PERCY BYSSHE SHELLY BIOGRAPHY
Life And Works
Born: Field Place, Sussex, England,Date: August 4, 1792
Died: Off Viareggio, Italy, Date: July 8, 1822
Poems : Queen Mab, 1813; Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude,
1816; The Revolt of Islam, 1818; Rosalind and Helen, 1819;
Epipsychidion, 1821; Adonais, 1821; Hellas, 1822; Posthumous
Poems, 18-4; Poetical works, 1839.
Plays: The Cenci, 1820; Prometheus Unbound, 1820.
Tracts and Studies: The Necessity of Atheism, 1811; An Address to the Irish People, 1812; A Refutation of Deism, 1814; A Defence of Poetry, 1840
His early life: Percy Bysshe Shelley, English poet, was born at Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex, August 4, 1792, the eldest son of a landed country squire. After some tutoring he was sent to Syon House Academy, where his shyness exposed him to brutal bullying. Entering Eton in. 18o4 , he lived as much apart as possible, a moody, sensitive, and precocious boy with the nickname of “mad Shelley.” Here he wrote Zastrozzi (1810), a wild Gothic romance, Original Poetry by Victory and Cazire (1811), and another inferior Gothic romance, St. Irvyne, or The Rosicrucian, published in 1811 Shelley matriculated at University College, Oxford, in 1810. He and Thomas Jefferson Hogg were expelled the following year for publishing and sending to bishops and heads of colleges their pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism. At this time Shelley fell in love with Harriet West-brook, daughter of a retired hotel-keeper. They eloped, and despite Shelley’s open break with the conventions of the Christian religion and particular scorn for the marriage ceremony, they were married in Edinburgh in August, 1811 Both fathers contributed to their support for the next three years, which they spent wandering in Southern England, Ireland, and Wales.
His second marriage: In 1813 their first child was born in London and Shelley’s first long poem, Queen Mab, was published. Meanwhile, marriage with Harriet was proving a failure. In may, 1814, Shelley met Mary, the daughter of William and Mary Wolls T one craft Godwin. Mary shared his belief that marriage was only a voluntary contract. Harriet left for her father’s home, and Shelley and seventeen-years-old Mary eloped to Switzerland, accompanied by Claire Clairmont, Mary’s half-sister. When they returned to England in September, Shelley proposed to Harriet that she come and live with Mary and him; however, there was no reconciliation.
Mary bore a son in 1816 (the year of Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude). They, with Claire, spent the summer in Switzerland and became close friends of Byron. Soon after they returned to England in the autumn, they heard that Harriet had drowned herself. Shelley was now free to Mary Godwin (December 30, 1816), but a court order denied him the custody of his two children by Harriet.
His visit abroad: After he had completed The Revolt of Islam, revised version of his earlier Loan and Cythna, the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont, with her child by Byron, went to Italy. There Shelley remained the rest of his life, wandering from Lake Como, Milan, Venice, Este, Rome, Florence, and Pisa to other cities and sections. Much time was spent with Byron. Julian and Maddalo (1818) is poem in the form of conversation between Shelley (Julian) and Byron (Maddalo). Next followed The Masque of Anarchy (1819), a revolutionary propaganda poem; The Cenci a realistic tragedy; and Prometheus Unbound, a lyric tragedy completed in 1819 and published in 1820. Earlier in the same year, at Pisa, he writes some of his most famous lyrics, “The Cloud”, “Ode to the West Wind”, and “Ode to a Skylark.”
The chief productions of 1821 were Epipsychidion, a result of his platonic relationship with Countess Emilia Viviani, an uncompleted prose work, A Defence of Poetry, published after his death, and Adonais, an elegy inspired by the death of John Keats. From his wide reading, he was most greatly influenced by Plato, Lucretius, Spinoza, Rousseau, Hume, and Southey. God-win’s influence lasted until Shelley’s death.
His final poem, The Triumph of Life, was incomplete at the time he was drowned, July 8, 1822, while sailing off Viareggio. His body was first buried in the sand, then cremated. The ashes were buried in the Protestant cemetery at Rome, January 21, 1823.
