Main Characteristics of P. B. Shelley's Poetry

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      (i) Shelley Compared with Some of His Contemporaries: "As a poet," says J. A. Symonds, "Shelley contributed a new quality to English literature—a quality of ideality; freedom, and audacity, which severe critics of other nations think we lack. Byron's daring is a different region; his elemental worldliness and pungent satire do not liberate our energies or cheer us with a new hope and splendid vista. Wordsworth, the very antithesis to Shelley in his reverent accord with institutions, suits our meditative mood, sustains us with a sound philosophy and braces us by healthy contact with the Nature, which he so dearly loved. But in Wordsworth there is none of Shelley's magnetism. What remains of permanent value in Coleridge's poetry—such works as Christabel, The Ancient Mariner or Kubla Khan—is a product of pure artistic fancy tempered by the author's mysticism. Keats, true and sacred poet as he was, loved nature with a somewhat sensuous devotion; nor did he share the prophetic fire, which burnt in Shelley's verse. In none of Shelley's greatest contemporaries was the lyrical faculty so paramount, and when we consider his minor songs, his odes or his more complicated dramas, we acknowledge that he was the loftiest and most spontaneous singe; of the language. In range of power, he was also conspicuous above the rest. While his genius was so varied and its flight so unapproached in swiftness, it would be vain to deny that Shelley as an artist had faults, from which the men, with whom I have compared him, were more free. The most important of these are haste, incoherence, verbal carelessness, incompleteness, a want of narrative force and a weak hold on objective realities."

      Shelley and Wordsworth as Poets of Nature: In his interpretation of Nature, Shelley suggests Wordsworth both by resemblance and by contrast. To both poets all natural objects are symbols of truth; both regard nature as permeated by the higher spiritual life, which animates all things; but while Wordsworth finds a spirit of thought and so of communion between nature and the soul of man, Shelley finds a spirit of love, which exists chiefly in its own delight. And so The Cloud, The Skylark and The West Wind, three of the most beautiful poems in the English language have no definite message for humanity In his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty Shelley is most like Wordsworth, but in his. Sensitive Plant, with its fine symbolism and imagery, he is like nobody in the world but himself. Comparison sometimes is an excellent thing and if we compare Shelley's exquisite Lament, beginning

"O World! O Life! O time!"

with Wordsworth's Ode on Intimations of Immortality, we shall perhaps understand both the poets better. Both poems recall many happy memories of youth, both express a very real mood of a moment; but while the beauty of one merely saddens and disheartens us, the beauty of the other inspires us with something of the poet's own faith and hopefulness. In a word, Wordsworth found and Shelley lost himself in Nature.

      Shelley and Byron: Shelley stands with Byron as a poet of revolt, but his devotion to liberty is purer, his love for man is readier to declare in deeds of hope and sympathy; his philosophy of life is ennobled by loftier and more selfless aims. Byron's cry is, "I am unhappy" Shelley's "The world is unhappy and I hope to brighten it." The two poets in their different ways represent two sides of the French Revolution;—Byron, its backward destructive side, Shelley; its forward reconstructive idealist side. Byron's heroes are engrossed egotists at war with society, while Shelley's typical hero is a noble-minded enthusiast, who willingly becomes a martyr for the cause of man. Shelley applied his noble ideas to his own conduct while Byron was very much like his own Don Juan. In Byron, the intellect is superior and the imagination subordinate. Byron's note is one of chaotic despondency, while Shelley is a prophet of hope, looking forward to the Golden Age, when love will save mankind.

      (ii) Mysticism of Shelley: Shelley (like Browning) is a love-and-beauty mystic. He looks upon love as the solution to the mystery of life, as the link between God and man. To Shelley this was a glorious intuition, which reached him through his imagination, whereas the life of man, as he saw it, roused in him little but mad indignation, wild revolt and passionate protest.

      Shelley believes in a soul of the universe, in which all things live and move and have their being; which, as one feels in the Prometheus, is un-nameable, inconceivable even to man, for "the deep truth is imageless. His most passionate desire was not, as was Browning's, for an increased and ennobled individuality but for the mystical fusion of his own personality with this Spirit, this object of his worship and adoration. To Shelley death was the rending of a veil, which would admit us to the full vision of the ideal, which alone is true life. The sense of unity in all things is most strongly felt in Adonais, where Shelley's maturest thoughts and philosophy are to be found; and indeed, the mystical sphere in this poem, especially towards the end, is greater than anywhere else in his writings. The Hymn to Intellectual Beauty is, in some ways, Shelley's clearest and most obvious expression of his devotion to the spirit of Ideal Beauty, its reality to him and his vow of dedication to its service.

      Shelley, like Blake, regarded the human imagination as a divine creative force. In his Prometheus Unbound, the most deeply mystical of his poems, Prometheus stands for the human imagination or the genius of the world; and it is his union with Asia, the divine idea, the spirit of beauty and life, from which a new universe is born. It is this union, which consummates the aspiration of humanity, that Shelley celebrates in the marvelous love song Prometheus. To Shelley the form assumed by the divine in man, is love, which to Shelley is synonymous with beauty.

