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Outlines of English and American Literature
Percy Bysshe Shelley
by Long, William J.


The career of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is, in comparison with that of Byron, as a will-o'-the-wisp to a meteor. Byron was of the earth earthy; he fed upon coarse food, shady adventures, scandal, the limelight; but Shelley

      Seemed nourished upon starbeams, and the stuff
      Of rainbows and the tempest and the foam.


He was a delicate child, shy, sensitive, elflike, who wandered through the woods near his home, in Sussex, on the lookout for sprites and hobgoblins. His reading was of the wildest kind; and when he began the study of chemistry he was forever putting together things that made horrible smells or explosions, in expectation that the genii of the Arabian Nights would rise from the smoke of his test tube.

A Young Rebel

At Eton the boy promptly rebelled against the brutal fagging system, then tolerated in all English schools. He was presently in hot water, and the name "Mad Shelley," which the boys gave him, followed him through life. He had been in the university (Oxford) hardly two years when his head was turned by some book of shallow philosophy, and he printed a rattle-brained tract called "The Necessity of Atheism." This got him into such trouble with the Dons that he was expelled for insubordination.

The Wind and the Whirlwind

Forthwith Shelley published more tracts of a more rebellious kind. His sister Helen put them into the hands of her girl friend, Harriet Westbrook, who showed her belief in revolutionary theories by running away from school and parental discipline and coming to Shelley for "protection." These two social rebels, both in the green-apple stage (their combined age was thirty-five), were presently married; not that either of them believed in marriage, but because they were compelled by "Anarch Custom."

After some two years of a wandering, will-o'-the-wisp life, Shelley and his wife were estranged and separated. The young poet then met a certain William Godwin, known at that time as a novelist and evolutionary philosopher, and showed his appreciation of Godwin's radical teaching by running away with his daughter Mary, aged seventeen. The first wife, tired of liberalism, drowned herself, and Shelley was plunged into remorse at the tragedy. The right to care for his children was denied him, as an improper person, and he was practically driven out of England by force of that public opinion which he had so frequently outraged or defied.

Life is a good teacher, though stern in its reckoning, and in Italy life taught Shelley that the rights and beliefs of other men were no less sacred than his own. He was a strange combination of hot head and kind heart, the one filled with wild social theories, the other with compassion for humanity. He was immensely generous with his friends, and tender to the point of tears at the thought of suffering men,--not real men, such as he met in the streets (even the beggars in Italy are cheerful), but idealized men, with mysterious sorrows, whom he met in the clouds. While in England his weak head had its foolish way, and his early poems, such as Queen Mab, are violent declamations. In Italy his heart had its day, and his later poems, such as Adonais and Prometheus Unbound, are rhapsodies ennobled by Shelley's love of beauty and by his unquenchable hope that a bright day of justice must soon dawn upon the world. He was drowned (1822) while sailing his boat off the Italian coast, before he had reached the age of thirty years.

The Poetry of Shelley

In the longer poems of Shelley there are two prominent elements, and two others less conspicuous but more important. The first element is revolt. The poet was violently opposed to the existing order of society, and lost no opportunity to express his hatred of Tyranny, which was Shelley's name for what sober men called law and order. Feeding his spirit of revolution were numerous anarchistic theories, called the new philosophy, which had this curious quality: that they hotly denied the old faith, law, morality, as other men formulated such matters, and fervently believed any quack who appeared with a new nostrum warranted to cure all social disorders.

The second obvious element in Shelley's poetry is his love of beauty, not the common beauty of nature or humanity which Wordsworth celebrated, but a strange "supernal" beauty with no "earthly" quality or reality. His best lines leave a vague impression of something beautiful and lovely, but we know not what it is.

Less conspicuous in Shelley's poems are the sense of personal loss or grief which pervades them, and the exquisite melody of certain words which he used for their emotional effect rather than to convey any definite meaning. Like Byron he sang chiefly of his own feelings, his rage or despair, his sorrow or loneliness. He reflected his idea of the origin and motive of lyric poesy in the lines:

                 Most wretched men
  Are cradled into poetry by wrong;
  They learn in suffering what they teach in song,--


an idea which Poe adopted in its entirety, and which Heine expressed in a sentimental lyric, telling how from his great grief he made his little songs:

  Aus meinen groszen Schmerzen
  Mach' ich die kleinen Lieder.


Hardly another English poet uses words so musically as Shelley (witness "The Cloud" and "The Skylark"), and here again his idea of verbal melody was carried to an extreme by Poe, in whose poetry words are used not so much to express ideas as to awaken vague emotions.

Alastor

All the above-named qualities appear in Alastor (the Spirit of Solitude), which is less interesting as a poem than as a study of Shelley. In this poem we may skip the revolt, which is of no consequence, and follow the poet in his search for a supernally lovely maiden who shall satisfy his love for ideal beauty. To find her he goes, not among human habitations, but to gloomy forests, dizzy cliffs, raging torrents, tempest-blown seashore,--to every place where a maiden in her senses would not be. Such places, terrible or picturesque, are but symbols of the poet's soul in its suffering and loneliness. He does not find his maiden (and herein we read the poet's first confession that he has failed in life, that the world is too strong for him); but he sees the setting moon, and somehow that pale comforter brings him peace with death.

Prometheus

In Prometheus Unbound Shelley uses the old myth of the Titan who rebelled against the tyranny of the gods, and who was punished by being chained to a rock. [Footnote: The original tragedy of Prometheus Bound was written by Ęschylus, a famous old Greek dramatist. The same poet wrote also Prometheus Unbound, but the latter drama has been lost. Shelley borrowed the idea of his poem from this lost drama.] In this poem Prometheus (man) is represented as being tortured by Jove (law or custom) until he is released by Demogorgon (progress or necessity); whereupon he marries Asia (love or goodness), and stars and moon break out into a happy song of redemption.

Obviously there is no reality or human interest in such a fantasy. The only pleasurable parts of the poem are its detached passages of great melody or beauty; and the chief value of the work is as a modern example of Titan literature. Many poets have at various times represented mankind in the person of a Titan, that is, a man written large, colossal in his courage or power or suffering: Ęschylus in Prometheus, Marlowe in Tamburlaine, Milton in Lucifer, of Paradise Lost, Goethe in Faust, Byron in Manfred, Shelley in Prometheus Unbound. The Greek Titan is resigned, uncomplaining, knowing himself to be a victim of Fate, which may not be opposed; Marlowe's Titan is bombastic and violent; Milton's is ambitious, proud, revengeful; Goethe's is cultured and philosophical; Byron's is gloomy, rebellious, theatrical. So all these poets portray each his own bent of mind, and something also of the temper of the age, in the character of his Titan. The significance of Shelley's poem is in this: that his Titan is patient and hopeful, trusting in the spirit of Love to redeem mankind from all evil. Herein Shelley is far removed from the caviling temper of his fellow rebel Byron. He celebrates a golden age not of the past but of the future, when the dream of justice inspired by the French Revolution shall have become a glorious reality.

His Best Poems

These longer poems of Shelley are read by the few; they are too vague, with too little meaning or message, for ordinary readers who like to understand as well as to enjoy poetry. To such readers the only interesting works of Shelley are a few shorter poems: "The Cloud," "To a Skylark," "Ode to the West Wind," "Indian Serenade," "A Lament," "When the Lamp is Lighted" and some parts of Adonais (a beautiful elegy in memory of Keats), such as the passage beginning, "Go thou to Rome." For splendor of imagination and for melody of expression these poems have few peers and no superiors in English literature. To read them is to discover that Shelley was at times so sensitive, so responsive to every harmony of nature, that he seemed like the poet of Alastor,

  A fragile lute, on whose harmonious strings
  The breath of Heaven did wander.


The breath of heaven is constant, but lutes and strings are variable matters of human arrangement. When Shelley's lute was tuned to nature it brought forth aerial melody; when he strained its strings to voice some social rebellion or anarchistic theory it produced wild discord.

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