To Percy Bysshe Shelley
From Letters to Dead Authors
Sir,--In your lifetime on earth you were not more than commonly curious as to
what was said by 'the herd of mankind,' if I may quote your own phrase. It was
that of one who loved his fellow-men, but did not in his less enthusiastic
moments overestimate their virtues and their discretion. Removed so far away
from our hubbub, and that world where, as you say, we 'pursue our serious
folly as of old,' you are, one may guess, but moderately concerned about the
fate of your writings and your reputation. As to the first, you have somewhere
said, in one of your letters, that the final judgment on your merits as a poet
is in the hands of posterity, and that you fear the verdict will be 'Guilty,'
and the sentence 'Death.' Such apprehensions cannot have been fixed or
frequent in the mind of one whose genius burned always with a clearer and
steadier flame to the last. The jury of which you spoke has met: a mixed jury
and a merciful. The verdict is 'Well done,' and the sentence Immortality of
Fame. There have been, there are, dissenters; yet probably they will be less
and less heard as the years go on.
One judge, or juryman, has made up his mind that prose was your true province,
and that your letters will outlive your lays. I know not whether it was the
same or an equally well-inspired critic, who spoke of your most perfect lyrics
(so Beau Brummell spoke of his ill-tied cravats) as 'a gallery of your
failures.' But the general voice does not echo these utterances of a too
subtle intellect. At a famous University (not your own) once existed a band of
men known as 'The Trinity Sniffers.' Perhaps the spirit of the sniffer may
still inspire some of the jurors who from time to time make themselves heard
in your case. The 'Quarterly Review', I fear, is still unreconciled. It
regards your attempts as tainted by the spirit of 'The Liberal Movement in
English Literature;' and it is impossible, alas! to maintain with any success
that you were a Throne and Altar Tory. At Oxford you are forgiven;and the old
rooms where you let the oysters burn (was not your founder, King Alfred, once
guilty of similar negligence?) are now shown to pious pilgrims.
But Conservatives, 't is rumoured, are still averse to your opinions, and are
believed to prefer to yours the works of the Reverend Mr. Keble, and, indeed,
of the clergy in general. But, in spite of all this, your poems, like the
affections of the true lovers in Theocritus, are still 'in the mouths of all,
and chiefly on the lips of the young.' It is in your lyrics that you live, and
I do not mean that every one could pass an examination in the plot of
'Prometheus Unbound'. Talking of this piece, by the way, a Cambridge critic
finds that it reveals in you a hankering after life in a cave--doubtless an
unconsciously inherited memory from cave-man. Speaking of cave-man reminds me
that you once spoke of deserting song for prose, and of producing a history of
the moral, intellectual, and political elements in human society, which, we
now agree, began, as Asia would fain have ended, in a cave.
Fortunately you gave us 'Adonai, and 'Hellas' instead of this treatise, and we
have now successfully written the natural history of Man for ourselves.
Science tells us that before becoming cave-dweller he was a brute; Experience
daily proclaims that he constantly reverts to his original condition.
_L'homme_est_un_me'chant_animal_, in spite of your boyish efforts to add
pretty girls 'to the list of the good, the disinterested, and the free.'
Ah, not in the wastes of Speculation, nor the sterile din of Politics, were
'the haunts meet for thee.' Watching the yellow bees in the ivy bloom, and the
reflected pine forest in the water-pools, watching the sunset as it faded, and
the dawn as it fired, and weaving all fair and fleeting things into a tissue
where light and music were at one, that was the task of Shelley! 'To ask you
for anything human,' you said, 'was like asking for a leg of mutton at a
gin-shop.' Nay, rather, like asking Apollo and Hebe, in the Olympian abodes,
to give us beef for ambrosia, and port for nectar. Each poet gives what he
has, and what he can offer; you spread before us fairy bread, and enchanted
wine, and shall we turn away, with a sneer, because, out of all the multitudes
of singers, one is spiritual and strange, one has seen Artemis unveiled? One,
like Anchises, has been beloved of the Goddess, and his eyes, when he looks on
the common works of common men, are, like the eyes of Anchises, blind with
excess of light. Let Shelley sing of what he saw, what none saw but Shelley!
