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O scaly, slippery, wet, swift, staring wights,
A Fish answers.
The Fish turns into a Man, and then into a Spirit, and again speaks.
Indulge thy smiling scorn, if smiling still,
Man's life is warm, glad, sad, 'twixt love; and graves,
[Percy Bysshe SHELLEY, eldest son of Timothy Shelley (afterwards Sir Timothy Shelley, Bart.), was born at Field Place, near Horsham in Sussex, August 4, 1792.
He was educated at Eton and at University College, Oxford ; but was expelled from Oxford in 1811 on account of his authorship of a tract on The Necessi'y of Atheism. In the same year he married Harriet Westbrook, a girl of sixteen, daughter of a coffee house keeper, but separated from her in 1814. His intimacy with Mary Godwin, daughter of William Godwin, author of Political Justice, and of Mary Wollstonecraft, led to a marriage with her after his first wife's death in 1816. In 1817 he was deprived by Lord Eldon of the custody of his children by his first marriage, and in 1818 he left England for Italy, in which country he resided, mainly at Naples, Leghorn, and Pisa, till his death by drowning in the gulf of Spezia, July 8, 1822. Queen Mab, his first work of any note, was privately printed in 1813; Alastor was published in 1816; and Laon and C'ythna, published and withdrawn in 1817, was reissued as The Revolt of Islam in 1818. The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound were both published in 1820 Epipsychidion was printed, and Adonais published in 1821, and the list is ended by Hellas published in 1822,—the year of the poet's untimely death.]
The title of the poets' poet,' which has been bestowed for various reasons on very different authors, applies perhaps with a truer fitness to Shelley than to any of the rest. For all students of Shelley must in a manner feel that they have before them an extreme, almost an extravagant, specimen of the poetic character ; and the enthusiastic love, or contemptuous aversion, which his works have inspired has depended mainly on the reader's sympathy or distaste for that character when exhibited in its unmixed intensity.
And if a brief introductory notice is to be prefixed to a selection from those poems, it becomes speedily obvious that it is on Shelley's individual nature, rather than on his historical position, that stress must be laid. Considered as a link in the chain of English literature, his poetry is of less importance than we might expect. It is not closely affiliated to the work of any preceding school, nor,
with one or two brilliant exceptions, has it modified subsequent poetry in any conspicuous way. It is no doubt true that Shelley, belonging to that group of poets whose genius was awakened by the stirring years which ushered in this century, shows traces of the influence of more than one contemporary. There are echoes of Wordsworth in Alastor, echoes of Moore in the lyrics, echoes even of Byron in the later poems. But, with the possible exception of Wordsworth, whose fresh revelation of Nature supplied poetic nutriment even to minds quite alien from his own, none of these can be said to have perceptibly modified either the substance or the style of Shelley's works as a whole.
Nor, again, will it be useful to dwell at length here on the special characteristics of each of his poems in order. They show indeed much apparent diversity both of form and content. Alastor is the early reflection of the dreamy and solitary side of its author's nature. The Revolt of Islam embodies in a fantastic tale the poet's eager rebellion against the cruelties and oppressions of the world. In Prometheus Unbound these two strains mingle in their highest intensity. The drama of The Cenci shows Shelley's power of dealing objectively with the thoughts and passions of natures other than his own. Adonais, his elegy on the death of Keats, is the most carefully finished, and the most generally popular, of his longer pieces. And in the songs and odes which he poured forth during his last years, his genius, essentially lyrical, found its most unmixed and spontaneous expression. But in fact the forms which Shelley's poems assumed, or the occasions which gave them birth, are not the points on which it is most important to linger. It is in 'the one Spirit's plastic stress' which pervades them all,-in the exciting and elevating quality which all in common possess,—that the strange potency of Shelley lies.
