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Thoughts On Shelley And Byron
by [?]

We cannot deny, however, that, in spite of all faults, these men had a strength. They have exercised an influence. And they have done so by virtue of seeing a fact which more complete, and in some cases more manly poets, did not see. Strangely enough, Shelley, the man who was the greatest sinner of them all against the canons of good taste, was the man who saw that new fact, if not most clearly, still most intensely, and who proclaimed it most boldly. His influence, therefore, is outliving that of his compeers, and growing and spreading, for good and for evil; and will grow and spread for years to come, as long as the present great unrest goes on smouldering in men’s hearts, till the hollow settlement of 1815 is burst asunder anew, and men feel that they are no longer in the beginning of the end, but in the end itself, and that this long thirty years’ prologue to the reconstruction of rotten Europe is played out at last, and the drama itself begun.

Such is the way of Providence; the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor the prophecy to the wise. The Spirit bloweth where He listeth, and sends on his errands–those who deny Him, rebel against Him–profligates, madmen, and hysterical Rousseaus, hysterical Shelleys, uttering words like the east wind. He uses strange tools in His cosmogony: but He does not use them in vain. By bad men if not by good, by fools if not by wise, God’s work is done, and done right well.

There was, then, a strength and a truth in all these men; and it was this–that more or less clearly, they all felt that they were standing between two worlds; and the ruins of an older age; upon the threshold of a new one. To Byron’s mind, the decay and rottenness of the old was, perhaps, the most palpable; to Shelley’s, the possible glory of the new. Wordsworth declared–a little too noisily, we think, as if he had been the first to discover the truth–the dignity and divineness of the most simple human facts and relationships. Coleridge declares that the new can only assume living form by growing organically out of the old institutions. Keats gives a sad and yet a wholesome answer to them both, as, young and passionate, he goes down with Faust “to the Mothers”–

To the rich warm youth of the nations,
Childlike in virtue and faith, though childlike in passion and pleasure,
Childlike still, still near to the gods, while the sunset of Eden
Lingered in rose-red rays on the peaks of Ionian mountains.

And there, amid the old classic forms, he cries: “These things, too, are eternal–

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.

These, or things even fairer than they, must have their place in the new world, if it is to be really a home for the human race.” So he sings, as best he can, the half-educated and consumptive stable- keeper’s son, from his prison-house of London brick, and in one mighty yearn after that beauty from which he is debarred, breaks his young heart, and dies, leaving a name not “writ in water,” as he dreamed, but on all fair things, all lovers’ hearts, for evermore.

Here, then, to return, is the reason why the hearts of the present generation have been influenced so mightily by these men, rather than by those of whom Byron wrote, with perfect sincerity:

Scott, Rogers, Campbell, Moore, and Crabbe will try
‘Gainst you the question with posterity.

These lines, written in 1818, were meant to apply only to Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey. Whether they be altogether just or unjust is not now the question. It must seem somewhat strange to our young poets that Shelley’s name is not among those who are to try the question of immortality against the Lake School; and yet many of his most beautiful poems had been already written. Were, then, “The Revolt of Islam” and “Alastor” not destined, it seems, in Byron’s opinion, to live as long as the “Lady of the Lake” and the “Mariners of England?” Perhaps not. At least the omission of Shelley’s name is noteworthy. But still more noteworthy are these words of his to Mr. Murray, dated January 23, 1819: