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If it were possible to blot out from our mind its memory of the Bible and of Protestant theology, and with that mind of artificial vacancy to read Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes, how strange and great and mad would the genius of Milton appear. We should wonder at his creative mythological imagination, but we should marvel past all comprehending at his conceptions of the divine order, and the destiny of man. To attempt to understand Shelley without the aid of Godwin is a task hardly more promising than it would be to read Milton without the Bible.

The parallel is so close that one is tempted to pursue it further, for there is between these two poets a close sympathy amid glaring contrasts. Each admitted in spite of his passion for an ideal world an absorbing concern in human affairs, and a vehement interest in the contemporary struggle for liberty. If the one was a Republican Puritan and the other an anarchical atheist, the dress which their passion for liberty assumed was the uniform of the day. Neither was an original thinker. Each steeped himself in the classics. But more important even than the classics in the influences which moulded their minds, were the dogmatic systems to which they attached themselves. It is not the power of novel and pioneer thought which distinguishes a philosophical from a purely sensuous mind. Shelley no more innovated or created in metaphysics or politics than did Milton. But each had, with his gift of imagery, and his power of musical speech, an intellectual view of the universe. The name of Milton suggests to us eloquent rhythms and images which pose like Grecian sculpture. But Milton’s world was the world as the grave, gowned men saw it who composed the Westminster Confession. The name of Shelley rings like the dying fall of a song, or floats before our eyes amid the faery shapes of wind-tossed clouds. But Shelley’s world was the world of the utilitarian Godwin and the mathematical Condorcet. The supremacy of an intellectual vision is not a common characteristic among poets, but it raises Milton and Shelley to the choir in which Dante and Goethe are leaders. For Keats beauty was truth, and that was all he cared to know. Coleridge, indeed, was a metaphysician of some pretensions, but the “honey dew” on which he fed when he wrote Christabel and Kubla Khan was not the Critique of Pure Reason. But to Shelley Political Justice was the veritable “milk of paradise.” We must drink of it ourselves if we would share his banquet. Godwin in short explains Shelley, and it is equally true that Shelley is the indispensable commentary to Godwin. For all that was living and human in the philosopher he finds imaginative expression. His mind was a selective soil, in which only good seed could germinate. The flowers wear the colour of life and emotion. In the clear light of his verse, gleaming in their passionate hues, they display for us their values. Some of them, the bees of a working hive will consent to fertilise; from others they will turn decidedly away. Shelley is Godwin’s fertile garden. From another standpoint he is the desert which Godwin laid waste.

It is, indeed, the commonplace of criticism to insist on the reality which the ideal world possessed for Shelley. Other poets have illustrated thought by sensuous imagery. To Shelley, thought alone was the essential thing. A good impulse, a dream, an idea, were for him what a Centaur or a Pegasus were for common fancy. He sees in Prometheus Unbound a spirit who

Speeded hither on the sigh
Of one who gave an enemy
His plank, then plunged aside to die.

Another spirit rides on a sage’s “dream with plumes of flame”; and a third tells how a poet

Will watch from dawn to gloom
The lake-reflected sun illume,
The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom,
Nor heed, nor see, what things they be;
But from these create he can
Forms more real than living man,
Nurslings of immortality.

How naturally from Shelley’s imagination flowed the lines about Keats:

All he had loved and moulded into thought
From shape and hue and odour and sweet sound
Lamented Adonais.

This was no rhetoric, no affectation of fancy. Shelley saw the immortal shapes of “Desires and Adorations” lamenting over the bier of the mortal Keats, because for him an idea or a passion was incomparably more real and more comprehensible than the things of flesh and earth, of whose existence the senses persuade us. To such a mind philosophy was not a distant world to be entered with diffident and halting feet, ever ready to retreat at the first alarm of commonsense. It was his daily habitation. He lived in it, and guided himself by its intellectual compass among the perils and wonders of life, as naturally as other men feel their way by touch. This ardent, sensitive, emotional nature, with all its gift of lyrical speech and passionate feeling, was in fact the ideal man of the Godwinian conception, who lives by reason and obeys principles. Three men in modern times have achieved a certain fame by their rigid obedience to “rational” conceptions of conduct Thomas Day, who wrote Sandford and Merton, Bentham, and Herbert Spencer. But the erratic, fanciful Shelley was as much the enthusiastic slave of reason, as any of these three; and he seemed erratic only because to be perfectly rational is in this world the wildest form of eccentricity. He came upon Political Justice while he was still a school-boy at Eton; and his diaries show that there hardly passed a year of his life in which he omitted to re-read it. Its phraseology colours his prose; his mind was built upon it, as Milton’s was upon the Bible. We hardly require his own confession to assure us of the debt. “The name of Godwin,” he wrote in 1812, “has been used to excite in me feelings of reverence and admiration. I have been accustomed to consider him a luminary too dazzling for the darkness which surrounds him. From the earliest period of my knowledge of his principles, I have ardently desired to share on the footing of intimacy that intellect which I have delighted to contemplate in its emanations. Considering then, these feelings, you will not be surprised at the inconceivable emotions with which I learnt your existence and your dwelling. I had enrolled your name in the list of the honourable dead. I had felt regret that the glory of your being had passed from this earth of ours. It is not so. You still live, and I firmly believe are still planning the welfare of human kind.”

