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´╗┐Title: Shelley; an essay
Author: Thompson, Francis, 1859-1907
Language: English
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Transcribed from the 1914 Burns & Oates edition by David Price, email


The Church, which was once the mother of poets no less than of saints,
during the last two centuries has relinquished to aliens the chief
glories of poetry, if the chief glories of holiness she has preserved for
her own.  The palm and the laurel, Dominic and Dante, sanctity and song,
grew together in her soil: she has retained the palm, but forgone the
laurel.  Poetry in its widest sense, {1} and when not professedly
irreligious, has been too much and too long among many Catholics either
misprised or distrusted; too much and too generally the feeling has been
that it is at best superfluous, at worst pernicious, most often
dangerous.  Once poetry was, as she should be, the lesser sister and
helpmate of the Church; the minister to the mind, as the Church to the
soul.  But poetry sinned, poetry fell; and, in place of lovingly
reclaiming her, Catholicism cast her from the door to follow the feet of
her pagan seducer.  The separation has been ill for poetry; it has not
been well for religion.

Fathers of the Church (we would say), pastors of the Church, pious laics
of the Church: you are taking from its walls the panoply of Aquinas--take
also from its walls the psaltery of Alighieri.  Unroll the precedents of
the Church's past; recall to your minds that Francis of Assisi was among
the precursors of Dante; that sworn to Poverty he forswore not Beauty,
but discerned through the lamp Beauty the Light God; that he was even
more a poet in his miracles than in his melody; that poetry clung round
the cowls of his Order.  Follow his footsteps; you who have blessings for
men, have you no blessing for the birds?  Recall to your memory that, in
their minor kind, the love poems of Dante shed no less honour on
Catholicism than did the great religious poem which is itself pivoted on
love; that in singing of heaven he sang of Beatrice--this supporting
angel was still carven on his harp even when he stirred its strings in
Paradise.  What you theoretically know, vividly realise: that with many
the religion of beauty must always be a passion and a power, that it is
only evil when divorced from the worship of the Primal Beauty.  Poetry is
the preacher to men of the earthly as you of the Heavenly Fairness; of
that earthly fairness which God has fashioned to His own image and
likeness.  You proclaim the day which the Lord has made, and Poetry
exults and rejoices in it.  You praise the Creator for His works, and she
shows you that they are very good.  Beware how you misprise this potent
ally, for hers is the art of Giotto and Dante: beware how you misprise
this insidious foe, for hers is the art of modern France and of Byron.
Her value, if you know it not, God knows, and know the enemies of God.  If
you have no room for her beneath the wings of the Holy One, there is
place for her beneath the webs of the Evil One: whom you discard, he
embraces; whom you cast down from an honourable seat, he will advance to
a haughty throne; the brows you dislaurel of a just respect, he will bind
with baleful splendours; the stone which you builders reject, he will
make his head of the corner.  May she not prophesy in the temple? then
there is ready for her the tripod of Delphi.  Eye her not askance if she
seldom sing directly of religion: the bird gives glory to God though it
sings only of its innocent loves.  Suspicion creates its own cause;
distrust begets reason for distrust.  This beautiful, wild, feline
Poetry, wild because left to range the wilds, restore to the hearth of
your charity, shelter under the rafter of your Faith; discipline her to
the sweet restraints of your household, feed her with the meat from your
table, soften her with the amity of your children; tame her, fondle her,
cherish her--you will no longer then need to flee her.  Suffer her to
wanton, suffer her to play, so she play round the foot of the Cross!

There is a change of late years: the Wanderer is being called to her
Father's house, but we would have the call yet louder, we would have the
proffered welcome more unstinted.  There are still stray remnants of the
old intolerant distrust.  It is still possible for even a French
historian of the Church to enumerate among the articles cast upon
Savonarola's famous pile, _poesies erotiques, tant des anciens que des
modernes, livres impies ou corrupteurs, Ovide, Tibulle, Properce, pour ne
nommer que les plus connus, Dante, Petrarque, Boccace, tous ces auteurs
Italiens qui deja souillaient les ames et ruinaient les moeurs, en creant
ou perfectionnant la langue_. {2}  Blameworthy carelessness at the least,
which can class the _Vita Nuova_ with the _Ars Amandi_ and the
_Decameron_!  And among many English Catholics the spirit of poetry is
still often received with a restricted Puritanical greeting, rather than
with the traditionally Catholic joyous openness.

We ask, therefore, for a larger interest, not in purely Catholic poetry,
but in poetry generally, poetry in its widest sense.  With few
exceptions, whatsoever in our best poets is great and good to the non-
Catholic, is great and good also to the Catholic; and though Faber threw
his edition of Shelley into the fire and never regretted the act; though,
moreover, Shelley is so little read among us that we can still tolerate
in our Churches the religious parody which Faber should have thrown after
his three-volumed Shelley; {3}--in spite of this, we are not disposed to
number among such exceptions that straying spirit of light.

