[In the following essay, Kurtz examines the many varied attitudes towards death that Percy Bysshe Shelley expressed in his poetry and traces the influences that led to the development of these attitudes.]
The failure of the quest for an embodied ideal is the great romantic failure. But some romanticists pass through this failure and come out on the further side.
Their dreams, modified by the experience, become visions which are contagious to the world. If the romanticist is he who lives hugely in his dream and emotion, with more or less of Rousseau's suspicion of mere reason, and who trusts his imagination and emotion for guidance in affairs and for revelation of reality, his weakness will lie in emotionally running away from facts, his strength in critically correcting dream by fact and purifying fact by dream. The dream may be a supposititious escape from fact, because it has lost contact with fact and is illusory, as is the case with the Gothic romances; or it may be an ideal end, or vision, toward which facts are manipulated, an eternal and wise ideal discoverably and significantly related to the actual, though it always is a receding horizon, as is the case with the humanism of whatever epoch. In Shelley's poetry for the next four years (1814-1817), there is discernible a mutual purgation of romantic dream and real experience, making definitely for greater strength of idea and greater power of utterance. In no other phase of his work is this process more noticeable than in his changing attitude toward death. During these four years he definitely anticipates the three victories over death—the moral, aesthetic, and mystical victories—which he is fully to achieve in the last five years of his life.
Two brief poems commence the new artistry: Oh, there are spirits of the air, and Stanzas. April, 1814. Written early in 1814, while the rift between Harriet and himself was tragically widening, they seem to have sprung from real and poignant suffering; the former, in particular, having an effect of desperate actuality, as against the make-believe tragics of the juvenilia.
With their relation to Shelley's marital experience, the evidence they may give of his conduct in the troubles with Harriet, I am not here concerned. I am not taking sides either for or against Shelley. I am not pretending to know exactly what happened, what Shelley did, what Harriet did. A few unchronicled words spoken impetuously and later respoken in deliberation may have had more effect than all the known events. They do, with sensitive people. And Shelley was preternaturally sensitive; Harriet not so much. I am not preaching what Shelley or Harriet should or should not have done. The story has been told gently by some biographers, ungently by others; but neither apology and sentimentalism, nor innuendo, suspicion, and sarcasm, make impartial biography. So far as I am here concerned, “the book's the man.” All that I am noting is that in these few heartbroken lines there is a new strength of passion, simple and unaffected; and, especially, that an important mood of his early affectation—the exuberant insistence upon death—is missing. The younger, inexperienced Shelley, imagining the failure of love, would have had recourse to the melodrama of death. Its macabre rhetoric would have tintinnabulated from the mouths of the two erstwhile lovers, as it did from the lips of the “victim of grief” in the Dialogue written five years before, when he was seventeen:
Now, in the suffocation of reality, the expression is tragically quiet, a line in each poem:
Two poems curiously mark the transition to this strength in passion. One carries the new tone clearly; but the other sounds only a slight echo of it, the effect being primarily that of some reworking of an earlier poem that had been written originally in his worst style. In Mutability, developing his favourite theme that all things change and go down in death while only mutability endures, Shelley achieves verbal harmony and a real fingering of the lines, in place of intolerable jingling. Indeed, most of the poems after Mab, from 1813 on, gain suddenly in harmony and melody, the combined result, perhaps, of the opening of his eyes in Wales and Lynmouth to the mysterious beauty of nature, of the access of strength that may come with sorrow, of the music, literal and spiritual, at the Boinvilles, of the reading of Coleridge and Wordsworth, and of the practice-work in Queen Mab. The thought itself has nothing of the doctrinaire quality of Mab. Mutability is not related grandiosely to any Spirit of Nature, or Necessity. But a sensitive heart, uttering its accustomed instinctive lament for the change of all fair things, is now especially saddened by the failure of its own love. The dream woven around the heart of a child-wife is dead. This is the most extended and imaginative expression, so far, of Shelley's elegiac mood. Less of stock romantic melancholy and more of what appears to be genuine, personal experience make it a poem of some real rank.
The other poem, On Death, is a revision of the only verses Shelley cared to preserve from the Esdaile manuscript. It retains some of the jingle and declamation of its first form; yet neither thought nor mood nor music is entirely Gothic. There is even a reminiscence of the great and mournful oratory of Ecclesiastes, growing out of the verse prefixed to the poem: “There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave, whither thou goest.” At any rate, the political and religious anarchism of his earlier lyrics on death, A Dialogue and To Death, which gave so radical and raucous a tone to them, is absent.
Yet a third pair of poems, the brief elegy on the Lechlade churchyard, and the long blank-verse Alastor written after his return from an excursion up the Thames with Peacock, reveals another phase of his deepening regard of death. Early in 1815, after he had come back from his first trip abroad with Mary, he had been told that he was a victim of tuberculosis. He thought he had but a little while to live. This belief called forth in these two poems a mood of somewhat sombre but decidedly romantic contemplation of the lovely solemnity of euthanasia. Already, in Mab, as we have seen, he had eagerly declaimed that although even in a perfected world death is inescapable, yet there it will come upon good men like a mild and gradual sleep. Now, in a graver and more self-conscious, rather Wordsworthian mood, he acclaims the mortal loveliness of such a death in an actual and imperfect world.
In the little elegy, which Matthew Arnold used to pronounce Shelley's “first entire poem of value,” the treatment is more gently solemn and less dramatic than in Alastor. Here we have his first notable achievement in that triste autumnal theme he was so especially to make his own. He pictures the stillness of a September day dying along the river banks, the sere and motionless grasses in the graveyard, the church-spires aflame in the sunset and then slowly effaced in the lessening twilight, and the gathering of darkness among the first stars, while in the little yard the dead sleep on in their sepulchres. The quiet scene stimulates an intuition, “half sense, half thought,” of the awful hush and the mild and terrorless serenity of great death, and even a childlike hope that death hides sweet secrets, or that loveliest dreams keep a perpetual watch beside its breathless sleep. Yet the old theme of loathly decay intrudes. It is from the mouldering sleep of the dead on their wormy beds that the mysterious voice of hope arises! The old theme dies hard. The conversion to beauty is incomplete. It is interesting, too, to note an allusion to his boyhood habit of haunting graves in quest of revelation.
The euthanasia in Alastor is dramatic, pathetic, self-conscious, and romantic. It is the crest of the poem, for a handsome young idealist, gentle, brave, and generous, wandering abroad to worship beauty, perishes in the solitude of the mountains. The influence of Scott's Helvellyn is again obvious.
Hutton, long ago, in what is one of the earliest and best essays upon Shelley's poetry, pointed out that the mere framework of the poem is a romantic absurdity. A lone poet walks from Cashmere across Asia Minor (not the steppes of southern Russia, as Hutton has it), traverses Balk (Hutton says the Balkans!), rushing wildly by the desolate tombs of the ancient Parthian kings, arrives at the Black Sea, finds a small, leaky boat, sets up his coat for a sail, voyages two days (while his hair turns grey), sails up a river into the heart of the Caucasus Mountains, and dies in a place of impossible geography—all in search of two eyes he saw in a dream. But, penetrative as most of Hutton's essay is, here it fails to perceive the romantic symbolism of the poem. Indeed, many of Shelley's descriptions of persons and places—a notable instance is the chief character and the scenery of his Witch of Atlas—become absurd if applied to mere tangible realities, instead of being regarded as symbolic of mental states. Shelley himself, once for all, in his preface to Prometheus Unbound, has called attention to his half-mythopoeic fashion of animating mental experiences in the guise of personages, situations, and even, it should be added, the forms and events of nature. He consciously employed this device, and held it to be a method that, though strange to modern poetry, was used repeatedly by Shakespeare, habitually by the Greek poets, and most of all and with greatest success by Dante. In The Tempest, Prospero, Caliban, and most of the other characters, as well as the storm itself, are symbolic, but by no means allegorical, presentations of great-mindedness and brutishness in struggle one with the other. Goethe' s Faust is replete with such symbolism, the second part even more so than the first. Every stage, though not every detail, of The Divine Comedy is a story figuring mental experience. The odes of Pindar and many of the scenes and choral odes of the Greek tragedians, more especially Aeschylus and Sophocles, reach their fullness of meaning in such symbolism, where characters and scenes display not so much different individualities and their operations as different phases of the mental activity of one mind. In Alastor the description of the itinerary of the poet is only a way of marking out the mind-history of a poet, of Shelley himself: his glamorous, imaginative youth, his enthusiastic reading, his passionate preoccupation with a higher reality, his deep sensitiveness to all noble ideas and to the incommunicable suggestions of natural beauty, his piercing need of truly beautiful human companionship, his hopeless search for the ideal love, his loneliness, failure, illness, and his solemn anticipation of an early death. The hero of Alastor had nurtured his youth with the solemn visions of the ancient philosophers and the choicest responses to natural beauty. He had left a “cold fireside and alienated house” to seek abroad the truths that are all too strange to the conventional minds of father, mother, friends, and wife. He would make in the wilderness a home, “inaccessible to avarice or pride,” where
Thus the tutelage of the poetic mind by literature and nature is imaged. Its fecundation by the lore of the past is represented by the poet's wandering, “obedient to high thoughts,” in the ruins of Athens and Tyre, Balbec and Jerusalem and Babylon, and Æthiopia and Egypt, among the stupendous columns of Ozymandias and the remains of ancient temples,
From the past, much as in the second part of Queen Mab, a great lesson is learned of man's cruelty to man, of superstitions, and of the ever-enduring search for a supreme reality. His exultant education continues through the strange places of Arabia and Persia,
Then, resting in the vale of Cashmere, he has the vision of ideal beauty, which gathers into itself and climaxes all the fine, fair learning from nature and man. This spiritual beauty is a woman seen in a dream, that feminine alter-ego of the romantic poet, of whom he ever after dreams, and for some adequate embodiment of whom in an actual woman the rest of his life is a ceaseless quest. This is the “beauty afar,” La Princess Lointaine, of Jaufre Rudel. This is that romantic worship of beauty, and far, strange search for it, with which Keats endowed Endymion, and of which Rossetti sang so well:
In Alastor the search becomes a wild wandering through Asia Minor and a voyage into the Caucasus. The wilderness, the various stream and devious river and dark, mysterious gorges, are, as the wanderer himself declares, the image of the poet's mental life. The scenes are at once descriptive and interpretive animistically identifying the experiences of mind with the life of nature. Such dreams of loveliness drive the Actaeonpoet restlessly to his death. Therefore the issue of the quest is in the figure of a romantic euthanasia under a waning moon, with autumnal mountain-winds heaping dead leaves over the corpse of the wanderer.
