SYMPOSIUM OF CRITICS ON SHELLEY
1. Shelley’s Conception of Poetry. Shelley has explained his lofty view of poetry in a prose-essay, A Defence of Poetry. Poetry was to him what religion is to most people—an idealization of life. According to Shelley “a poem is the very image of life expressed in eternal truth/” He defines poetry as “the expression of the imagination” as contradistinguished from that of the reason, he conceives that “the functions or objects of poetical faculty are two fold : by one it creates new materials of knowledge, and power, and pleasure : by the other it engenders in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange them according to a certain rhythm and order which may be called the beautiful and the good. “But these functions cannot be exercised at will even by the greatest poet. A great poem is not produced by reason, by study, or by hard work. The Poets are born not made. The poetical power “arises from within.” “Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moment of the best and happiest minds.” The poet embodies in his verse the evanescent visitations of a divine nature which has come into his own. “Poetry thus makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world. Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man. Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration. A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite and the One : as far as it relates to his conceptions, time and place and number or not. The distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error.” Again, he says, “Poetry is ever accompanied with pleasure. Poetry is indeed something divine; it is-at once the centre and circumference of all knowledge. Poetry turns all things to loveliness, it exalts the beauty of that which is most beautiful, and it adds beauty to that which is most deformed.”
2. Shelley’s Character and its Bearing on His Art. Here we are giving the views of Prof. Clutton-Brock and Prof. Elton. Shelley’s poetry is the expression of the man himself, springing from the heart rather than from the brain, and we must understand the man to understand his poetry. “In his poetry,” remarks Clutton Brock “his character interests us as much as the poetry itself, because he has, so unexpectedly, been able to exhibit the beauty of his conceptions in its native truth and splendour, and has not needed to temper his planetary music for mortal ears.”
His character and his story are more chequered and romantic than Wordsworth’s, purer and loftier than Byron’s. Byron is always,” says Professor Elton, “Called an egotist, and so he is. Shelley is often called a saint, and he had, or came to have, some of the qualities of the saint. Shelley’s frank friendliness and comradeship; his clear witty tact and good feeling in his intercourse with persons; his odd and fitful but genuine gaiety; his eager simplicity and naturalness— we must get all this into our minds if we are to see him right.” His life was itself a romance. He was fearless and bold. He was not very strong in morality. He eloped with Mary Godwin, and his first wife Harriet committed suicide through his bitter estrangement from her. He was, moreover, sceptical and revolutionary in his ideas from the very outset of his life. “Of a sensitive and highly strung nature, Shelley was stirred at an early age by the spirit of revolt.” Shelley was considerably influenced by Godwin and his political Justice, the book on Which he based his Queen Mab in which he has condemned all important institutions, such as king and governments, church. property, marriage and Christianity. But at the very heart of his eager enthusiasm for humanity was an abiding love of justice, and his intense sympathy for the oppressed, and his hatred of the oppressor.
3. Shelley’s Philosophy of Human Life. O. W. Campbell has elaborated Shelley’s concept of human life in contrast with Plato the renowned Greek philosopher. His Dialogues and his Republic are among the greatest works of the ancients and embody a philosophical system which has served for admiration and discussion in all succeeding ages. According to 0. W. Campbell, from his earliest youth Shelley was ambitious to improve the world : he tried to do this by reasoning against superstition and by actively supporting causes of political freedom. He was aware of the evils of the time in which he lived and he deliberately turned to poetry to expound his ideas on different aspects of life and society. Much of the romanticism of his contemporaries was a refuge from reality. Shelley sought poetry with the most serious purposes. His poetry reflects his outlook on life. Shelley’s real philosophy of life lay deep down in his imagination and though it developed as he learnt wisdom, its main tendency was never changed. The most important of his beliefs, the motive power of his life and work, was his immense faith in man. With Plato Shelley had far more in common than with Rousseau or Godwin and two of the ideas which recur most frequently in his prose and poetry are essentially platonic. “These were the belief that life, as man knows it, is only an unreal show or a dream, and the conception of some all pervading Spirit of Reality dwelling behind this painted veil of life.” To Shelley life is the great unreality, a painted veil, anti the triumphal procession of a pretender. There is profound resemblance between Shelley and Plato in their whole outlook on life. Both were inspired almost entirely by what Jowell calls “the passion of the idea.” Both seemed to see life not in its transient and imperfect form so much as in its eternal relation to the future and the ideal, and to value it for the unrealized (but not unrealizable) more than for the actual. Both not only taught, but vividly felt, that between the shadow life on earth and the immortal world of ideas there was only a mist of ignorance or error which any man might dispel at any time— if he had sufficient wisdom, according to Plato, and according to Shelley, sufficient love. For both, the possible was the foundation of the actual, and the abstract perfection of the human character a reflection from the actual perfection of the divine. Shelley himself wrote:
Man is a being of high aspirations, ‘looking both before and after, whose ‘thoughts wander through eternity.’ There is a spirit within him at enmity with nothingness and dissolution.
Moreover, as his faith in the possibility of a millennium and in the divine nature of man grew deeper and more spiritual, he ceased to use the word “God” as a pure term of abuse. Apparently he proclaimed himself as an atheist, but in actual fact he had never been an atheist. But, philosophically, he would never accept the idea of an all-powerful, self-sufficient, personal God. he felt that “where indefiniteness ends, idolatry and anthropomorphism begin.” Shelley’s estimate of the innate qualities of the human mind and heart were high. “The prominent feature of Shelley’s theory of the divinity of the human species,” Writes Mrs. Shelley, “was the evil is not inherent in the system of creation, but an accident that might be expelled.” He insisted that error and ignorance are the ultimate sources of man’s sorrow and degradation. He seriously believed in liberty, equality and fraternity. But Shelley had some queer nations. History is to him at best a black business, an orgy of fantastic and luxurious cruelty. Commerce is, according to him, “the venal interchange of all the human art and nature yield.”
As a poetical philosopher he believed in an all-prevading Benignant Principle, and in an immortal human soul—immortal by reason of a spark of divinity within it. Death, according to Shelley, is I)LIt an escape from the prison of the unreal into the unconfined life of the spirit, the permanent reality which is hidden by the delusive and ever-changing appearances of earth. This idea is summed up in the following lines of Adorzais
The One remains, the many change and pass:
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like dome of many coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.
To Shelley, ‘life is but an empty dream.’ This world is only a show, an illusion. He bewails the frailty of human existence :—
O Love ! who bewailest
The frailty of all things here
Why choose you the frailest
For your cradle; your home and your bier.
(Lines: When the lemp is shattered)
; but in this life
Of error, ignorance, and strife,
Where nothing is, but all things seem,
And we shadows of the dream.
(The Sensitive Plant)
I fall upon the thorns of life.
(Ode to the West Wind)
— Art and eloquence,
And all the shows o’ the world are fail and vain.
O cease! must hate and death return?
Cease! must men kill and die.
