le principe simple et fécond de tout ce qui s'est passé dans le monde moral …
So Volney and d'Holbach bring in together two famous eighteenth-century doctrines—the doctrine of self-interest and that of necessity in the moral world. The doctrine of self-interest is particularly strong with the French writers, and is, I believe, logically essential to this way of explaining human motives. But it was repudiated or modified by Godwin and other English writers of this school; it plays no appreciable part, so far as I know, in the philosophy of Shelley; and therefore I will not pursue it further.
The doctrine of necessity is common to all these writers, French and English, including men so influential with the poets as Hartley, Godwin and Priestley. It is stated compactly by d'Holbach in the following terms:
La nécessité est la liaison infaillible et constant des causes avec leurs effects. Le feu brule nécessairement les matières combustibles qui sont placée dans la sphère de son action. L'homme désire nécessairement ce qui est, ou ce qui paroît, utile à son bien-être. La nature dans tous ces phénomènes agit nécessairement d'après l'essence qui lui est propre; tous les êtres qu'elle renferme, agissent nécessairement d'après leurs essences particulières; c'est par le mouvement que tout a des rapports avec ses parties et celles-ci avec le tout; c'est ainsi que tout est lié dans l'univers; il n'est luimême qu'une chaîne immense de causes et d'effects, qui sans cesse découlent les unes des autres.
With this one may compare the first sentence from Shelley's long note on Necessity: "He who asserts the doctrine of Necessity means that, contemplating the events which compose the moral and material universe, he beholds only an immense and uninterrupted chain of causes and effects, no one of which could occupy any other place than it does occupy, or act in any other place than it does act."
This doctrine of necessity, working in the material and moral worlds, is stated in most uncompromising accents by Shelley in Queen Mab. Necessity is there simply another name for the "Universal Spirit" or the "Spirit of Nature,"
A spirit of activity and life,
That knows no term, cessation, or decay.
It is "wide diffused" through the "infinite orbs of mingling light"; it guides the whirlwind, works through disease and health,
Rolls round the eternal universe, and shakes
Its undecaying battlements, presides,
Apportioning with irresistible law
The place each spring of its machine shall fill.
In a storm at sea, while to the eye of the mariner,
All seems unlinked contingency and chance:
No atom of this turbulence fulfils
A vague and unnecessitated task,
And acts but as it must and ought to act.
Even the minutest molecule of light
That in an April sunbeam's fleeting glow
Fulfils its destined though invisible work,
The universal Spirit guides; nor less,
When merciless ambition, or mad zeal,
Has led two hosts of dupes to battlefield,
That, blind, they there may dig each other's graves,
And call the sad work glory, does it rule
All passions: not a thought, a will, an act,
No working of the tyrant's moody mind,
Nor one misgiving of the slaves who boast
Their servitude, to hide the shame they feel,
Nor the events enchaining every will
That from the depths of unrecorded time
Have drawn all-influencing virtue, pass
Unrecognized, or unforeseen by thee,
Soul of the Universe! eternal spring
Of life and death…. etc.
Spirit of Nature! all-sufficing Power,
Necessity! thou mother of the world.
To this passage Shelley appended two notes. The first is a citation from d'Holbach, in which the principle of necessity is illustrated by examples taken from the physical and the moral worlds. These examples correspond to those given by Shelley, and doubtless represent the "source" of the entire passage in Queen Mab. The first example is that of a storm, in which not a single molecule of dust or water was placed by chance, but "chaque molécule agit précisément comme elle doit agir, et ne peut agir autrement qu'elle ne fait." The second example follows:
Dans les convulsions terribles qui agitent quelque-fois les sociétés politiques, et qui produisent souvent le renversement d'un empire, il n'y a pas une seule action, une seule parole, une seule pensée, une seule volonté, une seule passion dans les agens qui concourent à la révolution comme destructeurs ou comme victimes, qui ne soit nécessaire, qui n'agisse comme elle doit agir, qui n'opère infailliblement les effets qu'elle doit opérer, suivant la place qu'occupent ces agens dans ce tourbillon moral. Cela paroîtriot évident pour une intelligence qui sera en état de saisir et d'apprécier toutes les actions et réactions des esprits et des corps de ceux qui contribuent à cette révolution.
The second and very long note of Shelley is an exposition of the philosophy of necessity, with an attempt to reconcile it with the action of the will and to indicate how it affects religious beliefs and the attitude towards good and evil. While there are some parts of this discussion that resemble views of d'Holbach, it may have been inspired by Priestley, Godwin or other popular English writers.
The word necessity ceases to be prominent in the finer poetry of Shelley's later years. And in the evolution of Shelley's thought, the deterministic implications tend to fade out of the idea of necessity even when the word is used. In Prometheus Unbound much stress is laid on the will as a determining factor in the moral world. As Shelley becomes confirmed in his faith that existence is spiritual in essence, it is no longer possible to conceive of necessity in materialistic terms. The paramount force in the universe is "eternal Love," the sole power not subject to "Fate, Occasion, Chance, and Change." This is the statement of the oracular Demogorgon, himself a refined symbol of Necessity. The Necessity he symbolizes takes on the character of Destiny as conceived by the Greek tragedians. It takes on, too, a platonic cast; for Demogorgon defines himself as Eternity. What he ushers in is "eternal Love," another platonic conception. The process of the world is, in Prometheus, clearly conducted by moral forces; and the entire myth is more or less associated with the platonic doctrine of the One and the Many. The perfected state of man on earth which is ushered in by Demogorgon's destruction of Jupiter is associated with the timeless eternal state from which man has been separated by the conditions of mortality. The journey of Asia to the cave of Demogorgon is symbolic of the return of the soul, through the perturbations of mortal existence, back to the unconditioned state of pre-existence.
But the synthesis of Shelley's naturalism and his platonism is anything but perfectly accomplished. And in Prometheus we still find lingering traces of the earlier necessarian concept. There is one significant passage in particular—a passage left unexplained, so far as I know, by the commentators—which can best be understood in the light of this concept.
It is in the second scene of the second act. Asia and Panthea have been summoned by dreams to the cave of Demogorgon. They are passing through a dense and flowering forest, through which sounds the voluptuous music of amorous nightingales. The passage I am about to quote suggests that this forest of exquisite odorous flowers and birdsongs symbolizes the life of the senses and desire, the natural human life through which we make our way into the infinitude of the spirit. And then comes the passage in which it is stated clearly enough that the very desires of sense which we follow, or think we follow, of our own will, are but the impulsions of necessity driving us on to our destiny.
Necessity, then, or nature, employs man's very desire for pleasure as the means of drawing or driving him on the path she wishes him to follow. This is the poetical way of expressing the hopeful utilitarian doctrine common to d'Holbach, Condorcet and Volney, to Hartley, Godwin, Erasmus Darwin and Bentham, that men become social and moral beings through the natural working of their desire to avoid pain and secure pleasure. They all believed more or less fervently in the necessary betterment of mankind by the pursuance of this natural law. Perhaps the neatest statement is that of Volney:
Cette amélioration devient un effect nécessaire des lois de la nature; car, par la loi de la sensibilité, l'homme tend aussi invinciblement à se rendre heureux, que le feu à monter, que la pierre à graviter, que l'eau à se niveler. Son obstacle est son ignorance, qui l'égaré dans les moyens, qui le trompe sur les effects et les causes. A force d'expérience il s'éclairera; à force d'erreurs il se redressera; il deviendra sage et bon, parce qu'il est de son intérêt de l'être….
Shelley may well have supposed that, in Prometheus, he had succeeded in reconciling the necessarian doctrine with the platonic concept of "eternal Love" as the moving power. To the critical reader the joining of the two conceptions appears imperfect….
NECESSITY, ATHEISM, AND THE ANIMATING PRINCIPLE
The conception of necessity as the law of nature carries with it, for Shelley, as for many of the French philosophers, the corollary of atheism. Necessity is an "all-sufficing" Power because it rules out the notion of arbitrary and capricious interference, of anything which would confuse or interrupt the working of natural law. With Shelley the intellectual and the moral arguments for atheism were perhaps equally powerful. In Queen Mab, as in The Revolt of Islam, there are numerous references, in the tone of Volney, to the wars, the crime, the tyranny, and various other evils associated with religion and caused by it. But the intellectual reasons are equally strong, and are introduced in close connection with the moral ones. In Queen Mab the Spirit of Ianthe relates how her mother had taken her when an infant to see the burning of an atheist, and how when the child wept over the cruel scene her mother had comforted her.
Weep not, child! cried my mother, for that man
Has said, There is no God.
Whereupon the Fairy confirms this declaration of faith by reference to the testimony of Nature.
Thus Shelley has made a curious reversal of the argument Coleridge uses to demonstrate the need for assuming a spirit beyond nature. Since each cause in the sequence is itself caused, reasons Coleridge, nothing in nature can be regarded as more than a link in a chain. "The moment we assume an origin in nature, a true beginning, an actual first—that moment we rise above nature, and are compelled to assume a supernatural power." Just so! reasons Shelley. But to assume a supernatural power is to assume something inconceivable. We cannot conceive of a hand grasping the chain at its beginning. All that we know is the chain of causes extending backward and forward ad infinitum. We cannot conceive of a link in the chain which was not itself caused; hence we cannot conceive creation. Men invent gods in their own evil image. But the only divinity in nature is "the exterminable spirit it contains." As Shelley expresses the matter in the note appended to this passage, taking his cue from Hume's famous exposition:
The only idea which we can form of causation is derivable from the constant conjunction of objects, and the consequent inference of one from the other. In a case where two propositions are diametrically opposite, the mind believes that which is least incomprehensible;—it is easier to suppose that the universe has existed from all eternity, than to conceive a being beyond its limits capable of creating it; if the mind sinks beneath the weight of one, is it an alleviation to increase the intolerability of the burthen?
There certainly is a generative power which is effected by certain instruments: we cannot prove that it is inherent in these instruments; nor is the contrary hypothesis capable of demonstration: we admit that the generative power is incomprehensible; but to suppose that the same cause is produced by an eternal, omniscient, omnipotent being, leaves the cause in the same obscurity, but renders it more incomprehensible.
The great interest of Shelley's argument in our discussion is that the idea of God is ruled out as being inconsistent with the idea of nature.
Similar reasoning Shelley puts in the mouth of Cythna in The Revolt of Islam. She is arguing against the peoples' vain notion of "some Power" that "builds for man in solitude."
We who think and live, Shelley argues, are by that very fact finite and limited, subject to the law of necessity. The cause of life itself must be outside all such limitations; it cannot therefore be a thinking and knowing creature; it cannot be what men call God. Shelley prefers to call it necessity.
In substituting the words Nature or Necessity for God, Shelley wished to emphasize his deterministic conception of the universe, especially strong in the earlier years of his writing, and to get rid of the theological connotations of the word God. He could not of course, any more than other nature poets, get rid of the notion of an active principle working in nature. For this active principle he has a variety of terms, such as "the universal Spirit" and the "spirit of activity and life." More frequent in the later poems is some variant of the word power. Thus in The Revolt of Islam we read:
In the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,"
In this more platonic conception the active principle of the universe is represented in the terms of "intellectual Beauty," but it is the same universal Spirit of which Shelley speaks in Queen Mab. And there is the same insistence that this unseen power is not the God of theology, but remains the mysterious force which animates nature and is to be interpreted only in terms of nature. Shelley speaks of his efforts as a youth to get an answer to the riddle in religious terms, and states categorically that no response is ever given to such vain questions.
In the same year with the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" he has another phrasing of the concept of the active principle as power. In his "Mont Blanc," he takes the snow capped mountain as a symbol of that principle, or force, whatever it may be, that animates the universe of material and spiritual beings.
Whether or not he is here echoing Volney, he is using the exact phrase which occurs in the passage quoted above, "la puissance secrète qui anime l'univers." Note that Volney repeats the phrase, with a variation, in the same passage: "les lois que la puissance ordonnatrice quelconque a établies pour le gouverner" (the laws which the legislative power, whatever it is, established to govern man). Shelley is particularly fond of using the word Strength (or Power) with the word "secret" or some equivalent, suggesting that the animating principle of the universe is mysterious and unsoundable. By Demogorgon's mighty law, the echoes draw "all spirits on that secret way." We do not know "what mute Power" may give their being to the various creatures of nature. It is "the awful shadow of some unseen Power" that floats among us. In The Revolt of Islam Cythna speaks of—
In Alastor the poet thus addresses nature:
Mother of this unfathomable world!
Favour my solemn song, for I have loved
Thee ever, and thee only; I have watched
Thy shadow, and the darkness of thy steps,
And my heart ever gazes on the depths
Of thy deep mysteries.
It is curious how often these expressions, which have so strong a flavor of the mysteries of religion, occur in passages where Shelley, like Volney, was most expressly repudiating the religious interpretation. They are the nature-poet's substitute for the mysteries of religion. This is a not infrequent phenomenon. We have found it in the early poems of Wordsworth, and we shall find it in Emerson and Swinburne. At times, there is a startling resemblance between the phrasing of the nature-poet and the religious poet. Such is the passage in Adonais, so strongly reminiscent of Coleridge:
But here, of course, the nature-poet has pretty much given way to the mystic platonist. Only there remains the word "compelling" to remind one of the lingering notion of Necessity….
The culmination of Shelley's naturalism is Prometheus Unbound, and this in spite of the mystical platonism with which it is there associated. A profoundly naturalistic tendency is shown both in the particular scientific theories which are made so prominent and in the general philosophical doctrine of the poem. This doctrine is obviously naturalistic, in the manner of d'Holbach, Condorcet and Godwin, in its sharp contrast with orthodox Christian philosophy. The faith in human perfectibility upon this planet takes the place of the Christian doctrine of the fall of man and the whole scheme of redemption. An earthly millennium takes the place of the Christian heaven. The operation of destiny—mythical form of necessity—in bringing about this earthly millennium, takes the place of divine providence and the atonement. In the person of Prometheus, man wins his salvation by the exercise of his own will (under the dominion of necessity) and by the exertion of his own intellectual and moral faculties, which have been not so much helped as hindered hitherto by supernatural power. In a certain sense Prometheus takes the place of Christ as the savior of man; but it is to be observed that he is man himself acting as his own savior.
In all interpretations of the poem, beginning with Mrs. Shelley's, Prometheus has been assumed to be a representation of humanity, or of some aspect of man—his mind or genius. Even Leigh Hunt's interpretation, expressed in the romantic idiom of the time, is but a variation on this. Prometheus, according to Hunt, is "a personification of the Benevolent Principle, subjected for a time to the Phantasm of Jupiter." This Benevolent Principle constitutes, for Godwin, one of the most essential characteristics of humanity, and one which is destined to be of the utmost importance in bringing about the reign of justice and reason.
But while Prometheus is represented as working out his own salvation without supernatural aid, it is to be noted that, at the beginning of the poem, chained to his rock, he has been long separated from his beloved Asia, living in exile in her Indian vale, and that his release from torture and the blessed transformation of the world are coincident with his reunion with Asia. One chief clue to the meaning of the poem lies in the correct interpretation of this symbolic Asia. She has been variously interpreted as Nature, as "the spirit of divine beauty and love," as "the Idea of Beauty … the spirit of Nature … Love and Beauty." And these multiple interpretations have been given authority by Mrs. Shelley's original interpretation of her as symbolizing "Venus and Nature." An examination of the poem makes it clear that Asia stands for all these related abstractions.
