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Shelley, the ‘Divine Poet’.


PB ShelleyIT IS A hundred years1 since, unrecognised and unlamented by the world, Shelley was drowned off Leghorn [in 1822]. The “facts” of his life – strangely wooden word when applied to the “Divine Poet,” as Hogg loved to call him! – are so well known, and are so easily accessible in the records of Hogg himself, of Dowden, Trelawney and others, that, in reminding ourselves of some aspects of his genius, we need only recapitulate them in barest outline.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born “the son of a man of fortune of Sussex” at Field Place, Horsham, on August 4th, 1792. After attending a private school, he was sent to Eton, where he was very unhappy, and where he distinguished himself by his obstinate resistance to “fagging.” In 1810 he went to University College, Oxford, from which he was expelled in 1811 because of his pamphlet on The Necessity of Atheism. In the same year he married Harriet Westbrook in Edinburgh. In 1814 he eloped with Mary, daughter of William Godwin, whose Political Justice, then enjoying its wide-spread vogue, in spite of Pitt’s gibe that “a three-guinea book could never do much harm amongst those who have not three shillings to spare,” he had read while at Eton. With Godwin himself he had begun his intimacy in 1812. In 1816, his wife Harriet committed suicide, and he married Mary Godwin, settling with her at Marlow, where his friendship with Keats began. For the rest, the “events” of his life are confined to travel, to other notable friendships, and to the publication of his various poems.

Over this record we need not linger. Around Shelley’s life a voluminous literature has developed, and upon his boyish union with Harriet Westbrook too many pens have exercised themselves. There are, indeed, other facts of Shelley’s life that might more profitably detain us. We might, if space permitted, dwell upon the many practical demonstrations of his warmth and gentleness of spirit; for Shelley, of whom we read as now “making gifts of blankets to the poor lace-makers of Marlow,” and now “stumbling home barefoot in mid-winter because he had given his boots to a poor woman,” and now showing his sympathy even with the brute creation by “buying cray-fish in order to return them to the river,” was one of the few poets who have not only written poetry, but lived it; and it was by a very happy accident that, a few months before the centenary which we are now celebrating, the publication of the new Byron letters2 should have served, by common consent, to show Shelley in a still more radiant light, and to remove from his name a vile scandal that Byron himself should have refuted.

The passionate conviction that men must live poetry, and by living it bring the golden age, was, indeed, the mainspring of Shelley’s inspiration.

THERE WERE NOT in Shelley two distinct entities – the poet and the man. “My poetry,” said Byron, “is one thing; I am another. … My poetry is a separate faculty. The ideal has no effect on the real character.” And in those words he was only confessing, with cynical candour, what is true of all too many creative artists. But for Shelley poetry was not “a separate faculty” – a mere adornment of life, or an escape from life. It was essentially something that must transfuse and revolutionise life. The passionate conviction that men must live poetry, and by living it bring the golden age, was, indeed, the mainspring of his inspiration. And what distinguishes Shelley from other poets who have in some measure shared his belief and his aim is this: that, while they have moralised about love and truth and brotherhood, contemplating them objectively, as it were, from a distance, he alone, with the exception of Blake, sings of these things without losing his lyrical note, as one who himself breathes their own native air. He does not write of the Ideal Republic as of some far and vague country whose peaks, towards which we may be goaded by Fear or urged by Duty, “stern Daughter of the Voice of God,” are faintly visible amid the blurring mists. He is as much at home in those airy altitudes as his own skylark, winging the blue deep of heaven.

But the skylark, after all, makes it home upon the ground; and no more than that “blythe spirit” which he hailed in immortal stanzas did Shelley himself live entirely in the clouds. His genius – like that of Milton, with whom, in spite of glaring contrasts, he had much in common – had an intellectual foundation which has been too little recognised. He possessed, said Mrs. Shelley, not only “a brilliant imagination,” but “a logical exactness of reason”; and it is this factor of reason, so rare in poets, that invests his life and work with an element of tantalising mystery. For Shelley died in his thirtieth year. If, like Milton, he had lived to attain the plentitude of his power, his imagination and reason would, it is possible, have fused themselves into a harmony that would have ranked him, upon all counts, among the few master poets of the world. Inevitably, as it was, his imagination outran his intellect, despite the valiant efforts of the latter to keep pace. For, while imagination is the magic gift of the gods, reason has necessarily to develop through experience, and one in whom there is the passion for reason will, therefore, attain maturity more slowly than those in whom that passion does not reside. That is why the genius of Keats was riper at the age of twenty-five than that of Shelley at thirty. Keats was of a simpler nature.

