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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 inter
esting story proves that some young men at Oxford and Cambridge were now awakened to Shelley's genius. They felt and loved him as the most ideal of the poets, and year by year he has increased the number of those who give him that special place and honour.
About 1832 his power over the minds of men increased. At that time fresh political and theological elements began to excite England, and then the other side of Shelley's work began to tell. The poems he had written as the prophet of liberty, equality, fraternity, and a Golden Age, were eagerly read by the more intelligent among the working classes, and by many who felt that the ideas of the French Revolution were again arising into activity after their winter sleep. It is a part of his work which still continues to do good.
Again, within the last few years, the sad, regretful, unsatisfied, self-considering, indefinite elements in the mind of educated English society have found food and expression in a certain number of Shelley's poems, and this has increased the extent of his influence. That which has been called the "lyrical cry" belongs now to a whole section of society, and Shelley often echoes its regret and indefiniteness with great beauty.
Moreover, a great number of persons who care for Nature as Art cares for her, that is, as alive and not dead, being revolted by the materialistic aspect in which some scientific theories now present her, have
turned with new pleasure to the spiritual representations given of her by such poets as Wordsworth and Shelley. That also has added a fresh impulse to the study of Shelley.
It may also be said that the forms, and especially the ideal forms of passionate love, have been, of late, more minutely dwelt on in poetry, and with greater curiosity, than they have been since the Elizabethan period. It is natural, then, that a poet like Shelley, who made ideal love his study, and the subject of so much of his work, should now receive and claim greater attention.
Shelley, reflecting and embodying these various phases, is then a much more comprehensive poet than the common judgment supposes. And he is all the more comprehensive because his nature and his work were twofold. The first thing to say of him is, that he lived in two worlds, thought in two worlds, and in both of these did work which was at once varied and distinct. One was the world of Mankind and its hopes, the other was the world of his own heart.
His poetic life was an alternate changing from one of these worlds to the other. He passed from poetry written for the sake of mankind, to poetry written for his own sake and to express himself; from the Shelley who was inspired by moral aims and wrote in the hope of a regeneration of the world, to that other Shelley who, inspired only by his own ideas and regrets, wrote without any ethical end,
and 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