Percy Bysshe Shelley.

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A Defense of Poetry is the only entirely finished prose work
Shelley left. In this we find the reverence with which he
regarded his art. We discern his power of close reasoning,
and the unity of his views of human nature. The language is
imaginative, but not flowery ; the periods have an intonation
full of majesty and grace ; and the harmony of the style being
united to melodious thought, a music results, that swells upon
the ear, and fills the mind with delight.

MRS. SHELLEY, Preface to Essays, etc., by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

To prefer or to equal Shelley's prose to his poetry is a merely
uncritical freak of judgment. His prose is, however, of excel-
lent quality, both in his letters, which are among the most charm-
ing of their kind, and in his too few essays and miscellaneous
writings. SAINTSBURY, Specimens of English Prose Style, p. 342.

The mere whim, the bare idea, that poetry is a deep thing, a
teaching thing, the most surely and wisely elevating of human
things, is even now to the coarse public mind nearly unknown.
. . . All about and around us a faith in poetry struggles to be
extricated, but it is not extricated. Some day, at the touch of
the true word, the whole confusion will by magic cease ; the
broken and shapeless notions will cohere and crystallize into a
bright and true theory. BAGEHOT, Literary Studies, 2. 339-341.








Entered, according to Act of Congress, in the year 1890, by

in the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.









Style vii

Shelley's Views in Comparison with Sidney's xvii

The Provinces of Inspiration and of Labor xx







i . STYLE.

SHELLEY'S prose, though by no means excessively ca-
denced or adorned, has yet some of the marks and qualities
of poetry. It can scarcely be called poetic prose, as much
of Ruskin's might not unfairly be styled ; nor does it answer
in all respects to the accepted notions of a poet's prose.
Perhaps its characteristic has been sufficiently defined by
himself in his own discussion of the ' vulgar error ' that
prose can never be the vehicle of an essentially poetic con-
ception. In this discussion he does not shrink from definite
statements and concrete examples (9 &-si) : " Plato was
essentially a poet the truth and splendor of his imagery,
and the melody of his language, are the most intense that it
is possible to conceive. . . . He forbore to invent any regu-
lar plan of rhythm which would include, under determinate
forms, the varied pauses of his style. Cicero sought to
imitate the cadence of his periods, but with little success.
Lord Bacon was a poet. His language has a sweet and
majestic rhythm which satisfies the sense. ... All the
authors of revolution in opinion are not only necessarily
poets as they are inventors, . . . but as their periods are
harmonious and rhythmical."

The author himself has thus enunciated two criteria which
may be applied to the prose written by a poet or in a poetic
mood :

1. Truth and splendor of imagery.

2. Melody or rhythm, varied, indeterminate, and in-


That Shelley's prose imagery possesses both truth and
splendor there can be no question. Mrs. Shelley, surely not
an incompetent critic, distinctly attributes to his language
both the qualities just mentioned, and it needs no exhaus-
tive scrutiny 'to determine that for these qualities his lan-
guage is chiefly indebted to its figurative expressions. In
the preface to her edition of his essays, she says : "Shelley
commands language splendid and melodious as Plato."

The imagery of this essay always completes, if it does not
effect, the revelation of its author's thought. A mind of
more prosaic temper might attain equal clearness without
the employment of metaphorical language, but clearness
may in such cases be gained at the expense of suggestive-
ness. There is a creeping clearness, as there is a volant
amplitude of vision, no less certain than that of the eagle
when he swoops magnificently down upon his prey from the
central deeps of air. It is the latter that Shelley possesses,
and herein he reminds us of Shakespeare when the great
dramatist is most felicitous in wedding virile thought to the
clinging beauty of tropical language. In Agamemnon's
speech to his auxiliar kings, Shakespeare makes him thus
eloquently illustrate a commonplace heroic :

\Vhy then, you princes,

Do you with cheeks abashed behold our works,
And think them shames, which are indeed nought else
But the protractive trials of great Jove,
To find persistive constancy in men?
The fineness of which metal is not found
In fortune's love; for then the bold and coward,
The wise and fool, the artist and unread,
The hard and soft, seem all affined and kin;
But, in the wind and tempest of her frown,
Distinction, with a broad and powerful fan,
Puffing at all, winnows the light away;
And what hath mass or matter by itself
Lies rich in virtue and unmingled.


