Page images

propose, instead of giving large extracts that merely illustrate the beauty of his mind, to make a few, that by showing us the man, will create an admiration and an affection for him, and deepen the interest in his writings. The first are from the dedication to the Revolt of Islam, and so far as one's own testimony can go, there can be no stronger evidence at how early an age the benevolence of his nature began to work on the strength of his genius, and how strongly, even then, he revolted from what, in the limited view of his young perception, appeared to him to be the result of mischievous errors and ruinous vices, oppressing and perverting the spirit of man. But the lines also contain proof of the truth of the position that early circumstances may carry the taint of poison, or health and vigour, to the feelings of the after man; for it appears that the tyranny he endured or witnessed during his school days made him the friend of freedom, and the resolute foe of all unnecessary control and all forced obedience.

"Thoughts of great deeds were mine, dear friend, when first
The clouds, which wrap this world from youth, did pass.
I do remember well, the hour which burst
My spirit's sleep: a fresh May-dawn it was,
When I walked forth upon the glittering grass,
And wept, and knew not why; until there rose
From the near school-room, voices that, alas!
Were but one echo from a world of woes,
The harsh and grating strife of tyrants and of foes.

"And then I clasped my hands and looked around,
But none was near to mock my streaming eyes,
Which poured their warm drops on the sunny ground;
So without shame, I spake: '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.' I then controlled

My tears, my heart grew calm, and I was meek and bold.

"And from that hour did I, with earnest thought,
Heap knowledge from forbidden mines of lore.
Yet nothing, that my tyrants knew or taught,
I cared to learn; but from that secret store
Wrought linked armour for my soul, before
It might walk forth, to war among mankind;
Then power and hope were strengthened more and more
Within me, till there came upon my mind
A sense of loneliness,-a thirst with which I pined."

In these three stanzas we have the history of the boy: the strong feelings working within him, till they became a deep agony, their yielding to the influence of the loveliness of nature, and, amid this despair, the resolution to disregard personal interests, and devote himself to mankind; then the

desire of sympathy coming forth from the depth and sternness of his high resolve, with some one who would appreciate him, and on whom he might bestow the tenderness of his sensibility, and its intensity. In the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," we trace the same imaginative being, borne on by the great faculty of his nature, and pursuing all the fancies it created and nurtured.

"While yet a boy, I sought for ghosts, and sped Through many a listening chamber, cave, and ruin,

And starlight wood, with fearful steps, pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.

"When musing deeply on the lot of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing

All vital things that wake to bring
News of birds and blossoming.
Sudden, thy shadow fell on me :

I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstacy :
I vowed that I would dedicate my powers
To thee and thine. Have I not kept the vow?

"They know that never joy illumed my brow, Unlinked with hope; that thou would'st free This world from its dark slavery.

That thou, O awful Loveliness,

Would'st give whate'er these words cannot express.

"Thus let thy power, which, like the truth
Of nature, on my passive youth
Descended, to my onward life supply
Its calm, to one who worships thee,
And every form containing thee,
Whom, spirit fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all humankind."

In these extracts we can discover the character of the man and his mind; the germ both of his conduct and his writings; and that love of the ideal rather than the actual, that forms the beauty and vice of his poetry. Of this, the pervading fault is an indistinctness; a remoteness from the usual association of ideas, from that continuous chain, connecting the minds of men, a something wild, and singular, and unnatural, in the thoughts, and mode of expressing them,—a peculiarity so extraordinary that but few are or can be interested, and still fewer are roused to the degree of sympathy with the author, which produces pleasure, or even awakens attention; for most persons read poetry as a pastime, and a luxury, but seldom as a study. They are, therefore, repelled, by difficulty, by all that is harsh, all that does not flow and melt into their minds without exertion. Yet there are some who are willing to meditate and not lounge over the poet's thoughts; who have too high a respect for poetry as an art, to enjoy it merely as a

temporary and idle gratification. And such are the best judges of its merits, since they disentangle all obscurities, and unfold the remote allusions the poet's imagination brings within the range of his subject, and scale the heights where beauty gradually bursts upon them, as they rise, and the scene becomes more full of splendour and power, as the view takes in all its parts. It is to such adventurers in the realms of poetry that Shelley will be an idol; to that choice few whose taste can find congeniality, or whose faculty of admiration can extend beyond the bounds of a particular species of composition; and, fortunately for literature, it is this select few who confer fame and immortality; but to the mass of readers he will ever remain unknown, or be as little read as Milton.

