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[Frederick Denison Maurice]
Sketches of Contemporary Authors. Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The Athenaeum  Vol. 1  No. 13  (7 March 1828)  193-94.
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Literary and Critical Journal.

No. 13. LONDON, FRIDAY, MARCH 7, 1828. Price 7d.


No. VIII.—Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The nation has been taught, or at least told, to think that the character of Shelley was vitiated by one fundamental error,—which debars him at once from being considered as exerting a good moral influence, and by consequence, as well as by parity of reasoning, from being held for a great poet,—an error which proved him to be both a fool and a villain,—the want of belief in religion. We rate, at as high a value as any one ever has put upon them, those feelings which result from the development of the religious principle in the human mind: but we deny that these feelings did not exist in Shelley; we deny that this principle was not developed; we think that without these feelings, and this development, he could not have been a great poet,—but we think just as decidedly that he might have been a good man. To accuse any one of atheism is an easy way of defeating his claims to intellectual and imaginative power, and moral excellence, when the greater part of society have a very confused notion of what atheism is, but a very strong persuasion that it is something extremely horrible.

By way of making this making this matter a little clearer than it ordinarily is, we shall spend upon it a few sentences; and we can assure our readers, that they need not fear the slightest attempt to depreciate either natural religion or Christianity, which form together the glory and consummation of our nature. Atheism is the want of conviction of the existence of a God: and the value of that conviction must depend entirely upon the character assigned to the Deity, in the mind of the believer, and habitually present to his feelings. The belief in a Supreme Being is entirely useless, when, as is the most common case, he is merely thought of as a vague abstraction, dwelling afar off from men; or when, as is frequent among the ignorant and fanatical, he is imaged out as a venerable idol, seated in the clouds, with hoary locks and a frowning countenance; or when he is considered, as he is by many of the instructed classes, the mere first cause and moving spring of the world’s mechanism; or when he is revered as essentially a malignant being, who, having power to make men what he pleased, has made the majority of them eternally miserable. It must be evident to all, that, under one or other of these shapes alone, is God present to the intellects of the greater number of nominal Christians. Yet this worse than unmeaning sound of religion is brought forward as a favourable contrast to the opinions of all those, who, instead of professing to believe in a God with none of the attributes that can excite our love, boldly profess that they believe in no existence superior to man.

God is, in truth, the concentration and essence of good, and it is because he is such, that the constant feeling of his existence is beneficial to the human mind. But of two persons, neither of whom is conscious of the love of this impersonated excellence, which is in the healthier moral condition? he who delights in all the manifestations of the Divine goodness, and attempts to make them the models and principles of his own being, though without referring them to their true original and centre; or he, who, with all his word-religion, knowing just as little of a pervading and ruling spirit of beauty, truth, and beneficence, at the same time does not discover, in the universe, any of that power and harmony which the former sees and loves, only without attributing them to an adequate cause? The one is in the right way, though he has not reached his journey’s end. The other has left the road, and either stands still, or wanders farther and farther from the path, which leads us to the sanctuary. The one is guided by the pillar of fire, though still, perhaps, far from the land of promise; the other is either chasing a meteor, or in hopeless inactivity, lamenting for ‘the flesh-pots of Egypt.’ Wherefore then should it be said that an atheist is necessarily a bad man? He is one in whom the faculty, or part of our nature, whereby we see and embrace the Divine idea, is still lying undeveloped; but it may be that as well as he yet sees, he struggles to conform himself to the truth, and to open out into the fulness of wisdom, the gleams of knowledge which he already possesses; and above all, why do we, instead of imitating the holy gentleness of Christ, overwhelm, with obloquy and persecution, those whom our unchristian intolerance may irritate and harden, but never can convert? It is at least as bad to have a degrading and polluted idea of God, as to have no idea of him at all, and neither the error nor the defect can be remedied by scorn or indignation.