(Obedient to the light)
Shelley had an intense love of humanity. He writes in the introduction to Alastor: “Those who love not their fellow-beings live unfruitful lives, and prepare for their old age a miserable grave.”
Shelley wanted to have no concern with the past, because,
The world is weary of the past
4. Platonism in Shelly: The views here are based mainly on L. Winstanley essay on ‘Platonism in Shelley. Shelley was by nature one of the most studious of all English poets; from his Oxford days onwards Greek was his favourite reading and for Plato he had natural affinity of mind.
The ideas which Shelley borrows from Plato may be divided into four groups
(1) General religious and philosophic ideas Shelley’s religious system is, speaking generally, rather Greek and Platonic than Christian or Biblical. Shelley was one of those to whom the Hebraic ideal appears naturally repugnant, his antipathy to it being as innate as Milton’s sympathy. He disliked narrow mindedness and exclusiveness; he disliked all kinds of formalism; he had the Greek detestation of priest-craft; severity of all kinds he abhorred; and severity in morals appeared to him a contradiction in terms. He not only disliked Hebraism but he was bitterly opposed to Christianity.
It was in this sense no doubt—because he hated established religions—that Shelley called himself and atheist, but the whole structure of his mind was essentially religious. His religion was, however, Platonic both in its excellence and in its defects. Shelley like Plato believes in a supreme power; it is beyond and above the world but also within, at once immanent and transcendent; it works from within the world, struggling with the obstructions of matter, transforming matter and moulding it to its will. Like Plato Shelley is vividly conscious of the unity of the world and of all life, and the underlying spirit, though it reveals, itself in many forms, is everywhere and essentially the same:—
The One remains, the many change and pass! (Adonais)
It is immanent in the world and yet transcendent, it is that power
Which wields the world with never wearied love Sustains it from beneath and kindles it above.
Shelley, like Plato, celebrates this spirit in many different ways sometimes as the supreme Love, sometimes as the supreme Beauty, sometimes as the supreme Wisdom, sometimes as the supreme Liberty.
As is the case with Plato, Shelley’s conception of the Supreme is much less anthropomorphic and personal than the God of the Bible. Again, both Plato and Shelley lay hold of the idea of Deity largely from the aesthetic side. (Vide Hymn to Intellectual Beauty).
Like Plato Shelley, too, believed in the immortality of the soul and its pre-existence and reincarnation
(2) Cosmic Speculations. In the Timacus Plato teaches that the entire universe is the self-evolution of an absolute intelligence; thinking in accordance with the laws of its own perfections it creates and animates the universes. All parts of this universe are inspired by their own intelligence : the sun is the visible embodiment of the supreme spirit; the planets are all divine or under the guidance of divine spirits; (Plato speaks of the soul of the seven plants : the Earth also is a divine being. Shelley has embodied all these conceptions in his poetry. (Vide Hymn to Apollo and Prometheus Unbound; the latter is full of Platonic imagery concerning the soul of the Earth and the soul of the planets).
(3) Social and Political ideas. With regard to man’s nature and general position in society, Shelley again shows certain resemblances to Plato. Shelley, like Plato, is conscious of dualism. In his Prometheus Unbound it forms the leading idea. Prometheus is the soul of man, his mind, noble and suffering; in Jupiter is exemplified the baser side of man, his lusts and concupiscence, his errors of mind and his sins of body. Besides, Shelley’s general conception of society is essentially Greek; it consists of voluntary rule over voluntary subjects.
(4) The Theory of Love. Shelley’s conception of love is essentially Platonic. Plato’s distinctive teachings on this subject have depended mainly upon two circumstances: his philosophy of beauty and the extraordinarily high position which he ascribes to love as an inspiration in human life. Beauty has such an enormous power over men, because, according to Plato, they have previously beheld it in the heaven-world and, since sight is the keenest of the bodily senses, they are more powerfully stirred by beauty than by anything else; beholding it they are rapt beyond themselves and henceforward consumed with exalted desire. Such a vision is described many a time in Shelley. In Alastor the hero receives the revelation of an ideal beauty, like nothing upon earth; henceforth he pursues it through the world and perishes in the vain efforts to attain it.
Plato says that love is a principle which extends through all nature; it rules over all things, divine as well as human. This kind of cosmic love is described in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, where it pervades all the elements, extending form the greatest of things to the least. The Sensitive Plant, again, is a poem full of Platonic ideas; a cosmic love is evident in all parts of nature, and individualizes itself in the individual flowers. In Epipsychidion, however, we have Shelley’s fullest expression of the Platonic theory of love; large portions of the poem are almost a paraphrase of the Phaedrus. Emilia is a winged soul soaring over the darkness of earth; she is an incarnation of a brighter beauty descending from a lovelier and more wonderful world. She is the mirror which reflects most brightly the glory of the unseen world. The beauty of her mind is far greater than the beauty of her body, which is only reflection; she is an image of the eternal beauty.
5. Shelley’s Idealism in His Poetry: Shelley was a magnificent idealist. “Shelley,” says Elton, “is more constantly a poet of the idealizing type than any other except possibly Spenser. If Byron is a great interpreter of revolutionary iconoclasm, Shelley on the contrary, is a great revolutionary idealist, and a poetic prophet of faith and hope in a world which for the moment had lost both. Byron and Shelley thus represent two sides of the French Revolution—Byron its destructive side and Shelley its constructive and idealistic side. Shelley took the more ideal side of human life. He is fond of painting a gold age of human happiness. Shelley was a reformer as well as a poet. He was a great inheritor and exponent of the ideas of the French Revolution. The ideas as well as the passion of the Revolution glitter and vibrate in Shelley’s poem.
“The devotion to the unseen and unattainable as the only true reality could not exist without a keen sensibility to the tangible and transitory forms in which Shelley’s ideals clothed themselves. His poetry always comes to face with ideas which to most men are unsubstantial and unreal, investing them with a reality which sets at naught the common estimates of life, is naturally of many of his readers a mist of beautiful music and colour in which sense is obscured.” The distinguishing note in Shelley,” says Edmunds, is ideality—the quality of raising every thought and action on to a higher plane, the imaginative faculty of taking into his mind the wisest reaches and loftiest visions.” Love, liberty and nature are treated in the same ideal way. His love soars and fades away into eternity. The territory of liberty he is impatient to make his own and all men’s. Nature is not only flowers and streams, mountains and seas; but the movement of an eternal spirit. And in religion, wherein he has been most misunderstood, what he could not endure with patience was the imperfection and the incompleteness, the unworthy littleness of what passed for Christianity. The effect of his poetry upon the mind is to keep awake our enthusiasms and our purest ideals, and this was what he most desired to do.
