We are very glad to see this handsome copy of Shelley ready for those who have long been vainly inquiring at all the book-stores for such an one.
In Europe the fame of Shelley has risen superior to the clouds that darkened its earlier days, hiding this true image from his fellow men,—and from his own sad eyes oftentimes the common light of day. As a thinker, men have learnt to pardon what they consider errors in opinion for the sake of singular nobleness, purity and love in his main tendency or spirit. As a poet, the many faults of his works having been acknowledged, there is room and place to admire his far more numerous exquisite beauties.
The heart of the man few, who have hearts of their own, refuse to reverence, and many, even of devoutest Christians would not refuse the book which contains Queen Mab as a Christmas gift.—For it has been recognized that the founder of the Christian Church would have suffered one to come unto him, who was in faith and love so truly what he sought in a disciple, without regard to the form his doctrine assumed.
The qualities of his poetry have often been analyzed, and the severer critics, impatient of his exuberance, or unable to use their accustomed spectacles in the golden mist that broods over all he has done, deny him high honors, but the soul of aspiring youth, untrammeled by the canons of taste, and untamed by scholarly discipline, swells into rapture at his lyric sweetness, finds ambrosial refreshment from his plenteous fancies, catches fire at his daring thought, and melts into boundless weeping at his tender sadness,—the sadness of a soul betrothed to an Ideal unattainable in this present sphere.
For ourselves we dispute not with the doctrinaires or the critics. We cannot speak dispassionately of an influence that has been so dear to us. Nearer than the nearest companions of life actual has Shelley been to us. Many other great ones have shone upon us, and all who ever did so shine are still resplendent in our firmament, for our mental life has not been broken and contradictory, but thus far we “see what we foresaw.” But Shelley seemed to us an incarnation of what was sought in the sympathies and desires of instinctive life, a light of dawn, and a foreshadowing of the weather of this day.
When still in childish years fell in our way the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” In a green meadow, skirted by a rich wood, watered by a lovely rivulet, made picturesque by a mill a little father down, sat a party of young persons gayer than and almost as inventive as those that told the tales recorded by Boccaccio. They were passing a few days in a scene of deep seclusion there uncared for by tutor or duenna, and with no bar of routine to check the pranks of their gay, childish fancies. Every day they assumed parts which through the waking hours must be acted out. One day it was the characters in one of Richardson’s novels, and most solemnly we “my deared” each other with richest brocade of affability, and interchanged in long stiff phrase our sentimental secrets and prim opinions. But to-day we sought relief in personating birds or insects, and now it was the Libellula who, tired of wild flitting and darting, rested on the grassy bank and read aloud the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” torn by chance from the leaf of a foreign magazine.
It was one of these chances which we ever remember as the interposition of some good angel in our fate. Solemn tears marked the change of mood in our little party, and with the words
began a chain of thoughts, whose golden links still bind the years together.
Two or three years after, it was frosty Christmas as now;—the trees cracked with their splendid burden of ice, the old wooden country house was banked up with high drifts of the beautiful snow, when the Libellula became the owner of Shelley’s poems. It was her Christmas box, and for three days and three nights she ceased not to extract its sweets, and how familiar still in memory every object seen from the chair in which she sat enchanted there three days, memorable to her as those of July to the French nation. The fire, the position of the lamp, the variegated shadows of that alcove room, the stars winter bright, up to which she looked with such a feeling of congeniality from the contemplation of this starry soul,—O could but a De Quinceyn describe those days in which the bridge between the real and ideal rose unbroken! He would not do it, though, as Suspiria de Profundis, but as sighs of joy upon the mountain hight.
The poems we read then are what every one still reads, the “Julian and Maddalo” with its profound revelations of the inward life,—“Alastor,” the soul sweeping like a breeze through nature,—and some of the minor poems, “Queen Mab,” the “Prometheus” and other more formal works we have not been able to read much. It was not when he tried to express opinions which the wrongs of the world had put into his head, but when he abandoned himself to the feelings which nature had implanted in his own breast that Shelley seemed to us so full of inspiration, and it is so still.
In reply to all that can be urged against him by people whom we do not wish to abuse, for surely “they know not what they do,” we are wont simply to refer to the fact that he was the only man who redeemed the human race from suspicion to the embittered soul of Byron. “Why,” said Byron, “he is a man who would willingly die for others. I am sure of it.”
Yes! balance that against all the ill you can think of him, that he was a man able to live wretched for the sake of speaking sincerely what he supposed to be truth, willing to die for the good of his fellows.
