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Shelley by Francis Thompson

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The Church, which was once the mother of poets no less than of
saints, during the last two centuries has relinquished to aliens the
chief glories of poetry, if the chief glories of holiness she has
preserved for her own. The palm and the laurel, Dominic and Dante,
sanctity and song, grew together in her soil: she has retained the
palm, but forgone the laurel. Poetry in its widest sense, {1} and
when not professedly irreligious, has been too much and too long
among many Catholics either misprised or distrusted; too much and
too generally the feeling has been that it is at best superfluous,
at worst pernicious, most often dangerous. Once poetry was, as she
should be, the lesser sister and helpmate of the Church; the
minister to the mind, as the Church to the soul. But poetry sinned,
poetry fell; and, in place of lovingly reclaiming her, Catholicism
cast her from the door to follow the feet of her pagan seducer. The
separation has been ill for poetry; it has not been well for

Fathers of the Church (we would say), pastors of the Church, pious
laics of the Church: you are taking from its walls the panoply of
Aquinas--take also from its walls the psaltery of Alighieri. Unroll
the precedents of the Church's past; recall to your minds that
Francis of Assisi was among the precursors of Dante; that sworn to
Poverty he forswore not Beauty, but discerned through the lamp
Beauty the Light God; that he was even more a poet in his miracles
than in his melody; that poetry clung round the cowls of his Order.
Follow his footsteps; you who have blessings for men, have you no
blessing for the birds? Recall to your memory that, in their minor
kind, the love poems of Dante shed no less honour on Catholicism
than did the great religious poem which is itself pivoted on love;
that in singing of heaven he sang of Beatrice--this supporting angel
was still carven on his harp even when he stirred its strings in
Paradise. What you theoretically know, vividly realise: that with
many the religion of beauty must always be a passion and a power,
that it is only evil when divorced from the worship of the Primal
Beauty. Poetry is the preacher to men of the earthly as you of the
Heavenly Fairness; of that earthly fairness which God has fashioned
to His own image and likeness. You proclaim the day which the Lord
has made, and Poetry exults and rejoices in it. You praise the
Creator for His works, and she shows you that they are very good.
Beware how you misprise this potent ally, for hers is the art of
Giotto and Dante: beware how you misprise this insidious foe, for
hers is the art of modern France and of Byron. Her value, if you
know it not, God knows, and know the enemies of God. If you have no
room for her beneath the wings of the Holy One, there is place for
her beneath the webs of the Evil One: whom you discard, he
embraces; whom you cast down from an honourable seat, he will
advance to a haughty throne; the brows you dislaurel of a just
respect, he will bind with baleful splendours; the stone which you
builders reject, he will make his head of the corner. May she not
prophesy in the temple? then there is ready for her the tripod of
Delphi. Eye her not askance if she seldom sing directly of
religion: the bird gives glory to God though it sings only of its
innocent loves. Suspicion creates its own cause; distrust begets
reason for distrust. This beautiful, wild, feline Poetry, wild
because left to range the wilds, restore to the hearth of your
charity, shelter under the rafter of your Faith; discipline her to
the sweet restraints of your household, feed her with the meat from
your table, soften her with the amity of your children; tame her,
fondle her, cherish her--you will no longer then need to flee her.
Suffer her to wanton, suffer her to play, so she play round the foot
of the Cross!

There is a change of late years: the Wanderer is being called to
her Father's house, but we would have the call yet louder, we would
have the proffered welcome more unstinted. There are still stray
remnants of the old intolerant distrust. It is still possible for
even a French historian of the Church to enumerate among the
articles cast upon Savonarola's famous pile, poesies erotiques, tant
des anciens que des modernes, livres impies ou corrupteurs, Ovide,
Tibulle, Properce, pour ne nommer que les plus connus, Dante,
Petrarque, Boccace, tous ces auteurs Italiens qui deje souillaient
les ames et ruinaient les moeurs, en creant ou perfectionnant la
langue. {2} Blameworthy carelessness at the least, which can class
the Vita Nuova with the Ars Amandi and the Decameron! And among
many English Catholics the spirit of poetry is still often received
with a restricted Puritanical greeting, rather than with the
traditionally Catholic joyous openness.

We ask, therefore, for a larger interest, not in purely Catholic
poetry, but in poetry generally, poetry in its widest sense. With
few exceptions, whatsoever in our best poets is great and good to
the non-Catholic, is great and good also to the Catholic; and though
Faber threw his edition of Shelley into the fire and never regretted
the act; though, moreover, Shelley is so little read among us that
we can still tolerate in our Churches the religious parody which
Faber should have thrown after his three-volumed Shelley; {3}--in
spite of this, we are not disposed to number among such exceptions
that straying spirit of light.

