The Forever Young Percy Bysshe Shelley

Review: Percy Bysshe Shelley 'Selected Poems and Prose', edited by Jack Donovan and Cian Duffy

Percy Bysshe Shelley
A portrait of the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley / Getty Images
April 23, 2017

This hulking paperback, with its 250 pages of introduction, chronology, notes, appendices, acknowledgments, bibliography, and "online resources," and goodness knows how many fragments, squibs, and variant readings, is all anyone will ever want of Shelley. Rather more than all, in fact. If one comes for Adonais, Alastor, "The Cloud," "To a Skylark," "Ode to the West Wind," "The Invitation," "Song to Pan," and perhaps half a dozen others, plus fragments from some of the longer poems, one emphatically does not stay for "Feelings of a Republican on the Fall of Bonaparte" or all 617 excruciating lines of "Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation."

Or does one? Certainly the political verse is as dully insistent and piss-takingly spurious now as it must have been during his lifetime. A less famous example begins:

A glorious people vibrated again

This doesn't look promising, and when it continues chockablock with random apostrophes to "firm Attilius" and "Saxon Alfred" and earnest initial capitals all the way to stanza XVI:

O, that the wise from their best minds would kindle
Such lamps within the dome of this dim world,
That the pale name PRIEST might shrink and dwindle

And there is no end in sight past "kingliest masonry," "Art, an ardent intercessor," "man's deep spirit," "Rulers of eternal thought," "Love," "Justice," "Fame," "Hope," and "Liberty" on its way to a plodding conceit-finale involving poetry as a dead swan, you begin to wonder whether Shelley, rather than a good poet who wrote a decent amount that was bad, was not, in fact, simply a bad-ish if copious poet who got lucky occasionally, as if in vindication of the Infinite Monkey Theorem. This would be a false if understandable conclusion. If "On Liberty," with its turgid abstractions and unreal historical personages floating like bloodless stage ghosts across the theater of his imagination, is, in strictly quantitative terms, not unrepresentative of Shelley, it does not weaken the achievement of his strongest poems.

The truth about Shelley is that his weaknesses and strengths are of a piece. He is the most adolescent-like of English poets, and his mind, like that of all adolescents, however precocious, was still essentially childish. Like the adolescent that he was he never ceased to remind anyone, least of all his readers, that he was an atheist, and he seems to have earnestly believed that Christ was a kind of minor Stoic philosopher. His facile republicanism and Godwinian antinomianism, especially in the prose, are all but overwhelming. But he had the garrulity and easy confidence of a child and saw the world with a child's rapture. Most of the time, it seems, he was simply playing. He watched birds and rainbows. He danced in the leaves and saw chariots. He followed worms, bees, moths, lizards. He smelled roses and dreamed of maidens, nymphs, fairies, and gods. He took visions, not photographs. When we see with him, "Life, like a dome of many-colour'd glass, / Stains the white radiance of Eternity," there are purple oceans, crimson cloths, golden birds and snakes, white violets. Appearing from the blue heavens white fire falls on rivers and blackness emerges from stars. From the sun green reptiles are born; from the silver moon rain comes forth into the white dawn and pearls of light reach dark volcanoes. In the empty sky clouds burn. Midnight snow falls onto grey grass. Out of sepulchers the shadow of death looms in hideous white.

C.S. Lewis was playing his own kind of nursery game when he argued that Shelley was a more "classical" poet than Dryden, Virgil's greatest translator, not least because the latter had the misfortune of being funny. But there is perhaps more than one sense in which this is true. Of course Shelley is always ready with a tag or reference. Few poets have yielded easier to the temptation to adorn their lines with "Palmyra's ruined palaces" and the like. But he is decidedly un-classical in his lack of simplicity, in his Technicolor profusion of images and his swaggering metrical flexibility—above all in his sentimentality, in the more recent sense of the word, and in his occasional self-pity ("I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!"). Only very rarely does he achieve, as in the second stanza of "Ode to the West Wind," that untroubled lack of embellishment, that quality of "knocking one down with a noun and a verb and a conventional adjective," as Belloc put it, that is the mark of the best Greek and Latin verse writers. But when he hits upon it:

From the fresh sod the Violets peep

Away, away, from men and towns,
To the wild wood and the downs

Black rain, and fire, and hail, will burst

The wind in the reeds and the rushes,
The bees on the bells of thyme

The Fairy waved her wand

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heap'd for the beloved's bed

And I all the while bask in Heaven's blue smile

[N]aked to laughter,
When leaves fall and cold winds come

And the hyacinth purple, and white, and blue
Which flung from its bells a sweet peal anew

He slays the reader with a single line or couplet. I would venture that almost no other poet in our language writes half as well about weather. Nor should it go without saying that he managed in Adonais to excel Milton as an elegist by not allowing the reader to forget that he is, in fact, mourning the death of a real person beyond the reach of "Envy and calumny and hate and pain."

One of the many virtues of Jack Donovan and Cian Duffy's editing of the present volume is that, while finding space for all of The Defence of Poetry, they see fit to give us only five pages from "On Christianity" and none at all from "The Necessity of Atheism." For it is not as a sneering pamphleteer or amateurish philosopher that Shelley lays claim to our attention. Whatever his pronouncements about the "ice that clings to a priestly heart" and the "God of Theologians … incapable of local visibility," he is a poet for whom "The gleaming sky and the fresh season's birth" are a "foretaste of Heaven." His work is imbued with a sense of life, with a spirit of reverence for creation, an unquestioning awe in the face of natural beauty, which he cannot help but see as "The awful shadow of some unseen power." In his finest lines, one sees reified the analogia entis, the correspondence between all things visible and invisible and the maker of Heaven and Earth Himself. When he writes of

That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,
That Beauty in which all things work and move,
That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse
Of birth can quench not

He calls to mind not Bentham or Godwin or even Locke but St. Bonaventure, for whom

All created things of the sensible world lead the mind of the contemplator and wise man to eternal God … the shades, the resonances, the pictures of that efficient, exemplifying, and ordering art.

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