* * * * *

We have among us at the present day no lineal descendant, in the poetical
order, of Shelley; and any such offspring of the aboundingly spontaneous
Shelley is hardly possible, still less likely, on account of the defect
by which (we think) contemporary poetry in general, as compared with the
poetry of the early nineteenth century, is mildewed.  That defect is the
predominance of art over inspiration, of body over soul.  We do not say
the _defect_ of inspiration.  The warrior is there, but he is hampered by
his armour.  Writers of high aim in all branches of literature, even when
they are not--as Mr. Swinburne, for instance, is--lavish in expression,
are generally over-deliberate in expression.  Mr. Henry James,
delineating a fictitious writer clearly intended to be the ideal of an
artist, makes him regret that he has sometimes allowed himself to take
the second-best word instead of searching for the best.  Theoretically,
of course, one ought always to try for the best word.  But practically,
the habit of excessive care in word-selection frequently results in loss
of spontaneity; and, still worse, the habit of always taking the best
word too easily becomes the habit of always taking the most ornate word,
the word most removed from ordinary speech.  In consequence of this,
poetic diction has become latterly a kaleidoscope, and one's chief
curiosity is as to the precise combinations into which the pieces will be
shifted.  There is, in fact, a certain band of words, the Praetorian
cohorts of poetry, whose prescriptive aid is invoked by every aspirant to
the poetical purple, and without whose prescriptive aid none dares aspire
to the poetical purple; against these it is time some banner should be
raised.  Perhaps it is almost impossible for a contemporary writer quite
to evade the services of the free-lances whom one encounters under so
many standards. {4}  But it is at any rate curious to note that the
literary revolution against the despotic diction of Pope seems issuing,
like political revolutions, in a despotism of its own making.

This, then, we cannot but think, distinguishes the literary period of
Shelley from our own.  It distinguishes even the unquestionable treasures
and masterpieces of to-day from similar treasures and masterpieces of the
precedent day; even _the Lotus-Eaters_ from _Kubla-Khan_; even Rossetti's
ballads from _Christabel_.  It is present in the restraint of Matthew
Arnold no less than in the exuberance of Swinburne, and affects our
writers who aim at simplicity no less than those who seek richness.
Indeed, nothing is so artificial as our simplicity.  It is the simplicity
of the French stage _ingenue_.  We are self-conscious to the finger-tips;
and this inherent quality, entailing on our poetry the inevitable loss of
spontaneity, ensures that whatever poets, of whatever excellence, may be
born to us from the Shelleian stock, its founder's spirit can take among
us no reincarnation.  An age that is ceasing to produce child-like
children cannot produce a Shelley.  For both as poet and man he was
essentially a child.

Yet, just as in the effete French society before the Revolution the Queen
played at Arcadia, the King played at being a mechanic, everyone played
at simplicity and universal philanthropy, leaving for most durable
outcome of their philanthropy the guillotine, as the most durable outcome
of ours may be execution by electricity;--so in our own society the talk
of benevolence and the cult of childhood are the very fashion of the
hour.  We, of this self-conscious, incredulous generation, sentimentalise
our children, analyse our children, think we are endowed with a special
capacity to sympathise and identify ourselves with children; we play at
being children.  And the result is that we are not more child-like, but
our children are less child-like.  It is so tiring to stoop to the child,
so much easier to lift the child up to you.  Know you what it is to be a
child?  It is to be something very different from the man of to-day.  It
is to have a spirit yet streaming from the waters of baptism; it is to
believe in love, to believe in loveliness, to believe in belief; it is to
be so little that the elves can reach to whisper in your ear; it is to
turn pumpkins into coaches, and mice into horses, lowness into loftiness,
and nothing into everything, for each child has its fairy godmother in
its own soul; it is to live in a nutshell and to count yourself the king
of infinite space; it is

   To see a world in a grain of sand,
      And a heaven in a wild flower,
   Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
      And eternity in an hour;

it is to know not as yet that you are under sentence of life, nor
petition that it be commuted into death.  When we become conscious in
dreaming that we dream, the dream is on the point of breaking; when we
become conscious in living that we live, the ill dream is but just
beginning.  Now if Shelley was but too conscious of the dream, in other
respects Dryden's false and famous line might have been applied to him
with very much less than it's usual untruth. {5}  To the last, in a
degree uncommon even among poets, he retained the idiosyncrasy of
childhood, expanded and matured without differentiation.  To the last he
was the enchanted child.

This was, as is well known, patent in his life.  It is as really, though
perhaps less obviously, manifest in his poetry, the sincere effluence of
his life.  And it may not, therefore, be amiss to consider whether it was
conditioned by anything beyond his congenital nature.  For our part, we
believe it to have been equally largely the outcome of his early and long
isolation.  Men given to retirement and abstract study are notoriously
liable to contract a certain degree of childlikeness: and if this be the
case when we segregate a man, how much more when we segregate a child!  It
is when they are taken into the solution of school-life that children, by
the reciprocal interchange of influence with their fellows, undergo the
series of reactions which converts them from children into boys and from
boys into men.  The intermediate stage must be traversed to reach the
final one.

Now Shelley never could have been a man, for he never was a boy.  And the
reason lay in the persecution which overclouded his school-days.  Of that
persecution's effect upon him, he has left us, in _The Revolt of Islam_,
a picture which to many or most people very probably seems a poetical
exaggeration; partly because Shelley appears to have escaped physical
brutality, partly because adults are inclined to smile tenderly at
childish sorrows which are not caused by physical suffering.  That he
escaped for the most part bodily violence is nothing to the purpose.  It
is the petty malignant annoyance recurring hour by hour, day by day,
month by month, until its accumulation becomes an agony; it is this which
is the most terrible weapon that boys have against their fellow boy, who
is powerless to shun it because, unlike the man, he has virtually no
privacy.  His is the torture which the ancients used, when they anointed
their victim with honey and exposed him naked to the restless fever of
the flies.  He is a little St. Sebastian, sinking under the incessant
flight of shafts which skilfully avoid the vital parts.