The association of beauty and love was familiar enough to Shelley in Plato and the neoplatonists, as well as in simple classical mythology. The association of Venus with nature was familiar to him in the opening lines of Lucretius, whom he read as a boy at Eton. Here Shelley had found the invocation to the goddess as "increase-giving Venus, who beneath the gliding signs of heaven fillest with thy presence the ship-carrying sea, the corn-bearing lands, since through thee every kind of living things is conceived, rises up and beholds the light of the sun." And almost immediately afterward he read that "nature gives birth to all things and increase and nourishment." Abstract nature and the mythical goddess of love he found associated in these terms:
Since thou then art sole mistress of the nature of things and without thee nothing rises up into the divine borders of light, nothing grows to be glad or lovely, fain would I have thee for a helpmate in writing the verses which I essay to pen on the nature of things …
The spiritual significance of the identification of Asia with Venus (goddess of love and beauty) has been widely, though a trifle vaguely, appreciated from the beginning. Christian commentators have been glad to expound Shelley's doctrine that humanity is to be saved by love. But the poem has waited more than a hundred years for an interpreter who should make clear and definite the significance of her identification with nature. Professor Carl Grabo, in A Newton among Poets and "Prometheus Unbound": an Interpretation has shown how much of the most exquisite and elusive imagery of Prometheus and other poems of Shelley was suggested by the writings of contemporary scientists, and how many of the leading ideas of Prometheus are derived from the observations and theories of men like Newton, Davy, Beccaria, and Erasmus Darwin. And most important of all is the light he throws by this means on the symbolic significance of Asia.
Mr. Grabo shows that Shelley was deeply indebted to the scientific speculations of Erasmus Darwin in the poetry and notes of The Botanic Garden and Temple of Nature, and perhaps also in his Zoönomia. And he makes it seem highly probable that Shelley's account of the "uprise" of Asia from the sea is to be read in the light of Darwin's similar account of the emergence of Dione (Aphrodite) in The Botanic Garden, and his interpretation of this incident in the notes to The Botanic Garden and the text of The Temple of Nature. In the second act of Prometheus Panthea, addressing her sister Asia, recalls the circumstances of her first appearance.
The corresponding passage in The Botanic Garden I give only in part.
So young DIONE nursed beneath the waves,
And rock'd by Nereids in their coral caves,
Charm'd the blue sisterhood with playful wiles,
Lisp'd her sweet tones, and tried her tender smiles.
Then on her beryl throne by Tritons borne,
Bright rose the Goddess like the Star of morn;
When with soft fires the milky dawn he leads,
And wakes to light and love the laughing meads …
Darwin has the following footnote on this passage:
There is an ancient gem representing Venus rising out of the ocean supported by two Tritons…. It is probable that this beautiful allegory was originally an hieroglyphic picture (before the invention of letters) descriptive of the formation of the earth from the ocean, which seems to have been the opinion of the most ancient philosophers.
In The Temple of Nature Darwin definitely associates this mythological incident with his theory of the evolution of organic life—which took its origin in the ocean and made its first great advances in the mud of the seashore.
ORGANIC LIFE beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs'd in Ocean's pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.
Darwin goes on to recount the evolution of oak, whale, lion, eagle, and man; he dwells on the evidence of shell and coral, on the emergence of islands and continents; on the emigration of animals from the sea; on the natural history of "musquito," diodons, beavers, rémora. Then he comes to the hieroglyphic representation of all this evolution in Egypt's rude designs.
—So erst, as Egypt's rude designs explain,
Rose young DIONE from the shoreless main;
Type of organic Nature! source of bliss!
Emerging Beauty from the vast abyss!
Sublime on Chaos borne, the Goddess stood,
And smiled enchantment on the troubled flood;
The warring elements to peace restored,
And young reflection wondered and adored.
The prose comment is partly as follows:
The Egyptian figure of Venus rising from the sea seems to have represented the Beauty of organic Nature; which the philosophers of that country, the magi, appear to have discovered to have been elevated by earth-quake from the primeval ocean.
The more specifically evolutionary features of Darwin's theory—his views on the origin of species—do not appear in Shelley so far as I have observed. But it seems almost certain that he does mean his Asia to stand—among other things—as "type of organic Nature," and perhaps, in one aspect, as type of the earth in particular. She typifies in nature the same beneficent and increase-giving forces as the classical Venus. And the blessed state of man follows, in Shelley's myth, on his re-alliance with the beneficent forces of nature from which he has been shut off by the evil spells of Jupiter. Asia typifies much more than natural love, to be sure, including in her range of meanings all that Plato includes in his Uranian Venus, with whom Shelley was so well acquainted. But the significant thing for our present study is that she should represent, along with the spiritual ideal of the Uranian Venus, the forces of the physical universe.
That she does represent physical nature Mr. Grabo makes much more likely by showing the relation which she bears in the poem to the Spirit of the Earth. By citations too numerous to be detailed here Mr. Grabo shows that the Spirit of the Earth is closely associated with, or typifies, the operations of atmospheric electricity as they were understood by Beccaria and other writers of the time. And this Spirit of the Earth has a particularly intimate relation to Asia, whom it calls mother, though its actual parentage is unknown. It has been wont to come—
Each leisure hour to drink the liquid light
Out of her eyes, for which it said it thirsted
As one bit by a dipsas …
Mr. Grabo interprets plausibly as follows: "The atmospheric electricity derives from, renews itself from, the earth." In this phase of the allegory, then, Asia represents the earth as the source of atmospheric electricity. And, as Mr. Grabo makes probable by several citations, Shelley is identifying love on its physical side with electricity; and not merely that, but with energy, and with the spirit of animation in organic life. In associating electricity with the spirit of animation, Shelley was in line with the speculations of Beccaria and other scientists of the time; even Davy, though he "was cautious in ascribing an electrical character to the spirit of animation," yet "believed the subject to be worthy investigation."
As for Shelley's associating the spiritual operations of love with the material operations of electricity, Mr. Grabo has made this seem plausible by showing that Darwin advanced a theory of matter which identifies it with energy, the units of matter being "no more than radiant points of force." We have seen in an earlier chapter that such a concept was held by Priestley; and it was taken into account as possibly correct by Davy in his speculations. Grabo cites from Shelley's Refutation of Deism, a similar interpretation of matter as "immaterial."
Matter, such as we behold it, is not inert. It is infinitely active and subtile. Light, electricity and magnetism are fluids not surpassed by thought itself in tenuity and activity: like thought they are sometimes the cause and sometimes the effect of motion; and, distinct as they are from every other class of substances, with which we are acquainted, seem to possess equal claims with thought to the unmeaning distinction of immateriality.
It is by reference to such a concept of matter, in which electricity plays a dominant rôle, that Mr. Grabo explains the puzzling description of the Spirit of the Earth in the fourth act of Prometheus, in which it is represented by—
Ten thousand orbs involving and involved,
Purple and azure, white, green and golden,
Sphere within sphere … etc.
Readers will differ as to the demonstrative character of Mr. Grabo's argument; and many will prefer to leave this extraordinary passage as a mere tissue of fanciful invention on Shelley's part. But the more one studies Shelley, the more one realizes that very little in his poetry is purely fanciful, but that some subtle intellectual concept underlies his most curious metaphors. Without Mr. Grabo's interpretation much of the fourth act of Prometheus remains a rather wearisome riot of uncontrolled fancy. He has brought an imposing array of contemporary scientific lore to his interpretation. I believe we must give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume with him that nearly everything in Shelley's account of the Spirit of the Earth in Act IV conforms to his conception of it as an electrical force.
It would take too long to list the scientific theories—astronomical, geological, meteorological—to which, on Grabo's showing, Shelley has given embodiment in Prometheus Unbound and to indicate how they are related in his allegory to the moral regeneration of the world which is the theme of the poem. One does not feel certain how far we should assume in his doctrine an identification of moral and physical phenomena, or an assertion of the interdependence of the two series. Perhaps we are to regard them as merely analogous or parallel. But there are some instances in which they appear to be more than that. In his notes on Queen Mab, Shelley expresses the view that the obliquity of the earth's axis—
… will gradually diminish until the equator coincides with the ecliptic; the nights and days will then become more equal on the earth throughout the year, and probably the seasons also. There is no great extravagance in presuming that the progress of the perpendicularity of the poles may be as rapid as the progress of the intellect; or that there should be a perfect identity between the moral and physical improvement of the human species.
The result of this progress in perpendicularity will be a better climate and accordingly improved mentality for man. In this case the moral phenomena would seem to be a consequence of the physical.
A similar view seems to be expressed in Prometheus, but with the terms reversed.
In Prometheus Unbound earth and moon, after the liberation of Prometheus, became warm and habitable. Shelley depicts them as reliving their youth, his scientific authority being, presumably, Darwin, who believed that at one stage in the earth's history the climate was equable from pole to pole and there were no violent storms, a recollection of which time, lingering in the memory of the race, was the origin of the legend of the Garden of Eden.
In this case the physical improvement seems to be represented as following upon the moral. Again, Grabo shows that Shelley associates the destructive phenomena of electricity with Jupiter and his reign of hate, while under the reign of Prometheus, electricity turns good, and lightning is man's slave; that, further, the noxious gases (like nitrous oxide) turn sweet and wholesome in the millennial régime. In Act III there are several passages describing the transformation of the material world which follows on the release of Prometheus and Asia's sounding of her horn. The Spirit of the Earth describes how, at this magic signal, "all things had put their evil nature off." And Earth herself describes to Prometheus how, at the touch of his lips, the spirit of reviving life penetrated her mass, and—
We are perhaps in danger of sometimes taking too literally the physical phenomena by means of which Shelley wished to symbolize a spiritual event—of assuming a factual connection where he wished to suggest a poetical analogy. Thus we may be inclined to read into his thought a transcendental or superstitious meaning which was not intended. But it does seem not unlikely that Shelley believed in something like an occult sympathy between the material and moral worlds. Such a view certainly seems implied in the note to Queen Mab cited in the next to the last paragraph. Such an occult sympathy between the material world and the human soul was held to exist by Henrik Steffens, the German geologist and disciple of Schelling. There are traces of this conception in Wordsworth. How far literally it was held by Shelley in writing Prometheus it is hard to determine. But certainly he was greatly confirmed and heartened in his perfectibilist philosophy by numerous facts and hypotheses derived from contemporary science, which, if they do not literally explain the operations of the spirit, strikingly parallel and illustrate them. In the same way., later enthusiasts found in evolution an encouragement of their faith in human progress and illumination. The paradox of Shelley's case is that he should have summoned science to support a transcendental view of the natural order so little in harmony with the "modesty of nature," the strict sobriety of scientific method….
[Some] brief reference should be made to several features of the poem discussed in this [essay] on which some light may be thrown by the "neoplatonic" speculations of Paracelsus. Miss Elizabeth Pierce Ebeling, in a manuscript thesis deposited in the University of Minnesota library, has made it seem not improbable that Shelley was acquainted with Paracelsus, and that he drew from him many suggestions for the cosmology of Prometheus. Among the doctrines of Paracelsus which have their counterpart in the poem is that of the guiding spirits (archeus) of the several heavenly bodies. The Spirit of the Earth in Shelley is, according to Miss Ebeling, such an archeus; and the various other living spirits which appear in the poem are likewise provided for in the system of Paracelsus.
Another leading idea of Paracelsus is that of the Evestrum, a sort of attendant spirit born with everything, uniting the created being with the eternal. It is the business of the Evestrum to regulate sleep, to reason, and to prefigure future events.
There are two kinds of Evestrum, mortal and immortal. The mortal Evestrum is "like a shadow on the wall. The shadow grows and originates with the body, and remains with it up to its ultimate matter…. Everything, animate and inanimate, sensible and insensible, has conjoined with it an Evestrum, just as everything casts a shadow." The eternal Evestra, on the other hand, are not born with individuals, have no beginning and no end. They consist of the Evestrum of comets, the Evestrum of impressions, and the Evestrum of miracles…. These Evestra … are the means by which celestial things operate, and "Gods by their Evestrum alone have wrought miracles."
Miss Ebeling makes it seem very probable that Demogorgon has much of the character of a "prophetic Evestrum."
Again, as Miss Ebeling points out, the action of the Macrocosm, or universe, in the system of Paracelsus, resembles that of the Microcosm, man; and this is in accordance with the transformation that comes over the physical universe with the spiritual liberation of Prometheus. So that the notion of an occult sympathy between the material universe and the human spirit may have had its original suggestion at the time when as a boy Shelley "pored over the reveries of Albertus Magnus and Paracelsus."
It can hardly be supposed that in Prometheus Unbound Shelley took seriously, as philosophical truth, the "reveries" of a Renaissance astrologer and mystic. The spirits and Evestra of the poem are to be regarded in much the same light as the supernatural machinery of "The Rape of the Lock"—having in mind, to be sure, the deeper seriousness of Shelley's imagination and his faculty for reading a genuine moral significance into imagery drawn from the realms of myth and fancy. The mystical machinery of Prometheus does not cancel the naturalism of the poem, but rather serves to give it wings. Behind the machinery, it is true, there do lurk certain metaphysical assumptions, largely of "platonic" origin, which it is difficult to reconcile with the naturalistic point of view….
What is significant for us in the present discussion is that this romantic poet should have sought so camestly to ground his views in the findings and the spirit of science. In the general action of the poem, certainly, his stress is laid on naturalistic rather than supernatural views of human destiny.
The fall of Jupiter signifies the liberation of man's mind from religious superstition, from ignorance and fear, as well as from political and ecclesiastical tyranny. Jupiter, as I conceive him, is a figure of comprehensive, if negative, significance. He is a kind of Everlasting No. He stands for the force of inertia in human affairs and the heart of man. He is much less substantially real a being than Prometheus or Asia, about as real as "error" in Christian Science philosophy. He is something which man allows himself to think and suffer, the rule of which is limited by man's sufferance, and which is destined to give way before the rule of man's intelligence and will. He stands for all that hampers the progress of civilization. And his downfall coincides with the union of Prometheus and Asia—signifying not merely humanity's espousal of love (in its ideal platonic sense), but also, it now seems likely, man's alliance with nature as explored and interpreted by science.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2635
SOURCE: "The Inconsistency of Shelley's Alastor" in ELH, Vol. 13, No. 4, December, 1946, pp. 291–98.
[In the following essay, Jones attributes the contradictions in Shelley's Alastor to a shift in his philosophy.]
The logical inconsistency of Alastor has been the subject of analysis and of some debate, but thus far there has been no satisfactory explanation of how and why Shelley produced the inconsistency and then defended it in an even more inconsistent preface. If the problem can be solved, it is worth the trouble, for on its solution depends not only an understanding of the poem itself but of related passages in later poems.