The enthusiastic youth was to learn that his master’s preoccupation was with concerns more sordid and more pressing than the welfare of human kind; but if close personal intercourse brought some disillusionment regarding Godwin’s private character, it only deepened his intellectual influence, and confirmed Shelley’s lifelong adhesion to his system. No contemporary thinker ever contested Godwin’s empire over Shelley’s mind; and if in later years Plato claimed an ever-growing share in his thoughts, we must remember that in several of his fundamental tenets Godwin was a Platonist without knowing it. It is only in his purely personal utterances, in the lyrics which rendered a mood or an impression, or in such fancies as the Witch of Atlas, that Shelley can escape from the obsession of Political Justice. The voice of Godwin does not disturb us in The Skylark, and it is silenced by the violent passions of The Cenci. But in all the more formal and graver utterances of Shelley’s genius, from Queen Mab to Hellas, it supplies the theme and Shelley writes the variations. Queen Mab, indeed, is nothing but a fervent lad’s attempt to state in verse the burden of Godwin’s prose. Some passages in it (notably the lines about commerce) are a mere paraphrase or summary of pages from The Enquirer or Political Justice. In the Revolt of Islam, and still more in Prometheus Unbound, Shelley’s imagination is becoming its own master. The variations are more important, more subtle, more beautiful than the theme; but still the theme is there, a precise and definite dogma for fancy to embroider. It is only in Hellas that Shelley’s power of narrative (in Hassan’s story), his irrepressible lyrical gift, and his passion which at length could speak in its own idiom, combine to make a masterpiece which owes to Godwin only some general ideas. If the transcript became less literal, it was not that the influence had waned. It was rather that Shelley was gaining the full mastery of his own native powers of expression. In these poems he assumes or preaches all Godwin’s characteristic doctrines, perfectibility, non-resistance, anarchism, communism, the power of reason and the superiority of persuasion over force, universal benevolence, and the ascription of moral evil to the desolating influence of “positive institution.”

The general agreement is so obvious that one need hardly illustrate it. What is more curious is the habit which Shelley acquired of reproducing even the minor opinions or illustrations which had struck him in his continual reading of Godwin. When Mammon advises Swellfoot the Tyrant to refresh himself with

A simple kickshaw by your Persian cook
Such as is served at the Great King’s second table.
The price and pains which its ingredients cost
Might have maintained some dozen families
A winter or two not more.

he is simply making an ironical paraphrase from Godwin. The fine scene in Canto XI. of the Revolt of Islam, in which Laon, confronting the tyrant on his throne, quells by a look and a word a henchman who was about to stab him, is a too brief rendering of Godwin’s reflections on the story of Marius and the Executioner (see .

And one more daring, raised his steel anew
To pierce the stranger: “What hast thou to do
With me, poor wretch?” calm, solemn and severe
That voice unstrung his sinews, and he threw
His dagger on the ground, and pale with fear,
Sate silently.

The pages of Shelley are littered with such reminiscences.

Matthew Arnold said of Shelley that he was “a beautiful and ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” One is tempted to retort that to be beautiful is in itself to escape futility, and to people a void with angels is to be far from ineffectual. But the metaphor is more striking as phrase-making than as criticism. The world into which the angel fell, wide-eyed, indignant, and surprised, was not a void. It was a nightmare composed of all the things which to common mortals are usual, normal, inevitable oppressions and wars, follies and crimes, kings and priests, hangmen and inquisitors, poverty and luxury. If he beat his wings in this cage of horrors, it was with the rage and terror of a bird which belongs to the free air. Shelley, Matthew Arnold held, was not quite sane. Sanity is a capacity for becoming accustomed to the monstrous. Not time nor grey hairs could bring that kind of sanity to Shelley’s clear-sighted madness. If he must be compared to an angel, Mr. Wells has drawn him for us. He was the angel whom a country clergyman shot in mistake for a buzzard, in that graceful satire, The Wonderful Visit. Brought to earth by this mischance, he saw our follies and our crimes without the dulling influence of custom. Satirists have loved to imagine such a being. Voltaire drew him with as much wit as insight in L’Ingenu the American savage who landed in France, and made the amazing discovery of civilisation. Shelley had not dropped from the clouds nor voyaged from the backwoods, but he seems always to be discovering civilisation with a fresh wonder and an insatiable indignation.