The very first grounds and conditions necessary towards conceiving the personality of a universal spirit of love are, that we ourselves should be imbued with benevolence and truth. And those who are selfish and frivolous, though acknowledging God with their lips, or even with their intellects, are infinitely farther from him in their hearts, than the atheist himself, who is really earnest in struggling upwards, and zealous for the promotion of human welfare. But Shelley was not an atheist; at all events, not in the sense in which that word is commonly understood. He was, in spirit and habit of feeling, the most strongly opposed of all men to that philosophy, if philosophy it may be called, which spends itself among physical causes, and can find satisfaction in mere phenomena. He uniformly referred, for the reason and the truth of things, to invisible principles within us or without, of which natural appearances are merely the clothing and the shadow; and they who would attempt, by an abuse of language, to give the notion that he ought to be classed with the empirical metaphysicians, or the mere mechanical philosophers, might as well tie the breathing body to the dead carcase, and liken the living wheels of Ezekiel’s vision to the wheels of a steam-engine or an orrery; and not only would they give a totally false idea of the general tendency of his works, but they would also falsify his words. It would be absurd to allude to Queen Mab, written, we believe, at the age of eighteen, (the most extraordinary book that any boy ever produced,) and never published with the author’s consent; in all his avowed productions that we have seen, there is no denial of the existence of a Supreme Perfection; but there is, on the other hand, a constant inculcation of the doctrine of an all-informing Power, an Essential Wisdom and Benevolence. The utmost that can be justly and positively asserted against Shelley’s religious opinions, is, that he was not a Christian. But that we may not be slaves to names instead of ministers to truth, and worshippers of idols rather than principles, it will be worth while to consider for an instant, wherefore he was not a Christian. The points to which he uniformly alludes, as shocking to his feelings, and repugnant to his reason, are not those which are chiefly dwelt upon in the New Testament; such as that ‘love to God and man is the sum and abstract of religion;’ that we ought to love those who hate us;’ that ‘God is love, and that it is in him we live, move, and have our being.’ These, which are the grand distinctions of Christianity, were not the points from which Shelley revolted. But he had been early disgusted by bigotry and intolerance; by the tyranny and self-sufficiency of those who corrupt the Gospel with additions hostile to its whole spirit, and proclaim, that the God, who became man from love to men, is a cruel and revengeful being, and will punish even errors of the intellect, by an eternity of suffering, without the slightest design of reforming the sinner. These are the unhappy and lamentable doctrines against which Shelley unceasingly lifted up his voice; and it might be a warning to those who think that ‘the wrath of man worketh the righteousness of God,’ if they remembered how their exclusiveness, and wanton outraging of humanity, disinclined to the very name of their religion one of the most gentle, benevolent, brave, and self-denying beings to be found in all the annals of genius. But in spite even of the prejudice against Christianity, which sprang in Shelley’s mind, from his observation of the evils so gratuitously connected with it, his own writings are instinct with an especially and earnestly religious morality; and he seems to have given up his whole being to the cultivation of feelings the very opposite of sensuality or of selfishness, and to have laboured, night and day, to keep his mind open to truth, and restless for moral improvement.

The charge of irreligion has been alluded to, in the outset, for the obvious reason, that it is one which, in the opinion of many people, would be sufficient, if established, to decide at once that Shelley has no claims to be judged, even in other respects, by ordinary rules, or submitted to an impartial analysis. We now leave that matter to be settled as the good feelings, or the bad doctrines, of the world may determine; and proceed to say something of the general character of his mind: and we are inclined to think, it was more fundamentally and uniformly poetical, than that of any other poet, at least in our day. We do not say that he wrote better poetry than Coleridge or Wordsworth; but that more habitually than they, or indeed than any one else we can remember, he thought and felt poetically. He cannot be conceived as performing the most ordinary action, and not investing it with a wild gracefulness, or imaginative splendour. Other men put out their minds into the task of ideal creation with something of effort and preparation; they bare their arms for the wrestling, or gird their loins for the combat. But Shelley seems to have been always and all over poet. He did not delay to put on armour for the battle; but went forth in the naked beauty of that form, which was, in itself, invulnerable, and with a glory blazing on his brow,

Άμϕί δέ όι κϵϕαλή νέϕος έστεϕε δία θεάων
Χρύσεον έκ δ αύτού δαίε ϕλόγν παμϕανόωσαν.

His whole being seems to have been absorbed and transfigured into poetry: and though the sphere of his writings is as different from ‘this dim spot, which men call earth,’ as are the clouds
of sunset from the world, with whose horizon they mingle, yet it is not a region to which he was borne on the wings of a casual enthusiasm, but his father-land and accustomed home. He did not first look at an object as it seems to other men, and then consider how it might be represented so as to please in poetry; but his very perceptions seem to have been modified and exalted by his genius, and even his senses were inspired. It is on this account that his poems have such perfect unity of feeling. His labours do not show those inconsistencies which arise among other men, from the variable humour and energy of the moment. They are but a homogeneous fragment of the permanent substance of his mind. Many may have felt, that he has too completely thrown away the ordinary vestures of human nature, that he may crown himself with asphodel, and array his limbs in light; but no one can have mistaken him for an ordinary masker, who assumes successively a dozen different disguises, and wears none of them as if it were his proper garb.

