Shelley, a poem, with other writings relating to Shelley, to which is added an essay on the poems of William Blake/A Note on Shelley
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A Note on Shelley
|Correspondence between James Thomson and W. M. Rossetti→|
A NOTE ON SHELLEY.
FORTUNATELY it is no longer needful to introduce the name of our noblest lyrical poet—perhaps in life and song the very noblest of all lands and ages—with some apology, meek or daring, for the enormous altitude of his flight, and the dauntless sincerity of his faith and its expressions. Although he has been dead little more than fifty years, his loving mother country, forced as she was to chasten him somewhat severely alive, already pities and almost condones his startling aberrations—a rare generosity which we cannot sufficiently admire. Yea, she is already, despite his outrageous refulgence, beginning to recognise that he is no will-o'-the-wisp or passing meteor; that he was not even a baleful irregular comet; that he is in truth a burning sphere of heaven, at least as stable and during as her own rock-ribbed, dense-clodded earth. She is perhaps ready to allot him a station in her starry firmament of the illustrious dead, though scarcely yet among the greater lights—
"This firmament pavilioned upon chaos,
With all its cressets of immortal fire:"
and perchance, ere the century be fulfilled, she will open her soul to the truth that this star-created leader of the infernal spirits is in very deed Lucifer, Son of the Morning; Lucifer regnant, unfallen from heaven, the supreme celestial glory of her second great day-spring following the glooms and gloaming of a night of two hundred years. O, Alma Mater, clear-eyed and large-hearted! who hast so soon forgiven and forgotten in him thine own stupidity, cowardice, and cruel injustice toward him: the hardest of all things to forgive and forget in their victim!
It is no longer needful to excuse or vindicate this poet of poets. It is now fashionable and facile to laud him, with or without understanding. Even church-going belles are now free to admire "that poor dear Shelley;" even pious pastors may now sleek him with praise soft and pitiful, as an erring lamb which, had it lived to mature sheephood, would certainly have found its way back to the one secure fold. For genuine students the time to simply praise is past, the time to fitly appraise not yet come; for the morning he so fulgently heralded is still far from its noon, and the most prescient are still all-unsure what shall be the character of the evolution and completion of its day. In the meantime, those who from their youth up, when he was despised and rejected of men, have loved and revered him with a rapture of enthusiasm such as no other singer of these latter days has excited, to whom he, far beyond any other, has been a glorious light of truth, a burning fire of love, a breath of divine inspiration, can perhaps render him no better public service, in addition to that intimate service of devout following on his pathway so far as their strength will permit, than the very humble one of endeavouring, while it is yet time, to make his text as clear, accurate, genuine, and complete as possible, removing chance blemishes, restoring right readings, gathering stray pieces and fragments, marking, and to the best of their power obviating, difficulties, for the benefit of those who shall come after them. Truly a very humble service, open to much contemptuous misrepresentation by the clever, careless world, as well as unpoetical misrepresentations on their own part, yet valuable and even invaluable to themselves and to others when performed with patient zeal and reverence. No matter how poor the vessel, it is beyond price when filled with the consecration of the Elixir.
"A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine;
Who sweeps a room as for thy laws,
Makes that and the action fine."
It cannot, however, be denied that commentators in general are regarded not only with easy scorn by the careless common reader, but with sharp hostile distrust by the most advanced students of the great works commented. Nor by any means without cause; so many of the tribe having been mainly intent on showing their own learning and acuteness in contrast with the ignorant obtuseness of their predecessors, rather than on piously elucidating what might be obscure in their text. They have swept in the room to raise a dust, not swept it to make clean and neat for the master and his guests; whence their drudgery has been the opposite of divine, and a great poet shouts with infinite contempt to these "critics as sweep out his chimbley" and complain of the quantity of soot in his flue:—
"Ah, rogues, but my housemaid suspects you—
Is confident oft she detects you
In bringing more filth into my house
Than ever you found there! I'm pious,
However: 'twas God made you dingy."
While of those more humble and earnest and piously diligent, many have been so intolerably dull, have been instinct with such a fatal prosaic or inverse alchemy, turning gold into lead, that we can only picture them following their liege lords as Heine pictures poor Franz Horn plodding painfully for ever on his donkey after Shakespere flying at ease on his noble charger.