Death here is no mere Gothic horror. It is the inevitable close of the romantic pursuit of the beautiful, the pathetic mystery that ends the dramatic failure to find the ideal embodied in the actual. Characteristically, for Shelley, this beauty stimulates a ceaseless, febrile pursuit of an ideal which is both a supreme social good and need, and also a personal need and good. His is not a flight from the world to a sequestered beauty, but the pursuit and preaching of a panacea. He cannot lose himself even temporarily, as Endymion did, in the ecstasy of the senses and in the delight of merely imaging the spirit-beauty. He cannot hypnotize himself, as Rossetti did so often, with a haunted contemplation of dead beauty, extinct ecstasies, and desolate eyes. Rather, with native Platonic bent for abstracting eternal invisibles from actual love and concrete beauty, he must at once pass beyond sensuous joy to philosophical meaning. To be sure, the great Wordsworthian invocation of Nature, with which the poem opens, pulses with a passionate love of the things of earth, ocean, and air; and in obvious reminiscence of Tintern Abbey, the reading of which must have deepened his sensibility, opened a door of his own spirit, he prays that his verses, breathing the natural magic of air and forest and sea, may become “woven hymns of night and day,” This is rich testimony to that poetic baptism in nature which has been the second birth of so many poets. Nevertheless, beside his love of the thing there always exists his love of the idea. He must sanctify the fact by truth. Then, turning back, he searches for the ideal in the concrete, but never finds a perfect incarnation. Thus, almost insensibly, he is forced into that dualistic and dramatic antithesis of spirit and sense that has already been noted in some of his earlier poems.
This failure of the romantic quest for an embodied ideal is the natural catastrophe of a dualism and antithesis of spirit and sense. All such dualism has always resulted in defeated hopes of finding or founding a kingdom of heaven upon this earth. The defeat has been disguised as a mere delay until the kingdom shall be accomplished by the slow evolution of society; or the hopes have been postponed to the realization of a spirit-kingdom hereafter, not made with hands; or, often in unconscious surrender of the dualism, the hopes have been turned individually inward, transmuted into an asseveration that the kingdom of God is within one's self, or that the Kingdom is the community of those hearts in which the ideal has been achieved. Young Keats, too intoxicated with sensuous beauty to face hard facts definitely, removed the ideal pursuit to Endymion's unreal world, where by a boudoir-miracle the dusky, Ganges maid could be transformed to the golden-haired Diana of the quest. Again, the surrender may be conscious and pessimistic, as in Cabell's Way of Ecben. It is of the essence of Mr. Cabell's thought that no distinction between the heavenly and the common Aphrodite should be drawn. The Uranian love is but a rarefied and very self-deceiving variety of the common passion; and when old age meets the Uranian ideal it finds only a commonplace girl's body, after all. In spite of faithfulness, all love shrivels with age, and the dream is dead. Thus, in one way or another, failure is the necessary end, intuitively recognized by the poet, of his quest for an objectively realized ideal. Because Shelley had long been preoccupied with death, this failure is at once symbolized as death. However, `symbolized' is too weak a word to express his conviction that in the theatre of this life death inevitably puts a Finis to the beautiful eagerness of the youthful poet, of himself.
But if the parts of the poem are really symbolical of states of mind, it should be noted that the poet curiously fails to understand that the object of his quest is, properly, too, a state of his own mind. Instead, the end remains an ideal realized in an object external to him, and so forever elusive.
What is Alastor without death? What would be the search for perfection, or even for a near-perfect mutual understanding, without disappointment, failure, loneliness, and a new, intimate awareness of the immanence of death? Alastor is that romantic dream of youth which time and night must quench forever; or, at any rate, always. Over against the pursuit of a dream of an absolute ideal, youth discovers, there is set a universal drama of perpetual change. All lovely things go down into death, exit into mystery. In the midst of that drama the lonely, eager, puzzled soul itself perishes also, while fallen leaves are spectrally driven by autumn winds. The first part of the great Ode to the West Wind will state this theme yet more powerfully, beginning where Alastor ends.
More powerfully, yes. For, however sympathetically one may read the romantic symbolism of Alastor, the poem leaves him with some sense of a decoration of reality, instead of a mature and resolute grappling with it. Reality is handled picturesquely and immaturely, with the fevered intensity of one expecting to be cut off while life is still a daily miracle, long before it has become customary, and dull with age. The poem, therefore, is really a romantic fantasia of the triumph of death over youthful dreams. Indeed, the smaller and weaker one's individual life may seem, the more incongruous is this sentimentally pathetic euthanasia, so romantically staged, so grandiosely gestured.
Death, to be sure, has now been poetized more completely than ever before in Shelley's verses. There is an access of vivid doubt, won from his experiences with love, as to love's persistence beyond the grave, quite in contrast to the facile faith expressed in some half-dozen previous poems.
The hope of finding the perfection of love beyond death is gloomy and desperate. Fear of delusion dogs the young romantic, as it is bound to if he really thinks, instead of allowing sensations completely (Gefühl ist alles!) to take the place of thought. Moreover, the adolescent, languorous delight in imaginary dying has lost a part of its lenitive charm with the near approach of the reality. All this is true. Yet the poem is a poem of the triumph of death, not of life or hope or faith. And the triumph is rendered with no courageous tragic force, but with a melodramatic, self-conscious pathos, and the nearest approach to Byronic theatricality anywhere to be found in Shelley's treatment of his own fate, whether figured in another's, as here, or rendered directly, as in some of his great odes and in Adonais.
The chief advance in artistry remains to be mentioned. At last the poet has turned from the causes he has been advocating to the enforced contemplation of life itself. It is his own life, to be sure; and self-pity plays the usual role, so disconcerting to penetrative self-analysis. But the gain is certain, nevertheless. From rhetorical radicalism to romantic mystery, with a greater sensitiveness to nature, and a new verbal harmony, and some infiltration of the sincerity of Wordsworth and the sorcery of Coleridge, is no slight poetic advance. Nor is there a better measure of the improvement than the incongruity with which one passage on political fear and ruin interrupts the peaceful, moonlit solitude of the poet's death, toward the end of the poem. Yet even it borrows from its context a quieter tone than can be found in the earlier fulminations against tyranny.
The few poems of the eventful and fateful year, 1816, show a remarkable development in Shelley's realization of death. But the mood of romantic peace that he had elaborated to soothe himself in the anticipation of an early death carries over, slightly, into the first poem, Sunset, where again death and genius contend in a young poet's “subtle being.” Though the poet's death and the grief of the lady of his love, who through the tragic succeeding years patiently tended her aged father, are done with a truer dramatic pathos, yet the enervating spice of romantic self-consciousness is not altogether rejected. The reader is aware of a sad, half-hid delight with which the poet dreams that a fair maid will mourn him after he is gone, like the virgins who pined and wasted for the always gentle, brave, and solitary, but never lingering, hero of Alastor. Nor does he realize the possibilities of the theme that is actually broached. In one of the best passages it is said of the lady's deep grief that
But if this wisdom-working grief were to accomplish anything more than to bring tears to hard eyes, it might be expected to amend her own state of mind with some high faith in the triumph of spirit over death, after the fashion of the teaching of Adonais. Instead, the only moan she makes is a despairing cry for the passionless calm and silence of death, whether the dead live or die “in the deep sea of Love.”
The first important event of the year for Shelley, after the birth of a son in January, and not taking into account the sordid, long drawn out story of Godwin's debts, was the trip to Switzerland, May to September, with the sojourn at Geneva with Byron. It stimulated a stronger, serener mood and freed Shelley from all sickly sentimentalism in the contemplation of death. Again the mountains tutored the poet, as the impressive poems of these months, the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and the Mont Blanc, testify.
What is accomplished in the Hymn is in one way not very notable, in another way highly remarkable. As a reasoned teaching the poem is as unsatisfactory as Wordsworth's Intimations; as a figuration of mood it belongs with the greatest mystical poems of the language. We must consider it at some length, for it contains a key to much of Shelley's later thought.
The thought is Platonic, coming straight from the Phaedrus and the Symposium. This “intellectual beauty,” a phrase Shelley used two years later in translating the Symposium, though there is no original for it in the Greek, is a happy naming of that supreme beauty, or love, to the worship of which Diotima is supposed to have converted Socrates. It is, in fact, a name for one of the Platonic Forms, or Ideas—the eternal archetype of beauty from which, somehow, according to Plato's dream, all beauty in all beautiful things derives. It is the central term in a more or less transcendental explanation of the beautiful.
The method of becoming aware of the archetype is a progressive generalization of our love for beautiful particulars. From a love of one beautiful being men may proceed to that of two, because of the one beauty that is in both; then they may ascend to the love of all forms that are beautiful, because they realize the general beauty in them all; from beautiful forms they pass to beautiful habits and institutions, thence to beautiful doctrines—“until, from the meditation of many doctrines, they arrive at that which is nothing else than the doctrine of the supreme beauty itself.” This merely rationalized beauty, as the modern realist would call it, is regarded transcendentally by Diotima as a supreme reality, to which is ascribed the origin of beautiful objects of sense-perception. It is perfect, eternal, and absolute; not subject to change, to increase or decay; not subjective, not varying with different subjectivities; not figurable to the imagination; not subsisting in particular things.
Nor does it subsist in any other that lives or is, either in earth, or in heaven, or in any other place; but it is eternally uniform and consistent, and monoeidic with itself. All other things are beautiful through a participation of it, with this condition, that although they are subject to production and decay, it never becomes more or less, or endures any change.
This is Shelley's own translation, important to be cited because it gives in his own words his understanding of a Platonic doctrine that repeatedly appears in his poetry from now on, particularly in Mont Blanc, Prometheus Unbound, and The Witch of Atlas.
The run of the thought is, exoterically at least, dualistic. Plato, as Bosanquet observed, was indeed the prophet of a dualism between nature and intelligence, or spirit. Over against all beautiful appearances is set an unapparent beauty, intellectual in its nature, but unlimited, not subjective, of which we become aware by an intellectual discipline that carries us from the contemplation of the many to the one. However, both here and in the Phaedrus, there are sentences that supplement this intellectual dualism with that sort of emotional mysticism against which Hegel was wont to protest. From the gradual contemplation of beautiful objects, the disciplined lover comes suddenly to his vision of this supreme and sublime beauty. In the knowledge and contemplation of it a rapturous shudder and a great awe pass through him, and at last he reposes in deep, ineffable joy. “He is in contact not with a shadow but with reality,” and his human nature puts on ` immortality.'