We do not, therefore, suspect Shelley of exaggeration: he was, no doubt,
in terrible misery.  Those who think otherwise must forget their own
past.  Most people, we suppose, _must_ forget what they were like when
they were children: otherwise they would know that the griefs of their
childhood were passionate abandonment, _dechirants_ (to use a
characteristically favourite phrase of modern French literature) as the
griefs of their maturity.  Children's griefs are little, certainly; but
so is the child, so is its endurance, so is its field of vision, while
its nervous impressionability is keener than ours.  Grief is a matter of
relativity; the sorrow should be estimated by its proportion to the
sorrower; a gash is as painful to one as an amputation to another.  Pour
a puddle into a thimble, or an Atlantic into Etna; both thimble and
mountain overflow.  Adult fools, would not the angels smile at our
griefs, were not angels too wise to smile at them?

So beset, the child fled into the tower of his own soul, and raised the
drawbridge.  He threw out a reserve, encysted in which he grew to
maturity unaffected by the intercourses that modify the maturity of
others into the thing we call a man.  The encysted child developed until
it reached years of virility, until those later Oxford days in which Hogg
encountered it; then, bursting at once from its cyst and the university,
it swam into a world not illegitimately perplexed by such a whim of the
gods.  It was, of course, only the completeness and duration of this
seclusion--lasting from the gate of boyhood to the threshold of
youth--which was peculiar to Shelley.  Most poets, probably, like most
saints, are prepared for their mission by an initial segregation, as the
seed is buried to germinate: before they can utter the oracle of poetry,
they must first be divided from the body of men.  It is the severed head
that makes the seraph.

Shelley's life frequently exhibits in him the magnified child.  It is
seen in his fondness for apparently futile amusements, such as the
sailing of paper boats.  This was, in the truest sense of the word, child-
like; not, as it is frequently called and considered, childish.  That is
to say, it was not a mindless triviality, but the genuine child's power
of investing little things with imaginative interest; the same power,
though differently devoted, which produced much of his poetry.  Very
possibly in the paper boat he saw the magic bark of Laon and Cythna, or

            That thinnest boat
   In which the mother of the months is borne
   By ebbing night into her western cave.

In fact, if you mark how favourite an idea, under varying forms, is this
in his verse, you will perceive that all the charmed boats which glide
down the stream of his poetry are but glorified resurrections of the
little paper argosies which trembled down the Isis.

And the child appeared no less often in Shelley the philosopher than in
Shelley the idler.  It is seen in his repellent no less than in his
amiable weaknesses; in the unteachable folly of a love that made its goal
its starting-point, and firmly expected spiritual rest from each new
divinity, though it had found none from the divinities antecedent.  For
we are clear that this was no mere straying of sensual appetite, but a
straying, strange and deplorable, of the spirit; that (contrary to what
Mr. Coventry Patmore has said) he left a woman not because he was tired
of her arms, but because he was tired of her soul.  When he found Mary
Shelley wanting, he seems to have fallen into the mistake of Wordsworth,
who complained in a charming piece of unreasonableness that his wife's
love, which had been a fountain, was now only a well:

   Such change, and at the very door
   Of my fond heart, hath made me poor.

Wordsworth probably learned, what Shelley was incapable of learning, that
love can never permanently be a fountain.  A living poet, in an article
{6} which you almost fear to breathe upon lest you should flutter some of
the frail pastel-like bloom, has said the thing: "Love itself has tidal
moments, lapses and flows due to the metrical rule of the interior
heart."  Elementary reason should proclaim this true.  Love is an
affection, its display an emotion: love is the air, its display is the
wind.  An affection may be constant; an emotion can no more be constant
than the wind can constantly blow.  All, therefore, that a man can
reasonably ask of his wife is that her love should be indeed a well.  A
well; but a Bethesda-well, into which from time to time the angel of
tenderness descends to trouble the waters for the healing of the beloved.
Such a love Shelley's second wife appears unquestionably to have given
him.  Nay, she was content that he should veer while she remained true;
she companioned him intellectually, shared his views, entered into his
aspirations, and yet--yet, even at the date of _Epipsychidion_ the
foolish child, her husband, assigned her the part of moon to Emilia
Viviani's sun, and lamented that he was barred from final, certain,
irreversible happiness by a cold and callous society.  Yet few poets were
so mated before, and no poet was so mated afterwards, until Browning
stooped and picked up a fair-coined soul that lay rusting in a pool of

In truth, his very unhappiness and discontent with life, in so far as it
was not the inevitable penalty of the ethical anarch, can only be
ascribed to this same child-like irrationality--though in such a form it
is irrationality hardly peculiar to Shelley.  Pity, if you will, his
spiritual ruins and the neglected early training which was largely their
cause; but the pity due to his outward circumstances has been strangely
exaggerated.  The obloquy from which he suffered he deliberately and
wantonly courted.  For the rest, his lot was one that many a young poet
might envy.  He had faithful friends, a faithful wife, an income small
but assured.  Poverty never dictated to his pen; the designs on his
bright imagination were never etched by the sharp fumes of necessity.

If, as has chanced to others--as chanced, for example, to Mangan--outcast
from home, health and hope, with a charred past and a bleared future, an
anchorite without detachment and self-cloistered without
self-sufficingness, deposed from a world which he had not abdicated,
pierced with thorns which formed no crown, a poet hopeless of the bays
and a martyr hopeless of the palm, a land cursed against the dews of
love, an exile banned and proscribed even from the innocent arms of
childhood--he were burning helpless at the stake of his unquenchable
heart, then he might have been inconsolable, then might he have cast the
gorge at life, then have cowered in the darkening chamber of his being,
tapestried with mouldering hopes, and hearkened to the winds that swept
across the illimitable wastes of death.  But no such hapless lot was
Shelley's as that of his own contemporaries--Keats, half chewed in the
jaws of London and spit dying on to Italy; de Quincey, who, if he
escaped, escaped rent and maimed from those cruel jaws; Coleridge, whom
they dully mumbled for the major portion of his life.  Shelley had
competence, poetry, love; yet he wailed that he could lie down like a
tired child and weep away his life of care.  Is it ever so with you, sad
brother; is it ever so with me? and is there no drinking of pearls except
they be dissolved in biting tears?  "Which of us has his desire, or
having it is satisfied?"

