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to undertake; and it is delightful to see the cordial and appreciating way in which he, though a rival poet, speaks of the genius and character of his glorious contemporary.
$ 12. The life of Shelley presents many points of similarity with that of Byron, as well in great natural advantages, poisoned and rendered nugatory by untoward circumstances, as in unhappy domestic relations, and avowed hostility to society, forcing him to pass a great portion of his life in exile, and finally in constant revolt against religious and social opinion. PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY (1792-1821) was of an ancient and opulent family, the eldest son of Sir Timothy Shelley, and was born at Field Place, near Horsham, in Sussex, August 4, 1792. He exhibited from his early childhood an intense and almost morbid sensibility, together with a strong inclination towards sceptical and antisocial speculation, which gradually ripened into atheism. At Eton his sensitive mind was shocked by the sight of boyish tyranny, and he went to Oxford full of abhorrence for the cruelty and bigotry which he fancied pervaded all the relations of civilized life. An eager and desultory student, he rapidly filled his mind with the sceptical arguments against Christianity; and convinced that the concealment of his opinions was unworthy of the dignity of a philosopher, he published a tract in which he boldly avowed atheistic principles. Refusing to retract these opinions, he was expelled from the University; and this scandal, together with a marriage he contracted with a beautiful girl, his inferior in rank, caused him to be renounced by his family. This runaway match was an unhappy one, and the young enthusiast resided, in great poverty, at various places in the North of England and in Wales, ardently devoting himself to metaphysical study and to the composition of his first wild but beautiful poems. He separated from his wife, who afterwards terminated her existence in a melancholy manner by suicide, and contracted during his wife's lifetime a new connection with the daughter of Godwin; and having induced his family to make him a considerable annual allowance, his life was from thenceforth relieved from pecuniary difficulties. The delicate state of his health rendered it advisable that he should leave England for a warmer climate, and the remainder of his life was passed abroad, with only one short interruption. In Switzerland he became acquainted with Byron, and the ardor of his character and the splendor of his genius undoubtedly exerted a powerful influence on his mighty contemporary. Indeed the brilliancy of Shelley's eloquence, and the boldness of his doctrines, appear to have exercised an extraordinary fascination on all who were brought within its circle. His abhorrence of what he looked upon as the social tyranny of law and custom was carried to a still higher pitch by a decision of the Court of Chancery, depriving the poet of the guardianship of his children. This has been stigmatized by Shelley's admirers as an act of odious bigotry; but it should be recollected that when he deserted his wife she took refuge with her father, and that the latter, after his daughter's death, naturally refused to surrender his grandchildren to a man who had been guilty of a great and cruel crime against his family, and who proclaimed his intention of educating his children in his own irreligious opinions. He now migrated to Italy, where he kept up an intimate companionship with Byron, still continuing to pour forth his strange and enchanting poetry in indefatigable profusion. He resided principally at Rome, and produced there many of his finest productions. His death was early and tragic. His passion had always been boating; and returning in a small yacht from Leghorn, in company with a friend and a single boatman, his vessel was caught in a squall and went down with all on board in the Gulf of Spezzia. Thus perished this great poet, at the age of thirty. His body was cast up on the coast some days after, and burned after the manner of the ancients by Byron and Leigh Hunt. His ashes were interred in the beautiful cemetery near the tomb of Cæcilia Metella at Rome.
§ 13. Shelley was all his life, both as a poet and as a man, a dreamer, a visionary: his mind was filled with glorious but unreal phantoms of the possible perfectibility of mankind. So ardent was his sympathy with his kind, and so intense his abhorrence of the corruption and suffering he saw around him, that the very intensity of that sympathy clouded his reason; and he fell into the common error of all enthusiasts, of supposing that, if the present organization of society were swept away, a millennium of virtue and happiness must ensue. He traced the misery and degradation of mankind to the institutions of religion, of government, and of marriage, and not to those passions which these institutions are intended, however imperfectly, to restrain. As a poet he was undoubtedly gifted with genius of a very high order, an immense, though somewhat vaporous richness and fertility of imagination, an intense fire and energy in the reproduction of what he conceived, and a command over all the resources of metrical harmony such as no English poet has surpassed. He began to write almost from his childhood, and his first attempts were tales in prose, which have not been preserved. His poetical career commences with Queen Mab, a wild phantasmagoria of beautiful description and fervent declamation, written in that irregular unrhymed versification of which Southey's Thalaba is an example. The defect of this poem, as indeed of many of Shelley's other compositions, is a vagueness of meaning which often becomes absolutely unintelligible. Lovely, ideal, but cloudy images are continually evoked; but they flit before us like the " shadow of a dream.” The notes appended to Queen Mab exhibit the fuil audacity of Shelley's scepticism: his arguments, however, are little else but repetitions of the sneers of Voltaire, and the objections, many of them entirely sophistical, of preceding antagonists of Christianity.