Influence of Shelley on the nineteenth century poetry: The nineteenth century notion of the sensitive poetic soul owes a great deal to the ideal young man (Alastor—”the brave, the beautiful— the child of grace and genius”) built up largely by Shelley of Shelley. Yet in the history of English literature, Shelley is not as important as Wordsworth or as influential as Byron (more popular as a poet), or Keats. The public was shocked at his defiance of the conventions of life. Today he has many admirers, but for those who dislike Romantic poetry in general, Shelley is a particularly vulnerable target. Unquestionably he could give a song-like character to his verse, for his was the light, lyrical tone. He was a lover of unusual colours, blurred outlines, and large effects. He was also a lover of startling and frank realism and had an obvious passion for the mysterious and far away. In technique he illustrated something more concrete by the less concrete. What Shelley starts to define often results in vague though pretty images. He offers emotion in itself, unattached, in the void.
His revolt against society: Because of his sensibility, perhaps, he was at war with the conventions of society from childhood. As a political dreamer he was filled with the hope of transforming the real world into an Arcadia through revolutionary reform. As a disciple of Godwin he directed Queen Mab against organized religion. The queen shows the human spirit that evil times, in the past and present, are due to the authority of Church and State. In the future, however, when love reigns supreme, the chains of the human spirit will dissolve; mankind will be boundlessly self-assertive and at the same time, temper this self-assertion by a boundless sympathy for others. Then a world will be realized in which there is neither inferior nor superior classes or beings. The end of Prometheus Unbound gives his vision of humanity released from all evil artificially imposed from without (one of Rousseau’s main tenets), a humanity “where all things flow to all, as rivers to the sea,” and “whose nature is its own divine control”.
Shelley sets up a humanity glorified through love; he worships in the sanctuary left vacant by “the great absence of God” (His youthful atheism lacked warmth and in the end he turned to a type of (Pantheism). Love, as exemplified in his personal life, is a passionate kind of sensuality which becomes his simple moral code with no duty, blame, or obligation attached. The reign of love when no authority was necessary was his millennium.
Early Writings. Shelley started writing very early, but his first major work came in i8ii. This was Queen Mab, a long poem. It is a revolutionary poem, but there is much confusion in the development of the story. The next great poem, Alastor came in 1815. In the same year he produced Mont Blanc and Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. These poems expressed the poet’s idealism. In the latter of the two poems, the poet expresses his feeling of the presence of a spirit in nature.
Revolt of Islam. These were followed by The Revolt of Islam in 1817. We have here again a story of love and adventure and of the desire, in the hero and the heroine, of changing the world.
Prometheus Unbound. In 1818-19 came the great drama, Promethus Unbound. This is a major poem. As a drama it is not much of a success, but both in theme and in its individual songs it achieves greatness. Shelley takes a theme form Ancient Greek Literature. Prometheus was a mythical Titan who benefited mankind by stealing the fire from the gods and giving it to men. For this, Jove, the chief of the gods, punishes him by chaining him to a rock where he is eternally tortured. Shelley takes up this theme and makes Prometheus into a symbol of revolt. Jove becomes the symbol of oppression and tyranny. In the end, Jove is overthrown and unmixed goodness rules the world.
The Cenci. In 1819 came another great play, The Cenci. This is a well knit play and is distinguished from his other works by this fact, This play portrays absolute evil as Prometheus Unbound portrays absolute goodness.
Later poems. This was followed by The Witch of Atlas, and Epipsychidion. In the same year was published Adonais, a lament on the death of the poet Keats.
Hellas. In the last year of his life (1822) Shelley wrote Hellas. This is the old name of Greece. Shelley left an unfinished, poem Triumph of Life.
Shorter Poems. In addition to these long poems, Shelley wrote a large number of lyrics. The most well-known of these are Ode to the West Wind, To a Skylark and The Cloud. It is in these lyrics that we often find Shelley at his best. Ode to the West Wind is a great achievement — a poem in which great thought is combined with great art. Most of his lyrics are love poems. Many of them express the poet’s deep joy in life as well as his deep sorrow.
