Shelley, a poem, with other writings relating to Shelley, to which is added an essay on the poems of William Blake/Shelley (Essay)
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" WHEREFORE I say unto you, all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whosoever speaketh a word against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him; neither in this world, neither in the world to come." Which glorious scripture we may surely understand to mean, that a man may believe or disbelieve in any book, any historical or legendary personage, any dogmatic formula, and yet be in a state of salvation; that only he who rejects and violates the holy spirit of love and truth, the Conscience of the World, he cannot (because he will not) be saved. Jesus, though absorbed in his personal mission, could speak this truth of sublime toleration; but eighteen centuries have not taught his disciples the wisdom of believing it and acting upon it. Whom he absolved, they dare condemn.
Probably no man of this century has suffered more and more severely, both in person and reputation, from this rash convictive bigotry than Percy Bysshe Shelley. Florence to the living Dante was not more cruelly unjust than England to the living Shelley. Only now, nearly forty years after his death, do we begin to discern his true glory. It is well that this glory is such as can afford to wait for recognition; that it is one of the permanent stars of heaven, not a rocket to be ruined by a night of storm and rain. I confess that I have long been filled with astonishment and indignation at the manner in which he is treated by the majority of our best living writers. Emerson is serenely throned above hearing him at all; Carlyle only hears him "shriek hysterically;" Mrs. Browning discovers him "blind with his white ideal;" Messrs. Ruskin and Kingsley treat him much as senior schoolboys treat the youngster who easily "walks over their heads" in class,—with reluctant tribute of admiration copiously qualified with sneers, pinches, and kicks. Even Bulwer (who, intellectually worthless as he is, now and then serves well as a straw to show how the wind blows among the higher and more educated classes), even Bulwer can venture to look down upon him with pity, to pat him patronisingly on the back, to sneer at him—in "Ernest Maltravers"—with a sneer founded upon a maimed quotation. It was only the other day that a person thought it worth while to send to the Times the discovery that Shelley, in his mock-heroic preface to "Peter Bell" had anticipated Macaulay's famous New Zealander! Now, I do not expect that Shelley—any more than piety and lofty thought and heroic action—will ever be extensively popular; I admit that to himself more than to most poets are his own grand words applicable,—"the jury that sits in judgment upon a poet, belonging as he does to all time, must be composed of his peers: it must be impanneled by time from the selectest of the wise of many generations." Yet it was to be expected that men so noble as Kingsley and Ruskin could surrender themselves to generous sympathy with a most noble and generous life, could love and reverence a most loving and reverent spirit; although that life developed itself without the pale of their sanctuary and that spirit dispensed with the theological primer which they conceive necessary to education.
A poet, in our restricted sense of the term, may be defined, an inspired singer; the singing, the spontaneous musical utterance being essential to the poetical character. Great learning, profound thought, and keen moral insight may all enrich a volume, which shall yet, lacking this instinctive harmony, be no poem—Verse equally with prose may be unpoetic through this fatal want. Through it George Herbert is almost unread, and the "Heaven and Hell" of Swedenborg is a dull map instead of a transcendent picture; through it—tainting both, but in a less degree—the works of the Brownings are less popular than those of Tennyson, though they in all other noble qualities are so far his superiors.
In musicalness, in free and, as it were, living melody, the poems of Shelley are unsurpassed, and on the whole, I think, unequalled by any others in our literature. Compared with that of most others his language is as a river to a canal,—a river ever flowing "at its own sweet will," and whose music is the unpurposed result of its flowing. So subtly sweet and rich are the tones, so wonderfully are developed the perfect cadences, that the meaning of the words of the singing is lost and dissolved in the overwhelming rapture of the impression. I have often fancied, while reading them, that his words were really transparent, or that they throbbed with living lustres. Meaning is therein, firm and distinct, but "scarce visible through extreme loveliness;" so that the mind is often dazzled from perception of the surpassing grandeur and power of his creations. I doubt not that Apollo was mightier than Hercules, though his divine strength was veiled in the splendour of his symmetry and beauty more divine.
But when we have allowed that a man is pre-eminently a singer, the question naturally follows, what is the matter of his song? Does his royal robe of verse envelop a real king of men, or one who is intrinsically a slave? And here may fitly be adduced Wordsworth's remark, that the style is less the dress than the incarnation of the thought. Noble features have been informed by ignoble natures, and beautiful language has expressed thoughts impure and passions hateful; great hearts have pulsed in unsightly bodies, and grand ideas have found but crabbed utterance: yet still it is true that generally the countenance is a legible index to the spirit, and the style to the thought.
With this presumption in his favour, we enter upon four inquiries. (I.) What are the favourite subjects of Shelley's song—great or small? (II.) Is his treatment of these great-minded? (III.) Is it great-hearted? And, rising to the climax. (IV.) Is it such as to entitle him to the epithet inspired?