But our recent editors and scholiasts have been usually of a higher type—more modest and courteous and fair one to another, more loyal and reverent to their common master, more intelligent and sympathetic; while the great general progress in absolute, and especially in comparative, criticism has put at their command an apparatus much more powerful and precise than was ever constructed before. It would indeed be well could we dispense with their services altogether—and they themselves are the first to acknowledge this; but in many cases such service is simply indispensable, and in none among our modern poets more conspicuously than in that of Shelley. All who take any interest in the subject know in what untoward circumstances the mass of his mature compositions were first printed, during his residence in Italy or after his sudden death. The pirated editions were very corrupt; those of Mrs. Shelley very incorrect, and not quite complete. Hence serious students were naturally led into many more and much greater liberties of conjectural emendation than they would have dreamed of taking had the texts been fairly accurate—the certainty of numerous errors made the text seem uncertain throughout. Thus it is safe to say that old students' copies of Shelley show far more textual notes and queries than those of any of his contemporaries—even, for instance, than those of Byron, though Byron was a much laxer writer than Shelley. On the other hand, such serious students have naturally, by long usage and cherished association, come to love those readings in which they divined or suspected no error, and are thus very unwilling to discard them for others, even when these are more authoritative, and would have been recognised as distinctly superior had the opportunity offered at first of comparing or contrasting them with those in possession; and the conservative prejudice is exceedingly stubborn where revolutions of rhythm or cadence are in question. But such prejudices, however powerful now, will not affect the ever-new generations of readers.
The case being thus, we may well congratulate ourselves that, while it is yet time, two such painstaking and excellent critical editions of the poetical works have been published as those of Mr. W. M. Rossetti and Mr. H. B. Forman, both embodying the results of Mr. Garnett's researches, as revealed in "The Relics of Shelley" and elsewhere, and both profiting by the discussions and suggestions of such adepts as Miss Blind, Mr. Swinburne, Professor J. T. Baynes. I repeat, while it is yet time, because time is a very important factor in such work; so important, that it can scarcely be rash to assert that, other conditions equal, the force of textual criticism varies inversely as the square of the distance from the period of the text. Year by year even now some person may die, some document perish, from whom or which a precious ray of light might have been cast on some obscure point in the life or works of our Poet; and moreover, year by year the literary atmosphere is becoming in many important respects more and more unlike that which he inhaled and exhaled. Think how inestimable would have been critical editions of Shakespere within a couple of generations of his death!
Mr. Rossetti was first in the field, in 1870, with what may be termed his tentative edition in two volumes, a laborious and daring work, sweeping away many obstructions, unearthing and replacing various fragments, checking current texts by original editions or MSS., challenging incongruities real or apparent, testing the soundness of materials, correcting lapses, hazarding many alterations: in brief, attempting to restore, on paper (for "restorations" in books are fortunately not irreversible, like those in buildings and pictures), the manifold completed compositions as designed, if not in every point wrought out, by the artist; and succeeding, at any rate, by clear exposition and keen discussion, in putting many of the most difficult problems in a fair way for ultimate settlement, and pointing out the insolubility of the insoluble. Seven years later Mr. Forman completed his edition in four volumes, taking full advantage of various fresh discoveries and collations, profiting by the labours while rigorously checking the conclusions of his predecessor; and generally, though not quite consistently throughout, showing himself more conservative in staunch adherence to what are termed authorities, even when their claims to our allegiance are not beyond dispute. And now in this present year (1878) Mr. Rossetti issued in three volumes a great and decided improvement upon his previous edition, cancelling erroneous and rash conjectures and variations, confirming others by authority, opening up new questions of importance; and, it may be added, correcting and enriching the Memoir by the light of the most recent information. And here one is constrained to interject that now that Shelley's eldest child is dead, his family, in justice to his memory and to those who revere it, should surely publish without further delay the facts known only by themselves "and a few private friends," concerning his separation from his first wife and the causes that impelled her suicide.
While it is pretty certain that no single student with valid claims to sit in judgment will sanction all that either Mr. Rossetti or Mr. Forman has done or suggested, or even all that they agree upon amidst their differences, it is, I think, almost certain that any such student, whose intellectual claims are not impaired by prejudice, will gladly admit that together, and perhaps in about equal measure, each supplementing and checking the other, they have succeeded in gathering nearly all the data, documentary, critical, and conjectural, required for working out an approximately perfect text of the Poems. I do not propose to attempt here any comparative appraisal of these two editions, or to discuss the numerous details wherein they differ from previous editions and from each other; I would merely note a few interesting points on which neither of them has touched, and say a word on a very few only of the points which they have touched. If I venture on suggestion, it will assuredly not be for unauthorized alteration of the text, but simply for discussion and, if possible, further scrutiny.
Confining myself in the present article to the transcendent work by which Shelley is supremely differentiated from all his contemporaries, the "Prometheus Unbound," it may be well to indicate certain peculiarities in the structure, before hazarding two or three remarks on the text.
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- When the preceding article, "Notes on the Structure of 'Prometheus Unbound,'" was first written it was entitled "A Note on Shelley." Under this title it was sent to the Editor of the Cornhill Magazine, who declined it on the ground that it presumed too intimate a knowledge of Shelley's writings on the part of the general reader. Before sending the essay to the Editor of the Athenæum, Thomson revised it, and amongst other alterations omitted the introductory portion. This introduction, however, seems to me well worth preserving, and I have accordingly printed it.—Editor.