      The three great English poets, who are also fundamentally mystical in thought, are Wordsworth, Browning and Blake. Their philosophy or mystical belief, one in essence, though so differently expressed, lies at the root, as it is also the flower of their life-work. In others, as in Shelley; Keats and Rossetti, although it is the inspiring force of their poetry it is not a flame burning steadily and evenly but rather a light flashing out intermittently into brilliant and dazzling radiance. The man himself is not so permeated by it and hence results the unsatisfied desire, the almost painful yearning, the recurring disappointment and disillusionment, which we do not find in Browning, Wordsworth and Blake.

      (iii) Shelley's Melancholy: It is this unsatisfied desire, this almost painful yearning with its recurring disappointment and disillusionment; that is at the root of Shelley's melancholy; His poetry is the poetry of desire. He is always yearning, never pouring forth the strains of a thankful satisfaction; but it is either the craving of an expectant rapture or the aching of a severed nerve. This is the great distinction, which separates him from the other poetical mystics of his day Wordsworth, for instance, is always exulting in the fulness of nature; Shelley always chasing its falling stars. Shelley follows with a wistful eye the flowing stream of beauty as it forever escapes him into the illimitable void. Hence it is that his sweetest songs are those which tell of the saddest, thoughts. He wants to create a new earth and a new heaven, and so it fills him with a sense of longing and of loss. This thrill of pursuit of a fugitive ideal gives. the keynote to every one of his finest poems. If we look at any of the lyrics, on which he has set the full stamp of his genius, we find that it images one of these two attitudes of intellect—the keen exquisite sense of want, gazing wildly forward or wildly backward—("looking before and after and pining for what is not"), but vainly striving to close on something, which eludes his grasp:

The desire of the moth’for the star,
Or the night for the morrow;
The devotion to something after
From the sphere of our sorrow.

      that is the true burden of everything. Sometimes the gaze is fixed on the future and sometimes on the past; sometimes

Swiftly walk o'er the western wave
Spirit of night!
Out of the misty eastern cave,
Where all the long and lone day-light,
Thou wovest dreams of joy end dear,
Which make thee terrible and fear,—
Swift be thy flight!

      and sometimes

When the lamp is shattered
The light in the dust lies dead—
When the cloud is scattered
The rambow's glory is shed,
When the lute is broken,
Sweet tunes our lips have spoken,
Love's accents are soon forgot.

      This melancholy yearning is of the very essence of Shelley; He is the poet, not of all human yearning in general, but of the. yearning for that youthful ecstacy, which bounds like fresh life through every nerve. He cannot be satisfied without a thrill of his whole soul. He knows nothing of serene joy He thinks the whole universe should be ever thrilling in every fiber with mysterious tenderness.

      His melancholy is thus vital to his poetry. It may be said that his music is the product of his genius arid his melancholy and that which is written in his greatest moods of melancholy; is what the world seems to like best. "Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts."

      (iv) His Lyricism. Shelley is one of the greatest lyric poets in English Literature. "His. lyrics are the crown of his work. By his lyrics, above all, will he live." They represent the highest achievement of the Romantic Movement. The Ode to the West Wind and the Hymn to the Spirit of Nature are examples of his incomparable lyricism. His lyrics are highly spontaneous (written without any apparent effort). They are marked by an ethereal quality: Ode to the West Wind, for example, is just wind and cloud and emotion. Then again his lyrics express an intensity of feeling or a deep passion. Sometimes, indeed, he loses control over himself and is completely carried away by his emotion as here: "O lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!" Most of his lyrics, too, contain a note of yearning, desire and despair:

I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
and
Oh cease, must hate and death return?

      Above all, his lyrics are exquisitely musical. He lends to his lyrics "the sweetest and most liquid harmonies." The Ode to the West Wind is nearer to music than any other poem in English literature. Shelley is, indeed, a master of rhythm,' harmony and melody Other lyrics remarkable for their beauty and music are Ode to a Skylark, The Cloud, The Indian Serenade, To the Night, and O World! O Time.

      Shelley's genius was fundamentally lyrical. Matthew Arnold speaks of his "lyric cry" "There are two sides of Shelley's lyric inspiration:—(1) first the personal lyrics which include those poems of ethereal loveliness, The Cloud, The Skylark, Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples, The Human to Intellectual Beauty, The Ode to the West Wind; and the longer poems, which are entirely lyrical in impulse and character like Adonais, where he most definitely challenges comparison with the greatest singers of all time.

      (2) On the humanitarian side, the record is given in such works as Queen Mab, The Revolt of Islam and Prometheus Unbound, which fulfill his enthusiasm for liberty his love of man, and his passion for reforming the world.

      The change of passion, which we note as we pass from the personal to the humanitarian poetry is very significant. The personal poetry is often profoundly melancholy but the melancholy disappears the moment Shelley ceases to think of his own little life and assumes the role of a leader of men and prophet of the Golden Age to come. His own attitude towards the political movement is definite. But it is well to lay stress upon the fact that alone among the English poets of the time he continued to preach the gospel of revolutionary faith and hope.

