“I HAVE the vanity to write only for poetical minds,” Shelley said to Trelawny, “and must be satisfied with few readers.” “I am, and I desire to be, nothing,” he wrote to Leigh Hunt, while urging him to “assume a station in modern literature which the universal voice of my contemporaries forbids me either to stoop or to aspire to.” Yet. he said also, “Nothing is more difficult and unwelcome than to write without a confidence of finding readers;” and, “It is impossible to compose except under the strong excitement of an assurance of finding sympathy in what you write.” Of the books which he published during his lifetime, some were published without his name, some were suppressed at the very moment of publication. Only The Cenci went into a second edition. Without readers, he was without due recognition from the poets of his time. Byron was jealous, if we may believe Trelawny, but neither Keats nor Wordsworth nor Leigh Hunt nor Southey nor Landor seems ever to have considered him seriously as a rival. We must go to the enthusiastic unimportant Wilson, to find an adequate word of praise; for to Wilson “Mr. Shelley was a poet, almost in the very highest sense of that mysterious word.” The general public hated him without reading him, and even his death did not raise him from oblivion. But Time has been on his side, and to-day the general reader, if you mention the word poet to him, thinks of Shelley.
It is only by reading contemporary writings and opinions in published letters of the time, — such as Southey’s when he writes to Shelley, that the manner in which his powers for poetry “have been employed is such as to prevent me from feeling any desire to see more of productions so monstrous in their kind, and pernicious in their tendency,”—that we can, with a great effort, realize the aspect under which Shelley appeared to the people of his time. What seems to us abnormal in its innocence was to them abnormal in guilt; they imagined a revolution behind every invocation to liberty, and saw Godwin charioted in the clouds of Prometheus Unbound. They saw nothing else there, and Shelley himself had moments when he thought that his mission was a prophet’s rather than a poet’s. All this, which would mean so little to-day, kept Shelley at that time from ever having an audience as a poet. England still feared thought, and still looked upon poetry as worth fearing.
No poet has defined his intentions in poetry more carefully than Shelley. “It is the business of the poet,” he said, in the preface to The Revolt of Islam, “to communicate to others the pleasure and the enthusiasm arising out of those images and feelings in the vivid presence of which, within his own mind, consists at once his inspiration and his reward.” But, he says further, “I would only awaken the feelings, so that the reader should see the beauty of true virtue, and be incited to those enquiries which have led to my moral and political creed, and that of some of the subtlest intellects in the world.” In the preface to Prometheus Unbound he says, “Didactic poetry is my abhorrence; nothing can be equally well expressed in prose that is not tedious and supererogatory in vein. My purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence.” Writing to Godwin, he says, acutely, “My power consists in sympathy, and that part of the imagination which relates to sentiment and contemplation.... I am formed ... to apprehend minute and remote distinctions of feeling, whether relative to external nature or the living beings which surround us, and to communicate the conceptions which result from considering either the moral or the material universe as a whole.” And we are told by Mrs. Shelley that “he said that he deliberated at one time whether he should dedicate himself to poetry or metaphysics.”
Shelley was born to be a poet, and his “passion for reforming the world,” as well as what he fancied to be his turn for metaphysics, were both part of a temperament and intelligence perhaps more perfectly fitted for the actual production of poetry than those of any other poet. All his life Shelley was a dreamer; never a visionary. We imagine him, like his Asia on the pinnacle, saying,
Grows dizzy: see’st thou shapes within the mist?”
The mist, to Shelley, was part of what he saw; he never saw anything, in life or art, except through a mist. Blake lived in a continual state of vision, Shelley in a continual state of hallucination. What Blake saw was what Shelley wanted to see; Blake never dreamed, but Shelley never wakened out of that shadow of a dream which was his life.
His poetry is indeed made out of his life; but what was his life to Shelley ? The least visible part of his dreams. As the Fourth Spirit sings in Prometheus Unbound, —
But feeds on the aërial kisses
Of shapes that haunt thought’s wilderness.”