Now it is no sufficient objection to the dramatist's use of
figurative language to say that all this expenditure of words
is but the amplification of a single short sentence, " Adver-
sity distinguishes the hero from the poltroon." Nor is it an
answer to say that such introduction of metaphor is suitable
to poetry, but not to prose, else what censure must be pro-
nounced on such an evident metaphor as this, " Whose fan
is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and
gather his wheat into the garner ; but he will burn up the chaff
with unquenchable fire?" We praise the aptness, as well as
the beauty, of Jeremy Taylor's famous simile : " For so have
I seen a lark rising from his bed of grass, soaring upwards
and singing as he rises and hopes to get to heaven and
climb above the clouds ; but the poor bird was beaten back
with the loud sighings of an eastern wind and his motion
made irregular and inconstant, descending more at every
breath of the tempest than it could recover by the vibration
and frequent weighing of his wings, till the little creature
was forced to sit down and pant and stay till the storm was
over ; and then it made a prosperous flight and did rise and
sing as if it had learned music and motion from an angel as
he passed sometimes through the air about his ministries
here below. So is the prayer of a good man," etc. But if
we admire the fitness of this image, there is no room left
for us to condemn the not dissimilar expressions of Shelley :
" The world, as from a resurrection, balancing itself on the
golden wings of knowledge and of hope, has reassumed its
yet unwearied flight into the heaven of time. Listen to the
music, unheard by outward ears, which is as a ceaseless and
invisible wind, nourishing its everlasting course with strength
and swiftness."

But, indeed, there is no necessity of defending figurative
language on the score of its services to truth, so long as we
can appeal to the example of England's most philosophical
politician. Burke, in his Letter to a Noble Lord, does not


shrink from the employment of a trope hardly less elaborate
than those that have just been cited, and no one has yet
been bold enough to censure him for temerity, or to insinuate
that he could more exactly have conveyed his thought by
eschewing the ornaments of verse. Rising to the demands
of the occasion, Burke says : " But as to our country and
our race, as long as the well-compacted structure of our
church and state, the sanctuary, the holy of holies of that
ancient law, defended by reverence, defended by power, a
fortress at once and a temple, shall stand inviolate on the
brow of the British Sion as long as the British monarchy,
not more limited than fenced by the orders of the state,
shall, like the proud Keep of Windsor, rising in the majesty
of proportion, and girt with the double belt of its kindred
and coeval towers, as long as this awful structure shall over-
see and guard the subjected land so long the mounds and
dykes of the low, fat Bedford level will have nothing to fear
from all the pickaxes of all the levelers of France."

Is Shelley's imagery splendid? If not splendid, it is at
least generally beautiful, and bears an obvious resemblance to
that of his poetry. Many of his illustrations are drawn from
light, fire, the wind, music, birds, and flowers. It would be
an agreeable and instructive task to make a collection of his
metaphorical phrases, to trace his indebtedness to the Bible
and other classics, and to spell out the character of his
genius in the light of his similes, but we cannot afford our-
selves the indulgence in this place.

We pass now to the second head, that of melody or rhythm.
The inference from his words is that the rhythm of a poet's
prose is inimitable, because varied and indeterminate. Varied
and indeterminate it may be, but no less unmistakable. The
melody of Shelley's language, if not " the most intense that
it is possible to conceive," is sufficiently intense to differen-
tiate it from ordinary, plodding, work-a-day prose, and to
seem, as indeed it is, " an echo of the eternal music." This


melody is heard at its best in sentences like the follow-
ing :

" The Past, like an inspired rhapsodist, fills the theatre of
everlasting generations with their harmony."

" Its secret alchemy turns to potable gold the poisonous
waters which flow from death through life." (Perhaps sug-
gested by such Shakespearean lines as M.N.D. 3. 2. 391 :
"Turns into yellow gold his salt green streams " ; Sonn. 33.
3 : " Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy" ; K.John
3. i. 77, etc.).