Shelley: The Man. The life of Shelley lies world’s apart from that of Byron. His treatment of Harriet apart, his private life was not vicious, but on the contrary in many respects exemplary. As far as the ideas, which he sang, were capable of application to life, he applied them in his own conduct. “He preached the equality of man and he proved that he was willing to practice it. He was generous and benevolent to fault.”
Nothing can surpass Shelley’s poetic description of himself in Adonais, as a ‘frail form,’ ‘a phantom among men,’ ‘companion-less’ as ‘the last cloud of an expiring storm,——
A pard-like Spirit beautiful and swift,—A love in desolation masked,— a Power
Girt round with weakness; it can scarce uplift
The weight of the superincumbent hour,
It is a dying lamp, a falling shower;
A breaking billow;
Main Characteristics Of His Poetry
(i) Shelley compared with some of his contemporaries: “As a poet,” says J. A. Symonds, “Shelley contributed a new quality to English literature— a quality of ideality, freedom, and audacity, which severe critics of other nations think we lack. Byron’s daring is a different region; his elemental worldliness and pungent satire do not liberate our energies or cheer us with a new hope and splendid vista. Wordsworth, the very antithesis to Shelley in his reverent accord with institutions, suits our meditative mood, sustains us with a sound philosophy and braces us by healthy contact with the Nature, he so dearly loved. But in Wordsworth there is none of Shelley’s magnetism. What remains of permanent value in Coleridge’s poetry— such works as Christabel, The Ancient Mariner or Kubla Khan– is a product of pure artistic fancy, tempered by the author’s mysticism Keats, true and sacred poet as he was, loved nature with a somewhat sensuous devotion; nor did he share the prophetic fire, which burnt in Shelley’s verse. In none of Shelley’s greatest contemporaries was the lyrical faculty so paramount, and when we consider his minor songs, his odes or his more complicated dramas, we acknowledge that he was the loftiest and most spontaneous singer of the language. In range of power, he was also Conspicuous above the rest. While his genius was so varied and its flight so unapproached in swiftness, it would be in vain to deny that Shelley as an artist had faults, from which the men, with whom I have compared him, were more free. The most important of these are haste, incoherence, verbal carelessness, incompleteness, a want of narrative force and a weak hold on objective realities.”
Shelley and Wordsworth as poets of nature: In his interpretation of Nature, Shelley suggests Wordsworth both by resemblance and by contrast. To both poets all natural objects are symbols of truth; both regard nature as permeated by the higher spiritual life, which animates all things; but while Wordsworth finds a spirit of thought and so of communion between nature and the soul of man, Shelley finds a spirit of love, which exists chiefly in its own delight. And so The Cloud, The Skylark and The West Wind, three of the most beautiful poems in the English language, have no definite message for humanity. In his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, Shelley is most like Wordsworth, but in his Sensitive Plant, with its fine symbolism and imagery he is like nobody in the world but himself. Comparison sometimes is an excellent thing and if we compare Shelley’s exquisite Lament, beginning
“0 World! 0 Life! 0 time!”
with Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality we shall perhaps understand both the poets better. Both poems recall many happy memories of youth, both express a very real mood of a moment; but while the beauty of one merely saddens and disheartens us, the beauty of the other inspires us with something of the poet’s own faith and hopefulness. In a word, Wordsworth found and Shelley lost himself in Nature.
Shelley and Byron: Shelley stands with Byron as a poet of revolt, but his devotion to liberty is purer, his love for man is readier to declare in deeds of hope and sympathy; his philosophy of life is ennobled by loftier and more selfless aims. Byron’s cry is, “I am unhappy”. Shelley’s “The world is unhappy and I hope to brighten it.” The two poets in their different ways represent two sides of the French Revolution: Byron its backward destructive side, Shelley, its forward reconstructive idealist side. Byron’s heroes are engrossed egotists at war with society, while Shelley’s typical hero is a noble- minded enthusiast, who willingly becomes a martyr for the cause of man. Shelley applied his noble ideas to his own conduct while Byron was very much like his own Don Juan. In Byron, the intellect is superior and the imagination is subordinate. Byron’s note is one of chaotic despondency, while Shelley is a prophet of hope, looking forward to the Golden Age, when love will save mankind.