He lived with ardor among ideas, aspirations, and passions in which there was something at once irresponsible and abstract. He followed every impulse, without choice or restraint , with the abandonment of a leaf in the wind. “O lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud! ” was his prayer to the west wind and to every influence. Circumstances meant so little to him that he was unconscious of the cruelty of change to sentiment, and thus of the extent of his cruelty to women. He aimed at moral perfection, but was really of a perfect æsthetic selfishness. He was full of pity and generosity, and desired the liberation and uplifting of humanity; but humanity was less real to him than his own witch of Atlas. He only touched human action and passion closely in a single one of his works; and he said of The Cenci, “I don’t think much of it. My object was to see how I could succeed in describing passions I have never felt.”
To Shelley the word love meant sympathy, and that word, in that sense, contains his whole life and creed. Is this not why he could say, —
That to divide is not to take away ” ?
It is a love which is almost sexless, the love of an enthusiastic youth, or of his own hermaphrodite. he was so much of a sentimentalist that he could conceive of incest without repugnance, and be so innocently attracted by so many things which, to one more normally sexual, would have indicated perversity. Shelley is not perverse, but he is fascinated by every problem of evil, which draws him to contemplate it with a child’s inquiring wonder of horror. No poet ever handled foulness and horror with such clean hands or so continually. The early novels are filled with tortures, the early poems profess to be the ravings of a hanged madwoman; Alastor dwells lingeringly on death, Queen Mab and The Revolt of Islam on blood and martyrdom; madness is the centre of Julian and Maddalo, and a dungeon of Rosalind and Helen ; the first act of Prometheus celebrates an unearthly agony, and The Cenci is a mart and slaughter-house of souls and bodies; while a comic satire is made up wholly out of the imagery of the swinetrough. Shelley could touch pitch and be undefiled; he writes nobly of every horror; but what is curious is that he should so persistently seek his beauty in such blackness. That a law or tradition existed was enough for him to question it. He does so in the name of abstract liberty, but curiosity was part of his impulse. A new Adam in Eden, the serpent would have tempted him before Eve. He wanted to “root out the infamy” of every prohibition, and would have tasted the forbidden fruit without hunger.
And Shelley was the same from the beginning. In the notes to Queen Mab he lays down with immense seriousness the rules on which his life was really to be founded. “Constancy has nothing virtuous in itself,” he tells us, “independently of the pleasure it confers, and partakes of the temporizing spirit of vice in proportion as it endures tamely moral defects of magnitude in the object of its indiscreet choice.” Again: “the connection of the sexes is so long sacred as it contributes to the comfort of both parties, and is naturally dissolved when its evils are greater than its benefits.” This doctrine of “the comfort of both parties ” was what Shelley always intended to carry out, and he probably supposed that it was always the fault of the “other party” when he failed to do so. Grave charges have been brought against him for his cruelty to women, and in particular to Harriet; and it is impossible to forgive him, as a reasonable man, for his abandonment of Harriet. But he was never at any time a reasonable man, and there was never a time when he was not under one form or another of hallucination. It was not that he was carried away irresistibly by a gross passion, it was that he had abandoned himself like a medium to a spiritual influence. A certain selfishness is the inevitable result of every absorption; and Shelley, in every new rapture, was dizzy with it, whether he listened to the skylark in the sky or to the voice of Mary calling to him from the next room. In life, as in poetry, he was the slave of every impulse, but a slave so faultlessly obedient that he mastered every impulse in achieving it, so that his life, which seems casual, was really what he chose to make it, and followed the logic of his being.
Shelley had intuition rather than instinct, and was moved by a sympathy of the affections rather than by passion. His way of falling into and out of love is a sign that his emotions were rapid and on the surface, not that they were deep or permanent. The scent or music of love came to him like a flower’s or bird’s speech ; it went to his head, it did not seize on the heart in his body. It must have filled him with astonishment when Harriet drowned herself, and he could never have really understood that it was his fault. He lived the life of one of those unattached plants which float in water; he had no roots in the earth, and he did not see why anyone should take root there. His love for women seems never to have been sensuous, or at least to have been mostly a matter of sympathies and affinities; if other things followed, it seemed to him natural that they should, and he encouraged them with a kind of unconsciousness. Emilia Viviani, for whom he wrote the sacred love-song of the Epipsychidion, would have embarrassed him, I doubt not, if she had answered his invocation practically. He would have done his best for her, and at the same time, for Mary.
