Shelley, a poem, with other writings relating to Shelley, to which is added an essay on the poems of William Blake/Prefatory Note
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Shelley, a poem, with other writings relating to Shelley, to which is added an essay on the poems of William Blake
OF all our poets none has inspired a deeper personal love, or has had more earnest students than Shelley; and, it may be added, none has more deserved the love, and none will better repay the study bestowed upon him. His was no double nature; he did not give utterance to fine sentiments and act meanly; but was no less to be admired as a man than as a poet.
Not one of Shelley's admirers, I am convinced, ever surpassed James Thomson in affectionate devotion to his memory, or ever studied his writings with more minute and loving care. His poetry inspired Thomson in his youth, at a time when Shelley's reputation had not yet risen above the fogs and clouds that so long obscured its radiance: it was a resource and a consolation to him under the misfortunes of his manhood: and to the last he never ceased to regard with gratitude and love "the poet of poets and purest of men." Let me here observe, parenthetically, that no stronger proof of the essentially original and individual character of Thomson's own genius can be given than the fact that loving so much and studying so closely the works of Shelley, he yet preserved himself entirely from becoming an imitator of his style or a plagiarist of his ideas.
That Thomson never found an opportunity of expressing adequately and at length the results of his mature meditations upon his favourite poet is much to be regretted. A great and perfect picture might have been painted by his hand: what I have gathered together here are the few sketches—not perfect indeed, yet showing the touch of the master—which alone fate (unkind to him in this as in much else) allowed him to accomplish.
The Poem with which this volume begins, and which has not hitherto been printed, was written in 1861. It was thus a comparatively early work, and therefore the reader will hardly expect to find displayed in it the wonderful power and finished execution which characterise "The City of Dreadful Night," written ten or twelve years later, when the author's intellect was in its fullest vigour and maturity. Nevertheless it is a very interesting production, with many fine and eloquent passages. It is high praise to say of it that it is not unworthy of its subject, for the best poem that could be written on Shelley could be no more than worthy of its theme. Excluding Swinburne's "Cor Cordium" because of its brevity, I know of no other poem on Shelley which can compare with that here given.
The Essay which follows the Poem was also an early work. It was published in 1860, but it is likely enough that it was written a year or two earlier. It would perhaps be a mistake to assert that this Essay was the first in which the genius of Shelley was fully and unreservedly acknowledged; but it is certain that few critics before 1860 ever ventured to praise him, without making large abatements and qualifications. Of Shelley it may be said that he suffered in his person in his lifetime, and in his fame after his death, for the benefit of the Poets who have succeeded him. How much louder would the cry against the heterodox outpourings of Swinburne have been, if the vials of holy wrath had not been almost entirely emptied on Shelley's devoted head? Even "The City of Dreadful Night," that quintessence of all that respectability and conventionalism most abhor, only excited here and there a few low murmurs of disapproval, in place of the discordant and deafening shrieks which greeted "The Revolt of Islam" and "Prometheus Unbound."
Thus, as I have said, even those who were well-affected towards Shelley, were unable or unwilling, in face of the clamour against him, to praise him, without throwing in an allusion to those detestable opinions of his, which the critic would not, on any account, allow his readers to think that he himself approved of. Their praise was consequently deprived of almost all value, for Shelley's opinions were of the very essence of his writings, and it is impossible, except in a very few of his shorter pieces, to think of the poems apart from the sentiments which animate and inspire them. This then is, as I conceive, the peculiar merit of Thomson's Essay—that he recognises fully the nobility of Shelley's aims and ideas, and does not, as almost all writers had done before him, append a per contra of disparagement.
Let me add a few words more as to this Essay, although I have some hesitation in penning them. If the author had lived to republish it, he would, I think, have omitted or modified some few passages. I refer chiefly to the sentences in which Emerson and Carlyle are mentioned. Both of these authors retained to the last a portion of the great admiration with which in early life he regarded them: but I can hardly think that in 1880 he would have allowed the passages relating to them which he wrote in 1860 to remain altogether unaltered.
The Essay on the "Prometheus Unbound" is perhaps open to the charge (as the author himself seems to have felt) of dwelling too much on points almost too minute to be worth subjecting to such a rigorous examination. But perhaps this only seems so because Shelley has not yet taken his rightful place in our literature. The same minute study of Shakespeare's text is common, and Shakespearean editors and students would be much surprised if they were reproached with too searching an analysis of their master's text.
It is perhaps rather cruel to reprint the article called "An Inspired Critic on Shelley," but really Mr. Wyke Bayliss (notice the reiteration of this gentleman's name in the article, and how it grows more comical at each repetition!) affords so much amusement whilst he is being dissected that he must suffer in order to promote "the greatest good of the greatest number." With regard to the portion of this volume which the kindness of Mr. W. M. Rossetti has enabled me to print, I can hardly doubt that it will be highly valued. When I originally planned this volume I did not know of the existence of these letters. A fortunate inspiration led me to apply to Mr. Rossetti, and that gentleman, with a generosity for which I cannot be too grateful, at once entrusted me with Thomson's correspondence with him, and gave me permission to use such portions of it as might suit my purpose. As most of the letters related more or less to Shelley, my only difficulty has lain in selecting those which seemed of most interest. One letter here printed may indeed seem rather out of place in this volume: yet I do not think any reader will find fault with me for inserting it. The one I allude to is that written from Central City, Colorado. To me this seems to be a masterpiece of epistolary writing. Reading it, the whole aspect of the district from which it was written, its scenery and its inhabitants, are, with the lightest and easiest touches, pictured before us. The style, whether the author relates some homely or humourous incident, or paints with bold and graphic pencil the scenery around him, is perfect; it is in complete harmony with the ideas it expresses; in its eloquence there is not a trace of turgidity, and in its humour there is nothing forced. A study of it may be confidently recommended to those who have taken their opinion of Thomson's abilities solely from "The City of Dreadful Night"; for it can hardly fail to leave on the mind of any reader worthy to judge an enlarged idea both of his actual achievements, and of the powers which he held in reserve. I look indeed upon the whole correspondence as an important addition to our knowledge of one who in the course of time will come to be looked upon as a typical writer and thinker of the present century.
It gives me much pleasure to include the Essay on William Blake in the present volume. I intended at first only to extract the passages from it relating to Shelley, but I was not long in coming to the conclusion that I ought not to neglect the present opportunity of reproducing it in its integrity. It is quite unnecessary for me to praise it; and I will merely note that it was written and published before Mr. Swinburne's Essay on Blake appeared in print.
Let me add in conclusion that it would, I am sure, have been gratifying to Thomson could he have thought that his name in the future would be linked in any way with that of Shelley: and I feel equally sure that Shelley, could he have known Thomson, would not have disapproved of the association of their names. Let it not be thought that I am placing Thomson on an equality with Shelley: neither am I asserting that their characters did not differ in many essential points. But I do not hesitate to affirm that the unworldliness, the deep affections, the generous self-sacrificing spirit, the fervent poetical temperament, which characterised Shelley, were in a not much smaller degree characteristic of James Thomson, however those qualities were obscured in him by his more reserved disposition, his poverty, and the unfortunate events of his life. Apply what measure we may to him, it is hardly possible to deny that the author of "The City of Dreadful Night," "Weddah and Om-el-Bonain," and "Vane's Story," was a man of genius; and future times are perhaps no more likely to produce another Thomson than another Shelley.
Nov. 13, 1884.