P. B. Shelley's Vagueness in Poetry

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      Arnold's Criticism: Matthew Arnold finds Shelley's poetry wanting in "truth and seriousness". While commenting upon the visionary aspect of his poetry, Arnold remarks: "It is his poetry, above everything else, which for many people establishes that he is an angel. But of his poetry, I have not space now to speak. But let no one suppose that a want of humor and a self-delusion such as Shelley's have no effect upon a man's poetry. The man Shelley; in very truth, is not entirely sane, and Shelley's poetry is not entirely sane either. The Shelley of actual life is a vision of beauty and radiance, indeed, but availing nothing, effecting nothing. And in poetry; no less than in life, he is a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain."

      Controversy over Arnold's Opinion: Arnold's criticism of Shelley has led to much controversy. Many critics have taken an sympathetic attitude similar to Arnold's towards Shelley They have all alike dismissed Shelley's poetry as unsubstantial, unreal and visionary. Hazlitt remarks: "Bubbles were to him the only realities, touch them and they vanish," and that "nobody was ever wiser or better for reading Shelley." According to Lamb, Shelley's poetry is "thin sown with profit or delight." "Shelley's creed," says Leslie Stephen, "means only a vague longing." Arthur Symons has criticized Shelley for "he teaches us nothing and leads us nowhere but cries and flies round us like a sea-bird." Shelley is "a sentimentalist, pure and simple, incapable of anything like inductive reasoning" is the verdict of Kingsley; Prof Grierson has thus abused him: "Shelley can neither comprehend nor create." T.S. Eliot too has dismissed Shelley's poetry as absurd and has called it "an affair of adolescence." The admirers of Shelley on the other hand, have been equally vehement in their defense of his poetry Oliver Elton has summarily dismissed Arnold's criticism of Shelley; he says: "Arnold is wrong about Shelley wrong beyond recover and without qualification." Quiller-Couch asserts, "Ineffectual is the falsest word that has been applied to Shelley." Sir Walter Raleigh, George Ridenour, Carlos Baker and A.C. Bradley have found ample meaning and substance in Shelley's poetry S.A. Brooke condemns Arnold for his criticism and points out that Arnold has proved to be a critic with wrong judgment by predicting that Shelley's prose will outlive his poetry Clutton-Brock is of the opinion that Shelley had an intense faith "in mankind and the future of the universe; but it remained always abstract, and he hated all facts that seemed to him to contradict it."

      Unsubstantiality in Shelley's Poetry: Arnold's charge against Shelley seems to be a mixture of truth and illogicality. There is no doubt that Shelley's poetry to a great extent, suffers from a lack of concreteness and a want of substance. His friend, Hogg, once remarked that Shelley's feet were seldom planted on earth and that he "flew aloft to heaven with singing robes around him, or the mantle of the prophet on his shoulders". Shelley had been haunted by visions since his boyhood. In his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, Shelley himself describes his boyhood when he looked for ghosts through "many a listening chamber, cage, and ruin," and "musing deeply on the lot of life" would see ethereal visions. Referring to this characteristic of Shelley's personality; Symons observes: "At no period of his life was he wholly free from visions which had the reality of facts. Sometimes they occurred in sleep and were prolonged with painful vividness into his waking moments. Sometimes they seemed to grow out of his intense meditation, or to present themselves before his eyes as the projection of a powerful inner impression. All his sensations were abnormally acute, and his ever active imagination confused the borderlands of the actual and the visionary." His visions fill him with aspirations that cannot be defined; they are like:

The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow;
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow.

      It is obvious that such abstract aspirations cannot be fulfilled in this matter-of-fact world inhabited by human beings. So Shelley is often found soaring like his skylark far into the ethereal world out of the reach of human beings. The poetry composed in that ethereal sphere must inevitably be somewhat vague and lacking in human touch. His sky-lyrics—Ode to the West Wind, The Cloud, To A Skylark - are beautiful poems, but they all deal with their subjects as far away from ordinary human experience.

      Shelley shows no sense of history and cannot put forth the cause and remedies of the evils he finds in human society. He has an intense belief that regeneration of mankind is imminent but cannot tell us why and how it is coming. His West Wind is a symbol of the forces that will bring about this regeneration: it is nothing more. He has never told us what these forces symbolized by the wind are in reality. Shelley's idea of the Islands of Delight as expressed in Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills, is merely a product of an unfounded optimism and has no logical bearing. Shelley's faith is no doubt genuine and intense, but it comes from his abstract visions, not from sound logical reasoning.

      Poetic Truth of Shelley's Poetry: When we discuss the charge of "unsubstantiality" against Shelley we must recall to our mind a few facts about the art of poetic communication. The relationship between a poet and his poetry differs from that between a mechanic and his machine. A mechanic can run his machine only if he knows the technique of doing so. But mere poetic technique cannot produce poetry; poetic inspiration must accompany technique for doing so. The inspiration in Shelley's case has ever been so intense and all-pervading that it has often swept him off the ground and taken him into an ethereal world to find images and objects for its expression. The inspiration of the poet, by its intensity and great range, becomes vague and incomprehensible to ordinary men, and this vagueness passes on to everything it touches. Clouds, Skylarks, the moon, the stars are all familiar to us; they become vague only when Shelley's superhuman genius touches them. Shelley belongs to the rare category of the men of vision who have that magnificence of perspective, that depth of experience, that poignant touch of the soul that escape one who lives on the surface. Shelley's experience is, therefore, larger and deeper than ours and his heart more capable of responding to the remotest murmurs of things. Poets like Shelley can find far off truths, often called the poetic truths, not easily visible to the ordinary eyes. If we want to enjoy Shelley's poetry we must not look for information in it; we must try to insinuate ourselves into his moods, feel with his heart and judge with his mind to get to the poetic truths that he has ex, pressed in his poetry. If we look through the whirling obscurity of thought and fancy in his poetry we can find this remaining constant and steady throughout. It is the truth propounded by Plato twenty-five centuries earlier; one that states that man is essentially good.

      Shelley's Teachings: It would be sheer injustice to pretend that Shelley's poetry; unsubstantial and vague as it is, has taught us nothing. He has taught us the lessons of love, forgiveness and patient suffering through his poetry In Prometheus Unbound, he has taught the world:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite,
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night,
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent,
To love, and bear.

      Edmunds remarks: "No man ever taught the triumph of the spiritual over the material more eloquently than he." S.A. Brooke points out that Shelley's poetry is an embodiment of youth-like vigor and that middle-aged men can regain their youth by going through it. Few poets have done more than Shelley to shake the foundations of injustice, superstition, cruelty and tyranny. His greatest contribution to mankind is, however, an unbounded optimism—an overwhelming hope for regeneration:

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?


Q. 1. Discuss Arnold's charge against Shelley as "an ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain".
Q. 2. Do you agree that Shelley's poetry is the mere "fabric of a vision"? Give reasons for your answer.
Q. 3. Many who feel the spell of his (Shelley's) lovely wail are repelled by his want of substance. Discuss with reference to the poems of Shelley you have read.
Q. 4. "All. his (Shelley's) sensations were abnormally acute, and his ever active imagination confused the borderlands of the actual and the visionary". Comment on this remark with illustrations.
Q. 5. Write an essay on the vagueness of Shelley's poetry

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