6. Shelley’s Marvellous Poetic Genius. Here Prof. Cazamian’s view have been summarized. Shelley’s poetic genius was marvellous, though his span of life was very short, and it was cut off at twenty-nine. Shelley’s poetry is suffused with a creative beauty of a purely poetical quality which has appeared in no other English poet with the exception of Spenser, and to a lesser degree, Keats. Its dazzling images, its rapid rhythms, its grace and delicacy of touch, its exquisite melodies and harmonies, win us to forget the vagaries of the reformer in the perfection of the artist. The beauty of his verse is incomparable. His diction is magnificent. His lyricism is marvellous. His verse, responsive to the influence of every mood, trembles and sighs with alternative despondency and hope. “In the old to the West Wind it moves to stately music, wrapped in a garment of splendid imagery. In the lines To a Skylark it takes wing with its subject ‘in profuse strains of unpremeditated art.’ Alone among modern poets, Swinburne has surpassed him in variety of metre and music, but Swinburne used .his forms with greater self-consciousness and was often too intent upon the perfection of his workmanship to remember the vital qualities which Shelley never forgot.”
“No poet, ancient or modern, has equalled Shelley in the power of accumulating successions of sublime images in flowing verses; no poet has ever exhibited such inexhaustible resounds as in finding words metrically suited to the subtle and intricate wanderings of spiritual thought.”
He is not an unequal poet like Wordsworth; he is much more constantly a poet than Wordsworth. Shelley’s poetical career was of a shorter span than that of Byron and was concentrated within some ten years only. “Shelley’s life,” says Prof. Cazamian, “was one of passionate devotion to intellect, and this ardour explains how his ideas were transmuted into poetry.” In Byron we find more power of the intellect than of the imagination. In Shelley, on the contrary, the imagination is first and the intellect second.
7. Shelley’s Lyricism. Shelley’s genius was essentially lyrical, and he reigns supreme in the vast domain of lyricism. The lyrical mood predominates in all his works. His moods, impressions, thoughts and emotions embodied themselves naturally in verse. In lyric, as E.W. Edmunds remarks, Shelley is among the greatest poets of the world because of the purity at once of his melody and of its inspiration. his lyrics we find and abundance of rich music of the most exquisite tone. “Shelley’s lyricism,” says Prof. Cazamian, “is incomparable. In no other do we find the perfect sureness, the triumphant rapidity of this upward flight, this soaring height, the super terrestrial quality as well as the poignant intensity of the sounds which fall from these aerial regions. Truly never was the soul of a poet so spontaneously lyrical “ Everything with Shelley is the occasion for a musical stir, since his powers of feeling are the keenest attuned and most delicate of his age. The susceptibility of his physical and moral organism is such that his work bears throughout the diffused traces of a kind of psychological morbidness. The tone of Shelley’s poetry is not that of a voluptuous sensuality, but of a keen aspiration, in which mystical desire, with its anguished pangs and spiritual raptures, transcends the joys and sufferings of ordinary mankind. “Shelley remains, above all, a lyrical poet, the greatest that England or perhaps modern Europe has produced.” His influence on the poets of the succeeding generation was very great. Browning and Tennyson came strongly under his spell. Alastor, Epipsychidion, and Adonais are the longest and most elaborate of Shelley’s personal poems. In them he utters his deepest and most personal feelings as lyrically as in the Ode to the West Wind or the Lines Written in Dejection at Naples.
Word music as well as the music of sound are noted characteristics of Shelley’s verse. The subjective note or personal element– a description of personal feelings and emotions, joys and sorrows—- enters largely into his poetry. Shelley either blends wails of personal despair with some aspect or phenomenon of Nature, or colours Nature with his own mood of joy or sorrow. A good example is the Ode to the West wind. His total identification of self with the thing he describes is a unique feature of his lyricism. Here also the Ode to the West Wind is a good example:-
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
Be thou, spirit fierce,
My spirit ! Be thou me. impetuous one!
As Stopford Brooke writes : “He passes from magnificent union of himself with nature and magnificent realisation of her storm and peace to equally great self-description, and he mingles all nature and all himself together, that he may sing of the restoration of mankind- Shelley’s love-lyrics portray a variety of moods and emotions. But running through them all is the note of ideality– the pain of unsatisfied and unsatisfiable desire, the craving for a relation that should satisfy the highest needs of human nature and a spirit of self- immersion and self-effacement. Unity of thought and emotion which is an essential condition of a good lyric is perfectly achieved by Shelley. Spontaneity of utterance marks all his verse. In none of his poems is there any sign of strain or effort. He sings ‘in profuse .strains of unpremeditated art,’ and this is why he is called the most poetical of poets.”
Shelley holds a very high place in lyric poetry. In lyric, he is among the greatest of the world, because of the purity at once of his melody and of its inspiration. Whatever art he brought to bear upon his poems, he never allowed it to descend into artifice; he sang the truth as he saw it and felt it, with a sincerity quite unsurpassed; and when the chaff has been winnowed from the grain in his works, there remains an abundance of rich music of the most exquisite tone, according to E.W. Edmunds.
“Lyrical poetry is, in the main, the expression of personal mood or feeling, and the essential qualities of mind of a writer of lyrical poetry are extreme sensitiveness, great emotional and imaginative power. Shelley possessed each of these qualities in an unusual degree,” says Newton.
Clutton-Brock has pointed out that movement is his chief means of expression and even of representation. No poet has succeeded so perfectly in welding music and thought- of
synchronizing, as it were, the vibrations of rhythm and emotion. His lyrics are also marked by spontaneity and ease. No praise would be excessive for the ecstasy of feeling, the lightness and grace, the felicity of phrase, the glorious melody, and the verbal magic of such poems, for example, as To a Skylark, The Cloud, The Sensitive Plant, the Ode to the West Wind, and Lament.
Stopford A. Brooke says that some of the lyrics are purely personal; some, as in the very finest, the Ode to the West Wind, mingle together personal feeling and prophetic hope for mankind. Some are lyrics of pure nature; some are dedicated to the rebuke of tyranny and the cause of liberty (Ode to Liberty); others are belong to the indefinite passion he called love, and others are written on visions of these “shapes that haunt Thought’s wildernesses.” They form together the most sensitive, the most imaginative, and the most musical, but the least tangible, lyrical poetry we possess. “Shelley’s love-lyrics are often of elusive kind, and are generally sad. ‘Rarely, rarely comest thou,’ and ‘Swifter far than summer’s flight, and’ O World ! 0 Life ! 0 Time !‘ are perhaps the extreme expressions of his temper.”
“By far the greater number of Shelley’s lyrics express some sadness : ‘Rarely, rarely comest thou Spirit of delight.’ ‘How am I changed my hopes were once like fire. The flowers that smiles today, tomorrow dies’ ‘Far, far away, 0 ye, ‘Halcyons of Memory” are typical poems. The poet sings his melancholy, making no attempt to discover why
Out of the day and night
A joy has taken flight.
Where so much is perfect expression, it is hard to choose, but perhaps the Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples are the most beautiful rendering of this mood. Nature brings no peace to him, as she did to Wordsworth. The bright skies, blue isles, and snowy mountains but remind him that he has neither hope nor health,” nor peace within” “nor calm around.” It is the same situation in his other lyrics; the wind “moans for the world’s wrong” the moan is a lady “sick and pale,” even the happy notes of the lark remind the poet that his own song cannot make the world listen. Love brings to him the bitterest disappointments. “Send the stars light, but send not love to me,” is his prayer.