Epipsychidion celebrates love with an icy ecstasy which is the very life-blood of Shelley’s soul; there are moments, at the beginning and end, when its sympathy with love passes into the actual possession. But for the most part it is a declaration. not an affirmation; its love is sisterly, and can be divided; it says for once, exultingly and luxuriously and purely, the deepest thing that Shelley had to say, lets out the secret of his feminine or twy-fold soul, and is the epitaph of that Antigone with whom “some of us have in a prior existence been in love.” Its only passion is for that intellectual beauty to which it is his greater hymn, and, with Emilia Viviani, he confessed to have been the Ixion of a cloud. “I think,” he said in a letter, “one is always in love with something or other; the error, and I confess it is not easy for spirits cased in flesh and blood to avoid it, consists in seeking in a mortal image the likeness of what is, perhaps, eternal.” In the poem he has done more than he meant to do, for it is the eternal beauty that it images for us, and no mortal lineaments. Just because it is without personal passion, because it is the worship of a shadow for a shadow, it has come to be this thing fearfully and wonderfully made, into which the mystical passion of Crashaw and the passionate casuistry of Donne seem to have passed as into a crucible: —
We can desire, O Love !
and the draught is an elixir for all lovers.
That part of himself which Shelley did not put into Epipsychidion he put into Adonais. In that pageantry of sorrow, in which all temporal things mourn for the poet, and accept the consolation of eternity, there is more of personal confession, more of personal foreboding, than of grief for Keats, who is no less a cloud to him than Emilia Viviani, and whom indeed we know he did not in any sense properly appreciate, at his actual value. The subtlest beauty comes into it when he speaks of himself, “a pardlike spirit beautiful and swift,” with that curious self-sympathy which remains not less abstract than his splendid and consoling Pantheism, which shows by figures a real faith in the truth and permanence of beauty. Shelley says of it and justly, “it is a highly wrought piece of art, and perhaps better, in point of composition, than anything I have written,” The art is conscious, and recreates Lycidas with entire originality; but the vessel of ancient form carries a freshly lighted flame.
Shelley, when he died, left unfinished a splendid fragment, The Triumph of Life, which, inspired by Petrarch, as Adonais was inspired by Milton, shows the deeper influence of Dante. It ends with an interrogation, that interrogation which he had always asked of life and was about to ask of death. He had wanted to die, that he might “solve the great mystery.” His last poem comes to us with no solution, but breaks off as if he died before he could finish telling the secret which he was in the act of apprehending.
There are two kinds of imagination, that which embodies and that which disembodies. Shelley’s is that which disembodies, filling mortal things with unearthly essences or veiling them with unearthly raiment. Wordsworth’s imagination embodies, concentrating spirit into man, and nature into a wild flower. Shelley is never more himself than in the fantasy of The Witch of Atlas, which he wrote in three days, and which is a song in seventy-eight stanzas. It is a glittering cobweb, hung on the horns of the moon’s crescent, and left to swing in the wind there. What Fletcher would have shown and withdrawn in a single glimpse of magic, Shelley calls up in a vast wizard landscape which he sets steadily before us. He is the enchanter, but he never mistakes the images which he calls up for realities. They are images to him, and there is always between him and them the thin circle of the ring. In Prometheus Unbound, where he has made a mythology of his own by working on the stable foundation of a great myth of antiquity, his drama is a cloudy procession of phantoms, seen in a divine hallucination by a poet whose mind hovered always in that world
The shadows of all forms that think and live
Till death unite them, and they part no more ;
Dreams and the light imaginings of men,
And all that faith creates or love desires,
Terrible, strange, sublime and beauteous shapes.
The shapes hover, pause, and pass on unflagging wings. They are not symbols, they are not embodiments of powers and passions; they are shining or shadowy images of life and death, time and eternity; they are much more immaterial than judgment or mercy, than love or liberty; they are phantoms, “wrapped in sweet sounds as in bright veils,” who pass, murmuring “intelligible words and music wild; ” but their music comes from somewhere across the moon or under the sea, and their words are without human passion. The liberty which comes to Prometheus is a liberty to dream forever with Asia in a cave; the love which sets free the earth is, like the music, extralunar; this new paradise is a heaven made only for one who is, like Shelley,
With lightning eyes, and eager breath, and feet
Disturbing not the drifted snow.