All his best works are idealisms of virtue, expressive of conditions of the human being that he is not yet fitted for; poetical abstractions, beautiful visions that are first conceived in the purity of the heart, and then encircled with the magic influence of imagination, and all the gravity and grandeur of deep thought. The Revolt of Islam is one of these high-wrought fancies. There we have the vain conflict between wisdom and power, an emblem of things as they were; the desolation that tyranny and its capricious will brings over empires and ages; the degrading effects of custom, from the servility with which men obey it; the blight with which ignorance withers and oppression crushes the human soul; at length the terrible reaction, when the overtortured spirit of man bounds from its chains at the call of liberty ---and then, mild and beautiful images of perfect love and perfect happiness; the advancement of knowledge, the elevation of human hopes in the change of man's destinies, and the gradual preparation and steady approach towards perfection. These form the poet's vision, and there needs no other testimony to the nature of the object for which he lived. It fails in interest with common readers from metaphysical obscurity, an overlaboured refinement of thought perhaps from too excessive a brilliancy in the ideas, and the sea of metaphor over which the reader is obliged to move in the roll of the poet's mind; yet there is a vigour and a richness both of imagination and intellect, that remind one, though they exceed him, of Spenser. But perhaps the best of Shelley's works are the "Cenci" and the "Prometheus." The first, revolting as the subject may be, is the best drama of the time. It is the only entire production of his, in which he has allowed himself to descend to earth, and mingle with the common passions of his nature. But here he comes down from the lofty, dazzling, and over-elevated spheres, where his conceptions seemed to float with an easy strength that showed they were in their element, to the actual existences and realities that were too gross for his affections or his thoughts, to that com

mon life from which he recoiled with an instinctive sensitiveness. It was written with more labour than any other of his works, so little accustomed was he to make man, in his more degrading points of view, the subject of his contemplations; but the result is in proportion to the difficulties with which he contended. The fearful ferocity of the father, the hideously unnatural mockery with which he scoffs at the feelings of a parent, the cold-blooded determination to commit the crime, that men's lips can hardly utter; the noble spirit and daring resolution of the daughter, that triumphs over fear, and all the mildness of her sex and love of a child; her hesitation, between doubt that her nature calls up, and the determination that self-defence, and the claims of virtue, and even duty demand-together with the necessity of perpetrating a horrid purpose, and the shrinking from its execution-are delineated with great force and consummate art. But the effect is heightened, by knowing that the tragedy is the relation of a fact that it is not one of the dark and terrible delineations that are sometimes framed by an overwrought and heated brain, a morbid and distorted caricature of human passion, but a plain matter of real life and actual occurrence, which history has recorded among its scenes of pain, disgust, and horror.

The Prometheus forms a medium between his disposition to metaphysical analysis and refinement, and that which is more appreciable and intelligible to minds in general. It displays the greatest command of language, when we consider the extraordinary nature of his ideas, and on an occasion the most difficult. He gives an interest to the agony of the Titan, by making us feel that in his sufferings he expresses his own detestation of tyranny and oppression. But the imagery is drawn from obscure sources, and though highly intellectual, is too far removed from any association with ordinary incidents and the ordinary feelings of men, to give it the hue of action and passion that produces popularity; yet the whole is wrought with a Titanic energy that declares how near he could approach to the models he professed to imitate. Both these works were written at Rome, whose name, whose climate, whose dying grandeur and forsaken ruins, sink deep into the minds of the most humble, and forbid that there should be any thing mean or common-place even in their thoughts. But to genius it is the shrine before which it falls in ecstacy and admiration; the soul there drinks deep of all beauty; the walls and arches and columns, all the gigantic fragments of men's minds, though but dust, and though its greatness is now a dream, yet all are sources of power: and the spirit, in breathing the atmosphere of inspiration, seems to be elevated and to partake of the immortal life that dwells among the monuments which surround it. The shades of the dead, the ruins of empires, the majesty and

glory of the past, with the mysterious influence with which genius hallows all that memory there rests upon, rouse an emulation, deeper, purer, and more powerful and noble in its ends and energies, than the coarse ambition excited by throwing our hopes on the rough struggles and fierce passions of everyday life; and though Shelley had no ambition, in the general meaning of this word, he could not escape from the charm and enchantment that breathed over his intellect. It is impossible to say all we would wish, as to his poetry, but we cannot close our remarks without noticing the "Adonais," or Elegy on the Death of Keats. Our only extracts will be a few lines from the stanzas, where he brings round the grave of Adonais, those of the poets whom he knew best. First is Byron :

"The Pilgrim of Eternity, whose fame

Over his living head, like heaven is bent."

The second, Moore:

"From her wilds Ierne sent The sweetest lyrist of her saddest wrong,

And love taught grief to fall like music from his tongue."

The third is himself.

"Midst others of less note, came one frail form,
A phantom among men ; companionless
As the last cloud of an expiring storm
Whose thunder is its knell;

A pard-like spirit, beautiful and swift,
A love in desolation masked: a power
Girt round with weakness."

The fourth is Leigh Hunt. The denunciations he calls down on the Reviewer of Keats's Endymion are powerfully expressed:

"Live thou, whose infamy is not thy fame;

Live! fear no heavier chastisement from me,
Thou noteless blot on a remembered name;

But be thyself, and know thyself to be."

Among his minor pieces there are many very beautiful, but we have done enough to declare our own admiration both of the man and his writings. Our sole wish has been to draw from the imperfect towards the more perfect, to raise on this side of the water our voice in favour of one, who is perhaps but little known, and this knowledge acquired from those who were his persecutors--whose task and duty it was to make him infamous. But, time and truth ever move together, and both of these are now working in men's minds, and both ere long will establish the fame and hallow the genius of the gentle and desolate Shelley.

« PreviousContinue »