I would not be a thing- enough
Of we it is to love;
he sings, and the thought of many poems is compressed in the lyric ‘When the lamp is shattered.’ The most ethereal of English poets, he loves to write of the heavens, of light in all its forms, and of the flowers. Shelley makes nature ghostly: it is a spirit that he seeks behind the cloud and the rain .The Skylark illustrates aptly this point; the poet’s spirit pours itself out in stanza after stanza all illustrating one idea; the bird is likened to a poet, a maiden in her bower, a glow worm, and a rose The Ode to the West Wind is perhaps the best of all his lyrics. Though his melancholy appears here also, the song ends in an unusually hopeful strain. “Exquisite in its imagery, emotional, and yet restrained to an unusual degree, this is one of the treasures of English literature.” The rhythmical structure of the West Wind should be studied as a typical example of Shelley’s power to make the moment of verse embody its mood. In this ode, the impetuous sweep and tireless overflow of the terzarima, ending after each twelfth line in a couplet, suggest with wonderful truth the streaming and volleying of the wind, interrupted now and then by a sudden full. Likewise in The Skylark, the fluttering lift of the bird’s movement, the airy ecstasy and rippling gush of its song, are mirrored in the rhythm in a thousand subtly varying effects. And such a poem as To Night (“Swiftly walk over the western wave”) marks perhaps the extreme limit of the romantic divergence from eighteenth century strictness of form; but it obeys higher law than that off regularity, and with all its way wardness it is as perfect in shape as a flower, as Dr. Reed points out.
George Saintsbury observes : “What the subject was mattered very little (to Shelley); extravagantly revolutionary ideas in politics religion, and morals, dramas, songs, and mystical adaptations of classical myths—all turn to a glorious effect of poetry, often indistinctly outlined, but always bathed in splendid hazes of light and colour…
“If there is any drawback to this characteristic (of unsubstantiality), which certainly makes Shelley, like Spenser, rather a poet’s poet and lover’s poet than one for the average person, it must necessarily show less in short lyrics, where solid substance is not expected, And few competent critics deny that, taking volume and quality together, Shelley is the greatest lyric poet in English, if not in the world’s literature, But even his wife complained of a certain want of human interest’ in some of his work.
Shairp avers: “Other lyric poet sing of what they feel Shelley in his lyrics sings of what he wants to feel. The thrills of desire, the gushes of emotion, are all straining after something seen after but unattained, something distant or future; or they are wails of passionate despair, utter despondency for something hopelessly gone. Yet it must be owned that those bursts of passionate desire after ideal beauty set our pulses a throbbing with a strange vibration, even when we do not really sympathize with them. Even his desolate wails make those for a moment seem to share his despair who do not really share it. Such is the charm of his impassioned eloquence, and the witchery of his music.”
8. Shelley as a Prophet. Shelley has his place, says Prof. Elton, apart and secure among the English prophets, in the great line from King Alfred to Carlyle. “He has a clear and sublime vision of the hops of mankind. He wishes to see the world freed from all the enslavements of the brain, and from the sloth that besets the heart and imagination. He imagines an age of mental light, with the law of love and beauty for its principle. To this vision of a regenerate earth he comes by many paths. He is an artist as well as a prophet. He is more constantly a poet than any Englishman of the idealizing type, except possibly Spenser; and his teaching is rarer and more inspiring than Spenser’s while his style is not less instinctively right and lovely.” Liberty, equality, and the brother hood of man were the ideals which presented themselves to him as objects capable d attainment, and he set himself with fervour to denounce the existing order of things and assail the barriers which checked the free development of the human spirit. Animated by theories of William Godwin, he attacked government and religion kings and priests. He seriously wished to reform the world by replacing tyranny with love. On this point he was a fanatic, for he was completely obsessed by this idea. Like all intensely emotional people, he was often in extremes either of rapture or of despair—rapture at the glory of his ideals, or despair at the evil and corruption of the world. He abhorred all dogmatic rules of belief and morals in as much as they, according to him, cramp and warp the spiritual liberty and progress of man, which, he affirms, can be obtained only in a universe controlled by love. He spent his life in the quest of a perfection which he sometimes called freedom, sometimes beauty, sometimes love. To Shelley the three were synonymous. Perfect liberty is, according to him, impossible without perfect love and perfect beauty is the outcome of these two.
The prophetic tendency of Shelley is apparent everywhere in his poems. He longed to reform the world in his own ideal way. This prophetic tendency is prominent in the last stanza of the
Ode to the West Wind:
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like withered leaves, to quicken a new birth,
And by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words amog mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! 0, Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
9. Love of Freedom, Love and Beauty. Freedom is the breath of Shelley’s works—freedom not only from the tyranny of earthly powers, but from the tyranny of religion, expressing itself in republicanism, in pseudo atheism, and in complete emancipation from the current moral code both in conduct and in writing.
Liberty, equality, and fraternity were ideals which presented themselves to him as objects capable of attainment, and he set himself with fervour to denounce the existing order of things and assail the barriers which checked the free development of the human spirit. Animated by the theories of William Godwin he attacked Government and religion, kings and priests, with an enthusiasm which inverted all traditional estimates of character and conduct. He regarded the dissemination of his theories as a sacred mission.
Shelley’s idea of love was Platonic. It did not ‘deal with flesh and blood’ “The doctrine of free love is inwrought by him with the other doctrine, adapted from Platonism, of ideal or intellectual love. His study of Dante’s Vita Nuova and Canzoniere, with their history of a rarefied and spiritualized love, also counted for much.” Shelley may be called a love-mystic, as Wordsworth may be called a nature- mystic. Shelley was always searching for ideal love. He conceives that love pervades the whole universe. The following lines illustrate his conception of love and beauty:
Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere, (The Sensitive Plant)
For love and beauty and delight, There is no death nor change :
(The Sensitive Plant)
And the love which heals all strife.
(Lines written among the Euganean Hills)
That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,
That Beauty in which all things work and move,
That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse
Of birth can quench not, that sustaining Love
Which through the web of being blindly wove
By man and beast and earth and air and sea,
Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of
The fire for which all thirst ;
Spirit of Beauty, that dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Of human thought or form,-where art thou gone!
(Hymn to Intellectual Beauty)
And one sound beneath, ground
One sound beneath around, above, Was moving; ‘it was the soul of Love.’
Nothing in the world is single, All things by a law divine, In another’s being mingle.
The pursuit of the spirit of beauty and love dominates all his work. “He spent his life,” says Crump, “in the quest of a perfection which he sometimes called freedom, sometimes beauty, sometimes love– to Shelley the three were synonymous ; perfect liberty was impossible without perfect love, and perfect beauty was the outcome of these two. Liberty of man could be obtained only in a universe controlled by love.”
