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Letters to Dead Poets: To Percy Bysshe Shelley

by Andrew Lang

Sir,—In your lifetime on earth you were not more than commonly curious as to what was said by “the herd of mankind,” if I may quote your own phrase.  It was that of one who loved his fellow-men, but did not in his less enthusiastic moments overestimate their virtues and their discretion.  Removed so far away from our hubbub, and that world where, as you say, we “pursue our serious folly as of old,” you are, one may guess, but moderately concerned about the fate of your writings and your reputation.  As to the first, you have somewhere said, in one of your letters, that the final judgment on your merits as a poet is in the hands of posterity, and that you fear the verdict will be “Guilty,” and the sentence “Death.”  Such apprehensions cannot have been fixed or frequent in the mind of one whose genius burned always with a clearer and steadier flame to the last.  The jury of which you spoke has met: a mixed jury and a merciful.  The verdict is “Well done,” and the sentence Immortality of Fame.  There have been, there are, dissenters; yet probably they will be less and less heard as the years go on.

One judge, or juryman, has made up his mind that prose was your true province, and that your letters will out-live your lays.  I know not whether it was the same or an equally well-inspired critic, who spoke of your most perfect lyrics (so Beau Brummell spoke of his ill-tied cravats) as “a gallery of your failures.”  But the general voice does not echo these utterances of a too subtle intellect.  At a famous University (not your own) once existed a band of men known as “The Trinity Sniffers.”  Perhaps the spirit of the sniffer may still inspire some of the jurors who from time to time make themselves heard in your case.  The “Quarterly Review,” I fear, is still unreconciled.  It regards your attempts as tainted by the spirit of “The Liberal Movement in English Literature;” and it is impossible, alas! to maintain with any success that you were a Throne and Altar Tory.  At Oxford you are forgiven; and the old rooms where you let the oysters burn (was not your founder, King Alfred, once guilty of similar negligence?) are now shown to pious pilgrims.

But Conservatives, ’tis rumoured, are still averse to your opinions, and are believed to prefer to yours the works of the Reverend Mr. Keble, and, indeed, of the clergy in general.  But, in spite of all this, your poems, like the affections of the true lovers in Theocritus, are yet “in the mouths of all, and chiefly on the lips of the young.”  It is in your lyrics that you live, and I do not mean that every one could pass an examination in the plot of “Prometheus Unbound.”  Talking of this piece, by the way, a Cambridge critic finds that it reveals in you a hankering after life in a cave—doubtless an unconsciously inherited memory from cave-man.  Speaking of cave-man reminds me that you once spoke of deserting song for prose, and of producing a history of the moral, intellectual, and political elements in human society, which, we now agree, began, as Asia would fain have ended, in a cave.

Fortunately you gave us “Adonais” and “Hellas” instead of this treatise, and we have now successfully written the natural history of Man for ourselves.  Science tells us that before becoming a cave-dweller he was a Brute; Experience daily proclaims that he constantly reverts to his original condition. L’homme est un méchant animal, in spite of your boyish efforts to add pretty girls “to the list of the good, the disinterested, and the free.”

Ah, not in the wastes of Speculation, nor the sterile din of Politics, were “the haunts meet for thee.”  Watching the yellow bees in the ivy bloom, and the reflected pine forest in the water-pools, watching the sunset as it faded, and the dawn as it fired, and weaving all fair and fleeting things into a tissue where light and music were at one, that was the task of Shelley!  “To ask you for anything human,” you said, “was like asking for a leg of mutton at a gin-shop.”  Nay, rather, like asking Apollo and Hebe, in the Olympian abodes, to give us beef for ambrosia, and port for nectar.  Each poet gives what he has, and what he can offer; you spread before us fairy bread, and enchanted wine, and shall we turn away, with a sneer, because, out of all the multitudes of singers, one is spiritual and strange, one has seen Artemis unveiled?  One, like Anchises, has been beloved of the Goddess, and his eyes, when he looks on the common world of common men, are, like the eyes of Anchises, blind with excess of light.  Let Shelley sing of what he saw, what none saw but Shelley!