The poem is inconsistent in that the early part of it represents the Poet as meriting punishment (presumably an early death), while the last lines praise him without qualification as the highest conceivable type. Because the Poet has lived in "self-centered seclusion" while eagerly and happily pursuing knowledge, "sweet human love" is offended by his disregard of humanity, and, to punish him, sends to him a vision of a veilèd maid, whom he instantly desires so ardently that his life is soon brought to an end by his ceaseless but hopeless search for her. Though in the concluding lines Shelley might be expected to drive his lesson home, and to reveal how the Poet deserved his doom, he does quite the opposite. He laments in a high strain that "The child of grace and genius" should die while "many worms And beasts and men live on." The Poet is "some surpassing Spirit" whose loss "is a woe 'too deep for tears'." This praise is not in itself an inconsistency. The inconsistency lies in the fact that the praise is in no way qualified to make evident the avowed purpose of the poem, which is that even a "surpassing spirit" like the Poet, who loves truth and beautiful idealisms, will be punished if he fails to share the trials common to humanity. This purpose, stated in the following lines, is not supported by any other part of the poem:
The spirit of sweet human love has sent
A vision to the sleep of him who spurned
Her choicest gifts.
An explanation of the origin of the inconsistency is, I believe, discoverable if we follow Shelley, in so far as that is necessary for the purpose, through the composition of the poem, the finding of a title, and the writing of a preface.
Before an explanation is possible, however, it is necessary to recall that when Shelley wrote Alastor, he (1) was under the strong influence of Wordsworth, (2) was definitely committed to the empirical philosophy of Locke and Hume, and (3) had recently suffered from bad health, which had made him think that his own life might soon be terminated. These points are too well known to require proof. But it does need to be pointed out that shortly after the publication of Queen Mab, Shelley's point of view shifted rapidly, mainly as a result of his reading Wordsworth's poetry and Sir William Drummond's Academical Questions. When he wrote Alastor, his mind was balancing the mystic philosophy of Wordsworth and the "ideal" or "intellectual philosophy" of Drummond, the central doctrine of which was that the senses are the only sources of knowledge and that in consequence all we can know is our own sensations and the ideas derived from their combinations. This was a doctrine which Shelley had long and fully accepted from Locke. Its strict logical application had led him to the necessity for atheism. But under the influence of Drummond's "ideal philosophy," which opposed the prevalent materialistic philosophy, Shelley had found a new and inspiring application of his favorite philosophical doctrine. Wordsworth, too, had given him inspiration and philosophical hope. But Wordsworth had nothing to do with Locke's system of ideas, or the concept that we can know nothing except our own ideas. His doctrine did indeed place the highest value on the senses, but he regarded them as a means of direct communication with spiritual reality.
It is my belief that the inconsistency of Alastor is the result of Shelley's failure to combine ideas derived from Wordsworth and Drummond. His fragmentary essay On Life, which evidently was written soon after Alastor, indicates that he had succeeded in reconciling the two influences. The essay contains his most emphatic statements of approval of both. In accord with Drummond he says: "I confess that I am one of those who am [sic] unable to refuse my assent to the conclusions of those philosophers who assert that nothing exists but as it is perceived." In accord with Wordsworth, he speaks of man as "a being of high aspirations … disclaiming alliance with transcience and decay; incapable of imagining to himself annihilation"; and elaborates on the vivid spiritual impressions of early childhood.—With these facts as a background, it will, I think, be easier to understand Alastor.
When Shelley began the composition of Alastor, his purpose was to illustrate the fatal consequences of living a self-centered life which shuts one off from the common suffering of mankind, even though the self-centered person should dwell in a world of beautiful idealisms. Though
Shelley, as Newman White suggests, may have been impressed with the evil effects of isolation as expounded in Godwin's Fleetwood and illustrated in Sydney Owenson's The Missionary, it is more likely that the immediate source of the idea which stimulated his poem was Wordsworth's Elegiac Stanzas (Peele Castle). The lesson which Wordsworth teaches in that poem is remarkably similar to that which Shelley evidently intended to illustrate in Alastor. Wordsworth tells how he had lived in a world of beautiful ideas, giving no heed to the harsh realities of human life until a "deep distress" humanized his soul. Though suffering, he finds comfort in the thought that he had been shocked out of a self-centered life. It is, he thinks, better to share the sorrows common to humanity, than to be happy while living in selfish isolation and feeding only on pleasant and beautiful thoughts. The protagonist of Alastor is, like Wordsworth, a Poet who has lived in a lovely dream world without regard for the thoughts or feelings of his fellow men.
After a Wordsworthian appeal to Nature for aid, Shelley begins his story about the Poet who brought destruction upon himself by living in "self-centered seclusion." This idea would naturally have a strong appeal for one so ardently devoted to reform as was Shelley. Having chosen to write about a poet, it was inevitable that he should write about himself. His recent ill health and expectation of an early grave had caused him to brood over his own fate, and his failure to arouse humanity to strike off the shackles of political, social, and religious tyranny had contributed to his melancholy state of mind. It was a mistake, however, for Shelley to write about himself—about "His cold fireside and alienated home" of early 1814, and his passionate pursuit of knowledge—for he was so carried away with sympathy for his own idealized portrait that he found it impossible to find fault with his Poet. He did, however, remember his original purpose long enough to insert in the right place (immediately after the Poet was fatally ensnared by the vision) three lines to explain the vision, to the effect that it was sent by "The spirit of sweet human love" to punish "him who [had] spurned Her choicest gifts."
The vision itself is probably Shelley's second major mistake in so far as consistency is concerned. He probably meant only to create a woman so lovely that she would, as representing the essence of human love, inspire an instantaneous and consuming passion. But Shelley did more than this. He created a woman who (1) represented his ideal of a wife for himself, and who (2), as he conducted the Poet through his hopeless search for her, came gradually to represent, not the essence of human love at all, but truth and beauty. Instead, therefore, of being an instrument of punishment, the vision became a representation of the highest aspirations and attainments of humanity, which it was a crime not to pursue. What else can lines 681–86 mean?
This was exactly the principle the Poet had followed. In other words, the veilèd maid was created for one purpose but, because Shelley fell in love with her, was used for quite a different purpose. She was created as the agent of an "avenging spirit," but was used as a symbol of truth and beauty.
This shift in the significance of the vision is due, I think, to an unconscious transfer from Wordsworth to Locke and Drummond when Shelley created the veilèd maid. The maid whom he probably meant to create was to be the (Wordsworthian) instrument of offended "sweet human love" (a personification), and as such was meant to be only a woman so lovely as to inspire a hopeless passion. The maid whom he actually created was produced according to Shelley's favorite doctrine from Locke, that all knowledge is derived from the senses, and that we can know only ideas or combinations of ideas. The veilèd maid is therefore an ideal combination of all the loveliest and truest elements in the Poet's vast knowledge. As such, she was (quite unintentionally in the poem, I think) both "an intelligence similar to" the Poet, and an ideal representation of truth and beauty. In short, Shelley meant to create "an avenging spirit," but created instead a symbol of the highest and best, not only in humanity, but also in the intellectual and spiritual realm.
When Shelley had finished his poem, he was at a loss for a title. He consulted his friend Peacock, who, judging more from Shelley's explanation of the meaning of the poem than from the poem itself, suggested the Greek word "Alastor," which means an "evil genius" or avenging spirit. Shelley liked the word, both for its sound and for its aptness for expressing the idea which he had intended to illustrate but had failed to make clear. The sub-title, "The Spirit of Solitude," also suggests the main idea of the poem in that it was the self-chosen isolation of the Poet that supposedly brought the avenging spirit into operation. Moreover, the sub-title expresses the dominant impression of the poem.
Still clinging to the notion that he had shown how the Poet had sinned and had brought destruction upon himself, Shelley wrote a preface in which he intended to make his purpose more perspicuous, but which actually represents a further and later development of his thoughts, and contains elements which are not in the poem itself.
In the Preface Shelley says: The Poet "drinks deep of the fountains of knowledge and is still insatiate. The magnificence and beauty of the external world sinks profoundly into the frame of his conceptions … So long as it is possible for his desires to point towards objects thus infinite and unmeasured, he is joyous and tranquil and selfpossessed. But the period arrives when these objects cease to suffice. His mind is at length suddenly awakened and thirsts for intercourse with an intelligence similar to itself." The last sentence contains two ideas which are not in the poem: (1) that the Poet's mind was "awakened," and (2) that it thirsted "for intercourse with an intelligence similar to itself." To be "awakened" is to realize that one has not known something before. The Poet had not the least idea that he had neglected anything important; he knew only that he was hopelessly in love with the vision. In the poem there is no hint of any kind that the vision was intended to be "an intelligence similar to" the Poet, though she was such in that "Knowledge and truth and virtue were her theme, And lofty hopes of divine liberty, Thoughts the most dear to him, and poesy, Herself a poet."
In the Preface, Shelley continues: The Poet
images to himself the Being whom he loves. Conversant with speculations of the sublimest and most perfect natures, the vision in which he embodies his own imaginations unites all of wonderful or wise or beautiful, which the poet, the philosopher or the lover could depicture. The intellectual faculties, the imaginations, the functions of sense have their respective requisitions on the sympathy of corresponding powers in other human beings. The Poet is represented as uniting these requisitions and attaching them to a single image.
Not one thing in the passage just quoted is in the poem. The Poet does not image to himself anything; he does not unite in a single image all that he had learned of the wonderful, wise, and beautiful. The vision was sent to him by offended "sweet human love" as a mode of punishment. In the last lines of the poem Shelley does evidently regard the vision as a symbol of all truth and beauty, but, as has already been pointed out, this is at odds with the stated purpose of the vision.
In the Preface, Shelley states further that the Poet "seeks in vain for a prototype of his conception." This also is not borne out by the poem. The Poet does not seek a prototype, but the vision itself. Indeed, he is no more interested in mortal women who, "taught By nature, would interpret half the woe That wasted him," than he was in the Arab maiden who, before the vision came, brought him food and dared not "for deep awe To speak her love."
In the last paragraph Shelley repeats even more emphatically the same inconsistency observable in the poem. Briefly it is stated that "The Poet's self-centered seclusion was avenged by the furies of an irresistible passion pursuing him to speedy ruin." Shelley then immediately launches upon an ardent laudation of the Poet and a denunciation of "those meaner spirits that dare to abjure its ["that Power'"s, or as in the poem, "sweet human love'"s] dominion. Their destiny is more abject and inglorious as their delinquency is more contemptible and pernicious." These "keep aloof from sympathies with their kind, rejoicing neither in human joy nor mourning with human grief … They are morally dead." Again Shelley finds himself incapable of pointing his moral. In the poem, for his offense the Poet is brought by "sweet human love" to "speedy ruin"; while in the Preface "those unforeseeing multitudes who constitute … the lasting misery and loneliness of the world" are permitted to reach "old age [and] a miserable grave." This surely is strange justice. The concluding quotation from Wordsworth to the effect that
The good die first,
And those whose hearts are dry as summer dust
Burn to the socket!
is apt enough at this stage of the argument, but it lends no support to the avowed moral, either of the poem or of the Preface.
The poem and the Preface are obviously inconsistent, both separately and conjointly. In the poem the basis of the trouble is probably Shelley's unintentional shift from his Wordsworthian point of view to his older and stronger view that "nothing exists but as it is perceived,"—that is, to Locke's empirical theory of ideas. In the Preface the case is quite the opposite. Shelley begins with the theory that the vision was the result of the Poet's own combination of ideas, and then tries to reconcile with that the Wordsworthian opinion that one should not live apart from the common experiences of humanity, even though he might live in a lovely dream world of his own making. Alastor is inconsistent mainly because Shelley's philosophy was in a state of rapid transition. Before he had finished his poem, his thought had changed. And before he had written the Preface, it had changed again; mainly, however, as a development of the implications in the last lines of the poem.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7220
SOURCE: "'Prometheus Bound' and 'Prometheus Unbound,'" in PMLA, Vol. 64, No. 1, March, 1949, pp. 115–33.
[In the following essay, Weaver compares Prometheus Unbound with its Greek predecessor, Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus.]
Shelley's Prometheus Unbound in many ways might be considered the most significant and characteristic of his works. Yet in this drama the poet himself has pointed out his indebtedness to the Prometheus Bound of Æschylus Able scholars, in turn, have examined the relationship between the English and the Greek plays. Over half a century ago Vera D. Scudder published her study, and in 1908 Richard Ackermann brought out his critical commentary. Among others, W. J. Alexander and A. M. D. Hughes, in editing their selections from the poems of Shelley, noted the parallels between his work and that of Æschylus In more recent times, Carl Grabo has gone beyond the study of Greek-English parallels, and Newman Ivey White in the notable twenty-second chapter of his Shelley has enriched our understanding of Prometheus Unbound. Still one may hope by concentrating on the problem to give fuller meaning to the action of the mind of Æschylus upon that of Shelley as together they face tyranny and pain.
It is in his Preface to the drama that Shelley comments on his choice of the Greek myth. His first sentence is significant. "The Greek tragic writers, in selecting as their subject any portion of their national history or mythology, employed in their treatment of it a certain arbitrary discretion." What discretion, then, does the English poet presume to employ? He is precise in his statement. "The Prometheus Bound of Æschylus supposed the reconciliation of Jupiter with his victim as the price of the disclosure of danger threatened to his empire by the consummation of his marriage with Thetis…. I was averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind." Prometheus is, as it were, "the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends." And what was Shelley's purpose in writing Prometheus Unbound? "My purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence"; and thus, through bringing the imaginations of men into close relationship with the admirable, to indulge "what a Scotch philosopher characteristically terms, 'a passion for reforming the world.'"
Since we must pay particular attention to the point, let us return to the "arbitrary discretion" Shelley exercised in selecting from the Greek myth such matter as he wished to use. He was accurate in saying that "the Agamemnon story," for instance, "was exhibited on the Athenian theatre with as many variations as dramas." He had before him similar variations in The Libation Bearers of Æschylus and the Electra of Sophocles. He would, then, at his own discretion select such materials as he wanted and introduce such variations as suited his purpose. At the very time that he states his claim to the general body of material used by Æschylus, he insists upon his right to treat that material after his own manner. It would seem, then, that Shelley is telling us it is in the variations and not in the general material which he shares with Æschylus that we shall find evidences of his peculiar genius. And he is at pains to make clear his main difference with the Athenian dramatist: he will carry through the marriage of Jupiter with Thetis, he will not allow his Champion to compound with the Oppressor, he will destroy the tyrant and sustain "the moral interest of the fable." In other words, Shelley turns directly to the work of Æschylus, not only admitting his obligation to the elder poet but particularly distinguishing between his purpose and that which the Greek may have had in mind. We are not, then, engaged merely in the study of influences when we try to make clear the relation between Æschylus and Shelley; but, rather, we study the similarities in order to separate from them the essential dissimilarities. Of course, in mentioning all that is involved when one writer either rejects or accepts another, we cannot hope to be utterly accurate. We realize that in the very act of rejecting material a man may reveal the nature of his genius—as, indeed, Shelley did in repudiating the compromise of Æschylus.
We shall, then, confine ourselves to examining the main materials of the two plays as they are related in setting, action, character, and story. We shall look at significant scenes and any special devices employed in them. We shall scrutinize certain ideas which give expressional similarity to various phrases—things that translate through.
Upon reading Shelley's play, one is impressed by a certain substantiality about Act I. That which gives a firmer quality to the act is, I think, the Greek material which is used there. A collation of the two plays will reveal that cross-references in large number run from the Prometheus Bound to the first act of the English play. Whereas I find in Shelley's closing act no certain reference to the Greek drama, and only one reference in the third act, and very few outside the Asia-Demogorgon scene in the second act, a casual reader could not but note the massive ways in which the first act of Prometheus Unbound is locked into the work of Æschylus Simply, and to begin with, the two plays are joined by the use of the same scene. Strength, opening Prometheus Bound, says:
Lo! to a plain, earth's boundary remote,
We now are come,—the tract as Skythian known,
A desert inaccessible: and now,
Hephæstos, it is thine to do the hests
The Father gave thee, to these lofty crags
To bind this crafty trickster fast in chains.