There are plenty of Shelley’s short lyrics, expressing the sentiment of love, tender, sometimes fanciful and sometimes full of unsatisfied craving, but always aspiring beyond the actual and sensual– always seeking for an ideal consummation of this sentiment. The different types and aspects of love contemplated by Shelley are summed up in the Epipsy chidion. He makes love the main principle in the universe, and pays his homage to it for its manifestation in beauty– and so love comes to be allied to beauty. Love is to Shelley a higher transcending principle, and so he often talks of self- effacement in connection with it, and of little direct personal relation with the object of love.
To Shelley the form assumed by the divine in man was love. He was always searching for love, Strains of delight in love and beauty, and of protest against a world where love and beauty are not fixed eternal forms, run through all the poetry of Shelley. The conception of love as the sole principle of freedom, joy, beauty, and harmony, in nature and in man appears in all Shelley’s poems. He is pre-eminently a poet of love.
Shelley’s devotion to liberty, and his whole-hearted belief in love as the prime factor in all human progress— these two dominate all his work. Liberty, in his eyes, was freedom from all external restraint. Love is to reign supreme, for only in an atmosphere of love can liberty efficiently work. Love is, with Shelley, a transcendental force, kindling all things into beauty. No poet felt more deeply the dynamic influence of love in moulding human destiny; none realized more utterly the insignificance of life devoid of love.
“Shelley and Keats were creators of beauty. Shelley’s vision is more metaphysical : beauty for him is ‘intellectual’, a spirit living and working through the universe and ultimately undistinguishable from the ‘love’ which ‘sustains’ it. The Keatsian vision of beauty, on the other hand, is predominantly a rapturous exaltation of the senses. Both the Shelleyan and the Keatsian visions of beauty are mirrored finally in the poetic instrument of expression, as Herford says.
“Shelley shared with Keats the perception of lovely form and colour and expressed it with magic utterance, but concrete beauty was not lovely to him, as it was to Keats, for its own sake. Where Keats gave a value to every detail of his landscapes, dwelling with particular emphasis upon each manifestation of earthly beauty which he saw, Shelley reduced his detail to a mere silhouette against a background of supernatural radiance or to indistinctness in a pervading atmosphere of dazzling light,” points out Hamilton Thompson.
10 Extraordinary Musical Gift. No poet has succeeded so perfectly in welding music and thought– of synchronizing, as it were the vibration of rhythm and emotion. “He changes the rhythm, not only from stanza to stanza and line to line, but from word to word, with every slightest variation of feeling.” “Shelley has the gift of lending poetry the sweetest and most liquid harmonies, not the most sonorous and sensual, but pure in their vehement intensity. The flowing ease with which the words merge into one another, at the same time as the ideas they call forth join up together, goes to prove that for Shelley, the most poetical of poets, the psychological melody and the cadence of syllables, as spontaneous the one as the other, naturally formed but one music. He has experimented with all rhythms: the suppleness and variety of his prosody are extraordinary; the Spenserian stanza of Adonais, the “terza rima” of the Triumph of Life, the metrical combinations of Prometheus, are the variations of a master upon accepted themes, or the inventions of an original genius, even when the form testifies to the poet’s
negligence, and as it were to his impatience. When it lacks the finish only to be acquired from an industrious art, it retains the felicity of inspired expression; and that language, like that measure, so individual, through their characteristic turn, their liquid but ever undulating flow, which is a continual creation, and not the forced adaptation of a rhythmic utterance to a preconceived framework, convey to us the poignant impression of contact with the innermost pulsations of the artist’s heart.” “In Shelley’s rhythm there is natural magic, and the Skylark poem is a very happy example of this.” The beauty and variety of his rhythm is remarkable (for example,’ Swifter far than summer’s flight’ the ‘Ode to the West Wind,’ ‘Rarely, rarely comest thou,’ the ‘snatches and fragments,’ The Sensitive Plant, etc) Word-music as well as the music of sound are noted characteristics of Shelley’s verse.
11. Varied imagery. Shelley deals less with actualities than does any other English poet. His imagery is that of a dream—world, peopled by ethereal forms. The world of spirits was more real to him than our world of hard facts. “So habitual and familiar, says Raleigh, “was Shelley’s converse with this spectral world that both in his thought and in his expression it held the place of what is commonly called the real world. The figures of his poetry illustrate what is strange by what is familiar, and it is the shadows and spirits that are familiar.” Even when he borrows imagery from Nature, it is from a nature heightened and rarefied by passage through his own temperament. The autumn leaves scurrying before the wind remind him of ‘ghosts from an enchanter fleeing’ (Ode to the West Wind.) The skylark in the heavens is ‘like a poet hidden in the light of thought.’ It is hard to imagine anything more remote than,
Such as ghost dream dwell in the lampless deep.
All his imagery is thus dream-imagery. It is also a “dazzling shifting imagery.” He is at the other pole from Wordsworth’s homeliness and large acceptance of Nature as she is. Wordsworth’s imagery embodies; Shelley’s imagery disembodies, Hence an air of unreality rests over all of Shelley’s work, an unreality made more conspicuous by his unpractical theories of conduct and society.” No poet, ancient or modern,” says Courthope, “has equalled Shelley in the power of accumulating successions of sublime images in flowing verse ; no poet has ever exhibited such inexhaustible resources in finding words metrically suited to the subtle and intricate windings of spiritual thought.”
We find kaleidoscopic fertility of imagery in Shelley’s poetry. Some of the best examples of this quality are found in the first two stanzas of the Ode to the West Wind and the poem “When the lamp is shattered.” Shelley’s imagery is always shifting. Sometimes there are abrupt transitions. (vide The Flight of Love, stanza IV, and Ode to Night stanzas II and III, the transition of ‘her’ in line 11 to ‘his’ in line 19 with reference to ‘Day.’) This rapid transition of thought and imagery sometimes entails obscurity. Besides, his imagery, being mostly unreal, is vague. Many a time he is found describing a perfectly definite object or scene by a figure drawn from the most complex abstract conception. Thus he would speak of the ‘dead leaves of trees’ being ‘driven before the West Wind, under the similitude of ‘ghosts before an Enchanter flying’.
Shelley’s similes and metaphors are very charming. To a Skylark and Ode to the West Wind, for example, contain many fine similes and metaphors. Shelley usually illustrates the familiar and known by the unfamiliar and unknown. He has enriched English poetry with a new series of images and poetical expressions of thought. In this connection we many consider also what is known as the mythopoeic gift of Shelley. Shelley’s poetry is full of personifications, not the cold and frigid personifications of the eighteenth century poets, but personifications which are conceived with such intensity and power that they become a real spiritual presence inspiring awe and wonder. Such is the spirit of the West Wind and such are the spirits of the Hours in Prometheus.