For although the directly traceable instances of this great poet's influence on the style of his successors may be few or unimportant, it by no means follows that the impression left by his personality has been small. On the contrary, it has, I believe, been deeply felt by most of those who since his day have had any share of poetic sensibility as at once an explanation and a justification of the points in which they feel themselves different from the mass of mankind. His character and his story,-more chequered and romantic than Wordsworth's, purer and loftier than Byron's,---are such as to call forth in men of ardent and poetic temper the maximum at once of sympathetic pity and sympathetic triumph.
For such men are apt to feel that they have a controversy with the world. Their virtue,-because it is original rather than reflected,-because it rests on impulse rather than on tradition,seems too often to be counted for nothing at all by those whose highest achievement is to walk mechanically along the ancient ways. Their eagerness to face the reality of things, without some touch of which religion is but a cajoling dream, is denounced as heresy or atheism. Their enthusiasm for ideal beauty, without some touch of which love is but a selfish instinct, is referred to the promptings of a less dignified passion. The very name of their master Plato is vulgarised into an easy sneer. And nevertheless the wisest among them perceive that all this must be, and is better thus. The world must be arranged to suit the ordinary man, for though the man of genius is more capable of being pained, the ordinary man is more likely to be really injured by surroundings unfitted for his development. In society, as in nature, the tests, which any exceptional variation has to encounter should be prompt and severe. It is better that poets should be
• Cradled into poesy by wrong, And learn in suffering what they teach in song,'
than that a door should be opened to those who are the shadow of that of which the poet is the reality,—who are only sentimental, only revolutionary, only uncontrolled. It is better that the world should persecute a Shelley than that it should endure a St. Just.
But in whatever mood the man of poetic temper may contemplate his own relation to society, he will be tempted to dwell upon, even to idealise, the character and achievements of Shelley. Perhaps he is dreaming, as many men have innocently dreamt who had not strength enough to make their dream come true, of the delight of justifying what the world calls restless indolence by some apparition of unlooked-for power; of revealing the central force of self-control which has guided those eager impulses along an ordered way,
• As the sun rules, even with a tyrant's gaze
The unquiet republic of the maze
of giving, in short, to motives misconstrued and character maligned the noble vindication of some work whose sincerity and virtue enshrine it in the heart of a great people. In such a mood he will turn proudly to Shelley as to one who knew to the uttermost the poet's sorrow, and has received the poet's reward; one who, assailed by obloquy, misjudged, abandoned and accursed, replied by strains which have become a part of the highest moments of all after generations, an element (if I may be allowed the expression) in the religion of mankind.
Or if the mood in which the lover of poetry turns to Shelley be merely one in which that true world in which he fain would dwell seems in danger of fading into a remote unreality amid the gross and pressing cares of every day, he will still be tempted to cling to and magnify the poet of Prometheus Unbound, because he offers so uncompromising a testimony to the validity of the poetic vision, because he carries as it were the accredited message of a dweller among unspeakable things.
We need not therefore wonder if among poets and imaginative critics we find the worship of Shelley carried to an extraordinary height. I quote as a specimen some words of a living poet himself closely akin to Shelley in the character of his genius. “Shelley outsang all poets on record but some two or three throughout all time; his depths and heights of inner and outer music are as divine as nature's, and not sooner exhaustible. He was alone the perfect singing-god; his thoughts, words, deeds, all sang together... The master singer of our modern race and age; the poet beloved above all other poets, being beyond all other poets—in one word, and the only proper word-divine.'
The tone of this eulogy presupposes that there will be many readers to agree and to enjoy. And, in fact, the representatives of this school of criticism are now so strong, and their utterance so confident, that the easiest course in treating of Shelley would be simply to accept their general view, and to ignore that opposite opinion which, if not less widely held, finds at any rate less eloquent exposition. But it is surely not satisfactory that literary judgments should thus become merely the utterances of the imaginative to the imaginative, of the aesthetic to the aesthetic, that 'poetry and criticism,’ in Pope's words, should be 'by no means the universal concern of the world, but only the affair of idle men who write in their closets, and of idle men who read there.'
We should surely desire that poetry should become the universal concern of the world' at least thus far; that those who delight in its deeper mysteries should also be ready to meet plain men on the common ground of plain good sense ; should see what they see,