One may doubt whether a saint has ever lived more selfless, more devoted to the beauty of virtue; but one quality Shelley lacked which is commonly counted a virtue. He had none of that imaginative sympathy which can make its own the motives and desires of other men. Self-interest, intolerance and greed he understood as little as common men understand heroism and devotion. He had no mean powers of observation. He saw the world as it was, and perhaps he rather exaggerated than minimised its ugliness. But it never struck him that its follies and crimes were human failings and the outcome of anything that is natural in the species. The doctrines of perfectibility and universal benevolence clothed themselves for him in the Godwinian phraseology, but they were the instinctive beliefs of his temperament. So sure was he of his own goodness, so natural was it with him to love and to be brave, that he unhesitatingly ascribed all the evil of the world to the working of some force which was unnatural, accidental, anti-human. If he had grown up a mediaeval Christian, he would have found no difficulty in blaming the Devil. The belief was in his heart; the formula was Godwin’s. For the wonder, the miracle of all this unnatural, incomprehensible evil in the world, he found a complete explanation in the doctrine that “positive institutions” have poisoned and distorted the natural good in man. After a gloomy picture in Queen Mab of all the oppressions which are done under the sun, he suddenly breaks away to absolve nature:

Nature! No!
Kings, priests and statesmen blast the human flower
Even in its tender bud; their influence darts
Like subtle poison through the bloodless veins
Of desolate society....
Let priest-led slaves cease to proclaim that man
Inherits vice and misery, when force
And falsehood hang even o’er the cradled babe
Stifling with rudest grasp all natural good.

It is a stimulating doctrine, for if humanity had only to rid itself of kings and priests, the journey to perfection would be at once brief and eventful. As a sociological theory it is unluckily unsatisfying. There is, after all, nothing more natural than a king. He is a zoological fact, with his parallel in every herd of prairie dogs. Nor is there anything much more human than the tendency to convention which gives to institutions their rigidity. If force and imposture have had a share in the making of kings and priests, it is equally true that they are the creation of the servility and superstition of the mass of men. The eighteenth century chose to forget that man is a gregarious animal. Oppression and priestcraft are the transitory forms in which the flock has sought to cement its union. But the modern world is steeped in the lore of anthropology; there is little need to bring its heavy guns to bear upon the slender fabric of Shelley’s dream. Queen Mab was a boy’s precocious effort, and in later verses Shelley put the case for his view of evil in a more persuasive form. He is now less concerned to declare that it is unnatural, than to insist that it flows from defects in men which are not inherent or irremovable. The view is stated with pessimistic malice by a Fury in Prometheus Unbound after a vision of slaughter.


Blood thou can’st see, and fire; and can’st hear groans.
Worse things unheard, unseen, remain behind.




In each human heart terror survives
The ravin it has gorged: the loftiest fear,
All that they would disdain to think were true:
Hypocrisy and custom make their minds
The fanes of many a worship, now outworn.
They dare not devise good for man’s estate,
And yet they know not that they do not dare.
The good want power, but to weep barren tears.
The powerful goodness want worse need for them.
The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom.
And all best things are thus confused to ill.
Many are strong and rich, and would be just,
But live among their suffering fellow-men
As if none felt; they know not what they do.

Shelley so separated the good and evil in the world, that he was presently vexed as acutely as any theist with the problem of accounting for evil. Paine felt no difficulty in his sharp, positive mind. He traced all the wrongs of society to the egoism of priests and kings; and, since he did not assume the fundamental goodness of human nature, it troubled none of his theories to accept the crude primitive fact of self-interest. What Shelley would really have said in answer to a question about the origin of evil, if we had found him in a prosaic mood, it is hard to guess, and the speculation does not interest us. Shelley’s prose opinions were of no importance. What we do trace in his poetry is a tendency, half conscious, uttering itself only in figures and parables, to read the riddle of the universe as a struggle between two hostile principles. In the world of prose he called himself an atheist. He rejoiced in the name, and used it primarily as a challenge to intolerance. “It is a good word of abuse to stop discussion,” he said once to his friend Trelawny, “a painted devil to frighten the foolish, a threat to intimidate the wise and good. I used it to express my abhorrence of superstition. I took up the word as a knight takes up a gauntlet in defiance of injustice.”

Shelley was an atheist because Christians used the name of God to sanctify persecution. That was really his ultimate emotional reason. His mythology, when he came to paint the world in myths, was Manichean. His creed was an ardent dualism, in which a God and an anti-God contend and make history. But in his mood of revolt it suited him to confuse the names and the symbols. The snake is everywhere in his poems the incarnation of good, and if we ask why, there is probably no other reason than that the Hebrew mythology against which he revolted, had taken it as the symbol of evil. The legitimate Gods in his Pantheon are always in the wrong. He belongs to the cosmic party of opposition, and the Jupiter of his Prometheus is morally a temporarily omnipotent devil. Like Godwin he felt that the God of orthodoxy was a “tyrant,” and he revolted against Him, because he condemned the world which He had made.