“Shelley has created the wondrous myths and the cosmic scheme in which the elements, the planets, the clouds and the west wind, become quickened with their individual existence, and speak a language that we can understand.” This rnythopoeic faculty i.e. the faculty of making new myths means giving life, motion and human attributes to the forces of nature, or thinking of them in terms of human personalities. This faculty reveals Shelley’s Hellenism. Poems like The Cloud and Ode to the West Wind illustrate Shelley’s mythopoeic faculty. In them he personifies the forces of nature.
12. Vagueness and unreality. Shelley’s poetry has been much criticized and much condemned by Matthew Arnold and others, because of its vagueness, what Arnold called its “fatal lack of substantiality.” He described Shelley as a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” Beautiful he certainly is, but is he ineffectual? Because he is vague and unpractical because he regards history as a dirty record of crime and brutality, practical politics as a waste of time, and dogmatic religion as an unnecessary evil, and yet provides us with no moral political and religious code in their place, is that to say he is ineffectual ? It has been said. that his scheme was to reform the world, but that he demonstrates the impossibility of his ideas in his poetry where his ideals are pictured and his theories realized in another and an ideal world; and thus he leads us to the conclusion that love cannot, as he hoped, bring the millennium. But, even if it were granted that this too were true, it would not prove him ineffectual.
“The very vagueness of Shelley’s poetry is an essential part of its charm. He speaks the language of pure emotion, where definite perceptions are melted into the mood they generate. Possessed by the desire of escape, he gazes calmly and steadily on nothing of earthly build. Every visible object is merely another starting point for the cobwebs of dreams.” Like his own poet in Prometheus Unbound.
Nor seeks nor finds he mortal blisses,
But feeds on the aereal kisses
Of shapes that haunt thought’s wilderness:
He will watch from dawn to gloom The lake-reflected sun illume
The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom,
Nor hear nor see, what things they be;
But from these create he can
Forms more real than living man,
Nurslings of immortality.
‘His thoughts travel incessantly from what he sees to what he desires, and his goal is no more distinctly conceived than his starting-place. His devotion is to something afar from the sphere of our sorrow; the voices that he hears bear him vague massages and hints
Of some world far from ours
Where music and moonlight are one.
And this perfect lyrical vagueness produces some of the most ghostly and bodiless descriptions to be found in all poetry. His scenery is dream-scenery. The scene of his poem is laid among
Dim twilight lawns and stream-illumined caves, And wild-enchanted shapes of wandering mist.
And the inhabitants are even less definite in outline as Sir Walter Raleigh observes; the spaces of his imagination are:
Peopled with unimaginable shapes
Such as ghosts dream dwell in the lampless deep.
13. Melancholic strain. Shelley was profoundly melancholy. His poems are permeated by “the still sad music of humanity.” This melancholic strain is present everywhere in Shelley’s poetry. He says in To a Skylark.
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest
Again he says:
Most wretched souls—
Are cradled into poetry by wrong
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.
Shelley says in the Ode to the West Wind:
I fall upon the thorns of life ! I bleed.
“Though Shelley is profoundly melancholy,” says Bradle, even his saddest poems, even the Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples and the lament, swifter far than summer’s flight, do not make me sad, and hardly make me pity him. In this sorrow, however forlorn and deep, there is not bitterness; and in the soul that feels it, and can so utter it that sorrow becomes more beautiful than beauty’s self, there is something above sorrow and beyond its reach.”
14. Romantic element. Romantic element is very strong in Shelley’s poetry. Among the Romantic poets Shelley held a distinctive place. His poetry is permeated by the very spirit of Romanticism. His poetic style and his imagery are essentially romantic. He was the idealist of the revolutionary moment. While Byron represented merely the destructive side of the revolution and Keats sang of beauty alone. Shelley played the role of a poetic prophet of faith and hope in a world which for the moment had lost both.
15. Shelley’s conception and treatment of Nature. Like all Romantic poets Shelley had a new attitude towards Nature. Shelley’s reading of Nature was transcendental, which to some readers may be vague and misty. But vague it assuredly is not, since Shelley’s philosophy of Nature is perfectly clear and consistent, and in his finest lyrics, such as The Cloud and The West Wind, there is a logical power development, and when the poet is so disposed, a scientific accuracy, that is too often overlooked by the slovenly reader.”
Shelley’s love of Nature was ardent. He conceived of Nature like Wordsworth as a conscious spirit, a living and breathing presence pervading the whole universe. But the spirit which informs Shelley’s Nature is ‘love. His nature poems revel his love of that which is indefinite and changeful. His soul seems to have been naturally attracted to the phenomena of the clouds and the sky. Their shifting colours, their changefulness, their dissolving views, he can best present in Lines of superb imaginative beauty and enchanting melody. Another notable feature of Shelley’s nature description is that he had the power of conceiving the life of separate things in nature with astonishing individuality. He had a great mythological faculty. In this respect he resembles the ancient Greek. But Shelley’s conceptions of the life of these Natural things are less human than even the Homeric Greek or early Indian poets would have made them Shelley!s spirits of earth moon are utterly apart from our would of thought and our life. “The same observation is true if we take a poem on a living thing in Nature like To a Skylark into which human sentiment is introduced. It is the archetype of the lark we seem to listen to and yet we cannot conceive it. The subjective element too is sufficiently present in Shelley’s description of nature. Sometimes he makes nature the mere image ol his own feelings, the creature of his mood.”
“As a poet of nature,” says Stopford A. Brooke, “Shelley had the same idea as Wordsworth, that nature was alive : but while Wordsworth made the active principle which filled and made nature to be Thought, Shelley made it Love. The Natural world was dear then to his soul as well as a to his eye, but he loved best its indefinite aspects. He wants the closeness of grasp of nature which Wordsworth and Keats had, but he had the power in a far greater degree than they of describing the cloud-scenery of the sky, the doings of the great sea, and vast realms of landscape, He is in this as well as in his eye for subtle colour, the Turner of Poetry.”
To Shelley Nature conveyed an impression of something deeper than mere sensuous beauty. Nature is to him, as to Wordsworth, the incarnation of an eternal spirit. His descriptions of sunset, dawn, cloud, and storm are very picturesque. But Shelley is hardly so close an observer of Nature as Wordsworth While Wordsworth spiritualizes the results of his observations, Shelley rather etherealizes his impressions. But at times, in hours of inspiration, Shelley rose to the position of a mystic; the finest example is towards the close of Adonais Stanza XLII:
He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,
Spreading itself where’er that Power may move
Which has withdrawn his being to its own;
Which wields the world with never-wearied love;
Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above. Again he says in the Alastor:
Earth, ocean, air, beloved brotherhood!
Over and above, Shelley, like Tennyson, has a tendency to weave scientific facts of Nature into the texture of his poems. The Cloud is a brilliant example The following lines are specimens:
I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the sky:
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores,
I change, but I cannot die.
