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To a temperament so ardent, lofty, and ill-fitted for conformity to the routine thought and usage of ordinary men, life was certain to prove but a hard matter at best, and Shelley's youth was passed under conditions which, for such a nature as his, were peculiarly unfortunate. His father, Sir Timothy Shelley, a country gentleman in Sussex, was the embodiment of commonplace and prejudiced conservatism; limited and bound by the habits and traditions of his class, it was inherently impossible for him to understand his son's character or tolerate his aims. Shelley's loving and loyal nature made him susceptible to influence, but his fiery zeal and independent temper would not brook authority. His conflict with authority came but too soon. His active mind, prone to doubt and to inquire, hurried him into skepticism, and in 1811 he was expelled from Oxford, which he had entered five months before, for a pamphlet On the Necessity of Atheism. Shortly after quitting Oxford, he married Harriet Westbrook, a mere school-girl, who had excited his pity and sympathy, and who was decidedly his inferior in social position. Sir Timothy, who had been seriously provoked by his son's disgrace at Oxford, was naturally incensed anew by this act of folly, and the two young creatures Shelley was but nineteen and his girl-wife three years younger were cast adrift. After an interval, a small allowance was granted to them by Sir Timothy and Harriet's father, and they wandered from place to place, Shelley absorbed in his theories, his poetry, and his projects for reclaiming the world. Queen Mab, a notable though immature production, was the work of this time, and was privately printed in 1813. Toward the close of the same year Shelley and his wife separated, and after her death in 1816 he married Mary Godwin, who proved
herself more capable than the unfortunate Harriet had been of giving his complex and delicately poised nature the sympathy and help he longed for. William Godwin, , Mary Godwin's father, was a theoretical reformer, who preached the peaceable abolition, through the pure force of reason, of law, government, and religion; and Shelley, who had previously felt an enthusiastic admiration for his teachings, was now brought into closer relations with the advocate of these extravagant doctrines.
Alastor and Other Poems - Shelley had thus, on the one hand, broken with authority and custom, by his expulsion from Oxford and his breach with his father, and on the other he had surrendered himself, in his impulsiveness and immaturity, to the guidance of a man who expressed the sweeping and unscientific notions of social reform then current among extremists. Alastor (1816), Shelley's next poem, in which he describes the lonely wanderings and death of a poet who pursues the unattainable and ideal beauty, discloses to us the springs of Shelley's own nature. Like Marlowe, Shelley was possessed by the “desire for the impossible," and his insatiable and buoyant spirit mounts into regions where we cannot follow. In the nobility of its verse and the beauty of its natural descriptions, Alastor shows a great advance in poetic power, and from this time the splendors of Shelley's genius steadily disclose themselves.
In his next poem, The Revolt of Islam (1818), he poured out those hopes for the regeneration of the world which are a vital force in his life and poetry. Shelley was less blindly destructive, less hopeless, than Byron. He saw that the disappointment which succeeded the failure of the French Revolution had “unconsciously found relief only in the wilful exaggeration
of its own despair,” and he wrote The Revolt of Islam in the belief that men were emerging from their trance." His hero, Laon, is not, like Byron's heroes, lost in selfish gloom, but a poet-prophet, aspiring after excellence, who falls a willing martyr to his love for men. In contrast to Byron's chaotic despondency, the poem strikes anew the note of hope and prophecy; it proclaims a social faith. Mankind is to be saved by Love, and in the poem, "Love is celebrated everywhere as the sole law which should govern the moral world.” The whole poet-world of Shelley is transfigured and glorious in the radiance of this faith. The doctrine of The Revolt of Islam was but repeated in one of the noblest of his poems, the lyrical drama of Prometheus Unbound (1820). So in the closing chorus of Hellas (1822), a drama inspired by the Greek war for independence, the poet's vision sees in the coming Golden Age the return of "Saturn and of Love."
“Not gold, not blood, their altar dowers,
In spite of his professed opinions, Shelley is in this poem one of the most intensely Christian of English poets. In Mrs. Shelley's words, he had “an exceeding faith in the spirit of Christianity," and he went about among men the embodiment of love and pity, the helper of the helpless and the poor.
Rapid Development. Death. — In 1818 Shelley left for the Continent, traveling and writing among the most beautiful scenes. The brief space between 1818 and his untimely death in 1822 is the period of Shelley's greatest work. Year by year the fullness of his genius was revealing itself. He had learned of life and of suffering; his faith was deepening, his mind maturing
through experience and incessant study. He was becoming a more consummate master of his art. But English poetry was to suffer a sudden and irreparable loss. In 1822, while sailing on the Gulf of Leghorn, Shelley was caught in a squall off the Via Reggio and perished. So swiftly and so terribly did that breath of the Eternal, whose might he had invoked in song, descend upon him.
His Poetry. - When we consider the brevity of Shelley's life, and the greatness of the problems with which he struggled, we wonder that he achieved so much. In his thirty years of life he sought to give the world a message of peace and hope; he wrote lyrics - such as To a Skylark, Ode to the West Wind, and The Indian Serenade -- which are unsurpassed in English poetry; and he composed two poetical dramas, Prometheus Unbound and The C'enci, which approach the dignity, maturity, and dramatic intensity of the masterpieces of classic art. However immature, or ineffective, or non-conforming his opinions may seem, we must recognize the excellence and the power of his imaginative faculty. As a creator of pure poetry, as one who could weave tissues of light and color as delicate as those of a summer dawn - Shelley is an unrivaled master. His poetry, too, is inspired by a pure and exalted passion. And we must remember that, in the words of his own tribute to Keats, Shelley was one of “The inheritors of unfulfilled renown." Byron, we feel, had burnt himself out; when he died he had said all he could have said to the world. But Shelley was cut off before the full and perfect flower of his genius had bloomed.
Keats, Byron, and Shelley. - The inclination to associate Keats with Byron and Shelley, his contemporaries in poetry, is natural, but in many ways misleading. It is true that the three poets were not far apart in age, and that none of them lived to be old. It is true that each in his own way expressed some phase or quality of youth; Byron, its ungoverned passions and ill-considered despairs; Shelley, its generous, if visionary, aspirations; Keats, its freshness of unquestioning enjoyment, its undulled and exquisite sensibility to the beauty of the things of sense. But the points of difference between Keats and the older members of the group greatly exceed these more accidental or external marks of resemblance. Keats was entirely apart from the democratic and revolutionary movement to which Byron and Shelley belonged. Those kindred impulses, the pity for human suffering and the “passion for reforming the world,” which had been a growing inspiration and power in English poetry from Thomson to Shelley, are absolutely alien to the poetry of Keats. His genius draws its nourishment from widely different sources, and to understand his relation to literary history we must approach him as the bringer of a fresh impulse into English poetry, the force of which is not yet spent.
Life. - Byron and Shelley, the poets of democracy, were representatives of the aristocratic class; Keats was the son of the head hostler in a livery stable at Moorfields, London. The poet's father, Thomas Keats, had married the daughter of his employer, and succeeded