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VARIOUS CONCEPTIONS OF SHELLEY
enough in themselves, but the most hollow of emptinesses; mere sound and fury, signifying nothing. In so far as any meaning was discernible through the iridescent vapor of words, the critics did not like it. The poet's designs, in so far as they could be made out, were immoral, anarchic, atheistic; whenever he deviated into intelligibility, it was to rave against all law and order, human and divine, to rave with fierce, shrill, hysterical vituperation against all that other men held sacred. There were reports also, which the critics did not fail to publicly notice, about his private conduct which accounted for his mad rebellion against established order. It was said that he was a young man who had been expelled from Oxford for an atheistic publication ; that he had married a school-girl and deserted her, with the result that she committed suicide ; and that he had persuaded another young girl of sixteen to run away with him while his first wife was still alive. In short, the poetry was effeminate, hysterical, and contemptible, in so far as it was not dangerous and unsettling ; while the poet himself was a disreputable profligate against whom all respectable persons should set their faces.
Such was the conception of Shelley which all readers of the leading organs of public opinion in his generation were invited to entertain. As far as his poetry was concerned, not a little of the animus against it was due to its strangeness, its novelty, its unlikeness to any thing that had been published before in verse.
Even if the circumstances had been favorable to its receiving a fair judgment as poetry, we may well doubt whether on its first appearance the critics would not have treated it as a flock of birds might treat a new-comer in gorgeous but unfamiliar plumage. We must remember, also, that Shelley's first noticeable works, " Alastor” and “The Revolt of Islam,” were deficient in many of the great qualities of his later works, and were justly liable to the reproach of incoherent copiousness and obscurity. But
accidental circumstances calculated to strengthen any prejudice that might be against Shelley's poetry, based on its own intrinsic defects and difficulties. The literary world was divided more sharply than at any time before or since into hostile factions, and provincial and political enmities were allowed to bias literary judgments to a degree of flagrancy now almost incredible. There was the Edinburgh Review clique under the banner of Jeffrey, and the Blackwood clique under the banner of Wilson, and the Quarterly clique under the banner of Gifford, and the Examiner clique under the banner of Leigh Hunt. Men like Scott and Byron, with their bold, direct, intelligible address to the great body of readers, swept past these guardians of the gates of the Temple of Fame straight to their destination. But if a poet was not easily understood by the multitude, if he needed an interpreter or a sponsor, or a kindly word of introduction, and had not friends in more than one camp, praise from one quarter was more than likely to awaken hostility in every other. There was a jealousy between Edinburgh and London of which any new aspirant might be made the victim. Hard things were said in the London organs about the Scottish critics, and the Scottish critics, proud of the renown of Modern Athens, asserted themselves in violent denunciation of every thing Cockney. No words were too bitterly contemptuous for the Cockney school of poetry ; they had an ideal Cockney in their minds, compounded of vulgarity, bad taste, effusive sentimentality, affected prettiness, and they poured the vials of their scornful mockery upon every poem published in London in which there was a suspicion of these qualities. Then there was a political jealousy between Tory, Whig, and Radical, in the interests of which a new poem was sharply scrutinized and cordially welcomed or denounced according to the creed of the reviewer. The Quarterly and Blackwood's, the champions of Toryism, and the
THE VARIOUS CLIQUES OF CRITICS
Edinburgh, the champion of Whiggery, had an almost equally keen scent for a revolutionary. Any discontent with the established order of things, beyond such discontent as was recognized in the Whig programme, was sure to draw down from the Quarterly and Blackwood's a charge of Jacobinism, atheism, and infidelity, and to insure that the Edinburgh should either join in the cry or pass over in silence the work in which the dangerous doctrines appeared. The situation was still further complicated by purely literary factions, factions based on difference of literary creed. By 1818 the reverence for the traditions of the eighteenth century had been rudely shaken ; but there were still among the critics a good many who shook their heads over modern innovations and sighed for the good old style. The new edition of Pope had given an occasion for comparing the old with the new, and Gifford of the Quarterly was a bigoted, hard, and vehement supporter of Pope, ever ready to launch out with all his energy of invective against unexpected novelties. Now, Shelley had the misfortune to concentrate on his person the lightnings of no less than three great factions. Before he published “Alastor " he had connected himself publicly with Leigh Hunt, the leader and founder of the so-called Cockney school, so that Shelley, like Keats, who made his first essay about the same time, was regarded as a new development of Cockneyism. He spoke with daring disrespect of venerable institutions, and so incurred the wrath of all the literary organs of respectability. And in his method he departed more widely than any previous poet from the concise, epigrammatic, reasonable style of Pope, so that all who had leanings in that direction were doubly scandalized by his extravagances.