We have among us at the present day no lineal descendant, in the
poetical order, of Shelley; and any such offspring of the
aboundingly spontaneous Shelley is hardly possible, still less
likely, on account of the defect by which (we think) contemporary
poetry in general, as compared with the poetry of the early
nineteenth century, is mildewed. That defect is the predominance of
art over inspiration, of body over soul. We do not say the DEFECT
of inspiration. The warrior is there, but he is hampered by his
armour. Writers of high aim in all branches of literature, even
when they are not--as Mr. Swinburne, for instance, is--lavish in
expression, are generally over-deliberate in expression. Mr. Henry
James, delineating a fictitious writer clearly intended to be the
ideal of an artist, makes him regret that he has sometimes allowed
himself to take the second-best word instead of searching for the
best. Theoretically, of course, one ought always to try for the
best word. But practically, the habit of excessive care in word-
selection frequently results in loss of spontaneity; and, still
worse, the habit of always taking the best word too easily becomes
the habit of always taking the most ornate word, the word most
removed from ordinary speech. In consequence of this, poetic
diction has become latterly a kaleidoscope, and one's chief
curiosity is as to the precise combinations into which the pieces
will be shifted. There is, in fact, a certain band of words, the
Praetorian cohorts of poetry, whose prescriptive aid is invoked by
every aspirant to the poetical purple, and without whose
prescriptive aid none dares aspire to the poetical purple; against
these it is time some banner should be raised. Perhaps it is almost
impossible for a contemporary writer quite to evade the services of
the free-lances whom one encounters under so many standards. {4}
But it is at any rate curious to note that the literary revolution
against the despotic diction of Pope seems issuing, like political
revolutions, in a despotism of its own making.

This, then, we cannot but think, distinguishes the literary period
of Shelley from our own. It distinguishes even the unquestionable
treasures and masterpieces of to-day from similar treasures and
masterpieces of the precedent day; even the Lotus-Eaters from Kubla-
Khan; even Rossetti's ballads from Christabel. It is present in the
restraint of Matthew Arnold no less than in the exuberance of
Swinburne, and affects our writers who aim at simplicity no less
than those who seek richness. Indeed, nothing is so artificial as
our simplicity. It is the simplicity of the French stage ingenue.
We are self-conscious to the finger-tips; and this inherent quality,
entailing on our poetry the inevitable loss of spontaneity, ensures
that whatever poets, of whatever excellence, may be born to us from
the Shelleian stock, its founder's spirit can take among us no
reincarnation. An age that is ceasing to produce child-like
children cannot produce a Shelley. For both as poet and man he was
essentially a child.

Yet, just as in the effete French society before the Revolution the
Queen played at Arcadia, the King played at being a mechanic,
everyone played at simplicity and universal philanthropy, leaving
for most durable outcome of their philanthropy the guillotine, as
the most durable outcome of ours may be execution by electricity;--
so in our own society the talk of benevolence and the cult of
childhood are the very fashion of the hour. We, of this self-
conscious, incredulous generation, sentimentalise our children,
analyse our children, think we are endowed with a special capacity
to sympathise and identify ourselves with children; we play at being
children. And the result is that we are not more child-like, but
our children are less child-like. It is so tiring to stoop to the
child, so much easier to lift the child up to you. Know you what it
is to be a child? It is to be something very different from the man
of to-day. It is to have a spirit yet streaming from the waters of
baptism; it is to believe in love, to believe in loveliness, to
believe in belief; it is to be so little that the elves can reach to
whisper in your ear; it is to turn pumpkins into coaches, and mice
into horses, lowness into loftiness, and nothing into everything,
for each child has its fairy godmother in its own soul; it is to
live in a nutshell and to count yourself the king of infinite space;
it is

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour;

it is to know not as yet that you are under sentence of life, nor
petition that it be commuted into death. When we become conscious
in dreaming that we dream, the dream is on the point of breaking;
when we become conscious in living that we live, the ill dream is
but just beginning. Now if Shelley was but too conscious of the
dream, in other respects Dryden's false and famous line might have
been applied to him with very much less than it's usual untruth. {5}
To the last, in a degree uncommon even among poets, he retained the
idiosyncrasy of childhood, expanded and matured without
differentiation. To the last he was the enchanted child.

This was, as is well known, patent in his life. It is as really,
though perhaps less obviously, manifest in his poetry, the sincere
effluence of his life. And it may not, therefore, be amiss to
consider whether it was conditioned by anything beyond his
congenital nature. For our part, we believe it to have been equally
largely the outcome of his early and long isolation. Men given to
retirement and abstract study are notoriously liable to contract a
certain degree of childlikeness: and if this be the case when we
segregate a man, how much more when we segregate a child! It is
when they are taken into the solution of school-life that children,
by the reciprocal interchange of influence with their fellows,
undergo the series of reactions which converts them from children
into boys and from boys into men. The intermediate stage must be
traversed to reach the final one.

Now Shelley never could have been a man, for he never was a boy.
And the reason lay in the persecution which overclouded his school-
days. Of that persecution's effect upon him, he has left us, in The
Revolt of Islam, a picture which to many or most people very
probably seems a poetical exaggeration; partly because Shelley
appears to have escaped physical brutality, partly because adults
are inclined to smile tenderly at childish sorrows which are not
caused by physical suffering. That he escaped for the most part
bodily violence is nothing to the purpose. It is the petty
malignant annoyance recurring hour by hour, day by day, month by
month, until its accumulation becomes an agony; it is this which is
the most terrible weapon that boys have against their fellow boy,
who is powerless to shun it because, unlike the man, he has
virtually no privacy. His is the torture which the ancients used,
when they anointed their victim with honey and exposed him naked to
the restless fever of the flies. He is a little St. Sebastian,
sinking under the incessant flight of shafts which skilfully avoid
the vital parts.

We do not, therefore, suspect Shelley of exaggeration: he was, no
doubt, in terrible misery. Those who think otherwise must forget
their own past. Most people, we suppose, MUST forget what they were
like when they were children: otherwise they would know that the
griefs of their childhood were passionate abandonment, DECHIRANTS
(to use a characteristically favourite phrase of modern French
literature) as the griefs of their maturity. Children's griefs are
little, certainly; but so is the child, so is its endurance, so is
its field of vision, while its nervous impressionability is keener
than ours. Grief is a matter of relativity; the sorrow should be
estimated by its proportion to the sorrower; a gash is as painful to
one as an amputation to another. Pour a puddle into a thimble, or
an Atlantic into Etna; both thimble and mountain overflow. Adult
fools, would not the angels smile at our griefs, were not angels too
wise to smile at them?

