Изображения страниц
PDF
EPUB

listen to what they say, and explain their own superior insight in terms intelligible to all. If clear-headed but unimaginative readers are practically told that the realm of poetry is a fairy-land which they cannot enter, they will retaliate by calling it a 'Cloud-cuckootown' built in the air. The sight of our esoteric raptures will only incite them to use the term “poetry' as the antithesis, not of prose, but of common-sense and right reason.

And there is much indeed both in the matter and style of Shelley's poems to which readers of this uninitiated class are apt to take exception. We had always supposed,' they say:—if I may condense many floating criticisms into an argument, as it were,

of the advocatus diaboli in the case of Shelley's canonisation,-'we had always supposed that one main function of poetry, at least, was to irradiate human virtue with its proper, but often hidden, charm ; that she depicts to us the inspiring triumph of man's higher over his lower self ; that (in Plato's words)" by adorning tenthousand deeds of men long gone she educates the men that are to be.” But we find Shelley telling us, “You might as well go to a ginshop for a leg of mutton as expect anything human or earthly from me.” And his poems bear out this self-criticism. He is indeed fond of painting a golden age of human happiness; but of what does his millennium consist ? and how is it attained ? In the Witch of Atlas it is the fantastic paradise of a child's day-dream, summoned, like the transformation-scene in a pantomime, by the capricious touch of a fairy. In the Prometheus an attempt is made to deal more seriously with the sins and sorrows of men. But even there the knot of human destinies is cut and not unravelled ; the arbitrary catastrophes of an improvised and chaotic mythology bring about a change in human affairs depending in no way on moral struggle or moral achievement,-on which every real change in human affairs must depend,--but effected apparently by the simple removal of priests and kings,--of the persons, that is to say, in whom the race, however mistakenly, has hitherto embodied its instincts of reverence and of order. And further,—to illustrate by one striking instance the pervading unreality of Shelley's ideals --what does Prometheus himself, the vaunted substitute for any other Redeemer, propose to do in this long-expected and culminant hour? He begins at once “There is a cave," and proposes to retire thither straightway with the mysterious Asia, and “entangle buds and flowers and beams.“Ask for this great Deliverer now, and find him,”—not surely occupied as a Milton or an Æschylus would have

a

[ocr errors]

left that bringer of light to men! Nay, so constantly does this idea of a cave-life of beatific seclusion recur in Shelley's mind that it is even left uncertain whether Asia, amid competing offers of the same kind, can obey Prometheus' call. For hardly is his description over when Earth in her turn begins “There is a cavern," -and invites the mystic goddess to this alternative retreat. Nor is Asia's choice of caves ended here. For we have already heard of her as occupying with Ione a submarine cavern, ,—as well as an Indian solitude, styled indeed a vale, but differing from the caves above-mentioned in no essential particular. And if this unreality, this aloofness from the real facts of life, pervades Shelley's crowning composition, what are we to say of Queen Mab and the Revolt of Islam? If we compare their characters and incidents with anything which earth has really to show we should be tempted to argue that their author had never seen a human being. And the one dramatic situation in which Shelley is so strong,—the situation which gives tragic intensity alike to his Cenci and his Prometheus, - hardly assures us of any more searching knowledge of mankind. For it is simply the opposition of absolute wickedness to absolute virtue.

'For the most part, then, Shelley's conception of the actual world seems to us boyish and visionary. Nor, on the other hand, does he offer us much more of wisdom when we desert the actual world for the ideal,--the realm of observation and experience for the realm of conjecture and intuition. We cannot, in fact, discover what he thought on the main spiritual problems which occupy mankind, while in his treatment of the beliefs of others there is often a violent crudity which boyishness can scarcely excuse. Now we do not demand of a poet a definite religion or a definite philosophy. But we are disappointed to find in so much lofty verse so little substance,-nothing, we may almost say, save a few crumbs from the banquet of Plato. The lark who so scorned our earth and heaven might have brought us, we think, some more convincing message from his empyrean

air. “And now as regards his style. We perceive and admit that Shelley's style is unique and inimitable. But it often seems to us inimitable only as Turner's latest pictures are inimitable ; the work obviously of a great master, but work so diffused and deflected as to bear quite too remote a relation to the reality of things. We can believe that Shelley's descriptions of natural scenes, for instance, are full of delightful suggestiveness for the

[blocks in formation]

a

imaginative reader. But considered simply as descriptions we cannot admit that they describe. The objects on which our eyes have rested are certainly not so crystalline or so marmoreal, so amethystine, pellucid, or resplendent, as the objects which meet us in Shelley's song. Nature never seems to be enough for him as she is, and yet we do not think that he has really improved on her.