The fullest expression of Shelley's character is to be found, of course, in his poetry ; but if that puzzles you, there is much that may be cleared up by a reference to his letters—e. g., a selection of them recently published
by Garnett; “Essays and Letters from Abroad," by Mrs. Shelley ; “Memorials of Shelley,” by Lady Shelley ; “Records of Byron, Shelley, and his Contemporaries,' by Trelawny. The letters are masterpieces of expression, frank, candid, really letters, and yet so perfect in style that Mr. Matthew Arnold expects the reputation of them to be even more enduring than his poetry.
The key-note of Shelley's character, his ruling motive, was an excessively sensitive hatred of every thing in the shape of harshness, tyranny, injustice, carried to extremes that to an ordinary mind appear fantastic and insane. Such sensitiveness is not rare among men when their own interests are touched, but Shelley's resentment took a much wider range than a morbid instinct of self-defence. He could not bear the thought of the existence of oppression anywhere under the sun ; the thought of such a thing maddened him, and kindled his energies to be up and doing at once for its extinction. In his youthful vehemence he was a stranger to wise patience and slow, deliberate calculation of ways and means; and his action, consequently, was not always the best action for the end in view ; but such
v was his motive-a violent, furious dislike to wrongdoing. Himself one of the gentlest of creatures, playful, affectionate, beloved by all who knew him, he was capable, under this intolerable spur, of behaving with the fury of a demon. Nothing could be further from the truth than representing Shelley as inspired by a blind hatred of all law and order, a violent assailant of established institutions because they interfered with the pleasure of following his own will, because they interposed checks between him and the execution of wayward, capricious, whimsical impulses. It was the excesses committed in the name of law and order that he could not endure ; the cruelties sanctioned by established institutions that drove him into revolt against them. Law and order and established institu.
SENSITIVENESS OF SHELLEY
tions offended him, not by their spirit, but by the delinquencies and transgressions of their accredited ministers, many of whom, in the history of the world, have not merely fallen short of ideal righteousness, but, under the protection of sacred names, have in small things and in great committed shameful offences against humanity. It was the defect of Shelley's temperament that he was almost insanely sensitive to harshness and cruelty of conduct, not with a shrinking sensitiveness, but with the sensitiveness that flamed out in fiery indignation, the sensitiveness of a man who came of the high-spirited chivalrous race of the Sidneys. This spirit was the ruling principle of his conduct in small things as well as in great, and led him into some eccen. tricities that appear merely ludicrous to the ordinary mind, and into one eccentricity which, viewed in the light of its tragic consequences, has the appearance of a scandalous crime. For example, he would not drink tea with sugar, because sugar was the produce of slave-labor, and he ate nothing but vegetable food, because he believed that man had no right to kill and eat the lower animals. When he was a boy at Eton, he rebelled against the system of fagging, which was much abused by youthful bullies. To this he alludes in the often-quoted stanzas in the dedication of his “Revolt of
'Thoughts of great deeds were mine, dear Friend, when first
Were but an echo from the world of woes—
"And then I clasped my hands and looked aroundBut none was near to mock my streaming eyes,