The imagination which built this splendid palace out of clouds, of sunset and sunrise, out of air, water, and fire, has unbodied the human likeness in every element, and made the spirit of the earth itself only a melodious voice, “the delicate spirit” of an eternal cloud, “guiding the earth through heaven.” When the “universal sound like wings” is heard, and Demogorgon affirms the final triumph of good, it is to an earth dying like a drop of dew and to a moon shaken like a leaf. And we are left “dizzy as with delight,” to rise, like Panthea,
A bath of azure light, among dark rocks,
Out of the stream of sound.
It was among these forms of imagination, —
Winged Persuasions and veiled Destinies,
Splendours, and Glooms, and glimmering Incarnations
Of hopes and fears, and twilight Phantasies, —
as he sees them in Adonais, that Shelley most loved to walk; but when we come to what Browning calls “the unrivalled ‘Cenci,’” we are in another atmosphere, and in this atmosphere, not his own, he walks with equal certainty. In the preface to The Cenci Shelley defines in a perfect image the quality of dramatic imagination. “Imagination,” he says, “is as the immortal God which should assume flesh for the redemption of mortal passion.” And, in the dedication, he distinguishes it from his earlier works, “visions which impersonate my own apprehensions of the beautiful and the just.” The Cenci is the greatest play written in English since The Duchess of Malfy, but, in the work of Shelley, it is an episode, an aside, or, as he puts it in his curious phrase, “a work of art.” Julian and Maddalo is not less a work of art, and, for Shelley, an exception. In Julian and Maddalo and in the Letter to Maria Gisburne he has solved the problem of the poem which shall be conventional speech and yet pure poetry. It is astonishing to think that Julian and Maddalo was written within a year of Rosalind and Helen. The one is Byron and water, but the other is Byron and fire. It has set the pattern of the modern poem, and it was probably more difficult for him to do than to write Prometheus Unbound. He went straight on from the one to the other, and was probably unconscious quite how much he had done. Was it that a subject, within his personal interests and yet of deep significance, came to him from his visit to Byron at Venice, his study of Byron’s mind there, which, as we know, possessed, seemed to overweigh, him ? Shelley required no impetus, but he required weight. Just as the subject of Prometheus Unbound, an existing myth into which he could read the symbol of his own faith, gave him that definite unshifting substance which he required, and could not invent, so, no doubt, this actual substance in Julian and Maddalo and the haunting historic substance of The Cenci possessed him, drawing him down out of the air, and imprisoning him among human fortunes. There is no doctrine and no fantasy in either, but imagination speaking human speech.
And yet, as Browning has pointed out, though Prometheus, Epipsychidion, and the lyrics are “the less organized matter,” the “radiant elemental foam and solution” of Shelley’s genius, it is precisely in these, and not in any of the more human works, that we must look for the real Shelley. In them it is he himself who is speaking, in that “voice which is contagion to the world.”The others he made,supremely well; but these he was.
What he made he made so well because he was so complete a man of letters, in a sense in which no other of his contemporaries was. Wordsworth, when he turned aside from his path, wandered helplessly astray. Byron was so helplessly himself that when he wrote plays he wrote them precisely in the manner which Shelley rightly protested that he himself had not: “under a thin veil converting names and actions into cold impersonations of his own mind.” But Shelley could make no such mistake in form. It may be doubted whether the drama of real life would ever have become his natural medium; but, having set himself to write such a drama, he accepted the laws or limitations of the form to the extent of saying, “I have avoided with great care, in writing this play, the introduction of what is commonly called mere poetry.” In so doing he produced a masterpiece, but knew himself too well to repeat it.
