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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by George Edward Woodberry (1855–1930)
 
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY, an English poet, was born at Field Place, Sussex, on August 4th, 1792. He was the eldest son of Timothy Shelley, an English country gentleman, who afterwards inherited a baronetcy and a large estate, to which in part the poet was heir by entail. He was educated at Eton, and went up to Oxford in 1810; he was expelled from the university on March 25th, 1811, for publishing a pamphlet entitled ‘The Necessity of Atheism.’ In the summer of the same year he married Harriet Westbrook, a girl of sixteen, the daughter of a retired London tavern-keeper; and from this time had no cordial relations with his family at Field Place. He led a wandering and unsettled life in England, Wales, and Ireland,—visiting the last as a political agitator,—until the spring of 1814, when domestic difficulties culminated in a separation from his wife, and an elopement with Mary Godwin, the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. His wife, Harriet, committed suicide by drowning in the winter of 1816, and immediately after this event he legally married Mary. The charge of his two children by Harriet was taken from him early in 1817 by a decision of the Lord Chancellor, Eldon, on the ground that Shelley held atheistical opinions. He remained in England a year longer, and in the spring of 1818 went to reside in Italy. There he lived, going from city to city, but mainly at Pisa and its neighborhood, until the summer of 1822, when he was lost in a storm on July 8th, while sailing off the coast between Leghorn and Lerici; his body was cast up on the sands of Viareggio, and was there burned in the presence of Byron, Leigh Hunt, and his friend Trelawney, on August 18th; the ashes were buried in the Protestant cemetery at Rome. He had three children by his second wife, of whom one only, Percy Florence, survived him, afterward inheriting the title and his father’s share in the family estate.  1
  Shelley’s literary life began with prose and verse at Eton, and he had already published before he went up to Oxford. Through all his wanderings, and amid his many personal difficulties, he was indefatigably busy with his pen; and in his earlier days wrote much in prose. The first distinctive work was his poem ‘Queen Mab’ (1813), and this was followed by ‘Alastor’ (1816); after which his great works were produced in rapid succession. While still a youth, he had begun, as a radical reformer, to take a practical interest in men and events, and until after his union with Mary much of his energy was consumed and scattered fruitlessly; but as his poetic instincts and intellectual power came into fuller control of his life, and the difficulties of his position isolated him and threw him back upon his own nature, he gradually gave himself more exclusively to creative literature. The works written in Italy are of most value: ‘Prometheus Unbound,’ ‘The Cenci,’ ‘Adonais,’ ‘Epipsychidion,’ ‘Hellas,’ together with the lyrics and fragments. Nevertheless, the bulk of his work is large and various: it fills several volumes of prose as well as verse, and includes political, philosophical, and critical miscellanies, writings on questions of the day, and much translation from ancient and modern authors.  2
  Shelley himself described his genius as in the main a moral one, and in this he made a correct analysis. It was fed by ideas derived from books, and sustained by a sympathy so intense as to become a passion for moral aims. He was intellectually the child of the Revolution; and from the moment that he drew thoughtful breath he was a disciple of the radicals in England. The regeneration of mankind was the cause that kindled his enthusiasm; and the changes he looked for were social as well as political. He spent his strength in advocacy of the doctrines of democracy, and in hostility to its obvious opponents established in the authority of Church and State, and in custom; he held the most advanced position, not only in religion, but in respect to the institution of marriage, the use of property, and the welfare of the masses of mankind. The first complete expression of his opinion, the precipitate from the ferment of his boyish years, was given in ‘Queen Mab,’ a crude poem after the style of Southey, by which he was long best and most unfavorably known; he recognized its immaturity, and sought to suppress a pirated edition published in his last years: the violent prejudice against him in England as an atheist was largely due to this early work, with its long notes, in connection with the decision of the court taking from him the custody of his children. The second expression of his opinions, similar in scope, was given five years later in ‘The Revolt of Islam,’ a Spenserian poem in twelve books. In this work the increase of his poetic faculty is shown by his denial of a didactic aim, and by the series of scenes from nature and human life which is the web of the verse; but the subject of the poem is the regeneration of society, and the intellectual impulse which sustains it is political and philanthropic. Up to the time of its composition the main literary influence that governed him was Latin: now he began to feel the power of Greek literature; and partly in making responses to it, and partly