(I.) The favourite subjects of Shelley's song, the speculations to which his intellect continually gravitates from the petty interests of the hour, are certainly great and important above all others. (I omit one theme, whose treatment is common to all poets, so that we conceive it as inseparable from the poetic character,—the beauty and harmony of the visible universe: in the celebration of which, however, Shelley displays an intense fervour of admiration and love which almost isolates him above his compeers.) The questions concerning the existence of God, the moral law of the universe, the immortality of the soul, the independent being of what is called the material world, the perfectibility of man; these and their kindred perpetually fascinate his mind to their investigation. It may be considered by many—and not without some show of reason—that mere addictedness to discourse on great subjects is no proof of a great mind: crude painters always daub "high art," adolescent journalists stoop to nothing below Epics; nay, Macaulay long since told us that the very speculations of which we speak are distinctive of immaturity both in nations and in men. Nevertheless, believing that the essence of poetry and philosophy is communication with the Infinite and the Eternal, I venture to conclude that to be strongly inclined to such communication is to be gifted with the first requisite for a poet and a philosopher. The valiant heart may prove victorious without the strong arm, but the strong arm without the valiant heart must be beaten ignominiously for ever.
(II.) But have his thoughts and his conceptions a magnanimity befitting these subjects? He upholds strenuously the Manichean doctrine, that the world is the battle-field of a good and an evil spirit, each aboriginal; of whom the evil has been and still is the more powerful, but the good shall ultimately triumph. Let those who scoff so liberally at this, account for the existence of evil and a devil created by an omnipotent all-holy God. How magnificent is his conception of these hostile powers, symbolised in the eagle and serpent, in the opening of "The Revolt of Islam;" how sublime is it in the "Prometheus Unbound," where they are represented by Jupiter and Prometheus!
He proclaims enthusiastically the Idealism of Plato, of Spinoza, of Berkeley, of Kant. Let those who so stolidly sneer at this, expound by what possibility spirit and matter can influence each other without one attribute in common; or let them demonstrate the existence of matter apart from our perception; or let them show, if there be but one existing substance, that it is such as we should call matter rather than spirit. How glorious are his expositions of this philosophy in the "Ode to Heaven" and the speeches of Ahasuerus in "Hellas!"
He devoted himself heart and mind to the doctrine of the perfectibility of human nature; an intrinsic perfectibility to eventuate in a heaven on earth realised by the noble endeavours of man himself; not that which is complacently patronised by many so-called Christians, who are agreed to die and accept a perfect nature as a free gift, when they can no longer live imperfect. As if the severe laws of the universe permitted partial gifts, any more than they permit gainful robberies! Though I must consider Shelley mistaken in this belief, I yet honour and not blame him for it. For his nature must have been most pure and noble, since it could persuade his peculiarly introspective mind of its truth. Right or wrong, it is the very mainspring of his philosophic system. In "Queen Mab," in "The Revolt of Islam," in the "Prometheus Unbound," its expression glows with the solemn inspiration of prophecy. As Scott was the poet of the past, and Goethe of the present, so was Shelley of the future; the thought of whose developed triumphs always kindles him into rapture. However dissident, we cannot but reverence so sublime and unselfish an enthusiasm: perchance, were we more like him in goodness, we would be more like him in faith. Expand the stage from our earth to the universe, the time from one life to an infinite succession of lives, let the dramatis personæ be not men only but all living souls; and this catastrophe, if catastrophe there must be, is the most righteous and lofty conclusion ever suggested for the great drama.
Of his opinions concerning the right relations of the sexes, I can only say that they appear to me radically correct. And of his infidelity, that he attacked not so much Christianity as Priestianity—that blind unspiritual orthodoxy which freezes the soul and fetters the mind, vilifying the holiest essence of all religion. Space being restricted, suffice it to say that, in all his thoughts one is struck by a certain loftiness and breadth characteristic of the best minds. It is as if they looked around from the crest of a mountain, with vision unbaffled by the crowd and the chimney-tops. Now, exactly as the height at which a person stands may be calculated from any one object on his horizon as well as from a hundred, so one of these superior thoughts is in itself proof sufficient of an elevated mind. For quantity is the measure of low things, but quality of high. Ten small apples may be worth more than one large; but not any number of small thoughts can equal one great: ten weak arms may be stronger than one stalwart; but what number of weak minds can equal one that is powerful?
(III.) What moral emotion, pure or impure, noble or mean, generous or selfish, does Shelley effuse through his works? The question has been partly answered already; for in a poet, whose theme is concrete with man and abstract with destiny, the spirit refuses to be analysed into thought and passion, being the identity of the two. Morally, he is indeed sainted. Never yet did man thrill and glow with more love of his fellows, more self-sacrificing sympathy with all life, more hatred of fraud and cruelty—yet hatred interfused with the tenderest pity, more noble independence, candour, and intrepidity, more devoted reverence for goodness and truth. In what is understood by the present age as a truly Christian spirit, he bears comparison with the holiest of Christians. The creeds, the rituals, the ceremonies—those media which common men require to temper the else intolerable splendour of divine truth,—he did not need: his eagle eye could gaze unblenching upon the cloudless sun. And his life incarnated his poetry. He was his own Prometheus. That fatal per contra with which Emerson is obliged to conclude his magnificent summary of Shakespeare, cannot be urged against Shelley. He perceived—who better?—the symbolism of the visible world; he appreciated—who more rapturously?—its divine beauty; but he did not rest here: he lived higher to the beauty of that which is symbolised, to the beauty of that which is called "of holiness," to the laws of that realm which is eternal. He was not "master of the revels to mankind," but prophet and preacher. His music was as the harping of David to charm away the evil spirit from Saul.