Here was a union of idea and mood that fitted in perfectly with the unusual personality of the young poet. It appealed to his flair for analyzing the intellectual life, to his love of philosophical synthesis, to his deep emotionalism, his constructive imagination, to his ingrained habit of seeing invisibles, to his native mysticism. Moreover, it ratified his view of mutability as a process somehow set over against perfection, and thus provocative, turn by turn, both of the immediate, tense grief at a loss, and of time's softening of the grief into a perduring sorrow, or general sadness. And it offered a comfort for these elegiac moods by confirming his faith in a real perfection existing outside change yet related to it either as source or as a final cause. Shelley's deep, intuitive assent to Platonism in general, and to the Platonic Idea of the beautiful in particular, is one of those intricate assents of the total individual which modern slang calls a “click.”
Shelley had early begun the reading of Plato in French and English translations. Medwin says he studied the Symposium at Eton (1804-1810) with Dr. Lind. At Oxford (1810-1811) he read Dacier's translation, and some of the works of Thomas Taylor the Platonist. Plato's works were sent him at Tanyrallt in 1812. Hogg and Lady Shelley refer to his reading the Phaedrus and the Symposium at Marlow.
Plato and Godwin were his great books. Back and forth between them repeatedly he passed in his reading, excited both by the transcendental realism of the one and the philosophical radicalism of the other, and deriving mixed nutriment from the confusion. Both Godwin's necessity and subjectivism of good and evil, and Plato's unresolved dualism of natural appearances and their ideal Forms, filled his mind with images of perfectibility and perfection, the one contributing to his political, the other to his religious, or poetic, ideals. In both he found a dualistic Weltanschauung. In Godwin, it took the form of a constant struggle to render the higher motives operative in the mind and thus, out of the conflict of lower and higher impulses, to hasten the advent of a perfect political state. In Plato, it took the form of a partly rational, partly intuitive recognition of a metaphysical reality, by which the ugliness of commonplace reality is overcome and a perfect intellectual-mystical state is achieved.
As he sailed about Lake Geneva with Byron, the marvellous blue of the lake, the purple of the mountainsides, the far snow-capped summits, the flush of sunrise over the white peaks, and the solemn beauty of Alpine sunsets, readily stirred his memories of the Symposium and the Phaedrus. He must have recalled with awe, and with a thrilling recognition of its spiritual appropriateness, Plato's remark that of all the ideal Forms, that of visible beauty “shines through the clearest aperture of sense”:
For sight is the most piercing of our bodily senses; though not by that is wisdom seen; her loveliness would have been transporting if there had been a visible image of her, and the other ideas, if they had visible counterparts, would be equally lovely. But this is the privilege of beauty, that being the loveliest she is also the most palpable to sight.... He ... who has been the spectator of many glories in the other world, is amazed when he sees any ... form which is the expression of divine beauty; and at first a shudder runs through him, and again the old awe steals over him; then looking upon the face of his beloved as of a god he reverences him, and if he were not afraid of being thought a downright madman, he would sacrifice to his beloved as to the image of a god. (Phaedrus, 250-251. Jowett's translation.)
Shelley's sacrifice was a Hymn to this divine, or intellectual, beauty.
The Hymn preserves and animates the Platonic dualism, for the idea-form becomes the Spirit of Beauty, itself the shadow of an Unknown Power which is the metaphysical absolute, even as all the Ideas emanate somehow from an Absolute. This Spirit comes and goes in the intellectual life of man, as Plato hints in his description of the recurring vision. Its elusiveness and mysterious subtlety, for mortal mind, are symbolized in images of evanescent moonbeams showering behind a pine-clad mountain, of the tenuous hues and harmonies of evening, of the memory of music that has ceased, of
While one is aware of it, everything human is consecrated; and “like moonlight on a midnight stream,” it “gives grace and truth to life's unquiet dream.”
But the Hymn is both a paan and an elegy. It is a song of joyful discovery of a sentiment, or attitude, that resolves for a moment the ugliness of experience. It is a song of regret at the failure, or, rather, evanescence, of that transforming sentiment. The p aan prevails over the elegy in stanzas one, and five to seven, thus enveloping with a kind of mystical rapture the elegiac regret sounding in the three central stanzas.
With this elegiac regret at the passing of the Spirit of Divine Beauty, the unsatisfactory character of the thought, with which both Plato and Shelley must be charged, is apparent. The Spirit is not regarded as being always immanent in nature, but as being, when we are aware of it, only a shadow of some perfection afar. That is, mind conceives a remote, ideal perfection incompletely and inconstantly. To be sure, there is a vague, misleading statement, in the third verse, to the effect that this Shadow “visits the various world.” But the opening lines of the second stanza make it clear that this “various world” is the world of “human thought,” and in the first stanza it is clearly asserted that the inconstant visitor comes to “each human heart and countenance.” If Shelley meant to say that this Spirit resides, but not subsists, in nature, he does not say so clearly, and certainly does not represent it as permanently present there. At any rate, be that as it may, he goes on to deplore that when this inconstant spirit passes away, our commonplace reality, “this dim vast vale of tears, ... of fear, and hate and despondency, and death,” is left doubly vacant and desolate. Now, most characteristically, Shelley's depression recurs, with further reference to death. No other faith—not all the superstitious names of “Damon, Ghost, and Heaven”—avail to sever
When the Spirit has passed, the grave, like life and fear, remains a dark reality. Metaphysical Reality, then, is a far God, or Spirit, elusive to mind. And if it is present in things, it is not always present, and is only partially suggested, message-like, by their beauty. Phenomena are declensions from Reality. The implication is that life, or commonplace reality, is a kind of evil, over against the ideal good. Only a vision of the greater reality can hide, and then for but a moment, the gloom and misery of immediate reality.
The need of some resolution of this sulky Platonic dualism becomes disquietingly apparent. A more monistic, even Aristotelian, generalization is required; some archasthetism, which recognizes consciousness as a primitive attribute of `matter,' and as the cause of evolution toward ever more perfect forms, instead of a crude dualism that sees human life as a gloom miserably consummated in death. Death and mutability are not absorbed, as they are in a monistic theory, into the process of evolution; they still stand forth, in this Hymn to perfection, as negations of, or at least antitheses to, an elusive perfection.
Analysis of the thought of the poem provokes disappointment. But a poem's meaning is not limited to thought that can be paraphrased in abstract terms. If it were so, there would be less need of poetry than there is. As a unique configuration of profoundly impressive images, intuitive thought, and an ecstatic mood, the poem has an incommensurable meaning. And it is with the fifth stanza, as, the more consciously learned, Platonic address finished, Shelley begins to speak more directly from his own, original experiences, that the greater meaning appears. It is from one's very own imaginative and emotional syntheses of beautiful things, passionate sacraments of love, that the finer meaning always springs, rather than from any reframing, poetic or otherwise, of book-learning. Suddenly Shelley becomes retrospective, linking to his boyhood's extravagant awareness of the unknown, of which we have spoken above, a later insight, or vision, which is the real ground of the poem. In a passage already quoted he recalls his graveyard wanderings and ghost-hunts, and describes his young failure to uncover a true spiritual life either in the grave or in the poisonous conventional religion which youth is taught. These failures left him yet more curious about the invisibles. Then, of a spring day, while he was musing on the mystery, something in the vital, genial warmth of spring's rebirth stirred that glorious intuition of the oneness of all the life-processes which always has been the vision of those greatly endowed with the poetic, animistic imagination. What young Shelley saw on that spring-day was, I am sure, essentially identical with the central visions of Vaughan and Wordsworth, Blake and Tennyson, and all the poets of second sight, or insight. It was what Dante called the universal form of the life-complex,
what he endeavoured to symbolize under the figure of the scattered leaves of all the universe bound by love in one volume. Indeed, the Divina Commedia, in its three major parts and all the circles and subdivisions of each, is Dante's attempt to unite, through a schematic gradation, all other experience to this central, unique experience. The entire poem leads up to this supreme moment of poetic insight. For Shelley, too, this is the central vision that alone gives meaning to all the rest of experience. He tells us with what ecstasy he welcomed the vision, with what devotion he dedicated his powers to its service, with what faithfulness he has kept the vow in all zeal of study and delight of love, and with what solemn hope he prays that the deep harmony of this vision which descended on his passive youth will supply to his onward life a spiritual serenity, binding him
Now this deep faith in a spiritual reality is essentially monistic, escaping that dualism with which Shelley has associated it in the first four, more Platonic, and less personal and original, stanzas of the Hymn. Dante speaks for the monistic truth of this by no means uncommon mysticism, which grows nevertheless from a unique experience with a special meaning of its own, when he stresses love as binding the scattered leaves. Love brings all together in one beautiful whole— substance and accidents and their relations fused in one simple flame. In these magnanimous lines he is perilously close to the alleged heresy of Origen, salvation for all through the divine justice and love:
Implicit, therefore, in that generalization is the beauty of mutability and death, and a complete conquest of the fear and the distaste of all kinds of change. But these implications Shelley has not yet definitively conceived. Future pain and sorrow and beauty must teach him. At present, he can associate the crude dualism of the first four stanzas with the poetic monism of the last three, as though the former were but a personification of the latter. Intuition really outran conception. Poetry anticipated reason.
But it is significant that in a previous, blank-verse rendering of the Hymn this dualism is not present. The noble address to the “mother of this unfathomable world,” at the beginning of Alastor (lines 18-49), contains in close composition all the essential ideas of the Hymn. The Mother is analogous to the Spirit of the later poem; her shadow and the darkness of her steps, upon which he has ever gazed, become in the Hymn the shadow of an Unseen Power; in both cases the story of his youthful search for spiritual manifestation at dead of night in the graveyard is connected with his later divination of nature; in both the fruitless faith of popular superstition is deplored; in both the inability completely to grasp the spiritual reality is lamented; in Alastor the intuitions of incommunicable dreams, twilight phantasms, and deep noonday thought correspond to the spring-day vision of the Hymn; a mood of dedication pervades both; and, finally, the acme of each is reached in a mystic serenity and an ideal love of humankind. The correspondence of ideas is very striking. But the dualism is absent in the Alastor passage. Instead, it concludes with what is almost an identification of the great parent-spirit with natural appearances: at any rate, the spirit is so pervasive that, like the supreme Brahma, speaking to the poet in all the voices of living things, it modulates his own recording of what he hears:
Such a “woven hymn”— perhaps in this phrase is the very anticipation of the later poem—is the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty; but into the weaving was introduced the old Platonic dualism, not too happily. It is as though in this earlier passage we had the truer, more immediate expression of his divination of a reality always at one with nature, whereas in the Hymn the experience is Platonically mediated, bookishly divided.
Not the least important phase of this self-revealing Hymn is the method of fusing metaphysics with politics. For all of Shelley is here, as in most of his greater poems from now on: both his poetic religion and his ideal anarchism. Never, he avers, since that vision, even in his greatest joys, has he been without hope
Selfish politics, no less than death and all mutability, makes for this “dark slavery.” But all ugliness may some day yield to the ideal loveliness. Again the inveterate dualism! Again the postponed Kingdom of Heaven! Dualism must always sacrifice the present to the future.