by the expansion of his mind, he revolutionized his poetic method. The result was that in the third and greatest of his works of this kind, ‘Prometheus Unbound,’ he developed a new type in English,—the lyrical drama. The subject is still the regeneration of society: but the tale has grown into the drama; the ideas have generated abstract impersonations which have more likeness to elemental beings, to Titanic and mythological creations, than to humanity; while the interest intellectually is still held within the old limits of the general cause of mankind. The same principles, the same convictions, the same aims, fused in one moral enthusiasm, are here: but a transformation has come over their embodiment,—imagination has seized upon them, a new lyrical music has penetrated and sublimated them, and the poem so engendered and born is different in kind from those that went before; it holds a unique place in the literature of the world, and is the most passionate dream of the perfect social ideal ever molded in verse. In a fourth work, ‘Hellas,’ Shelley applied a similar method in an effort to treat the Greek Revolution as a single instance of the victory of the general cause which he had most at heart; and in several shorter poems, especially odes, he from time to time took up the same theme. The ideal he sets forth in all these writings, clarifying as it goes on, is not different from the millennium of poets and thinkers in all ages: justice and liberty, love the supreme law, are the ends to be achieved, and moral excellence with universal happiness is the goal of all.  3
  In the works which have been mentioned, and which contain the most of Shelley’s substantial thought, the moral prepossession of his mind is most manifest; it belonged to the conscious part of his being, and would naturally be foremost in his most deliberate writing. It was, in my judgment, the central thing in his genius; but genius in working itself out displays special faculties of many kinds, which must be noticed in their own right. Shelley is, for example, considered as pre-eminently a poet of nature. His susceptibility to sensuous impressions was very great, his response to them in love of beauty and in joy in them was constant; and out of his intimacy with nature came not merely descriptive power and the habit of interpreting emotion through natural images, such as many poets have compassed, but a peculiar faculty often noticed by his critics, usually called the myth-making faculty, which is thought of as racial rather than individual. During his residence in Italy he was steeped in the Greek spirit as it survives in the philosophy and poetry of antiquity; and it was in harmony with his mood that he should vitalize the elements. What is extraordinary is the success, the primitive ease, the magic, with which he did so. In the simple instances which recur to every one’s memory—‘The Skylark,’ ‘The Cloud,’ the ‘Ode to the West Wind’—he has rendered the sense of non-human, of elemental being; and in the characters of ‘Prometheus Unbound’—in Asia especially—he has created such beings, to which the spirits of the moon and earth as he evoked them seem natural concomitants, and to them he has given reality for the imagination. It is largely because he dealt in this witchery, this matter of primeval illusion, that he gives to some minds the impression of dwelling in an imaginary and unsubstantial world; and the flood of light and glory of color which he exhales as an atmosphere about the substance of the verse, dazzle and often bewilder the reader whose eyes are yet to be familiarized with the shapes and air of his scene. But with few exceptions, while using this creative power by poetic instinct, he brings back the verse at the end, whether in the lyrics or the longer works, to “the hopes and fears of men.” In the ordinary delineation of nature as it appears, his touch is sure and accurate; with a regard for detail which shows close observation, and a frequent minuteness which shows the contemporary of Coleridge and Wordsworth. The opening passage of ‘Julian and Maddalo,’ the lines at Pisa on the bridge, and the fragment ‘Marenghi,’ are three widely different examples.  4
  Shelley was also strongly attracted by the narrative form for its own sake. He was always fond of a story from the days of his boyhood; and though the romantic cast of fiction in his youth, both in prose and verse, might indicate a lack of interest in life, in the taste for this he was not different from the time he lived in, and the way to reality lay then through this path. ‘Rosalind and Helen’ was a tale like others of its kind, made up of romantic elements; but the instinct which led Shelley to tell it, as he had told still cruder stories in his first romances at Eton, was fundamental in him, and led him afterward, still further refining his matter, to weave out of airy nothing ‘The Witch of Atlas’ almost at the close of his career. The important matter is, to connect with these narrative beginnings in prose and verse his serious dramatic work, which has for its prime example ‘The Cenci,’ otherwise standing too far apart from his life. In this drama he undertook to deal with the reality of human nature in its most difficult literary form, the tragedy; and the success with which he suppressed his ordinary exuberance of imagery and phrase and kept to a severe restraint, at the same time producing the one conspicuous example of tragedy in his century in England, has been often wondered at. In the unfinished ‘Charles I.’ he made a second attempt; while in the various dramatic fragments other than this he seems to have contemplated a new form of romantic drama. It seems to me that this line of his development has been too little studied; but there is space here only to make the suggestion.  5