Hephæstos underscores these lines:
Against his will he fetters the Titan "to this lone height" where he shall be scorched "in the hot blaze of the sun" and chilled by frost in the "starry-mantled night." "On this rock of little ease"—a phrase repeated again and again—not knowing sleep, Prometheus shall evermore groan and wail. Strength interrupts the sympathetic words of Hephæs tos with the sharp command: "Nail him to the rocks." These lines, together with the stage properties available to him, were all that the Greek needed to make clear the immediate scene.
Yet we must observe that it is not in the spirit of Æschylus to leave the scene set only on his limited stage. He is to present a drama dealing with a struggle between immortal gods. As soon, therefore, as he leaves the rather ordinary minds of Hephæstos and Strength, through which he can dress the stage scene admirably, he presents, not to the fleshly eye, but to the eye of the imagination, the very "firmament of God" which over-spreads the theatre. Working through the sublime intelligence of Prometheus he can do what he had no thought of attempting with a blacksmith and a bully. Let us watch this language carefully, for Shelley is very close to it. This is an example of "the sublime majesty of Æschylus" which "filled him with wonder and delight":
Even so Shelley's hero for "Three thousand years of sleepunsheltered hours" has gazed upon the "bright and rolling worlds" of the firmament. Even so he cries out:
Among "The wingless, crawling hours" he knows there is one hour which shall mark the end of his ills. With "allenduring will" he accepts his destiny.
In heightening the effect of the setting both poets depend upon the play of the elements. In Æschylus the "tempests wildly sweep" about the Titan. "Fiercest winds," swift and stormy, buffet him. He is, indeed, their "wretched plaything." About Shelley's hero there throng the howling "genii of the storm, urging the rage of whirlwind." The "swift Whirlwinds" are his companions. At the time of his impaling, "strange tempest" vexed the sea; and the hounds that later come to torture him are "tempest-walking."
As Æschylus develops his scene he threatens to set the thunders of Jove within the tempests and to hurl the lightning down. Too hardy, the outraged sufferer taunts Hermes:
Let then the blazing levin-flash be hurled;
With white-wingèd snow-storm and with the earthborn thunders
Let Him disturb and trouble all that is.
With thunder and the levin's blazing flash
The Father this ravine of rocks shall crush,
And shall thy carcase hide. [P.B., 1105–07]
Justifying Hermes' warning, the storm breaks. "Wildly conflicting blasts" blend "sky with sea."
Since Æschylus builds his whole drama so as to sustain a tempestuous conclusion, he has an advantage over Shelley in creating effects of elemental grandeur. The English poet must compress his scene and has much to do besides stirring up Jovian thunders. Yet Earth remembers that when the "almighty Tyrant" with "his thunder chained" Prometheus to the crags that
The Voice from the Mountains recalls the fear with which "o'er the Earthquake's couch we stood," and the Voice from the Whirlwinds asserts that before the cruel act of Zeus had roused the Titan's hate, no "thunder / Nor … volcano's flaming fountains" had ever made them mute. But at that dread hour they had
Hung mute and moveless o'er yon hushed abyss,
As thunder, louder than [their] own, made rock
The orbéd world! [I, 67–69]
"Thunderblots had parched" the waters of the Springs, and they had known the bitterness of blood; but the curse of Prometheus, more awful than thunder, had left them "stagnant with wrinkling frost." As the hero of Prometheus Bound at the close of the play hangs feeling "the earth shake to and fro," even so the hero of Prometheus Unbound at the beginning of the play cries out against "the Earthquake fiends" who are charged
To wrench the rivets from my quivering wounds
When the rocks split and close again behind.
And finally, just before the fiends are called up against Prometheus, lightning and thunder stun the stage:
Just as fire and snow are brought together in these lines, so "alternating frost and fire" are used by both poets to heighten the suffering of Prometheus. As we have seen, Hephæstos bemoans his having to fetter his kinsman
Let the "white-wingèd snow" be hurled upon me, cries the defiant Titan. Shelley remembers these lines. His hero, speaking to Mercury, as Æschylus' hero has spoken to Hermes, says:
I gave all
He has; and in return he chains me here
Years, ages, night and day: whether the Sun
Split my parched skin, or in the moony night
The crystal-wingèd snow cling round my hair.
In his opening soliloquy he had said:
The crawling glaciers pierce me with the spears
Of their moon-freezing crystals, the bright chains
Eat with their burning cold into my bones.
And when earlier he had cursed Jupiter, he had defied the god in these words:
And let alternate frost and fire
Eat into me, and be thine ire
Lightning, and cutting hail. [I, 268–270]
It might seem that Shelley's Titan suffers more acutely from cold than from heat, as I suspect the poet himself did. The whirlwinds "afflict [him] with keen hail." However, Shelley keeps the contrast which Æschylus has set up, heat being a thing of day and chill a thing of night:
And yet to me welcome is day and night,
Whether one breaks the hoar frost of the morn,
Or starry, dim, and slow the other climbs
The leaden-coloured east. [I, 44–47]
If one thinks of action as something visibly done upon a stage, there is a wide difference between the Prometheus Bound and the Prometheus Unbound. This difference is attributable to two things. First, Æschylus gives over the opening ninety-six lines of his play to the business of chaining and impaling the Titan. Shelley begins his play "three thousand years" later, merely referring to the action as having taken place. Second, once the Greek has fettered Prometheus, there is little more that the author can do except, in a conventional way, bring in the Chorus and Okeanos and Io and Hermes in turn. In other words, despite the use of some mechanism which, for 173 lines, suspends the Chorus in a "swiftly rushing car," and which brings Okeanos on in "a car drawn by a wingèd gryphon," iÆschylus cannot keep his play from becoming static. He may, and he does, suggest potential or contingent action of a vivid kind, but the deed done upon the stage is beyond him. Shelley, however, in unbinding the Titan and in shifting his scene gains in action. There is much more going on in his play than in the Greek's. His Dramatis Personœ number nineteen as against seven in the cast of -Æschylus. And, particularly, he presents the torture by the Furies, the destruction of Jupiter, and the release of Prometheus, which things were impossible to his predecessor.
As one studies the two dramas in point of action, however, one cannot forget that Æschylus wrote for production upon the stage whereas Shelley wrote "simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination … with beautiful idealisms." For ninety-six lines the Athenian audience is treated to some rough and realistic action. Hephæstos, Strength, and Force hale Prometheus on in chains. Hephæstos is an explicit and hard-working actor. His hands are full of chains, bolts, rivets, nails, handcuffs, one huge adamantine wedge, and at least one great hammer. No doubt all these properties add to the realism of the part and, together with his colorful and sympathetic nature, make him attractive to the people. Yet Hephæstos, at first, in his pity for his kin, merely talks of bonds and bare rocks and fetters of bronze. It is Strength, a loud and brutal fellow, who drives Hephæstos into action. By his constant bellowing of directions he calls attention to what his comrade is doing and what things he is using. "Fix the chains on him," he shouts. "With all thy might strike with thine hammer; nail him to the rocks. Strike harder, rivit." "Lo!" Hephæstos says, "this arm is fixed inextricably." Strength ruthlessly continues: "Now rivet thou this other fast. Drive the stern jaw of the adamant wedge right through his chest. Cast thy breast-chains round his ribs. With thy full power fix the galling fetters." Hephæstos bids Strength, "Go below and rivet both his legs." This done, he says, "His limbs are bound in chains." So, with no small amount of action and clatter, they leave the Titan fixed in the "rare handiwork" from which he cannot free himself.
All this action, as I have said, Shelley assumes to have taken place before his play opens. His dramatic interest is not in the binding but in the unbinding of Prometheus. He does, however, use most of the properties which the Greek used, and by a psychic reaching back he creates an illusion of action. His protagonist is nailed to the wall of rock; he is chained in "adamantine chains." He is "Prometheus, the chained Titan"; and he cries out that Zeus "chains me here" and that "the bright chains eat into my bones." More ghastly still, when the mountains quake, they "wrench the rivets from my quivering wounds." Nowhere else in all of his work, except once in the "Cyclops," does Shelley use the word "rivet." In all, we are given a strong feeling for the "scorn, and chains" with which the cruel Tyrant has loaded the sufferer.
In making the action clear, however, Æschylus, according to his need, is not only more reiterative than is Shelley, he is also much closer to physical horror. The stomach of the Athenian who at Salamis helped to fill the sea "with wrecks and carcasses" is less queasy than is the "refined imagination" of the Englishman. When Strength bids Hephæstos "drive the stern jaw of the adamant wedge right through his chest," Hephæstos may groan with remorse, yet the act remains harsh beyond any need Shelley has. Furthermore, since these things are past for him, the poet could not, had he willed, admit them into his primary scene with the peculiar directness which action could give to them.
When Shelley declared himself "averse from … reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind," he marked an essential distinction in character which he wished to make between his protagonist and that of the Greek. Together with the Titan of Æschylus, with Job and Satan and Tasso, his Prometheus should suffer the oppression of tyranny. But there should be in him no important sense of outrage, no "taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement," no boasting followed by compromise. Obviously the character of the sufferer upon Caucasus is to be tempered by the spirit of the sufferer upon Golgotha, infinitely irreconcilable to tyranny. The crucifixion scene alone is sufficient to make the point; and if it does not, the closing lines of Demogorgon do. When Shelley writes, "The only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus, is Satan," he does not exclude that historical Being whom Prometheus resembles. When Shelley presents the final test of his hero as the viewing of the crucifixion, and when his response is not, "Let this cup pass from me," but "Pour forth the cup of pain," there can be little doubt what character he has in mind. "A pillow of thorns" may be spread for Prometheus; yet, he says
When we study the characters in the two dramas, we observe, first, that the Greek Prometheus rebels against tyranny. When Æschylus' hero declares himself "the foe of Zeus," adding that he hates "all the gods," Shelley's hero addresses Jupiter as "thy foe, eyeless in hate." With "looks of firm defiance, and calm hate," he cries, "allprevailing foe! I curse thee." That which adds to the bitterness of Prometheus, alike in the Prometheus Bound and the Prometheus Unbound, is the thankless treachery of Zeus, his inexorable cruelty, and his contemptible weakness. The Greek Titan complains acidly that he took his side with Zeus, and by his counsels made secure the power of the graceless God. Then he adds: "See here the friend of Zeus, / Who helped to seat Him. Thus … the mighty ruler of the Gods repays me." The English Titan also "clothed him with … dominion." "I gave thee power," he says. Then, while the "thought-executing ministers" of Zeus work woe in the world he cries: "I gave all He has," and see how He "requites me. Such is the tyrant's recompense."
In the midst of the curse which Prometheus had formerly placed upon Jupiter, he spoke these fateful words: "O'er all things but thyself I gave thee power, / And my own will." And hence, after "three thousand years" of pain, he cries, "yet I endure." He holds his "all-enduring will" against the haughty tyranny of Zeus. "Enduring thus, the retributive hour" he becomes known even to the Furies as "the Invincible, / The stern of thought" who "yet defies the deepest power of Hell."
Alike in the Greek and the English drama, that which gives significance to the will of Prometheus is pain. He is, above all else, in his own thought and in the opinion of others, the sufferer. In Prometheus Bound he cries: "I suffer ills … woes / Dreadful to suffer." As Job turned upon his tormenting friends, so the Titan turns upon the chorus:
'Tis a light thing for one who has his foot
Beyond the reach of evil to exhort
And counsel him who suffers. [P.B., 293–295]
Yet he asks for "sympathy / With him who suffers now." When Okeanos—a perfect Zophar—enters protesting his pity, Prometheus chides him:
Let be. What boots it? Thou then too art come
To gaze upon my sufferings. [P.B., 330–331]
Io, in turn, and much more genuinely, asks: "Why, poor Prometheus, sufferest thou this pain?" And his response to her is this: "I have but now mine own woes ceased to wail."
Shelley, although using such words as pain and suffering less often than does Æschylus, places unmistakable stress upon the idea. When his Titan curses Jupiter it is "a sufferer's curse" which he hurls upon the god. When the Phantasm of Jupiter is forced to appear, he recognizes Prometheus only as "proud sufferer." And when Mercury comes leading in the furies he pauses to address his victim: "Awful Sufferer!" The essential change that we may sense in the English play is the tempering of the nature of the suffering with vicarious warmth: Shelley's Titan would be not only the foe of Zeus but the saviour of man.
To draw into some patterned statement the many and various references to the pain of Prometheus, either in the Greek or the English drama, would be a large task. Plumptre, in his translation of Æschylus, uses nearly sixty such references, and Shelley close to forty. Yet there remains a very great emphasis upon the general idea of pain; and the problem, I belive, is more than one of numerical comparison. At least in the translation we are using, the Prometheus Bound has not only more references to pain but, following the original, a larger variety of words suggesting pain. Some few of these are fairly sharp and kinetic; many of them are general. There are pangs, there is writhing, and there are groans and wailings. There are outrages, penalties, maltreatments, and calamities. But for the most part there are punishments and ills, pain woe and misery, dreary and sad fate, griefs and wrongs. The effect of the use of all of these terms is to fill the imagination with the concept of suffering.
I believe, however, that when one first reads these two plays one feels in Shelley's work a greater shock and charge of pain than in that of Æschylus. The terms alone which the English poet uses probably cannot account for this feeling, should it be experienced. Among these terms the word pain itself is used thirteen times—over one-third of the allotment. Torture follows, appearing ten times. Grief, agony, and misery come next in the list. We find the word pangs used twice, and woe but once, in the expression "woe-illumined mind." Almost all of these words are general. But there is this difference: they are often used in figures of speech, a circumstance which gives them vividness and impact. Prometheus is linked "to some wheel of pain"; he drinks "the cup of pain"; the furies who attack him "are the ministers of pain"; pain is his "element." Then, too, his agony is a "crawling" thing; and with sudden directness we see the fiends torture him even after he has been afflicted "with keen hail" and after the glaciers have pierced him with their spears and the Earthquakefiends have wrenched the rivets from his "quivering wounds."
It may be, also, that we feel the pain of the English Prometheus more sharply than that of the Greek because Shelley has contrived to simplify it and focus our responses to it. For the Greek Titan there are two sources of pain: the actual impaling and chaining, and the outrage, the "foul shame" which has been wrought upon him. Of this second source of pain Shelley makes little use. Further, the Greek is punished mainly for giving fire to men and for being lofty. The matter of haughtiness is so greatly developed in Athenian drama as to seem almost peculiar to it. Shelley, although he allows Mercury to say to Prometheus, "Let the will kneel within thy haughty heart," prefers to concentrate upon the theme of the stealing of the fire. Then, too, whereas in the play of Æschylus there is a notable amount of comment by other actors upon the pain of Prometheus, in Shelley's work a great deal of comment is made by the Titan himself. At all three of these points Shelley has gained a greater unity than he found in the Greek play.