(ii) Mysticism of Shelley: Shelley (like Browning) is a love- and-beauty mystic. He looks upon love as the solution of the mystery of life, as the link between God and man. To Shelley this was a glorious intuition, which reached him through his imagination, whereas the life of man, as he saw it, roused in him little but mad indignation, wild revolt and passionate protest.
Shelley believes in a soul of the universe, in which all things live and move and have their being; which, as one feels in the Prometheus, is un-nameable, inconceivable even to man, for “the deep truth is imageless. His most passionate desire was not, as was Browning’s, for an increased and ennobled individuality but for the mystical fusion of his own personality with this Spirit, this object of his worship and adoration. To Shelley death was the rending of a veil, which would admit us to the full vision of the ideal, which alone is true life. The sense of unity in all things is most strongly felt in Adonais, where Shelley’s maturest thoughts and philosophy are to be found; and indeed, the mystical sphere in this poem, especially towards the end, is greater than anywhere else in his writings. The hymn to Intellectual Beauty is, in some ways, Shelley’s clearest and most obvious expression of his devotion to the spirit of Ideal Beauty, its reality to him and his vow of dedication to its service.
Shelley, like Blake, regarded the human imagination as a divine creative force. In his Prometheus Unbound, the most deeply mystical of his poems, Prometheus stands for the human imagination or the genius of the world; and it is his union with Asia, the divine idea, the spirit of beauty and life, from which a new universe is born. It is this union, which consummates the aspiration of humanity, that Shelley celebrates in the marvellous love song Prometheus. To Shelley the form assumed by the divine in man, is love, which to Shelley is synonymous with beauty.
‘l’he three great English poets, who are also fundamentally mystical in thought, are Wordsworth, Browning and Blake. Their philosophy or mystical belief, one in essence, though so differently expressed, lies at the root, as it is also the flower of their life-work. In others, as in Shelley, Keats and Rossetti, although it is the inspiring force of their poetry, it is not a flame burning steadily and evenly but rather a light flashing out intermittently into brilliant and dazzling radiance. The man himself is not so permeated by it and hence results the unsatisfied desire, the almost painful yearning, the recurring disappointment and disillusionment, which we do not find in Browning, Wordsworth and Blake.
(iii) Shelley’s melancholy: It is this unsatisfied desire, this almost painful yearning with its recurring disappointment and disillusionment, that is at the root of Shelley’s melancholy. His poetry is the poetry of desire. He is always yearning, never pouring forth the strains of a thankful satisfaction; but it is either the craving of an expectant rapture or the aching of a severed nerve. This is the great distinction, which separates him from the other poetical mystics of his day. Wordsworth, for instance, is always exulting in the fullness of nature; Shelley always chasing its falling stars. Shelley follows with a wistful eye the flowing stream of beauty as it forever escapes him into the illimitable void. Hence it is that his sweetest songs are those which tell of the saddest thoughts. He wants to create a new earth and a new heaven, and so it fills him with a sense of longing and of loss. This thrill of pursuit of a fugitive ideal gives the keynote to every one of his finest poems. If we look at any of the lyrics, on which he has set the full stamp of his genius, we find that it images one of these two attitudes of intellect—the keen exquisite sense of want, gazing wildly forward or wildly backward (“looking before and after and pining for what is not”), but vainly striving to close on something, which eludes his grasp:
The desire of the moth for the star,
Or the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something after
From the sphere of our sorrow
that is the true burden of everything. Sometimes the gaze is fixed on the future and sometimes on the past; sometimes
Swiftly walk o’er the western wave
Spirit of night!
Out of the misty eastern cave,
Where all the long and lone day-light,
Thou wovest dreams of joy end dear, Which make thee terrible and fear,- Swift be thy flight!
When the lamp is shattered
The light in the dust lies dead-
When the cloud is scattered
The rainbow’s glory is shed,
When the lute is broken,
Sweet tunes our lips have spoken,
Love’s accents are soon forgot.
This melancholy yearning is of the very essence of Shelley. He is the poet, not of all human yearning is general, but of the yearning for that youthful ecstasy, which sounds like fresh life through every nerve. He cannot be satisfied without a thrill of his whole soul. He knows nothing of serene joy. He thinks the whole universe should be ever thrilling in every fiber with mysterious tenderness.