So beset, the child fled into the tower of his own soul, and raised
the drawbridge. He threw out a reserve, encysted in which he grew
to maturity unaffected by the intercourses that modify the maturity
of others into the thing we call a man. The encysted child
developed until it reached years of virility, until those later
Oxford days in which Hogg encountered it; then, bursting at once
from its cyst and the university, it swam into a world not
illegitimately perplexed by such a whim of the gods. It was, of
course, only the completeness and duration of this seclusion--
lasting from the gate of boyhood to the threshold of youth--which
was peculiar to Shelley. Most poets, probably, like most saints,
are prepared for their mission by an initial segregation, as the
seed is buried to germinate: before they can utter the oracle of
poetry, they must first be divided from the body of men. It is the
severed head that makes the seraph.

Shelley's life frequently exhibits in him the magnified child. It
is seen in his fondness for apparently futile amusements, such as
the sailing of paper boats. This was, in the truest sense of the
word, child-like; not, as it is frequently called and considered,
childish. That is to say, it was not a mindless triviality, but the
genuine child's power of investing little things with imaginative
interest; the same power, though differently devoted, which produced
much of his poetry. Very possibly in the paper boat he saw the
magic bark of Laon and Cythna, or

That thinnest boat
In which the mother of the months is borne
By ebbing night into her western cave.

In fact, if you mark how favourite an idea, under varying forms, is
this in his verse, you will perceive that all the charmed boats
which glide down the stream of his poetry are but glorified
resurrections of the little paper argosies which trembled down the

And the child appeared no less often in Shelley the philosopher than
in Shelley the idler. It is seen in his repellent no less than in
his amiable weaknesses; in the unteachable folly of a love that made
its goal its starting-point, and firmly expected spiritual rest from
each new divinity, though it had found none from the divinities
antecedent. For we are clear that this was no mere straying of
sensual appetite, but a straying, strange and deplorable, of the
spirit; that (contrary to what Mr. Coventry Patmore has said) he
left a woman not because he was tired of her arms, but because he
was tired of her soul. When he found Mary Shelley wanting, he seems
to have fallen into the mistake of Wordsworth, who complained in a
charming piece of unreasonableness that his wife's love, which had
been a fountain, was now only a well:

Such change, and at the very door
Of my fond heart, hath made me poor.

Wordsworth probably learned, what Shelley was incapable of learning,
that love can never permanently be a fountain. A living poet, in an
article {6} which you almost fear to breathe upon lest you should
flutter some of the frail pastel-like bloom, has said the thing:
"Love itself has tidal moments, lapses and flows due to the metrical
rule of the interior heart." Elementary reason should proclaim this
true. Love is an affection, its display an emotion: love is the
air, its display is the wind. An affection may be constant; an
emotion can no more be constant than the wind can constantly blow.
All, therefore, that a man can reasonably ask of his wife is that
her love should be indeed a well. A well; but a Bethesda-well, into
which from time to time the angel of tenderness descends to trouble
the waters for the healing of the beloved. Such a love Shelley's
second wife appears unquestionably to have given him. Nay, she was
content that he should veer while she remained true; she companioned
him intellectually, shared his views, entered into his aspirations,
and yet--yet, even at the date of Epipsychidion the foolish child,
her husband, assigned her the part of moon to Emilia Viviani's sun,
and lamented that he was barred from final, certain, irreversible
happiness by a cold and callous society. Yet few poets were so
mated before, and no poet was so mated afterwards, until Browning
stooped and picked up a fair-coined soul that lay rusting in a pool
of tears.

In truth, his very unhappiness and discontent with life, in so far
as it was not the inevitable penalty of the ethical anarch, can only
be ascribed to this same childlike irrationality--though in such a
form it is irrationality hardly peculiar to Shelley. Pity, if you
will, his spiritual ruins and the neglected early training which was
largely their cause; but the pity due to his outward circumstances
has been strangely exaggerated. The obloquy from which he suffered
he deliberately and wantonly courted. For the rest, his lot was one
that many a young poet might envy. He had faithful friends, a
faithful wife, an income small but assured. Poverty never dictated
to his pen; the designs on his bright imagination were never etched
by the sharp fumes of necessity.

If, as has chanced to others--as chanced, for example, to Mangan--
outcast from home, health and hope, with a charred past and a
bleared future, an anchorite without detachment and self-cloistered
without self-sufficingness, deposed from a world which he had not
abdicated, pierced with thorns which formed no crown, a poet
hopeless of the bays and a martyr hopeless of the palm, a land
cursed against the dews of love, an exile banned and proscribed even
from the innocent arms of childhood--he were burning helpless at the
stake of his unquenchable heart, then he might have been
inconsolable, then might he have cast the gorge at life, then have
cowered in the darkening chamber of his being, tapestried with
mouldering hopes, and hearkened to the winds that swept across the
illimitable wastes of death. But no such hapless lot was Shelley's
as that of his own contemporaries--Keats, half chewed in the jaws of
London and spit dying on to Italy; de Quincey, who, if he escaped,
escaped rent and maimed from those cruel jaws; Coleridge, whom they
dully mumbled for the major portion of his life. Shelley had
competence, poetry, love; yet he wailed that he could lie down like
a tired child and weep away his life of care. Is it ever so with
you, sad brother; is it ever so with me? and is there no drinking of
pearls except they be dissolved in biting tears? "Which of us has
his desire, or having it is satisfied?"