“Almost the whole of Alastor is occupied with descriptions of wild and marvellous scenery-mostly amongst mountains and rivers. Shelley’s descriptions are rarely mere adornments—never when lii is writing well; they are in a sense dramatic. They contribute something essential to the subject matter of the poem. But Nature brings no peace to him, as she does to Wordsworth. The bright skies, blue isles, and snowy mountains (e.g., in the Stanzas Written in Dejection) but remind him that he has neither hope nor health, nor peace within, nor calm around.
Sometimes Shelley conceives of Nature as a purely elemental force, with which human thought or human association has nothing to do. The Cloud is notably such an example. Sometimes he makes Nature blend with his anguish of soul, and Nature is in fact a reflection of his own self in such a case. Grand descriptions of nature are abundant in Shelley’s poetry. Mont Blanc illustrates Shelley’s description of the sublime beauty and majesty of the mountains scenery. Alastor, The Sensitive Plan, Stanzas Written in Dejection Near Naples, Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills, also contain many superb passages of nature description. To Shelley, as to Wordsworth, everything in Nature is full of life and movement. His nature-descriptions reveal his conception of life, motion, and splendour in Nature. The senses of colour, musical sound, light and smell are predominant in Shelley’s nature-poetry. The following lines illustrate these qualities:—
Yellow, and black and pale, and hectic red,
(Ode to the West Wind)
Blue isles and snowy mountains were
The purple noon’s transparent might.
(Stanzas written in Dejection)
And the hyacinth purple and white and blue,
Which flung from its bells a sweet peal anew
Of music so delicate, soft, and intense,
It was felt like an odour within the sense.
(The Sensitive Plant)
With living hues and ordours plain and hill
(Ode to the West Wind)
Shelley’s weaving of scientific truths into his poetry may be illustrated from The Cloud and Ode to the West Wind arid To A Skylark. The following lines also illustrate this.
When the cloud is scattered, The rainbow’s glory is shed
(When the lamp is shattered)
Keen are the arrows
Of that silver sphere,
Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear
Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there. (To a Skylark)
The influence of natural scenery on the mind of the poet is also revealed in his poems. Beautiful natural scenery soothes the agitated mind of the poet. (See Stanza W of the Stanzas Written in Dejection Near Naples.)
16. Mysticism. Shelley believed in soul of the Universe, a Spirit in which all things live and move and have their being. His most passionate desire was for the mystical fusion of his own personality with this Spirit.
17. Pantheism. “Shelley,” says Stopford A. Brooke, “was not an atheist or a materialist. If he may be said to have occupied any theoretical position, it was that of an Ideal Pantheist. Wordsworth, a plain Christian at home, wrote about Nature as a pantheist. The artist loves to conceive of the universe, not as dead but as alive. Into that belief Shelley in the hour of inspiration continually rose and his work is seldom more impassioned and beautiful than in the passages where he feels and believes in this manner. The finest example is towards the close of the Adonais. In his mind, however, the living spirit which in its living, made the Universe, was not conceived of as Thought, as Wordsworth conceived it, but as Love operating into Beauty.”
18. Shelley’s Style and Diction. Shelley’s poetry varies considerably in style. He was a more accomplished ‘man of letters’ than the other romantic poets; he could vary his manner successfully to suit the tone of his work, as in The Cenci, his stage play, or in familiar or humorous poems such as Julian and Maddalo and Peter Bell the Third. His style is unique and inimitable. His descriptions of natural scenes, for instance, are full of delightful suggestiveness for the imaginative reader,
Spontaneity and fluidity are the proof of his wealth of imagination. There is no effect of laborious artistry about Shelley’s style at any time. “The language is poetical through and through,” says Bradley, “not, as sometimes with Wordsworth, only half- poetical, and yet it seems to drop from Shelley’s lips. It is not wrought and kneaded; it flows. The spontaneity and fluidity Shelley’s writing are present almost equally in the narrative Spenserians of the revolt of Islam and the dramatic blank verse of The Cenci; and fully, though not constantly, in his highest flights; and they help to make the best of his quieter lyrics comparable with the best Elizabethan songs”
“Shelley, of all the great Romantic poets of the beginning of the nineteenth century, was the most spontaneous Byron was equally fluent; but Byron’s highest achievements do not reach Shelley’s level, and his fluency was attended by a self-consciousness from which Shelley was entirely free.” His poetry is rich in lyrics in which the emotion of the heart takes form in words without effort. Nor has any other poet sung to one clear harp in so many diverse tones. His verse, responsive to the influence of every mood, trembles and sighs with alternating despondency and hope. In the Ode to the West Wind it moves to stately music, wrapped in a garment of splendid imagery. In the lines To a Skylark it takes wing with its subject ‘in profuse Strains of unpremeditated art’. Alone among modern poets, Swinburne, his most ardent disciple, has surpassed him in variety of meter and music.
“The variety of Shelley’s poetic style,” says Professor Elton, “is great. In a poem like the Hymn of pan or To Question it can be called romantic, in the more special sense; it is rich, and joyous, and full of colours and odours and liquid bird notes, approaching in character to the style of Keats”. He could vary his style successfully to suit the tone of his work In his short lyrics his art of overture, development and close, and his choice of meter correspond with his mood and emotion. But his skill in poetic construction is fitful. In The revolt of Islam it is slight or null, but it is at its highest in The Cenci, and in his lyrics.
Shelley’s diction is marked by directness, clarity, purity, magnificence, and strength. In vocabulary and phrase his diction is almost unsurpassingly pure; it seldom aims at strangeness, and it shows none of that anxious testing and adoption of Elizabethan forms which Leigh Hunt taught to Keats. His gift of musical diction and movement is unique.
Shelley has also certain limitations as a poet. He is sometimes accused of unsubstantiality and vagueness. Though there may be some truth in Arnold’s criticism of Shelley as “ a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain, but it is certainly too hard. When we study his poetry for its own sake, we forget the man in our admiration of the poet for it is poetry such as the world has rarely seen, not philosophical like that of Wordsworth or Browning, or popular like that of Burns or Tennyson, but suffused with a creative beauty of a purely poetical quality which has appeared in no other English poet with the exception of Spenser, and, to a lesser degree, Keats. Its dazzling images, its rapid rhythms, its grad and delicacy of touch, its exquisite melodies and harmonies, win us to forget the vagaries of the reformer in the perfection of the artist.”
19. Shelley’s Position in English Poetry. Shelley does not belong to the same rank as Shakespeare or Milton. He has neither Shakespeare’s sweeping vision and intimate knowledge of human nature and his genial and sunshiny humour, nor Milton’s puissant and splendid imagination, workmanship and grand style. Like Shakespeare he has never explored the recesses of the human heart or the motive-springs of human will or sounded the whole gamut of human passion. Certainly Shakespeare’s range and variety and depth of knowledge and experience was beyond the reach of Shelley who died prematurely only at the age of 29. Shelley’s superiority lies not in drama or epic but in the domain of lyrical poetry in English literature. Here he reigns supreme. He has enriched English poetry with superb imagery and enchanting melodies. His spontaneity is marvellous. Shelley is regarded as the greatest lyric poet in English. In lyric he is among the greatest of the world. Saintsbury regards that “few competent critics deny that, taking volume and quality together, Shelley is the greatest lyric poet in English.” “As a lyrical poet Shelley is,’ says Prof Cazamian, “the greatest that England or perhaps modern Europe has produced.”
