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EXTANT CRITICISM ON SHELLEY'S NATURE
Growth of his Love for Nature. PROFESSOR DOWDEN, in his “Life of Shelley," refers to Shelley's early indifference for natural beauty.
In the midst of the mountains of Cwm Elan, in 1811, Shelley writes to his friend Hogg, “This is most divine scenery, but all very dull, stale, flat, and unprofitable ; indeed, the place is a very great bore. The poet in Shelley at this time was trammelled and taken in the toils by the psychologist and metaphysician.” ("Life of Shelley," I. 165.)
“In the summer of 1811 his delight in mountain and vale and stream was tracked and hunted down and done to death by his passion for psychological analysis. “This country of Wales' (writing to Miss Hitchener) is exceedingly grand; rocks piled on each other to tremendous heights, rivers formed into cataracts by their projections, and valleys clothed with woods, present an appearance of enchantment. But why do they enchant? Why is it more affecting than a plain? It cannot be innate; is it acquired? Thus does knowledge lose all the pleasure which involuntarily arises by attempting to arrest the feeting phantom as it passes. Vain attempt; like the chemist's ether, it evaporates under our observa
; it flies from all but the slaves of passion and sickly sensibility who will not analyze a feeling. And again, ‘Nature is here marked with the most impressive characters of loveliness and grandeur. Once I was tremulously alive to tones and scenes; the habit of analyzing feelings, I fear, does not agree with this. It is spontaneous, and when it becomes subject to consideration, ceases to exist."" ("Life of Shelley," I. 167.)
“I am more astonished at the grandeur of the scenery'(letter to Hogg) than I expected. I do not now much regard it. I have other things to think of.” (“Life of Shelley,” I. 168.)
Contrast with these letters those which he wrote from Keswick
after his marriage. (Letters of Nov. and Dec., 1811.) Here at last we begin to see the genuine Shelley,
Again, in 1812 we have evidence of the opposite excess of meaningless and delirious rapture, as in the letter to Miss Hitchener when her morality had been put in question.
“You are to my fancy as a thunder-riven pinnacle of rock, firm amid the rushing tempest and the boiling surge. Ay, stand forever firm, and when our ship anchors close to thee, the crew will cover thee with flowers."
Tendency to Excessive Idealization. This forms the substance of LESLIE STEPHEN's contribution to the Cornhill Magazine, XXXIX. Compare Quarterly Review, LXIV., and SHAIRP in Fraser's Magazine, N. S. 20. To exemplify their extreme position I quote from Mr. Leslie Stephen. “The materials with which he works are impalpable abstractions, where other poets use concrete images.
When he speaks of natural scenery the solid earth seems to be dissolved, and we are in presence of nothing but the shifting phantasmagoria of cloudland, tha glow of moonlight on eternal snow, or the golden lightning of the setting.sun.”
While admitting that the general temper of Shelley's poetry is * distinctly ideal, it is necessary to make a protest against that partial
view which removes his work entirely from the sphere of human interest, and regards it merely as the meteoric display of an overcharged imagination which has never fed upon the concrete realities · of life.
WHIPPLE (Essays and Reviews) makes the following plea on Shelley's behalf against the charges of unreality and lack of human sympathy: "The predominance of his spiritual over his animal nature; the velocity with which his mind, loosed from the 'grasp of gravitation,' darted upwards into regions whither slower-pacing imaginations could not follow; the amazing fertility with which he poured out crowds of magnificent images, and the profuse flood of dazzling radiance, blinding the eye with excess of light, which they shed over his compositions, his love of idealizing the world of sense, until it became instinct with thought, and infusing into things dult and Tifeless to the sight and touch the qualities of individual existence; the marvellous keenness of insight with which he pierced beneath even the refinements of thought, and evolved new materials of wonder and delight from a seemingly exhausted subject—all these, to a superficial observer, carry with them the appearance
It is important to adjust ourselves aright towards this question of idealism in Shelley's poetry. We must frankly admit at the outset that the tendency towards idealism exists in a very marked manner in the poems.
We find, therefore, that criticism ranges itself into two opposing camps. On the one hand, positive coinmon-sense
opinion, as represented by Leslie Stephen, will find that Shelley nourished his imagination with substance too rare and immaterial to form the food which a healthy and robust mind should crave as its natural diet. On the other hand, more enthusiastic critics like Whipple or Roden Noel (see p. 12) assert that his idealism conistitutes the chief and enduring charm of his poetry. It is well here to hold a middle position. We may congratulate ourselves as lovers of English literature that our poetry with Shelley's advent received an imaginative impulse into ethereal regions where wing of poet never beat before. But is he, therefore, the "beautiful and ineffec
* tual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain," of Matthew Arnold's perverse creating? Shelley's burning zeal for humanity would of itself forbid the acceptance of that view in its sweeping entirety. In the poet's youth we must admit that his conception of humanity is visionary and false, and that his shadowy portraits are evasively delusive and vague in outline. But with growing years the concrete elements of his poetry gathered strength, and qualities of * firmness and precision began to show themselves in such abundance as to afford the assurance in his future work of a more harmonious and equable relation between the ideal and the real world. In October, 1821, Shelley wrote to Mr. Gisborne, referring to the most idealistic of his poems: “The Epipsychidion' is a mystery; as to real flesh and blood, you know that I do not deal in those articles ; you might as well go to a gin-shop for a leg of mutton, as expect anything human or earthly from me." But let
us first eliminate the sportive fun from this statement, and remember that within the less than two years that remained to him of life, he had produced those admirably human poems, “To Jane," and conceived and in part written a play upon the thoroughly human subject of “Charles I.” In conclusion, we must bear in mind that in a large measure the impression of excessive idealism arises from the subtle character of the poetic imagery which Shelley employs to light up hidden affinities between human emotion and processes of beauty in the natural world. In this regard Shelley does not sin alone, and might shelter himself, did he require refuge from criticism, behind the accepted names of Lamartine or Victor Hugo, whose splendid imagery is conceived in a similar spirit, and employed for a similar end.
