The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 9. Shelley
The prosodic variety of Shelley is immense; there is, perhaps, hardly a poet—certainly there was none up to his time—who has written so consummately in so large a number of measures. But, one of the most interesting points about him, and about the contrast which is constantly presenting itself between him and Keats, is the peculiar character of his following of others. That this following should appear in his early and curiously worthless apprentice-work might be expected; but in the later and larger poems—not in the smaller—there is to be found one of the strangest compounds of imitation and originality that meets us in the entire range of prosodic study. Queen Mab follows Thalaba, and declares the following in the very opening stanza with that astonishing naïveté which is one of Shelley’s great characteristics. But, although he had, by this time, hardly got out of his novitiate, the necessity for him to become unlike everyone else, even in apparent endeavour to be like them, appears; and the total effect of the Queen Mab stanza is utterly different from that of Southey’s arrangements. The same, in a more remarkable degree, is the case with Alastor, where the blank verse is obviously Wordsworthian in suggestion, but acquires even more obviously a colour entirely its own; and with The Revolt of Islam, where the Spenserians pretty certainly start with a touch of Byron, but transform themselves into something not much more like Childe Harold than Adonais itself was subsequently.
It is possible, of course, to take exception to some of the devices (such as the large employment of double rimes in Adonais) by which Shelley impresses his own mark on these famous old measures; but it is not possible to fail to discern in them the most perfect products yet of emancipated prosody. And, when we turn to his shorter poems, it is still more impossible to discern even suggestion from any previous model, while the variety is innumberable without a single failure to produce beauty. There are those who hold that, in one or two places, Shelley outsteps even the large room given by the new prosody and passes off lines—and beautiful lines—which no principle of mere substitution of equivalent values will justify. The present writer doubts this very much. Very rarely can you trace Shelley’s exact processes, even when you can trace some origin and discern the difference of his result; but that result, at least after the date of Alastor, if not, prosodically speaking, after that of Queen Mab, can almost always be justified on the new principles which have been and will be sketched in this chapter. And, where it cannot, it is, at least, fair to remember that his text, if not exactly corrupt, can in very few cases be said to have undergone definitive revision at its author’s hands.