Says Bradley: “What he says is highly characteristics of his own practice in composition. He allowed the rush of his ideas to have its way, without pausing to complete a troublesome line or to find a word that did not come; and the next day (if ever) he filled up the gaps and smoothed the ragged edges. And the result answers to his theory. Keats was right in telling him that he might be more of an artist. His language, indeed, unlike Wordsworth’s or Byron’s, is, in his mature work, always that of a poet; we never hear his mere speaking voice; but he is frequently defuses and obscure, and even in fine passages his constructions are sometimes trailing and amorphous. The glowing metal rushes into the mould so veheniently that it overleaps the bounds and fails to find its way into all the litth’ crevices. But no poetry is more manifestly inspired, and even when it is plainly imperfect it is sometimes so inspired that it is impossible to wish it changed. It has the rapture of the mystic, and that is too rare to lose. Tennyson quaintly said of the hymn Life of Life: ‘He seems to go up into the air and burst. It is true: and, if we are to speak of poems as fireworks, I would not compare Life of Life with a great set piece of Homer or Shakespeare that illumines the whole sky; but, all the same, there is no more thrilling sight than the heavenward rush of rocket, and, it bursts at height no other fire can reach.
“He is haunted by the fancy that if he could only get at the One, the eternal Idea, in complete aloofness from the many, from life with all its change, decay, struggle, sorrow, and evil, he would have reached the true object of poetry, as if the whole finite world were a mere mistake of illusion, the sheer opposite of the infinite One, and in no way or degree its manifestation. Life, he says:
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass
Stains the white radiance of eternity;
but the other side, the fact that many colours are the white light broken, he tends to forget, by no means always, but in one and that not the least inspired, of his moods. This is the source of that thinness and shallowness of which his view of the world is justly accused, a view in which all imperfect being is apt to figure as absolutely gratuitous, and everything and everybody as pure white or pitch black. Hence also his ideals of good, whether as a character or as mode of life, resting as they do on abstraction from the mass of real existence, tend to lack body and individuality, and indeed, if the existence of many is a mere calamity, clearly the next best thing to their disappearance is that they should all be exactly alike and have as little character as possible. But we must remember that Shelley’s strength and weakness are closely allied, and it may be that the very abstractness of his ideal was a condition of that quivering intensity of aspiration towards it in which his poetry is unequalled.”
In the end we will give the views of some critics of the present century who have summed up the chief characteristics of Shelley’s poetry.
Yeats observes: From these scattered fragments and observations and from many passages read in their light, one some comes to understand that his liberty was so much more than the liberty of Political Justice that it was one with intellectual beauty, and that the regeneration he foresaw was so much more than the regeneration many political dreamers have foreseen, that it could not come in its perfection till the hours bore ‘Time to his grave in eternity.’
T.S. Eliot says: Shelley both had views about poetry and made use of poetry for expressing views. With Shelley we are struck from the beginning by the number of things poetry is expected to do; from poet who tells us in a note on vegetarianism, that ‘the orange-outang perfectly resembles man both in the order and the number of his teeth’, we shall not know what to expect. The notes to Queen Mab express, it is true, only the views of an intelligent and enthusiastic schoolboy, but a schoolboy who knows how to write; and throughout his work, which is of no small bulk for a short life, he does not, I think, let us forget that he took his ideas seriously. The ideas of Shelley seem to me always to be ideas of adolescence—as there is every reason why they should be. And an enthusiasm for Shelley seems to me also to be an affair of adolescence: for most of us, Shelley has marked an intense period before maturity, but for how many does. Shelley remain the companion of age? I confess that I never open the volume of his poems simply because I want to read poetry, but only with some special reason for reference. I find his ideas repellent; and the difficulty of separating Shelley from his ideas and beliefs is still greater than with Wordsworth. And the biographical interest which Shelley has always excited makes it difficult to read the poetry without remembering the man : and the man was humourless, pedantic, self-centred, and sometimes almost a blackguard.
Shelley seems to have had to a high degree the unusual faculty of passionate apprehension of abstract ideas. Whether he was not sometimes confused about his own feelings, as we may be tempted to believe when confounded by the philosophy of Epipsychidion, is another matter. I do not mean that Shelley had a metaphysical or philosophical mind; his mind was in some ways a very confused one:
he was able to be at once and with the same enthusiasm an eighteenth century rationalist and a cloudy Platonist. But abstractions could excite in him strong emotion. His views remained pretty fixed, though his poetic gift matured. It is open to us to guess whether his mind would have matured too; certainly, in his last, and to my mind his greatest though unfinished poem, The Triumph of Life, there is evidence not only of better writing than in any previous poem, but of greater wisdom.
Herbert Read feels that the whole tendency of Shelley is towards a clarification and abstraction of thought—away from the personal and particular towards the general and universal….
But the highest beauties of Shelley’s poetry are evanescent and imponderable_thought so tenuous and intuitive, that it has no visual equivalent; no positive impact….such poetry has no precision, and the process of its unfolding is not logical. It does not answer to the general definition of any kind. It is vain to apply to it that method of criticism which assumes that the ardour of a verse can be analyzed into separate vocals, and that poetry is a function of sound. Poetry is mainly a function of language— the exploitation of a medium, a vocal and mental material, in the interests of a personal mood or emotion, or of the thoughts evoked by such moods or emotions. I do not think we can say much more about it; according to our sensitivity we recognize its success. The rest of our reasoning about it is either mere prejudice, ethical anxiety, or academic pride.
20. Resume of the Symposium: Shelley was a man of lofty and generous character. He was filled with a passion for reforming the world. He idealized Love as the saving emotion of humanity; to him Love was what Beauty was to Keats, the guiding principle of life. He was no mean thinker though sometimes vague and misty. His poetry is vague because he was quasi-metaphysical: because he clings continually to his view of the abstract truth, and because the visible world and the world of thought mingle them selves inextricably in his contemplation of it. For him there is no boundary-line between the two worlds; the one is as real and actual as the other. It is a vague world but it is a beautiful world—a world where music and moonlight and feeling are one, a world, moreover, where Shelley reigns absolutely master. His verse is strong as well as beautiful. His genius was essentially lyrical; his lyrics express the complex and aspiring emotions and vibrate sweet music and verbal witchery. He influenced Browning and Swinburne. He was romantic in his vivid individuality, and was full of lofty aspirations and idealizations. “The countless beautiful forms and images in Shelley’s poetry, the radiant colour investing them, the spontaneity and freedom of his lyric utterance, and the matchless rhythm of his verse—all have their unique charm.”
Don’t forget to share about “SYMPOSIUM OF CRITICS ON SHELLEY”.