It is true that he shared the fate of nearly all the great poets
contemporary with him, in being unappreciated.  Like them, he suffered
from critics who were for ever shearing the wild tresses of poetry
between rusty rules, who could never see a literary bough project beyond
the trim level of its day but they must lop it with a crooked criticism,
who kept indomitably planting in the defile of fame the "established
canons" that had been spiked by poet after poet.  But we decline to
believe that a singer of Shelley's calibre could be seriously grieved by
want of vogue.  Not that we suppose him to have found consolation in that
senseless superstition, "the applause of posterity."  Posterity!
posterity which goes to Rome, weeps large-sized tears, carves beautiful
inscriptions over the tomb of Keats; and the worm must wriggle her
curtsey to it all, since the dead boy, wherever he be, has quite other
gear to tend.  Never a bone less dry for all the tears!

A poet must to some extent be a chameleon and feed on air.  But it need
not be the musty breath of the multitude.  He can find his needful
support in the judgement of those whose judgement he knows valuable, and
such support Shelley had:

         La gloire
   Ne compte pas toujours les voix;
   Elle les pese quelquefois.

Yet if this might be needful to him as support, neither this, nor the
applause of the present, nor the applause of posterity, could have been
needful to him as motive: the one all-sufficing motive for a great poet's
singing is that expressed by Keats:

   I was taught in Paradise
   To ease my breast of melodies.

Precisely so.  The overcharged breast can find no ease but in suckling
the baby-song.  No enmity of outward circumstances, therefore, but his
own nature, was responsible for Shelley's doom.

A being with so much about it of child-like unreasonableness, and yet
withal so much of the beautiful attraction luminous in a child's sweet
unreasonableness, would seem fore-fated by its very essence to the
transience of the bubble and the rainbow, of all things filmy and fair.
Did some shadow of this destiny bear part in his sadness?  Certain it is
that, by a curious chance, he himself in _Julian and Maddalo_ jestingly
foretold the manner of his end.  "O ho!  You talk as in years past," said
Maddalo (Byron) to Julian (Shelley); "If you can't swim, Beware of
Providence."  Did no unearthly _dixisti_ sound in his ears as he wrote
it?  But a brief while, and Shelley, who could not swim, was weltering on
the waters of Lerici.  We know not how this may affect others, but over
us it is a coincidence which has long tyrannised with an absorbing
inveteracy of impression (strengthened rather than diminished by the
contrast between the levity of the utterance and its fatal
fulfilment)--thus to behold, heralding itself in warning mockery through
the very lips of its predestined victim, the Doom upon whose breath his
locks were lifting along the coasts of Campania.  The death which he had
prophesied came upon him, and Spezzia enrolled another name among the
mournful Marcelli of our tongue; Venetian glasses which foamed and burst
before the poisoned wine of life had risen to their brims.

* * * * *

Coming to Shelley's poetry, we peep over the wild mask of revolutionary
metaphysics, and we see the winsome face of the child.  Perhaps none of
his poems is more purely and typically Shelleian than _The Cloud_, and it
is interesting to note how essentially it springs from the faculty of
make-believe.  The same thing is conspicuous, though less purely
conspicuous, throughout his singing; it is the child's faculty of make-
believe raised to the nth power.  He is still at play, save only that his
play is such as manhood stops to watch, and his playthings are those
which the gods give their children.  The universe is his box of toys.  He
dabbles his fingers in the day-fall.  He is gold-dusty with tumbling
amidst the stars.  He makes bright mischief with the moon.  The meteors
nuzzle their noses in his hand.  He teases into growling the kennelled
thunder, and laughs at the shaking of its fiery chain.  He dances in and
out of the gates of heaven: its floor is littered with his broken
fancies.  He runs wild over the fields of ether.  He chases the rolling
world.  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 it was which, in spite of his essentially modern character as a
singer, qualified Shelley to be the poet of _Prometheus Unbound_, for it
made him, in the truest sense of the word, a mythological poet.  This
child-like quality assimilated him to the child-like peoples among whom
mythologies have their rise.  Those Nature myths which, according to
many, are the basis of all mythology, are likewise the very basis of
Shelley's poetry.  The lark that is the gossip of heaven, the winds that
pluck the grey from the beards of the billows, the clouds that are
snorted from the sea's broad nostril, all the elemental spirits of
Nature, take from his verse perpetual incarnation and reincarnation, pass
in a thousand glorious transmigrations through the radiant forms of his

Thus, but not in the Wordsworthian sense, he is a veritable poet of
Nature.  For with Nature the Wordsworthians will admit no tampering: they
exact the direct interpretative reproduction of her; that the poet should
follow her as a mistress, not use her as a handmaid.  To such following
of Nature, Shelley felt no call.  He saw in her not a picture set for his
copying, but a palette set for his brush; not a habitation prepared for
his inhabiting, but a Coliseum whence he might quarry stones for his own
palaces.  Even in his descriptive passages the dream-character of his
scenery is notorious; it is not the clear, recognisable scenery of
Wordsworth, but a landscape that hovers athwart the heat and haze arising
from his crackling fantasies.  The materials for such visionary Edens
have evidently been accumulated from direct experience, but they are
recomposed by him into such scenes as never had mortal eye beheld.  "Don't
you wish you had?" as Turner said.  The one justification for classing
Shelley with the Lake poet is that he loved Nature with a love even more
passionate, though perhaps less profound.  Wordsworth's _Nightingale and
Stockdove_ sums up the contrast between the two, as though it had been
written for such a purpose.  Shelley is the "creature of ebullient
heart," who

   Sings as if the god of wine
   Had helped him to a valentine.