However, the fusion of death and politics in the concept of ugliness makes clear the essentially aesthetic movement of Shelley's thought. This aesthetic quality, as yet incompletely and even crudely philosophized, is the secret, or originative principle, of his intellectual life. It is what constitutes him a poet. It is that phase of his genius by which he converts into one complex whole physics, politics, religion, love, and poetry. It is the dynamics of his strangely unified interest in all these. His economics is fundamentally aesthetic; so, too, are his politics and religion, his philosophy and love. Therefore, to criticize them from any other point of view, as has often been attempted, is to misunderstand and misrepresent them. The history of his thought in general, as well as of his view of death in particular, is the progressive adjustment of this innate, radical tendency, “soul of his soul,” to all his experiences. Therefore his life-long struggle was a struggle to conquer the pain with which he witnessed all ugliness and the fading and death of all fair things. Therefore he loved Plato, and was attracted to Lucretius and Goethe. Therefore, reading Godwin and the French materialists, he transfigured them with a beauty of which their actual thought was scarcely susceptible, and so incurred the superficial inconsistencies of Queen Mab and Prometheus. Many of the inconsistencies in his work spring from the beauty he imports into thoughts not his own, seeing them thus as somewhat other, and more, than they are. But with time and practice the inconsistencies are burned away by the growing flame of his own thought, his originative aestheticism.
Equally important is the forward-looking, almost practical, faith implicit in this aesthetic fusion of metaphysics and politics. Shelley remains true to his social programme. His vision gives courage to his political faith. The Utopian vision, then, is no mere self-satisfying, sequestered dream. It is not a substitute for action. The poem does not belong to the poetry of escape from a life poets fail to face. It is a poem not of flight but of rescue, giving the very grounds of faith, and of courage to persist in stimulating men to the attainment of the humane ideal. Shelley's visions of loveliness, whether political or metaphysical, are not the reveries of one who has given up the human struggle. They are visions, with the social purpose of freeing men from their banal self-satisfaction in the commonplace. Therein lies the spiritual identity of Queen Mab and the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, however great their difference in artistry.
In Mont Blanc, properly called by Shelley “an undisciplined overflowing of the soul,” for it lacks both clearness and structural unity, the dualism that has been noted, once more obtains. Shelley's own explanation of the poem discloses it. He was concerned to read symbolically “the inaccessible solemnity” of Mont Blanc. The surrounding wilderness becomes a symbol of universal change, of the universe of things that live and die and live again:
But the Mountain, gleaming high above all else, still and solemn, is the symbol of the secret, governing strength of things, of both matter and mind. And this hidden strength, like the Mountain, and like the Spirit of the Hymn, dwells apart:
The fear and disgust of death, too, reappear, almost like condign punishment for the violence inherent in the dualism. For in a truly eloquent and no longer merely rhetorical dramatizing of the vast effort of change, which is likened to a restless tumult of winds swirling around the serene king of mountains, death is called a “detested trance”; and the destruction that overtakes the homes of insects, beasts and birds, and men—“and their place is not known”—is a thing of dread, the tragic loss of so much life and joy. Yet the poetic animism is so pervasive of the scene, the sense of a presence everywhere is so deeply felt, the veil is so far lifted from the hidden beauty of the world, and the skill of the music is so enchanting, that unless one reads the poem ever so attentively he feels its general trend and meaning are pantheistic. It is as though Shelley's reason had here, too, failed to grasp the full implication of his mood.
In these two mountain-poems, one written among, the other about mountains, death has been set in melancholy, or even tragic, antithesis to a great serenity. There is an advance beyond the sentimental play with death in Alastor. Bookishness early developed in Shelley a power of expression out of proportion to his first-hand knowledge of life. A sporting, juvenile Gothicism, an earnest, excited, tumid anarchism, and a personal, sentimental romanticism were effects of that inequality. Then the mountains, and other impressive rhythms of nature, vastly enriched his experience, developing his sensitiveness, deepening his moods, fecundating his imagination. He divined vaster meaning. Correspondingly, his verse-music was modulated by the verbal equivalents of the rhythms of ocean and earth and air. A serener and more solemn, more nearly sublime, reading of himself and humankind was an effect of this advance in experience. But death, and all change, remained something ugly, apart from serenity and beauty.
And now, two actual tragedies, in the closest circle of his human intimacies, were to add their deep, immediate teaching, through suffering, through personal grief and sorrow.
Fanny Imlay, whom Shelley loved almost as a sister, committed suicide the ninth of October, 1816. A month later, one winter day, or night, no human being knows exactly when, Harriet Shelley threw herself into the Serpentine.
Shelley did not write a long poem on either tragedy: only three brief, heartbroken lyrics.
Editors agree that the little pallida-mors ballad of twenty-eight lines beginning, The cold earth slept below, refers to the death of Harriet. There are several striking contemporary reports of how poignantly Shelley suffered, but this poem is the sole poetic memorial of his grief. Its brevity is significant. The last stanza is heart-rending. No declamation. Stark lyric simplicity. No rhetoric, no tumult, no grandeur. But a new restraint; and a transparent objectivity—the terrible contrast between the fresh, girlish beauty he had once sheltered, and loved so keenly, and the pale, dead face, gleaming in the moonlit water:
Such a lament! The dear dead under the naked sky; the once beloved body in the sluggish stream: the horrible, unchangeable fact, beyond embroidery of mood and image. It is Shelley's first truly pathetic treatment of death; really, his first actual experience of death. Harriet and Fanny doubly taught the simple, tragic fact.
In 1817 two other very short poems express the same reality of grief. Six little lines on Fanny, recalling his last parting with her, speak his regret that he did not then guess the misery that already had broken her heart. It is a well-known kind of regret—that regret at heedlessness and lack of sympathy, which comes upon us afterwards and leaves us wondering whether, had we been less obtuse, we could have spoken the word that would have meant comfort and have averted catastrophe. Poor Fanny Imlay! Sweet, frail flower! Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had once attempted suicide. Her stepfather, Godwin, preached it. When affairs in the Godwin household grew unbearable to this sensitive spirit, she accomplished it. For her sort of suffering the world, knowing it too well, has a sharp, bitter name— Misery— and too much room for it:
The other poem, entitled Death, makes a refrain of the misery of parting. For Shelley, it contains an unusually large number of the common, universal themes of grief: that death is final and the dead return not, that pain remains and goes on and on, that the old familiar scenes remind one poignantly of the dead, that the routine we lived with them is broken forever, that all we have of them is the grave. This access of the all too well-worn, primitive topics of grief, very simply taking the place of the grandiose theorems characteristic of his inexperience, is another sign of the reality of his grief. The would-be sophisticated ideas and moods give way to the primitive when hard experience supervenes. One picture, however, a picture of himself as a youth with hoary hair and haggard eye, sitting beside an open grave, is a romantic intrusion from the Alastor phase.
At the same time, his dreams are dying, his dreams of any immediate political revolution, of his power, like an Illuminatus or Eleutherarch, to effect a sudden change in the minds of men. The sanguine hopes give place to despondency and are assimilated somehow to his personal misfortunes, so that one vocabulary serves for his affliction and his dejection:
There is much meaning in that word “beguiled,” as though all his excited mental adventuring had rushed on heedless of its real effect upon human hearts, until the interruptions of death taught regret too late.
Every part of his life seemed infected with failure, loss, and death. Death surrounded him. The very trance of music seemed a trance of death. Constantia's singing moved him to such a trance as sensitives have always known in the presence of beautiful sound, none more than Spenser:
But the stunning familiarity with death at this time must have given special significance to his imaging that swooning trance of delight as the soul's swooning through death into the arms of spiritual reality. In this poem, indeed, To Constantia Singing, in which the stanza usually printed first should always be read last, Shelley has united the moods of affliction and dejection with the promise, the comfort, of the serene Reality of Mont Blanc and the last part of the Hymn. This were death, indeed, he cries, to be dissolved in such ecstasies and pass thence, traversing (there is here a reminiscence of the flight in Queen Mab) the “mighty moons that wane upon Nature's utmost sphere,” to the realm of perfected, or intellectual, beauty. Out of effects of voluptuous, sensuous beauty, he distils, through yet another euthanasia, the spiritual beauty the contemplation of which had wrought serenity only the year before.
It is very characteristic of Shelley, this reunion in a new and fairer form and lovelier music, of many of his old ideas and moods: translated echoes of Queen Mab and the Domon of the World, of Alastor (the dying poet), the Hymn, and Mont Blanc, and of the terse tragic lyrics of his personal affliction. Already, in his juvenile anticipations of his later, well-known themes and characters, and in imperfect dislodgment in Queen Mab of mystic moods by incongruous ideas, Shelley's characteristic method of intellectual and artistic growth has been noted: a growth evident not so much in the appearance of new ideas as in the richer reworking of old ones—new learning about old ideas. Here, again, in Constantia, he is advancing old themes or parts of old themes, into new beauty, new imaginative and emotional realization. Really, his thought advances not so much through analysis and dissection, a scrupulous criticism of the philosophical propositions he loved so well, as by the natural, primitive, and poetic method of constantly reanimating old ideas with new experience, carrying the symbol further in expressiveness as experience itself developed. And the rich increase of music at each transformation is precisely the sign and measure of the advance in realization, the music being, of course, at once the soul and life-garment of the vision.
But it would be a mistake to consider the year 1817 entirely one of dejection, relieved only by this marvellous lyric to Constantia that almost translates music into imagery. The truth is far otherwise. All Shelley's poems of dejection are short. Nearly all his long poems pulsate with hope and courage. The chief work of the year is the longest of all his poems, The Revolt of Islam, and in it he valiantly reasserts his social credo. It is, in a way, a companion piece to his Ozymandias, also of this year. The sonnet epitomizes what the epic discourses, the colossal wreck of tyranny.
The Revolt of Islam, an apology for the French Revolution, is a poem of political idealism, of hope, suffering, failure, and death, but eventual triumph: a projection, in all these respects, of Shelley's interests upon an epic canvas. It is a story of violence and revolution. But a mood of peace pervades it; for its comfort for failure and its prophecy of success proceed from a faith in the power of love to survive suffering, lost causes, and death. This faith, in turn, though another example of the repetition of a previous and favourite theme, is here in particular a reflection of the deep, passionate love with which the life of Shelley and Mary was at this time suffused. Moreover, it was written under that new awareness of suffering which had come at the end of the previous year, and the heedful sympathy he learned in that actuality he here began to teach in song. Finally, the precariousness of life, especially of his own life, which influenced him so strongly in Alastor, was his constant thought while he sat in Bisham Wood morning after morning, composing this new poem. He tells us this himself. Much of the poem was written, he says, “with the same feeling, as real, though not so prophetic, as the communications of a dying man.” How strange it is, this constant genius of death in the work of Shelley! In the Revolt that genius is present in added strength, a new lenity, and greater tenderness. Shelley's politics and private life are inextricably interwoven.