The whole point of view, as it concerns Christian theology, is stated with a bitter clearness, in the speech of Ahasuerus in Queen Mab. The first Canto of the Revolt of Islam puts the position of dualism without reserve:

Know, then, that from the depths of ages old
Two Powers o’er mortal things dominion hold,
Ruling the world with a divided lot,
Immortal, all-pervading, manifold,
Twin Genii, equal Gods when life and thought
Sprang forth, they burst the womb of inessential Nought.

The good principle was the Morning Star (as though to remind us of Lucifer) until his enemy changed him to the form of a snake. The anti-God, whom men worship blindly as God, holds sway over our world. Terror, madness, crime, and pain are his creation, and Asia in Prometheus cries aloud

Utter his name: a world pining in pain
Asks but his name: curses shall drag him down.

In the sublime mythology of Prometheus the war of God and anti-God is seen visibly, making the horrors of history. As Jupiter’s Furies rend the heart of the merciful Titan chained to his rock on Caucasus, murders and crucifixions are enacted in the world below. The mythical cruelties in the clouds are the shadows of man’s sufferings below; and they are also the cause. A mystical parallelism links the drama in Heaven with the tragedy on earth; we suffer from the malignity of the World’s Ruler, and triumph by the endurance of Man’s Saviour.

Nothing could be more absurd than to call Shelley a Pantheist. Pantheism is the creed of conservatism and resignation. Shelley felt the world as struggle and revolt, and like all the poets, he used Heaven as the vast canvas on which to paint with a demonic brush an heroic idealisation of what he saw below. It would be interesting to know whether any human heart, however stout and rebellious, when once it saw the cosmic process as struggle, has ever been able to think of the issue as uncertain. Certainly for Shelley there was never a doubt about the final triumph of good. Godwin qualified his agnosticism by supposing that there was a tendency in things (he would not call it spiritual, or endow it with mind) which somehow cooperates with us and assures the victory of life (see . One seems to meet this vague principle, this reverend Thing, in Shelley’s Demogorgon, the shapeless, awful negation which overthrows the maleficent Jupiter, and with his fall inaugurates the golden age. The strange name of Demogorgon has probably its origin in the clerical error of some mediaeval copyist, fumbling with the scholia of an anonymous grammarian. One can conceive that it appealed to Shelley’s wayward fancy because it suggested none of the traditional theologies; and certainly it has a mysterious and venerable sound. Shelley can describe It only as Godwin describes his principle by a series of negatives.

I see a mighty darkness
Filling the seat of power, and rays of gloom
Dart round, as light from the meridian sun,
Ungazed upon and shapeless; neither limb,
Nor form, nor outline; yet we feel it is
A living spirit.

It is the eternal =X= which the human spirit always assumes when it is at a loss to balance its equations. Demogorgon is, because if It were not, our strivings would be a battle in the mist, with no clear trumpet-note that promised triumph. Shelley, turning amid his singing to the supremest of all creative work, the making of a mythology, invents his God very much as those detested impostors, the primitive priests, had done. He gives Humanity a friendly Power as they had endowed their tribe with a god of battles. Humanity at grips with chaos is curiously like a nigger clan in the bush. It needs a fetish of victory. But a poet’s mythology is to be judged by its fruits. A faith is worth the cathedral it builds. A myth is worth the poem it inspires.

If Shelley’s ultimate view of reality is vague, a thing to be shadowed in myths and hinted in symbols, there is nothing indefinite in his view of the destinies of mankind. Here he marched behind Godwin, and Godwin hated vagueness. His intellect had assimilated all the steps in the argument for perfectibility. It emerges in places in its most dogmatic form. Institutions make us what we are, and to free us from their shackles is to liberate virtue and unleash genius. He pauses midway in the preface to Prometheus to assure us that, if England were divided into forty republics, each would produce philosophers and poets as great and numerous as those of Athens. The road to perfection, however, is not through revolution, but by the gradual extirpation of error. When he writes in prose, he expresses himself with all the rather affected intellectualism of the Godwinian psychology. “Revenge and retaliation,” he remarks in the preface to The Cenci “are pernicious mistakes.” But temperament counts for something even in a disciple so devout as Shelley. He had an intellectual view of the world; but, when once the rhythm of his musical verse had excited his mind to be itself, the force and simplicity of his emotion transfuse and transform these abstractions. Godwin’s “universal benevolence” was with him an ardent affectionate love for his kind. Godwin’s cold precept that it was the duty of an illuminated understanding to contribute towards the progress of enquiry, by arguing about perfection and the powers of the mind in select circles of friends who meet for debate, but never (virtue forbids) for action, became for him a zealous missionary call.

