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The world's great age begins anew.
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The two critical editions of Shelley's Poems recently
published by Mr. W. M. Rossetti and Mr. Porman,
have given all true lovers of English poetry what they
have long sighed for — a text of Shelley as complete
and correct as we can now hope to obtain ; while the
yaluable Memoir prefixed to Mr. Rossetti's edition, and
the critical biography written by Mr. Symonds for the
English Men of Letters series, afford ordinary readers
an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the main
facts of his life, so far as they are at present known.
Many excellent pieces of criticism of his poetry have
also from time to time appeared ; but a philosophical
study of his works, which shall assign him his true
place in our literature, still remains to be written. The
present volume is an attempt to contribute something
towards such a study.

Pending the publication of an edition of the Prose
Works which shall be tolerably complete, 1 have con-
fined myself almost altogether to the Poems, except
where, as in the poet's earlier years, the prose writings
are of almost equal importance, or where a reference
to some passage throws light upon the poem under



consideration. Of the shorter lyrics I have said httle,
not because I am blind to their beauty, but because
I have found it impossible to say anything about most
of them which would be of real value to readers of
Shelley. It would be easy to write pages of rhapsody
upon the beauty of a flower or a dewdrop, and when
written they would be as valuable, or as valueless, as
such effusions usually are. My endeavour has been to
avoid mere praise of what is above all praise, and to
study each poem, as I believe Shelley himself would
wish it to be studied, with a serious effort to comprehend
the ideas which he desired to express in it — the message
which it was the burthen of his soul to deliver to the

It may seem to those who know the Poems well
that I have spent too much time in epitomizing the
plots of some of the earlier narratives — Laon and Cythiia,
for instance ; but my object has been to write a book
for the> general public, who know as yet surprisingly
little of Shelley, as well as for those who are familiar
with his works.

In the punctuation of the passages quoted I have
not consistently followed that of any one of the numerous
editions, but, in the absence of a final standard, have
selected that which seemed to me in each case to be
the best.

I have to thank Mr. Rossetti for much cordial help,
and many valuable suggestions in the course of the
work, and Mr. Garnett for his kind assistance in pro-
curing information upon various points.

Rome, May 6, 1880.



I. The Personality of Shelley ... ... .. i

II. Earliest Works— "Queen Mab" — "Alastor"... 30


IV. "Rosalind and Helen" — "Julian and Maddalo" —

"The Cenci " ... ... ... ... 92

V. "Prometheus Unbound," Acts I. and II. ... ... 132

VI. "Prometheus Unbound," Acts III. and IV. — Poems

published with "Prometheus" ... .. 169

VII. Satires— Political Poems — Translations ... ... 197

VIII. " The Witch of Atlas " — "Epipsychidion " ... 224
IX. " Adonais " — " Hellas " — Dramatic Fragments —

"Triumph of Life" ... ... ... ... 254

Epilogue ... ... " ... ... ... 291




The present age has produced three great poets of
Democrac52=r-three men whose utterances are full of
prophetic fervour, and who seem to gaze forward into
the future with eyes which lighten with the vision of
some boundless hope for mankind — Shelley, Victor
Hugo, and Walt Whitman. All three are full of the
new wine of the democratic spirit ; it is to the prevalence
of this spirit that they look for the regeneration of
society and the incoming of a golden age. Their
enthusiasm has all the characteristics of a religious en-
thusiasm. They are poetical missionaries, whose words
are designed to go out into the ends of the earth and
turn many to righteousness ; and, like all enthusiastic
utterances, their words will sound veiy differently in
different ears — to some blasphemous, to some foolish, to
some ludicrously grotesque, to some immoral and out-



rageous, to most in some degree offensive. So far we
may place them all in the same category ; but each
occupies a sphere of his own, each utters his prophecy
in a language of his own. Shelley is the most ethereal
and universal, and, on the whole, the most philosophic
and self-consistent, dealing with abstract principles
and psychological subtleties. He loses sight not merely
of individuals, ,but of nationalities, and^sees mankind
its.elf as"-dne';'*fiiijhty brotherhood. Hugo and Whitman
.are^jip.d(?ubtj also poets of the human race, but each
'Seeo''iii''his''C/wn naaon, France or America, the sacred
nation through whose instrumentality the great deliver-
ance of mankind is to be achieved. Hugo deals with
the minute details and paradoxes of human character,
the casuistry of good and evil in particular instances ;
but everything in his works is referred to his own fixed
ethical standards — everything is arraigned for judgment
at the bar of his own democratic conscience. His cha-
racters, even when drawn most directly from nature, have
in them something monstrous and superhuman. They
are typical creations, like Shelley's Titans, and some-
times approach the limits of caricature in their exaggera-
tion. Walt Whitman is neither, li ke Shelley, a dreamer
aloof from every-day_ liile, in pursuit of ethereal abstrac-
tions, of a " something removed from the sphere of our
sorrow," nor is he, like Hugo, led into extravagance by
love of theatrical effect. He is rather the idealist of real
life, in every common event of which his full-blooded
imagination discerns an under-working spiritual force —
" a hope beyond the shadow of a dream." Shelley and


Hugo prophesy of good things to come ; but Whitman
sets our pulses beating with intenser life, which renews
this present world, and makes us feel that the golden
age is now at the very doors, and waits upon ourselves
for its coming into existence. It may, indeed, be
remarked that while the sacred France of Hugo is an
idea which has come fairly into existence, and lives and
struggles in the practical world, the sacred America of
Whitman is as yet little more than a prophetic vision ;
while, in his conception of the relations between the
sexes, the American bard is at least a couple of cen-
turies behind Shelley, some of his expressions being full
of the savage sensuality of an unprogressive naturalism.
Of all the poets of his own time, Byron is the man
with whom Shelley presents the most obvious points ^f""
corr^^^on_and_j:ontost"~^oth were, more distinctly
than any of their great^ontemporaries,/ revolutionary
forces. Both were atUyar with the society of their -« ^
time, which they had defied^^and which had laid them ^^
under its ban. Both were,j^5y-eari^st, too vivid^ alive, ^/j.
too intensely filled with tW passion of their age, to be V^a
respectably orthodox. But while Byron was carried ^
forward, half against his will, in a whirlwind of chaotic A *
passion, Shelley flew eagerly and serenely onward on
the tempest of enthusiasm, which was the very breath of
his being. Byron is a poet of de_spair — a Lucifer fallen
from heaven, who has not lost all his original brightness, -rp
nor seems less than archangel ruined, but who brings us r-^
lurid flame for light. Shelley is a poet of hope — an un-
fallen son of the morning, who fills our sky with the


golden light of dawn. Both were insurgents against
the conventional religion and morality of their day ;
but the purer mind of Shelley was more daring than
that of Byron. Byron believed or half believed, scoffed
and struggled ; Shelley attacked as the apostle of a new,,
if rather vague, reh'gion. Byron was a poet of revolt,
but Shelley of revolution.

This essential difference in the spirits of the two men
breathes in every line of their poetry. Shelley lives
with the winds above the highest mountain-tops, above
the home of the thunder, where Byron dwells, and whence
he descends, with storm of sounding rhetoric and
avalanches or lava of icy or fiery sarcasm, to desolate
the smiling cornfields of our average morality. Hence
the more imrnediate effect of Byron's brilliant_|)€rson-
ality upon the world of men, which Shelley 's_xemoter
light is but now reaching. The respectable public could
to a great extent ignore the shrill song of the poet of
Prometheus, while the author of Cai7i and Do7i Juan
made himself distinctly audible. Byron wields terrestrial
thunderbolts, which blaze and burn, terrify the shepherds,
and do damage to the moral haystacks and thatch of
small domestic pieties. He knocks all the domesticities
about our ears with a blinding glare, appalling noise, and
much smell of sulphur, stalking over the earth with the
air of an infernal spirit, Shelley's poetry is like vivid
sheet lightning, or the aurora, shedding strange illumi-
nation upon this lower world, yet a thing of the upper
sky. The superstitious cross themselves in terror, and
think that the end of the world has come ; and even


■e most weatherwisc know only that some-
g done in the bosom of the ether, something
2ns change.

poets of revolution, Shelley stirs us with
2yond the reaches of our souls," flinging into
ny of our lives new and terrible discords,
into yet unsounded keys, filling our hearts
1 of " sad, perplexed minors," which yet have
oxicate us with the delirium of an agonizing
\ than any man of the century he challenges
les us with ethical paradoxes. His whole
:ense with the eager, prophetic, forward-
rill of the modulating chord which leads
V movement. It is as if a great orchestra
)assion of modern life had striven upward
ild climax, until at last this was reached in
isistent feminine shriek from the violins
to a terrible pitch. We feel that nothing
ter this but some such choral burst as the
)y " in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony ; and
ley's ProinctJiciis is more truly the poetical
this great symphony than Goethe's Faust,
ler compares with it. The "Song of Joy"
e prophetic strains of the last act, in which
hear the first breath of the rushing mighty
new Pentecost, before which dogmas and
y with age and evil shall be blown away like
something weird and strange in his person-


which seems to place Shelley in th e rank of angelic
rS existenceSj^ rathe r _than of ordinary men. His~ve^
appearance, as described by those who knew him, gives
one the idea of a being of some upper sphere who had
got astray upon the earth. His small head, with its
bright curls, and starlike blue eyes eagerly gazing into
infinity, seemed to be bent forward by the wind of his
spirit, which drove him before it perpetually. The
graceful awkwardness of his gait must have been like
that of a creature accustomed to flying, which had lost its
wings or foregone their use — a Botticellian angel just
alit, and feeling the rough earth strange walking for
feet whose wont it was to " trample the dim winds."

Whatever we may think of the particular facts of
his life, as a whole it gives us a feeling that he could
not have been very different from what he was. He
was one of those exceptional men who are " a law unto
themselves," who come into the world with a clear com-
mission to do a certain work, be it goodj;?r evil accord-
ing to the notions of ordinary men, and Avho, having
, accomplished this work, disappear. He was a mis-
^jsionary spirit, with an intense belief in his mission ; the
f wind of inspiration was on him from his birth. He had
none of the falterings or misgivings, though he was not
^ free from the half-visions, of Aveaker or more' complex
natures. He rushes ahead in the van of the forlorn
hope of the world, chanting his shrill cry of revolution,
thinking to shatter the very gates of hell with the
monotonous persistence of this lark-sQng^of his, which
flutters round two notes — liberty and low.


How are we to apply the canons of our prosaic
morality to this half-feminine Lucifer, newly fallen from
heaven ? How are we to judge of words and actions,
so shockingly immoral according to ordinary standards,
said and done with such childlike innocence ? For the
great power of Shelley lies in his child like simphcitj^^ ;
his song is childlike, rather than feminine. It has
none of the gasps and sobs and broken music of Mrs.
Browning's. It is sustained and thrilling as the high
soprano of the "blessed boys" in the mystical scene
which closes the second part of Faust. His actions
have something of the beautiful unaccountableness of
those of Goethe's Mignon. Like her, he is a creature
of impulse ; but what is terrible in him is that, unlike her,
he, in true masculine fashion, converts his impulses into
principles, and straightway proceeds to force the world
to acknowledge their dominion. All his poetry is
electric with that " passion ^for^ reforming the world"
which so strongly possessed him. He is the idealist of
a new society, different from that based upon the
Protestantism of the Reformation, of which Spenser was
the Utopian dreamer ; and it is interesting to contrast
the calm and measured character of the Utopianism of
Spenser with the fervour and boundless aspiration of
Shelley's. Spenser sings his tranquil song concerning
the twelve moral virtues, giving to each virtue its
several book of twelve cantos, neither more nor less.
Shelley ravishes us away, in a whirlwind of passion, into
a region where the moral virtues appear to us much as
small garden-plots might appear to Elijah in his fiery


chariot. If Spenser knows anything of hberty, it must
be the liberty of perfect law — a perfection attainable
through care and self-regulating culture. If Shelley
knows anything of law, it must be the perfect law of
liberty — a law whose fulfilment is love. Each is the
votary of a complementary truth ; but the moral Spenser
saps our morality with his voluptuous pictures of sweet
sin, the immoral Shelley fills our hearts with the passion
of purity.

Miss Blind, in her suggestive paper in the Westminster
Revieiv for July, 1870, has, with some justice, protested
against the tendency of modern criticism to make an
arbitrary distinction between the realms of the Good,
the True, and the Beautiful. " What would become of
the Beautiful," she asks, " if, securely dammed up against
the influx of moral convictions and the speculations
and discoveries of the reasoning faculties, it were sub-
sisting in profound isolation only in and through itself.'' "
What, we may answer, does actually and invariably
become of the 'Beautiful under such circumstances ?
Simply that it dwindles and dies, or, at least, lives with
a stunted and morbid life. Goethe's great axiom, " Art
for art's sake," as popularly understood, is the very
gospel of academic dilettantism — implying, as it does,
the divorce of art from the healthy interests of life.
Granting that it is the form, not the matter, the quality
of the expression, not the thing expressed, which con-
stitutes the art element in the work of art, does it follow
that the quality of the thing expressed has nothing to
do with the total value of this work of art .'* It may be


true that the essence of art is the emotional expression
of emotion ; yet the value of the work of art must
surely in some degree depend upon the quality of the
emotion thus expressed. Style may be the incarnation
of this emotional expression ; yet the artist who lives
in his studio, and makes style his main, object, cuts off
the spiritual fountain-head which gives his style vitality.
In all art, however free from the self-consciously didactic,
there are, underlying and permeating the purely artistic
element, ethical and philosophical elements derived
from the moral and truth-grasping personality of the
man ; and these cannot rightly be ignored in estimating
the final value of his work.

To the poet, the asceticism for art's sake which
would drive him from the free air of the every-day
world, to become a confectioner of aesthetic Rahat-laconni,
is especially fatal. Shelley, while early abandoning the
self-consciously didactic in poetry, and expressing his
abhorrence of it, never, or scarcely ever, becomes
academic — never degenerates from a man into a mere
poet. The cant of the present day about " art " and
" the artist " would have sounded in his ears like the
babbling of fools. H e is the g reat poet that he is, and
that Keats, with all his splendid gift of imagination and
all his consummate perfection of style, had not yet
become, precisely because he is full of the new wine of
modern ethical ideas. Keats, though no mere artist, as
he isTalsely accusedf of being, had at least this charac-
teristic of the artist in him, that his_first craving was
for sensuous beauty, and his first deliberate^ effort for


the perfection of his_style. Shelley, on the other hand,
is, above all things, a prophet with an authentic message
to deliver. He hurled this spiritual message into words,
and left his style to perfect itself in the process of its

Shelley, as we shall see when we come to study the
Prometheus, was in his loftiest moods a great mytho-
poet ; his myths being the modern equivalent of the
intellectual myths of the Greek mythology and of
Plato — myths such as Goethe has attempted to handle
in the second part of Faicst, and Keats in Endyniioii and
Hyperion. But if in mere mythological method Shelley
approaches the Greeks, in the philosophy which his
mythology embodies there is an element very far
removed from anything Greek — an element essentially
modern and, paradoxical as it may appear, Christian.
Now that the dogmatic shell of the Christian idea is
shattered, like the glass case of Goethe's Homunculus,
its vital spirit has become a free practical force, silently
and powerfully working for the regeneration of society ;
and Shelley's poetical sheet lightning is like that " fiery
wonder" spread over the sea when the new Eros,
formerly Homunculus, bursts from his prison to pour
himself in rapture around Galatea's feet. In Shelley
the Renaissance ends ; righteousness and truth have
kissed each other ; that fusion of Hebraism and Hel-
lenism for which Mr. Matthew Arnold sighs has fairly
begun, and more than begun ; the modern spirit has
devoured antiquity, and lives with an ideal life of its
own. He is like his own Spirit of the Earth — a child


full of the youth of the world. He " brings with him
hope and forward-looking thoughts."

