« PreviousContinue »
the zeal of freedom and justice, he was convinced by their reasonings and captivated by their lofty descriptions of the future. He rejected the more commonly received opinions in politics and religion; but too honest and fearless to hold his new faith in concealment, he openly declared his convictions, and sought to make proselytes to his creed. He was seized with an "ambition to reform the world." He threw down the gauntlet of defiance at the feet of his teachers, and challenged them to an encounter of reason, on such questions as the truth of Christianity and the being of a God. A student who should thus formally set himself up as a teacher of atheism, and, above all, hurl a proud scorn at the heads of his professors, could not, of course, be tolerated in a secluded academical community. He was, consequently, made a subject of discipline, and deliberately expelled from a society, whose prejudices he had assaulted, whose laws he had outraged, and whose authorities he had somewhat wantonly contemned.
How far the College was right in treating him with this severity, or what aggravations there may have been in the manner of it, is not now a topic for inquiry-suffice it to say, that the event exasperated and embittered his mind to an extreme of almost madness. He was only confirmed in his false but sincere convictions by what he esteemed the despotism of his enemies. He came to regard himself as a victim of oppression. He ceased to respect and love those whose main arguments were force, whose only replies to his appeals had been execrations and reproaches, who shut him out from their sympathies, and branded him as a reprobate and a criminal. There was, undoubtedly, much exaggeration in all this—yet it had its effect in driving him further from the religion to which most erroneously it was intended to bring him back. Religion to him, no longer wore an aspect of loveliness and charity; it was associated with falsehood, intolerance and hatred.
Entertaining such feelings, Shelley was not the man to shrink from giving them definite form and shape. Filled to overflowing, at the same time, with compassion for his fellow men, he mourned over the injustice, the wrong and the misery of human society. His
heart was torn with anguish by the contemplation of the sufferings of the unfriended and the poor, and he wept with scalding tears the desolations of ignorance and vice. He saw the wicked triumphing, and the righteous ground to the earth. The whole history of mankind struck his fevered sensibilities as one continuous chronicle of woe, want, wretchedness, on one hand, and blood-stained tyranny on the other. Society seemed like a vast lazar-house, in which were gathered all fell diseases, all ghastly forms, and all dreadful plagues.
In this spirit Shelley composed his first poem, Queen Mab. Although it was not published until several years afterwards, and then surreptitiously, it suits our plan to speak a word of it here.
Queen Mab, we regard as the most extraordinary production of youthful intellect. The author was but seventeen when he wrote it, yet in boldness and depth of thought, vigor of imagination, and intensity of language, it displays prodigious power. In its metre and general form, it resembles Southey's Thalaba, but is even superior to that poem, we think, in wild grandeur and pathos. The versification, though sometimes strained and elaborate, is, for the most part, melodious. Its narrative portions are well sustained, while the descriptions, if we may so express it, are hideously faithful. It is easy to perceive, however, that the writer's ungovernable sensibilities ran away with nearly all his other faculties. In the fragmentary state in which it is given to us in the later editions, it is confused in sentiment and rhapsodical. Yet it has
one broad, deep, pervading object. It is a shout of defiance and battle sent up by an unaided stripling, against the powers and principalities of a world reeking in its errors. Every page of it is a fiery protest against the frauds and despotism of priests and kings. It is like the outburst of a mass of flame from a covered and pent up furnace. It is the fierce wail of nature struggling to escape from the accumulated oppressions of ages. Its irregular, convulsive movements, its lurid and dreadful pictures alternating with passages of mild beauty and soft splendor, seem like the protracted battle of Life with Death, of Giant Hope with Giant Despair. The blasphemy and atheism which are so flippantly charged upon it, are the tempestuous writhings of a pure and noble spirit, torn and tossed between the contending winds and waves of a heart full of Love and a head full of Doubt. It is, throughout, the intense utterance of one shocked into madness by the miseries of the present, and at the same time drunk with intoxicating anticipations of the glories of the future.
It was never the intention of Shelley to have published this indiscreet and immature effort of his genius. But the unfortunate notoriety which certain events in his domestic life had procured him, induced a piratical bookseller to give it to the world. When it did appear, he wrote a note to the London Examiner, disclaiming much of what it contained.
The domestic events to which we refer, are his marriage and separation from his first wife. We speak of them only so far as the knowledge of them is necessary to the right understanding of his poetry and character. In very early life, some of his friends say, impelled by interested advisers he married a young woman, whose tastes he soon found were altogether unsuitable to his own, and from whom, after the birth of two children, he separated. A few years subsequent to this voluntary divorce, the wife committed suicide; not, however, before Shelley, most wrongly, as we conceive, had united himself to another woman. This woman, it is true, was one of illustrious birth, being the daughter of Mary Wollstoncraft and William Godwin, and inheriting some measure of the splendid abilities of both parents;
but he should not have united himself to her-great as she was in herself, and glorious as were the associations that radiated around her history-while his first wife lived. It was the error of his life. He never recovered from the shock given by the distressing mode and manner of his first wife's death. It tinged with remediless sadness and remorse the whole of his after life.
