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Social Ideals.- English literature from the time of Piers the Plowman and More's Utopia to Bellamy's Looking Backward and Markham's The Man with the Hoe has taken an interest in the social progress of the race, expressing its discontent and voicing the hope of the inspired dreamer. Shelley, too, had his social ideal. To know Shelley only as the poet of the Skylark and the Ode to the West Wind is to know him only as the sensitive singer of the joys and sorrows, the dreams and longings, of his own individual life; but there is another side to Shelley — the social side, the Shelley
who agonizes as he sees wayward humanity oppressed by the strong and wronged by the great.
Soon after his first marriage we find him in Ireland, hoping to set that portion of the planet aright. He had a big ambition, no less a one than to remove all political and moral grievances. His method was the distribution of tracts written by himself. It is perhaps needless to add that Shelley soon abandoned this method and left Ireland to her sorrows. But his zeal for humanity was not quenched. His Song to the Men of England is one of the most sturdy denunciations of social and industrial wrong in literature. Burns was the son of a laborer, from him we might expect a song of equality; Shelley is the son of an English aristocrat, and yet he writes like a modern Socialist of the extreme type:
One of the most striking evidences of Shelley's unworldliness as well as of his adherence to principle is found in his refusal to entail his grandfather's property. When Sir Bysshe Shelley, the grandfather, died he left a fortune of about a million dollars, of which four hundred thousand would come by entail to Percy on the death of his father. The entail on the four hundred thousand expired with the life of Percy. The grandfather's will
. Thé provided that all the property should eventually fall to Percy, if he would consent to entail it. This Percy refused to do because he did not believe a man should bequeath large fortunes to his son without knowing something of the ability and disposition of the son. Such a course might throw great power into the hands of a tyrant.
A Variety of Estimates. — It is not unusual to find a variety of opinions concerning the quality of a poet's genius. The writings of Shakspere were considered by the Frenchmen dominated by the thought of Voltaire to be worthy of the brain of some wild Canadian savage. Ruskin advises us to “cast Shelley at once aside as shallow and verbose.” Principal Shairp, at one time professor of poetry at Oxford, with truer insight tells us, “The real is the true world for a great poet, but it was not Shelley's world.” And in a brilliant sentence that has often been quoted, Matthew Arnold writes of Shelley as a "Beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” For an ineffectual angel, however, it seems that Shelley has made considerable impression in literature. He may have been lacking in the qualities that make the social and religious reformer, but in the pure and spiritual realm of the imagination, in power to portray the elemental grandeur of nature, to snatch us into the azure deep where we may oversoar
he is surely effectual.
There is a large measure of justice in the stricture that Shelley's world is not the real world. He was an idealist, not a realist. This charge does not bar him from the ranks of the great poets, for the author of the Faerie Queene is also an idealist, and so is the author of the book of Job. No one would condemn Chaucer for being a realist; no one should condemn Shelley for being an idealist. On this subject Vida Scudder fittingly writes:
“The hold on concrete life of a Shakespeare or a Browning, Shelley did not possess; nor was there granted to him the serene insight of a Wordsworth; nor the philosophic method of Tennyson. But his exquisitely equipped temperament, sensitive in every fibre, enabled him to express those finest aspects of nature where visible trembles into invisible, and those finest aspects of emotion where rapture and sorrow blend; he has the power to sing melodies which seem echoes of unearthly music; and his sweep of spiritual apprehension reveals to him the solemn vision of human destiny as an ordered and harmonious whole.”
Every great poet is the spiritual father of other poets. Shelley is the inspirer of Robert Browning. The following passage taken from Pauline, the first notable poem by the youthful Browning, is generally understood to refer to Shelley:
Yet, sun-treader, all hail! From my heart's heart
This poem appeared in 1833, eleven years after the death of Shelley. Browning was then a very young man with a young man's enthusiasm. But that Browning remained an admirer of
Shelley is seen by the little poem, Memorabilia, one of the most exquisite and suggestive appreciations in the English language:
“Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you,
How strange it seems and new!
“But were you living before that,
And also you are living after;
My starting moves your laughter!
“I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
'Mid the blank miles round about:
“For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
Well, I forget the rest."
It is Dowden, I think in one of his later studies on Shelley, who, while enumerating the three classes of men in life and literature, calling the first two the Craftsmen and the Conquerors, concludes:
“But how shall we name the third class of men, who live for the ideal alone, and are yet betrayed into weakness and terror, and deeds which demand an atonement of remorse; men who can never quite reconcile the two worlds in which we have our being, the world of material fact and the spiritual world above and beyond it; who give themselves away for love or give themselves away for light, yet sometimes mistake bitter for sweet, and darkness for light, children who sometimes stumble on the sharp stones and bruise their hands and feet, yet who can wing their way with angelic ease through spaces of the upper air. These are they whom we say the gods love, and who seldom reach the fourscore years of Goethe's majestic old age. They are dearer perhaps than any others to the heart of humanity, for they symbolise in a pathetic way both its weakness and its strength. We cannot class them with the exact and patient craftsmen; they are ever half-defeated and can have no claim to take their seats besides the conquerors. Let us name them lovers; and if at any
time they have wandered far astray, let us remember their errors with gentleness, because they have loved much. It is in this third class of those who serve mankind that Shelley has found a place."
Life of Shelley. DOWDEN.
Shelley and Mary Godwin. LE GALLIENNE. Cosmop., vol. 35, p. 291.
Pp. 108, 240, 353.