These points require substantiation.
But at first, as one reads the poem, and discovers the recrudescence of the old political themes of death, there is disappointment; for there seems to be no advance in treatment, and the serener vision of the Hymn and Mont Blanc seem nowhere to be found. The four ideas involving death and politics, which we have traced through the juvenilia, enter in unabashed tumidity. Again the tyrant is hurling death upon a bleeding world, again the patriot declaims that death is preferable to loss of liberty, again we behold the grandeur of the past fallen into decay and ruin; and again the poet prophesies the tortured death of the tyrants, but with a difference.
Again, personified Fear, Hatred, Bigotry, and Tyranny spread pestilence, decay, and death. Horrors are described with increased vigour; now in connection with the supernatural, as in his earliest poems; now in a conjunction of nature and death, as in this view of a rotting battle-field, which obviously owes much to Coleridge:
The death of a slave condemned to torture is pictured deliberately. The tyrant is a murderer who
“He murders, for his chiefs delight in ruin.” (VIII.14) The king passes surrounded by the steel
One recalls two lines in Queen Mab:
Again, the martyr welcomes death in the cause of liberty. Laon braves one for the other, and invokes his countrymen to do the same. Cythna hopes for either liberty or death. The death of the patriot is a “glorious doom.” In the cause of liberty sweet maidens die happily and sentimentally, singing
The patriot-protagonists, Laon and Cythna, face martyrdom joyfully, though even here Shelley could not but lament that one so young and fair as Cythna should die. Again, the dungeons, palaces, and temples of the past fade like vapour, leaving not a rack behind. But man, with his heritage of perfectibility,
However, it is when the fourth accustomed theme enters that the new learning becomes apparent. Just what quality in the poem is the effect of the deeper knowledge of life Shelley has been acquiring? I think it is a chastening of the young extremism which first created the romantic villains of Zastrozzi and then converted them into the political villains of Queen Mab. Hitherto Shelley has exulted in the painful death of bigots and tyrants, and has found therein the cure of all evils. But now he recognizes the fallacy of this hopeful killing off of his personified evils. The tyrants, somehow, must be reconciled with the kingdom of love. Inevitably their evil deeds will draw on punishment, as they sit “aghast amid the ruins [they themselves] have made.” Mere self-realization is their inevitable punishment. Yet, they are men—individual, actual men—and as such must have their part in a universe of love, in the theater of redemption. Merely to avenge the misdeed on the misdoer is only to increase the misery in a world “all too wide for it.”
At last, the contradiction of ideas that we have suspected in Queen Mab is removed. Necessity, we heard, governs every working of the tyrant's moody mind; the soul of the universe foresees “the events chaining every will” (VI.181-190): yet the tyrant and bigot were in that poem objects of unmitigated scorn. But in the meantime the poet, standing before Mont Blanc, has heard voices that “repeal large codes of fraud and woe,” has hymned a wise serenity of the spirit, has been in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, and has seen despair lead to tragic death. These experiences have softened the indignations of the young idealist, and he learns how to pity, if not to love, the enemies of the public good. The confusion is thereby obliterated.
It is death that teaches tolerance. His young, wild passions and hopes, his disdains and hatreds of unreal, set villains of tyranny, and his hopes of impossible perfections, had indeed beguiled Shelley into the very presence of death. Harriet's death, and Fanny's, too, were tragic commentaries on Godwin's teachings. The logical abstractions and classifications of that strange philosopher, even when they passed into the ardent rhetoric of his chief disciple, were not fitted to the commonplace realities of human nature. Their practice in a perfectly logical world might be undeleterious. But in the actual world of Harriets and Fannies their practice got mixed up with the unpredictable results of passionate weakness and despair. It is in the face of these mixed personal equations that the ideologist learns tolerance through suffering. Classifications of good and evil, and personifications of them as patriots and tyrants, become vanities before the face of individual suffering. Shelley was learning more about individuals, and placing a higher value upon the tragic little theater that each one is. He no longer could hate even a personification.
The rationale of this moral development, then, perhaps was something like this: Godwin's dream of perfectibility “clicked” with Shelley's ardent, innate benevolence; Godwin's cool logic, satisfying Shelley's conscientious impulse always to appeal to reason when dealing with human affairs, seemed to ratify the dream; his own ardent imagination animated Godwin's theorems into personifications, and insensibly the human quality of the personification was confused with human beings themselves, and he was convinced that his masquerade of personifications was a true picture of persons; then came misfortunes— the loss of his wife's love, the two suicides, the loss of his children by Harriet—at the same time that he was learning more of human sympathy from the Boinvilles and from Mary. He began to learn the difference between the personifications and actual persons. It was what he had to learn in order to proceed poet, for the poet gives us not propositions, even personified, about life, but the very life itself, deepened by a most sensitive, imaginative awareness of actual men and women. After his juvenile practice in themes derived from hearsay, he faces sorrow and derives his major themes from life itself. Then his imagination draws him more and more into concrete, commonplace reality, and passes on intuitively to a knowledge of spiritual, all-unifying reality, so that he feels each individual sub specie aeternitatis. So Shelley proceeds, uniting himself in love with persons, listening, though not in Wordsworth's contemplative fashion, to the “deep, sad music of humanity.”
In Islam, then, Shelley's new learning is evident as a broadening of the power to love, as a more sympathetic understanding of human nature, and as the consequent moderation of his political hatreds. To be sure, the theme of Islam is still romantically idealistic, wildly emotional. To be sure, the dream that a perfect and bloodless revolution may result from the contagious genius of beautiful young eleutherarchs, like Laon and Cythna, Who preach a gospel of love, is so much sentimentality. These moods leave the political realist cold indeed. But when their tolerance is set over against the fanaticism of Queen Mab, a growth in understanding is apparent. It is an advance from hate to love; from ugliness to a measure of beauty; from a crude dualism of evil and good issuing in a fanatical rejection of impossibly wicked villains, toward that deeper and more hopeful humanism which issues in the injunction, “Love thine enemies.” It is a step toward that repentant renunciation of hate with which Prometheus opens Shelley's greatest long poem, and which constitutes the spiritual unbinding of the Titan. The beginning of Shelley's own unbinding from extremism is in The Revolt of Islam.
Herein, too, lies Shelley's apology for the French Revolution, for in his preface to Islam he avers that the failure of the Revolution was not the failure of the ideas upon which it rested, but of the prosecution of its programme by the very means of hatred, murder, and vengeance that were opprobriated in tyranny. His patient, brave words deserve quotation:
The panic which, like an epidemic transport, seized upon all classes of men during the excesses consequent upon the French Revolution, is gradually giving place to sanity. It has ceased to be believed that whole generations of mankind ought to consign themselves to a hopeless inheritance of ignorance and misery because a nation of men who had been dupes and slaves for centuries were incapable of conducting themselves with the wisdom and tranquillity of freemen so soon as some of their fetters were partially loosened. That their conduct could not have been marked by any other characters than ferocity and thoughtlessness is the historical fact from which liberty derives all its recommendations, and falsehood the worst features of its deformity. There is a reflux in the tide of human things which bears the shipwrecked hopes of men into a secure haven after the storms are past. Methinks those who now live have survived an age of despair.
Islam is the symbolic presentation of these ideas: the great hopes of Laon and Cythna, their initial successes, the magnificent rejoicing and the Champ-de-Mars festival of the benevolent new order, the return of the tyrants, the failure of the Revolution, and the hope of a later and more perfect event, embody these principles. Wordsworth and Coleridge, older contemporaries, who directly witnessed the shipwreck of liberal hopes in the storm of The Terror, made no sufficient distinction between means and end, and with that natural confusion lost faith in revolution; Shelley, escaping the crisis (he was only two years old at the close of The Terror), was free twenty-three years later to make the necessary distinction and realize the eternal nature of the struggle for freedom. Wordsworth's The Borderers and Shelley's Revolt of Islam, Professor Koszul reminds us, mark the difference in reaction.
But in this poem love defeats a thing less avoidable than hatred. It conquers the ugliness of death, though temporarily, conditionally. The strength for that conquest was the gift of the union with Mary. There we touch upon the other great plastic power of the poem, one that has kneaded its matter into a human beauty that is a companion-picture to the natural beauty of Alastor. Its presence is felt at the very beginning, in the seventh and eighth stanzas of the Dedication to Mary. Her loving companionship and the blessing of the “two gentle babes born from her side” are the very parents of this song, he says. It is the love of Shelley and Mary that makes the love of Laon and Cythna, their children that make the child of the lovers in the poem. The undaunted, winding way of the human fellowship of lovers and their children leads everywhere through the ideal story, from the beginning in love, through the suffering and disgrace at the hands of men, to the immolation of the lovers and their reunion in a heavenly paradise. Their revolutionary daring is that of Mary and Shelley, their rending of the mortal chains of custom, their high hopes for mankind's regeneration, their fortitude in seeming failure, their wisdom of stern contentment the while they are mocked by poverty and infamy, are the very things of which Shelley makes his love-song for Mary in the Dedication.
But it is in the last five stanzas of the ninth canto that the ecstasy of this love belittles death. The thought is a truism, like the thought of so many great poems; the mood and its music are very nearly sublime. The thought is as follows: the senses and reason discover nought in death but decay and extinction; but the world is full of delusion, and we know nought of the Power behind each thing; the mind faints, realizing its impotence to grasp the full nature of things, but this we know, that extinction is dearer than a life apart from the beloved; everything is darkly driven toward the abyss of death, but all change is as nothing if only love be not changed. There is the run of ideas. Now read them in the suggestivity of mood and image and music. Cythna is speaking to Laon:
Thus death, extinction, immortality, love, and mutability are woven into a beautiful and tragic whole, with love dominating fear and hope. Strong, varied, impassioned, undidactic, this is one of Shelley's most direct and powerful utterances on love and death— the most immediately human so far. Here even the old coffin-worm theme is mitigated into something effective, as, too, are all the other vapid anticipations to which we have listened in the poems of the first two decades. One previous theme is only dimly suggested: that great gate-theme, mors janua vitae, that stands at the end of Queen Mab. Perhaps even it takes second place to this attitude. Here most of us, at any rate, will pause in admiration, even though the Gate glisten afar in the Hymn, in Mont Blanc, and in Adonais itself.
