IS SHELLEY THE GREATEST POET?

If poetry is musical, yes.  If poetry is beautiful, yes.  If poetry is the expression of lone individuality, yes.  If poetry is lyricism, yes.  If poetry is heroically moral, yes.  If poetry is extremely sensitive, yes.  If poetry is an example of deep feeling, yes.  If poetry is singular, yes.  If poetry is love of sublime nature, yes.  If poetry is expert craftsmanship, yes.  If poetry is stanzaic architecture, yes.  If poetry is sweet and playful, yes.  If poetry is exquisite good taste, yes.  If poetry is a delight to the senses, yes.  If poetry is pure and without prose-dross, yes.  If poetry is haunted by a spirit beyond life, yes.

Who doesn’t love “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty?”

The awful shadow of some unseen Power
         Floats though unseen among us; visiting
         This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower;
Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,
                It visits with inconstant glance
                Each human heart and countenance;
Like hues and harmonies of evening,
                Like clouds in starlight widely spread,
                Like memory of music fled,
                Like aught that for its grace may be
Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery.
Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate
         With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
         Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
                Ask why the sunlight not for ever
                Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain-river,
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
                Why fear and dream and death and birth
                Cast on the daylight of this earth
                Such gloom, why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?
No voice from some sublimer world hath ever
         To sage or poet these responses given:
         Therefore the names of Demon, Ghost, and Heaven,
Remain the records of their vain endeavour:
Frail spells whose utter’d charm might not avail to sever,
                From all we hear and all we see,
                Doubt, chance and mutability.
Thy light alone like mist o’er mountains driven,
                Or music by the night-wind sent
                Through strings of some still instrument,
                Or moonlight on a midnight stream,
Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream.
Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart
         And come, for some uncertain moments lent.
         Man were immortal and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.
                Thou messenger of sympathies,
                That wax and wane in lovers’ eyes;
Thou, that to human thought art nourishment,
                Like darkness to a dying flame!
                Depart not as thy shadow came,
                Depart not—lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.
While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
         Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
         And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I call’d on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
                I was not heard; I saw them not;
                When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
                All vital things that wake to bring
                News of birds and blossoming,
                Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
   I shriek’d, and clasp’d my hands in ecstasy!
I vow’d that I would dedicate my powers
         To thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?
         With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave: they have in vision’d bowers
                Of studious zeal or love’s delight
                Outwatch’d with me the envious night:
They know that never joy illum’d my brow
                Unlink’d with hope that thou wouldst free
                This world from its dark slavery,
                That thou, O awful LOVELINESS,
Wouldst give whate’er these words cannot express.
The day becomes more solemn and serene
         When noon is past; there is a harmony
         In autumn, and a lustre in its sky,
Which through the summer is not heard or seen,
As if it could not be, as if it had not been!
                Thus let thy power, which like the truth
                Of nature on my passive youth
Descended, to my onward life supply
                Its calm, to one who worships thee,
                And every form containing thee,
                Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind
To fear himself, and love all human kind.
Shelley is poetry itself.
But what of his philosophy?  His atheism got him kicked out of college and lost him his hefty inheritance.  His upper class English education was combined with outdoors roaming, and he was a Marxist before Marx.  He was adventurous, but not dissipated.
Shelley believed in love over convention, and opposed the population control of Malthus because it would deprive the poor of one of their few pleasures: sex.  His love of justice was deep and sincere.  Shelley was too moral to be a “free love” advocate,  but like Milton he advocated for easier divorce laws.  He also believed in fate—that events in the past absolutely determine events in the future—believing free will a mere superstition.  He thought life could be improved, but only indirecty, not didactically.
But let us turn our attention to Shelley’s thought.
Shelley’s thinking (in both his philosophy and his poetry) was very either/or.
Shelley was an atheist not because he was an atheist, but because he was not a believer.
Duality is at the heart of Shelley’s genius.
 Here is his typical reasoning style as he refutes religion:
Christianity, like all other religions, rests upon miracles, prophecies, and martyrdom.
Miracles resolve themselves into the following question—Whether it is more probable the laws of nature, hitherto so immutably harmonious, should have undergone violation, or that a man should have told a lie?
We have many instances of men telling lies…
Or this:
There is a passage in the Christian Scriptures: ‘Those who obey not God, and believe not the Gospel of his Son, shall be punished with everlasting destruction.’  This is the pivot upon which all religions turn: they all assume that it is in our power to believe or not to believe; whereas the mind can only believe that which it thinks true. A human being can only be supposed accountable for those actions which are influenced by his will.  But belief is utterly distinct from and unconnected with volition: it is the apprehension of the agreement or disagreement of the ideas that compose any proposition.  Belief is a passion, or involuntary operation of the mind… Volition is essential to merit or demerit.
 Shelley is a radical reasoner; he is seen as a radical person in the eyes of the world, a fanatic  who hates religion and who cares only for poetic feeling bursting in his own breast, but it is clearly his method of reasoning  which makes Shelley the extraordinary poet he is.
Whether it is correct to reason thusly: it must be either this way or that way, is not the issue; Shelley does reason this way, and reasoning in this manner does owe to the Greeks and that Socratic method which emerged with such clarity in the 5th century and informs most human activity: are you loyal to the church, or not?  are you loyal to the king, or not?  are you loyal to the guild, or not?  are you loyal to the revolution, or not?  And if so, it follows that…
Was Shelley attempting to break superstition’s grip by saying to his readers: you are either a slave (because you believe this) or you are free…?  Shelley felt that “Christian oppressors” were guilty of putting the issue to their follower/slaves in as stark an either/or fashion as possible: either you believe in the Gospel or not!  Was Shelley just fighting fire with fire?  Surely we can see Shelley’s social  mission blending nicely with his efficient, dualistic, battering-ram philosophy.  Maybe the question, which came first: his philosophy or his social radicalism? is beside the point.
Today we are more nuanced; poets err on the side of rejecting duality, certainty, and absolutes.
But arguing in terms of duality and certainty, as  Shelley, does, does not preclude nuance of philosophical purpose.   Juxtaposition gains force and creedence by that very duality which otherwise might be rejected for not being subtle enough.  Comparing two ideas often has more force than a number of ideas bouncing off each other.
Shelley rejected a human God as wildly misplaced anthropomorphism; he felt it was an error to assume the mover of the universe has human qualities and likened the fear of a tyrant to worshiping this kind of God.   Saying there is no evidence to our senses of a human God, he rejects the idea at once; in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” Shelley invokes a Spirit—grounded in sensation.
Freed of childish superstition, Shelley puts his passion into thinking itself.  A chain of reasoning proceeds by absolutes (is this true, or not?)—and the temporality of the poetic art proceeds more forcefully for it.   Shelley’s philosophy feeds Shelley’s poetry.  To think of Shelley as a poet with feelings only is to radically misread him—he is, in fact, the opposite.
Not only is Shelley badly misread, but the door was essentially shut on him and his method by the New Critics around the middle of the 20th century.  The New Critics reasoned themselves into a hatred of Shelley’s love poems—which has turned out to be a blow to reason. Shelley—the greatest English-speaking poet—no longer exists as a model.
Perhaps it is unfortunate that in a poem like “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” Shelley uses terms such as “thou,” “aught,” and “dost.”  Hence, John Crowe Ransom could write in the 1930s, that Byron’s “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean, roll!”  was an “anachronism” forever closed to the “modern Poet.”
Ransom was not objecting to “thou,” either, but to Byron’s “old compound poetry” which existed before modern purity brought a “specialist” perfection to all avenues of art and learning. Ransom holds aloft Wallace Stevens’ “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” as an example of the new, abstract art which is no longer concerned with the compound mixture of morals and aesthetics.  According to Ransom, morals are to be kept separate and perfected somewhere else, while the purely aesthetic may be brought to perfection by poets—more calm and rational than Shelley—in experimentally abstract poems.
The door is shut on the “anachronistic” and “emotional” and “compound” Shelley—essentially an accomplished “amateur” to the modern specialist.
Comedy and tragedy, the traditional modes of literary expression, both exist to recognize some ill—comedy doing so suddenly in laughter; tragedy, more gradually in contemplation and suspense.   Morality (recognition of ill) is at the heart of this process; but not so with a poem such as “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.”
Yet Shelley is just as beautiful in a “surface” manner as Stevens.
Shelley can also be read for his morality—even by a Christian.
T.S. Eliot and the New Critics first put up that Modern wall that keeps out Shelley.
It’s time we took that wall down.
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21 Comments

  1. jhwriter said,

    February 4, 2012 at 8:57 pm

    “Shelley […] no longer exists as a model.” (I left out the silly part of the sentence.*) And yet, here we have Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg insisting—to their Naropa students in 1975—that Shelley is available, and is, in fact, a “standard” whose work they should all know. Funny how it was the “cooked” who wanted to wall out Shelley and the “raw” who considered him still essential.