Perhaps the finest, as it is the completest and most distinct, of Shelley's longer poems, is. Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude, in which he depicts the sufferings of such a character as his own, a being of the warmest sympathies, and of the loftiest aspirations, driven into solitude and despair by the ingratitude of his kind, who are incapable of understanding and sympathizing with his aims. The descriptions in this poem are inimitably beautiful: woodland and river scenery are depicted with a wealth of tropic luxuriance that places Shelley in the foremost rank among the pictorial poets; and the voyage of Alastor into his forest retreat is a passage which it would be difficult to parallel. This poem is written in blank verse.
The Revolt of Islam, Hellas, and the Witch of Atlas are works which belong, more or less, to the category of Queen Mab— violent invectives against kingcraft, priestcraft, religion, and marriage, alternating with airy and exquisite pictures of scenes and beings of superhuman and unearthly splendor. The defect of these poems is the extreme obscurity of their general drift. Though particular objects stand out with the vividness and splendor of reality, and are lighted up with a dazzling glow of imagination, the effect of the whole is singularly vague and uncertain. Shelley's genius was of a high order; but instead of possessing it he was possessed by it; as madmen were said, in ignorant ages, to be possessed by a devil: his Muse is a Pythoness upon her tripod, torn and convulsed by the utterance of which she is the channel. This possession, if I may so style it, is the essential characteristic of Shelley's poetry -- at once its strength and its weakness, the source of its charm and“the origin of its defects. It is unnecessary to contrast this convulsive and morbid, though often admirable force, with the calm and godlike mastery over themselves of the true gods of poetry, of such minds as Homer, as Milton, as Shakspeare.
Two important works of Shelley are dramatic in form — the Prometheus Unbound and the Cenci. The former, however, is rather a lyric in dialogue than a drama, while the latter is a regular tragedy. The Prometheus is one of the wildest and most unintelligible of all this poet's works, though it contains numberless passages of the highest beauty and sublimity. The fundamental idea is based upon the gigantic drama of Æschylus, of which it is intended to be the complement; but Shelley has combined with the primeval and tremendous mythology of the Greek poet a multitude of persons and actions embodying the Titanic resistance of his philosophical creed to the abominations - as he regarded them – springing from Christianity and the present organization of society. The most incongruous personages and systems are mingled together; Paganism and Christianity, the myths of Olympus and the theology of the Bible, the systems and the beliefs of different ages and countries, are brought into bewildering contact. This piece breathes throughout that strange union of fierce hostility to social systems and intense love for humanity in the abstract which forms so singular an anomaly in the writings of Shelley. Many of the descriptive passages are sublime, and noble bursts of lyric harmony alternate with the wildest personifications and the fiercest invective. The Cenci is a regular tragedy on the severe and sculptural plan of Alfieri. The subject is one of the most frightful of those domestic crimes in which the black annals of mediæval Italy are so prolific. It is founded on the famous crime of Beatrice di Cenci, driven by the diabolical wickedness of her father to the crime of parricide, for which she suffered the penalty of death at Rome; but the character of the old Count is one of such monstrous and hideous depravity, that the story is in reality quite unsuited to the purpose of the dramatist. In spite of several powerful and striking scenes, this piece is of a morbid and unpleasing character, though the language is vigorous and masculine.
