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rapture; form a combination not to be matched elsewhere, and scarcely to encounter competition. There is another source of greatness in this poem neither to be foolishly lauded nor (still less) undervalued. It is this :—that Prometheus Unbound, however remote the foundation of its subject matter, and unactual its executive treatment, does in reality express the most modern of conceptions—the utmost reach of speculation of a mind which burst up all crusts of custom and prescription like a volcano, and imaged forth a future wherein man should be indeed the autocrat and renovated renovator of his planet. This it is, I apprehend, which places Prometheus clearly, instead of disputably, at the summit of all latter poetry:* the fact that it embodies, in forms of truly ecstatic beauty, the dominant passion of the dominant intellects of the age, and especially of one of the extremest and highest among them all, the author himself. It is the ideal poem of perpetual and triumphant progressionthe Atlantis of Man Emancipated.
This supreme work was not yet completed when another only less great (many excellent judges think it the higher of the two) was also produced. I have already referred to The Cenci as the noblest English tragedy of modern times—a position which has been very generally and unreservedly accorded to it. The question of comparative merit is one to be determined according to sympathy rather than direct comparison ; and those minds — for the most part the soundest and finest - which embrace human character in powerful conflict and interaction as the one unrivalled subject of poetry are fully justified in preferring The Cenci to Prometheus. I have stated above the ultimate ground for my own contrary estimate : the Prometheus is a typical work in a quite other sense than The Cenci, and, being typical not only of the highest things but most emphatically of the inventor's mind, it is, I think, his one unparalleled masterpiece. The Cenci is moreover, if I am not mistaken, a more chequered achievement; the characters of Count Cenci and Beatrice, and all the portion of the play in which they figure, being throughout a weft very superior to the warp which consti
* I confine my view solely to English poetry: one or two very great foreign names must occur to the reader's mind, and abash mine from so much as taking them into account. I may add that nothing is said in the text about the flaws perceptible in Prometheus Unbound-occasional supersubtleties of thought, defects of execution, &c. &c. : not that I dispute their being there, but that my immediate purpose does not demand their indication.
tutes the residue. With these mere generalities, and referring the reader to the drama itself, and Shelley's preface and his wife's notes, for further elucidation, I leave this splendid per formance. In my own notes will likewise be found, as regards both The Cenci and Prometheus, many particulars as to the views and aims of Shelley in relation to them, especially as to his wish to get the former acted on the stage.
Prometheus Unbound was begun while the poet was staying at Byron's villa at Este in or about September 1818, and was continued, to the end of the third act, up to the early days of April 1819: the fourth lyrical act was an afterthought, only completed late in December of the same year, at Florence. The estimation in which the poem was held by enlightened contemporaries is enshrined in the anecdote that Campbell, the now rapidly evanescent artificer of Pleasures of Hope and Gertrude of Wyoming,* said to Medwin : “ Prometheus Unbound -it is well named : who would bind it?"
The Cenci was written chiefly in the Villa Valsovano, being begun on the 14th of May, and finished towards the middle of August 1819.† Shelley said to Trelawny : “I don't think much of it: it gave me less trouble than anything I have written of the same length.” To Peacock he wrote that the composition had been “a fine antidote to nervous medicines, and kept up, I think, the pain in my side, as sticks do a fire.”
The Cenci and Prometheus were respectively published in England in or about March and August 1820.