His melancholy is thus vital to his poetry. It may be said that his music is the product of his genius and his melancholy, and that which is written in his greatest moods of melancholy, is what the world seems to like best, “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts.”
(iv) His Lyricism: Shelley is one of the greatest lyric poets in English Literature. “His lyrics are the crown of his work. By his lyrics, above all, will he live. “They represent the highest achievement of the Romantic Movement. The Ode to The West Wind and The Hymn to the Spirit of Nature are examples of his incomparable lyricism. His lyrics are highly spontaneous (written without any apparent effort). They are marked by an ethereal quality: Ode to the West Wind, for example, is just wind and cloud and emotion. Then again his lyrics express an intensity of feeling or a deep passion. Sometimes, indeed, he loses control over himself and is completely carried away by his emotion as here: “0 lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!” Most of his lyrics, too, contain a note of yearning, desire and despair:
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
Oh cease, must hate and death return?
Above all, his lyrics are exquisitely musical. He lends to his lyrics “the sweetest and most liquid harmonies.” The Ode to the West Wind is nearer to music than any other poem in English literature. Shelley is, indeed, a master of rhythm, harmony and melody. Other lyrics remarkable for their beauty and music are Ode to a Skylark, The Cloud, The Indian Serenade, To the Night, and 0 World! 0 Time.
Shelley’s genius was fundamentally lyrical. Matthew Arnold speaks of his “lyric cry.” “There are two sides of Shelley’s lyric inspiration: (i) The personal lyrics which include those poems of ethereal loveliness, The Cloud, The Skylark, Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples, The Human to Intellectual Beauty, The Ode to the West Wind; and the longer poems, which are entirely lyrical in impulse and character like Adonais, where he most definitely challenges comparison with the greatest singers of all time.
(2) On the humanitarian side, the record is given in such works as Queen Mab, The Revolt of Islam and Prometheus Unbound, which fulfill his enthusiasm for liberty, his love of man, and his passion for reforming the world.
The change of passion, which we note as we pass from the personal to the humanitarian poetry, is very significant. The personal poetry is often profoundly melancholy, but the melancholy disappears the moment Shelley ceases to think of his own little life and assumes the role of a leader of men and prophet of the Golden Age to come. His own attitude towards the political movement is definite. But it is well to lay stress upon the fact that alone among the English poets of the time he continued to preach the gospel of revolutionary faith and hope.
(v) As a Prophet: Shelley is not only an artist but also a prophet. He is a prophet in the sense that he diagnoses the evils of mankind as well as makes bold, daring prophecies regarding the ultimate triumph of good over evil and the advent of the Golden Age of man. The awareness of the evil in this world makes him unhappy and sick-hearted while his hope and faith in a Golden Age make him utter cheering prophecies. In other words, he is a pessimist as regards the present and an optimist as regards the future. While the note of despair arising from his survey of the present is apparent in his poems (Ode to the West Wind, W stanza), he has a clear and sublime vision of the hopes of mankind, and dreams of an epoch when Love and Beauty will reign. He is an idealist:
If, Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Works like The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound and Hellas arc also prophecies of the Golden Age.
(vi) His Love for Liberty: Like Byron, Shelley had a passionate love for freedom. He was profoundly influenced by the French Revolution. He was a sworn foe of tyrants and tyranny. Freedom for all mankind is one of the important features of the Golden Age which he anticipates. When Greece made a declaration of independence from the Turkish Yoke he wrote a play to celebrate the occasion. Prometheus Unbound, a lyrical drama, is the best work of his revolutionary enthusiasm. Shelley’s philosophy was that the existing tyranny of State, Church and Society keeps man from growth into perfect happiness. Queen Mab, The Revolt of Islam, The Witch of Atlas are also revolutionary works.
(vii) The Ethereal Quality of His Poetry. There is a vagueness, an abstractness, an ethereal quality about the poetry of Shelley. It is the poetry of a man living not on earth, but in the aerial regions above. This ethereality in his poetry is due to the want in general, of “a sound subject-matter”. Even in Adonais which is a poem of grief on the death of Keats, he preserves a sense of unreality and calls in many shadowy allegorical figures.
