P. B. Shelley's Place in Literature

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     Two Schools of Criticism of Shelley's Writings: Two extreme schools of Shelley's criticism are represented, on one side by Matthew Arnold and others and on the other side by Swinburne.

      (1) Matthew Arnold in his somewhat labored plea for the supremacy of Wordsworth and Byron in 19th-century poetry describes Shelley as a "beautiful and ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain"

      Sharp says "the real is the true world for a great, but it was not Shelley's world."

      Ruskin and Carlyle are violently against him. Ruskin says: "Cast Shelley at once aside as shallow and verbose" and Carlyle classes Shelley along with Byron and Keats as a "poet of the satanic school".

      For one who makes "criticism of life" the basis of his literary estimates, to place Byron in higher rank than Shelley can only be regarded as the eccentricity of genius. There are some who go elsewhere for their criticism of life (if life must be criticized) and turn to poetry for the delight, born of noble thought set to highest verbal music; and to them Shelley is a beautiful angel singing songs often to unearthly beauty and prompting to nobler ideals. Professor Quiller Couch's rejoinder is more effective:—"the only void, in which Shelley ever beat his luminous wings in vain, was a void in Mr. Arnold's understanding." The other extreme criticisms are similarly based on wrong views of the poet and poetry

      On the other hand, Swinburne says: "Shelley was alone the perfect singing god; his thought, words, deed all sang together; the master singer of the modern race and age; the poet beloved above all other poets, being beyond all other poets—in one word and the only proper word—divine."

      The difference is thus chiefly one of the point of view; Arnold finds "in his poetry the incurable want, in general, of a some subject matter and the incurable fault in consequence of insubstantiality. Those, who extol him as the Poet of the clouds, the poet of sunsets, are only saying that he did not, in fact, lay hold upon the poet's right subject matter; and in honest truth with all his charm of soul and spirit and with all his gift of musical diction and method, he never or hardly ever did." In a word, Arnold finds in him no criticism of life. On the other hand, Swinburne cares above all things for the melody and music of verse, and these he finds in Shelley's divine lyric gift.

      But there is a via media, a sane mean of criticism. Still better, there is a blessed faculty of going to each poet for the best that he can give us, with thankfulness and praise.

      None of Shelley's contemporaries lived from first to last so completely under the dominance of "soul-light"; his errors in conduct and weakness in art were alike rooted in this supreme quality. His boyish resolve had been:

"I will be wise,
And just, and free and mild, if in me lies,
Such power: for I grow weary to behold,
The selfish and the strong still tyrannize,
Without reproach or check"

      and he carried it out. Shelley was a revolutionary; but he was also a transcendental poet. If the one quality appeals to us, the other should equally attract. If he lived in an unpractical ethereal world, his poetry is drawing many souls upward to hold communion with him there. As Scott is the poet of the romantic past, Shelley is the poet of the glorious future. In Byron the intellect is supreme and the imagination subordinate; in Shelley the intellect is servant to the imagination. With eyes fixed on the splendid apparitions with which he peopled space, he went through the world not seeing the high road, stumbling over the stones of the road side.

      His Acknowledged Place: By the common consent of critics, Shelley's place is with the greatest English poets. 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 30 years of life, he sought to give the world a message of peace and hope. He wrote lyrics, such as a To a Skylark, Ode to the West Wind, The Indian Serenade, To Night, and The Hymn to Intellectual Beauty - which are unsurpassed in English poetry, and he composed two poetical dramas, Prometheus Unbound and Cenci 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 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 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 perfect flower of his genius had bloomed.

      Conclusion: Shelley belongs to the younger generation of Romantic poets. Like the other two poets of his generation, he died young. His poetry divides itself into two distinct moods. In one he is the violent reformer seeking to overthrow the present institutions in order to bring about the Golden Age. Out of this mood come most of his longer poems, like Queen Mab, Revolt of Islam, Hellas, and The Witch of Atlas, which are somewhat violent denunciations of government, priests, marriage, religion, and even God as men supposed Him to be. In a different mood which finds expression in Alastor, Adonais, he is a wanderer following a vague, beautiful vision, forever sad and unsatisfied. His greatness as a poet resides principally in his incomparable lyricism.

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