Mr. Foster has spoken well of him as a man:
“First, of the man, Shelley—of his sad experience of life—his fierce and bitter struggles with the storm which his own electric nature gathered about him—his weary battle, single handed, with a world in arms—there is little to be said in words; but that little is pregnant with deep meaning: it is the memoir of a hero and a prophet—a hero without outward and visible deeds of heroism—a prophet ‘without honor in his own country,’ or earnest audience any where on earth—who poured out the inspirations with which his soul was fraught, whether men would listen or no, and because he was impelled by a divine instinct, and could not forbear.
“Of Shelley’s personal character, it is enough to say that it was wholly pervaded by the same unbounded and unquestioning love for his fellow men—the same holy and fervid hope in their ultimate virtue and happiness—the same scorn of baseness and hatred of oppression—which beam forth in all his writings with a pure and constant light. The theory which he wrote was the practice which his whole life exemplified. Noble, kind, generous, passionate, tender, with a courage greater than the courage of the chief of warriors, for it could endure—these were the qualities in which his life was embalmed.”
Believing the poems are not generally known as it has so long been difficult to obtain copies, we make more words of ours superfluous by copious extracts. Take first what came to us first, and is in truth the Credo of the poet:
Floats, tho’ unseen, among us; visiting
This various world with no inconstant wing
As Summer winds that creep from flower to flower;
Like moonbeams that behindsome play mountain shower,
It visits with inconstant glance
Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening,
Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
Like memory of music fled,
Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery,—
Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away, and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
Ask why the sunlight not for ever
Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain river;
Why aught should fall and fade that once is shown;
Why fear and dream and death and birth
Cast on the daylight of this earth
Such gloom, why Man has such scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?
No voice from some sublime world hath ever
To sage or poet these responses given;
Therefore the names of Demon, Ghost and Heaven
Remain the records of their vain endeavor;
Frail spells, whose uttered charm might not avail to sever
From all we hear and all we see,
Doubt, chance and mutability.
Thy alone, like mist o’er mountains driven,
Or music by the night wind sent
Through strings of some still instrument,
Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to Life’s unquiet dream.
Love, Hope, and Self-Esteem, like clouds, depart
And come, for some uncertain moments lent.
Man were immortal and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart,
Thou messenger of sympathies
That wax and wane in lovers’ eyes;
Thou that to human though art nourishment,
Like darkness to a dying flame!
Depart not as thy shadow came!
Depart not, lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.
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.
I called on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
I was not heard; I saw them not;
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 upon me;
I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!
I vowed that I would dedicate my powers
To thee and thine; have I not kept the vow?
With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave; they have in visioned bowers
Of studious Zeal or Love’s delight
Outwatched with me the envious Night;
They know that never joy illumed my brow,
Unlinked with hope that thou wouldst free
This world from its dark slavery,
That thou, O awful LOVELINESS,
Wouldst live whate’er these words can not express.
The day becomes more solemn and serene
When moon is past; there is harmony
In Autumn, sad a lustre in its sky,
Which through the Summer is not heard nor seen
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
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 from containing thee,
Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind.
The following is happily expressive of his mild sweet grace:
Or silk from the yellow bee?
The grass may grow in winter weather
As soon as hate in me.
Hate men who cant, and men who pray,
And men who rail like thee;
An equal passion to repay
They are not coy like me.
Or seek some slave of power and gold,
To be thy dear heart’s mate;
Thy love will move that bigot cold,
Sooner than me thy hate.
A passion like the one I prove
Can not divided be;
I hate thy want of truth and love;
How should I then hate thee?
Here is one of his Æeolian Melodies:
Which we buried in Love’s sweet bowers,
Heaping over their corpses cold
Blossoms and leaves, instead of mould?
Blossoms which were the joys that fell,
And leaves, the hopes that yet remain.
Forget the dead, the past? O yet
There are ghosts that may take revenge for it;
Memories that make the heart a tomb,
Regrets which glide through the spirit’s gloom,
And with ghastly whispers tell
That joy, once lost, is pain.
The Hymns to Apollo and to Pan are among the finest specimens of his genius, and form a beautiful contrast one to the other:
Curtained with star-woven tapestries.
From the broad moonlight of the sky,
Fanning the busy dreams from my dim eyes—
Waken me when their mother, the grey Dawn,
Tells them that dreams and that the Moon is gone.
Then I arise, and climbing Heaven’s blue dome,
I walk over the mountains and the waves,
Leaving my robe upon the ocean foam;
My footsteps pave the clouds with fire; the caves
Are filled with my bright presence, and the air
Leaves the green earth to my embraces bare.
The sunbeams are my shafts, with which I kill
Deceit, that loves the night and fears the day;
All men who do or even imagine ill
Fly me, and from the glory of my ray
Good minds and open actions take new might,
Until diminished by the reign of Night.
I feed the clouds, the rainbows and the flowers,
With their ethereal colors; the Moon’s globe
And the pure stars in their eternal bowers
Are cinctured with my power as with a robe;
Whatever lamps on earth or heaven may shine,
Are portions of one power, which is mine.