He talks of metaphysical powers like Intellectual Beauty and of vague things like the Golden Age of mankind. His imagery, too, is abstract and divorced from human life as he takes delight in giving us pictures of the shifting and changeful phenomena of Nature like clouds, sunsets, winds, sky and ocean. Also he employs inverse similes which, instead of making his meaning concrete, render it vague. “Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.” “Like ghost from an enchanter fleeing,” “like the hues and harmonies of evening” are examples of his inverse similes.
(viii) His Platonism: Shelley was greatly influenced by Plato, the great Greek Philosopher. Plato thought that the supreme power in the universe was the Spirit of Beauty. Shelley borrowed this conception from Plato and developed it in his metaphysical poem: Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. Intellectual Beauty is omnipotent and man must worship it. Shelley tells us in this poem that early in his life he vowed that he would dedicate his life to its worship and asserts that he has kept the vow. There are Platonic touches elsewhere in Shelley’s poetry also. (Platonic metaphysics contributes to the ethereal quality of his poetry).
(ix) Attitude to Nature. Like all romantic poets Shelley loves Nature deeply. As to Wordsworth, Nature to him is a living reality capable of feeling and thinking. But he sees the spirit of Love in Nature. On the whole, therefore, he is a pantheist (one who sees a Divine Spirit behind the objects of Nature). But his attitude to Nature is also distinctive. In the first place, he has a preference for the dynamic aspects, and the shifting and changeful phenomena of Nature , like the cloud, the west wind, the ocean, the sunset, the storms, etc. He wrote a poem on the cloud, another on the west wind, while his poems contain scores of pictures of the changeful and shifting scenery of Nature. Again, he possesses the myth making power in regard to the forces of Nature. He regards the cloud, the west wind, the skylark, etc. as separate and distinct individualities. He personifies them and conceives of them as having lives of their own. But it must be remembered that he does not invest them with human qualities and passions. The wind remains a wind for him and the cloud remains a cloud. In this respect his attitude to natural forces is almost scientific. Even a scientist will endorse his pictures of the natural processes and phenomena as regards their truth.
(x) His Imagery or Pictorial Quality: Shelley’s imagery is kaleidoscopic, i.e. he does not give one or two pictures at a time, but a whole series of them. In the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty for instance, we have the pictures of summer winds creeping from flower to flower, moonbeams falling behind some piny mountain, hues and harmonies of evening, clouds in starlight widely spread, all these one after the other. No sooner do we visualize one image than another is presented to us. Again, as has been suggested above, many of his pictures are vague and abstract, not concrete. The dead leaves being driven away by the west wind are “like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.” Further, he prefers to depict the shifting and changeful phenomena of Nature like clouds, sunsets, sky, winds etc.
(xi) His Love for Greek Mythology. All the younger Romantics are lovers of Greek mythology. Shelley’s interest in the mythological stories of Greece finds expression in Hellas and Prometheus Unbound and in many other poems.
(xii) His Didacticism. There is a strong didactic tendency in Shelley. He often wishes to impress a moral upon us but his method of giving us a moral is different from that of the neo classical poets like Pope. He does not give us a moral directly that would be unromantic. He merely paints a picture and leaves us to draw the moral ourselves. In Ozymandias, for instance, Shelley does not directly tell this that human greatness and splendour are passing. He drives the moral home to us by a picture of the broken statue of a mighty king.
SHELLEY’S PLACE IN LITERATURE
Two Schools of Criticism of Shelly’s Writings. To extreme schools of Shelley criticism are represented, on one side by Matthew Arnold and on the other side by Swinburne.
(1) Matthew Arnold in his somewhat laboured plea for the supremacy of Wordsworth and Byron in 19th century poetry describes Shelley as a “beautiful and ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.”
Sharp says “the real is the true world for a great, but it was not Shelley’s world.”
Ruskin and Carlyle are violently against him. Ruskin says: “Cast Shelley at once aside as shallow and verbose” and Carlyle classes Shelley along with Byron and Keats as a “poet of the satanic school”.