Again ; we know that it is characteristic of the poetic mind to be fertile in imagery, and to pass from one thought to another by an emotional rather than a logical link of connection. But as regards imagery we think that Shelley might with advantage have remembered Corinna's advice to Pindar in a somewhat similar case, _"to sow with the hand, and not with the whole sack"; while as regards the connection of parts we think that though the poet (like one of his own magic pinnaces) may be in reality impelled by a rushing impulse peculiar to himself, he should nevertheless (like those pinnaces) carry a rag of sail, so that some breath of reason may at least seem to be bearing him along. We are aware that this hurrying spontaneity of style is often cited as a proof of Shelley's wealth of imagination. Yet in desiring from him more concentration, more finish, more self-control, we are not desiring that he should have had less imagination but more ; that he should have had the power of renewing his inspiration on the same theme and employing it for the perfection of the same passage ; so as to leave us less of melodious incoherence,-less of that which is perhaps poetry but is certainly nothing but poetry,– and more of what the greatest poets have left us, namely high ideas and noble emotions enshrined in a form so complete and exquisite that the ideas seem to derive a new truth, the emotions a new dignity, from the intensity with which they have existed in those master minds.'

Some such words as these will express the thoughts of many men whose opinions we cannot disregard without a risk of weakening, by our literary exclusiveness, the hold of poetry on the mass of mankind. But neither need we admit that such criticisms as these are unanswerable. Some measure of truth they do no doubt contain, and herein we must plead our poet's youth and immaturity as our best reply. That immaturity, as we believe, was lessening with every season that passed over his head. With the exception of Alastor (1815),—the first and most pathetic of Shelley's portraits of himself,---all his poems that possess much value were written in the last four and a-half years of his life (1818–22), and during those years a great, though not a uniform, progress is surely discernible. As his hand gains in cunning we see him retaining all his earliest magic, but also able from time to time to dismiss that excess of individuality which would be mannerism were it less spontaneous. The drama of Hellas, the last long poem which he finished, illustrates this irregular advance in power. It is for the most part among the slightest of his compositions, but in its concluding chorus,-Shelley's version of the ancient theme, Alter erit tum Tiphys et altera quæ vehat Argo,-we recognise, more plainly perhaps than ever before in his lyrics, that solidity and simplicity of treatment which we associate with classical masterpieces. And the lyrics of the last year of his life are the very crown of all that he has bequeathed. The delight indeed with which we hear them too quickly passes into regret, so plainly do they tell us that we have but looked on the poet's opening blossom ; his full flower and glory have been reserved as a θέαμα ευδαιμόνων θεατών, a sight for the blest to see.

But there is much that has been said in Shelley’s dispraise to which we shall need to plead no demurrer. We shall admit it ; but in such fashion that our admission constitutes a different or a higher claim. If we are told of the crudity of his teaching and of his conceptions of life, we answer that what we find in him is neither a code nor a philosophy, but a rarer thing, -an example, namely (as it were in an angel or in a child', of the manner in which the littleness and the crimes of men shock a pure spirit which has never compromised with their ignobility nor been tainted with their decay. And in the one dramatic situation in which Shelley is confessedly so great,—the attitude of Beatrice resisting her father, of Prometheus resisting Zeus,-we say that we discern the noble image of that courageous and enduring element in the poet himself which gives force to his gentleness and dignity to his innocence, and which through all his errors, his sufferings, his inward and outward storms, leaves us at last with the conviction that “there is nothing which a spirit of such magnitude cannot overcome or undergo.'

Again, if we are told of the vagueness or incoherence of Shelley's language, we answer that poetic language must always be a compromise between the things which can definitely be said and the things which the poet fain would say; and that when poet or painter desires to fill us with the sense of the vibrating worlds

of spiritual intelligences which interpenetrate the world we see,of those

• Ten thousand orbs involving and involved,
Peopled with unimaginable shapes, ..

Yet each intertranspicuous,'it must needs be that the reflection of these transcendent things should come to us in forms that luxuriate into arabesque, in colours that shimmer into iridescence, in speech that kindles into imagery; while yet we can with little doubt discern whether he who addresses us is merely illuminating the mists of his own mind, or 'has beheld' (as Plato has it) ‘and been initiated into the most blessed of initiations, gazing on simple and imperishable and happy visions in a stainless day.'

And, finally, if we are told that, whatever these visions or mysteries may be, Shelley has not revealed them; that he has contributed nothing to the common faith and creed of men,-has only added to their aspiring anthem one keen melodious cry ;we answer that this common religion of all the world advances by many kinds of prophecy, and is spread abroad by the flying flames of pure emotion as well as by the solid incandescence of eternal truth. Some few souls indeed there are,-a Plato, a Dante, a Wordsworth,-whom we may without extravagance call stars of the spiritual firmament, so sure and lasting seems their testimony to those realities which life hides from us as sunlight hides the depth of heaven. But we affirm that in Shelley too there is a testimony of like kind, though it has less of substance and definition, and seems to float diffused in an ethereal loveliness. We may rather liken him to the dewdrop of his own song, which

becomes a winged mist And wanders up the vault of the blue day,

Outlives the noon, and in the sun's last ray

Hangs o'er the sea, a fleece of fire and amethyst.' For the hues of sunset also have for us their revelation. We look, and the convict on steals over us that such a spectacle can be no accident in the scheme of things ; that the whole universe is tending to beauty; and that the apocalypse of that crimsoned heaven may be not the less authentic because it is so fugitive, not the less real because it comes to us in a fantasy wrought but of light and air.

FREDERIC W. H. MYERS.

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »