« AnteriorContinuar »
is permanently true lies the antidote to ephemeral falsehood, to party intemperance, to the sting of invective, to the stratagems of controversy. The question of education does not rest with those who have at various times pressed forward to the front ranks, and used it, as they have used everything, for selfish declamation, which cannot veil from the public eye the scandalous abuse of high talents, or the frequent outrages of truth, decency and morality. Neither is it in the hands of those who would train the human mind on dry formularies, and supply by routine what no mere routine can impart. Neither will the English people accept a system of education which does not cohere with the institutions to whose defence they are in the main devoted. Lord Brougham, the National Society and the theorists of this or that method may stir the question, but they cannot advance it. Its successful promotion can only rest on the gradual growth of that mutual reliance, and that joint determination to act, between the ranks and powers of society in England, which a better understanding of their several principles and necessities may secure.
The Poetical Works of P. B. Shelley. London : Moxon,
In a large and handsome octavo volume recently published by Mr. Moxon, containing the entire poetical works of Shelley, the editor has ingenuously repaired the mistake of her preceding edition in four smaller volumes, and printed Queen Mab as it originally appeared for private distribution. To the poem itself indeed we attach no importance, neither do we believe it will find many readers. It belongs essentially to the past, and to a past with which the world will not readily again sympathise, even should the opinions and sentiments embodied in this extraordinary production be hereafter reuseless to the public, as unjust to the departed, and as rendering the intellectual history of the author more than ever imperfect. To the psychologist every record is valuable of a mind whose disturbing forces were the speed, the intensity, and the depth of its own sensations and conceptions: and such a record becomes more valuable the nearer it approaches to the untamed and exuberant sensibilities of youth, before experience has chilled them with distrust, or opposition, harshly, selfishly and ignorantly directed, has converted them into a torment to their possessor, and into weapons
of sarcasm or sophistry against the world. The seeds of the characteristic and kindred faults of Shelley's mind, as well as the rudiments of much that was excellent and singular in him, are to be found in Queen Mab;-his carelessness of consequences and its accompanying presumption; his metaphysical acuteness, and his political ignorance and rashness; his fine perception of the harmony of verse; his intuition of the truth and dignity of the poet's vocation; his inexperience in life, and in the laws of action and character. We need only refer to the “Editor's Note' for whatever relates to the history of this poem, the immaturity of the feelings and knowledge with which it was written, the season of life at which it was produced.
Another subject of regret, however, has not been removed; and of the little that can ever be related of a life spent for the most part in solitary study and speculation, something is still kept back from the public. This is the more to be lamented, since in her editorial notes Mrs. Shelley has shown herself as competent to commemorate, as she had been faithful in cherishing, the virtues and genius of the departed. We cannot understand wherein lies the difficulty of telling a plain tale about one whom all who knew him intimately agree in representing as unequalled for the truth, gentleness and candour of his disposition, the variety of his attainments, and the energy and fertility of his intellect. If the obstacles proceed from a mistaken delicacy or reserve in his family, we would exhort them to remember Gibbon's injunction to the Spensers, “to consider the Faery Queen as the most precious jewel in their coronet ;” and in any case to weigh the possible inconvenience of the truth against the real disadvan
tages of popular rumour and imperfect knowledge of the circumstances suppressed. We are willing to take Mrs. Shelley's assurance, that “no account of these events has ever been “ given, at all approaching reality in their details," and that “ the errors of action, committed by man as noble and ge“ nerous as Shelley, may, as far as he only is concerned, be
fearlessly avowed; in the firm conviction, that were they judged impartially, his character would stand in as fair and “ bright a light as that of any contemporary.” Meanwhile, an uneasy interest is created by these allusions and omissions, infinitely more prejudicial to all parties concerned than a direct and unconditional avowal of the truth.