Notwithstanding the popularity of your poems (the most romantic of things didactic), our world is no better than the world you knew.  This will disappoint you, who had “a passion for reforming it.”  Kings and priests are very much where you left them.  True, we have a poet who assails them, at large, frequently and fearlessly; yet Mr. Swinburne has never, like “kind Hunt,” been in prison, nor do we fear for him a charge of treason.  Moreover, chemical science has discovered new and ingenious ways of destroying principalities and powers.  You would be interested in the methods, but your peaceful Revolutionism, which disdained physical force, would regret their application.

Our foreign affairs are not in a state which even you would consider satisfactory; for we have just had to contend with a Revolt of Islam, and we still find in Russia exactly the qualities which you recognised and described.  We have a great statesman whose methods and eloquence somewhat resemble those you attribute to Laon and Prince Athanase.  Alas! he is a youth of more than seventy summers; and not in his time will Prometheus retire to a cavern and pass a peaceful millennium in twining buds and beams.

In domestic affairs most of the Reforms you desired to see have been carried.  Ireland has received Emancipation, and almost everything else she can ask for.  I regret to say that she is still unhappy; her wounds unstanched, her wrongs unforgiven.  At home we have enfranchised the paupers, and expect the most happy results.  Paupers (as Mr. Gladstone says) are “our own flesh and blood,” and, as we compel them to be vaccinated, so we should permit them to vote.  Is it a dream that Mr. Jesse Collings (how you would have loved that man!) has a Bill for extending the priceless boon of the vote to inmates of Pauper Lunatic Asylums?  This may prove that last element in the Elixir of political happiness which we have long sought in vain.  Atheists, you will regret to hear, are still unpopular; but the new Parliament has done something for Mr. Bradlaugh.  You should have known our Charles while you were in the “Queen Mab” stage.  I fear you wandered, later, from his robust condition of intellectual development.

As to your private life, many biographers contrive to make public as much of it as possible.  Your name, even in life, was, alas! a kind of ducdame to bring people of no very great sense into your circle.  This curious fascination has attracted round your memory a feeble folk of commentators, biographers, anecdotists, and others of the tribe.  They swarm round you like carrion-flies round a sensitive plant, like night-birds bewildered by the sun.  Men of sense and taste have written on you, indeed; but your weaker admirers are now disputing as to whether it was your heart, or a less dignified and most troublesome organ, which escaped the flames of the funeral pyre.  These biographers fight terribly among themselves, and vainly prolong the memory of “old unhappy far-off things, and sorrows long ago.”  Let us leave them and their squabbles over what is unessential, their raking up of old letters and old stories.

The town has lately yawned a weary laugh over an enemy of yours, who has produced two heavy volumes, styled by him “The Real Shelley.”  The real Shelley, it appears, was Shelley as conceived of by a worthy gentleman so prejudiced and so skilled in taking up things by the wrong handle that I wonder he has not made a name in the exact science of Comparative Mythology.  He criticises you in the spirit of that Christian Apologist, the Englishman who called you “a damned Atheist” in the post-office at Pisa.  He finds that you had “a little turned-up nose,” a feature no less important in his system than was the nose of Cleopatra (according to Pascal) in the history of the world.  To be in harmony with your nose, you were a “phenomenal” liar, an ill-bred, ill-born, profligate, partly insane, an evil-tempered monster, a self-righteous person, full of self-approbation—in fact you were the Beast of this pious Apocalypse.  Your friend Dr. Lind was an embittered and scurrilous apothecary, “a bad old man.”  But enough of this inopportune brawler.

For Humanity, of which you hoped such great things, Science predicts extinction in a night of Frost.  The sun will grow cold, slowly—as slowly as doom came on Jupiter in your “Prometheus,” but as surely.  If this nightmare be fulfilled, perhaps the Last Man, in some fetid hut on the ice-bound Equator, will read, by a fading lamp charged with the dregs of the oil in his cruse, the poetry of Shelley.  So reading, he, the latest of his race, will not wholly be deprived of those sights which alone (says the nameless Greek) make life worth enduring.  In your verse he will have sight of sky, and sea, and cloud, the gold of dawn and the gloom of earthquake and eclipse.  He will be face to face, in fancy, with the great powers that are dead, sun, and ocean, and the illimitable azure of the heavens.  In Shelley’s poetry, while Man endures, all those will survive; for your “voice is as the voice of winds and tides,” and perhaps more deathless than all of these, and only perishable with the perishing of the human spirit.