It is true that he shared the fate of nearly all the great poets
contemporary with him, in being unappreciated. Like them, he
suffered from critics who were for ever shearing the wild tresses of
poetry between rusty rules, who could never see a literary bough
project beyond the trim level of its day but they must lop it with a
crooked criticism, who kept indomitably planting in the defile of
fame the "established canons" that had been spiked by poet after
poet. But we decline to believe that a singer of Shelley's calibre
could be seriously grieved by want of vogue. Not that we suppose
him to have found consolation in that senseless superstition, "the
applause of posterity." Posterity! posterity which goes to Rome,
weeps large-sized tears, carves beautiful inscriptions over the tomb
of Keats; and the worm must wriggle her curtsey to it all, since the
dead boy, wherever he be, has quite other gear to tend. Never a
bone less dry for all the tears!

A poet must to some extent be a chameleon and feed on air. But it
need not be the musty breath of the multitude. He can find his
needful support in the judgement of those whose judgement he knows
valuable, and such support Shelley had:

La gloire
Ne compte pas toujours les voix;
Elle les pese quelquefois.

Yet if this might be needful to him as support, neither this, nor
the applause of the present, nor the applause of posterity, could
have been needful to him as motive: the one all-sufficing motive
for a great poet's singing is that expressed by Keats:

I was taught in Paradise
To ease my breast of melodies.

Precisely so. The overcharged breast can find no ease but in
suckling the baby-song. No enmity of outward circumstances,
therefore, but his own nature, was responsible for Shelley's doom.

A being with so much about it of childlike unreasonableness, and yet
withal so much of the beautiful attraction luminous in a child's
sweet unreasonableness, would seem fore-fated by its very essence to
the transience of the bubble and the rainbow, of all things filmy
and fair. Did some shadow of this destiny bear part in his sadness?
Certain it is that, by a curious chance, he himself in Julian and
Maddalo jestingly foretold the manner of his end. "O ho! You talk
as in years past," said Maddalo (Byron) to Julian (Shelley); "If you
can't swim, Beware of Providence." Did no unearthly dixisti sound
in his ears as he wrote it? But a brief while, and Shelley, who
could not swim, was weltering on the waters of Lerici. We know not
how this may affect others, but over us it is a coincidence which
has long tyrannised with an absorbing inveteracy of impression
(strengthened rather than diminished by the contrast between the
levity of the utterance and its fatal fulfilment)--thus to behold,
heralding itself in warning mockery through the very lips of its
predestined victim, the Doom upon whose breath his locks were
lifting along the coasts of Campania. The death which he had
prophesied came upon him, and Spezzia enrolled another name among
the mournful Marcelli of our tongue; Venetian glasses which foamed
and burst before the poisoned wine of life had risen to their brims.

Coming to Shelley's poetry, we peep over the wild mask of
revolutionary metaphysics, and we see the winsome face of the child.
Perhaps none of his poems is more purely and typically Shelleian
than The Cloud, and it is interesting to note how essentially it
springs from the faculty of make-believe. The same thing is
conspicuous, though less purely conspicuous, throughout his singing;
it is the child's faculty of make-believe raised to the nth power.
He is still at play, save only that his play is such as manhood
stops to watch, and his playthings are those which the gods give
their children. The universe is his box of toys. He dabbles his
fingers in the day-fall. He is gold-dusty with tumbling amidst the
stars. He makes bright mischief with the moon. The meteors nuzzle
their noses in his hand. He teases into growling the kennelled
thunder, and laughs at the shaking of its fiery chain. He dances in
and out of the gates of heaven: its floor is littered with his
broken fancies. He runs wild over the fields of ether. He chases
the rolling world. He gets between the feet of the horses of the
sun. He stands in the lap of patient Nature and twines her loosened
tresses after a hundred wilful fashions, to see how she will look
nicest in his song.

This it was which, in spite of his essentially modern character as a
singer, qualified Shelley to be the poet of Prometheus Unbound, for
it made him, in the truest sense of the word, a mythological poet.
This childlike quality assimilated him to the childlike peoples
among whom mythologies have their rise. Those Nature myths which,
according to many, are the basis of all mythology, are likewise the
very basis of Shelley's poetry. The lark that is the gossip of
heaven, the winds that pluck the grey from the beards of the
billows, the clouds that are snorted from the sea's broad nostril,
all the elemental spirits of Nature, take from his verse perpetual
incarnation and reincarnation, pass in a thousand glorious
transmigrations through the radiant forms of his imagery.

Thus, but not in the Wordsworthian sense, he is a veritable poet of
Nature. For with Nature the Wordsworthians will admit no tampering:
they exact the direct interpretative reproduction of her; that the
poet should follow her as a mistress, not use her as a handmaid. To
such following of Nature, Shelley felt no call. He saw in her not a
picture set for his copying, but a palette set for his brush; not a
habitation prepared for his inhabiting, but a Coliseum whence he
might quarry stones for his own palaces. Even in his descriptive
passages the dream-character of his scenery is notorious; it is not
the clear, recognisable scenery of Wordsworth, but a landscape that
hovers athwart the heat and haze arising from his crackling
fantasies. The materials for such visionary Edens have evidently
been accumulated from direct experience, but they are recomposed by
him into such scenes as never had mortal eye beheld. "Don't you
wish you had?" as Turner said. The one justification for classing
Shelley with the Lake poet is that he loved Nature with a love even
more passionate, though perhaps less profound. Wordsworth's
Nightingale and Stockdove sums up the contrast between the two, as
though it had been written for such a purpose. Shelley is the
"creature of ebullient heart," who

Sings as if the god of wine
Had helped him to a valentine.