For these defects, however, Mrs. Shelley is not responsible. She has amended what it was in her power to correct, and in all other respects has faithfully and ably discharged the duties of an editor. Our estimation of Shelley as a poet is hardly less high than her own, but, as will be seen, it is different, both in its objects and its causes. We have thought it in many cases superfluous to point out his excellencies; but much more important to supply what Mrs. Shelley has very naturally omitted, the reasons why Shelley, more richly and variously endowed than perhaps any of his contemporaries with the elements of a great poet, has produced no great work, nothing which retains the impress of completeness, or which even, like the Wallenstein and Wilhelm Tell, is overcast with the shadow of some higher manifestation of art near at hand. But had the deficiencies of Mrs. Shelley as an editor been as many as her merits really are in the edition before us, the following passage from the last of the Editor's Notes would have at once disarmed censure and secured indulgence: -“With this last year of the life of Shelley these notes end. “ They are not what I intended them to be. I began with
energy and a burning desire to impart to the world, in “ worthy language, the sense I have of the virtues and ge“nius of the Beloved and the Lost; my strength has failed “ under the task. Recurrence to the past full of its own
deep and unforgotten joys and sorrows, contrasted with “ succeeding years of painful and solitary struggle, has shaken “ my health. Days of great suffering have followed my at
“ and languor that spread their sinister influence over these
I dislike speaking of myself, but cannot help apo“ logising to the dead and to the public, for not having ex“ecuted in the manner I desired the history I engaged to “ give of Shelley's writings."
Perhaps no inconsiderable portion of recent poetry will be imperfectly understood, should it survive so long, a century hence. We do not readily enter into the conceits of Cowley, or the aphorisms of lord Brooke; and something, it is probable, has passed away of the simple faith with which Spenser was studied at a time when his volumes lay in baywindows for the contemplative idler or inmate to turn over. And if this befall authors in whom the understanding or the fancy is the faculty most exercised, much more does it happen to those who have made their own subjectivity the object of passion or reflection. Should any one hereafter write a commentary on Childe Harold or Alastor, his principal difficulty would be to explain how it had come to pass that satiety of life had superseded more generous and active sentiments in the poets of the 19th century. The poetry of young men, it has been remarked, often exhibits a disposition to melancholy; but it is the ideal contrast to the actual hopefulness and animation of early years. But in much of the best poetry of this and the preceding generation the grander chords of human feeling are silent, and an idealized self takes place of the passion, the thoughtfulness and sententious wisdom of our earlier writers. This, more than any differences of theory or execution, constitutes the essential distinction between the school of Byron and Shelley—for widely as they differ in details, they resemble one another in the original elements of their poetry—and that of which Wordsworth is the representative. Both, in some measure, acted upon a mistaken theory of art; yet the error of the reflective school is less dangerous to the permanence of its reputation, than the assumption that the outward world, the past and the future, are but ministrant to the contemplation of the poet's own being, idealized in passion or in action. For it follows necessarily, that to enter into the secret meaning of such writers, the reader must partake of a similar idiosynbols of the outward world will remain vague and meaningless, and his contemplation of the inner world be dependent upon his degree of personal sympathy with the feelings and impulses of another. This being rather an accident than a law of intellectual developement, must in a great measure pass away with the circumstances that nurtured and gave rise to it, and therefore, so far as it is peculiar to the individual mind, becomes daily less and less expressive either of the universal feeling, or of the current opinions of a later age. And this, more than any inferiority as artists, has weakened the once predominant influence of Byron upon his own time, and of Shelley upon individual minds, and for a while even deprived them of a reputation they had justly won and enjoyed. Their names were united in life, and in death have not been divided, -although the resemblance between them lies not in the forms they embodied, in their imaginative resources, or in the command of the materials of their art. In all these qualities they were dissimilar, and Shelley immeasurably superior; but both agreed in subordinating the universal man to the personal sensations and experiences of the poet. A desire for something more comprehensive in principle and nobler in aim than the literature of the 18th century had proposed to itself, animated the ethical and imaginative writers of the present one. It was, unconsciously to themselves, a period of transition in the intellectual world, as in the political it was a period of convulsion. Men were dissatisfied with the present: no theory, in an age most prolific in speculation, was found that would reconcile the inconsistencies perceived to exist between the spiritual wants of the time and its institutions, and it was required of philosophy to establish something positive, some living principle of belief and action, in place of the forms and opinions the negative philosophy of the preceding century had undermined. Hence literature and philosophy betray a want of precision in form, and of proportion between what they aimed at and what they accomplished, of which we are becoming daily more aware, without perhaps having arrived at any steadier exponents of truth. Much that has scarcely ceased to be new, is already become obsolete and inexpressive of our present selves.