Keats’s nature was “simpler” than Shelley’s; and, in the sense of being less complex and less varied in potentialities, it certainly was simpler. Yet there is a fuller and truer sense in which Shelley’s nature, for all its complexity, was the simpler of the two.

But here we must be careful to define our terms. We have said that Keats’s nature was “simpler” than Shelley’s; and, in the sense of being less complex and less varied in potentialities, it certainly was simpler. Yet there is a fuller and truer sense in which Shelley’s nature, for all its complexity, was the simpler of the two. If we speak of simplicity of the child unlocks the Kingdom of Heaven, then Shelley was of all men the most simple. His mind was perplexingly intricate; but so is the mind of a child. The mind of a child is a seething complex in which the most diverse instincts and qualities are struggling towards cohesion and expression; but with this mental complexity there goes that spiritual simplicity which is the crown and symbol of childhood. The child looks upon life through eyes undulled by custom and tradition, and, while viewing the beauty of the natural world through the rainbow glasses of imagination, he demands an explanation of the actions of his elders – who have strangely conspired, it seems to him, to mar the paradise that lies around them. The child will gladly accept, even though he may be curious to fathom, the natural miracles by which he is surrounded; what he will not accept without argument are the conventions that everywhere hamper and spoil the enjoyment of those miracles. The simple heart – the childlike heart which the New Testament exalts, and which Shelley possessed – implies of necessity a mind restless, ardent, and full of deep questionings. It is only when the spiritual simplicity of childhood is lost that the mind, ceasing to be a whirlpool, gains the simplicity of a stagnant pond. Or is, as in the case of a poet, imagination does survive the years that bring “the inevitable yoke,” that imagination becomes, except for the divine few upon whom the seal of perpetual childhood is set, concentrated into a groove. Keats’s imagination, exquisitely sensitive and perfect as it was within its limits, was thus concentrated. For him Beauty was Truth; Truth, Beauty. That was all he knew, or wished to know. But it was not all that Shelley wished to know. He would not seek escape from life; he would not be satisfied with some small part of life. His imagination continued, with youthful impetuosity, to flash, like a searchlight, across the whole sky of the universe, seeking to read its riddles, and endeavouring in especial to penetrate the dark clouds of human error and suffering that obscured the pure splendour of heaven. He never got used to “things as they are,” and he stubbornly refused either to ignore them or to make any compromise with them. He retained, in a word, the spiritual simplicity and the burning, perplexed mind of childhood. His eager metaphysical speculations were those of childhood; the faults of his life and of his work – faults born of rashness and haste – were those of childhood; but, above all, his radiant genius and his abounding generosity and charm of character were those of childhood.

He was still the child of his moments of escape – when he stole away from the world of men, as from an ill-managed and quarrelsome home, and utterly lost all consciousness not only of humanity, but of himself, as he contemplated, for example, the cloud basking “in Heaven’s blue smile.” He ceased to be Shelley and, falling into a childlike trance, became something elemental, like the sun or the wind or the rain. He was essentially childlike, moreover, in his love of making Nature myths, and of imbuing natural phenomena with personality:

All he had loved, and molded into thought,
From shape and hue and odor and sweet sound,
Lamented Adonais. Morning sought
Her eastern watch-tower; and her hair unbound,
Wet with the tears which should adorn the ground,
Dimmed the aerial eyes that kindle day;
Afar the melancholy thunder moaned;
Pale Ocean in unquiet slumber lay,
And the wild winds flew round, sobbing in their dismay.”