Yet, as we study (in the character of Prometheus) the power to endure pain regardless of why the pain is endured, we are impressed by the fundamental similarities of the Greek and the English portrayal. As we have seen in our discussion of the setting, the general conditions under which Prometheus suffers are as similar in the two plays as they well could be. Obviously the English author wishes to avail himself of the Greek tradition to the limit of his need. Further, each stresses the length of time of the suffering: Æschylus,—ten thousand years, a "space of time full long"; Shelley,—three thousand years, "into Eternity." "Has thy pain no end?" queries the Chorus. "Pain, pain ever, forever!" answers the English Titan. Each author makes sure that in his hero there shall be no suggestion of yielding to misery. Let Hermes threaten that "the wingèd hound of Zeus" shall "glut himself upon thy liver dark," Prometheus is unmoved except to deeper wrath. Let "Heaven's wingèd hound" tear up the heart of the English Titan, he is unmoved except to pity Jupiter. Though Æschylus' protagonist "should wither here on these high towering crags," he will not yield. Though Shelley's hero hang "withering in destined pain" upon "this wall of eagle-baffling mountain," he will not yield. In the grander aspects of their characters, the Greek and the English Prometheus resemble each other.
All the agony of the Æschylean Prometheus was brought upon him by his "stealing what belongs to the Gods," the "choicest prize" of Zeus, "the bright glory of fire that all arts spring from," and giving it to men. "I snatched the hidden spring of stolen fire," he boasts. Because of my act, "men the flaming fire possess," and with it, god-like power. "Many an art they'll learn from it…. All arts of mortals from Prometheus spring…. I gave them fire." I am "Prometheus who gave fire to men." Æschylus is at no end of pains to emphasize and to explain this matter, knowing either that his listeners are fond of the story and therefore like to hear it repeated, or doubting that they are sufficiently instructed and for dramatic reasons must be more thoroughly informed. Having avoided the old Hesiodic version, he must make sure that the account he is using is understood. In all that he writes, although he makes clear the Titan's compassion for men, his emphasis is upon the point that the filching of the fire is an act of rebellion against Zeus. It is the breaking of the decree of the god, not the kindness done to men, which sets Zeus and the Titan at deadly odds.
Shelley, on the other hand, although he accepts the basic fact of the theft, continues to minimize the Titan's rebellion and to accent his pity for man. Indeed, when Prometheus addresses the Earth, we catch the suggestion of vicarious suffering.
This distinction made, however, it is illuminating to compare what the Greek Prometheus says of his daring beneficence and what Asia, in turn, says in glorious defense of her lover. Prometheus speaks.
Now if we read the speech of Asia, remembering these italicized words, we shall see not only the open likeness of the whole but many particular similarities. Shelley may have felt that for Prometheus to have delivered these matters in his own person would have set up too close a parallel to the older play. Or, he may have sensed the dramatic fitness of Asia's pouring them into her protest in favor of the being she loved. Obviously, the delivery of so much detail by the Titan himself in the first act, following line 409, would have slowed the scene and overweighted the part. However these things may be, we watch for the similarities, which are patent. It goes without remark that certain dissimilarities are eliminated from this comparison, such as Æschylus' references to subjugating animals and to divination through dreams and through observing the flight of birds and examining their inward parts. Asia speaks.
Gave wisdom, which is strength, to Jupiter,
And with this law alone, 'Let man be free,'
Clothed him with the dominion of wide Heaven.
To know nor faith, nor love, nor law; to be
Omnipotent but friendless is to reign;
And Jove now reigned; for on the race of man
First famine, and then toil, and then disease….
Fell; and the unseasonable seasons drove …
Their shelterless, pale tribes to mountain caves; …
Prometheus saw, and waked the legioned hopes …
And he tamed fire which, like some beast of prey,
Most terrible, but lovely, played beneath
The frown of man; and tortured to his will
Iron and gold …
Hidden beneath the mountains and the waves.
He gave man speech, and speech created thought,
Which is the measure of the universe;
And Science struck the thrones of earth and heaven,
Which shook, but fell not; and the harmonious mind
Poured itself forth in all-prophetic song;
And music lifted up the listening spirit …
And human hands first mimicked and then mocked …
The human form, till marble grew divine …
He told the hidden power of herbs and springs,
And Disease drank and slept. Death grew like sleep.
He taught the implicated orbits woven
Of the wide-wandering stars; and how the sun
Changes his lair….
He taught to rule, as life directs the limbs,
The tempest-wingèd chariots of the Ocean …
Such, the alleviations of his state,
Prometheus gave to man.
[IV, iv, 43–99]
The changes which for his own purposes Shelley wrought in the portrayal of Prometheus will, I trust, become more clear as we go on with our study. But in a simple way we can see what primary and essential characteristics he took from Æschylus. There was forethought, a penetrant intelligence. There was will locked in necessity, availing itself of the laws of fate. There were suffering, and the immense, enduring power to suffer. There was compassion for men. Out of this compassion came rebellion against the tyrannic cruelty of Zeus. At this point the two poets begin to draw apart, Æschylus going on to the compromise which tradition demanded that his Titan make, Shelley going on to eschew all reconciliation of his "Champion with the Oppressor of mankind." Drawn by another tradition, the English poet must subdue the Greek haughtiness of Prometheus and develop in him that pity which leaves Zeus to his own nature, and to the self-destruction which that nature requires.
In the play of Æschylus, Zeus does not appear in person. We have to judge him by what he has done and by what others say of him. He is in the very fact of his kingship fiercely assertive, one who cannot brook the will of another. He can more readily permit those disasters which flow from his imperious nature to destroy others than he can tolerate any ease on their part which suggests independence of him. His treatment of his defeated foes reveals the essential ruthlessness of his mind. Upon Atlas he has piled the weight of earth and heaven. The mighty Typhon he has left "a helpless, powerless carcase," "his strength all thunder-shattered." No friend he has and no need of friends: his is sovereignty, utter, unaccountable might. Hephæstos remarks upon his inexorable obdurance, his intemperate harshness. The Chorus holds him insatiate with power, outrageous and wanton in the punishment of his foes, iron hearted, "made of rock." Prometheus, as we have seen, knows him as graceless, insulting, diseased with sovereignty, suspicious, "all ways cruel." But, says the Titan, who glimpses the bully beneath the king, "When he is crushed … He'll hasten unto me / For friendship."
This characterization, which for a tyrant is highly sufficient, Shelley uses. Jupiter's basic acts in overthrowing Cronos and in savagely torturing his foes, the English poet accepts. Cruelty he fixes as the main characteristic of the god. He concentrates almost a whole life's hatred of tyranny in fashioning this cruel king. And he observes, as Æschylus had done before him, that "to be Omnipotent but friendless is to reign." Nor does he miss the Greek's sure perception of the bully in Zeus. When Jupiter is crushed, he does in Shelley's play just what Æschylus said he would: he cries out to Demogorgon, "Oh, / That thou wouldst make mine enemy my judge!" If Æschylus allows him to take with Io the pleasant privilege of a god, Shelley will depict the beastly ravishment of Thetis in order that, just before his fall, we may see the highest act of tyranny convulsed in the blindest egotism begetting out of itself its own doom. For Æschylus this fine impiousness would have been impossible. In Shelley's hands the tyrant is in a sterner grip than formerly he was. Once having seized him, Shelley will never release him until he destroys him utterly.
The tyranny of heaven none may retain
Or reassume, or hold, succeeding thee.
[III, i, 57–58]
Another stock character which both dramatists use is Hermes-Mercury. In the older play he is fully typed. He is the messenger of Zeus, young, and by the nature of his office contemptible. In a blunt way he demands to know the secret kept by the Titan, only to be greeted with ironic scorn. Says Prometheus:
I for my part, be sure, would never change
My evil state for that thy bondslave's lot.
The conversation that follows is made up of typical Greek repartee, quick, evasive, sharp, insulting. Hermes retorts upon Prometheus—"it is meet the insulter to insult"—calls him a self-willed, brain-stricken fool, and warns him, as Belial might, of the probability of more dreadful woes:
In this language we may recognize the charge of haughtiness brought against Prometheus by Mercury (I, 274, 387), the thought of the "slow years in torture" (I, 422), and Shelley's vision of "Heaven's wingèd hound" (I, 34) with ravening beak. Further, Hermes' reference to the Titan as frenzied, brain-stricken, "with no slight madness plagued," must have interested "mad Shelley" who, remembering Tasso, perhaps, sang of "great sages bound in madness" (I, 768).
On the whole, the Mercury of the later play is more complex than the young Hermes of the earlier work. He comes, of course, with the same commission: "There is a secret known to thee" (I, 371). That secret he would learn. He conjures Prometheus: "Let the will kneel within thy haughty heart" (I, 378). As did Hermes, he bids Prometheus consider the "space of time full long" in which he may suffer:
Then, too, as did Hermes, he must suffer himself to be called a "self-despising slave." But interestingly one of his main characteristics, however tainted, seems to be drawn from Hephæstos. The fire-worker recognizes his kinsman as "wise in counsel." Mercury salutes him: "Wise art thou, firm and good." Further, Hephæstos is greatly disturbed by what he has to do, and sincerely protests his reluctance. His handicraft is now intolerable to him. His heart fails him. Under the savage urgings of Strength, he expresses repugnance. He cries out: "Ah me! Prometheus, for thy woes I groan." Whether sincerely or not, Mercury speaks in the same vein.
In a work by Shelley it may be expected that even so despicable a creature as Mercury should respond to the goodness of the Titan, but how little he really understands Prometheus is suggested by the leering line:
If thou might'st dwell among the Gods the while
Lapped in voluptuous joy?
Here, of course, Mercury is subtly metamorphosed into Satan tempting Jesus. In all, he is a fit master for the hounds which follow him.
The characters of Okeanos and of Ocean seem unlike. Okeanos is a friendly ancient, as full of proverbs as of age. Like Zophar, or like any old man, he yearns to give advice: "I wish to give thee / My best advice." He means to intercede with Zeus, and deems that Zeus will grant his petition. But Prometheus knows that Okeanos protests too much, that he is indulging himself in fancied bravery. He therefore warns the hoary babbler—"Keep out of harm's way"—and Okeanos patters off at a great rate: "Thou urgest me who am in act to haste."
Shelley can use neither Okeanos nor his proverbs. The Greeks would like him well, just as the Elizabethans must have enjoyed Polonius. But Shelley's Titan is not one to be advised. At the moment of his last agony, which is also the moment of his triumph, he needs no counselor. The English drama, however, does require structurally that something be interposed between the fall of Jupiter and the freeing of Prometheus. These two scenes are too great to juxtapose; they must have psychic space between them. To meet this necessity, Shelley presents Ocean and Apollo. The scene is one of his most characteristic, a lyric gem archly cut and faceted with blue shadows and white fire. But this Ocean is Shelley's own creature, and his voice is Shelley's. Having questioned the fall of Jupiter as though it were an event too joyous to believe, he in turn hymns the diviner day. And then, with words that haunt those who have walked the sands of Via Reggio, he goes: "The loud deep calls me home. Peace, monster; I come now. Farewell."
The Oceanides of Æschylus, after the Greek convention, are presented as a Chorus. No individuals among them are brought forward as are lone, Panthea, and Asia. Yet one must think that the Chorus made some impress upon the three Oceanides.
This love for Prometheus is the love which we find in the younger Nymphs and, although peculiarly developed, in Asia herself. The fear which stirs the inmost soul of the Chorus is much the same as the fear which shakes lone and Panthea. What marks the emotion is the rich strain of pity which runs through it. Moved by the woes of the Titan, the Chorus is "wounded to the heart." Just so lone is wounded as the fiends torture the Titan; and Panthea says:
Perhaps it is going too far to wonder whether or not, in the characterizing of his Nymphs, Shelley drew upon the kindly and piteous quality of Io's nature. The Io-Prometheus scene lay farther from his purpose than any other. But the four lines of Hercules—"Thus doth strength / To wisdom minister like a slave"—recall the part of Strength in Prometheus Bound. However, we come out at last beyond the dramatis personœ of the older play among the special characterizations which are not so much different as new. Again, by seeing clearly just what Shelley required and took from Æschylus, we are the better able to see what of his own he added to Æschylus. It would be a dull and insensitive reading which concluded that the characters which are not in Prometheus Bound but which are in Prometheus Unbound are strange and incongruous. We need not conclude that Demogorgon, the Phantom of Jupiter, Earth, Apollo, the Fauns and the Furies and the many Spirits stand off curiously apart from the creatures of Æschylus' drama. That would be merely to say that Shelley did not have the artistic power to merge his work with that of the Greek. Yet, with the possible exception of Apollo, these characters which Shelley brought to associate with those of Æschylus, are largely mystic and lyric embodiments of ideas. And, with the exception of Apollo, Demogorgon, and Earth, the Shelleyan characters lead the drama toward song. Rather importantly, I think, it is they who suggest the grand transmutation of the character of Prometheus into something approaching the character of the Galilean.
In dealing with the dramatis personce we have of necessity anticipated somewhat the matter of the story. Up to the wedding of Zeus with Thetis, Shelley takes over the myth which Æschylus had used. The point at which he departs from Æschylus is inevitably the point at which the Greek prepares to reconcile "the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind." Since this reconciliation is to be brought about through the Titan's revealing to Zeus the danger latent in the god's proposed marriage with Thetis, it is upon the matter of the wedding that we must fix our attention.
The basic difference, then, between the Greek myth and Shelley's adaptation of it is that in the one Prometheus does "unsay his high language" and trade his secret for his freedom, whereas in the other he does not. Obviously, in Athens, Zeus still reigns, and Æschylus has no desire and no permission to dethrone him. With equal obviousness, in England, Tyranny still reigns, and Shelley has every determination, permission or no permission, to destroy Tyranny. But the difference, in effect, of the two plays is not so great as might be expected. That which creates an impression of similarity between them is Æschylus' skillful treatment of the vital issues as contingent. Through the use of contingency the Greek gains and holds much of the effect of noble and triumphant rebellion on the part of the Titan. Shelley, on the other hand, can go straight to work, pitting the will and the mercy of Prometheus against the will and the tyranny of Zeus. In forthright drama he can achieve for his hero the expected triumph over his villain. When he sets "the period of Jove's power" and says that "it must come," it does come. When he says that the secret known to Prometheus is fatal, it is fatal. When he speaks of the dread marvel, the "prodigy irresistible," he admits no quasi-futurity of the contingent. When he gives Jupiter to say: "Now have I begotten a strange wonder," lo! the "detested prodigy" is already upon him to destroy him. Shelley makes promise and fulfillment meet.
Our story began with the cry of the Titan: "Pain, pain ever, for ever!" It ends with the cry of Jupiter: "I sink / Down, ever, for ever, down." The full circle is drawn. All is complete. We began with intelligence chained, with tyranny regnant. We end with tyranny destroyed, with intelligence and love united and ready to work their eternal wonder in the world. It seems natural now that Shelley, having gained the victory so near to his purpose, should stay further action. He has indeed passed the "far goal of Time" and has come into eternity. There plot and deed alike are grotesque. Song only is fitting. And Shelley, with his genius in full release, sings Act IV, the great "hymn of rejoicing." At the close he lifts Demogorgon out of his dark nature and gives him to chant of "a diviner day." Here Shelley goes beyond the dramatic purpose of the majestic Greek whose drama had, as Mary Shelley says, "Filled him with wonder and delight." He leaves the Acropolis for Golgotha. From that craggy hill another Poet has sought to fold over the world his healing wings. And it is at last the victory of love and creative hope which Shelley sings.