Wordsworth's is the

   --Love with quiet blending,
   Slow to begin and never ending,

the "serious faith and inward glee."

But if Shelley, instead of culling Nature, crossed with its pollen the
blossoms of his own soul, that Babylonian garden is his marvellous and
best apology.  For astounding figurative opulence he yields only to
Shakespeare, and even to Shakespeare not in absolute fecundity but in
images.  The sources of his figurative wealth are specialised, sources of
Shakespeare's are universal.  It would have been as conscious an effort
for him to speak without figure as it is for most men to speak with
figure.  Suspended in the dripping well of his imagination the commonest
object becomes encrusted with imagery.  Herein again he deviates from the
true Nature poet, the normal Wordsworth type of Nature poet: imagery was
to him not a mere means of expression, not even a mere means of
adornment; it was a delight for its own sake.

And herein we find the trail by which we would classify him.  He belongs
to a school of which not impossibly he may hardly have read a line--the
Metaphysical School.  To a large extent he _is_ what the Metaphysical
School should have been.  That school was a certain kind of poetry trying
for a range.  Shelley is the range found.  Crashaw and Shelley sprang
from the same seed; but in the one case the seed was choked with thorns,
in the other case it fell on good ground.  The Metaphysical School was in
its direct results an abortive movement, though indirectly much came of
it--for Dryden came of it.  Dryden, to a greater extent than is (we
imagine) generally perceived, was Cowley systematised; and Cowley, who
sank into the arms of Dryden, rose from the lap of Donne.

But the movement was so abortive that few will thank us for connecting
with it the name of Shelley.  This is because to most people the
Metaphysical School means Donne, whereas it ought to mean Crashaw.  We
judge the direction of a development by its highest form, though that
form may have been produced but once, and produced imperfectly.  Now the
highest product of the Metaphysical School was Crashaw, and Crashaw was a
Shelley _manque_; he never reached the Promised Land, but he had fervid
visions of it.  The Metaphysical School, like Shelley, loved imagery for
its own sake: and how beautiful a thing the frank toying with imagery may
be, let _The Skylark_ and _The Cloud_ witness.  It is only evil when the
poet, on the straight way to a fixed object, lags continually from the
path to play.  This is commendable neither in poet nor errand-boy.  The
Metaphysical School failed, not because it toyed with imagery, but
because it toyed with it frostily.  To sport with the tangles of Neaera's
hair may be trivial idleness or caressing tenderness, exactly as your
relation to Neaera is that of heartless gallantry or of love.  So you may
toy with imagery in mere intellectual ingenuity, and then you might as
well go write acrostics: or you may toy with it in raptures, and then you
may write a _Sensitive Plant_.  In fact, the Metaphysical poets when they
went astray cannot be said to have done anything so dainty as is implied
by _toying_ with imagery.  They cut it into shapes with a pair of
scissors.  From all such danger Shelley was saved by his passionate
spontaneity.  No trappings are too splendid for the swift steeds of
sunrise.  His sword-hilt may be rough with jewels, but it is the hilt of
an Excalibur.  His thoughts scorch through all the folds of expression.
His cloth of gold bursts at the flexures, and shows the naked poetry.

* * * * *

It is this gift of not merely embodying but apprehending everything in
figure which co-operates towards creating his rarest characteristics, so
almost preternaturally developed in no other poet, namely, his well-known
power to condense the most hydrogenic abstraction.  Science can now educe
threads of such exquisite tenuity that only the feet of the tiniest
infant-spiders can ascend them; but up the filmiest insubstantiality
Shelley runs with agile ease.  To him, in truth, nothing is abstract.  The
dustiest abstractions

   Start, and tremble under his feet,
   And blossom in purple and red.

The coldest moon of an idea rises haloed through his vaporous
imagination.  The dimmest-sparked chip of a conception blazes and
scintillates in the subtile oxygen of his mind.  The most wrinkled AEson
of an abstruseness leaps rosy out of his bubbling genius.  In a more
intensified signification than it is probable that Shakespeare dreamed
of, Shelley gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.  Here
afresh he touches the Metaphysical School, whose very title was drawn
from this habitual pursuit of abstractions, and who failed in that
pursuit from the one cause omnipresent with them, because in all their
poetic smithy they had left never a place for a forge.  They laid their
fancies chill on the anvil.  Crashaw, indeed, partially anticipated
Shelley's success, and yet further did a later poet, so much further that
we find it difficult to understand why a generation that worships Shelley
should be reviving Gray, yet almost forget the name of Collins.  The
generality of readers, when they know him at all, usually know him by his
_Ode on the Passions_.  In this, despite its beauty, there is still a
_soupcon_ of formalism, a lingering trace of powder from the eighteenth
century periwig, dimming the bright locks of poetry.  Only the literary
student reads that little masterpiece, the _Ode to Evening_, which
sometimes heralds the Shelleian strain, while other passages are the sole
things in the language comparable to the miniatures of _Il Penseroso_.
Crashaw, Collins, Shelley--three ricochets of the one pebble, three jets
from three bounds of the one Pegasus!  Collins's Pity, "with eyes of dewy
light," is near of kin to Shelley's Sleep, "the filmy-eyed"; and the
"shadowy tribes of mind" are the lineal progenitors of "Thought's crowned
powers."  This, however, is personification, wherein both Collins and
Shelley build on Spenser: the dizzying achievement to which the modern
poet carried personification accounts for but a moiety, if a large
moiety, of his vivifying power over abstractions.  Take the passage
(already alluded to) in that glorious chorus telling how the Hours come

      From the temples high
      Of man's ear and eye
   Roofed over Sculpture and Poesy,

   * * * * *

      From those skiey towers
      Where Thought's crowned powers
   Sit watching your dance, ye happy Hours!
      Our feet now, every palm,
      Are sandalled with calm,
   And the dew of our wings is a rain of balm;
      And beyond our eyes
      The human love lies
   Which makes all it gazes on Paradise.