Yet, at other times, Shelley’s descriptions assumed a scientific precision and accuracy. “The Cloud,” it has been truly said, “might be lectured upon by a meteorologist.” To the child, indeed, Nature presents two aspects. One day a flower may be a beautiful or fantastic fairy; on the morrow it becomes a specimen for the microscope.

THERE ARE SOME who wish that Shelley’s imagination could have strayed oftener from the unhappy haunts of men. The fact remains that, being Shelley’s, it could not. He was of too sturdy a moral fibre, and too gentle-hearted, to permit himself a constant escape from the world that was to him what (to repeat our metaphor) an unhappy home is to a child. He wanted everybody to be happy; he wanted to put things right. Sometimes he spent himself in impotent frenzy; he stamped his feet, as it were, upon the ground, and cried, now pitifully, now angrily. At other times, beautifully and persuasively, he unfolded the essential wisdom of childhood, which, if accepted and applied, would indeed heal our wounds and wipe the tears from our eyes. He was swept by sudden storms of hope, and the time in which he lived, of course, did much to foster them. It is true that the Bastille had fallen before he was born, and that, by the time he was a youth, the excess of the French demagogues had everywhere wrought the inevitable reaction against Liberty. But the roseate dreams of Universal Benevolence and Perfectibility, which the Revolution had originally inspired, still lingered in the hearts of simple men, and were a consuming flame in the soul of Shelley. Yet, to the idealists of the day, the reaction presented a problem bewildering and challenging. Why had the Revolution failed? Was it, as Mary Wollstonecraft said, “for want of virtue”? What, then, was virtue? Shelley, eager, like the perplexed child that he was, to find an answer to that question, found it – or thought he found it – in Godwin’s Political Justice.

Anarchy, indeed, albeit passive anarchy, was Godwin’s unique contribution to revolutionary philosophy.

The Revolution had failed when attempted by force: Godwin seemed to offer another way (and one more in keeping with Shelley’s gentle, if fiery, spirit) by which mankind might yet win to the golden age. The author of Political Justice drew much, of course, from the common stock of Revolutionary ideas, in that he insisted on man’s perfectability and argued that freedom from the tyranny of kings and statesmen and priests was the first condition of human progress. He vetoed, however, all use of force. Man’s voluntary actions, he asserted, had their roots in opinion; and it was, therefore, through Reason that salvation must come. But he diverged still further from the main stream of Revolutionary thought in that he opposed not only government by rulers, but also the organisation of the people themselves into large or small groups for common action. “Discussion, inquiry, perpetual communication, these are my favourite methods,” he writes, “for the improvement of mankind; but associations, organised societies, I firmly condemn. Discussion and conversation in the best interests are excellent, as long as they are unfettered, and each man talks to his neighbour in the freedom of congenial haunts of men, or in the quiet and beneficent intercourse of each other’s fireside.” Anarchy, indeed, albeit passive anarchy, was Godwin’s unique contribution to revolutionary philosophy. Some of his ideas were wise, humane, and far-sighted; but, like most anarchists, he was a little vague as to the means by which he expected his ideals to fructify. But then, Godwin was, above all things, a doctrinaire, and though in his own life he made attempts at practising universal benevolence, while at the same time extending to others, including Shelley himself, ample opportunity for the exercise of that virtue, he was at heart more concerned with academic discussion than with the fomenting of any kind of action. We must, however, remember that he was taken very seriously by not a few of the best intellects of own day.

GodwinAmid the despair of those years of reaction, Godwin dispensed the wine of a new hope, and the wine went to Shelley’s heart and head. His soul thrilled with ecstasy at this fresh promise of human perfectability; and his mind rejoiced in that this promise was built, as it seemed to him, upon the rock of “a logical exactness of reason. In Political Justice both his imagination and his immature intellect found satisfaction, and it was on the foundations of Political Justice both his imagination and his immature intellect found satisfaction, and it was on the foundations of Political Justice that he erected the fabric of his first published poem. Queen Mab is simply Godwin in verse, though verse of remarkable strength and beauty to have been written by a boy of eighteen. The Revolt of Islam, with its noble Spenserian stanzas, was a more ambitious attempt at presenting the gospel according to Godwin. Godwin still supplies the theme; but now, as Mr. Brailsford says,3 “the variations are more important and more beautiful than the theme.” Shelley continues to follow Godwin with a devotion that must have been very flattering, if a little disconcerting, to the sage. But subtler forces are awakening in the poet, and, moreover, his irrepressible imagination repeatedly asserts itself and demands a speedy and a magic victory. The two children of his poem, Laon and Cythna, setting out on their expedition to bring freedom to their fellow countrymen, have only to name the name of Liberty in a ship at sea for all the surrounding coasts to echo it; and the zeal and the hope of the child, who expects the hearts of men to take instant fire from the torch which he carries, constantly glows into lyrical rapture upon Shelley’s page:

It shall be thus no more! Too long, too long,
Sons of the glorious dead, have ye lain bound
In darkness and in ruin! – Hope is strong,
Justice and Truth their wingèd child have found –
Awake! arise! until the mighty sound
Of your career shall scatter in its gust
The thrones of the oppressor, and the ground
Hide the last altar’s unregarded dust,
Whose Idol has so long betrayed your impious trust!

“It must be so – I will arise and waken
The multitude, and like a sulphurous hill,
Which on a sudden from its snows has shaken
The swoon of ages, it shall burst and fill
The world with cleansing fire; it must, it will –
It may not be restrained…”

Of Prometheus Unbound, a scoffing reviewer asked “Who would bind it?”

Of Prometheus Unbound, a scoffing reviewer asked “Who would bind it?”; and, like the majority of Shelley’s poems, it enjoyed no success in his own lifetime. With its classical mythology, its spirits, echoes, fauns, furies, its choruses and semi-choruses, it was the poet’s third dramatisation of perfectability. But if all Godwin’s principles of passive anarchy and of progress through reason are present in its pages, they are present only in the sense in which the acorn may be said to be present in the living oak. Prometheus, who destiny it is to be “the saviour and the strength of suffering man,” and by his patient agony to redeem the race from the thraldom of Jupiter, the omnipotent Evil One, embodies all the characteristic virtues of Political Justice, but he towers above the Godwinian stature like the Titan that he is. It is true that he uses Knowledge in order to free mankind; but to Wisdom are now added the equally essential moral qualities of Gentleness, Virtue, and Endurance. Shelley’s imagination and his intellect were coming more fully into their own; he had begun to realise that his own selfless, innocent nature was not shared by all mankind, and that more than freedom from rulers and a vague dissemination of reason were necessary for the unravelling of a social chaos that merely reflected the tangled skein of human personality:

The good want power, but to weep barren tears.
The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.
The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom;
And all best things are thus confused to ill.
Many are strong and rich, and would be just,
But live among their suffering fellow-men
As if none felt: they know not what they do.”

Shelley was an “atheist”; and yet, for that of an “atheist” poet, his portrait of Prometheus chained to his crag, enduring without resistance all the tortures heaped upon him by the Furies, bears in certain of its lines (however imperfectly) a strange likeness to that of Jesus Christ. Moreover, it is significant that, in the pages of Prometheus, we should be bidden to gaze upon the Christ Himself,

Who made His agony
The barrier to our else all-conquering foe.”

The poet, indeed, as he looks upon that

Woeful sight, a youth
With patient looks, nailed to a crucifix,”

grows lyrical with love and admiration:

We feel, we see
Those eyes which burn through smiles that fade in tears
Like stars half-quenched in mists of silver dew,
Belovèd and most beautiful.”

So strongly, indeed, was Shelley drawn to the character of Christ, and with such horror did he recoil from the Deity Who was the object of conventional worship, that, as his prose notes show, he could only regard Jesus Christ and Almighty God as being fundamentally antithetical.