Surely in what may be his most significant and characteristic work Shelley owes a great debt to Æschylus. That debt he acknowledges, and we should sum it accurately. For it is largely when we come to know what he owes to the Greek that we may take up the essential task of scholarship: to essay the worth of his own genius.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8335
SOURCE: "The Figure of the Poet in Shelley," in ELH, Vol. 35, No. 4, December, 1968, pp. 566–90.
[Chernaik is an American-born English author and educator. In the following essay, she discusses the autobiographical and symbolic importance of the recurring poet figure in Shelley's verse.]
If there is a single image which draws together the most problematic aspects of Shelley's art, it is the recurrent figure of the frail Poet, pale of hue and weak of limb, consecrated to his youthful vision of Beauty but incapable of realizing or recreating it, driven at last to death by unassuageable desire for he knows not what. His literary associations vary from poem to poem, but the unsympathetic reader (and most readers at the present time fall into this camp), noting the resemblances between the fictional heroes of Alastor and The Revolt of Islam, and the "idealized" self-portraits of Adonais and Epipsychidion, inevitably takes each appearance of the Poet to be inflated autobiography, the romantic selfprojection of a poet whose actual frailty is only too well established by contemporary accounts of his susceptibility to fainting fits, nervous seizures, visions and hallucinations.
One influential school of criticism applies to the figure of the poet terms like "shrill," "hysterical," "self-pitying," "immature." Behind these terms lies the assumption that there is no "objective correlative" for the emotionalism of the poet's cry, "I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!", no sense of life or reality behind the rhetoric. The most persuasive arguments against the charges of hysteria and selfindulgence have urged that it is a mistake to identify a lyric protagonist as the voice of the poet, or to read a prayer, elegy, or ode, which has its rhetoric in part determined by tradition, as primarily confessional.
As is often the case when a theory persists both in popular mythology and among sophisticated readers, there is some justification for the reading of the portraits as selfdramatization. The critical events of Shelley's life furnish the substance not only of the self-portraits but of the fictional narratives. His abortive attempts to liberate the surprised peasantry of Ireland and Wales are reconstituted in the heroic struggles of Laon and Lionel; his unhappy marriage to Harriet and his difficult relationship with Mary provide the outlines of the self-portrait in Epipsychidion; and his physical suffering, his persecution by the law, his exile abroad, his lack of audience, are traced in several of the portraits, most memorably in Adonais. It is tempting to see autobiography not only in the commitment to social justice but in the persistent theme of yearning for the unattainable, the irresistible pull of Eros or Thanatos:
Still, the presence of autobiographical elements does not in itself mark Shelley's poetry as unusually self-regarding or immature. His precedent for allegorizing personal experience Shelley took from Dante and Milton; the peculiar authority he attributed to his own thought and its history and process suggests the example of those he considered the "extraordinary intellects of the new age," especially Wordsworth. Indeed, the figure of the Poet is significant not only because it dominates several of Shelley's major works, but because it exemplifies that complex relationship between the personal and the traditional which is at the heart of his poetry, the recasting of subjective experience in terms suggested by the greatest of poetic and philosophical traditions. But the figure of the poet participates as well in the ambitious symbolism which characterizes all of Shelley's poetry.
That poetry has the prodigality and ardor of genius; it is passionate, dazzlingly metaphorical, "intense and comprehensive" in its representation of emotions and ideas. Its motive is "to comprehend the meaning of the visible and invisible world"; its formulations attempt to mediate between what Shelley called "beautiful idealisms of moral excellence"—beauty, love, freedom, justice—and the real experience of world, life, and time. The figure of the poet is clearly part of Shelley's grand design. It is meant to be read as serious in the sense in which not only Shelley but Henry James and Matthew Arnold apply that term to art and to the artist's rendering of human life as significant choice between good and evil. If the serious Romantic artist has no prior commitment to a received dogma or system of morality, then poetry becomes a surrogate for religion, an independent and self-sustaining way of asserting or discovering value. When dogma and morality are no longer viable, the center of interest shifts to the seeking mind, embodied for late Romantic writers in the image of the artist, or the novice at life, the youthful hero or heroine, whose impressions of the surface are his only means of penetrating the mystery at the heart of things; embodied for Shelley in the image of the Poet, whose education is similarly rendered in terms of his own naive motive, and the world which resists and ultimately denies his vision.
The resemblances between Shelley's first presentation of the visionary, doomed Poet of Alastor, and his later incarnations, have been generally recognized. The unpromising plot of Alastor, compounded of Platonic myth and biographical fact, with gleanings from Scott, Wordsworth, and popular romantic fiction, clearly haunted Shelley's imagination, and became a vehicle for his repeated attempts to define the poet's relationship to the world he lives in and the vision he serves. The spiritual history of the Poet is reworked in the unfinished Prince Athanase, and its significant events are incorporated in the history of later heroes, both the Laon and Cythna of The Revolt of Islam and the Lionel of Rosalind and Helen. The "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" provides an autobiographical analogue to the fiction of Alastor, turning, like Alastor, on the poet's subjection to a vision of truth. The selfportrait of the "Hymn" is elaborated in the prefatory stanzas of The Revolt of Islam and in Epipsychidion; it appears allusively in the "Ode to the West Wind" and is dramatized in the figure of the mourning poet described in Adonais. What I propose to do in the following summary is to isolate those elements of the poet's history which seem to me to reveal Shelley's basic design.
The Poet of Alastor is idealized as a "lovely" youth gifted above all others, possessed of the traditional virtues of the prince, "gentle and brave and generous." There is a suggestion of a heroic ideal in each portrait, though the terms which describe the hero vary. Thus Prince Athanase, like the Poet of Alastor, has a Spenserian cast:
He had a gentle yet aspiring mind;
Just, innocent, with varied learning fed;
Fearless he was, and scorning all disguise …
Liberal he was of soul, and frank of heart….
In the "Ode to the West Wind," the poet describes himself in his youth as "tameless and swift and proud," terms which suggest the strength and freedom of a natural force; in Adonais the frail Form, who represents Shelley, is de scribed in similar terms as a "pardlike spirit, beautiful and swift."
The young Poet of Alastor is educated "by solemn vision, and bright silver dream," by nature, philosophy, and the "sacred past." Education, the growth of the poet's mind, includes both passive and active processes, not only the receiving of impressions and the study of books, but the active seeking of experience; thus Shelley describes his own studies and travels, in the Preface to The Revolt of Islam, as "an education peculiarly fitted for a Poet." The Poet of Alastor, like the poet-author, wanders abroad in search of "Nature's most secret steps" (Alastor); the poet's travels reappear in Epipsychidion as "visioned wanderings" undertaken "in the clear golden prime of my youth's dawn" (Epipsychidion).
Suddenly a Vision appears, which forms a turning point in the youth's spiritual history; his earlier education is a preparation for it, his adult life is determined by its appearance and its loss. The vision is variously defined in the poems, as truth, "intellectual beauty," that which gives meaning to life, or, more obscurely, as a thirst for love, a vacancy of spirit, an awakening to absence. In Alastor the vision comes upon the Poet as he sleeps, in the form of a veiled maiden, the "spirit of sweet human love"; her voice is "like the voice of his own soul"; her theme is "Knowledge and truth and virtue" (Alastor.) The vision of the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" descends upon the poet "like the truth of nature"; the Being who appears to the poet in Epipsychidion is "robed in such exceeding glory / That I behold her not … Her spirit was the harmony of truth" (Epipsychidion).
The reality of a vision, by definition subjective, is attested to by the "ecstasy" which admits it. The poet of the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" describes his visionary seizure: "I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy"; the Poet of Alastor, experiences the ecstasy of sexual union with the veiled maiden Alastor). But the vision dissolves; the spirit vanishes, and the moment of ecstasy is followed by a trial of despair, as the poet, awakened to a cold reality, pursues in vain his lost vision of perfection. In Alastor the Poet flees back through time and civilization to the primeval source of being, where he discovers not life or love, but death. Prince Athanase, blasted in his promise by a mysterious ailment, wanders from land to land, weakened by grief. In several of the more personal lyrics, as in these two "allegories," the nature of the poet's despair identifies the vision as love, the failure of which is responsible for the poet's loss of vital powers and his physical decline.
The dedicatory stanzas of The Revolt of Islam present as poetic autobiography a sequence of events similar to the fictional narrative of Alastor. The poet describes his youthful study of nature and the past, his preparation for a heroic task; he recounts the visionary hour in which his poetic mission is revealed to him.
I do remember well the hour which burst
My spirit's sleep. A fresh May-dawn it was,
When I walked forth upon the glittering grass,
And wept, I knew not why …
("To Mary," The Revolt of Islam)
But he suffers a sudden deflection of purpose with the appearance of love, or more specifically, with the desire for love, "a sense of loneliness, a thirst," which comes upon his mind, even as the vision of the veiled maiden descends upon the Poet of Alastor. Thereafter he seeks in vain, until his meeting with Mary, for one who answers the thirst of his soul.
As in Alastor and Prince Athanase, the time of solitude is imaged as a wandering in the wilderness. The poet's despair is described in analogy to the death of winter, the hardening and freezing of the land; as the land dies when its source of life is removed, so the spirit dies when it is not nourished by love. The suggestion is that the spirit, once it has been awakened (or given life) by a vision of truth, requires continuing relationship with a human embodiment of that truth.
In the self-portrait of Epipsychidion the revival of love is delusive; Mary's light illumines but does not warm. But the sequence of events follows the pattern of the dedicatory stanzas of The Revolt of Islam: the appearance of the Vision, creation and creator of the poet's thought, its unaccountable withdrawal, the black night of despair which follows, the poet's search for a human shape of his ideal, his betrayal by false lovers and subsequent spiritual "death," the revival of life brought about by true love. The poet's pursuit of his lost vision imitates Dante's pursuit of Beatrice, once glimpsed and ever sought afterwards, and the vision itself has the multiple forms of Dante's love; it is a star towards which the spirit soars, a God who can only be reached by crossing the grave, a veiled Divinity of thought and poetry, a "soul out of my soul," and also a love in human form.
I questioned every tongueless wind that flew
Over my tower of mourning, if it knew
Whither 'twas fled, this soul out of my soul …
But neither prayer nor verse could dissipate
The night which closed on her; nor uncreate
That world within this Chaos, mine and me,
Of which she was the veiled Divinity,
The world I say of thoughts that worshipped her:
And therefore I went forth, with hope and fear
And every gentle passion sick to death,
Feeding my course with expectation's breath,
Into the wintry forest of our life;
And struggling through its error with vain strife,
And stumbling in my weakness and my haste,
And half bewildered by new forms, I passed,
Seeking among those untaught foresters
If I could find one form resembling hers,
In which she might have masked herself from me.
The "wilderness" image of the earlier poems becomes in Epipsychidion the Dantesque "obscure forest," the "wintry forest of our life," the "wintry wilderness of thorns." And the suggestions of struggle and "vain strife" intimate that this time is not only a quest but an ordeal, a trial, as of the soul in its pilgrimage through life. There is a temporary relief of pain as Mary appears, a mirror image of the poet's lost visionary love. But Mary's love, cold and chaste at best, is withdrawn, and the poet succumbs to despair. His new suffering is rendered in heightened allegory which has the explicit function of concealment, made necessary by the personal tragedy which precipitates the eclipse of love, the death of the Shelleys' two young children. Conventional metaphor is abandoned, as insufficiently opaque or as inadequate to the emotion, and the poet is portrayed not as a wanderer in the wilderness, or a mariner on a storm-tossed sea (as in "Lines Written among the Euganean Hills"), but as that storm-tossed sea itself, as an earth, a world, shaken by natural catastrophe.
What storms then shook the ocean of my sleep,
Blotting that Moon, whose pale and waning lips
Then shrank as in the sickness of eclipse;—
And how my soul was as a lampless sea,
And who was then its Tempest; and when She,
The Planet of that hour, was quenched, what frost
Crept o'er those waters, till from coast to coast
The moving billows of my being fell
Into a death of ice, immovable;—
And then—what earthquakes made it gape and split,
The white Moon smiling all the while on it,
These words conceal:—If not, each word would be
The key of staunchless tears. Weep not for me!
The "death of ice" imaged in these lines is related to the imagery of a withered earth in the Dedication to The Revolt of Islam: as in the earlier passage, the physical analogy asserts the dependence of the poet's creative powers upon love, as the natural creation is dependent upon heat and light. But the suffering expressed has a new intensity, suggestive of the cosmic suffering of a Lear, and justified by the tragic perception which in Shelley's last poems seems to suffuse and darken his idealism, his awareness that life is indeed at the mercy of death, love at the mercy of life.
The final turn of the allegory restores the natural order; Emily appears, the poet's "long night" ends, and life is miraculously reborn with love. The poet prays to Mary and Emily, Moon and Sun to the poet's "passive Earth," to govern his "sphere of being" in harmony and love:
Twin Spheres of light who rule this passive Earth,
This world of love, this me; and into birth
Awaken all its fruits and flowers, and dart
Magnetic might into its central heart;
And lift its billows and its mists, and guide
By everlasting laws, each wind and tide
To its fit cloud, and its appointed cave …
So ye, bright regents, with alternate sway
Govern my sphere of being night and day!
The prayer to the "bright regents" for governance is similar to the poet's prayer in the "Ode to the West Wind" for strength; as the creative powers of the failing prophet require extraordinary inspiration, the violence of storm, the solitary human being requires to be part of a harmonious social order, to respond like others to the pull of love in social relationship.
In his despair the poet is represented as frail, weak, powerless. But his failing power must be seen against the initial portrayal of the poet in his youth as fearless, strong, capable of "visioned wanderings." It is only after the vision seizes hold of his imagination that he loses his strength, and becomes "a Power / Girt round with weakness." Images of a physical wearing away occur in each version of the time of despair. In Alastor the Poet's embrace of Death is anticipated in his physical decline:
And now his limbs were lean; his scattered hair
Sered by the autumn of strange suffering
Sung dirges in the wnd; his listless hand
Hung like dead bone within its withered skin …
The Poet is a "spectral form"; his eyes are "wild" with a "strange light." In the dedicatory stanzas to The Revolt of Islam, the poet laments his weakness, presumably a reference to actual physical illness, even as he prays for strength to serve as a prophet:
The most dramatic representation of the poet's physical weakness is the description of the mourning poet in Adonais. The sequence of images, similar to those used for the same purpose in the "Ode to the West Wind," suggest original or potential strength even as they assert actual failure:
A Love in desolation masked;—a Power
Girt round with weakness;—it can scarce uplift
The weight of the superincumbent hour;
It is a dying lamp, a falling shower,
A breaking billow:—even whilst we speak
Is it not broken?
The phrases suggest the exhausted final movement of a process which began in strength, but has run the course of its given or self-generated power.
The poet's loss of strength, though it is imaged in physical terms, is clearly mental and spiritual, like the torments of Prometheus. In both Adonais and Epipsychidion the image of the hunted deer is used to describe the weakness and extremity of the poet. But the "raging hounds" which pursue him are his own thoughts:
Then, as a hunted deer that could not flee,
I turned upon my thoughts, and stood at bay,
Wounded and weak and panting …
The image in both poems dramatizes the compulsive nature of the poet's flight; he is not only drawn in pursuit of his vision but is himself pursued, and the furies which pursue him are internal as well as external, self-generated, like the vision itself.