Still more striking than these are the two sentences cited
on p. i.

It will be observed that sentences of this order have a
sustained flight, like that of the bird of paradise, which is
fabled never to touch the earth, or rather, if we may adapt
Jeremy Taylor's simile, already quoted, like the impulsive
soaring of the lark, which ever and anon returns to the
meadow whence it sprang, and does not at once shake
itself free of its lowly surroundings, but which exults in its
spacious liberty when the earth has fairly been left behind,
and with glad pulsations lifts itself higher and higher into
the immeasurable profound of air. Sentences like those
quoted above, when examined with reference to their pauses,
are seen to have no natural caesura near the end. They
spring through a short clause, or a succession of them, to a
coign of vantage, and thence set out on an aerial journey
which halts not till it ends. No antithesis marks their close,
no qualifying clause slipped in almost at the last moment,
no suspension which throws the verb, with an abrupt break,
to the very end, no explicative remark intended merely to
confirm or extend that which precedes, no correlative added
for the sake of more perfect balance. Examples of such
broken endings might readily be adduced, and I select from
Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies an instance to illustrate each of
the foregoing heads :


" Strong always to sanctify, even when they cannot save."

" A broken metaphor, one might think, careless and un-

" And sown in us daily, and by us, as instantly as may be,

" Only so far as may enable her to sympathize in her
husband's pleasures, and in those of his best friends."

" We gloat over the pathos of the police court, and gather
the night-dew of the grave."

It is impossible to lay down any rule for the construction
of prose rhythms. If such a rule could be deduced, the
rhythm would no longer be varied and indeterminate. Still
an examination of the final sentences of Shelley's paragraphs
is instructive with reference to the means by which the con-
tinuous harmony is so long maintained. When the final
clause exceeds the ordinary length and is interrupted by no
appreciable caesura, it will frequently be found that it con-
tains a succession of two or more prepositional phrases,
more rarely that the place of the first prepositional phrase is
occupied by a noun, the subject or object of a verb, with or
without one or more attributive adjectives, or that the second
prepositional phrase is adverbial in its function. Nor is it
alone in the final sentences of Shelley's paragraphs that such
constructions appear to be typical. Other instances are :

" Become as generals to the bewildered armies of their

"And gathers a sort of reduplication from the com-

" It must be impanelled by Time from the selectest of the
wise of many generations."

" The receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combina-
tions of thought."

" To have abdicated this throne of their widest domin-

" Out of a chaos of inharmonious barbarisms."


But the moment a serious attempt is made to establish
the universality of such a supposed rule, that moment disap-
pointment is likely to overtake the observer, and to nip in
the bud any future endeavors to determine even the most
elementary laws of verbal harmony in prose. Yet, confined
within proper limits, such endeavors need not be unprofit-
able ; they should be judged in the light of the inquiries,
extending over centuries, and still continued, into the rhythms
of Lysias and Demosthenes, and it should not be hastily con-
cluded that what is advantageous in Greek becomes a vanity
and a delusion in English.

Shelley's attachment to a few favorite images leads him,
as has been already intimated, into repetition. As the most
intricate musical compositions are built up out of the few
notes of the scale, so poets, even when writing prose, appear
to have a few simple elements to which they frequently re-
turn, and to vary and modulate upon a few primary chords.
Among Shelley's key-words are ' harmony,' ' harmonious,'
'rhythm,' 'order or rhythm,' 'rhythm and order.' Akin to
this practice, but yet different from it, is that of repeating
certain syllables or sounds, simply because the echo of them
still lingers in the ear. Whether Shelley's use of the figure
of polysyndeton, especially in the case of ' and,' is to be
referred to this cause, may be allowed to remain an open
question. But other instances are less doubtful, and can
only be regarded as blemishes, since they transgress a higher
euphonic law. Such are :

" Film of/tf/w/'/iarity (42 ie) .

" Affected, a moral aim, and the effect of their poetry "


" An equal sensibility to the influence of the senses "
(21 so).

"As its forms survived in the unre/<?rwed worship of
modern Europe " (32 is).