One smiles, with his irreverent yet admiring biographers, at the early escapades of the married boy the visit to Dublin at the height of the agitation for Catholic emancipation, the printing of his Address to the Irish Nation, and his trick of scattering it by flinging copies from his balcony at passers-by, his quaint attempts to persuade grave Catholic noblemen that what they ought really to desire was a total and rapid transformation of the whole fabric of society, his efforts to found an association for the moral regeneration of mankind, and his elfish amusement of launching the truth upon the waters in the form of pamphlets sealed up in bottles. Shelley at this age perpetrated “rags” upon the universe, much as commonplace youths make hay of their fellows’ rooms. It is amusing to read the solemn letters in which Godwin, complacently accepting the post of mentor, tells Shelley that he is much too young to reform the world, urges him to acquire a vicarious maturity by reading history, and refers him to Political Justice passim for the arguments which demonstrate the error of any attempt to improve mankind by forming political associations.

It is questionable how far the world has to thank Godwin for dissuading ardent young men from any practical effort to realise their ideals. It is just conceivable that, if the generation which hailed him as prophet had been stimulated by him to do something more than fold its hands in an almost superstitious veneration for the Slow Approach of Truth, there might have arisen under educated leaders some movement less class-bound than Whig Reform, less limited than the Corn Law agitation, and more intelligent than Chartism. But, if politics lost by Godwin’s quietism, literature gained. It was Godwin’s mission in life to save poets from Botany Bay; he rescued Shelley, as he had rescued Southey and Coleridge. It was by scattering his pity and his sympathy on every living creature around him, and squandering his fortune and his expectations in charity, while he dodged the duns and lived on bread and tea, that Shelley followed in action the principles of universal benevolence. Godwin omitted the beasts; but Shelley, practising vegetarianism and buying crayfish in order to return them to the river, realised the “boast” of the poet in Alastor:

If no bright bird, insect, or gentle beast
I consciously have injured, but still loved
And cherished these my kindred

We hear of his gifts of blankets to the poor lace-makers at Marlow, and meet him stumbling home barefoot in mid-winter because he had given his boots to a poor woman.

Perhaps the most characteristic picture of this aspect of Shelley is Leigh Hunt’s anecdote of a scene on Hampstead Heath. Finding a poor woman in a fit on the top of the Heath, Shelley carries her in his arms to the lighted door of the nearest house, and begs for shelter. The householder slams it in his face, with an “impostors swarm everywhere,” and a “Sir, your conduct is extraordinary.”

“Sir,” cried Shelley, “I am sorry to say that your conduct is not extraordinary.... It is such men as you who madden the spirits and the patience of the poor and wretched; and if ever a convulsion comes in this country (which is very probable), recollect what I tell you. You will have your house, that you refuse to put this miserable woman into, burnt over your head.”

It must have been about this very time that the law of England (quite content to regard the owner of the closed door as a virtuous citizen) decided that the Shelley who carried this poor stranger into shelter, fetched a doctor, and out of his own poverty relieved her direr need, was unfit to bring up his own children.

If Shelley allowed himself to be persuaded by Godwin to abandon his missionary adventures, he pursued the ideal in his poems. Whether by Platonic influence, or by the instinct of his own temperament, he moves half-consciously from the Godwinian notion that mankind are to be reasoned into perfection. The contemplation of beauty is with him the first stage in the progress towards reasoned virtue. “My purpose,” he writes in the preface to Prometheus, “has been ... to familiarise ... poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence; aware that, until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life, which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.” It was for want of virtue, as Mary Wollstonecraft reflected, writing sadly after the Terror, that the French Revolution had failed. The lesson of all the horrors of oppression and reaction which Shelley described, the comfort of all the listening spirits who watch from their mental eyries the slow progress of mankind to perfection, the example of martyred patriots these tend always to the moral which Demogorgon sums up at the end of the unflagging, unearthly beauties of the last triumphant act of Prometheus Unbound:

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; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This like thy glory, Titan! is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

To suffer, to forgive, to love, but above all, to defy that was for Shelley the whole duty of man.

In two peculiarities, which he constantly emphasised, Shelley’s view of progress differed at once from Godwin’s conception, and from the notion of a slow evolutionary growth which the men of to-day consider historical he traced the impulse which is to lead mankind to perfection, to the magnetic leading of chosen and consecrated spirits. He saw the process of change not as a slow evolution (as moderns do), nor yet as the deliberate discarding of error at the bidding of rational argument (as Godwin did), but rather as a sudden emotional conversion. The missionary is always the light-bringer. “Some eminent in virtue shall start up,” he prophesies in Queen Mab. The Revolt of Islam, so puzzling to the uninitiated reader by the wilful inversions of its mythology, and its history which seems to belong to no conceivable race of men, becomes, when one grasps its underlying ideas, a luminous epic of revolutionary faith, precious if only because it is told in that elaborately musical Spenserian stanza which no poet before or after Shelley has handled with such easy mastery. Their mission to free their countrymen comes to Laon and Cythna while they are still children, brooding over the slavery of modern Greece amid the ruins of a free past. They dream neither of teaching nor of fighting. They are the winged children of Justice and Truth, whose mere words can scatter the thrones of the oppressor, and trample the last altar in the dust. It is enough to speak the name of Liberty in a ship at sea, and all the coasts around it will thrill with the rumour of her name. In one moving, eloquent harangue, Cythna converts the sailors of the ship, laden with slaves and the gains of commerce, into the pioneers of her army. She paints to them the misery of their own lot, and then appeals to the central article of revolutionary faith:

This need not be; ye might arise and will
That gold should lose its power and thrones their glory.
That love which none may bind be free to fill
The world like light; and evil faith, grown hoary
With crime, be quenched and die.

“Ye might arise and will” it was the inevitable corollary of the facile analysis which traced all the woes of mankind not to “nature,” but to kings, priests, and institutions. Shelley’s missionaries of liberty preach to a nation of slaves, as the apostles of the Salvation Army preach in the slums to creatures reared in degradation, the same mesmeric appeal. Conversion is a psychological possibility, and the history of revolutions teaches its limitations and its power as instructively as the history of religion. It breaks down not because men are incapable of the sudden effort that can “arise and will,” but rather because to render its effects permanent, it must proceed to regiment the converts in organised associations, which speedily develop all the evils that have ruined the despotism it set out to overthrow.

The interest of this revolutionary epic lies largely in the marriage of Godwin’s ideas with Mary Wollstonecraft’s, which in the second generation bears its full imaginative fruit. The most eloquent verses are those which describe Cythna’s leadership of the women in the national revolt, and enforce the theme “Can man be free, if woman be a slave?” Not less characteristic is the Godwinian abhorrence of violence, and the Godwinian trust in the magic of courageous passivity. Laon finds the revolutionary hosts about to slaughter their vanquished oppressors, and persuades them to mercy and fraternity with the appeal.

O wherefore should ill ever flow from ill
And pain still keener pain for ever breed.

He pardons and spares the tyrant himself; and Cythna shames the slaves who are sent to bind her, until they weep in a sudden perception of the beauty of virtue and courage. When the reaction breaks at length upon the victorious liberators, they stand passive to be hewn down, as Shelley, in the Masque of Anarchy, written after Peterloo, advised the English reformers to do.

With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay,
Till their rage has died away.

Then they will return with shame
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek.

The simple stanzas might have been written by Blake. There is something in the primitive Christianity of this aggressive Atheist which breathes the childlike innocence of the Kingdom of Heaven. Shelley dreamed of “a nation made free by love.” With a strange mystical insight, he stepped beyond the range of the Godwinian ethics, when he conceived of his humane missionaries as victims who offer themselves a living sacrifice for the redemption of mankind. Prometheus chained to his rock, because he loved and defied, by some inscrutable magic of destiny, brings at last by his calm endurance the consummation of the Golden Age. Laon walks voluntarily on to the pile which the Spanish inquisitor had heaped for him; and Cythna flings herself upon the flames in a last affirmation of the power of self-sacrifice and the beauty of comradeship.

Thrice Shelley essayed to paint the state of perfection which mankind might attain, when once it should “arise and will.” The first of the three pictures is the most literally Godwinian. It is the boyish sketch of Queen Mab, with pantisocracy faithfully touched in, and Godwin’s speculations on the improvement of the human frame suggested in a few pregnant lines. One does not feel that Shelley’s mind is even yet its own master in the firmer and maturer picture which concludes the third act of Prometheus Unbound. He is still repeating a lesson, and it calls forth less than the full powers of his imagination. The picture of perfection itself is cold, negative, and mediocre. The real genius of the poet breaks forth only when he allows himself in the fourth act to sing the rapture of the happy spirits who “bear Time to his tomb in eternity,” while they circle in lyrical joy around the liberated earth. There sings Shelley. The picture itself is a faithful illustration etched with a skilful needle to adorn the last chapter of Political Justice. Evil is once more and always something factitious and unessential. The Spirit of the Earth sees the “ugly human shapes and visages” which men had worn in the old bad days float away through the air like chaff on the wind. They were no more than masks. Thrones are kingless, and forthwith men walk in upright equality, neither fawning nor trembling. Republican sincerity informs their speech:

None talked that common false cold hollow talk
Which makes the heart deny the yes it breathes.

Women are “changed to all they dared not be,” and “speak the wisdom once they could not think.” “Thrones, altars, judgment-seats and prisons,” and all the “tomes of reasoned wrong, glozed on by ignorance” cumber the ground like the unnoticed ruins of a barbaric past.

The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless and nationless
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself; just, gentle, wise: but man

The story ends there, and if we do not so much as wait for the assurance that man passionless, tribeless, and nationless lived happily ever afterwards, it is because we are unable to feel even this faint interest in his destiny. There is something amiss with an ideal which is constrained to express itself in negatives. What should be the climax of a triumphant argument becomes its refutation. To reduce ourselves to this abstract quintessential man might be euthanasia. It would not be paradise.

The third of Shelley’s visions of perfection is the climax of Hellas. One feels in attempting to make about Hellas any statement in bald prose, the same sense of baffled incompetence that a modest mind experiences in attempting to describe music. One reads what the critics have written about Beethoven’s Heroic Symphony, to close the page wondering that men with ears should have dared to write it. The insistent rhythm beats in your blood, the absorbing melodies obsess your brain, and you turn away realising that emotion, when it can find a channel of sense, has a power which defies the analytic understanding. Hellas, in a sense, is absolute poetry, as the “Eroica” is absolute music. Ponder a few lines in one of the choruses which seem to convey a definite idea, and against your will the elaborate rhythms and rhymes will carry you along, until thought ceases and only the music and the picture hold your imagination.

And yet Shelley meant something as certainly as Beethoven did. Nowhere is his genius so realistic, so closely in touch with contemporary fact, yet nowhere does he soar so easily into his own ideal world. He conceived it while Mavrocordato, about to start to fight for the liberation of Greece, was paying daily visits to Shelley’s circle at Pisa. The events in Turkey, now awful, now hopeful, were before him as crude facts in the newspaper. The historians of classical Greece were his continual study. As he steeped himself in Plato, a world of ideal forms opened before him in a timeless heaven as real as history, as actual as the newspapers. Hellas is the vision of a mind which touches fact through sense, but makes of sense the gate and avenue into an immortal world of thought. Past and present and future are fused in one glowing symphony. The Sultan is no more real than Xerxes, and the golden consummation glitters with a splendour as dazzling and as present as the Age of Pericles. For Shelley, this denial of time had become a conscious doctrine. Berkeley and Plato had become for him in his later years influences as intimate as Godwin. Again and again in his later poems, he turns from the cruelties and disappointments of the world, from death and decay and failure, no longer with revolt and anger, but with a serene contempt. Thought is the only reality; time with its appearance of mortality is the dream and the illusion. Says Ahasuerus in Hellas:

The future and the past are idle shadows
Of thought’s eternal flight.

The moral rings out at the end of “The Sensitive Plant” with an almost conversational simplicity;

Death itself must be,
Like all the rest, a mockery.

Most eloquent of all are the familiar lines in Adonais:

’Tis we who lost in stormy visions keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,

and again:

The One remains, the many change and pass.
Heaven’s light for ever shines, earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity.

In all the musical and visionary glory of Hellas we seem to hear a subtle dialogue. It never reaches a conclusion. It never issues in a dogma. The oracle is dumb, and the end of it all is rather like a prayer. At one moment Shelley toys with the dreary sublimity of the Stoic notion of world-cycles. The world in the Stoic cosmogony followed its destined course, until at last the elemental fire consumed it in the secular blaze, which became for mediaeval Christianity the Dies irae. And then once more it rose from the conflagration to repeat its own history again, and yet again, and for ever with an ineluctable fidelity. That nightmare haunts Shelley in Hellas:

Worlds on worlds are rolling ever
From creation to decay,
Like the bubbles on a river,
Sparkling, bursting, borne away.

The thought returns to him in the final chorus like the “motto” of a symphony; and he sings it in a triumphant major key:

The world’s great age begins anew,
The golden years return,
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn.
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.

He is filled with the afflatus of prophecy, and there flow from his lips, as if in improvisation, surely the most limpid, the most spontaneous stanzas in our language:

A brighter Hellas rears its mountains
From waves serener far.

He sings happily and, as it were, incautiously of Tempe and Argo, of Orpheus and Ulysses, and then the jarring note of fear is heard:

O write no more the tale of Troy
If earth Death’s scroll must be,
Nor mix with Laian rage the joy
Which dawns upon the free.

He has turned from the empty abstraction of the Godwinian vision of perfection. He dissolves empires and faiths, it is true. But his imagination calls for action and movement. The New Philosophy had driven history out of the picture. This lyrical vision restores it, whole, complete, and literal. The wealth of the concrete takes its revenge upon the victim of abstraction. The men of his golden age are no longer tribeless and nationless. They are Greeks. He has peopled his future; but, as the picture hardens into detail, he seems to shrink from it. That other earlier theme of his symphony recurs. His chorus had sung:

Revenge and wrong bring forth their kind.
The foul cubs like their parents are,
Their den is in their guilty mind,
And conscience feeds them with despair.