The poet's spiritual history reaches its climax in a sudden reversal, a triumph over despair, as the dying youth undergoes a final apotheosis. In Alastor, the Poet discovers a "little shallop … floating near the shore," which he is inspired to embark in. Beckoned on by "the light that shone within his soul," he voyages through a varied symbolic topography of tempest-torn sea and wintry river, through a dark cavern and over a raging whirlpool, to a calm dell deep in the forest, where he at last submits himself to Death. Each of the major poems ends with some version of this voyage, this true ending and consummation, whether of love or death. The effect in Adonais and Epipsychidion is of a sudden widening and lifting, an imaginative transcendence of life. In Epipsychidion, as in Alastor, a boat materializes, and the poet in imagination embarks.
The voyage in Epipsychidion reads like an inspired transfiguration of the voyagings of the "little shallop" of Alastor, mediated through several other flights, the "divine canoe" which transports Laon and Cythna to the "Temple of the Spirit," the departure of Prometheus and Asia "beyond the peak / Of Bacchic Nysa, Maenad-haunted mountain" to the "simple dwelling" where they may live restored to love and happiness.
Adonais also ends with an imagined voyage:
The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit's bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and spherèd skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.
The elements of the more extensively developed voyages are all present in these lines: the "spirit's bark," the sails given to the tempest, the spirits which beckon the poet on, the setting apart of the poet from all other men, his triumph over physical impossibility, his far goal beyond the limits of the known world, of time and mortality. Though the relationship between physical and spiritual reality, between image and object, is different in each poem, the voyage is always a voyage of the spirit, the imagination, a giving of the self to the storm, a return to the source.
It can be seen, I think, even from this sketchy account, that the resemblances among the major poems are sufficient to justify the reader's sense that there is but a single figure of the Poet with several variations. I would like to suggest several complementary approaches to a reading of this figure in the hope of illuminating its dramatic and symbolic character, and its relationship to Shelley's theory of poetry.
It may be useful to note first the care with which the several portraits are rendered dramatic, and given an objective form which challenges simple identification with the author. Alastor introduces its subject in the manner of Wordsworthian storytelling: "There was a Poet …" The Preface, furthermore, presents the Poet as an example of a wilful isolation which the author, presumably, deplores. Epipsychidion is presented in the elaborate "Advertisement" as the work of an "unfortunate" young man who died at Florence while preparing for the voyage described at the end of the poem. The fiction suggests a second voice, a second view of the hero, with the effect of framing and distancing the subject. In both Alastor and Adonais the martyred poet, one singular both in his extraordinary gifts and in the severity of his fate, is described through the eyes of another poet, who speaks in his own person, and appears to be rather more representative than the poet he mourns. The dedicatory stanzas of The Revolt of Islam, serve a similar function; the idealized account of Shelley's history and his love for Mary frames the poem of Laon and Cythna, the two young martyrs to political idealism, who stand in relation to each other and to the world very much as Shelley and Mary do. As in Alastor and Adonais, there is a double perspective, that of the romantic fable, heroic, tragic, and exemplary, and that of the poet, human and of the world, who meditates upon it. Similarly, despite the inevitable identification of the mourning poet in Adonais with Shelley, the language suggests that he is distinct from the elegist of the poem, who applies the same impersonal description to him that he does to the other mourners:
It is not until the final line of his presentation—"oh! that it should be so!" that the sudden breaking through of emotion suggests that the elegist is lamenting his own fate.
The framing devices, then, even when they are false clues, are plain obstacles to a reading which identifies the Poet with Shelley. But even where there is a single voice, as in the shorter lyrics, the tone is heightened to suggest that the poet is assuming a literary role as elegist or bard, prophet or dreamer. The effect is to generalize his spiritual history, making it subservient to his function as poet, as vessel for divine inspiration, intermediary between the corrupt world and its source. The propriety of tone is part of a general stylization of the portraits; the elements of the poet's history and the metaphors which describe it are peculiarly appropriate to the context, determined by the "mission" of the poet or by the occasion which summons him forth. Thus the visionary ecstasy of the Poet in the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," the "beating heart and streaming eyes" which give evidence of his commitment, are metaphors for the initiation of a novice to the service of his Divinity, or the Spirit which represents it; they are part of the poem's attempt to substitute "Intellectual Beauty"—the "truth of nature"—for the "poisoned names" of orthodox religion, the "frail spells" of traditional worship. The poet prays not for salvation but for "calm" for his "onward life"; his vow is not to fear God and obey his commandments, but "to fear himself, and love all human kind." The controlling effect of metaphor—a metaphor inseparable from the natural and symbolic occasion of the poem—is most striking in the "Ode to the West Wind," where the self-portrait is a matter of only a few lines:
The characterization of the poet in youth is drawn from analogy with the Wind, which is free, swift, and tameless; his "strife" is a striving with the Wind, as with an angel of God; and the central line, suggestive of the "wilderness" imagery in all the portraits—"I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!"—is a direct response to the prayer which immediately precedes it, and which summarizes the natural action of the Wind upon all of nature except man. Thus the despair of the verb, I fall, appears to be suggested by the prayer, Oh, lift me, as the "thorns of life" appear to be suggested by the image of leaf and seed.
The portrait which readers have found most difficult to
accept, and into which they have read the most direct expression of self-pity—the portrait of the "frail Form" in Adonais—is similarly governed by its context and occasion. The example of earlier pastoral elegies, especially Milton's Lycidas, suggests the procession of a "gentle band" of mountain shepherds come to mourn their fallen comrade, "their garlands sere, their magic mantles rent"; their songs are their poems, which are now turned to grief, their flocks "quick Dreams," fed by the "living streams" of the spirit. Shelley's typically expansive use of tradition suggests the additional figures of the Pilgrim, the sweet lyrist from the "wilds of Ierne," and the "frail Form," a dying singer of songs. The description of the "frail Form, who, of course, represents Shelley, incorporates the related images of a solitary wanderer, a Bacchic celebrant (hence a poet-priest), a swift hunter transformed into the hunter's prey, a "Stranger" identifiable only by the ensanguined mark which links him to the hunter Cain, most grievous of sinners, or to the greatest of shepherds and poet-teachers, Christ. As the "Stranger" weeps his own fate in that of the martyred poet, so the facts of Keats' life suggest other details, the physical illness, the neglect and hostility of the world, and the fact that Keats died abroad, as Shelley himself lived in exile.
Each poem, then, has its own distancing effects, its own artistic rationale. But the persistence of a single pattern—the account of the idealized youth, the vision that comes upon him, his search to recover it, his final voyage to an imagined Elysium—suggests a larger meaning to which the several disguises of the Poet, the changing autobiographical details, are contributory. This meaning would seem to lie in the suggestiveness of the narrative as a myth or allegory dramatizing the nature of the creative imagination, both its inherent power to change and recreate the world, and its mortal dependence upon love, or relationship with that which lies outside itself. As Shelley rewrote Aeschylus and Dante, so he incorporated in his history of the poet elements of the greatest of earlier classical and Biblical myths of power and dependency, vision and its loss. The Platonic analogues have often been noted; thus the Vision of the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" and the awakening described in The Revolt of Islam suggest the Vision of supreme beauty described by Diotima in the Symposium. And the loss of the golden strength, the "visioned wanderings" of youth, the conception of mature life as a progress towards death, a blind stumbling and search, suggest the Platonic myth of recollection. But the outlines of the Poet's history, from his early happiness and strength, his free communion with nature and divinity, to his wandering in the world's wilderness, and his final transcendence of despair, suggest most directly the analogy of the myth of Genesis and parallel classical myths of the Golden Age. Youth's "golden prime" is a time prior to knowledge, love, experience. The mind is described as "sleeping," "vacant," "passive"; it has not yet been awakened, illuminated, "created." And the black night of the soul which follows the Vision suggests the loss of Eden following upon some necessary but fatal knowledge, and exile to a "wilderness of thorns," a fallen world of time and death. As the spirit is awakened to knowledge, so the "mortal passions" of the human being are released, and he becomes as a deer hunted by the "raging hounds" of his own thought. There is no Temptation in Shelley's narrative; he consistently attacked the doctrine that man's fall follows from his disobedience. But there are repeated suggestions of an error, whether it is defined, as in the Preface to Alastor, as the attempt to exist without human sympathy, or as the mistake of seeking to find in mortal form that which is immortal. And there are repeated hints of a curse, lying either upon the youth who has dared too much, or upon the life which it is the lot of all men to endure.
The "fallen state," after all, is indisputable; mortality, time, passion, are facts of reality. Poetry, like religion, gives meaning to reality by conjecturing a before and after, by naming the present a "fall" from the past. The myth Shelley substitutes for the orthodox fall reflects his sense that the condition of human life must be conceived in terms of loss if it is to be tolerable. It is the nature of the human being to err, he suggests, in seeking to remedy its loss. Yet the single imperative for the imagination is recovery of that Absolute—whether knowledge, love, or beauty—which its own desire asserts to be the necessary source and sustaining power of life. He uses related imagery in Epipsychidion when he speaks of those
The poet is one of these—not the poet who goes astray, like the hero of Alastor, but the poet who laments him, and whose "strife" is the poem which he utters.
The "promise of a later birth" insists on the primacy of hope and the significance of poetry, the power of the imagination to recover what it divines of the original or potential beauty of the world. Even where it is apparently denied by the narrative, this is the motive behind the spiritual autobiographies in the poems, as it is the informing principle of the "Ode to the West Wind." A similar figure is used in A Defence of Poetry to describe the function of poetry as mediator between the human and divine:
Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man…. Poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions.
In the context of Shelley's general discussion of poetry, the religious metaphor, which displaces redemptive power from an omnipotent deity to the human imagination, is unobtrusive. But Shelley's theory of poetry confirms what we read in the poems: that Shelley's perspective is not that of the visionary or the divinely inspired prophet, but of the faltering human being whose visionary glimpses are fleeting and evanescent, who looks "before and after," whose most precious faculty (and only hope of "salvation" or "redemption"), his poetic imagination, is a delicate plant which requires assiduous care and love. The sojourn in the wilderness, the time of strife, of pain and suffering, is the image for life in the world, for man's condition as a state of longing for what he does not possess and can scarcely apprehend. And the central human interest is, quite properly, not the "fearless youth" in his "golden prime," but the lost soul struggling in the wilderness, the "frail Form," the weakest of hearts, identified in Epipsychidion with the poet-lover who alone of men is granted a vision of the eternal, and in Adonais both with the suffering Christ and with Cain, the greatest of sinners, a "fugitive and vagabond in the earth," whose punishment is "greater than he can bear."
I would suggest that the poet's history and his final apotheosis should be understood in relation to Shelley's conception of the imagination as the sole agent of "redemption" (in the only sense in which Shelley uses that term), the sole hope of defeating the curse which binds us to ourselves. The poet's struggle can be considered a dramatic representation of the familiar doctrine of the Defence of Poetry:
The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively, he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination …
As Laon and Prometheus represent the conscious effort of the human spirit "to be greatly good," the figure of the poet in flight from himself, in restless pursuit of his lost vision, dramatizes the extreme effort of the imagination, imprisoned in its own nature, the frail self, to identify "with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own." It is in this light that we should read the impulse towards identification with the ideal; in the "Ode to the West Wind," the poet praying to be one with that "Spirit fierce"; in Epipsychidion, the poet seeking union with the beloved; in Adonais the elegist putting himself "in the place of another and of many others," as he bears in his person the "pains … of his species," even to Cain's and Christ's, weeps in another's fate his own, and at last seeks identification with the departed poet he mourns. The portrait of the Poet, so often regarded as self-indulgence on Shelley's part, is actually an attempt to render dramatically the imaginative process which is the only escape from self. The great defence Shelley makes of poetry is that it counters egoism, the surrender to ourselves and our time; for both creator and reader it involves an identification with the "other," hence self-forgetfulness. For a non-believer, one who cannot see beyond the language of the poem itself to the sacred or absolute truth which it claims to embody, this stretching of the imagination must still serve as the definitive value of art.
The relationship between imaginative sympathy and moral good is most explicit in the "Ode to the West Wind," where the prayer of the poet for identification with the Wind—"Be thou, Spirit fierce, my spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!"—is the condition for his social mission, to "quicken a new birth," to prophesy a Spring to follow the Winter of destruction and desolation. But in what sense can we relate the spiritual travail of the poet in Adonais or Epipsychidion to a "moral good"? The two great lyrics are not even implicitly revolutionary or political; neither asserts the possibility of hope in the world. One hesitates to take as exemplary the poet's lucid and terrible axiom in Adonais: "Die, If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!"; this version of the Biblical "die that ye may live" is very different from the poet's prophecy in the "Ode to the West Wind," which insists that the living world itself can be reborn. The "moral good," if it is to be found in the poem, lies not in the advice but in the process which leads to it, the imaginative effort to identify with the martyred poet. What the poet demonstrates in the last stanzas of Adonais is the step-by-step process which Shelley describes elsewhere as an awakening and enlarging of the "circumference of the imagination" to possibilities which the familiar world resists, that "going out of our own nature" which is the converse of egoism. The pessimism of the ending is secondary to its imaginative transcendence of physical reality, of time and decay and cold mortality, all that Shelley means by "the shadow of our night." The mourning poet is bid to exercise his imagination, his "spirit's light," in preparation for a final revelation:
Clasp with thy panting soul the pendulous Earth;
As from a centre, dart thy spirit's light
Beyond all worlds, until its spacious might
Satiate the void circumference: then shrink
Even to a point within our day and night …
These difficult lines affirm the power of spirit over space and time, its independence from the laws of mass and motion; they anticipate the "consolation" of the elegy, that poetry alone is immortal; they prepare the poet for the actual exercise of his power to move "beyond all worlds" and "satiate" the void, as in the final stanza of the poem the imagination effects in the physical world the miracle it desires. The image of the spirit darting its light "beyond all worlds" constitutes a remarkable spatial equivalent of that imaginative expansion of sympathies which is at the heart of Shelley's theory of poetry and morals.
If we read the allegorical dimensions of the poet's history in the terms sketched above, the temptation is to minimize the difficulties which readers find in the portraits, and which have to do mainly, I think, with the rhetoric of despair and ecstasy. Why is the poet in his despair identified with such extreme suffering? Alternately he is identified with Christ—one who suffers for all men—or with figures like Cain, Actaeon, a "Stranger"—one whose suffering is a mark of his exile from human community, his separateness from men, one cursed by God. He is not merely weak but "of hearts the weakest." Clearly these references are not biographical but symbolic, and should be related not to Shelley's personal suffering but to the suffering of such figures as Byron's Manfred and Cain, or Shelley's own Prometheus, who stand apart from the "trembling throng" as having dared all, or refused obedience to whatever reigns. Dramatically the extreme suffering and weakness of the Poet is the precondition of the final triumph of the spirit's light, the imagination freed by love, as it is fettered by hate. The effect is to suggest that liberation is not only willed but miraculous. But what the reader misses in the drama is the act of willed rebellion, comparable to man's eating of the apple, or Faust's bargain with the devil, or Prometheus' cursing of Jupiter. The Poet, unlike Prometheus, seems to be essentially passive. The vision, whether blessing or curse, comes upon him unsought, his "quest" consists of drifting and wandering, being laid asleep; redemption appears miraculously on his path, his final act is one of submission to his destiny. He is compared to a stricken deer, a bleeding God; he is a "passive Earth" who prays to be "governed" by Sun and Moon. The most memorable lines in the poems are a dramatic rendering of his subjection and weakness: "I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!" "I pant, I sink, I tremble, I expire!"