Wordsworth's is the

- Love with quiet blending,
Slow to begin and never ending,

the "serious faith and inward glee."

But if Shelley, instead of culling Nature, crossed with its pollen
the blossoms of his own soul, that Babylonian garden is his
marvellous and best apology. For astounding figurative opulence he
yields only to Shakespeare, and even to Shakespeare not in absolute
fecundity but in images. The sources of his figurative wealth are
specialised, sources of Shakespeare's are universal. It would have
been as conscious an effort for him to speak without figure as it is
for most men to speak with figure. Suspended in the dripping well
of his imagination the commonest object becomes encrusted with
imagery. Herein again he deviates from the true Nature poet, the
normal Wordsworth type of Nature poet: imagery was to him not a
mere means of expression, not even a mere means of adornment; it was
a delight for its own sake.

And herein we find the trail by which we would classify him. He
belongs to a school of which not impossibly he may hardly have read
a line--the Metaphysical School. To a large extent he IS what the
Metaphysical School should have been. That school was a certain
kind of poetry trying for a range. Shelley is the range found.
Crashaw and Shelley sprang from the same seed; but in the one case
the seed was choked with thorns, in the other case it fell on good
ground. The Metaphysical School was in its direct results an
abortive movement, though indirectly much came of it--for Dryden
came of it. Dryden, to a greater extent than is (we imagine)
generally perceived, was Cowley systematised; and Cowley, who sank
into the arms of Dryden, rose from the lap of Donne.

But the movement was so abortive that few will thank us for
connecting with it the name of Shelley. This is because to most
people the Metaphysical School means Donne, whereas it ought to mean
Crashaw. We judge the direction of a development by its highest
form, though that form may have been produced but once, and produced
imperfectly. Now the highest product of the Metaphysical School was
Crashaw, and Crashaw was a Shelley manque; he never reached the
Promised Land, but he had fervid visions of it. The Metaphysical
School, like Shelley, loved imagery for its own sake: and how
beautiful a thing the frank toying with imagery may be, let The
Skylark and The Cloud witness. It is only evil when the poet, on
the straight way to a fixed object, lags continually from the path
to play. This is commendable neither in poet nor errand-boy. The
Metaphysical School failed, not because it toyed with imagery, but
because it toyed with it frostily. To sport with the tangles of
Neaera's hair may be trivial idleness or caressing tenderness,
exactly as your relation to Neaera is that of heartless gallantry or
of love. So you may toy with imagery in mere intellectual
ingenuity, and then you might as well go write acrostics: or you
may toy with it in raptures, and then you may write a Sensitive
Plant. In fact, the Metaphysical poets when they went astray cannot
be said to have done anything so dainty as is implied by TOYING with
imagery. They cut it into shapes with a pair of scissors. From all
such danger Shelley was saved by his passionate spontaneity. No
trappings are too splendid for the swift steeds of sunrise. His
sword-hilt may be rough with jewels, but it is the hilt of an
Excalibur. His thoughts scorch through all the folds of expression.
His cloth of gold bursts at the flexures, and shows the naked

It is this gift of not merely embodying but apprehending everything
in figure which co-operates towards creating his rarest
characteristics, so almost preternaturally developed in no other
poet, namely, his well-known power to condense the most hydrogenic
abstraction. Science can now educe threads of such exquisite
tenuity that only the feet of the tiniest infant-spiders can ascend
them; but up the filmiest insubstantiality Shelley runs with agile
ease. To him, in truth, nothing is abstract. The dustiest

Start, and tremble under his feet,
And blossom in purple and red.

The coldest moon of an idea rises haloed through his vaporous
imagination. The dimmest-sparked chip of a conception blazes and
scintillates in the subtile oxygen of his mind. The most wrinkled
AEson of an abstruseness leaps rosy out of his bubbling genius. In
a more intensified signification than it is probable that
Shakespeare dreamed of, Shelley gives to airy nothing a local
habitation and a name. Here afresh he touches the Metaphysical
School, whose very title was drawn from this habitual pursuit of
abstractions, and who failed in that pursuit from the one cause
omnipresent with them, because in all their poetic smithy they had
left never a place for a forge. They laid their fancies chill on
the anvil. Crashaw, indeed, partially anticipated Shelley's
success, and yet further did a later poet, so much further that we
find it difficult to understand why a generation that worships
Shelley should be reviving Gray, yet almost forget the name of
Collins. The generality of readers, when they know him at all,
usually know him by his Ode on the Passions. In this, despite its
beauty, there is still a soupcon of formalism, a lingering trace of
powder from the eighteenth century periwig, dimming the bright locks
of poetry. Only the literary student reads that little masterpiece,
the Ode to Evening, which sometimes heralds the Shelleian strain,
while other passages are the sole things in the language comparable
to the miniatures of Il Penseroso. Crashaw, Collins, Shelley--three
ricochets of the one pebble, three jets from three bounds of the one
Pegasus! Collins's Pity, "with eyes of dewy light," is near of kin
to Shelley's Sleep, "the filmy-eyed"; and the "shadowy tribes of
mind" are the lineal progenitors of "Thought's crowned powers."
This, however, is personification, wherein both Collins and Shelley
build on Spenser: the dizzying achievement to which the modern poet
carried personification accounts for but a moiety, if a large
moiety, of his vivifying power over abstractions. Take the passage
(already alluded to) in that glorious chorus telling how the Hours

From the temples high
Of man's ear and eye
Roofed over Sculpture and Poesy,

* * * * *

From those skiey towers
Where Thought's crowned powers
Sit watching your dance, ye happy Hours!
Our feet now, every palm,
Are sandalled with calm,
And the dew of our wings is a rain of balm;
And beyond our eyes
The human love lies
Which makes all it gazes on Paradise.