The charaShelley writingcter of Jupiter assumes, beneath the poet’s swift brush, a cross-resemblance to the Satan of the old orthodoxy and to Jehovah; and from the pages of Prometheus Unbound we are able very clearly to diagnose the precise nature of Shelley’s “atheism.” “Your God,” said John Wesley to a famous Calvinist, “is my Devil”; and that in effect was the gage which, with all the emphasis of his subtler and more sensitive spirit, Shelley hurled at the feet of the established religion of his day. He had himself been reared in a home of narrow conventionalism, while Godwin, for so many years his master, had in his early years been subjected to all the torturing superstitions of an ultra-Calvinism. “God” for Shelley was the Awful Judge, before Whom men quailed with servile fear; He was the Omnipotent Ruler – Who must be, if the sufferings of humanity afforded any evidence, an Evil Ruler; He was the tyrannical Lord of Hosts, goading on His chosen tribe to deeds of vengeance and slaughter. To Jesus Christ, the lowly Galilean, Who, though a rebel, was of love and gentleness all compact, and Who, by self-sacrifice to the point of unresisted death, set an example to all who could make mercy triumph over oppression, Shelley was, as we have seen, warmly attracted. So strongly, indeed, was Shelley drawn to the character of Christ, and with such horror did he recoil from the Deity Who was the object of conventional worship, that, as his prose notes show, he could only regard Jesus Christ and Almighty God as being fundamentally antithetical. In part, his conception was, of course, imperfect and muddled; but in part he was merely anticipating, as he anticipated so much else, the lines upon which the advanced theology of our own day is running. This much at least is clear, that, if “Christianity” implies primarily a loyalty to dogma and superstition and established authority, then Shelley was the blasphemer that his contemporaries took him to be. But if, on the other hand, it means the practice of love and mercy, if it involves a spiritual kinship with the simple-hearted Christ Who set a child in the midst of the wise men, then Shelley was only an “atheist” in that he was more Christian than the Christians. There is, indeed, in English poetry, no sustained flight of lyrical ecstasy more implicitly Christian in this latter sense than the Fourth Act of Prometheus Unbound, in which all the spirits of the Universe unite in celebrating the triumph of the Titan, who by opposing Omnipotent Evil with “long-suffering love” has made before us a more ideal vision than is contained in the long closing passage of Act III, of which we can quote but a portion:

Thrones were kingless, and men walked
One with the other even as spirits do.
None fawned, none trampled; hate, disdain, or fear,
Self-love or self-contempt, on human brows
No more inscribed, as o’er the gate of hell,
‘All hope abandon, ye who enter here’;
None frowned, none trembled, none with eager fear
Gazed on another’s eye of cold command,
Until the subject of a tyrant’s will
Became, worse fate, the abject of his own,
Which spurred him, like an outspent horse, to death.
None wrought his lips in truth-entangling lines
Which smiled the lie his tongue disdained to speak;
None, with firm sneer, trod out in his own heart
The sparks of love and hope till there remained
Those bitter ashes, a soul self-consumed,
And the wretch crept a vampire among men,
Infecting all with his own hideous ill;
None talked that common, false, cold, hollow talk
Which makes the heart deny the yes it breathes,
Yet question that unmeant hypocrisy
With such a self-mistrust as has no name.
And women, too, frank, beautiful, and kind
As the free heaven which rains fresh light and dew
On the wide earth, passed; gentle, radiant forms,
From custom’s evil taint exempt and pure;
Speaking the wisdom once they could not think,
Looking emotions once they feared to feel,
And changed to all which once they dared not be,
Yet being now, made earth like heaven, …”

Unattainable perfection? Perhaps. Yet the vision is not that of an idle dreamer, seeking through his dreams an escape from life. It is essentially a well-balanced vision, in that it points very clearly the direction at least in which society, as it becomes very more closely knit and interdependent, must progress, if it is not to perish. Ecstatic idealist as Shelley was, his idealism always had its roots in reason. He never failed to realise that

Revenge and Wrong bring forth their kind,
The foul cubs like their parents are;

and increasingly the world will be forced to see that an idealism that has its foundations upon that solid rock of principle is not merely idealism, but the only policy that, in the long run, is “practical.”

Hellas, Shelley’s last important work, and his fourth attempt at describing an ideal world, is, to repeat a word we have already used, his most “tantalising” poem. His abstract faith in Love and Liberty receives, once more, rapturous expression; but, while we are intoxicated by its breathless and unearthly music, we have to admit that, though the precise significance of the drama was probably clear enough to the poet himself, it somehow eludes us. Even in that last matchless chorus, the mood changes abruptly from the majestic full-organ tones of

The world’s great age begins anew,
The golden years return,”

to the almost despairing strains of

The world is weary of the past,
Oh, might it die or rest at last.”