And he does not less adequately whatever he touches. Shelley had no genius for fun or caricature, but in Swellfoot the Tyrant, in Peter Bell the Third, he develops a satirical joke with exquisite literary skill. Their main value is to show how well he could do the things for which he had no aptitude. The Mask of Anarchy is scarcely more important as a whole, though more poignant in detail. It was done for an occasion, and remains, not as an utterance, but for its temper of poetic eloquence. Even Hellas, which he called “a mere improvise,” and which was written out of a sudden political enthusiasm, is remembered, not for its “figures of indistinct and visionary delineation,” but for its “flowery and starry” choruses. Yet not one of the four was written for the sake of writing a piece of literature; each contains a condemnation, a dogma, or a doctrine.
To Shelley doctrine was a part of poetry; but then, to him doctrine was itself the voice of ecstasy. He was in love not only with love, but with wisdom; and as he wished everyone to be good and happy, he was full of magics and panaceas, Demogorgons or Godwins, which would rejuvenate or redeem the world. There was always something either spiritual or moral in his idea of beauty; he never conceived of æsthetics as a thing apart from ethics; and even in his descriptions he is so anxious to give us the feeling before the details, that the details are as likely as not to go out in a rosy mist.
There are pictures in Shelley which remind us of Turner’s. Pure light breaks into all its colors and floods the world, which may be earth or sea or sky, but is, above all, rapture of color. He has few twilights but many dawns; and he loves autumn for its wild breath and broken colors. Fire he plays with, but air and water are his elements; thoughts of drowning are in all his work, always with a sense of strange luxury. He has, more than any poet, Turner’s atmosphere; yet seems rarely, like Turner, to paint for atmosphere. It is part of his habitual hallucination; it comes to him with his vision or message, clothing it.
He loved liberty and justice with an impersonal passion, and would have been a martyr for many ideals which were no more to him than the substance itself of enthusiasm. He went about the world, desiring universal sympathy, to suffer delicious and poignant thrills of the soul, and to be at once sad and happy. In his feeling for nature he has the same vague affection and indistinguishing embrace as in his feeling for humanity; the daisy, which was the eye of day to Chaucer, is not visible as a speck in Shelley’s wide landscapes; and though in one of his subtlest poems he has noticed “the slow soft toads out of damp corners creep,” he is not minutely observant of whatever is not in some way strange or unusual. Even his significant phrase about “the worm beneath the sod” is only meant as a figure of the brain. His chief nature poem, The Skylark, loses the bird in the air, and only realizes a voice, an “unbodied joy;” and The Sensitive Plant is a fairy, and the radiant illustration of “a modest creed.”
In a minute study of the details of Shelley’s philosophy, Mr. Yeats has reminded us, “in ancient times, it seems to me that Blake, who for all his protest was glad to be alive, and ever spoke of his gladness, would have worshipped in some chapel of the Sun, and that Keats, who accepted life gladly, though ‘with a delicious, diligent indolence,’ would have worshipped in some chapel of the Moon, but that Shelley, who hated life because he sought ‘ more in life than any understood,’ would have wandered, lost in a ceaseless reverie, in some chapel of the Star of infinite desire.” Is not Shelley’s whole philosophy contained in that one line, “the desire of the moth for the star” ? He desired impossible things, and his whole theory of a reorganization of the world, in which anarchy was to be a spiritual deliverer, was a dream of that golden age which all mythologies put in the past. It was not the Christian’s dream of heaven, nor the Buddhist’s of Nirvana, but a poetical conception of a perfected world, in which innocence was lawless, and liberty selfless and love boundless, and in which all was order and beauty, as in a lovely song or stanza, or the musical answering of line and line in drama. He wrote himself down an atheist, and Browning thinks that in heart he was always really a Christian, so unlimited were his ideals, so imaginary his paradises. When Shelley thought he was planning the reform of the world, he was making literature, and this is shown partly by the fact that no theory or outcry or enthusiasm is ever strong enough to breathe through the form which carries it like a light in a crystal.
The spirit of Shelley will indeed always be a light to every seeker after the things that are outside the world. He found nothing, he did not even name a new star. There is little actual wisdom in his pages, and his beauty is not always a very vital kind of truth. He is a bird on the sea, a sea-bird, a winged diver, swift and exquisite in flight, an inhabitant of land, water, and sky; and to watch him is to be filled with joy, to forget all mean and trivial things, to share a rapture. Shelley teaches us nothing, leads us nowhere, but cries and flies round us like a sea-bird.
