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

III. Shelley

§ 10. Summary

A century has almost passed, and Shelley is still the subject of keener debate than any of his poetic contemporaries, not excepting Byron. That he is one of the greatest of lyric poets is eagerly allowed by his most hostile critics; the old grounds, too, of hostility to him have, in the main, long since spent their malice, or count on his side; while some, which cannot be dismissed, are irrelevant to a final estimate of his poetry. But many who feel the spell of his “lovely wail” are repelled by his “want of substance”; Matthew Arnold’s “ineffectual angel” “pinnacled dim in the intense inane” expresses, for them, the whole truth about the poet and about the man. And a part of the truth it undoubtedly does express. No stranger apparition ever visited that robust matter-of-fact Georgian England than this “frail form,” of whom, at the outset, Hazlitt might have said with yet more truth than of Coleridge, that he “had wings but wanted hands and feet.” Only, while Coleridge’s wing “flagged” more and more “wearily” (as Shelley said), Shelley grew steadily, not only in power of flight, but in his living hold, both as poet and as man, upon certain orders of fact. His “strangeness” was a part (not the whole) of his originality; and he paid its price. To most of what was complex, institutional, traditional in his milieu, he remained inaccessible, intransigent; he could not, like Wordsworth, find his “home” in these things, still less find it a “kindred-point” with his “heaven.” For Shelley, society was rather the ground from which (like his Skylark) he soared to a heaven far remote; or, to use his yet more splendid image, the “dome of many-coloured glass” beyond which he strove to project himself into a white radiance of eternity. As Bradley has aptly remarked, he forgot, not always but often, that the white radiance itself persists transformed in the many colours. That pure and intense aspiration, however, is the first note of Shelley’s authentic poetry. It would not be authentic, it would hardly be memorable, if it merely expressed aspirations, however ideal and intense; but the expression itself is already creative and new. Shelley’s mature verse and diction do not merely serve as a channel for his thought and feeling: the temper of his spirit penetrates and suffuses their very texture, evoking spontaneous felicities of rhythm and phrase, which are beautiful in their own right as well as by their subtle symbolism. Of all the poets of his time, Shelley’s style carries us furthest from the close-packed, tessellated brilliance, the calculated point and precision, of the Augustans; to describe it we have to recur to images drawn from the undulating contours of waves, the pure intensity and splendour of flame. During the last years of his short life, his soaring idealism abated nothing of its ardour; but he found in the actual world of nature and of man more varied intimations of the “Life of Life” they veiled, and his poetry, within its range, acquired a piercing and profound human truth without losing its unearthly beauty. The most “subjective” of modern English poets created our one great modern English tragedy. And the most “romantic” of them had, almost alone, the secret of a truly “classical” simplicity; a speech nobly bare, even austere, familiar without banality, poetic without artifice. Some kinds of poetic experience, and those not the least vital, he expresses with a delicate precision not less than that of the “subtle soul’d psychologist” Coleridge; and he is sometimes most precise when he appears, to the ordinary reader, most “vague.” And, while the philosophic beliefs of Coleridge hardly touch his poetry, and were deeply coloured by the interests of the theologian and the political theorist, the ultimate metaphysic of Shelley is the articulate interpretation of his most intense poetic vision, and vitally supplements, where it does not rudely traverse, the dogmas of his “atheistic” or “democratic” creed. To all readers, Shelley will remain the consummate inventor of lyric harmonies. To some, he will be not less precious for the glimpses given, in Adonais and in The Defence of Poetry, of a doctrine of universal being more consonant than any other with the nature of poetry.