      (v) As a Prophet: Shelley is not only an artist but also a prophet. He is a prophet in the sense that he diagnoses the evils of mankind as well as makes bold, daring prophecies regarding the ultimate triumph of good over evil and the advent of the Golden Age of man. The awareness of the evil in this world makes him unhappy and sick-hearted while his hope and faith in a Golden Age make him utter cheering prophecies. In other words, he is a pessimist as regards the present and an optimist as regards the future. While the note of despair arising from his survey of the present is apparent in his poems (Ode to the West Wind, IV Stanza), he has a clear and sublime vision of the hopes of mankind, and dreams of an epoch when Love and Beauty will reign. He is an idealist:

O Wind
If, Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

      Works like The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound and Hellas are also prophecies of the Golden Age.

      (vi) His Love for Liberty: Like Byron, Shelley had a passionate love for freedom. He was profoundly influenced by the French Revolution. He was a sworn foe of tyrants and tyranny. Freedom for all mankind is one of the important features of the Golden Age which he anticipates. When Greece made a declaration of independence from the Turkish Yoke he wrote a play to celebrate the occasion. Prometheus Unbound, a lyrical drama, is the best work of his revolutionary enthusiasm. Shelley's philosophy was that the existing tyranny of State, Church and Society keeps man from growth into perfect happiness. Queen Mab, The Revolt of Islam, The Witch of Atlas are also revolutionary works.

      (vii) The Ethereal Quality of His Poetry: There is a vagueness, an abstractness, an ethereal quality about the poetry of Shelley. It is the poetry of a man living not on earth, but in the aerial regions above. This ethereality in his poetry is due to the want in general, of "a sound subject-matter". Even in Adonais, which is a poem of grief on the death of Keats, he preserves a sense of unreality and calls in many shadowy allegorical figures.

      He talks of metaphysical powers like Intellectual Beauty and of vague things like the Golden Age of mankind. His imagery; too, is abstract and divorced from human life as he takes delight in giving us pictures of the shifting and changeable phenomena of Nature like clouds, sunsets, winds, sky and ocean. Also he employs inverse similes which, instead of making his meaning concrete, render it vague. "Like wrecks of a dissolving dream," "like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing," "like the hues and harmonies of evening" are examples of his inverse similes.

      (viii) His Platonism: Shelley was greatly influenced by Plato, the great Greek Philosopher; Plato. Plato thought that the supreme power in the universe was the Spirit of Beauty. Shelley borrowed this conception from Plato and developed it in his metaphysical poem, Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. Intellectual Beauty is omnipotent and man must worship it. Shelley tells us in this poem that early in his life, he vowed that he would dedicate his life to its worship and asserts that he has kept the vow. There are Platonic touches elsewhere in Shelley's poetry also. (Platonic metaphysics contributes to the ethereal quality of his poetry).

      (ix) Attitude to Nature: Like all romantic poets Shelley loves Nature deeply As to Wordsworth, Nature to him is a living reality capable of feeling and thinking. But he sees the spirit of Love in Nature. On the whole, therefore, he is a pantheist (one who sees a Divine Spirit behind the objects of Nature). But his attitude to Nature is also distinctive. In the first place, he has a preference tor the dynamic aspects, and the shifting and changeful phenomena of Nature, like the cloud, the west wind, the ocean, the sunset, the storms, etc. He wrote a poem on the cloud, another on the west wind, while his poems contain scores of pictures of the changeful and shifting scenery of Nature. Again, he possesses the myth-making power in regard to the forces of Nature. He regards the cloud, the west wind, the skylark, etc. as separate and distinct individualities. He personifies them and conceives of them as having lives of their own. But it must be remembered that he does not invest them with human qualities and passions. The wind remains a wind for him and the cloud remains a cloud. In this respect his attitude to natural forces is almost scientific. Even a scientist will endorse his pictures of the natural processes and phenomena as regards their truth.

      (x) His Imagery or Pictorial Quality: Shelley's imagery is kaleidoscopic, i.e. he does not give one or two pictures at a time, but a whole series of them. In the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty for instance, we have the pictures of summer winds creeping from flower too flower, moonbeams falling behind some piny mountain, hues and harmonies of evening, clouds in starlight widely spread, all these one after the other. No sooner do we visualize one image than another is presented to us. Again, as has been suggested above, many of his pictures are vague and abstract, not corncrete. The dead leaves being driven away by the west wind are "like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing." Further, he prefers to depict the shifting and changeful phenomena of Nature like clouds, sunsets, sky, winds etc.

      (xi) His Love for Greek Mythology: All the younger Romantics are lovers of Greek mythology. Shelley's interest in the mythological stories of Greece finds expression in Hellas and Prometheus Unbound and in many other poems.

      (xii) His Didacticism: There is a strong didactic tendency in Shelley. He often wishes to impress a moral upon us but his method of giving us a moral is different from that of the neoclassical poets like Pope. He does not give us a moral directly-that would be unromantic. He merely paints a picture and leaves us to draw the moral ourselves. In Ozymandias, for instance, Shelley does not directly tell us that human greatness and splendour are passing. He drives the moral home to us by a picture of the broken statue of a mighty king.

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