Any partial explanation will break in our hands before it reaches
the root of such a power. The root, we take it, is this. He had an
instinctive perception (immense in range and fertility, astonishing
for its delicate intuition) of the underlying analogies the secret
subterranean passages, between matter and soul; the chromatic
scales, whereat we dimly guess, by which the Almighty modulates
through all the keys of creation. Because, the more we consider it,
the more likely does it appear that Nature is but an imperfect
actress, whose constant changes of dress never change her manner and
method, who is the same in all her parts.

To Shelley's ethereal vision the most rarified mental or spiritual
music traced its beautiful corresponding forms on the sand of
outward things. He stood thus at the very junction-lines of the
visible and invisible, and could shift the points as he willed. His
thoughts became a mounted infantry, passing with baffling swiftness
from horse to foot or foot to horse. He could express as he listed
the material and the immaterial in terms of each other. Never has a
poet in the past rivalled him as regards this gift, and hardly will
any poet rival him as regards it in the future: men are like first
to see the promised doom lay its hand on the tree of heaven and
shake down the golden leaves. {7}

The finest specimens of this faculty are probably to be sought in
that Shelleian treasury, Prometheus Unbound. It is unquestionably
the greatest and most prodigal exhibition of Shelley's powers, this
amazing lyric world, where immortal clarities sigh past in the
perfumes of the blossoms, populate the breathings of the breeze,
throng and twinkle in the leaves that twirl upon the bough; where
the very grass is all a-rustle with lovely spirit-things, and a
weeping mist of music fills the air. The final scenes especially
are such a Bacchic reel and rout and revelry of beauty as leaves one
staggered and giddy; poetry is spilt like wine, music runs to
drunken waste. The choruses sweep down the wind, tirelessly, flight
after flight, till the breathless soul almost cries for respite from
the unrolling splendours. Yet these scenes, so wonderful from a
purely poetical standpoint that no one could wish them away, are (to
our humble thinking) nevertheless the artistic error of the poem.
Abstractedly, the development of Shelley's idea required that he
should show the earthly paradise which was to follow the fall of
Zeus. But dramatically with that fall the action ceases, and the
drama should have ceased with it. A final chorus, or choral series,
of rejoicings (such as does ultimately end the drama where
Prometheus appears on the scene) would have been legitimate enough.
Instead, however, the bewildered reader finds the drama unfolding
itself through scene after scene which leaves the action precisely
where it found it, because there is no longer an action to advance.
It is as if the choral finale of an opera were prolonged through two

We have, nevertheless, called Prometheus Shelley's greatest poem
because it is the most comprehensive storehouse of his power. Were
we asked to name the most PERFECT among his longer efforts, we
should name the poem in which he lamented Keats: under the shed
petals of his lovely fancy giving the slain bird a silken burial.
Seldom is the death of a poet mourned in true poetry. Not often is
the singer coffined in laurel-wood. Among the very few exceptions
to such a rule, the greatest is Adonais. In the English language
only Lycidas competes with it; and when we prefer Adonais to
Lycidas, we are following the precedent set in the case of Cicero:
Adonais is the longer. As regards command over abstraction, it is
no less characteristically Shelleian than Prometheus. It is
throughout a series of abstractions vitalised with daring
exquisiteness, from Morning who sought:

Her eastern watch-tower, and her hair unbound,
Wet with the tears which should adorn the ground,

and who

Dimmed the aerial eyes that kindle day,

to the Dreams that were the flock of the dead shepherd, the Dreams

Whom near the living streams
Of his young spirit he fed; and whom he taught
The love that was its music;

of whom one sees, as she hangs mourning over him,

Upon the silken fringe of his faint eyes,
Like dew upon a sleeping flower, there lies
A tear some dream has loosened from his brain!
Lost angel of a ruined Paradise!
She knew not 'twas her own; as with no stain
She faded like a cloud which hath outwept its rain.

In the solar spectrum, beyond the extreme red and extreme violet
rays, are whole series of colours, demonstrable, but imperceptible
to gross human vision. Such writing as this we have quoted renders
visible the invisibilities of imaginative colour.

One thing prevents Adonais from being ideally perfect: its lack of
Christian hope. Yet we remember well the writer of a popular memoir
on Keats proposing as "the best consolation for the mind pained by
this sad record" Shelley's inexpressibly sad exposition of
Pantheistic immortality:

He is a portion of the loveliness
Which once he made more lovely, etc.

What desolation can it be that discerns comfort in this hope, whose
wan countenance is as the countenance of a despair? What deepest
depth of agony is it that finds consolation in this immortality: an
immortality which thrusts you into death, the maw of Nature, that
your dissolved elements may circulate through her veins?