It is not my intention in this chapter to dwell on the
details of Shelley's life — to tell again the well-known
anecdotes, or to enter upon the question of the pro-
priety of his conduct on various occasions. The evi-
dence with regard to his separation from Harriett is still
too incomplete to enable us to pronounce him guilty or
not guilty of neglect or want of proper consideration
for her feelings or interests ; and this, and other cases in
which he deviated from the beaten track of the morality
of his day, may safely be left in the hands of his
biographers, who have already fairly and fully dealt
with them. As regards the general features of his
character, I cannot do better than make an extract from
the estimate of it, at once sympathetic and just, given
by Mr. Symonds in his admirable sketch of his life, in
the English Men of Letters series : —

"Shelley had no faculty for compromise, no per-
ception of the blended truths and falsehoods through
which the mind of man must gradually win its way
from the obscurity of myths into the clearness of posi-
tive knowledge, for ever toiling and for ever foiled, and
forced to content itself with the increasing conscious-
ness of limitations. Brimming over with love for men,
he was deficient in sympathy with the conditions under
which they actually think and feel. Could he but
dethrone the Anarch Custom, the millennium, he argued,
would immediately arrive ; nor did he stop to think how
different was the fibre of his own soul from that of the


unnumbered multitudes around him. In his adoration
of what he recognized as living, he retained no reverence
for the ossified experience of past ages. The principle
of evolution, which forms a saving link between the
obsolete and the organically vital, had no place in his
logic. The spirit of the I'rench Revolution, uncompro-
mising, shattering, eager to build in a day the structure
which long centuries of growth must fashion, was still
fresh upon him. We who have survived the enthusiasms
of that epoch, who are exhausted with its passions, and
who have suffered from its reactive impulses, can
scarcely comprehend the vivid faith and young-eyed
joy of aspiration which sustained Shelley in his_fiight
f^'nfOwarci.Jthe^XHgion of impossible ideals. For he had a
vital faith ; and this Taith made the^deals he conceived
seem possible — faith in the duty and desirability of
overthrowing idols ; faith in the gospel of liberty,
fraternity, equality ; faith in the divine beauty of
nature ; faith in a love that rules the universe ; faith in
the perfectibility of man ; faith in the omnipresent soul,
whereof our souls are atoms ; faith in affection as the
ruling and co-ordinating substance of morality. The
man who lived by this faith was in no vulgar sense of
the word an atheist. . . . Shelley believed too much
I to be consistently agnostic. He believed so firmly and
I intensely in his own religion — a kind of passionate
positivism, a creed which seemed to have no God
because it was all God — that he felt convinced he only
needed to destroy accepted figments, for the light which
blazed around him to break through and flood the


world with beauty." The strength and weakness of his
character are thus assayed : " He lacked the touchstone
of mature philosophy, whereby to separate the pinch-
beck from the gold of social usage ; and in his intense
enthusiasm he lost his hold on common sense, which
might have saved him from the puerility of arrogant
iconoclasm. The positive side of his creed remains
precious, not because it was logical, or scientific, or
coherent, but because it was an ideal, fervently felt,
and penetrated with the whole life-force of an incom-
parable nature. Such ideals are needed for sustaining
man upon his path amid the glooms and shadows of
impenetrable ignorance. They form the seal and pledge
of his spiritual dignity, reminding him that he was
not born to live like brutes, or like the brutes to perish
without effort."

All this is very well put, and may serve as an intro-
duction to what I shall venture to say about Shelley's
religion, well aware, as I am, that to seek to fathom in
thought and express in words a mystery so subtle, is to
attempt to win the secret of its fragrance from some
delicate flower by the coarse processes of chemical
analysis. As he himself says, " We cannot express our

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Online LibraryJohn TodhunterA study of Shelley → online text (page 1 of 22)