« AnteriorContinua »
HE selection from Shelley's poems now
offered to the public has not been framed upon the principle of an anthology. The criterion adopted has in most instances been simply the length of the pieces. It is thus practically a reissue of a precious little volume, long ago worn to pieces in the pocket of many an admirer of Shelley, Moxon's edition of Shelley's Minor Poems. The writer has to express his sincere approval of the general principle of procedure in regard to this treasury of “infinite riches in a little room," notwithstanding some reservation of opinion on points of detail. One powerful motive for applying it to Shelley is the circumstance that he is almost the only poet to whom it can be applied at all. Where else shall we find the poet whose minor poems can be taken up in the mass and printed almost without retrenchment, in the perfect assurance that the result will be as truly a book of beauties as if the entire body of his writings had been sisted for this purpose ? An indiscriminate collection of all the minor pieces of even such poets as Coleridge, Goethe, or Heine, would be a valuable book indeed, but by no means a book of beauties. One exception there is, and many will be surprised to learn that it is Wordsworth. This great poet has suffered almost as much from the common-place of criticism as Shelley : his prosiness is almost as much an article of faith as Shelley's obscurity and lack of human interest. Yet, as a matter of fact, when in 1857 Mr. William Johnston reprinted the minor poems produced by Wordsworth during a quarter of a century, he found it necessary to omit only three as deficient in the quality of poetry. It is interesting to trace this point of analogy between writers who have more affinity than is surmised by the exclusive worshippers of the elder of them.
Apart from this consideration, the publication of a particular class of Shelley's poems on the principle adopted here, may be justified by the great difficulty of forming a satisfactory selection on any other. Selection from the entire works of any great author, except when confined to aphoristic or sententious passages, is indeed at best an unsatisfactory business :
“ As if a child in glee,
But in Shelley's case peculiar difficulties present themselves. What is to be rejected ? For a writer of such intensity, he is singularly equable and sustained. The height to which he ascends is hardly more remarkable than the length of his sojourn at it. Except for the fourth act of "Prometheus Unbound," which was avowedly added as an after-thought, it is difficult to point out any section of his longer poems as distinctly inferior, or by consequence any as markedly superior, to the rest. This signal exception to the aliquando bonus dormitat Homerus axiom, is no doubt not to be so much ascribed to an intrinsic superiority over other great writers less characterized by uniformity of elevation, as to the essentially lyrical character of his genius.
Continuity of inspiration, implying continuity of excellence, is an indispensable condition of success in lyrical poetry: the peculiarity with Shelley was that the impulse which others would have exhausted in a song carried him through an epic or a drama. In consequence, the passages most easily detached from the context are generally those least suggestive of the general spirit of the poem.
An anthologist culling from the “Revolt of Islam," for example, would be likely to select the descriptions of Cythna (Canto II., stanzas 21-32), and of the child who ministers to the fallen tyrant (Canto V., stanzas 21-31). These two exquisite pictures of childish innocence, nevertheless, afford but an imperfect conception of that lurid and stormy sublimity
“As when some great painter dips
His pencil in the hues of earthquake and eclipse ; or of that impassioned love of liberty, which