§ 14. The narrative poem of Rosalind and Helen is an elaborate pleading against the institution of marriage. The poet contrasts two lives, one in which the indissolubility of the marriage tie is arbitrarily made out to be productive of nothing but misery, while in the other a connection not sanctioned by law and custom is shown in a most artractive light. But the parallel, like those so often brought forward in the writings of George Sand and other advocates for what is called the emancipation of women, has the disadvantage of proving nothing at all; for it would have been just as easy to have inverted the two cases imagined; and common and universal experience shows that though married life may, in particular instances, be unhappy, the general practical tendency of the conjugal bond is unquestionably calculated to promote individual happiness as well as general morality. In the poem of Adonais Shelley has given us a beautiful and touching lament on the early death of Keats, whose short career gave such a noble foretaste of poetical genius that would have made him one of the greatest writers of his age. It is of the pastoral character, and is in some measure a revival of the beautiful Idyl of Moschus on the death of Bion, and reminds the reader of the eulogies of Sidney by Spenser, and the immortal Lycidas of Milton. One of the most imaginative and at the same time one of the obscurest of Shelley's poems is the Sensitive Plant, which combines the qualities of mystery and fancifulness to the highest degree, perpetually stimulating the reader with a desire to penetrate the meaning symbolized in the luxuriant description of the garden and the Plant, and filling him with the richest imagery and description. The versification of this poem is extraordinary for its melody and variety, and the reader is incessantly tantalized with the hope of unveiling the secret and abstract meaning which the poet has locked up, as the embryo is involved in the foldings of the petals of a flower. Many of Shelley's detached lyrics are of inexpressible beauty, as the Ode to a Skylark, which breathes the very rapture of the bird's soaring song, the wild but picturesque imagery of the Cloud, besides a number of minor but not less beautiful productions. By a singular anomaly or contrast, Shelley, whose mind was so filled with images of superhuman grace and beauty, exhibits occasionally a morbid tendency to dwell on ideas of a hideous and repulsive character. Like the ocean, his genius, so pure, transparent, and sublime, the parent of so many forms of strange and fairy loveliness, hides within its abysses monstrous and horrible shapes at which imagination recoils. His mode of writing is full of pictures, but the images subsidiary to or illustrative of the principal thought are often made more prominent than the thought they are intended to enforce. Nay, he very frequently goes farther, and makes the antitype and the type change places; the illustrative image becoming the principal object, and thus destroying the due subordination of the ornament to the edifice it is intended to decorate. Shakspeare's miraculous imagination, it is true, seems sometimes almost to run away with him; but when closely studied it will be found that he never fails to keep his principal idea always above and distinct from even his wildest outbursts of fancy, and ever remains master of his thought.
$ 15. JOHN KEATS (1796-1821) was born in Moorfields, London, and was apprenticed to a surgeon in his fifteenth year. During his apprenticeship he devoted most of his time to poetry, and in 1817 he published a volume of juvenile poems. This was followed in 1818 by his long poem Endymion, which was severely censured by the “ Quarterly Review” — an attack which has been somewhat erroneously described as the cause of his death. It is probable that it gave a rude shock to Keats's highly sensitive nature, and to a physical condition much weakened by the attention which he had bestowed upon a dying brother. But he had a constitutional tendency to consumption, which would most likely have developed itself under any circumstances. He went for the recovery of his health to Rome, where he died on the 24th of February, 1821. In the previous year he had published another volume of poems, Lamia, Isabella, &c., in which was included the fragment of his remarkable poem entitled Hyperion.
It was the misfortune of Keats to be either extravagantly praised or unmercifully condemned. This arose on the one hand from the extreme partiality of friendship, and on the other from resentment of that friendship, connected as it was with party politics and with peculiar views of society. That which is most remarkable in his works is the wonderful profusion of figurative language, often exquisitely beautiful and luxuriant, but sometimes purely fantastical and far-fetched. The peculiarity of Shelley's style, to which we may give the name of incatenation, Keats carries to extravagance – one word, one image, one rhyme suggests another, till we quite lose sight of the original idea, which is smothered in its own sweet luxuriance, like a bee stifled in honey. Shakspeare and his school, upon whose manner Keats undoubtedly endeavored to form his style of writing, have, it is true, this peculiarity of language; but in them the images never run away with the thought - the guiding master-idea is ever present. These poets never throw the reins on their Pegasus, even when soaring to “the brightest heaven of invention.” With them the images are produced by a force acting ab intra ; like wild flowers springing from the very richness of the ground. In Keats the force acts ab extra ; the flowers are forcibly fixed in the earth, as in the garden of a child, who cannot wait till they grow there of themselves. Keats deserves high praise for one very peculiar and original merit: he has treated the classical mythology in a way absolutely new, representing the Pagan deities not as mere abstractions of art, nor as mere creatures of popular belief, but giving them passions and affections like our own, highly purified