Yet such, the poet tells me, is my sole balm for the hurts of life.
I am as the vocal breath floating from an organ. I too shall fade
on the winds, a cadence soon forgotten. So I dissolve and die, and
am lost in the ears of men: the particles of my being twine in
newer melodies, and from my one death arise a hundred lives. Why,
through the thin partition of this consolation Pantheism can hear
the groans of its neighbour, Pessimism. Better almost the black
resignation which the fatalist draws from his own hopelessness, from
the fierce kisses of misery that hiss against his tears.

With some gleams, it is true, of more than mock solace, Adonais is
lighted; but they are obtained by implicitly assuming the personal
immortality which the poem explicitly denies; as when, for instance,
to greet the dead youth,

The inheritors of unfulfilled renown [thought
Rose from their thrones, built beyond mortal
Far in the unapparent.

And again the final stanza of the poem:

The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit's bark is driven
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest riven;
The massy earth, the sphered skies are given:
I am borne darkly, fearfully afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of heaven,
The soul of Adonais like a star
Beacons from the abode where the eternal are.

The Soul of Adonais?--Adonais, who is but

A portion of the loveliness
Which once he made more lovely.

After all, to finish where we began, perhaps the poems on which the
lover of Shelley leans most lovingly, which he has oftenest in his
mind, which best represent Shelley to him and which he instinctively
reverts to when Shelley's name is mentioned are some of the shorter
poems and detached lyrics. Here Shelley forgets for a while all
that ever makes his verse turbid; forgets that he is anything but a
poet, forgets sometimes that he is anything but a child; lies back
in his skiff, and looks at the clouds. He plays truant from earth,
slips through the wicket of fancy into heaven's meadow, and goes
gathering stars. Here we have that absolute virgin-gold of song
which is the scarcest among human products, and for which we can go
to but three poets--Coleridge, Shelley, Chopin, {8} and perhaps we
should add Keats. Christabel and Kubla-Khan; The Skylark, The
Cloud, and The Sensitive Plant (in its first two parts). The Eve of
Saint Agnes and The Nightingale; certain of the Nocturnes;--these
things make very quintessentialised loveliness. It is attar of

Remark, as a thing worth remarking, that, although Shelley's diction
is at other times singularly rich, it ceases in these poems to be
rich, or to obtrude itself at all; it is imperceptible; his Muse has
become a veritable Echo, whose body has dissolved from about her
voice. Indeed, when his diction is richest, nevertheless the poetry
so dominates the expression that we feel the latter only as an
atmosphere until we are satiated with the former; then we discover
with surprise to how imperial a vesture we had been blinded by
gazing on the face of his song. A lesson, this, deserving to be
conned by a generation so opposite in tendency as our own: a lesson
that in poetry, as in the Kingdom of God, we should not take thought
too greatly wherewith we shall be clothed, but seek first {9} the
spirit, and all these things will be added unto us.

On the marvellous music of Shelley's verse we need not dwell, except
to note that he avoids that metronomic beat of rhythm which Edgar
Poe introduced into modern lyric measures, as Pope introduced it
into the rhyming heroics of his day. Our varied metres are becoming
as painfully over-polished as Pope's one metre. Shelley could at
need sacrifice smoothness to fitness. He could write an anapaest
that would send Mr. Swinburne into strong shudders (e.g., "stream
did glide") when he instinctively felt that by so forgoing the more
obvious music of melody he would better secure the higher music of
harmony. If we have to add that in other ways he was far from
escaping the defects of his merits, and would sometimes have to
acknowledge that his Nilotic flood too often overflowed its banks,
what is this but saying that he died young?

It may be thought that in our casual comments on Shelley's life we
have been blind to its evil side. That, however, is not the case.
We see clearly that he committed grave sins, and one cruel crime;
but we remember also that he was an Atheist from his boyhood; we
reflect how gross must have been the moral neglect in the training
of a child who COULD be an Atheist from his boyhood: and we decline
to judge so unhappy a being by the rules which we should apply to a
Catholic. It seems to us that Shelley was struggling--blindly,
weakly, stumblingly, but still struggling--towards higher things.
His Pantheism is an indication of it. Pantheism is a half-way
house, and marks ascent or descent according to the direction from
which it is approached. Now Shelley came to it from absolute
Atheism; therefore in his case it meant rise. Again, his poetry
alone would lead us to the same conclusion, for we do not believe
that a truly corrupted spirit can write consistently ethereal
poetry. We should believe in nothing, if we believed that, for it
would be the consecration of a lie. Poetry is a thermometer: by
taking its average height you can estimate the normal temperature of
its writer's mind. The devil can do many things. But the devil
cannot write poetry. He may mar a poet, but he cannot make a poet.
Among all the temptations wherewith he tempted St. Anthony, though
we have often seen it stated that he howled, we have never seen it
stated that he sang.

Shelley's anarchic principles were as a rule held by him with some
misdirected view to truth. He disbelieved in kings. And is it not
a mere fact--regret it if you will--that in all European countries,
except two, monarchs are a mere survival, the obsolete buttons on
the coat-tails of rule, which serve no purpose but to be continually
coming off? It is a miserable thing to note how every little Balkan
State, having obtained liberty (save the mark!) by Act of Congress,
straightway proceeds to secure the service of a professional king.
These gentlemen are plentiful in Europe. They are the "noble
Chairmen" who lend their names for a consideration to any
enterprising company which may be speculating in Liberty. When we
see these things, we revert to the old lines in which Persius tells
how you cannot turn Dama into a freeman by twirling him round your
finger and calling him Marcus Dama.