But the most melancholy part of this tragedy was the catastrophe enacted in the court of chancery, under the infamous presidency of Lord Eldon. Our limits will not suffer us to go into the legal merits and bearings of the atrocious case. The end was, that the children of Shelley's first marriage, to whom he was devotedly attached, were taken from him on the ground that his opinions rendered him incompetent to take care of their education. This wicked act of tyranny, this unredeemed and shameless violation of the most sacred ties of the heart, filled the cup of Shelley's woe. He never forgave the injustice, but to the hour of his death, felt to his inmost soul the keen and cruel pangs of the blow.
With these few words, we dismiss this part of our subject.
Shelley, before these events, was living with his second wife on the Continent. He had already angered his family, and been exiled from their protection and sympathy. It is just, however, to say that this abandonment did not take place without attempts on their part to reclaim him from his errors. One relative, it is said, made him the offer of an immense fortune if he would enter the House of Commons, to sustain the cause of the whigs. But he despised alike the money and the motive, preferring the life of an outcast, true to his convictions, to that of the pampered idol of a party, false to his own soul. The spirit which seems to have actuated him on this occasion, was the spirit of his whole life. He held no half-faced fellowship with God and Mammon. What he believed, that he did, leaving to the developments of time, the issues of his conduct.
Shelley's first acknowledged poem, Alastor, or, the Spirit of Solitude, written in 1815, exhibits his mind in a more subdued state than that in which he must have composed Queen Mab. He
was then residing at Bishopgate Heath, near Windsor Forest, made immortal in the early lays of Pope. There, in the enjoyment of the companionship of cultivated friends, reading the poets of the day, and visiting the magnificent woodland and forest scenery to be met with in a voyage to the source of the Thames, several months of health and tranquil happiness glided away. The more boisterous excitability of earlier years gave place to habits of calm meditation and self-communion, while the vicissitudes and disappointments which had already chequered his young life, tempered, no doubt, his exalted hopes and restrained the impetuosity of his zeal. In Alastor, accordingly, we find the traces of more mature and deeper inward reflection. It contains none of those intense and irrepressible bursts of mingled rage and love, which are at once the merit and defect of Queen Mab; but is a quiet and beautiful picture of the progressive condition of the mind of a poet. It represents, to borrow the language of his preface, a youth of uncorrupted feelings and adventurous genius, led forth by an imagination inflamed and purified through familiarity with all that is excellent and majestic, to the contemplation of the universe. He drinks deep of the fountains of knowledge, and is still insatiate. The magnificence and beauty of the eternal world sink profoundly into the frame of his conceptions, and afford to their modifications a variety not to be exhausted. So long as it is possible for his desires to point towards objects thus infinite and unmeasured, he is joyous and self-possessed. But the period arises when those objects cease to suffice. His mind is at length suddenly awakened, and thirsts for an intercourse with an intelligence similar to itself; he images to himself the being he loves, and the vision unites all of wonderful, wise, and beautiful, which the poet, the philosopher, or the lover could depicture. He, however, wanders in vain over the populous and desolated portions of the earth, in search for the prototype of his conceptions. Neither earth, nor air, nor yet the pale
realms of dreams can accord him the being of his ideal love. Weary at last of the present, and blasted by dis
appointment, he seeks the retreat of a solitary recess and yields his spirit to death.
Such is the story of a poem, which, Mrs. Shelley says, is rather didactic than narrative, being the outpouring of the poet's own emotions, embodied in the purest form he could conceive, and painted in ideal hues. As much, if not more than any of his works, Alastor is characteristic of the author. It is tranquil, thoughtful, and solemn, mingling the exultation animated by the sunny and beautiful aspect of Nature, with the deep, religious feeling that arises from the contemplation of her more stern and majestic mood, and with the brooding thoughts and sad or stormful passion of a heart seeking through the earth for objects to satisfy the restlessness of infinite desires. The impression which it leaves is that of a soft and chastened melancholy. It is full of a touching and mournful eloquence. There is one of these passages we cannot read without tears. It is when the wanderer, in the loneliness and desolation of his heart, after his weary march over the waste, unfriendly earth
At length upon the lone Chorasmian
* Preface of 1815.
In the deaf air, to the blind earth and heaven,
That echoes not my thoughts?""