Notwithstanding the popularity of your poems (the most romantic of things
didactic), our world is no better than the world you knew. This will
disappoint you, who had 'a passion for reforming it.' Kings and priests are
very much where you left them. True, we have a poet who assails them, at
large, frequently and fearlessly; yet Mr. Swinburne has never, like 'kind
Hunt,' been in prison, nor do we fear for him a charge of treason. Moreover,
chemical science has discovered new and ingenious ways of destroying
principalities and powers. You would be interested in the methods, but your
peaceful Revolutionism, which disdained physical force, would regret their
Our foreign affairs are not in a state which even you would consider
satisfactory; for we have just had to contend with a Revolt of Islam, and we
still find in Russia exactly the qualities which you recognised and described.
We have a great statesman whose methods and eloquence somewhat resemble those
you attribute to Laon and Prince Athanase. Alas! he is a youth of more than
seventy summers; and not in his time will Prometheus retire to a cavern and
pass a peaceful millennium in twining buds and beams.
In domestic affairs most of the Reforms you desired to see have been carried.
Ireland has received Emancipation, and almost everytbing else she can ask for.
I regret to say that she is still unhappy; her wounds unstanched, her wrongs
unforgiven. At home we have enfranchised the paupers, and expect the most
happy results. Paupers (as Mr. Gladstone says) are 'our own flesh and blood,'
and, as we compel them to be vaccinated, so we should permit them to vote. Is
it a dream that Mr. Jesse Collings (how you would have loved that man!) has a
Bill for extending the priceless boon of the vote to inmates of Pauper Lunatic
Asylums? This may prove that last element in the Elixir of political happiness
which we have sought in vain. Atheists, you will re to hear, are still
unpopular; but the new Parliament has done something for Mr. Bradlaugh. You
should have known our Charles while you were in the 'Queen Mab' stage. I fear
you wandered, later, from his robust condition of intellectual development.
As to your private life, many biographers contrive to make public as much of
it as possible. Your name, even in life, was, alas! a kind of _ducdame_ to
bring people of no very great sense into your circle. This curious fascination
has attracted round your memory a feeble folk of commentators, biographers,
anecdotists, and others of the tribe. They swarm round you like carrion-flies
round a sensitive plant, like night-birds bewildered by the sun. Men of sense
and taste have written on you, indeed; but your weaker admirers are now
disputing as to whether it was your heart, or a less dignified and most
troublesome organ, which escaped the flames of the funeral pyre. These
biographers fight terribly among themselves, and vainly prolong the memory of
'old unhappy far-off things, and _sorrows_ long ago.' Let us leave them and
their squabbles over what is unessential, their raking up of old letters and
The town has lately yawned a weary laugh over an enemy of yours, who has
produced two heavy volumes, styled by him 'The Real Shelley.' The real
Shelley, it appears, was Shelley as conceived of by a worthy gentleman so
prejudiced and so skilled in taking up things by the wrong handle that I
wonder he has not made a name in the exact science of Comparative Mythology.
He criticises you in the spirit of that Christian Apologist, the Englishman
who called you 'a damned Atheist' in the post-office at Pisa. He finds that
you had 'a little turned-up nose,' a feature no less important in his system
than was the nose of Cleopatra (according to Pascal) in the history of the
world. To be in harmony with your nose, you were a 'phenomenal' liar, an
ill-bred, ill-born, profligate, partly insane, an evil-tempered monster, a
self-righteous person, full of self-approbation--in fact you were the Beast of
this pious Apocalypse. Your friend Dr. Lind was an embittered and scurrilous
apothecary, 'a bad old man.' But enough of this inopportune brawler. For
Humanity, of which you hoped such great things, Science predicts extinction in
a night of Frost. The sun will grow cold, slowly--as slowly as doom came on
Jupiter in your 'Prometheus,' but as surely. If this nightmare be fulfilled,
perhaps the Last Man, in some fetid hut on the ice-bound Equator, will read.
by a fading lamp charged with the dregs of the oil in his cruse, the poetry of
Shelley. So reading, he, the latest of his race, will not wholly be deprived
of those sights which alone (says the nameless Greek) make life worth
enduring. In your verse he will have sight of sky, and sea, and cloud, the
gold of dawn and the gloom of earthquake and eclipse, he will be face to face,
in fancy, with the great powers that are dead, sun, and ocean, and the
illimitable azure of the heavens. In Shelley's poetry, while Man endures, all
those will survive; for your 'voice is as the voice of winds and tides,' and
perhaps more deathless than all of these, and only perishable with the
perishing of the human spirit.
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