And thus we have crossed the threshold of our last inquiry, is he entitled, in a high sense, to be called inspired? That he was a singer who sang songs beautiful, wise, and pure, may be affirmed of many a poet, though of no two with the same emphasis. What is it then which differentiates him from the second-class poets, and exalts him to sit with Isaiah and Dante as one of that small choir of chief singers who are called transcendant? It is that of which I but now spoke; it is that of which he is so often accused under the name of mysticism. I dare affirm that no great writer is less obscure in manner, in expression, than he: obscure in matter he is, and ever must be, to those in whom is not developed the faculty correlative to those ideas in whose expression he supremely delights. Were the most of us born deaf, we should reprobate as obscure and mystical those gifted men who dilated upon the ravishment of music. And to the ideal or spiritual harmonies, perfect and eternal, to whose rhythm and melody the universe is attuned, so that it is fitly named Cosmos,—to these we are most of us deaf; and whoever with reverence and love and rapture is devoted to their celebration—be it Plato or Swedenborg, Emerson or Shelley—shall for ever to the great mass be as one who is speaking in an unknown tongue, or who is raving of phantasies which have no foundation in reality.
Therefore the accusations of mysticism but ignorantly affirm that he was most intensely and purely a poet. Plato in the "Ion" (Shelley's translation), says:—"For the authors of those great poems which we admire, do not attain to excellence through the rules of any art; but they utter their beautiful melodies of verse in a state of inspiration, and, as it were, possessed by a spirit not their own." And again, "For a poet is indeed a thing ethereally light, winged and sacred; nor can he compose anything worth calling poetry until he becomes inspired, and, as it were, mad. . . For whilst a man retains any portion of the thing called reason, he is utterly incompetent to produce poetry or to vaticinate." This great truth has been enounced or implied by all true philosophers; though sadly abused by uninspired poetasters, and as obviously obnoxious as the Berkeleyan Idealism to stupid and unavailing sneers. Shelley himself, in that "Defence of Poetry" which is one of the most beautiful prose-pieces in the language, and which in serene elevation of tone, and expanse and subtlety of thought is worthy of Plato or Emerson, repeatedly and throughout insists upon it as the essential law of poetic creation.
The only true, or inspired poetry, is always from within, not from without. The experience contained in it has been spiritually transmuted from lead into gold. It is severely logical, the most trivial of its adornments being subservient to, and suggested by, the dominant idea; any departure from whose dictates would be the "falsifying of a revelation." It is unadulterated with worldly wisdom, deference to prevailing opinions, mere talent or cleverness. Its anguish is untainted by the gall of bitterness, its joy is never selfish, its grossness is never obscene. It perceives always the profound identity underlying all surface differences. It is a living organism, not a dead aggregate, and its music is the expression of the law of its growth; so that it could no more be set to a different melody than could a rose-tree be consummated with lilies or violets. It is most philosophic when most enthusiastic; the clearest light of its wisdom being shed from the keenest fire of its love. It is a synthesis not arithmetical, but algebraical; that is to say, its particular subjects are universal symbols, its predicates universal laws: hence it is infinitely suggestive. It is ever-fresh wonder at the infinite mystery, ever-young faith in the eternal Soul. Whatever be its mood, we feel that it is not self-possessed but God-possessed; whether the God come down serene and stately as Jove, when a swan he wooed Leda; or with overwhelming might insupportably burning, as when he consumed Semele.
These distinctive marks of the highest poetry I find displayed in the works of Shelley more gloriously than in those of any other poet in our language. As we must study Shakespeare for knowledge of idealised human nature, and Fielding for knowledge of human nature unidealised, and Carlyle's "French Revolution" as the unapproached model of history, and Currer Bell's "Villette" to learn the highest capabilities of the novel, and Ruskin for the true philosophy of art, and Emerson for quintessential philosophy; so must we study, and so will future men more and more study, Shelley for quintessential poetry. It was a good nomenclator who first called him the poet of poets.
He was not thirty when he died. Had he but lived for another thirty years—? In the purity of our fervent youth I think we all consecrate ourselves to an early death; but the gods cannot love us all with a partial love, and most of us must dwindle down through age and decrepitude into the grave. But Shelley, while singing of the Millennial Future, and chanting the beatitudes of our free and pure and love-united posterity, knew with undeceiving prescience that he could not live to see even the first straight steps taken towards the glorious goal. The tomb which he selected and described with almost passionate tenderness in 1821, received his ashes in 1822. And so may we trust that the prophecy of 1821 was fulfilled in 1822:—
"The breath whose might I have invoked in song
If this meagre essay attracts any worthy student to Shelley, it will fulfil the purpose of its publication;—miserably as it fails to fulfil my desire to render honourable tribute of love and gratitude to this poet of poets and purest of men, whose works and life have been to me from my youth up a perennial source of delight and inspiration.