Any partial explanation will break in our hands before it reaches the
root of such a power.  The root, we take it, is this.  He had an
instinctive perception (immense in range and fertility, astonishing for
its delicate intuition) of the underlying analogies the secret
subterranean passages, between matter and soul; the chromatic scales,
whereat we dimly guess, by which the Almighty modulates through all the
keys of creation.  Because, the more we consider it, the more likely does
it appear that Nature is but an imperfect actress, whose constant changes
of dress never change her manner and method, who is the same in all her

To Shelley's ethereal vision the most rarified mental or spiritual music
traced its beautiful corresponding forms on the sand of outward things.
He stood thus at the very junction-lines of the visible and invisible,
and could shift the points as he willed.  His thoughts became a mounted
infantry, passing with baffling swiftness from horse to foot or foot to
horse.  He could express as he listed the material and the immaterial in
terms of each other.  Never has a poet in the past rivalled him as
regards this gift, and hardly will any poet rival him as regards it in
the future: men are like first to see the promised doom lay its hand on
the tree of heaven and shake down the golden leaves. {7}

The finest specimens of this faculty are probably to be sought in that
Shelleian treasury, _Prometheus Unbound_.  It is unquestionably the
greatest and most prodigal exhibition of Shelley's powers, this amazing
lyric world, where immortal clarities sigh past in the perfumes of the
blossoms, populate the breathings of the breeze, throng and twinkle in
the leaves that twirl upon the bough; where the very grass is all
a-rustle with lovely spirit-things, and a weeping mist of music fills the
air.  The final scenes especially are such a Bacchic reel and rout and
revelry of beauty as leaves one staggered and giddy; poetry is spilt like
wine, music runs to drunken waste.  The choruses sweep down the wind,
tirelessly, flight after flight, till the breathless soul almost cries
for respite from the unrolling splendours.  Yet these scenes, so
wonderful from a purely poetical standpoint that no one could wish them
away, are (to our humble thinking) nevertheless the artistic error of the
poem.  Abstractedly, the development of Shelley's idea required that he
should show the earthly paradise which was to follow the fall of Zeus.
But dramatically with that fall the action ceases, and the drama should
have ceased with it.  A final chorus, or choral series, of rejoicings
(such as does ultimately end the drama where Prometheus appears on the
scene) would have been legitimate enough.  Instead, however, the
bewildered reader finds the drama unfolding itself through scene after
scene which leaves the action precisely where it found it, because there
is no longer an action to advance.  It is as if the choral _finale_ of an
opera were prolonged through two acts.

We have, nevertheless, called _Prometheus_ Shelley's greatest poem
because it is the most comprehensive storehouse of his power.  Were we
asked to name the most _perfect_ among his longer efforts, we should name
the poem in which he lamented Keats: under the shed petals of his lovely
fancy giving the slain bird a silken burial.  Seldom is the death of a
poet mourned in true poetry.  Not often is the singer coffined in laurel-
wood.  Among the very few exceptions to such a rule, the greatest is
_Adonais_.  In the English language only _Lycidas_ competes with it; and
when we prefer _Adonais_ to _Lycidas_, we are following the precedent set
in the case of Cicero: _Adonais_ is the longer.  As regards command over
abstraction, it is no less characteristically Shelleian than
_Prometheus_.  It is throughout a series of abstractions vitalised with
daring exquisiteness, from Morning who sought:

   Her eastern watch-tower, and her hair unbound,
   Wet with the tears which should adorn the ground,

and who

   Dimmed the aerial eyes that kindle day,

to the Dreams that were the flock of the dead shepherd, the Dreams

   Whom near the living streams
   Of his young spirit he fed; and whom he taught
   The love that was its music;

of whom one sees, as she hangs mourning over him,

   Upon the silken fringe of his faint eyes,
   Like dew upon a sleeping flower, there lies
   A tear some dream has loosened from his brain!
   Lost angel of a ruined Paradise!
   She knew not 'twas her own; as with no stain
   She faded like a cloud which hath outwept its rain.

In the solar spectrum, beyond the extreme red and extreme violet rays,
are whole series of colours, demonstrable, but imperceptible to gross
human vision.  Such writing as this we have quoted renders visible the
invisibilities of imaginative colour.

One thing prevents _Adonais_ from being ideally perfect: its lack of
Christian hope.  Yet we remember well the writer of a popular memoir on
Keats proposing as "the best consolation for the mind pained by this sad
record" Shelley's inexpressibly sad exposition of Pantheistic

   He is a portion of the loveliness
   Which once he made more lovely, _etc_.

What desolation can it be that discerns comfort in this hope, whose wan
countenance is as the countenance of a despair?  What deepest depth of
agony is it that finds consolation in this immortality: an immortality
which thrusts you into death, the maw of Nature, that your dissolved
elements may circulate through her veins?