I stand at noon upon the peak of heaven,
Then with unwilling steps I wander down
Into the clouds of the Atlantic even;
For grief that I depart they weep and frown;
What look is more delightful than the smile
With which I soothe them from the Western Isle?
I am the eye with which the Universe
Beholds itself and knows itself divine;
All harmony of instrument or verse,
All prophecy, all medicine are mine,
All light of Art or Nature; to my song
Victory and Praise in their own right belong.
We come, we come;
From the river-girt islands,
Where loud waves are dumb
Listening to my sweet pipings.
The wind in the reeds and the rushes,
The bees on the bells of thyme,
The birds on the myrtle-bushes,
The cicale above in the lime,
And the lizards below I the grass,
Were as silent as ever old Tmotus* was,
Listening to my sweet pipings.
Liquid Peneus was flowing,
And all dark Tempe lay
In Pelion’s shadow, outgrowing
The light of the dying day,
Speeded with my sweet pipings.
The Sileni and Sylvans and Fauns,
And the Nymphs of the woods and waves,
To the edge of the moist river-lawns,
And the brink of the dewy caves,
And all that did then attend and follow,
Were silent with love, as you now, Apollo,
With envy of my sweet pipings.
I sang of the dancing stars,
I sang of the dædal Earth,
And of Heaven—and the giant wars.
And Love and Death and Birth,
And then I changed my pipings
Singing how down the vale of Mænalus
I pursued a maiden and clasped a reed;
Gods and men, we are all deluded thus!
It breaks in our bosom and then we bleed;
All wept, as I think both ye now would,
If envy or age had not frozen your blood,
At the sorrow of my sweet pipings.
The opening of “Lines written among the Euganean Hills” and “Stanzas” p. 635 are among the profoundest as expressive of his mental struggles, and the latter is almost overpowering from the tearful depths it discloses. The sufferings of Shelley were those of a body in which the brain had been prematurely developed, a seeming gain of life always atoned for by a dreadful price of frequent dejection and morbid suffering which slower and more healthy natures cannot understand, of a heart overflowing with love, persecuted by hate of those it longed to serve, of a soul whose sight outwent that of its Age, and was therefore continually grieved by the shortcomings of others and its own. Still,—after life’s fitful fever, he surely sleeps not, but transplanted to some congenial sphere grows and blooms free from canker, blight or frost. Even in his saddest hour he was sure of it.
No bird so wild but has its quiet nest,
Whence it no more would roam;
The sleepless billows on the ocean’s breast,
Burst like a bursting heart, and die in peace,
And thus at length find rest,
Doubtless there is a place of peace,—
Such an one thou didst find, and now when thy life and its strivings lie before the world at sufficient distance for both motive and result to be seen, hard must be the heart indeed and Pharisaically seared the conscience of him who will dare to cast a stone at the monument of Shelley.
As to intellectual appreciation of the poems, what is said by Shelley himself of the way of regarding the imaginary author of one of them may apply to the whole.
“He had fitted up the ruins of an old building, where it was his hope to have realized a scheme of life suited perhaps to that happier and better world of which he is an inhabitant, but hardly practicable in this. His life was singular—less on account of the romantic vicissitudes which diversified it than the ideal tinge which it received from his own character and feelings. The present poem, like the “Vita Nuova” of Dante, is sufficiently intelligible to a certain class of readers without a matter-of-fact history of the circumstances to which it relates; and to a certain other class it must ever remain incomprehensible from a defect of a common organ of perception for the ideas of which it treats. Not but that gran vergogna sarebbe a colui, che rimasse cosa sotto veste di figura, o di colore rettorico: e domandato non sapesse denudare le sue parole da cotal veste, in guisa che avessero verace intendimento.” (Shame would it be indeed to the writer, if he took shelter under the garb of figures or the colors of rhetoric, and could not, on fitting occasion, lay bare the true meaning of his words.)
No such shame rests on Shelley. The web of his imagination was sometimes spun out to such delicate and filmy tissue that common hands could not touch without tearing it, but its lightest thread is vital with the life-blood of immortal Ideas.
On his monument might be placed this inscription, from his own verse:
Beat thine unfeeling bars with vain endeavor,
Till those bright plumes of thought, in which arrayed,
It over-soared this low and worldly shade,
Lay shattered; and thy panting, wounded breast
Stained with dear blood its unmaternal nest!
We weep vain tears: blood would less bitter be,
Yet poured forth gladlier, could it profit thee,
* This and the former poem were written at the request of a friend, to be inserted in a Drama on the subject of Midas. Apollo and Pan contended before Tmolus for the prize in Music.
“The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley . . .” New-York Daily Tribune, 27 December 1845, p. 1.