Love of Indefiniteness and Change (cf. infra SWEET).
REV. STOPFORD BROOKE. Macmillan, XLII. To the love of indefiniteness and the love of change, qualities embedded in Shelley's temperament, STOPFORD BROOKE attributes the leading characteristics of his Nature poetry. “ His love of that which is indefinite and changeful made him enjoy and describe better than any other English poet that scenery of the clouds and sky which is indefinite owing to infinite change of appearance. The incessant
forming and unforming of the vapours which he describes in the last verse of The Cloud,' is that which he most cared to paint. Wordsworth often draws, and with great force, the aspect of the sky, and twice, with great elaboration, in The Excursion’; but it is only a momentary aspect, and it is mixed up with illustrations taken from the works of men, with the landscape of the earth below where men are moving, with his own feelings about the scene, and with moral or
imaginative lessons. Shelley, when he is at work on the Power to
sky, troubles it with none of these human matters,* and isolate Nature.
he describes not only the momentary aspect, but also the
change and progress of the sunset or the storm. And he does this with the greatest care, and with a characteristic attention to those delicate tones and half-tones of colour which resemble the subtle imaginations and feelings he liked to discover in human nature, and to which he gave form in poetry.”
There follow references in detail to the more celebrated cloud studies at dawn or sunset or during storm to be found in the poems. Of the dawn in the opening of " Prometheus, II.,” he says : “The changes of colour, as the light increases in the spaces of pure sky
and in the clouds, are watched and described with Subtle
precise truth; the slow progress of the dawn, during a Observation.
long time, is noted down line by line, and all the move
ment of the mists and of the clouds 'shepherded by the slow, unwilling wind.' Nor is that minuteness of observation wanting which is the proof of careful love. Shelley's imaginative study of beauty is revealed in the way the growth of the dawn is set before us by the waxing and waning of the light of the star, as the vapours rise and melt before the morn. The storms are even better than the sunsets and dawns.
Criticism has no voice when it thinks that no other poet' has ever attempted to render, with the same absolute loss of himself, the successive changes, minute by minute, of such an hour of tempest and of sunrise. We are alone with Nature; I might even say, we see Nature alone with herself.” Then follows an enthusiastic analysis of the “Ode to the West Wind."
Also, to his love of the indefinite and changeful, Stopford Brooke attributes Shelley's power of describing vast landscapes (e.g., "Euganean Hills,” 90f"; “Alastor,” 550f), and his delight in the intricacy of forest scenery (" Recollection," 9ff; “Alastor," 420ff, “Rosalind," 95ff, "Prometheus," II. ii. and IV. 1941
Power to Isolate Nature (cf. infra SWEET). Stopford Brooke proceeds to discuss Shelley's treatment of Nature in as far as it was affected by his lack of a definite idea concerning ? the source of Nature.
Again, just because Shelley had no wish to
* Vide Sweet. “Shelley Society Papers,” I. Pt. II.
conceive of Nature as involved in one definite thought, he had the power of conceiving the life of separate things in Nature with astonishing individuality. When he wrote of the Cloud, or of Arethusa, or of the Moon, or of the Earth, as distinct existences, he was not led away from their solitary personality by any universal existence in which they were merged, or by the necessity of adding to these any tinge of humanity, any elements of thought or love, such as the Pantheist is almost sure to add. His imagination was free to realize pure
Nature, and the power by which he does this, as well as the work done, are quite unique in modern poetry. Theology, with its one Creator of the universe ; Pantheism, with its 'one spirit's plastic stress’; Science, with its one Energy, forbid the modern poet, whose mind is settled into any one of these three views, to see anything in Nature as having a separate life of its own. He cannot, as a Greek could do, divide the life of the air from that of the earth, of the cloud from that of the stream. But Shelley, able to loosen himself from all these modern conceptions which unite the various universe, could and did, when he pleased, divide and subdivide the life of Nature in the same way as a Greek. And this is the cause why, even in the midst of wholly modern imagery and a modern manner, one is conscious of a Greek note in many passages of his poetry of Nature. The following little poem on the Dawn might be conceived by a primitive Aryan. It is a Nature myth.
The pale stars are gone!
In the depths of the dawn,
Beyond his blue dwelling
“But Shelley's conceptions of the life of these natural things are less human than even the Homeric Greek or early Indian poet would have made them. They describe the work of nature in terms of human act. Shelley's spirits of the earth and moon are utterly apart from our world of thought and from our life. Of this class of poems, · The Cloud' is the most perfect example. It describes the life of the Cloud as it might have been a million years before man came on earth. The “sanguine sunrise' and the ‘orbèd maiden,' the moon, who are the playmates of the cloud, are pure elemental beings.
In Wordsworth's poems we touch the human heart of flowers and birds. In Shelley's, we touch "Shapes that haunt Thought's wildernesses. Yet it is quite possible, though we cannot feel affection for Shelley's Cloud or Bird, that they are both
Compare also Sweet's consideration of Shelley in his myth making capacity (“ Shelley Society Papers,” I. Pt. II., vide infra), and see Quarterly Review, CLXIV.