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SHELLEY, from whose poetry this book of Selections is made, can only, like all other poets, be judged justly, or fitly loved, when everything he wished to be published has been carefully studied. We can no more comprehend him in the right way by reading only his finest poems, supposing we could choose them, than we can receive a true impression of the character of the scenery of a country by visiting a selection of its most beautiful places. Through his weakness we know part of his strength ; nor is it only for his power we love him. This necessity of reading all a poet's work, if we wish to know him truly, or to receive from him his special gift of pleasure, is the main objection to Selections; but its weight is lessened when the intention of a book of this kind is not to represent Shelley fully, but to present, in a brief compass, enough of his poetry to induce those who are ignorant of it to read the whole. That is the only valid reason and excuse for Selections from a poet, and it is the object of this book. If the excuse be accepted, we may say that Shelley is more open to selection
than many of the other poets. His whole work is short, and a great deal of it can be included in a small book. It is especially lyrical, and lyrics are the best material for selections. Some, too, of the longer poems, such as Alastor and Adonais, in which we can study his steadier and more ambitious effort, are brief enough to be inserted entire, and they break the lyrics pleasantly, and offer a more varied enjoyment to the reader. There is also one spirit in Shelley's work which fills and brings into unity all
It is the spirit of youth. We are not troubled in reading these Selections, by such a change in the whole nature of the poet as age made in Wordsworth. Owing to this unity of spirit, I have been able to place together, without fear of their jarring with one another, poems written at different periods of Shelley's life on the same or kindred themes. To group such poems together is the method followed in this book, and its fitness seems to be supported by the fact that Shelley, being very fond of his ideas, and also of the forms he gave them, repeated them continually. The impression made by one poem is therefore strengthened by another on the same subject. Shelley is his own best illustrator.
When Selections from any poet appear rapidly, it may be said that he has taken his place, that time and its verdict have distinguished him in his own country. And Shelley is now at home with us, and his praise becomes greater day by day. Some of that praise, especially when it exalts him, without distinctiveness of criticism, above his brother poets, seems undeserved, but there is no longer any doubt, among those worthy to judge, that Shelley has assumed his own separate throne among the greater poets of England.
It is then somewhat strange to look back nearly sixty years, and to think that when Shelley died, scarcely fifty people cared to read his poetry, and even these did not understand it.
Seven years after his death opinion began to change. He had so far influenced the young men of Cambridge, that its Union sent a deputation in November 1829 to the Oxford Union, to maintain Shelley's superiority over Byron. “At that time,” said Lord Houghton---speaking in 1866—“we, the Cambridge undergraduates, were all very full of Mr Shelley. We had printed his Adonais in 1829 for the first time in England, and a friend of ours suggested that, as he had been expelled from Oxford, and very badly treated in that University, it would be a grand thing for us to defend him there." The young men, Arthur Hallam, Monckton Milnes, and Sunderland, were received by Gladstone, Francis Doyle, and Milnes Gaskell. Wilberforce of Oriel was in the Chair. Sir Francis Doyle, (Christ Church) moved that Shelley was a greater poet than Lord Byron. He was supported by the three Cambridge men, and by Mr. Oldham of Oriel. The negative was defended by Mr. Manning; and on a division Byron was declared the greater poet by a majority of fifty-seven. This interesting story proves that some young men at Oxford and Cambridge were now awakened to Shelley's genius. They felt and loved him as the most ideal of the poets, and year by year he has increased the number of those who give him that special place and honour.
About 1832 his power over the minds of men increased. At that time fresh political and theólogical elements began to excite England, and then the other side of Shelley's work began to tell. The poems he had written as the prophet of liberty, equality, fraternity, and a Golden Age, were eagerly read by the more intelligent among the working classes, and by many who felt that the ideas of the French Revolution were again arising into activity after their winter sleep. It is a part of his work which still continues to do good.
Again, within the last few years, the sad, regretful, unsatisfied, self-considering, indefinite elements in the mind of educated English society have found food and expression in a certain number of Shelley's poems, and this has increased the extent of his influence. That which has been called the “ lyrical cry” belongs now to a whole section of society, and Shelley often echoes its regret and indefiniteness with great beauty.
Moreover, a great number of persons who care for Nature as Art cares for her, that is, as alive and not dead, being revolted by the materialistic aspect in which some scientific theories now present her, have
turned with new pleasure to the spiritual representations given of her by such poets as Wordsworth and Shelley. That also has added a fresh impulse to the study of Shelley.
It may also be said that the forms, and especially the ideal forms of passionate love, have been, of late, more minutely dwelt on in poetry, and with greater curiosity, than they have been since the Elizabethan period. It is natural, then, that a poet like Shelley, who made ideal love his study, and the subject of so much of his work, should now receive and claim greater attention.
Shelley, reflecting and embodying these various phases, is then a much more comprehensive poet than the common judgment supposes. And he is all the more comprehensive because his nature and his work were twofold. The first thing to say of him is, that he lived in two worlds, thought in two worlds, and in both of these did work which was at once varied and distinct. One was the world of Mankind and its hopes, the other was the world of his own heart.
His poetic life was an alternate changing from one of these worlds to the other. He passed from poetry written for the sake of mankind, to poetry written for his own sake and to express himself; from the Shelley who was inspired by moral aims and wrote in the hope of a regeneration of the world, to that other Shelley who, inspired only by his own ideas and regrets, wrote without any ethical end,