Shelley is the only poet who is really vague, and he gets some of his music out of that quality of the air. Poetry, to him, was an instinctive utterance of delight, and it recorded his lightest or deepest mood with equal sensitiveness. He is an unconscious creator of joy, and the mood most frequent with him is the joy of sadness. His poetry, more than that of any poet, is the poetry of the soul, and nothing in his poetry reminds us that he had a body at all, except as a nerve sensitive to fight, color, music, and perfume. His happiness is
Till dim imagination just possesses
The half-created shadow,
and to come no nearer to reality. Poetry was his atmosphere, he drew his breath in it as in his native element. Because he is the one perfect illustration of the poetic nature, as that nature is generally conceived, he has sometimes been wrongly taken to be the greatest of poets. His greatness may be questioned, not his authenticity.
Shelley could not write unpoetically. Wordsworth, who is not more possessed than Shelley with ideas of instruction, moral reformation, and the like, drops constantly out of poetry into prose; Shelley never does. Not only verse but poetry came to him so naturally that he could not keep it out, and the least fragment he wrote has poetry in it. Compare him, not only with Wordsworth, but with Keats, Coleridge, Byron, Landor, with every poet of his period, and you will find that while others may excel him in almost every separate poetical quality, none comes near him in this constant level of general poetical excellence.
Is it an excellence or an acquirement ? No doubt it was partly technique, the technique of the born executant. It is too often forgotten that technique, like talent, must be born, not made, if it is to do great work. Shelley could not help writing well, whatever he wrote; he was born to write. He was the one perfectly equipped man of letters of his circle, and he added that accomplishment to his genius as a poet. There Was nothing he could not do with verse as a form, and his translations from Greek, from Spanish, or from German, are not less sensitive to the forms which he adapted. He had a sound and wide literary culture, and, with curious lack of knowledge, a generalized appreciation of art. He wrote a Defence of Poetry which goes far beyond Sidney’s and is the most just and noble eulogy of poetry that exists. His letters have grace and facility, and when Matthew Arnold made his foolish joke about his prose being better than his verse (which is as untrue as to say that Milton’s prose was better than his verse), he was no doubt rightly conscious that Shelley might have expressed in prose much of the actual contents of his poetry. What would have been lost is the rarest part of it, in its creation of imaginative beauty. It is that rare part, that atmosphere which belongs to a region beyond technique, which more certainly than even his technique, was what never left him, what made it impossible for him to write unpoetically.
No poetry is more sincere than Shelley’s, because his style is a radiant drapery clinging closely to the body which it covers. What he has to express may have little value or coherence, but it is the very breath of his being, or, it may be, the smoke of that breath. He says rightly, in one of his earliest prefaces, that he has imitated no one, “designing that even if what I have produced be worthless, it should still be properly my own.” There is no poet, ancient or modern, whom he did not study; but, after the first boyish bewitchment by what was odd in Southey’s Thalaba, and a casual influence here and there, soon shaken off, whatever came to him was transformed by his inner energy, and became his own. Every poem, whatever else it is, is a personal expression of feeling. There is no egoism of the passionate sort, Catullus’s or Villon’s; his own passions are almost impersonal to him. they turn to a poem in the mere act of giving voice to themselves. It is his sincerity that so often makes him superficial. Shelley is youth. Great ideas or deep emotions did not come to him, but warm ideas and eager emotions, and he put them straight into verse. You cannot imagine him elaborating a mood, carving it, as Keats does, on the marble flanks of his Grecian urn.
Shelley is the most spontaneous of poets, and one of the most careless among those who, unlike Byron, are artists. He sings naturally, without hesitation, liquidly, not always flawlessly. There is something in him above and below literature, something aside from it, a divine personal accident. His technique, in lyrics, is not to be compared with Coleridge’s, but where Keats speaks he sings.
The blank verse of Shelley, at its best in Prometheus Unbound, has none of the sweetly broken music of Shakespeare or of the organ harmonies of Milton. It is a music of aërial eloquence, as if sounded by
That sits i’ the morning star.