For a victorious attitude, at least its promise, is indubitably present. Its promise, because the victory is conditional on the possibility of love's surviving the mutability of all else. This themendous if makes the beauty of the address a tragic beauty, by constraining the dream to a doubt of its fulfilment. The assertion is no mere ecstatic conversion of hope to fact; it is at once both stronger and more contingent than if it were outright delusion emotionally promoted to conviction. Its tragic contingency, indeed, gives it a touch of sublimity; and all moral sublimity conquers the fear and ugliness of death. Sublimity of heroism and sacrifice and courageous self-dependence, of faith and vision, of beauty and love—all these make death small, in very fact negligible.
But, finally, there is even more of comfort than is contained in this moral disregard of death; for in the supreme moment of love, as Shelley says toward the very end of the poem, describing the last great love-moment of the dying lovers,
That assertion rises above contingency by substituting a present value for all fact and possibility—
The experience is so supreme that it all but synthesizes within itself the antithesis of life and death—“the veil was almost rent.” This intense, mystical annihilation of the dualism of matter and spirit, of life and death, of all such opposites, is the mark of the highest aesthetic moment, as Coleridge long ago pointed out in his doctrine of poetic unity. Moreover, the passage is an anticipation of another such moment, yet more splendidly realized, at the very close of Adonais. Shelley's aesthetic mysticism is most fully released, indeed, near the inspired close of certain of his poems: a first release in the great passage in Queen Mab, which has been discussed; a second, here; a third at the very end of the Ode to the West Wind; the greatest, in the last stanza of Adonais. Each of these passages is an impressive example of what James Mark Baldwin meant by his definition of the aesthetic moment: a moment of immediate contemplation in which the dualism of the inner and outer controls is annihilated in a higher reality embracing both. Here the outer control is the fact of life and death; the inner, the dream of survival; and the higher reality is the mystical faith that annihilates the difference between fact and dream. The contrast is annihilated, and a greater reality, including the fact and the dream in its higher synthesis, is ours for a moment. Afterwards we may wonder where we may find the faith to believe in the vision. But the poet, re-making the vision, re-instating the moment, comes ever to our aid.
After the successful portrayal of this great mood and attitude, dwarfing all else, the picture of the lovers' reunion in the heaven-palace of the Spirit is but so much dramatic myth and symbol. Heaven, rather, in reality is in the moment of unfathomable beauty: our moment, here and now. The rest can be taken on trust. Nay, like Dante in beatitude of the vision of God, we are content then to be nothing.
Perhaps it is an anticlimax to consider what of precision there was in Shelley's ideas of immortality up to this time. It is unnecessary to point out again the earliest, flimsy passages on the subject, in The Wandering Jew, in which, before he had begun original thought, he merely reflected the conventional Christian belief he had been taught as a child; or to trace the rise of his distrust of that too easy faith in a definitely personal immortality. For a while French materialism, which later he rejected, threatened the promptings of his imagination, and at times he thought death ended all. But his considered opinion at the time he wrote Islam was a mixture of impersonal but intense idealism making for impersonal, or at least inconceivable, survival, with an impassioned hope, converted at certain great moments into an impassioned faith, that in eternity lovers will not be lost to each other.
For these beliefs Shelley argued in various ways, and repeatedly he imaged them in poetic figures. Six years earlier, in letters to Elizabeth Hitchener (June 20, June 25, 1811), he had rather speciously contented that the laws of conservation of energy and imperishability of matter assured the soul against perishing; and then had suggested that as the soul's faculties are temporarily suspended during sleep, so they may be in death, and that in its future state the soul will begin life anew, possibly under an inconceivable shape, but forgetful of its previous existence. A few months later in the same year (Oct. 15?, Nov. 24, 1811), he had ingenuously confided to her that though his reason told him death closes all, yet feeling made him believe directly the contrary, and that this deep feeling, or “inward sense,” seemed to him a very proof of the soul's immortality. While admitting what so many others, from Cicero to Emerson, have asserted, that the desire for a future state may be a proof of it, Shelley remembers that the wish may prejudice us in favour of the argument. But he thinks that everything lives again, and that the soul of anything, even of a flower, being but the force which makes it what it is (as Aristotle would say, its function or end), cannot be conceived as perishing utterly. Yet where it exists and how we cannot discover. “Have not flowers also some end which Nature destines their being to answer?” he asks. The closeness of this train of thought to Aristotle's teleology of the soul is remarkable. Early in the next year (Jan. 7, 1812), he wrote in a postscript: “I find you begin to doubt the eternity of the soul: I do not”; adding, rather ambiguously, “More of that hereafter”!
In Queen Mab, for all its appeal to reason and its quasi materialism, the “inward sense” triumphs quite Platonically: soul is the only true reality, animating every atom (IV.139-146). This faith he had put forward tentatively in the letter to Miss Hitchener, dated November 24, 1811. Now he asserts it roundly, and adds that a soul though spoiled by earth may regain its original perfection—
One recalls a passage in the tenth book of the Republic: “Soul does not perish like the body, because its characteristic evil, sin or wickedness, does not kill it as the diseases of the body wear out the bodily life.” Moreover, through death's dark gate the soul passes to a greater glory:
The Universal Spirit, called also Spirit of Nature, Necessity, Soul of the Universe, carefully distinguished from the unreal God of human error and superstition, is represented as ceaselessly active, and as never interrupted by the temporary failure of earthly life in the grave (VI.146-238), though the problem of the exact nature of the relation between the universal mind and the individual, both before birth, during life, and after death, is deliberately avoided. But a positive and fairly definite answer to the question of personal survival was elaborated, we have seen, in connection with his love for Harriet, based again upon feeling. Our best and rarest emotional feelings, especially love, urge us to believe in something beyond death (Q.M. IX. 171-184). Birth, on the other hand, is regarded in the Damon of the World as the means of waking the universal mind to “individual sense of outward shows.” Alastor develops this transcendentalism in a series of romantic images, and then it is presented with a new awe and serenity in the Hymn and Mont Blanc.
Intensity of feeling, then, or, rather, of love in particular, as well as a certain deep “inward sense,” led Shelley to believe, even against reason, in some kind of persistence beyond the grave. The “inward sense” inclined him to a general and vague conception of that persistence; love in its passionate moments wrung from him a belief in the persistence of the individual, or, at least, of something equal, or finer, in its power to satisfy the desire for the perpetuation of ecstatic states.
But there is a curious relation, partly of contradiction, partly of agreement, between the ideas in Queen Mab and the ideas on survival contained in certain prose essays and fragments written subsequent to the poem. In the first two of these prose pieces, he argues against survival, in the third he becomes doubtful of his ground, in the fourth he disclaims personal survival but argues for some sort of persistence, and in the fifth he rationalizes the Christian teachings of personal survival and Heaven.
Queen Mab was published in 1813. The date of the brief prose tract, On a Future State, is uncertain, but in all probability it is not later than the following year, 1814. The tract is written under the influence of the French materialists he had been reading. It contains some ten chief arguments against survival of any sort, and includes reversals of the assumptions he had adopted in the Hitchener letters and in Queen Mab. (a) The imperishability of matter is now put forward not as a justification of the belief in immortality, but as an analogy destructive of the grounds of that belief. All matter divides and changes, and therefore gives no warrant for the assumption that spirit (defined as a mere name given to sensibility and thought to distinguish them from their objects) never changes, never divides, never loses a given personal identity. (b) Those philosophers to whom we are most indebted for discoveries in the physical sciences suppose that intelligence, or `spirit,' is the “mere result of certain combinations among the particles of its objects,” and that therefore it must cease with the inevitable dispersal of those particles and consequent annihilation of the combinations. If, then, these natural philosophers wish to believe in survival, it becomes necessary for them to assume the interposition of a supernatural power which overcomes the law of division and change in all matter. (c) The actual decay of the mind during life, seen in madness, idiocy, and old age, does not justify a presumption of changelessness and survival. (d) If mind is a special substance, which permeates, and is the cause of, the animation of living beings, there is no warrant for supposing that this substance is exempt from the general law of substance, viz., decay and change into other forms. (e) The condition of the body at death—the organs of sense destroyed and the intellectual operations dependent on them inoperative— offers no ground for an argument for survival of intelligence. (f) No valid argument for persistence can be drawn from an assumption of preëxistence, for the assumption cannot be supported. The argument that in each living being there is a prior and indestructible generative principle which converts surrounding substances into a substance homogeneous with itself (another of the arguments in the Hitchener letters) is untenable, because this so-called `principle' does not really exist, but is only an hypostasis of an observed process, or, rather, of an observed coëxistence of certain phenomena.—These six arguments rest on the naturalistic definitions of spirit as intelligence and of intelligence as entirely dependent on the senses. In the remaining four arguments, an attack is made upon the immaterialistic grounds of belief.—(g) The idea of a survival in a mode of being totally inconceivable to us at present, which had been mentioned in the Hitchener letters and which is developed in some later poems, is called an unreasonable presumption, because it is not supported by a single analogy and because by its very transcendental nature it cannot be brought to the bar of reason. “It is sufficiently easy, indeed, to form any proposition, concerning which we are ignorant, just not so absurd as not to be contradictory in itself, and defy refutation,” (h) The argument drawn from the Divine Justice—that a just Deity must compensate the virtuous who suffer during life by providing them with eternal happiness— is lightly dismissed as satisfying no one! (i) Moreover, were it proved that a Divine Power rules the world, survival would not follow as a necessary inference. (j) The secret and real cause of the belief in survival is merely the wish to survive. “This desire to be forever as we are; the reluctance to a violent and unexperienced change, which is common to all the animated and inanimate combinations of the universe, is, indeed, the secret persuasion which has given birth to the opinions of a future state.” So he disposes of the argument from the heart, which he has used in his earliest poems, in the Hitchener letters, in Mab, and in Islam, and which he continues to use in many a later poem. If only that enthusiastic rhetorician, W.R. Alger, had written his Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life before 1814, what meat he would have been for the Shelley of On a Future State! What fun Shelley would have made, for instance, of Alger's picture of mighty man walking the universe, supported by his inalienable instinct for immortality: “Crowned with free will, walking on the crest of the world, enfeoffed with individual faculties, served by vassal nature with tributes of various joy, he cannot bear the thought of losing himself, of sliding into the general abyss of matter”!
In the second pamphlet, the ironical Refutation of Deism (1814), the Christian doctrine of the eternal damnation or salvation of souls by an all-foreseeing, all-causing God is ridiculed as inconsistent with any but a savage and obscene conception of deity.