It is rather a failing than a merit in Shelley’s character as a poet, a flaw in the lamp of crystal and ruby which holds the flame of his genius, that he looks at the world with a more restless and impassioned spirit than have the other principal poets. He seems always to be carried along by the whirlwind of a strong conviction, that his poetry ought to be made the instrument of moral good, which he evidently had as much at heart as any, the greatest of reformers. There is therefore in it, a hot and rushing impetuosity, which seems to communicate itself from the poet’s mind to the objects with which he is conversing, and makes us feel as if we were borne in the prophet’s chariot of fire, around the burning ramparts of the universe.* He does not look upon nature with the serene and clear-sighted steadiness which would be necessary for the purpose of representing it in all its sincerity; but he
‘Walks with inward glory crown’d;’
and it is through the wavering halo of this glory that he contemplates every thing around him. It is not therefore to all men that he writes; for those who cannot readily betake themselves to any other than their ordinary perceptions or remembrances, who cannot lift themselves above the earth, or dwell in the ethereal empyrean, are irritated at failing in the attempt, and at seeing another soar so lightly to regions towards which they never can aspire. The rapidity and distance of his flight is indeed sufficient to render weary or giddy the greater number of readers; but they may be sure that if they have courage and strength to cling to his pinions, he will bear them swiftly among the spheres, and into the most secret splendours of the skies. For his is, in truth, a voice that might sing among the morning stars, and swell the shout of the sons of God, rejoicing over new worlds.

He has analysed the substance of man’s nature, and of the external world, for all that they contain of most potent and condensed, the most strangely or sweetly powerful, or the most morbidly sensitive; and he has thus built up for himself, of wilder feelings and more burning or stormy thoughts, another creation, in which he has substituted, for the regular breathings of the nature of which we are the household, the pantings and convulsions of ecstacy or agony. He has concentrated all the rays and intensest colours of beauty into an essential loveliness, wherein his heart has placed its home; and while we see around us a glimmering twilight of good and evil, the sober semi-transparent obscurity of our moral being, he divides the light from the darkness, and pours the one into a focus of unmingled love, wherein his thoughts disport like birds in the radiance of the setting sun, and piles the other into a black and beamless chaos, thronged through all its desolate immensity with blind imperfect shapes of terror and hatred. Yet he abounds with touches of a delicate and ethereal tenderness; his whole spirit is impregnated with a strong and ennobling faith in the capacities of his kind; he brings us within the grasp of a most fantastic and irresistible, but of no degrading or uncelestial, destiny. Though checked, as is the condition of our existence, with many misgivings, weakened by aimless irresolutions, and depressed by doubts and sufferings, he still presents himself struggling on towards the consummation of a mighty hope, and subduing the turbulent revolt of selfishness and passion to the dominion of wisdom and duty. It is from no unintentional profusion of metaphor that Shelley is thus described: but it is impossible without language overswollen by passion, and a crowded array of imagery, to be the limner of a mind in which the imagination was one magnificent hyperbole, and the reason an engine of wondrous powers, overthrowing and piling together the elements of all existence, and rolling, crushing, and labouring under the impulse of an almost terrible excitement. Of the errors of some of his opinions, taken in their broad and obvious import, few men have had the boldness to profess themselves apologists; and scarce any one has shown the candour to search among them for valuable, though perhaps lurking, truths. We have already suggested that those of his notions which seem, at first sight, the most awfully mischievous, are frequently erroneous in shape, rather than in matter, in expression rather than in idea. His affections are the best directed and most generous; his hopes the purest and most elevated. He has never sought to overcome by reasonings any of those primary portions of our nature, on which depend man’s moral and spiritual character; and there is no period of human record, no era of uninspired thought, in which this would not have been an uncommon and noble distinction. The muse of his poetry is neither the shadowy phantasm of Greek idolatry, nor a mere earthly ‘damsel with a dulcimer;’ but a fair and prophetic priestess, in whom the wild gestures, the fire-flushed cheek, and the electric quiverings of every vein and nerve, accompany the rapture of no feeble song, and the oracles of no mean inspiration.

There is a close similarity in the modes in which he has treated external nature and the mind of man. He has observed all the most beautiful incidents and appearances in the world around him, and he has used them all in his poetry. But he has so brought them together that they crowd upon and encumber each other. He animates them with one spirit, but still there is an excessive accumulation of points to which we are called upon to attend at once. If a Grecian painter had united, in one face, the brow of Aspasia, the lips of Laïs, and the ‘beaming eye’ of Lesbia, supposing he possessed sufficient genius to harmonise their expression, he might have produced a beautiful countenance. But if Phyllis and Chloe happened to have equally well-proportioned noses, and from inability to decide between them, or anxiety to preserve both the fair features on his canvas, he had copied them side by side in the one visage, he would have exhibited not double loveliness, but unexampled deformity. And such is the tendency of Shelley’s genius. He often fills his landscape with so many glittering and prominent objects, that, though each is separately beautiful, they produce no combined effect whatsoever. Thus, he sometimes wearies and dazzles its by heaping together too great a profusion of brilliancies, and not producing after all a whole, but only an enormous mass of fragments and details. In fact, he sees, in objects of sense, but the hints and germs of a universe far other than ours, in which the very hedge-rows are formed of the trees of knowledge and of life, and every twinkling star is brought so near us, that it dilates into a world of distinguishable glory. And, similarly, he has selected from our nature all that it contains of most precious and powerful, and concentrated these qualities into some one perfect specimen of humanity. But in the former case he fails, in the latter he succeeds; and wherefore the difference? Simply, because the one departs from the original standard of beauty in the mind, while the other merely realises amid embodies the universal idea of good.

The great moral peculiarity of his writings is, his constant inculcation of man’s capacity for a higher condition than the present. In his vision, he sees a ladder which ascends to heaven; and he never considers us as now occupying a permanent position, but as standing merely at one point, in an indefinite progression. His hopes travel faster than the world : and he casts so telescopic a view over the future, that he brings the distant to his feet. But he does this mighty good, that he teaches us to look for our improvement, not to the outward circumstances over which our control must always be limited, and which can return to us no substantial happiness, but to those inward powers which are beyond the reach of change or chance, to the improvement of which there is no bound assigned, and which furnish us from within with ample means for our satisfaction. If he had done nothing more than thus to oppose the philosophy of circumstances, he would have fulfilled the highest duty incumbent upon man, by proclaiming to his brethren that they are masters of their own destinies; and that it only depends upon themselves to be virtuous, and thereby happy. Shelley has applied all the resources of his extraordinary genius to strengthen and illuminate this truth; and we trust the day is at hand, when his writings will be studied in a kindred spirit. We are restrained, not by the strength of the shackles, but by the weakness of our own will; and the very act of choosing to be free, will prove that we are so. There are others who hold a far different doctrine from Shelley’s, and who would improve our condition, not by gaining victory over outward objects and influences, and making ourselves independent of them, but by altering those circumstances, and continuing to draw our enjoyments from them: like the Indian girls, who show their skill and gracefulness in fetters, rather than dance in freedom without them. Such opinions were the scorn of Shelley, and such attempts his pity: and, thank heaven, so long as we have poets of his noble stamp and divine ordination, we shall have among us men of strength and courage to bear testimony against this wanton degradation.

The instruments by which Shelley advanced these high moral objects, were a magnificent imagination, a fairy-like fancy, a powerful intellect, a delicacy and range of perfection, which were scarcely ever equalled, and a faculty of expression, which, we have no hesitation in saying, has been in our day quite unrivalled. In this last quality, we would include both richness of diction, and the talent for composing melodious, and significant verse. Exalted as were Shelley’s other endowments and accomplishments, in these last he stands, at least, equal to the greatest names of our poetry. His language would by some be called obscure, though in truth he always employs those words which will most clearly explain his meaning. But nothing can make intelligible a class of thoughts or feelings, which we never have ourselves experienced; and herein is the real secret of the supposed darkness of his expressions. His versification is infinitely diversified, yet uniformly perfect; now clear and simple as us matin-bird, now rolling on like a vast river, now winding and re-echoing like a song; and all these and a thousand more varieties adapted, as if by intuition, to the differences of design and feeling in his different poems. So that, excepting Milton, there is nothing in the language at all comparable to the mingled strength and sweetness, the involved and changeful harmony, of his metre.