  Another subordinate division of Shelley’s work lies in his treatment of the ideal of individual nobility and happiness apart from society. Of course in the character of Laon, and on the grand scale in that of Prometheus, he set forth traits of the individual ideal; but in both instances they were social reformers, and had a relation to mankind. In ‘Alastor’ on the contrary, the individual is dealt with for his own sole sake, and the youth is drawn in lines of melancholy beauty; he was of the same race as Laon, but existed only in his own poetic unhappiness; of the same race also was Prince Athanase, but the poem is too unfinished to permit us to say more than that as he is disclosed, he is only an individual. In ‘Epipsychidion’ the same character reappears as a persistent type in Shelley’s mind, with the traits that he most valued: and the conclusion there is the union of the lover and his beloved in the enchanted isle, far from the world; which also is familiar to readers of Shelley in other poems as a persistent idea in his mind. In these poems one finds the recoil of Shelley’s mind from the task of reform he had undertaken, the antipodes of the social leader in the lonely exile from all but the one kindred spirit, the sense of weariness, of defeat, of despair over the world—the refuge. It is natural, consequently, to feel that Shelley himself is near in these characters; that they are successive incarnations of his spirit, and frankly such. They are autobiographic with conscious art, and stand only at one remove from those lyrics of personal emotion which are unconscious, the cries of the spirit which have sung themselves into the heart of the world. Upon these lyrics, which stand apart from his deliberate work,—impulsive, overflowing, irresistible in their spontaneity,—it may be granted that his popular fame rests. Many of them are singularly perfect in poetic form naturally developed; they have the music which is as unforgettable as the tones of a human voice, as unmistakable, as personal, and which has winged them to fly through the world. They make one forget all the rest in Shelley himself, and they express his world-weary yet still aspiring soul. The most perfect of them, in my judgment, is the ‘Ode to the West Wind’: in form it is faultless; and it blends in one expression the power he had to interpret nature’s elemental life, the pathos of his own spirit,—portrayed more nobly than in the cognate passage of the ‘Adonais,’ because more unconscious of itself,—and the supreme desire he had to serve the world with those thoughts blown now through the world,—
  “Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind.”
  6
  No other of the lyrics seems to me so comprehensive, so adequate. The ‘Adonais’ only can compare with it for personal power, for the penetration of the verse with Shelley’s spirit in its eloquent passion. Of that elegy the poetry is so direct, and the charm so immediate and constant, that it needs no other mention; further than to say that like the ‘Sensitive Plant,’ it has more affinity with Shelley’s lyrics than with his longer works.  7
  Some of the characteristics of Shelley have been mentioned above with such fullness as our limits allow, and the relations between his more important works have been roughly indicated. There is much more to say; but I will add only that in what seems to me a cardinal point in the criticism of poetry,—the poet’s conception of womanhood,—of all the poets of the century in England, Shelley is approached only by Burns in tenderness, and excels Burns in nobleness of feeling. The reputation of Shelley in his lifetime was but slight in the world; and it emerged only by slow stages from the neglect and obloquy which were his portion while he lived and when he died. In the brief recital of the events of his life which heads this sketch, it is obvious at a glance that there is much which needs explanation and defense. The best defense was to throw all possible light upon his career, and that was done by all who knew him; so that his life is more minutely exposed from boyhood to his death than that of any other English poet. As a consequence of this, opinion regarding him has been much modified; and though it may still be stern, it is now seldom harsh. The opinions which were regarded as of evil influence, and the acts which were condemned as wrong acts, are open to all to understand and pass judgment upon, as they are related in many books; and in respect to these, each will have his own mind. Whatever be the judgment, it must be agreed that the century has brought fame to Shelley, as a poet of the highest class and of a rare kind; and that as a man he has been an inspiration and almost a creed in many lives, and has won respect and affection from many hearts, and a singular devotion from some akin to that which his friends felt toward him. He has been loved as it is given to few strangers to be loved,—but that is apart from his poetry.  8
 
 
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