XXIV.-POEMS ON SUBJECTS OF THE DAY. It may be convenient to group together here at once a few These heavy and pappy performances will no doubt be long survived by some of the national lyrics of the same author, which are indeed very fine. As Medwin affirms (Life of Shelley, vol. 1. p. 334, and vol. ii. p. 196) that Campbell used the expression above quoted in talking to Medwin himself
, we are bound to credit that he did so. However, it was not Campbell's own joke, but Theodore Hooke's, in the John Bull. The Literary Gazette also got hold of it; for the review of Prometheus in that paper says-.“We turn to Prometheus Unbound, humbly conceiving that this punning title-page is the soothest in the book, as no one can ever think him worth tanding." I believe Campbell was not a contributor to the Literary Gazette, and should not therefore be branded, even by surmise, as the vile and loathsome ruffian who wrcte that critique. The vomit of creation who wrote a review of Queen Mab in the same paper (see p. cxl.) was apparently a different person ; for he admitted sotne poetic ability in Queen Mab and in Shelley, whereas the reviewer of Prometheus acknowledged absolutely none,-and the like, to all intents and purposes, may be said of the reviewer of The Cenci, probably the same individual.
† Shelley, in a letter to Leigh Hunt, dated 15th August 1819, says he is "on the eve of completing" this tragedy: Lady Shelley therefore antedates it a little in stating (Shelley Memorials, p. 114) that it was finished "a month or two after” the date given to its dedication, 29th May.
poems of Shelley's inspired by incidents, fertile of indignation or of laughter, then going on in England.
The most valuable of these is Peter Bell the Third, which indeed has always appeared to me a chef d'æuvre of its kind, indicating possibilities of power in Shelley which it would certainly have been as contrary to his wishes as to his habits to work to any great extent, but which would have qualified him to descend into the arena of partisan satire, and to sear many doggish foreheads and readily-turned backs with the indelible brand of his scorn.
* Nor is this the only poem in which a similar faculty is conspicuous. Peter Bell the Third is no doubt, and from its subject and tone must be, a much slighter as well as less finished performance than Byron's Vision of Judgment; but I think it is only inferior, and not very greatly so either, to that burst of Olympic cachinnation, that ever-pointing finger of obloquy. Shelley's squib—(for it is and professes to be no more, only that the squib which a Uriel can fire off differs considerably from that of a Guy-Fawkes boy)—was concocted during or immediately after his stay at the Villa Valsovano.
His other satirical work, Swellfoot the Tyrant, was begun a year later, August 1820. Shelley appears a little out of his groove here : one might compare him to a good public speaker in the pathetic style, who, taking up the humorous style at a moment’s notice, finds himself quite capable of working it, but unelastic in gesture and play of countenance. Still, Swellfoot also is a choice performance, with a spice of Aristophanic and another of Rabelaisian grotesque, none the less genuinely Shelleyan, and therefore truly imaginative. The drama was printed and just published anonymously ("London, published for the Author by J. Johnston, 98 Cheapside, and sold by all Booksellers, 1820") + when a menace from the Society for the Suppression of Vice caused its immediate withdrawal. The intelligent reader will no doubt not believe that it was written in a fit of entire Carolinian enthusiasm. If he does, he will be un
* The poet was not unconscious of his capacities in this line. One of his letters, dated 25th January 1822, says, “I began once a satire upon satire, which I meant to be very severe: it was full of small knives, in the use of which practice would have soon made me very expert.”. Of this satire I find no trace nor even mention elsewhere ; unless (which I can hardly suppose) it is of as early a date as 1810. A letter from Shelley to Hogg, dated 20th December 1810 (Hogg, vol. i. p. 143) says-“I am composing a satirical poem-I shall print it at Oxford.
+ Does any human creature save only Mr. Trelawny possess a copy of this effusion in its original form?
deceived by the following extract from a letter which Shelley addressed to Mr. Peacock on the 12th of July 1820. “Nothing, I think, shows the generous gullibility of the English nation more than their having adopted her sacred Majesty as the heroine of the day, in spite of all their prejudices and bigotry. I, for my part, of course wish no harm to happen to her, even if she has, as I firmly believe, amused herself in a manner rather indecorous with any courier or baron. But I cannot help adverting to it as one of the absurdities of royalty that a vulgar woman, with all those low tastes which prejudice considers as vices, and a person whose habits and manners every one would shun in private life, without any redeeming virtues, should be turned into a heroine because she is a queen, or, as a collateral reason, because her husband is a king, and he, no less than his ministers, is so odious that everything, however disgusting, which is opposed to them, is admirable."
