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

III. Shelley

§ 5. Peter Bell the Third

In Peter Bell the Third, Shelley attacks at once the reactionary politician and the “dull” poet, but the reactionary who had once hailed with rapture the “dawn” of the revolution, and the dull poet who had once stood on the heights of poetry. And the two indictments, for Shelley, hung together. Wordsworth was dull because he had been false to his early ideals. To convey this by identifying the poet with Peter Bell, his own symbol of the dull man, was an ingenious satiric device and not unfair retribution. Under cover of it, morever, Shelley delivers (in part IV) some shafts of criticism which illuminate as well as pierce, and he can pointedly recall the older Wordsworth who made songs

  • on moor and glen and rocky lake
  • And on the heart of man.
  • In the most elaborate of these satires, on the other hand, the quasi-Aristophanic drama Swellfoot the Tyrant (1820), on the scandal of George IV and the queen, Shelley’s humour crackles drearily. Its hideous symbolism is unredeemed.

    In the meantime (January, 1820), the Shelleys had moved to Pisa, their home, with occasional intervals by the sea or in the mountains, for the next two years. His vaster poetic schemes during the first of these years fell into the background; Prometheus and The Cenci had no successors. But he was himself in the full tide of growth; in lyric, at least, he now showed a finished mastery which, even in his great lyric drama, he had not always reached; and he struck out upon fresh and delightful adventures. In The Sensitive Plant, the loveliness of an Italian flower garden in spring, and its autumn decay, inspired a Shelleyan myth, akin in purport to Alastor, but with a new, delicate plasticity, like that of the contemporary Skylark. His flowers, commonly impressionist hints of colour and perfume, are now finely articulated and characterised; they are Shelleyan flowers, but, like those of Shakespeare, they are, recognisably, nature’s too. In “the sensitive plant” itself, Shelley found a new symbol for his own “love of love,” “companionless,” like the poet in Alastor and the “one frail form” of Adonais; and, as in Adonais, the mood of lament at the passing of beauty and the seeming frustration of love merges in a note of assurance, here not ecstatic but serene, that beauty and love are, in reality the eternal things. The anapaestic verse is nearer than any other to that of Christabel; it lent itself with, perhaps, excessive ease to the fluid undulations of Shelley’s rhythms, but he discovers in it new and exquisite effects.

    The Witch of Atlas is a more airily playful essay in poetic myth-making. Imagined on a solitary mountain climb, after days spent in translating the delightful rogueries of the Homeric Hymn to Mercury, The Witch is a hymn in kindred vein: the deeper harmonies of his thought and aspiration transposed into blithe irresponsible fancy and dainty arabesque. But poetry it remains, despite some menace of the mock-heroic at the outset, and of satire at the end. The ottava rima which Shelley uses here, as for his Hymn to Mercury, had, for centuries, been the accepted measure, in Italian, of playful poetry; and Byron had lately adopted it for the epic mockery of Don Juan.

    Tradition and example helped to suspend here the “shrill” and “intense” notes of Shelley’s poetry; but they set no check upon the wayward loveliness of his music and imagery. To his wife, as is well known, the poem did not appeal; it could have no apter prelude than the charming “apology” in which he bids her

  • prithee for this one time
  • Content thee with a visionary rhyme.
  • A few other experiments in narrative of the same time—A Vision of the Sea, Orpheus, Cosimo and Fiordispina—open up alluring glimpses of beauty, but, on the whole, confirm the impression that story with difficulty sustained itself in Shelley’s imagination unless it partook of the tone and temper of lyric. The first-named is a kind of Shelleyan Ancient Mariner, woven of beauty and horror, but less “visionary,” in the sense which troubled Mrs. Shelley, than The Witch of Atlas; and the anapaests crash and surge—a new potency in a metre of which only the liquid melodious lilt had appeared to be known to the poet of The Cloud and The Sensitive Plant. Shelley’s passion for the sea was beginning to impress his poetry.