    * My POV, of course. Not that Shelley isn’t a great poet, but “the greatest” is an advertising term (“world’s greatest hamburger,” etc.) that has no useful place in a discussion of the arts.

    • Julian said,

      February 5, 2012 at 5:09 pm

      Ginsberg?! Ginsberg the groovy guru believed in the priesthood of poets – groveling before “gods” and tyrants – & nambla apologies for the “priests” and “america”. The “raw” and the “cooked”? Duh. I can think of no one more opposite of Shelley than Ginsberg, easthetically and ethically. The “raw” and the “cooked” are both anti-“art” anti-“truth” and anti-“beauty”. Just shut up.

      • Julian said,

        February 5, 2012 at 5:16 pm

        I regret my anger at the end there (too much coffee) but not the force of my refusal of your nonsense.

        • thomasbrady said,

          February 5, 2012 at 6:15 pm

          Quite alright, Julian.

          You remind me of my first roommate in college: Duncan P. Forbes.

          • Julian said,

            February 5, 2012 at 6:22 pm

            Fuck you.

            • Julian said,

              February 5, 2012 at 6:34 pm

              You remind me of a cowardly sophist. Which is what you are.

            • thomasbrady said,

              February 5, 2012 at 8:12 pm

              I’m serious. Duncan loved the romantics and couldn’t stand ‘ginsboig.’ It wasn’t meant as an insult.

              • Julian said,

                February 5, 2012 at 8:15 pm

                Oh. My bad.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    February 4, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    jhwriter,

    Thanks for that link. Ginsberg says he’s fond of Shelley because of his dad—remember, Ginsberg’s parents were born in the 19th century, and when Ginsberg was growing up under his father’s influence, the New Critics hadn’t killed Shelley, yet. Certainly Ginsberg and his friends didn’t write like Shelley, though they surely were better writers for knowing Shelley, but I wonder if there are more recent example of Shelley worship; I find that no one really takes him seriously, anymore.

    Your point about ‘raw’ appreciating him more than ‘cooked’ is interesting, and it makes sense. Shelley is just too good a poet not to be loved by those who simply love poetry and have no agenda—unlike the Modernist/New Critics clique. Ginsberg and Shelley are like oil and water in many ways, though…

    I don’t know…I’ve never been troubled by “greatest…” As long as it’s in the dictionary, I’m using it.

    Tom

  3. David said,

    February 5, 2012 at 5:14 am

    Tom,

    Thank you for this post. I enjoyed it very much. Continue to count me among Shelley’s admirers. In a similar way I admire my own 19 year old son, whose atheism reminds me of Shelley … and breaks my heart.

    However, I cannot let this moment pass without commenting on Shelley’s philosophical radicalism, which I’m here to say is respectable convention compared to such either / or assertions as the following:

    “He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me.”

    “Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.”

    “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day.”

    “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”

    The man who said those words was either a madman or God. If he was a madman, we wouldn’t still be talking about him 2,000 years after he was executed as a common criminal. If he was a madman, people would have stopped talking about him the day he was buried.

    So much for Shelley’s radicalism.

    I don’t come to Shelley for his radicalism. I come to Shelley for his BEAUTIFUL SOUL, and because I love poetry that bears the qualities that you so eloquently described at the beginning of your post. There is much in Shelley for a Catholic to love, because a Catholic loves Beauty. As for what a Catholic must in all conscience find unlovely in Shelley (namely his hatred of Christianity), he must avoid judgment and practice love. A good part of love is listening. Let us lovers of poetry, then, whether Christian or not, take down that Modernist wall that keeps us from listening to Shelley.

    David

  4. Dawn Potter said,

    February 5, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    Presently I’m compiling an anthology of writings about poetry in which Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry” will take a prominent place. In my opinion, it is one of the most stunning essays on poetry ever written.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    February 5, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    Dawn,

    I would include Plato’s “Phaedrus,” Dante’s “Vita Nuova,” Shakespeare’s “Sonnets” (which I consider a major document of ‘writings about poetry’) and of course Poe’s three chapters of his unfinished book on poetry, “Philosophy of Composition,” “Poetic Principle,” & “Rationale of Verse” and you could well include a number of his reviews. Also, Eliot’s “Sacred Wood” and Ransom’s “Poets Without Laurels,” a neglected essay which captures perhaps best of all the modern position.

