Shelley, four years younger than Byron and nearly four years older than Keats, seems somehow sandwiched between them. He does not command the admiration, indeed adulation, that either of them does, and indeed there was a time when his work was belittled in Sri Lanka, when the Leavis-Ludowyke determination to find moral relevance in all writing held sway.
The simplicity of his Odes seemed then to indicate a less substantial vision than that of Keats, whose six great Odes are charged with philosophical as well as emotional intensity. But if Shelley’s aspirations were more basic, they are conveyed with a inspirational power that only the most jaundiced can resist. And if the ideas are not subtle, they are no less thoughtful, as these two different stanzas from The Skylark indicate.
Like a Poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:
We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
And even when the ideas do not bear deep consideration, the exuberance is attractive, as in The Cloud
For after the rain, when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams, with their convex gleams,
Build up the blue dome of Air —
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise, and unbuild it again. –
The West Wind, the most impressive of the three, seems to me the most accessible symbol of that age of revolutionary fervor, which never came to fruition. The forces of reaction were too strong, perhaps understandably so following the excesses the French Revolution led to, which contributed to the concept of the Strong Man exemplified by Napoleon, and the much less dramatic but more lasting dispensation developed by the British to ensure stability. Shelley understood that the ideals of his youth would not be fulfilled (as we know, he and Keats and Byron all died away from England) but he continued to believe in the necessity of expressing those ideals.
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
And there was much more. No student of English can forget Ozymandias, with its portentous beginning, and the emptiness of the end that expresses better than anything else the Vanity of Human Wishes. And if the satire of The Masque of Anarchy is heavy, the depictions of the British Foreign Secretary and Lord Chancellor are unforgettable.
I met Murder on the way-
He had a mask like Castlereagh-
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.
But Shelley was also the poet of melancholy, or rather of melancholia with regard to human relations, oddly enough for one who was supposedly so convivial. Though his best known short elegy has a note of comfort –
MUSIC, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory;
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.
Rose leaves, when the rose is dead, 5
Are heap’d for the belovèd’s bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.
an elegy of a very different sort, When the Lamp is shattered, has one of the saddest stanzas I know about the end of love
When hearts have once mingled,
Love first leaves the well-built nest;
The weak one is singled
To endure what it once possessed.
O Love! who bewailest
The frailty of all things here,
Why choose you the frailest
For your cradle, your home, and your bier?
Shelley’s most famous elegy was Adonais, which he wrote on the premature death of Keats. In the outpouring of grief the usual consolations with regard to death are presented vividly, and one realizes that it would be unthinkable for Keats – or Shelley or Byron – to have lived on to have a heart grown cold.
He has outsoared the shadow of our night;
Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not and torture not again;
From the contagion of the world’s slow stain
He is secure, and now can never mourn
A heart grown cold, a head grown grey in vain;
Nor, when the spirit’s self has ceased to burn,
With sparkless ashes load an unlamented urn.
And there is an interpretation of immortality that is more familiar to Eastern thinking than the death and resurrection concepts of traditional Christianity.
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments. -Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled! – Rome’s azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.
The poem ends with what seems an invocation from the dead Keats to the living Shelley. Less than two years later, Shelley himself died, far from the shore, drowned off the Italian coast.
The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.