With the fragment On the Punishment of Death (1814 or 1815), a change of opinion begins. After asserting that it is quite impossible to know whether death be good, evil, or indifferent, a punishment or a reward, he admits that he thinks the common idea of the survival of “that within us which thinks and feels” is supported by “the accurate philosophy of ... the modern Academy.” This complete reversal in interpreting the French Encyclopedists is made to turn upon a phase of their own teaching, viz., the “prodigious depth and extent of our ignorance respecting the causes and nature of sensation.” Shelley has come to realize that the materialists' assumption that sensations are irreducible, or pure, minima of consciousness is highly questionable. In turn, he has recourse to a conception against which he had argued, speciously, to be sure, in the first of these essays: that if we do survive, the manner of our existence must be such as no earthly experience can conceive or understand. But he concludes the matter by observing that if at death the individual soul is merely absorbed in the universal soul, death can be pronounced neither good nor evil, but only indifferent.
The fourth paper is the fragment, On Life (1815). Now, definitely renouncing and attacking the materialistic psychology, Shelley tends to take his stand with the idealists. The mind naturally disclaims alliance with transience and decay, and cannot conceive annihilation (this dogma is close to that of the “inward sense” noted above); but idealism leads the mind to such a conception of the unity of all life that the common, intense, and exclusive meaning of individuality is destroyed. Out of this annihilation of the antithesis of the individual and the universal, the poetry of the Adonais is to be forged by the heat of tragic experience. But at the close of the fragment Shelley moves away from the idealists, holding that it is “infinitely improbable that the cause of mind, i.e. of existence, is similar to mind,” because mind cannot create, but can only perceive.
The last of these prose pieces, the Essay on Christianity (1815? 1817?), has definite relations to The Revolt of Islam. Christ's traditional teaching concerning the future life is rationalized. The promise that the pure in heart shall see God is understood, not as a reference to a literal beholding of God, after death, but as a poetic way of referring to the blessed and beautiful inner experience of the simple, sincere, and virtuous man: the ideal `natural' man of Rousseau. The beatitude is strictly equivalent to the saying that virtue is its own reward. Similarly, Christ's description of the bliss of the soul in Heaven is to be taken as a poetic and enthusiastic hyperbole for the heavenly beauty of the inner life of the good man. Presently we shall have occasion to quote extensively the eloquent exposition of this point, and then its relation to Islam will become clear. For the rest of the Essay, it need only be remarked that in the course of it are to be found in several places the assumption of an over-ruling Power, by which we are surrounded, from which we experience “benignant visitings.” The step from that last phrase to the Spirit of the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and of the Mont Blanc is obvious.
These five essays, then, give us some faint and, we may say, in view of their fragmentary, hurried nature, some erratic, suggestions of the change in mind by which Shelley passed from the materialistic psychology of Locke and the Encyclopedists back to the faith expressed in the Hitchener letters and forward to the faith of the Hymn, Mont Blanc, and all his later poems. Death and immortality and the nature of God were the crucial problems through which he progressed in making the change from his temporary materialism back to his native gift for the invisible and forward to his more or less reasoned idealism. But it is particularly noticeable that in Queen Mab, although it was composed during the materialistic period, the native gift finally triumphed over the acquired materialism, even though the materialistic arguments were resumed in the essay On a Future State. His own spirit, when thoroughly aroused, as toward the end of Mab, burst through the psychology imported from France or found at home in Locke.
In Islam, according to Professor Woodberry, “the expressions with respect to the immortality of the spirit are perceptibly more strong and favorable” than in Queen Mab and Alastor. I am not sure that this is a true statement. But, at any rate, most of Shelley's previous ideas upon the subject are repeated—the more general ones with greater conviction, perhaps; those dealing more particularly with personal survival, with rather less, it seems to me. For here, again, there is certainty with regard to the existence of a higher power, called both Necessity (IX.27) and Spirit (XII.31.41), which, in a phrase recalling the Hymn, is said to “float unseen, but not unfelt, o'er blind mortality” (VI.37). Again, as in Queen Mab and as later in the Ode to the West Wind, we are reminded of the social, or influential, immortality of our good deeds and thoughts. The good who die beneath the tyrant's rod are as autumn, dying before winter; but like autumn, they sow in their good works the seeds which spring shall bring to leaf and flower:
Now we live in the winter of the world's discontent, and die therein, even as the winds of autumn expire in the frore and foggy air. But a glorious spring of perfected moral life awaits society, though the good who give promise and prophecy of it must pass. But if the good would behold the glory of that great dawn, they have but to look at the Paradise of their own hearts, which is “the earnest of the hope which made them great” (IX.25-27). Again, mere reason makes him believe in oblivion (IX.32), the extinction of personality (IX.29). But, and, once more, again, reason and the senses cannot give the final answer, and therefore we doubt the blank answer of reason, though we cannot know what mute Power may animate the universe of mind and matter (IX.33, as quoted above). The last recourse, then, is to feeling, especially love,
The love she feels for Laon, typical of all great love, is the only certainty which she knows—the only certainty by which she can interpret death. Because of this greatness and this certainty she is unwilling to believe that Laon's personality and her love for him will be annihilated. Cythna is Love's prophetess of a more perfect life beyond the grave (IX.20). Here is the reversal of the last argument in On a Future State.
What persuaded Professor Woodberry that Shelley had reached in this poem a stronger conviction of the personal immortality of the soul was, probably, the definite depiction, in Cantos I and XII, of a paradise for the souls of the good and great. But the very definiteness of these pictures, the wealth of concrete detail lavished on them, their sheer extravagance of imagery, might lead another reader to suspect Shelley never meant them to be taken literally, especially in view of his known objections, both now and later, to confusing such anthropomorphic religious fairy-tales with fact. Rather their very extravagance of bliss is a symbol of the beauty these spirits attained in life, a beauty that cannot die among men, but grows fragrant with time and memory; and a poetic way of suggesting not what does actually lie beyond death, but what is the best possible idea a mortal mind can achieve of a perfect mind. At any rate, they are a part of the fairy-machinery of the poem, floating lightly in the romantic and sentimental atmosphere. Like other marvels in the poem—the child with the silver wings, the boat of hollow pearl, the eagle who refused to bring ropes, and the Tartarean steed—they are properties of the romantic theatre, to be interpreted figuratively, rather than literally.
But Shelley's attitude toward these pictures of heavenly bliss may be gathered pretty definitely from his interpretation of Christ's utterances on a similar theme. I quote, as I promised, from the Essay on Christianity:
We die, says Jesus Christ, and when we awaken from the languor of disease the glories and the happiness of Paradise are around us. All evil and pain have ceased forever. Our happiness also corresponds with, and is adapted to, the nature of what is most excellent in our being. We see God, and we see that he is good. How delightful a picture, even if it be not true! How magnificent and illustrious is the conception which this bold theory suggests to the contemplation, even if it be no more than the imagination of some sublimest and most holy poet, who impressed with the loveliness and majesty of his own nature, is impatient and discontented, with the narrow limits which this imperfect life and the dark grave have assigned forever as his melancholy portion.
So, too, Shelley into his poetry boldly projects the paradise of his own best ideas, making a symbolic external Heaven out of the Kingdom within him, moved thereto by discontent with the imperfections of life and the ugliness of the grave. Of course, such a process again and again must fling out a bolder figurative statement, whether of Utopias or Heavens, than sober sense would allow in reasoned prose. Poetry is a kind, the highest and most natural kind, of intoxication.
Of the classic arguments for the immortality of the soul, which, then, has Shelley, up to this time, put forward? Though Voltaire's epigram, that the problem of immortality has been “discussed for four thousand years in four thousand different ways,” well sets out the confusion as well as the indeterminate nature of the discussion—in 1878 Ezra Abbot of Harvard College went Voltaire 977 times better by compiling a list of 4977 books “relating to the nature, origin, and destiny of the soul”—nevertheless some few arguments are outstanding. They are outstanding not because they are convincing, but because they are common or typical, occurring repeatedly in the logomachy, with great variety of specific traits at each occurrence, to be sure. Following Dr. Garvie's admirable Britannica article on immortality, I shall pick out five of these common, typical approaches. There is the argument from metaphysics: that the soul, being indivisible and independent of the body cannot perish with the latter—the favourite teaching of Leibnitz and Ernst Platner, to say nothing of many a scholastic, with Albertus Magnus at their head. There is the juridical argument, represented by Kant and Bishop Butler: that the present life is so imperfect there must be another, perfect existence. There is the ethical argument, well developed by Hugo Mü nsterberg: the more lofty a man's aims, the more incomplete is his life on the earth; therefore there must be another, complete life. There is the religious (Christian) argument: man, being created in God's image, cannot be death's victim. God is the God of the living, not of the dead, as Christ is reported to have said (Matthew 22.32). Finally, there is the argument from the emotions: the heart protests against severance from its love by death, and as man feels love is his most godlike characteristic, love's claim has supreme authority. This is the argument of In Memoriam. Now, of these five, the only one that Shelley definitely and directly stresses is the last, the argument from feeling: it is his first argument, in The Drowned Lover and the lines To Harriet; it survives determinism in Queen Mab; it comes back to its own in The Revolt of Islam, first with tragic contingency, then with mystic faith; it continues through poems not yet considered in this essay, such as Prometheus Unbound and Adonais; as late as Hellas (1821-22), in a note to that poem, Shelley says that the desire for immortality “must remain the strongest and the only presumption that eternity is the inheritance of every thinking being.” This is the only argument for personal survival that he at any time admits, and he stresses it, as is natural, far more in the passion of poetry than in the reflection of prose. Of the four other arguments, the Christian-religious does not at all appear; the ethical and juridical appear only very indeterminately and imperfectly, or figuratively, in scattered suggestions of the hope of final blessedness for the world's political martyrs; and the metaphysical can only with difficulty be read into one or two ambiguous passages.
The other arguments for survival that Shelley has used can properly be taken only as arguments against personal immortality. His idealistic utterances in On Life are connected with a persuasion that personality is a sort of fallacy; and the suggestion that survival must be in an inconceivable mode of being negatives, by implication at least, the definite concept of separate entity. I must conclude, therefore, that Mrs. Shelley's summary of his belief does not fit the state of his published opinions at the time he wrote Islam, for in this summary, which follows, she has certainly thrown far more emphasis upon individual survival than appears in these writings, or, for that matter, in his later writings. Perhaps in her eagerness to bridge the gulf between Shelley and the public she unconsciously overestimated the personal element in his opinions or took too literally the Heaven of Islam; or, perhaps, she did not fully grasp the impersonality of his idealism. Here, at any rate, is what she wrote:
Considering his individual mind as a unit divided from a mighty whole, to which it was united by restless sympathies and an eager desire for knowledge, he assuredly believed that hereafter, as now, he would form a portion of that whole—and a portion less imperfect, less suffering, than the shackles inseparable from humanity impose on all who live beneath the moon. (Essays, Letters from Abroad, etc. 1840. I.xiv)
The difficulty lies in the phrase “hereafter, as now,” for it seems to designate a survival as personal as is the present life. The rest of the summary is fairly accurate. But it is high time to hold our tongues concerning these endless speculations. By way of relief, let us remember another of Voltaire's satirical remarks:
“Hold your tongue,” said the dervise. “I promised myself the pleasure,” said Pangloss, “of reasoning with you upon effects and causes, the best possible of worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and the pre-established harmony.”—The dervise, at these words, shut the door in their faces.