In the summer of this year Shelley paid another visit to the Continent, when he met Lord Byron, with whom-an uncongenial spirit,' he spent the greater part of the time on the shores of the Lake of Geneva. He seems to have written little this year, besides a few shorter pieces, among which are the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, and the Mount Blanc. But the following year he returned to England, and though heart-harrowing events, referred to above, awaited him there, though his sufferings from illness grew more frequent and severe, his mental activity revived. The very weakness that depressed his physical powers, appeared to enliven and incite his brain. Pain, which kept his mind awake and restless, quickened his sympathies with the afflictions of others.
He was established at Marlow, near London, a sequestered abode on the banks of the Thames. He led a meditative and studious life, but his meditations and studies were of a nature unlike those of most secluded scholars; the claims of his fellow-men were not forgotten. Floating quietly down the stream of the river, under the rich beech-groves of Bisham, or along the exuberant and picturesque meadows of Marlow, he was projecting a poem pregnant with important issues for the world. His head was filled with the gathering visions, and his heart expanded with the noble affections that were destined to give immortality to the Revolt of Islam. It was finished in little more than six months, and given to mankind.
The "Revolt of Islam," though by no means Shelley's greatest work, if his largest, is the one which will endear him most strongly to the lovers of their race. It is written in twelve cantos of the Spenserian stanza, and in his first design was to be entitled "Laon and Cythna, or the Revolutio of the Golden City," thereby implying that it was intended to be a story of passion, and not a picture of more mighty and broadly interesting events. As he advanced in his work, however; as the heavy woes of mankind pressed and absorbed his heart, the mere individual figures around whom the narra
tive gathers, dwindled in importance, and he poured out the strength of his soul in the description of scenes and incidents involving the fates of multitudes and races. The poem may have lost in interest as a narrative by the change, but Oh, how much i has gained as a poem! It is now a gallery of noble, glowig, and spirit-stirring pictures. It paints, in a series of the finest and boldest sketches-sometimes in dim and silvery outline, and sometimes in a broad mass of black and white-the most interesting conditions of a pure mind in its progress towards light and excellence, and of a great people in the passage from slavery to freedom. It is the great choral hymn of struggling nations. The dedication is a melting prelude addressed to his wife. The first canto, like the introduction to some great overture, runs over in brief but graceful and airy strains, the grand and unearthly harmonies which are to compose the burden of the music. After illustrating in passages of great beauty, the growth of a young mind in its aspirations after liberty, and how the impulses of a single spirit may spread the impatience of oppression until it takes captive and influences every soul, the poet proceeds at once to ts great topic,—the awakening of a whole nation from degradation to dignity; the dethronement of its tyrants; the exposure of the religious frauds and political quackeries, by which kings and hirelings delude the multitude into quiet subjection; the tranquil happiness, moral elevation, and mutual love of a people made free by their own patriotic endeavors; the treachery and barbarism of hired soldiers; the banding together of despots without to sustain the cause of tyrants at home; the desperate onset of the armies of the allied dynasties; the cruel murder and expulsion of the patriots, and the instauration of despotism, with its train of pestilence, famine and war. But the poem closes with prophecies for the sure and final reign of freedom and virtue.
In this argument, to use the phrase of the older poets, Shelley had a high moral aim. We refer not merely to what he himself describes as an attempt "to enlist the harmony of metrical language, etherial combinations of fancy, and refined and sudden transitions of passion in the cause of lib
not to be tried in a second. But in the
erality, or to kindle in the bosom of his
VOL. XIII.NO. LXVI.
then misrule and superstition would lose half their claims to our abhorrence, as fetters which the captive can unlock with the slightest motion of his fingers, and which do not eat with poisonous rust into his soul." The evils of that frightful upturning of society, seemed to him as they now seem to every observant mind, transient, while the good was durable. Under such convictions he prepared his poem. Bold as it is, in many of the sentiments, it is a noble monument to the loftiness of his aims, the brilliancy of his imagination, the wealth of love in his heart, and the breadth and power of his intellect. It is an armory from which the young enthusiasts of many generations to come may draw their weapons, in the assurance that they are of tried temper and exquisite polish. We have never read it without feeling our souls stirred within as with the sound of a trumpet-it has enlarged our thoughts, expanded and warmed our affections, quickened our purposes of good, and filled us with an unquenchable flame of philanthropy and love. It is almost the only poem that we can read at all seasons. In those darker moments, when the sense of misdirected efforts, or the exhaustion of disease, or the dark and mysterious dread of some future ill, weighs like an incubus upon the soul, it is almost the only work, after the Gospels, that furnishes nutriment and solace to our mind. Then, it touches us with a feeling of universal sympathy. It awakens us to the broad, deep sorrows of the world, it quickens languid and lagging resolutions, it confirms our faith in good, and swells our hearts with high and bursting hopes. Oh sweet, incomprehensibly sweet, are the emotions of intense and burning enthusiasm that it kindles!
Yet in this poem, as in most of Shelley's others, indeed, as in nearly all