But especially the multiplication of words ending in the


sound of -sion, preceded by a vowel, such as the follow-

"The incorporation of the Celtic nations with the ex-
hausted population " (27 26).

" He omits the observation of conditions still more im-
portant, and more is lost than gained by the substitution of
the rigidly-defined and ever-repeated idealisms of a distorted
superstition for the loving impersonations of the truth of
human passion " (17 25-30) ; cf. Sidney, Defense 53 si, note.

Another form of repetition is that of identical words, such
as 'alleged' (31 4,7), 'practice ' (17 3,4). Not to be con-
founded with these are such as selectest: selectest (2328),
and partial: partially (24 1,2), which illustrate a rhetorical

Alliteration in prose is due to the same retention and un-
conscious reverberation of a sound, this time fragmentary
and initial, a single phonetic element instead of a group of
such. Shelley does not escape this fault, or rather he in-
dulges a common and pardonable propensity beyond the
limits which are imposed by the severe taste of certain
critics. " The mask and the mantle " (30 s) would almost
pass unnoticed, and " the fragrance of all the flowers of the
field " (21 20) can be readily condoned. But the following
will not so easily escape remark :

" It overcomes and sickens the spirit with excess of sweet-
ness " (21 17).

" A monologue, where all the attention may be directed
to some great waster of ideal wimicry. The modern prac-
tice," etc. (17 i).

" The y'ury which sits in judgment upon a poet must be
composed, of his peers ; it must be im/anelled by Time. . . .
A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and .rings to
cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds ; his auditors are
as men entranced by the ;elody of an unseen musician, who
feel that they are moved,' 1 etc. (1127-122). Perhaps the


misquotation in 35 27-8 owes its form to the instinct for
alliteration, and ' feasting ' becomes ' mirth,' because ' mourn-
ing ' had preceded.

One feature of a poetical style Shelley avoids, the intro-
duction of compound words, such as Sidney loved and
abounded in (cf. Sidney, Defense 55 25, note, and the In-
troduction, pp. xxiv-xxv). A half-dozen practically exhaust
the list: 'all-penetrating' (4622), 'ever-changing' (2 e),
'ever-repeated' (17 28), ' low-thoughted ' (45 ai), 'many-
sided' (19 e), and 'owl-eyed' (394). Of these, 'low-
thoughted ' is a quotation, and ' owl-winged ' is the only
other that has a decidedly poetic air.

Before leaving the subject of Shelley's style, a single defect
and a compensating merit must be noticed. The defect
is that the poet as prosaist is sometimes ungrammatical.
The congruence of a verb with its subject, for example, is
not always observed. Examples are :

" As the temporary dress . . . , which cover without con-
cealing," etc. (12 29).

" With which the author, in common with his auditors, are
infected" (1922).

" The chosen delicacy of expressions . . . are as a mist,"
etc. (24s).

" His apotheosis of Beatrice, and the gradations . . . is
the most glorious imagination of modern poetry" (29 3-s).

" After one person and one age has exhausted all its
divine effluence which their peculiar relations enable them
to share," etc. (33 10-12) .

" The accumulation of the materials of external life ex-
ceed," etc. (38 n).

The verbal noun uniformly takes an object: "The estab-
lishing a relation," etc. (17 23; cf. 17 24, 34 12-15).

A peculiar confusion is illustrated by the following : " Each
division in the art was made perfect . . . , and was disci-
plined into a beautiful proportion and unity one towards the
other" (16 17-20).



The connective as here does duty in a construction to
which it is not perfectly adapted : " Never was blind strength
and stubborn form so disciplined . . . , or that will less re-
pugnant, . . . as during the century," etc. (15i"~ 2 i).

In the following the second member of the compound
sentence is left without a verb : " Tragedy becomes a cold
imitation . . . ; and often the very form misunderstood, or
a weak attempt to teach certain doctrines," etc. (19 u ff.).
' Form ' and ' attempt ' simulate noun-subjects, but the close
of the sentence leaves them suspended, as it were, in mid-

These offences, it will be said, are venial, and so indeed
they are in relation to the splendid qualities by which they
are offset, but the reference to them may perhaps serve as
an excuse for occasional lapses in our elder writers, as where
Sidney says {Defense 47 28 ) : " Our tragedies and comedies
not without cause cried out against," etc., in which the finite
verb is lacking.