Again, Shelley desired a religion of humanity, and that meant, to
him, a religion for humanity, a religion which, unlike the spectral
Christianity about him, should permeate and regulate the whole
organisation of men. And the feeling is one with which a Catholic
must sympathise, in an age when--if we may say so without
irreverence--the Almighty has been made a constitutional Deity, with
certain state-grants of worship, but no influence over political
affairs. In these matters his aims were generous, if his methods
were perniciously mistaken. In his theory of Free Love alone,
borrowed like the rest from the Revolution, his aim was as
mischievous as his method. At the same time he was at least
logical. His theory was repulsive, but comprehensible. Whereas
from our present via media--facilitation of divorce--can only result
the era when the young lady in reduced circumstances will no longer
turn governess but will be open to engagement as wife at a
reasonable stipend.

We spoke of the purity of Shelley's poetry. We know of but three
passages to which exception can be taken. One is happily hidden
under a heap of Shelleian rubbish. Another is offensive, because it
presents his theory of Free Love in its most odious form. The third
is very much a matter, we think, for the individual conscience.
Compare with this the genuinely corrupt Byron, through the cracks
and fissures of whose heaving versification steam up perpetually the
sulphurous vapours from his central iniquity. We cannot credit that
any Christian ever had his faith shaken through reading Shelley,
unless his faith were shaken before he read Shelley. Is any safely
havened bark likely to slip its cable, and make for a flag planted
on the very reef where the planter himself was wrecked?

Why indeed (one is tempted to ask in concluding) should it be that
the poets who have written for us the poetry richest in skiey grain,
most free from admixture with the duller things of earth--the
Shelleys, the Coleridges, the Keats--are the very poets whose lives
are among the saddest records in literature? Is it that (by some
subtile mystery of analogy) sorrow, passion, and fantasy are
indissolubly connected, like water, fire, and cloud; that as from
sun and dew are born the vapours, so from fire and tears ascend the
"visions of aerial joy"; that the harvest waves richest over the
battlefields of the soul; that the heart, like the earth, smells
sweetest after rain; that the spell on which depend such necromantic
castles is some spirit of pain charm-poisoned at their base? {10}
Such a poet, it may be, mists with sighs the window of his life
until the tears run down it; then some air of searching poetry, like
an air of searching frost, turns it to a crystal wonder. The god of
golden song is the god, too, of the golden sun; so peradventure
song-light is like sunlight, and darkens the countenance of the
soul. Perhaps the rays are to the stars what thorns are to the
flowers; and so the poet, after wandering over heaven, returns with
bleeding feet. Less tragic in its merely temporal aspect than the
life of Keats or Coleridge, the life of Shelley in its moral aspect
is, perhaps, more tragical than that of either; his dying seems a
myth, a figure of his living; the material shipwreck a figure of the

Enchanted child, born into a world unchildlike; spoiled darling of
Nature, playmate of her elemental daughters; "pard-like spirit,
beautiful and swift," laired amidst the burning fastnesses of his
own fervid mind; bold foot along the verges of precipitous dream;
light leaper from crag to crag of inaccessible fancies; towering
Genius, whose soul rose like a ladder between heaven and earth with
the angels of song ascending and descending it;--he is shrunken into
the little vessel of death, and sealed with the unshatterable seal
of doom, and cast down deep below the rolling tides of Time. Mighty
meat for little guests, when the heart of Shelley was laid in the
cemetery of Caius Cestius! Beauty, music, sweetness, tears--the
mouth of the worm has fed of them all. Into that sacred bridal-
gloom of death where he holds his nuptials with eternity let not our
rash speculations follow him. Let us hope rather that as, amidst
material nature, where our dull eyes see only ruin, the finer eye of
science has discovered life in putridity and vigour in decay,--
seeing dissolution even and disintegration, which in the mouth of
man symbolise disorder, to be in the works of God undeviating order,
and the manner of our corruption to be no less wonderful than the
manner of our health,--so, amidst the supernatural universe, some
tender undreamed surprise of life in doom awaited that wild nature,
which, worn by warfare with itself, its Maker, and all the world,

Sleeps, and never palates more the dug,
The beggar's nurse, and Caesar's.


{1} That is to say, taken as the general animating spirit of the
Fine Arts.

{2} The Abbe Bareille was not, of course, responsible for
Savonarola's taste, only for thus endorsing it.

{3} We mean, of course, the hymn, "I rise from dreams of time."

{4} We are a little surprised at the fact, because so many
Victorian poets are, or have been, prose-writers as well. Now,
according to our theory, the practice of prose should maintain fresh
and comprehensive a poet's diction, should save him from falling
into the hands of an exclusive coterie of poetic words. It should
react upon his metrical vocabulary to its beneficial expansion, by
taking him outside his aristocratic circle of language, and keeping
him in touch with the great commonalty, the proletariat of speech.
For it is with words as with men: constant intermarriage within the
limits of a patrician clan begets effete refinement; and to
reinvigorate the stock, its veins must be replenished from hardy
plebeian blood.

{5} Wordsworth's adaptation of it, however, is true. Men are not
"children of a larger growth," but the child IS father of the man,
since the parent is only partially reproduced in his offspring.

{6} The Rhythm of Life, by Alice Meynell.

{7} "And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig-
tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind"
(Rev. vi, 13).

{8} Such analogies between master in sister-arts are often
interesting. In some respects, is not Brahms the Browning of music?

{9} Seek FIRST, not seek ONLY.

{10} We hope that we need not refer the reader, for the methods of
magic architecture, to Ariosto and that Atlas among enchanters,

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