There is in it a thrilling music, rarer in liquid sound than that of any other poet, and chastened by all the severity that can clothe a spirit of fire and air, an Ariel loosed from Prospero. Can syllables turn to more delicate sound and perfume than in such lines as these : —
A wind swept forth wrinkling the Earth with frost:
I looked and all the blossoms were blown down.
If words can breathe, can they breathe a purer breath than in these strange and simple lines in which every consonant and every vowel have obeyed some learned spell unconscious of its witchcraft? Horror puts on all the daintiness of beauty, losing none of its own essence, as when we read how
Within voluptuous chambers panting crawled.
And out of this “ music of lyres and flutes” there rises a symphony of many instruments, a choral symphony, after which no other music sounds for a time musical. Nor is it only for its music —
Which pierce the sense and live within the soul舒
that this blank verse has its power over us. It has an illumined gravity, a shining crystal clearness, a luminous motion, with, in its ample tide, an “ocean-like enchantment of strong sound,” and a measure and order as of the paces of the boundless and cadenced sea.
But it is, after all, for his lyrics that Shelley is best remembered, and it is perhaps in them that he is at his best. He wrote no good lyrical verse, except a few stanzas, before the age of twenty-three, when he wrote the song beginning, “The cold earth slept below,” in which we find, but for a certain concentration, all the poetic and artistic qualities of “A widow bird sat mourning on a bough,” which belongs to the last year of his life. In the summer of the year 1816, he wrote the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, and had nothing more to learn. In a letter to Keats he said, “in poetry I have sought to avoid system and mannerism,” and in the lyrical work written during the six remaining years of his life there will be found a greater variety, a more easily and continually inventive genius, than in the lyrical work of any other English poet. This faculty which came to him without warning, like an awakening, never flags, and it is only for personal, not for artistic reasons, that it ever exercises itself without a continual enchantment. There are, among these supreme lyrics, which no one but Shelley could have either conceived or written, others, here and there, in which the sentimentalist which was in Shelley the man improvises in verse as Thomas Moore would have improvised if he could. He could not; but to compare with his best lyrics a lyric of Shelley’s such as, “The keen stars were twinkling,” is to realize how narrow, as well as how impassable, is the gulf between what is not, and what just is, poetry. In the clamorous splendor of the odes there is sometimes rhetoric as well as poetry, but is it more than the tumult and overflow of that poetry ? For spiritual energy the “Ode to the West Wind,” for untamable chorie rapture the “Hymn to Pan,” for soft brilliance of color and radiant light the “ Lines written among the Euganean Hills,” are not less incomparable than the rarest of the songs (such songs as “To-Night,” or “The golden gates of sleep unbar,” or “When the lamp is shattered,” or “Swiftly walk over the western wave”), in which the spirit of Fletcher seems returned to earth with a new magic from beyond the moon. And all this work, achieved by a craftsman as if for its own sake, will be found, if read chronologically, with its many fragments, to be in reality a sort of occasional diary. If ever a poet expressed himself fully in his verse, it was Shelley. There is nothing in his life which you will not find written somewhere in it, if only as “the ghost of a forgotten form of sleep.” In this diary of lyrics he has noted down whatever most moved him, in a vivid record of the trace of every thrill or excitement, on nerves, or sense, or soul. From the stanzas, “To Constantia singing,” to the stanzas, “With a guitar, to Jane,” every woman who moved him will have her place in it; and everything that has moved him when, as he said in the preface to The Revolt of Islam, “I have sailed down mighty rivers, and seen the sun rise and set, and the stars come forth whilst I have sailed night and day down a rapid stream among mountains.” This, no doubt, is his way of referring to the first and second travels abroad with Mary, and to the summer when he sailed up the Thames to its source, — the time of his awakening. And in all this, made day by day
out of the very substance of its hours, there will not be a single poem in which the occasion will disturb or overpower the poetical impulse, in which the lyrical cry will be personal at the expense of the music Or, if there is one such poem, it is that most intimate one which begins: “The serpent is shut out of Paradise.” Is there, in this faultless capacity, this inevitable transposition of feeling into form, something lacking, some absent savor? Is there, in this evocation of the ghost of every thrill, the essence of life itself ?