Yet such, the poet tells me, is my sole balm for the hurts of life.  I am
as the vocal breath floating from an organ.  I too shall fade on the
winds, a cadence soon forgotten.  So I dissolve and die, and am lost in
the ears of men: the particles of my being twine in newer melodies, and
from my one death arise a hundred lives.  Why, through the thin partition
of this consolation Pantheism can hear the groans of its neighbour,
Pessimism.  Better almost the black resignation which the fatalist draws
from his own hopelessness, from the fierce kisses of misery that hiss
against his tears.

With some gleams, it is true, of more than mock solace, _Adonais_ is
lighted; but they are obtained by implicitly assuming the personal
immortality which the poem explicitly denies; as when, for instance, to
greet the dead youth,

   The inheritors of unfulfilled renown
   Rose from their thrones, built beyond mortal thought
   Far in the unapparent.

And again the final stanza of the poem:

   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 riven;
   The massy earth, the sphered skies are given:
   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 Soul of Adonais?--Adonais, who is but

         A portion of the loveliness
   Which once he made more lovely.

After all, to finish where we began, perhaps the poems on which the lover
of Shelley leans most lovingly, which he has oftenest in his mind, which
best represent Shelley to him and which he instinctively reverts to when
Shelley's name is mentioned are some of the shorter poems and detached
lyrics.  Here Shelley forgets for a while all that ever makes his verse
turbid; forgets that he is anything but a poet, forgets sometimes that he
is anything but a child; lies back in his skiff, and looks at the clouds.
He plays truant from earth, slips through the wicket of fancy into
heaven's meadow, and goes gathering stars.  Here we have that absolute
virgin-gold of song which is the scarcest among human products, and for
which we can go to but three poets--Coleridge, Shelley, Chopin, {8} and
perhaps we should add Keats.  _Christabel_ and _Kubla-Khan_; _The
Skylark_, _The Cloud_, and _The Sensitive Plant_ (in its first two
parts).  _The Eve of Saint Agnes_ and _The Nightingale_; certain of the
Nocturnes;--these things make very quintessentialised loveliness.  It is
attar of poetry.

Remark, as a thing worth remarking, that, although Shelley's diction is
at other times singularly rich, it ceases in these poems to be rich, or
to obtrude itself at all; it is imperceptible; his Muse has become a
veritable Echo, whose body has dissolved from about her voice.  Indeed,
when his diction is richest, nevertheless the poetry so dominates the
expression that we feel the latter only as an atmosphere until we are
satiated with the former; then we discover with surprise to how imperial
a vesture we had been blinded by gazing on the face of his song.  A
lesson, this, deserving to be conned by a generation so opposite in
tendency as our own: a lesson that in poetry, as in the Kingdom of God,
we should not take thought too greatly wherewith we shall be clothed, but
seek first {9} the spirit, and all these things will be added unto us.

On the marvellous music of Shelley's verse we need not dwell, except to
note that he avoids that metronomic beat of rhythm which Edgar Poe
introduced into modern lyric measures, as Pope introduced it into the
rhyming heroics of his day.  Our varied metres are becoming as painfully
over-polished as Pope's one metre.  Shelley could at need sacrifice
smoothness to fitness.  He could write an anapaest that would send Mr.
Swinburne into strong shudders (e.g., "stream did glide") when he
instinctively felt that by so forgoing the more obvious music of melody
he would better secure the higher music of harmony.  If we have to add
that in other ways he was far from escaping the defects of his merits,
and would sometimes have to acknowledge that his Nilotic flood too often
overflowed its banks, what is this but saying that he died young?

* * * * *

It may be thought that in our casual comments on Shelley's life we have
been blind to its evil side.  That, however, is not the case.  We see
clearly that he committed grave sins, and one cruel crime; but we
remember also that he was an Atheist from his boyhood; we reflect how
gross must have been the moral neglect in the training of a child who
_could_ be an Atheist from his boyhood: and we decline to judge so
unhappy a being by the rules which we should apply to a Catholic.  It
seems to us that Shelley was struggling--blindly, weakly, stumblingly,
but still struggling--towards higher things.  His Pantheism is an
indication of it.  Pantheism is a half-way house, and marks ascent or
descent according to the direction from which it is approached.  Now
Shelley came to it from absolute Atheism; therefore in his case it meant
rise.  Again, his poetry alone would lead us to the same conclusion, for
we do not believe that a truly corrupted spirit can write consistently
ethereal poetry.  We should believe in nothing, if we believed that, for
it would be the consecration of a lie.  Poetry is a thermometer: by
taking its average height you can estimate the normal temperature of its
writer's mind.  The devil can do many things.  But the devil cannot write
poetry.  He may mar a poet, but he cannot make a poet.  Among all the
temptations wherewith he tempted St. Anthony, though we have often seen
it stated that he howled, we have never seen it stated that he sang.

Shelley's anarchic principles were as a rule held by him with some
misdirected view to truth.  He disbelieved in kings.  And is it not a
mere fact--regret it if you will--that in all European countries, except
two, monarchs are a mere survival, the obsolete buttons on the coat-tails
of rule, which serve no purpose but to be continually coming off?  It is
a miserable thing to note how every little Balkan State, having obtained
liberty (save the mark!) by Act of Congress, straightway proceeds to
secure the service of a professional king.  These gentlemen are plentiful
in Europe.  They are the "noble Chairmen" who lend their names for a
consideration to any enterprising company which may be speculating in
Liberty.  When we see these things, we revert to the old lines in which
Persius tells how you cannot turn Dama into a freeman by twirling him
round your finger and calling him Marcus Dama.