About the same time as Peter Bell the Third, Shelley wrote the Masque of Anarchy, the record of his fiery and righteous zeal against the authors of that " Manchester Massacre” which was then crimsoning the soil and the cheeks of Englishmen-a slaughter, by the mounted yeomanry, of several men and women who were attending an open-air Reform meeting at Peterloo. This poem was sent in November 1819 to Hunt for publication in the Examiner; but was withheld for prudential reasons, and never saw the light until separately printed in 1832. With great elevation of soul, and many splendid and unforgettable stanzas, The Masque of Anarchy is not, I think, exactly a masterpiece. One perceives that in it Shelley is writing something other than his own style ; and the further he deviates from that, or the nearer he comes to the conditions he has chosen to prescribe for himself, so much the more faltering is his pace. There is a half-dozen of shorter poems, belonging to the same year, also denunciatory of the then political condition of England. These again, and on similar grounds, are among Shelley's less successful compositions: though the sonnet, England in 1819, and the Similes for Two Political Characters, have great energy of virus. He had a strong impression about this time that the misgovernment of his native country would bring on bankruptcy and actual revolution.
XXV.-PISA TO RAVENNA :-EPIPSYCHIDION. On the 26th of January 1820 the Shelleys removed to Pisa :* and in or about May, for the sake of the infant Percy's health, to the Bagni di Pisa (or di San Giuliano), four miles off. Shelley's own health also benefited here. At Pisa he had seen a good deal of the celebrated physician Vacca, who recommended him to leave his ailments to nature, without medicine, which he mainly did henceforward : the acquaintance with this distinguished man was the more pleasant to Shelley, as their liberal political views were in sympathy. Some portion of the spring and summer was spent likewise at the house recently occupied by the Gisbornes at Leghorn. In August the Shelleys were back at the Bagni di Pisa.
Somewhere about this time, Shelley (we are told) having called at the Pisa Post-Office, an English officer in the Portuguese service apostrophized him with the exclamation, "What! are you that damned atheist Shelley?" and, without more ado, struck him to the ground with a stick, stunning him at the moment. He was a tall and powerful man. Shelley looked up his acquaintance Mr. Tighe (a son of the authoress of the poem of Psyche), “who lost no time in taking measures to obtain satisfaction.” † The proficient in theism and blackguardism was traced to the hotel of the Tre Donzelle, and thence to Genoa, whither Mr. Tighe (and it is said Shelley also) followed him : but he was never run down. This is another of the singular stories told by Shelley, and discredited by most of his hearers or biographers : the inclination of my own mind would be to accept it, were it not that I find Mr. Trelawny a decided disbeliever. Another authority informs me that some adventure of some kind or other did undeniably occur to Shelley at a Post-Office-but this was the Post-Office of Rome, and the date 6th May 1819.
* As I understand it, Miss Clairmont now remained behind at Florence, and was not again domesticated with the Shelleys--may indeed never have seen Shelley more. She appears, however, from a letter of the poet's, dated 28th April 1822 (Essays and Letters, vol. ii. p. 280), to have been then with Mrs. Shelley at Spezia, close by Lerici. Captain Medwin met Miss Clairmont living en pension in Florence in 1820.
This is the expression used by Medwin (Shelley Papers, p. 59). It is obviously rather a loose one, considering that the assailant was never brought to book, and I am not sure whether or not we ought to understand it as implying that Shelley meant to fight a duel. Probably it does : though the poet "had some scruples about duel. ling," as appears, inter alia, from an anecdote, of trivial consequence, as to his re. ceiving a sort of pettish challenge from Dr. Polidori in 1816, on account of some dis. pute in boating. This Shelley laughed off, but Byron resented it a little more seriously.