The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

III. Shelley

§ 1. Queen Mab; Alastor

TWO decades, approximately, separate the emergence of the younger group of the poets of this period, Byron, Shelley and Keats, from that of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Scott. To the elder group, all three were both deeply indebted and, in various subtle and intricate ways, akin. Yet, the younger group stand sharply and definitely apart; they are not merely of a younger generation but of a different age. The revolution, which had profoundly disturbed the elder poets, had, for the younger, already become history; the ideas and aspirations which Wordsworth and Coleridge first embraced and then did battle with, and which Scott consistently abhorred, had passed into the blood of Byron and Shelley, and kindled humanitarian ardours even in the artist Keats. And they are all, definitely, less English. Poetry, in their hands, loses almost entire touch with the national life and the historic traditions of England; nor was it mere accident that Shelley and Byron lived their best years, and produced their greatest poetry, in Italy, or that Keats, in his London suburb, sang of Endymion and the moon, of magic casements and perilous seas.

For the younger group were not merely less English; they were less near to nature, in a significant and far-reaching sense less natural. Existence, as such—the world as it is, with its ritual, or routine, of use and wont—was less characteristically the home and haunt of their imagination. To brood over the poetry of common things, to explore the workings of the untaught mind, to reanimate, for its own sake, the adventure and romance of the past, were no longer their inspiring aim. Nature, to Wordsworth, was a conservative ideal; but the ideals of freedom, beauty, love, which enthralled the imagination of Byron and Shelley and Keats became, in their hands anarchic and revolutionary, challenging the old order, breaking down its classifications and limits, yet, in the case of the two younger poets, building up visionary fabrics controlled by the law of the spirit. And their very detachment from the despotism of fact enabled them to range more freely over existence than did their predecessors; they are more versatile; neglected treasures swim into their ken; nature and art, legend and romance, lose their old solitary and exclusive lure, to become the many-coloured woof of the living garment of beauty. That which for Wordsworth was, pre-eminently, if not exclusively, “a living Presence of the Earth,” spoke to the imagination of Shelley and Keats no less from painting and sculpture, from the poetry of Greeks and Elizabethans and of Boccaccio and Dante, from the splendid creations of primeval myth. Medusa and the Grecian Urn, Prometheus Unbound and the sonnet On sitting down to read King Lear once again, Isabella and The Triumph of Life, Endymion and Alastor, mark, merely in conception and cast of subject, so many advances of the existing boundaries of English poetry.

Shelley and Keats were thus, for their generation, creators of beauty, as Wordsworth and Coleridge had been prophets of nature. But their vision of beauty was widely different. Shelley’s vision is more metaphysical; beauty, for him, is “intellectual,” a spirit living and working through the universe, and, ultimately, undistinguishable from the “love” which “sustains” it; the sensuous world, its “veil,” discloses it, here and there, in pure, aspiring things—flowers, flame, heroic souls.

The Keatsian vision of beauty, on the other hand, is predominantly a rapturous exaltation of the senses—but of senses transfigured by imagination, so that they create as much as they perceive, making “loveliness yet more lovely.”