Again, Shelley desired a religion of humanity, and that meant, to him, a
religion for humanity, a religion which, unlike the spectral Christianity
about him, should permeate and regulate the whole organisation of men.
And the feeling is one with which a Catholic must sympathise, in an age
when--if we may say so without irreverence--the Almighty has been made a
constitutional Deity, with certain state-grants of worship, but no
influence over political affairs.  In these matters his aims were
generous, if his methods were perniciously mistaken.  In his theory of
Free Love alone, borrowed like the rest from the Revolution, his aim was
as mischievous as his method.  At the same time he was at least logical.
His theory was repulsive, but comprehensible.  Whereas from our present
_via media_--facilitation of divorce--can only result the era when the
young lady in reduced circumstances will no longer turn governess but
will be open to engagement as wife at a reasonable stipend.

We spoke of the purity of Shelley's poetry.  We know of but three
passages to which exception can be taken.  One is happily hidden under a
heap of Shelleian rubbish.  Another is offensive, because it presents his
theory of Free Love in its most odious form.  The third is very much a
matter, we think, for the individual conscience.  Compare with this the
genuinely corrupt Byron, through the cracks and fissures of whose heaving
versification steam up perpetually the sulphurous vapours from his
central iniquity.  We cannot credit that any Christian ever had his faith
shaken through reading Shelley, unless his faith were shaken before he
read Shelley.  Is any safely havened bark likely to slip its cable, and
make for a flag planted on the very reef where the planter himself was

* * * * *

Why indeed (one is tempted to ask in concluding) should it be that the
poets who have written for us the poetry richest in skiey grain, most
free from admixture with the duller things of earth--the Shelleys, the
Coleridges, the Keats--are the very poets whose lives are among the
saddest records in literature?  Is it that (by some subtile mystery of
analogy) sorrow, passion, and fantasy are indissolubly connected, like
water, fire, and cloud; that as from sun and dew are born the vapours, so
from fire and tears ascend the "visions of aerial joy"; that the harvest
waves richest over the battlefields of the soul; that the heart, like the
earth, smells sweetest after rain; that the spell on which depend such
necromantic castles is some spirit of pain charm-poisoned at their base?
{10}  Such a poet, it may be, mists with sighs the window of his life
until the tears run down it; then some air of searching poetry, like an
air of searching frost, turns it to a crystal wonder.  The god of golden
song is the god, too, of the golden sun; so peradventure song-light is
like sunlight, and darkens the countenance of the soul.  Perhaps the rays
are to the stars what thorns are to the flowers; and so the poet, after
wandering over heaven, returns with bleeding feet.  Less tragic in its
merely temporal aspect than the life of Keats or Coleridge, the life of
Shelley in its moral aspect is, perhaps, more tragical than that of
either; his dying seems a myth, a figure of his living; the material
shipwreck a figure of the immaterial.

Enchanted child, born into a world unchildlike; spoiled darling of
Nature, playmate of her elemental daughters; "pard-like spirit, beautiful
and swift," laired amidst the burning fastnesses of his own fervid mind;
bold foot along the verges of precipitous dream; light leaper from crag
to crag of inaccessible fancies; towering Genius, whose soul rose like a
ladder between heaven and earth with the angels of song ascending and
descending it;--he is shrunken into the little vessel of death, and
sealed with the unshatterable seal of doom, and cast down deep below the
rolling tides of Time.  Mighty meat for little guests, when the heart of
Shelley was laid in the cemetery of Caius Cestius!  Beauty, music,
sweetness, tears--the mouth of the worm has fed of them all.  Into that
sacred bridal-gloom of death where he holds his nuptials with eternity
let not our rash speculations follow him.  Let us hope rather that as,
amidst material nature, where our dull eyes see only ruin, the finer eye
of science has discovered life in putridity and vigour in decay,--seeing
dissolution even and disintegration, which in the mouth of man symbolise
disorder, to be in the works of God undeviating order, and the manner of
our corruption to be no less wonderful than the manner of our health,--so,
amidst the supernatural universe, some tender undreamed surprise of life
in doom awaited that wild nature, which, worn by warfare with itself, its
Maker, and all the world, now

   Sleeps, and never palates more the dug,
   The beggar's nurse, and Caesar's.


{1}  That is to say, taken as the general animating spirit of the Fine

{2}  The Abbe Bareille was not, of course, responsible for Savonarola's
taste, only for thus endorsing it.

{3}  We mean, of course, the hymn, "I rise from dreams of time."

{4}  We are a little surprised at the fact, because so many Victorian
poets are, or have been, prose-writers as well.  Now, according to our
theory, the practice of prose should maintain fresh and comprehensive a
poet's diction, should save him from falling into the hands of an
exclusive coterie of poetic words.  It should react upon his metrical
vocabulary to its beneficial expansion, by taking him outside his
aristocratic circle of language, and keeping him in touch with the great
commonalty, the proletariat of speech.  For it is with words as with men:
constant intermarriage within the limits of a patrician clan begets
effete refinement; and to reinvigorate the stock, its veins must be
replenished from hardy plebeian blood.

{5}  Wordsworth's adaptation of it, however, is true.  Men are not
"children of a larger growth," but the child _is_ father of the man,
since the parent is only partially reproduced in his offspring.

{6}  _The Rhythm of Life_, by Alice Meynell.

{7}  "And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig-tree
casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind" (Rev. vi,

{8}  Such analogies between master in sister-arts are often interesting.
In some respects, is not Brahms the Browning of music?

{9}  Seek _first_, not seek _only_.

{10}  We hope that we need not refer the reader, for the methods of magic
architecture, to Ariosto and that Atlas among enchanters, Beckford.

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