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Chapter III. The Poet of Rebellion, of Nature, and of Love
It may seem strange that so much space has been occupied in the last two chapters by
philosophical and political topics, and this although Shelley is the most purely lyrical of
English poets. The fact is that in nearly all English poets there is a strong moral and
philosophical strain, particularly in those of the period 1770-1830. They are deeply
interested in political, scientific, and religious speculations in aesthetic questions only
superficially, if at all Shelley, with the tap-roots of his emotions striking deep into politics
and philosophy, is only an extreme instance of a national trait, which was unusually
prominent in the early part of the nineteenth century owing to the state of our insular
politics at the time though it must be admitted that English artists of all periods have an
inherent tendency to moralise which has sometimes been a weakness, and sometimes has
given them surprising strength.
Like the other poets of the Romantic Movement Shelley expended his emotion on three
main objects--politics, nature, and love. In each of these subjects he struck a note peculiar
to himself, but his singularity is perhaps greatest in the sphere of politics. It may be
summed up in the observation that no English imaginative writer of the first rank has
been equally inspired by those doctrines that helped to produce the French Revolution.
That all men are born free and equal; that by a contract entered into in primitive times
they surrendered as much of their rights as was necessary to the well-being of the
community, that despotic governments and established religions, being violations of the
original contract, are encroachments on those rights and the causes of all evil; that
inequalities of rank and power can be abolished by reasoning, and that then, since men
are naturally good, the golden age will return--these are positions which the English
mind, with its dislike of the 'a priori', will not readily accept. The English Utilitarians,
who exerted a great influence on the course of affairs, and the classical school of
economists that derived from them, did indeed hold that men were naturally good, in a
sense. Their theory was that, if people were left to themselves, and if the restraints
imposed by authority on thought and commerce were removed, the operation of ordinary
human motives would produce the most beneficent results. But their theory was quite
empirical; worked out in various ways by Adam Smith, Bentham, and Mill, it admirably
suited the native independence of the English character, and was justified by the fact that,
at the end of the eighteenth century, governments were so bad that an immense increase
of wealth, intelligence, and happiness was bound to come merely from making a clean
sweep of obsolete institutions. Shelley's Radicalism was not of this drab hue. He was
incapable of soberly studying the connections between causes and effects an incapacity
which comes out in the distaste he felt for history--and his conception of the ideal at
which the reformer should aim was vague and fantastic. In both these respects his
shortcomings were due to ignorance of human nature proceeding from ignorance of
And first as to the nature of his ideals. While all good men must sympathise with the
sincerity of his passion to remould this sorry scheme of things "nearer to the heart's
desire," few will find the model, as it appears in his poems, very exhilarating. It is chiefly