The counterbalancing, and more than counterbalancing,
merit, is the apothegmatic character of many of Shelley's
statements. Perhaps no English essay so flowing and easy
in its style, and so brief in its compass, ever contained an
equally large number of pregnant sayings, so excellently true
and so adequately expressed. Two, at least, have become
proverbial : " Poetry is the record of the best and happiest
moments of the happiest and best minds." " The rich have
become richer, and the poor poorer." But there is a large
number scarcely less deserving of popular currency. A few
of these may be instanced :

" A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal

" It is not what the erotic poets have, but what they have
not, in which their imperfection consists."

" A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and


" Man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a

" For the end of social corruption is to destroy all sensi-
bility to pleasure; and therefore it is corruption."

" Tragedy delights by affording a shadow of that pleasure
which exists in pain."

" All high poetry is infinite ; it is as the first acorn, which
contains all oaks potentially."

But to continue to quote would be to repeat the Essay in
the Introduction.


In essentials Shelley and Sidney agree. Both being poets,
and acquainted with the same early literatures and authori-
ties, it might be expected that their views would not be
widely divergent. Among the opinions which they hold in
common, only the principal need be mentioned.

According to both, then, poetry is the first of didactic
agencies, in time as well as in order of importance, and, to
descend to particulars, outranks both history and philosophy,
each of which, in its infancy, embodies something of its great
predecessor. It is true that the philosophy which Sidney
has in mind is ethics, while Shelley is thinking rather of
political science, but this difference is merely indicative of
the period ; that which was academic and general in the
sixteenth century had become democratic and specifically
sociological by the beginning of the nineteenth. Again,
while they pronounce poetry to be the first of didactic
agencies, neither writer will allow that the poetry which
studiously and incessantly reminds us of its moral aim has a
right to a place among the highest.

They agree that there is something prophetic about
poetry ; the poet has the " vision and the faculty divine."
Accordingly there is much poetry in the Bible. Moreover,


the insight of the true seer cannot be acquired through scho-
lastic discipline ; there is a sense in which the poet must be
born to his lofty mission.

It is not necessary that poetry take the form of verse,
although, since harmony is the soul of poetry, numbers con-
stitute the usual and fitting body to this soul. Plato is in-
stanced by both as a prose-poet, or, if the phrase be preferred,
as a prosaist whose substance is poetical.

Again, poetic art improves upon nature ; the world of the
poet is a fairer one than was ever seen by mortal eye, and
hence his imagined world may well become the foundation of
the actual one, the type which men seek to realize. Not
only is such endeavor at realization possible, but, as an
historical fact, men have taken the figments of the poets for
models, Homer being an instance in point. The truth re-
vealed by poetry is infinitely attractive, but can only be seen
by ordinary men in the creations of the bard ; the latter are
therefore true in the deepest sense, and fictitious only in the
superficial one. Finally, the test of poetry is its delightful-
ness in combination with its didactic efficacy and elevation ;
let it fail of either, and it must at once be consigned to a
lower rank as poetry, or be denied that name altogether ;

Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci
Lectorem delectando pariterque monendo.

Notwithstanding a concurrence of view extending to so
many particulars, it must not be inferred that Shelley's essay
is a mere reproduction of Sidney's. Even in poetic endow-
ment they were unlike, and no less in education and tempera-
ment. Sidney was trained in a severer school than Shelley,
issuing from it more cautious, more sober, one is tempted
to say, more prosaic. By disposition and training, Shelley
was rather Hellenic, Sidney rather Roman. Sidney followed
of preference the matter-of-fact Aristotle, while Shelley was
more admiringly attached to the ardent and soaring Plato,


not the Plato of the Republic, but him of the Ion and the Sym~
posium. In considering the ancient drama, Shelley has his
eye upon the Athenians, Sidney upon Seneca and Plautus.

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Online LibraryPercy Bysshe ShelleyA defense of poetry; → online text (page 1 of 9)