It seems to me that we should read the theme of the poet's passiveness in relation to the doctrine with which it is paired—that it lies in man's will, and only in his will, to be what he envisions. This is the doctrine which Julian propounds against Maddalo's dark fatalism. Julian, of course, speaks for Shelley, Maddalo for Byron:
And it is the doctrine which Prometheus Unbound exemplies: both good and evil lie in man's will; guilt and pain exist because man's will "made or suffered them." We are weak, as Julian asserts, and it is his sense of human infirmity that Shelley renders in the history of the Poet. But the ethical imperatives remain the same for weak or strong:
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates …
In the history of the poet the ethical imperatives are embodied most clearly in the proud flights of his youth, the vows he makes to be "wise and just, and free and mild." But they can be discerned as well in his seeking after his vison, his blind stumbling. His "black night" is terrible because it is a removal from the possibility of ethical action, a freezing of the will and the imagination. Yet his struggle and strife represent the effort of his imagination against the impendiments of life and the weak self, and his final flight, whether a giving of himself to Death or an imagined flight with Love and the beloved to a "sinless Eden," is a triumph of his imagination to be what it dreams, if not in the real then in the imagined world.
The connections between Shelley's prose and his poetry have often been demonstrated, of course. But the differences between a prose statement of an idea and the poetic rendering of it are especially significant in Shelley's work, and indeed mark him off radically from a poet like Blake, to whom he is in so many ways comparable. In general, ideas which are presented tentatively, with qualifications, in the prose, are rendered absolute and categorical in the poetry; negatives are rendered positively; logic and analogy, proposing relationship, yield to metaphor or myth, asserting identity. Shelley's "Notes" to Hellas demonstrate his sophisticated awareness of the nature of poetic "truth," and they suggest why it is possible for one reader to consider him a religious poet, another reader to consider him a rationalist. In his poetry Shelley adopts the prophetic convention, in which truth is revealed to one singled out as mediator between the divine and the human; the convention assumes the absolute nature of the truth so revealed, and the independent existence of divinity. But in his prose Shelley consistently recognizes the subjective limitations on knowledge, and "truth" is relative, speculative, conjectural. The faculty of prophecy is one which bards "possess or feign"; the visions of Isaiah and Virgil were a product not of divine visitation but of their "ardent spirits" "overleaping the actual reign of evil"; the desire for immortality is the "strongest and the only presumption" for its existence. With regard to ultimate questions, apart from our desire, apart from the imaginative projections of human desire in myth and legend, "all men are equally ignorant." Or, in the positive, poetic, and religious statement of a prose agnosticism: "The deep truth is imageless" (Prometheus Unbound).
The positive expressions both of prophetic hope and prophetic despair in the poems have their rational, qualified, prose counterparts. He wrote to Mrs. Gisborne, "Let us believe in a kind of optimism, in which we are our own gods…. because Hope, as Coleridge says, is a solemn duty, which we owe alike to ourselves and to the world." But the pragmatic counsel of a good friend has little place in a prophetic poetry in which faith is not assumed, but granted from above, its object is not intuited but revealed, and disaster is not be prudently avoided but rather to be welcomed as Apocalypse.
It seems to me that the poetic rendering of the figure of the poet as passive, dependent, weak, may be similarly understood in terms of the difference between prose and poetry. Shelley consistently defines the imagination as a combination of active and passive faculties, both in his prose and his poetry. The mind receives data from the external world, but colors what it receives with its own light. Man is, like the lyre, an instrument responsive to impressions. "But there is a principle within the human being … which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or emotions thus excited." The complicated analogy of the mind to the valley of the Arve in "Mont Blanc" explores the relationship of mind to an external and perhaps transcendent reality; in the opening stanza the active power of the mind is as a "feeble brook" to the river of impressions which course through it, but the final lines of the poem suggest that the external world may in fact be dependent if not for its existence then for its meaning and value on the mind which perceives it. Passiveness of mind is valued by Shelley, as by Wordsworth and Keats; the term as Shelley uses it suggests not merely the origin of mental experience in passive sensation but the poetic faculty of profound and unconscious receptiveness to reality—that "wise passiveness" which receives more of the world, more of truth, than sensory perception can admit to consciousness. The faculty depends, as it does for Wordsworth, on a prior intuition of "influences" which can be felt if the poet is attuned to them, and it includes the possibility of visionary experience, trance, visitations of divinity. But the passiveness of the poet merely prepares him for the creative act. Shelley insists as strongly as Coleridge and Wordsworth do that the imagination is essentially active, essentially creative; it "creates anew the universe"; it raises the poet above other men to the level of a god.
How shall we relate a theory of the imagination which insists upon its creativity, its power to shape and inform and give value to life, with a symbolic rendering of the Poet as passive, dependent, subject to a Vision which can neither be summoned nor recalled, submissive to the Powers which call him to his destiny? Insofar as the history of the poet is allegorical of the poetic imagination, I would suggest that the terms of the narrative are a paradoxical dramatization of the prose doctrine which they seem to contradict. For the Powers to whom the poet submits, upon whom he depends, are originally extensions of his own active powers of mind. The vision is a "soul out of my soul"; the voyage is imagined, a function of the "spirit's light" darting beyond all worlds. The difference between saying "The poet images to himself the being whom he loves," and "The Being whom he loves appears to him," is not substantive but rhetorical. But the implications of the second statement substitute passive receptiveness for active creation on the part of the Poet, and at the same time they attribute to the Vision an independent reality which the first statement leaves questionable. The prose version is unarguable; the poetic version depends for its "truth" on its emotional conviction and rhetorical persuasiveness; it is the substitution of myth for doctrine.
Shelley's poetic genius lay in his openness to experience and to ideas, his restless, educated eclecticism; this is why his poetry, while it is consistent in its themes, is unsystematic, and cannot be reduced to formulas of symbol or doctrine. But there is always a double perception in his poetry, though the emphasis changes and the formulations vary. As he enters into the limitless aspiration of the spirit, so he recognizes and laments the frailty of the body to which the spirit is bound. His rhetoric may be that of the mystic or visionary with eyes turned to the other world, but his perspective is essentially that of the rational artist pondering the human condition. The emotional power of his poetry has its source in his recognition of the imperatives binding upon the human being powerless to fulfil them, and dependent for what power he has on others of similar frailty. Yet his poetry consistently asserts the power of the imagination to transcend the limitations of sense and language. It is an effort to assert hope against his own full knowledge of the grounds for despair, in fictions which deny orthodox belief in a creator and a benevolent providence, but describe the human substitutes for these, selfgenerated, purely conceptual, in images and rhetoric derived from religious experience, vision and its loss, despair and its transcendence.
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Cameron, Kenneth Neill, and Reiman, Donald H., eds. Shelley and His Circle, 1773–1822. 8 vols. to date. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961-.
Provides bibliographical and critical material on Shelley, Mary Shelley, Byron, Hunt, and Peacock.
Dunbar, Clement. A Bibliography of Shelley Studies: 1823–1950. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, vol. 32. New York: Garland Publishing, 1976, 320 p.
A guide to Shelley studies dating from his death to 1950.
Keats-Shelley Journal. New York: Keats-Shelley Association of America, 1952-.
An annual publication devoted to studies on Keats, Shelley, Byron, and their circles. A detailed bibliography is included in the periodical.
Blunden, Edmund. Shelley: A Life Story. London: Collins, 1946, 320 p.
A popular biography.
Carey, Gillian. Shelley. Literature in Perspective, edited by Kenneth Grose. London: Evans Brothers, 1975, 160 p.
An introductory survey of Shelley's life and works.
Hogg, Thomas Jefferson. The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley. London: London Library, 1906, 585 p.
A controversial biography of Shelley originally published in 1858. Hogg has been criticized for altering his sources and for maliciously misrepresenting Shelley; nonetheless, his work had an important influence on the poet's reputation.
Peacock, Thomas Love. Peacock's Memoirs of Shelley, with Shelley's Letters to Peacock, edited by H. F. B. Brett-Smith. London: Henry Frowde, 1909, 219 p.
An early memoir of Shelley first published between 1858 and 1962. Peacock sought to rectify misrepresentations in accounts by Hogg (see entry above), Trelawny (see entry below), and others.
Reiman, Donald H. Percy Bysshe Shelley. Twayne's English Authors Series, edited by Sylvia E. Bowman, vol. 81. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1969, 188 p.
A general introduction to Shelley's life and works.
Trelawny, E. J. Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron. London: Edward Moxon, 1958, 304 p.
A lively narrative of Trelawny's friendship with the poets in Italy.
White, Newman Ivey. Shelley. 2 vols. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940.
Considered the definitive biography.
Abbey, Lloyd. Destroyer and Preserver: Shelley's Poetic Skepticism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979, 171 p.
Seeks to demonstrate the skepticism of Shelley's philosophy.
Allott, Miriam, ed. Essays on Shelley. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1982, 282 p.
Contains discussions of both individual works and such general topics as Shelley's critical reputation and his Gothicism.
Allsup, James O. The Magic Circle: A Study of Shelley's Concept of Love. National University Publications, Literary Criticism Series, edited by John E. Becker. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1976, 115 p.
Discovers a combination of Christian and platonic ideas in Shelley's writings on love.
Barcus, James E., ed. Shelley: The Critical Heritage. The Critical Heritage Series, edited by B. C. Southam. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975, 432 p.
Reprints early critical assessments of Shelley's work.
Barnard, Ellsworth. Shelley's Religion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1937, 320 p.
An extended exploration of Shelley's religious beliefs.
Barrell, Joseph. Shelley and the Thought of His Time: A Study in the History of Ideas. 1947. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1967, 207 p.
Examines the extent to which Shelley's life and works reflected early nineteenth-century philosophical trends.
Bloom, Harold. Shelley's Mythmaking. Yale Studies in English, edited by Benjamin Christie Nangle, vol. 141. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959, 279 p.
Considers Shelley as primarily a mythopoeic poet.
——, et al. Deconstruction and Criticism. New York: Seabury Press, A Continuum Book, 1979, 256 p.
Includes two important essays on Shelley, Paul de Man's "Shelley Disfigured" and J. Hillis Miller's "The Critic as Host."
Brown, Nathaniel. Sexuality and Feminism in Shelley. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979, 298 p.
Presents Shelley as a proponent of sexual equality whose writings anticipate modern attitudes toward sexuality.
Cameron, Kenneth Neill. Shelley: The Golden Years. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974, 669 p.
An acclaimed two-part account of Shelley's intellectual development and writings covering the period from 1809 to 1822.
Campbell, Olwen Ward. Shelley and the Unromantics. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1924, 307 p.
One of the first studies of Shelley's personality and thought based primarily on his letters and other writings.
Cronin, Richard. Shelley's Poetic Thoughts. London: Macmillan Press, 1981, 263 p.
A highly regarded discussion of Shelley's use of language and poetic forms.
Crook, Nora, and Guiton, Derek. Shelley's Venomed Melody. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, 273 p.
A study of Shelley's concern with disease, particularly syphilis, and his own state of health.
Curran, Stuart. Shelley's Annus Mirabilis: The Maturing of an Epic Vision. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1975, 255 p.
Focuses on the poems Shelley wrote in 1819 and 1820, emphasizing his use of myth.
Dawson, P. M. S. The Unacknowledged Legislator: Shelley and Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980, 312 p.
Examines Shelley's political interests and attitudes in their historical context.
Grabo, Carl. "Prometheus Unbound": An Interpretation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935, 205 P.
An interpretive study of Shelley's imagery in Prometheus Unbound focusing on his revolutionary social philosophy, neoplatonism, and interest in scientific experimentation.
——. The Magic Plant: The Growth of Shelley's Thought. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1936, 450 P.
Examines Shelley's ideology as manifested in his writings. This study helped influence the revival of interest in Shelley's works in the twentieth century.
Keats-Shelley Journal. New York: Keats-Shelley Association of America, 1952-.
An annual publication devoted to studies on Keats, Shelley, Byron, and their circles. A detailed bibliography is included in the periodical.
King-Hele, Desmond. Shelley: His Thought and Work. 3d. ed. London: Macmillan Press, 1984, 383 p.
An appreciative general introduction to Shelley's poetry with emphasis on his interest in the sciences. King-Hele includes an annotated bibliography of books on Shelley published since 1970.
Kurtz, Benjamin P. The Pursuit of Death: A Study of Shelley's Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1933, 339 p.
A controversial study of Shelley's preoccupation with death.
McNiece, Gerald. Shelley and the Revolutionary Idea. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969, 303 p.
A close examination of Shelley's revolutionary ideology in the context of the French Revolution and the philosophies of British radicals.
Norman, Sylva. Flight of the Skylark: The Development of Shelley's Reputation. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954, 304 p.
Chronicles the development of Shelley's posthumous reputation, emphasizing the role his family and friends played in shaping it.
Pulos, C. E. The Deep Truth: A Study of Shelley's Scepticism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1954, 124 p.
A respected survey of Shelley's intellectual development.
Reiman, Donald H. Shelley's "The Triumph of Life": A Critical Study Based on a Text Newly Edited from the Bodleian Manuscript. Illinois Studies in Language and Literature, vol. 55. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965, 272 p.
A detailed examination of the text and imagery of Shelley's last work.
Ridenour, George M., ed. Shelley: A Collection of Critical Essays. Twentieth Century Views, edited by Maynard Mack. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965, 182 p.
Reprints essays by such distinguished critics as Humphry House, Carlos Baker, Earl R. Wasserman, G. M. Matthews, G. Wilson Knight, and Harold Bloom.
Rieger, James. The Mutiny Within: The Heresies of Percy Bysshe Shelley. New York: George Braziller, 1967, 283 p.
Discusses Shelley's deviations from the accepted theological doctrines and sociopolitical thought of his time.
Rogers, Neville. Shelley at Work: A Critical Inquiry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956, 356 p.
A study of Shelley's thought and work based on an examination of his rough-draft notebooks.
Schulze, Earl J. Shelley's Theory of Poetry: A Reappraisal. Studies in English Literature, Vol XIII. The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1966, 237 p.
Considered an important study of Shelley's poetics. Schulze's central concern is Shelley's exalted conception of poetry.
Scrivener, Michael Henry. Radical Shelley: The Philosophical Anarchism and Utopian Thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982, 354 p.
An assessment of Shelley's philosophical and political thought.
Wasserman, Earl R. Shelley: A Critical Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971, 507 p.
A highly respected study of Shelley's major poems.
Weaver, Bennett. Toward the Understanding of Shelley. 1932. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1966, 258 p.
Investigates Shelley's familiarity with the Bible and analyzes his works in the context of biblical prophetic tradition.
Wright, John W. Shelley's Myth of Metaphor. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1970, 79 p.
Discusses the modernity of Shelley's poetics.
Young, Art. Shelley and Nonviolence. Studies in English Literature, vol. CIII. The Hague: Mouton, 1975, 172 p.
Attempts to define Shelley's philosophy of nonviolence through a study of his writings.
Additional coverage of Shelley's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1789–1832; DISCovering Authors; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 96, 110; Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 18; and World Literature Criticism.
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