« AnteriorContinua »
praise, especially when it exalts him, without distinctiveness of criticism, above his brother poets, seems undeserved, but there is no longer any doubt, among those worthy to judge, that Shelley has assumed his own separate throne among the greater poets of England.
It is then somewhat strange to look back nearly sixty years, and to think that when Shelley died, scarcely fifty people cared to read his poetry, and even these did not understand it. Seven years after his death opinion began to change. He had so far influenced the young men of Cambridge, that its Union sent a deputation in November 1829 to the Oxford Union, to maintain Shelley's superiority over Byron. “ At that time," said Lord Houghton-speaking in 1866—" we, the Cambridge undergraduates, were all very full of Mr. Shelley. We had printed his Adonais for the first time in England, and a friend of ours suggested that, as he had been expelled from Oxford, and very badly treated in that University, it would be a grand thing for us to defend him there.” The young men, Arthur Hallam, Monckton Milnes, and Sunderland, were received by Gladstone, Francis Doyle, and Milnes Gaskell. Wilberforce of Oriel was in the Chair. Sir Francis Doyle, (Christ Church) moved that Shelley was a greater poet than Lord Byron. He was supported by the three Cambridge men, and by Mr. Oldham of Oriel. The negative was defended by Mr. Manning; and on division Byron was declared the greater poet by a majority of fifty-seven. This interand absolutely apart from humanity. The passionate lover of man crosses over the stage, singing of mankind, and disappears. The passionate poet succeeds, singing of himself, and disappears in turn. The interchange continues, but both the figures are the
Shelley began as the prophet of the ideas of the French Revolution. Queen Mab, written with the enthusiasm of a youth for the overthrow of the evils that he thought oppressed mankind, and in hope of its deliverance into a world of love and peace, is not, as a poem, so “absolutely worthless” as he imagined it to be. The verse is musical; there are two direct pictures of nature, both of the sky; the journey through the stars has some of the imaginative power which realised the flight of Asia and the Hours in the Prometheus, but all the polemical part is very prosaic. It is like a sermon in verse, and it has just the poetical quality we expect in a sermon. The latter portion is naturally the best. The most remarkable element Queen Mab possesses is didactic force. But, owing to its uncultivated rhetoric, that force is likely to tell most on very young persons, and on uneducated but intelligent working men, who may sympathise with its opinions. The poem had such an influence, and that influence was widely extended.
Two years later, in 1815, all was changed. The circumstances of his life, illness, expectation of death, made him lose, in losing all vigour and joy, his in
terest in man, and Alastor, his next long poem, is entirely occupied with his own solitary thought and life. The preface he wrote explains the meaning of the poem, and, contrasted with the poem, reveals that double nature in Shelley of which I write. He repudiates in it, with all the sternness of a moralist, yet with self-pity, the life described in Alastor; and the lines with which he closes the poem itself—“ It is a woe too deep for tears," etc., are a cry of sorrow and reproach against one who desired to work for man, but who wasted life in pursuit of that unattainable beauty his soul could dream of, but not realize.
Of all Shelley's longer poems, Alastor leaves on the general reader the easiest impression of an artistic whole. The subject is one, and never varies from itself: it is closely clung to from beginning to end, and is deeply felt throughout. The poetry and its art, both imaginative and technical, are of course less great than they became in after work, but so far as unity of conception and steadiness of expression and form are concerned, even Adonais is less artistic than Alastor. Shelley's personality absorbs the poem. The extreme ideality of the treatment alone relieves the intensity of this personal revelation, and makes it not too overwhelming to give pleasure. The natural descriptions prove how deeply Shelley had felt some of the larger aspects of Nature, and the melody of their verse is at times like the harmonies we seem to hear among waters and woods; but Nature in this poem is never described for herself alone, never for pure joy in her. She is made to reflect the thoughts and passion of the wandering poet until the very last, when his life and that of the moon ebb away together. This is deliberately done, and nowhere in a finer way than in the description of the long walk down the glen. We follow step by step the interpenetration of the poet's dying soul and of the various changes of the scene. As the brook flows to the precipice, so does his life; as the valley alters its landscape, so does the landscape in his heart. The skill and intensity with which this is wrought out is the cause of the fascination that passage has for all who read it.
In the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and to Mont Blanc, written after Alastor, Shelley, though writing only as the artist of his own thought, has recovered some of his hopes for Man. He tries to connect his worship of Beauty with the redemption of the race ; he speaks of the Power hidden in the great mountain to “repeal large codes of fraud and woe.” His Continental journey had brought him new health, and his life, new happiness, and with them came back the old longing and the old interest to play his part in the movement of the world. The result was the Revolt of Islam. Its genesis and its aim are explained in the preface with which he accompanied the poem. It seemed to Shelley that the age of despair that followed the end of the French Revolution was over, and that now, when the reaction from that trance of failure had begun, the time had arrived for him to speak. In that belief he composed this poem. It strove to kindle afresh the flame of liberty, but it had no effect on the exhausted Englishmen of 1818. Nor, as poetry, did it deserve to have a great effect. It is the most unbalanced of all his works. The interest is human, but it is too frequently taken out of the world of actual human life to awaken practical emotion. Were the scenery of the poem all ideal, or all real, we should not be so troubled while we read. Were the poem supremely ethical or supremely emotional, had it any unity at all, it might keep its power over us. But it has no unity, not even in feeling. Its emotion is unequal; we are continually changing the atmosphere, and are overchilled or overheated. There is no artistic fusion of the poetry which aims at giving a high pleasure with that which aims at awakening man to his duties. That fusion was made in the Prometheus Unbound, but here it was not made.
And now another of these changes took place. Shelley fell ill again, the threatened loss of his children preyed upon him, and he left England for ever in 1818. He lost again for a time his enthusiasm for man, and the characteristic of the work of this year is sadness deepening into misery. few exceptions the poems are personal. One, however, differs from all that preceded it. Julian and Maddalo, composed at the end of the year, is personal,