Both the Shelleyan and the Keatsian vision of beauty are mirrored, finally, in the poetic instrument of expression itself, in their speech and verse. Image and personification, condemned by Wordsworth, reappear in unsurpassed subtlety and splendour. But both are masters, also, of a noble and passionate simplicity. And, in both, the inner rhythm of thought is accompanied and borne out by new and exquisite rhythms of musical verse. The songs of Shelley and the odes of Keats reach the summit of lyric achievement in English.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, born on 4 August, 1792, at Horsham, came of a line of frequently notable Sussex squires. His imagination was early awake, but poetic power came relatively late. At Eton (1804–10), he wrote fluent Latin verse, hung entranced over the forbidden marvels of chemistry, stood up single-handed against fagging, and scribbled incoherent romances after Mrs. Radcliffe (Zastrozzi, St. Irvyne’s); there, too, he had that May morning vision of “intellectual beauty” (Hymn of Intellectual Beauty, dedication to The Revolt of Islam) which “burst his spirit’s sleep,” and became, thenceforward, the “master light of all his seeing.” The circumstances of his brief Oxford career, his expulsion and marriage with Harriet Westbrook (August, 1811) are familiar, and need not be recalled. In January, 1812, he wrote to Godwin, declaring himself “the pupil of him under whose actual guidance my very thoughts have hitherto been arranged.” Godwin’s sway, never entirely outgrown, over a mind remote from his own in gifts and temperament, was due to his political individualism and to his ethical determinism. The one appealed to Shelley’s hatred of tyranny, the other to his passion for ideal unity. In Queen Mab (surreptitiously published 1813), his Godwinian creed is proclaimed from the mouths of legendary personages, inspired, as is their loose irregular verse, by the mythical epics of Southey. Shelley was soon to leave Queen Mab far behind; yet, its passionate sincerity, and the indefinable promise of genius in its very extravagances, make it very impressive. Some sections he, later, rehandled as The Daemon of the World. The following year (1814) saw the gravest crisis of his life. Its circumstances cannot be discussed here. Finding Harriet spiritually irresponsive, and believing her to have been unfaithful, he treated their marriage as dissolved, and, in July, left England with Mary Godwin. Neither the three months’ tour through France and Switzerland, nor the succeeding winter and spring, bore any immediate literary fruit; but, during the autumn of 1815, he wrote, in the glades of Windsor, Alastor, his first authentic and unmistakable poem. The harsh notes and crude philosophy of Queen Mab are no longer heard; Southey has yielded place to Coleridge and Wordsworth, to the romantic chasm of Kubla Khan, and the visionary boy of The Excursion. The blank verse, too, is built upon the noble, plain music of Wordsworth, but with delicate suspensions and cadences and wayward undulations of his own. Yet, the mood and purport of this first genuine achievement of Shelley is one of frustration and farewell. His reform schemes had utterly failed, and he believed (on the strength of a medical report) that he was about to die. Alastor is the tragedy of the idealist who seeks in reality the counterpart of his ideal. In his preface, Shelley loftily condemns the idealist, but only to pronounce a sterner condemnation upon the multitude who live untroubled by generous delusions; and the final lines, some of the noblest he ever wrote, are penetrated with the forlornness of a world where “many worms and beasts and men live on,” while “some surpassing spirit” is snatched away, leaving to the survivors

  • But cold despair and pale tranquillity,
  • Nature’s vast frame, the web of human things,
  • Birth and the grave, that are not as they were.
  • To Shelley himself, “Nature’s vast frame” and “the web of human things” were not only a source of consolation: they were a problem—a problem, however, of which he was assured that he had the key. Much of this autumn was occupied with attempts to set out in prose his philosophic convictions. The results remain in a series of unfinished prose essays: On Love, On Life, On a Future State, On Metaphysics, On Morals, On Christianity. Neither as literature nor as speculation are they very remarkable; but they help to determine the character of Shelley’s doctrines at a time when the Godwinian mould of his ideas, still almost untouched by the influence of either Spinoza or Plato, was already undergoing the implicit transmutation in his mind which familiarity with them, and especially with Plato, splendidly completed. His determinism remains, but is assuming a more and more idealist complexion. “Necessity,” with Godwin a bulwark against miracles and free-will, was already, in Queen Mab, a sublime creation and harmonising power—“the mother of the world,” and life “the great miracle.” Shelley believes, with Berkeley, that “nothing exists but as it is perceived,” and reduces mind to a merely perceiving power; but, in another context, he can assert that man has “a spirit within him at enmity with nothingness and dissolution.” And the Godwinian individualism is in sore peril when Shelley, in the same essay (On life), declares that “I, you, they are not signs of any actual difference,… but merely marks employed to denote the different modifications of the one mind.”

    The author of these fragments was clearly ripe for Plato, and the ardent Greek studies of the following winter with Hogg and Peacock brought his later Platonism perceptibly nearer. The Swiss journey of the following summer (1816) was memorable for the beginning of his friendship with Byron. To these months of animated intercourse with a man of genius very unlike his own—discussions and readings in the villa Diodati, boat explorations in the footsteps of Julie and St. Preux and much else—Shelley owed stimulus; but, not like Byron, a poetic new birth. The Mont Blanc stanzas and the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty mark no such sudden heightening of vision or matured power as do Manfred and the third canto of Childe Harold in comparison with all the writer had done before. Yet they express the Shelleyan idealism with a new loftiness of assurance, as of one who had found his dreams unassailably confirmed. The Alps, for Byron a symbol of nature’s ruinous and savage force, were, for Shelley, the habitation of “the secret Strength of Things Which governs thought and to the infinite dome of heaven is as a law”—a bond of union, like Wordsworth’s Duty, between the visible universe and the ideal strivings of man.