Some end there must be to the perpetuum mobile of wrong and revenge. And yet it seems to be in human affairs the very principle of motion. He ends with a cry and a prayer, and a clouded vision. The infinity of evil must be stayed, but what if its cessation means extinction?

O cease! must hate and death return?
Cease! must men kill and die?
Cease! Drain not to its dregs the urn
Of bitter prophecy.
The world is weary of the past
O might it die, or rest at last.

Never were there simpler verses in a great song. But he were a bold man who would pretend to know quite certainly what they mean. Shelley is not sure whether his vision of perfection will be embodied in the earth. For a moment he seems to hope that Greece will renew her glories. For one fleeting instant how ironical the vision seems to us he conceives that she may be re-incarnated in America. But there is a deeper doubt than this in the prophet’s mind. He is not sure that he wants to see the Golden Age founded anew in the perilous world of fact. There is a pattern of the perfect society laid up in Heaven, or if that phrase by familiarity has lost its meaning, let us say rather that the Republic exists firmly founded in the human mind itself:

But Greece and her foundations are
Built below the tide of war,
Based on the crystalline sea
Of thought and its eternity.

Again, and yet again, he tells us that the heavenly city, the New Athens, “the kingless continents, sinless as Eden” shine in no common day, beside no earthly sea:

If Greece must be
A wreck, yet shall its fragments reassemble,
And build themselves impregnably
In a diviner clime,
To Amphionic music on some cape sublime
Which frowns above the idle foam of Time.

Is it only an eloquent phrase, which satisfies us, by its beautiful words, we know not why, as the chords that make the “full close” in music content us? Or shall we re-interpret it in our own prose? Where any mind strives after justice, where any soul suffers and loves and defies, there is the ideal Republic.

We have moved from Dr. Price’s sermon to Shelley’s chorus. The eloquent old man, preaching in the first flush of hope that came with the new time, conceived that his eyes had seen the great salvation. The day of tyrants and priests was already over, and before the earth closed on his grave, a free Europe would be linked in a confederacy that had abolished war. A generation passed, and the winged victory is now a struggling hope, her pinions singed with the heat of battle, her song mingled with the rumour of massacre, speeding, a fugitive from fact, to the diviner climes of an ideal world. The logic of the revolution has worked to its predestined conclusion. It dreamed too eagerly of the end. It thought in indictments. It packed the present on its tumbrils, and cleared away the past with its dialectical guillotine. When the present was condemned and the past buried, the future had somehow eluded it. It executed the mother, and marvelled that the child should die.

The human mind can never be satisfied with the mere assurance that sooner or later the golden years will come. The mere lapse of time is in itself intolerable. If our waking life and our years of action are to regain a meaning, we must perceive that the process of evolution is itself significant and interesting. We are to-day so penetrated with that thought, that the notion of a state of perfection in the future seems to us as inconceivable and as little interesting as Rousseau’s myth of a state of innocence in the past. We know very well that our ideal, whether we see it in the colours of Plato or Godwin or William Morris, does but measure the present development of our faculties. Long before the dream is realised in fact, a new horizon will have been unfolded before the imagination of mankind.

What is of value in this endless process is precisely the unfolding of ideals which record themselves, however imperfectly, in institutions, and still more the developing sense of comradeship and sympathy which links us in relations of justice and love with every creature that feels. We are old enough to pass lightly over the enthusiastic paradoxes that intoxicated the youth of the progressive idea. It is a truth that outworn institutions fetter and dwarf the mind of man. It is also a truth that institutions have moulded and formed that mind. To condemn the past is in the same breath to blast the future. The true basis for that piety towards our venerable inheritance which Burke preached, is that it has made for us the possibility of advance.

But our strivings would be languid, our march would be slow, were it not for the revolutionary leaven which Godwin’s generation set fermenting. They taught how malleable and plastic is the human mind. They saw that by a resolute effort to change the environment of institutions and customs which educate us, we can change ourselves. They liberated us not so much from “priests and kings” as from the deadlier tyranny of the belief that human nature, with all its imperfections, is an innate character which it were vain to hope to reform. Their teaching is a tonic to the will, a reminder still eloquent, still bracing, that among the forces which make history the chief is the persuasion of the understanding, the conscious following of a rational ideal. From much that is iconoclastic and destructive in their ideal we may turn away unconvinced. There remain its ardent statement of the duty of humanity, which shames our practice after a century of progress, and its faith in the efficacy of unregimented opinion to supersede brute force. They taught a lesson which posterity has but half learned. We shall be the richer for returning to them, as much by what we reject as by what we embrace.