Now the story turns back to moods of grief and dejection. Prince Athanase, the next document, is a fragment. As it stands it has little about death. Had it been completed, death would have been its pathetic dénouement. It is a revised Alastor, involving a significant addition. The romantic, hoary-headed young poet of Alastor, pursuing his dream of a divine beauty and love, hoping to find it in the actual world, failed in the pursuit, and died in solitude at the touch of winter's changing hand. Alastor is a lyric solo of an impossible quest, a failure doomed by the nature of things. But in Athanase the poet-prince, also young, hoary-headed, and romantic, was to have won the body-beauty of an earthly love, finding out, too late, that this was not the heavenly love for which he searched. Then, at his death-bed, the spirit-beauty of his quest was to have appeared, to kiss his dying lips. It would have been a lyric drama of pursuit, mistake and repentance, failure, and dying vision.
The theme of the two loves, earthly and heavenly, is taken from Pausanias's speech in Plato's, Symposium. There are two Aphrodites, said Pausanias, the heavenly, which is pure and noble, called Urania, and the earthly, which is physical and ignoble, called Pandemos. It is natural, and perhaps all too easy, to identify the Aphrodite Pandemos, in the scheme of the proposed poem, with Harriet. The ugly change in her love, at any rate, and the ensuing disappointment and failure, are parallel to the tragic disillusionment of the poem. That Mary was the Uranian love appears from the description of her, as the heavenly love, at the end of the fragment. That she comes too late, while the individual dies, is perhaps a dramatic parallel to actuality— Shelley again, while he wrote this poem, thought he was dying of a consumption—rather than a symbol of some teaching that perfection belongs only to the moment, that all moments in their death give birth to others. That teaching of how to be reconciled with mutability's theft of all beautiful things—that each moment is fulfilled of beauty—was Keats's instinctive teaching; or, at least, an idea his instinct for sensuous beauty demanded of his intellect, so that he need not admit a serpent of ugliness into his young Eden of delight. But it is not yet Shelley's teaching, or realization.
Thus death, dramatic and pathetic, would have been the catastrophe of the poem; but a death true, at least, to Shelley's mournful preoccupation with the failure of loveliness, the brightness of the world ever in eclipse.
But it would have been true, too, to the grief, hardly yet turned through reconciliation into sorrow, which pulses in the poem itself. And, though the actual fragment has so little of death in it, yet for this weight of real grief it becomes an important witness to the growth of Shelley's ideas on death. Athanase is described as bowed with a secret sadness, one that he himself scarcely understands, which his friends emptily conjecture, and which he himself never confesses to them. But the nature of the burden is nevertheless made fairly clear: a deep, almost subconscious intuition of all the evils done under the sun, intensified by a particular, personal tragedy:
This woe for the deep-seated evils of the world was indeed for Shelley embittered to grief by many particulars which had come close to him. We have already rehearsed most of the catalogue. The cruel political persecutions of the time, the causes of some of them deliberately manufactured by the government's nefarious and shameless agents provocateurs, inspired him with horror; the loss of his elder children by the court's decision that he was an unfit father to care for them, was the cause of a continual, inexpressible anguish, as both Mrs. Shelley and Leigh Hunt have testified; his fears that little William, his son by Mary, might also be torn from him by the law, embittered him; the loss of friends, the public opprobrium which followed upon the affair with Mary, the deaths of Harriet and Fanny, and his own health failing, as he believed, day by day, filled him with grief, “withering up his prime.” Loss of political dreams, loss of family, love, friends, loss of health and hope, the threatened loss of Mary and the new and greater love:—his little immediate world repeated the evils and anguish of the great world. But, most of all, the tragic mistake shared between Harriet and himself shook the foundations of his mental life.
There was this intense mental agony, from which there seemed no escape: “like an eyeless nightmare grief did sit upon his being.” That was one half of him, a half that remained untold, except in the disguise of Athanase. The other half of him, also pictured in the poem, was the unresting multitude of thoughts driven tumultuously through his mind, a feverish mental activity alternating, in manic-depression fashion, with “lethargy and inanimation.” His reason and his feelings, though in some particulars interfused, as in his theory and practice of marriage, led separate but fevered lives, and, like the Prince, he was always disquieted, shaken with “spasms of silent passion.”
His mind was indeed in a state of insurrection and terrible confusion. He saw nothing that might help to lighten the load. It must be borne alone and silently. He felt a solemn duty, to keep the worst of it from Mary. “Let it remain—untold,” were the words with which he concluded the description of his hero's agony.
The poem, then, is a veiled confession of agony, of tumults of feeling and reason. Shelley, in a note, says he gave up completing it because he feared he “might be betrayed into the assuming a morbid character.” There was in Shelley the moral strength that sometimes accompanies sensitiveness. He fought manfully and successfully against his depression in the heroic days before psycho-analysis made paying patients of us all. But the poem is a prelude to the veiled agony of Julian and Maddalo.
Nearly all the major themes of death thus far traced reappear in a new unity in the partly autobiographical poem, Rosalind and Helen, a poem of love and death, founded on an experience of one of Mary's friends, but amplified to give a picture of Shelley himself under the guise of the dead lover, Lionel. Lionel, like Shelley and the youth in Alastor, had looked forward to an early death, a slow wasting away, like a too early blooming flower that droops in an April frost. Something of the romantic self-pity of Alastor intrudes again. Like Laon and Shelley, Lionel was a dreamer of Utopias; like Shelley he was for a while crushed by the failure of his political hopes, which were
That is one of the clearest of Shelley's poetic confessions of his political despair, revealing as it does the emotional intensity of his dreams—“like the life of youth within him.” Shelley's political theories, be it said again, were not to him mere abstract ideas; they were sensations of the nervous system, ideas that were tied into all the privacies of his emotional life.
Next comes the story of Lionel's death. His widow, Helen, tells it. The almost unrelieved grief and melancholy of this first part of the poem again reflects the new contact with reality. The pain of utter despair which the death of a loved one unseals, until agony obliterates even the hope of rest in death, is presented simply and poignantly, as of one
Yet he cannot resist using his old theme of the ugliness of death, the coffin-worm, though he no longer employs it to create a mood of horror. It becomes expressive of the bitter despair with which the living contemplate the physical failure called death; even of the hideousness of life itself that must experience grief and go down to obscenity. Then, after the pessimistic gloom has settled over poet and reader, almost unbearably, there comes that optimistic turn, toward the end of the poem, which one finds so often in Christian elegy, and in so many of Shelley's poems—in Queen Mab, The Revolt of Islam, and, finest of all, Adonais. It is, once again, the conviction that love dies not with the dead. The very passion of Helen's love for Lionel leads her to feel, like Cythna, that the thing which she loves and finds so beautiful must be eternal:
Once more death is defeated through desire, by the emotion of personal love, by the intensity of the sacrament of the union of two individuals. That sacrament is too exquisite to mean nothing; it is the incandescence in which what all life burns toward, is realized. But from this passionate conviction the thought rises to the serener perception of Universal beauty which includes and answers death. This is the mood of the Hymn and Mont Blanc. But this serenity is here united with that special intensity which impassions the lyric to Constantia. Lionel, speaking comfort, had said in a kind of revelation:
All these figures—the intense union of love, the intense vision in dream, the intense abstraction of thought, the intense ecstasy of music—are figures of those uttermost moods of which we are capable, which seem to have a unique and mystical meaning of their own, and which persuade us, at least momentarily, that all beauty is but an anticipation, in comparison dull enough, of the perfect beauty of a reality that encompasses death, serenely. “Perchance this were death indeed.”
This aesthetic ecstasy in which Lionel dies is a kind of death i.e., it transcends the common and false antithesis of life and death in a more than ordinary, or mystical, state of awareness, wherein thought clings “to the world's dim boundaries” as it all but escapes those boundaries. This ecstasy is the `death' of the misleading antithesis. Hence it is that, as Shelley himself enters this ecstasy while he is composing Adonais, he cries “Die, if thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek.” Lionel's death, in its mystical consummation, is an anticipation of the central theme of Adonais.
In Rosalind and Helen, moreover, a remarkable link between the pathetic death of the poet in Alastor and the comfort of death in Adonais, is discoverable. Rosalind's description of the place where she wishes to be buried is distinctly reminiscent of the burial of the poet in the former poem. She wishes her grave may be on some Alp, whose snowy head is islanded in the azure air (the Mont Blanc theme), for, as her lover had said,
Similarly the leaves of the mountain wilderness had covered the body of the Alastor poet. But the quiet union with narture thus accomplished in a romantic solitude had carried with it, even in Alastor, some undersong of natural, or even spiritual, deathlessness. Here the undersong sounds forth more clearly:
Surely the next link in this chain of thought, which with each link becomes more masterfully conceived and beautifully fashioned, is the famous metamorphosis of the poet in Adonais:
Thus Shelley's poems are continually, not merely echoing each other, but striking each into each with such an ever deepening harmony as makes all seem one increasing composition of ever repeated themes.
Rosalind and Helen is one of Shelley's many minor, second or third rate, poems. It largely though not entirely lacks his distinctive race—his special excitement that springs from the union of mystical abstraction and sensuous vividness, as though Brahma should become an impassioned lover, dancing like Siva, or even Kali. It is probably the most pedestrian of any of Shelley's poems of equal or greater length. It seems an exercise faithfully fulfilled for the less intuitive mind of Mary, who asked him to tell the story. But it is a peculiarly interesting poem for the student of Shelley's thought. For in it, for the first time after his contact with tragic reality in his own life, and after the maturing process of composing the long Islam, he has united his old book-bred ideas about life in general with his new realization of it through particular personal happenings, in an extended scale of finished composition. And something new has descended upon him: the fructification of ideas by pain, the humanizing of his youthful, inexperienced tragic gloom, the poignancy of realized grief, the quite genuine submersion in sorrow, and then a sincere revulsion to hope and faith.
Such is the result of the alternation of moods and ideas during these four years, 1814-1817; such is the mutual purgation of romantic dream and real experience. Shocked out of the romantic self-pity of Alastor by real tragedies, converted in Islam from vituperation to sympathy and pity, plunged into despair by the wreck of his hopes, reaching uncertainly toward serenity in the Hymn and Mont Blanc, stifling his agony in Athanase, making a new love into a spiritual dream of personal immortality, manfully re-creating hope and faith out of their own wrecks, Shelley is becoming acquainted with the burden of life—its many kinds of death.