And, having read and re-read this wonderful poem, we are not sure whether Shelley still looked for the consummation of his hopes in an early or distant social revolution, or whether it was only in the human mind that he now expected the true Republic to establish itself. Clearly, his genius was in a transitional stage. The influence of Godwin was waning, and other influences – notably that of Plato – were taking its place, but had not yet entered fully into solution with the poet’s own temperament. Despite the vagueness of Hellas, we feel that Shelley’s though was becoming a fitter partner for his imagination. Would his maturing mind have robbed his spirit of any of its childlike simplicity? Or would it have enabled him, in immortal poetry, to give the childlike spirit its logical, intellectual justification? We can only speculate as to what Shelley might have become. We may well rejoice to remember what he was.

In the sight of his own contemporaries he was mad, and even thirty-four years ago Matthew Arnold proclaimed that he was not quite sane.

It is easy to catch something of his own lyrical enthusiasm in contemplating this “pard-like spirit, beautiful and swift,” and to fall unwittingly into excessive adulation. And yet, when the worst that is now possible has been said, he remains for us – alike by virtue of his life, his personality, and his work – a shining and a singing angel. No poet has exemplified in his own conduct more of the virtues that he praised. No poet impresses us more fully with his personal charm than the Shelley of the “flushed, feminine, artless face”; the “eyes like a deer’s, bright but rather wild”; the white throat unfettered”; the “slender” but “almost perfect shape.” And no poet has sung with diviner spontaneity than the author of Adonais and the Odes to “The West Wind” and “The Cloud.” If we have said little about his shorter and more purely lyrical pieces, and, concentrating rather on his more ambitious utterances, have sought to remind ourselves that the poet of The Skylark was also a prophet; it is because it is of him in that aspect that we most naturally think at this time. In the sight of his own contemporaries he was mad, and even thirty-four years ago Matthew Arnold proclaimed that he was not quite sane. We might quibble by admitting that he was not quite sane – and by adding that no man is. But such quibbling is needless. Time is vindicating Shelley’s essential sanity. Already, during the century that has passed since he died, something of what his eager vision foresaw has come to pass. Kings have been deposed, until but a few constitutional figure-heads remain; women have at least set their feet upon the threshold of liberty and equality; labour has made important strides towards taking its due place in the commonwealth; theology and education, insisting less upon dogma and repressive “cramming,” are turning to new and humaner ethical and social ideals; and, if we have not yet rid ourselves of war, at least there is a growing realisation of the fact that we shall soon have to choose between ridding ourselves of it or of committing racial suicide. To the childlike Shelley, who could never grow accustomed to the things that most men take for granted – war, oppression, cruelty, poverty, injustice – were revealed the things that were hidden from the wise and the prudent.

It is true that we have still a long way to go before we reach the perfect Republic. It may be, as we have said, that we shall never quite reach it. Perhaps, after all, our Utopias are of less value in themselves than as an inspiration and a signpost for such progress as may be practicable. Certain at least it is that without such inspiration little advance would be made. Shelley sang of Utopia as one who himself belonged to it. Though he died a hundred years ago, he belongs rather to the future than to the past. He is “the wingèd child” of Truth and Justice, of Love and Liberty, and with his deathless song he not only charms and fortifies and encourages us, but points not a little of the way by which we must travel: –

Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom, and Endurance,
These are the seals of that most firm assurance
Which bars the pit over Destruction’s strength …

.           .           .           .           .           .           .

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;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.”

Gilbert Thomas was a poet and critic, and the author of William Cowper and the Eighteenth Century, among other books. This essay appeared as “The Divine Poet” in The Fortnightly Review, July 1922 (vol. DCLXVII, pp 61-78).

  1. See the archive note above.
  2. John Murray, 1922.
  3. Shelley, Godwin, and their Circle. By H. N. Brailsford. (Williams and Norgate.)

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