For one who makes ‘criticism of life’ the basis of his literary estimates, to place Byron in higher rank than Shelley can only be regarded as the eccentricity of genius. There are some who go elsewhere for their criticism of life (if life must be criticized) and turn to poetry for the delight, born of noble thought set to highest verbal music; and to them Shelley is a beautiful angel singing songs often to unearthly beauty and prompting to nobler ideals. Professor Quiller-Couch’s rejoinder is more effective:- “the only void, in which Shelley ever beat his luminous wings in vain, was a void in Mr. Arnold’s understanding.” The other extreme criticisms are similarly based on wrong views of the poet and poetry.
On the other hand, Swinburne says: “Shelley was alone the perfect singing god; his thought, words, deed all sang together; the master singer of the modern race and age; the poet beloved above all other poets, being beyond all other poets-in one word and the only proper word-divine”.
The difference is thus chiefly one of point of view; Arnold finds “in his poetry the incurable want, in general, of a sound subject matter and the incurable fault in consequence of unsubstantiality “hose, who extol him, as the poet of the clouds, the poet of Sunsets, are only saying that he did not, in fact, lay hold upon the poet’s right subject matter; and in honest truth with all his charm of soul and spirit and with all his gift of musical diction and method, he never or hardly ever did.” In a word, Arnold finds in him no criticism of life. On the other hand, Swinburne cares above all things for the melody and music of verse, and these he finds in Shelley’s divine lyric gift.
But there is a via media, a sane mean of criticism. Still better, there is a blessed faculty of going to each poet for the best that he can give us, with thankfulness and praise.
None of Shelley’s contemporaries lived from first to last so completely under the dominance of “soul-light”; his errors in conduct and weakness in art were alike rooted in this supreme quality. His boyish resolve had been:
“I will be wise,
And just, and free and mild, if in me lies,
Such Power: for I grow weary to behold,
The selfish and the strong still tyrannise,
Without reproach or check”
and he carried it out. Shelley was a revolutionary but he was also a transcendental poet. If the one quality appeals to us, the other should equally attract. If he lived in an unpractical ethereal world, his poetry is drawing many souls upward to hold communion with him there. As Scott is the poet of the romantic past, Shelley is the poet of the glorious future. In Byron the intellect is supreme and the imagination subordinate; in Shelley the intellect is servant to the imagination. With eyes fixed on the splendid apparitions with which he peopled space he went through the world not seeing the high road, stumbling over the stones of the road side.
His Acknowledged Place: By the common consent of critics, Shelley’s place is with the greatest English poets. When we consider the brevity of Shelley’s life and the greatness of the problems, with which he struggled, we wonder that he achieved so much. In his 30 years of life, he sought to give the world a message of peace and hope. He wrote lyrics, such as a To a skylark, Ode to the West wind, The Indian Serenade, To Night, and The Hymn to Intellectual Beauty- which are unsurpassed in English poetry, and he composed two poetical dramas, Prometheus Unbound and Cenci which approach the dignity, maturity and dramatic intensity of the masterpieces of classic art. However immature or ineffective or non-conforming his opinions may seem, we must recognize the excellence and power of his imaginative faculty. As a creator of pure poetry, as one who could weave tissues of light and colour as delicate as those of a summer dawn, Shelley is an unrivalled master. His poetry, too, is inspired by a pure exalted passion. And we must remember that in the words of his own tribute to Keats, Shelley was one of “the inheritors of unfulfilled renown.” Byron, we feel, had burnt himself out; when he died, he had said all he could have said to the world. But Shelley was cut off before the perfect flower of his genius had bloomed.
Conclusion. Shelley belongs to the younger generation of Romantic poets. Like the other two poets of his generation, he died voting. His poetry divides itself into two distinct moods. In one he is the violent reformer seeking to overthrow the present institutions in order to bring about the Golden Age. Out of this mood come most of his longer poems, like Queen Mab, Revolt of Islam, Hellas, and The Witch of Atlas, which are somewhat violent denunciations of government priests, marriage, religion and even God as men opposed Him to be. In a different mood which finds expression in 1Iastor, Adonais, he is a wanderer following a vague, beautiful vision, forever sad and unsatisfied. His greatness as a poet resides principally in his incomparable lyricism.
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