    Models or examples are crucial, of which Plato, Shelley, Poe, and Shakespeare (if we use his own sonnets as the example) and Ransom abound, but it has become common in the modern era to say with Henry James (“Art of Fiction”) that it is a “mistake to say definitively beforehand what the good novel will be” and that all we can ask for it is that it be “interesting” and then no model or example is forthcoming. You can speak of complete “freedom” as James does, but then do not pretend to be a critic. Edmund Wilson berates the Marxist critic this way: “The primary function of [the Marxist work] must be to lead the proletarian reader to recognize his role in the class struggle, etc This formula [the Marxist critic] says, gives us…a standard by which to recognize the perfect Marxian novel—and [the Marxist critic] adds no novel as yet written perfectly conforms to our standards.” Wilson, in arguing, like James, that we cannot legislate a good work into existence, laughs at the Marxist who knows what he wants in a work of art, but then looks around in vain for an actual example. James is the opposite of the Marxist—because he wants no rules or examples; he asks only that the work be “interesting,” but here James errs in open-mindedness just as the Marxists do; for ‘class struggle’ is just as vague as ‘interesting,’ really. Vagueness is a tool for deceivers of all types. “The Leftist critic with no literary competence is always trying to measure works of literature by tests which have no validity in the field.” So writes Wilson in his essay “Marxism and Literature,” which ends by speculating that Trotsky might be right and in the future communism will make society its “work of art.” Wilson won’t be pinned down, and these are precisely the critics we should not trust, though, granted Wilson is far more interesting than James. “Class struggle” at least has some definition; “interesting” has none.

    Tom

  6. Steven said,

    February 5, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    More Beats on Shelley (this time Ginsberg not Corso) here – http://ginsbergblog.blogspot.com/2011/11/shelley-allens-1975-naropa-class-3.html

  7. David said,

    February 5, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    Ginsberg definitely liked Shelley:

    There’s nobody in English poesy who was so overt, so far-out, so flipped out, so open, so unspeakably enthusiastic, so completely given to his inspiration. So Shelley is the angel poet in that sense, because his head is the most transparent and purely luminous of all the poets.

    By the way, it is a testament to Shelley’s integrity that, while a militant atheist, he was also a fervent champion of Catholic Emancipation in England, so committed was he to the cause of Freedom.

    • Julian said,

      February 5, 2012 at 8:06 pm

      Well, thank goodness this is a little known fact, lest we have misread Shelley as we did Blake.

  8. David said,

    February 18, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    Apropos recent discussions of “difficulty” and “sentiment”, I was intrigued to read the following account of 19th century critical reception of Shelley’s “Alastor”:

    The poem was attacked by contemporary critics for its “obscurity”. In a review in The Monthly Review for April, 1816, the critic wrote: “We must candidly own that these poems are beyond our comprehension; and we did not obtain a clue to their sublime obscurity, till an address to Mr. Wordsworth explained in what school the author had formed his taste.” In the Eclectic Review for October, 1816, Josiah Condor wrote:

    “We fear that not even this commentary [Shelley’s Preface], will enable ordinary readers to decipher the import of the greater part of Mr. Shelley’s allegory. All is wild and specious, untangible and incoherent as a dream. We should be utterly at a loss to convey any distinct idea of the plan or purpose of the poem.”

    In The British Critic for May, 1816, the reviewer dismissed the work as “the madness of a poetic mind.”

    Mary Shelley, in her note on the work, wrote: “None of Shelley’s poems is more characteristic than this.” In the spring of 1815, Shelley had been erroneously diagnosed as suffering from consumption. Shelley suffered from spasms and there were abscesses in his lungs. He made a full recovery but the shock of imminent death is reflected in the work. Mary Shelley noted that the work “was the outpouring of his own emotions, embodied in the purest form he could conceive, painted in the ideal hues which his brilliant imagination inspired, and softened by the recent anticipation of death.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alastor,_or_The_Spirit_of_Solitude

    The words of Mary Shelley bear repeating and underscoring:

    “[Alastor] was the outpouring of his own emotions, embodied IN THE PUREST FORM HE COULD CONCEIVE …”

  9. March 8, 2012 at 11:05 pm

    Now God be Thanked for Mutability

    Now God be thanked for Mutability,
    Fall of the leaf and jack-o’lantern moon,
    Spots on the sun, unrest within the sea,
    And stretching shadows which contract at noon,
    For now it seems that my heart’s misery
    May change to something different very soon.

    Irene Orgel

  10. Richard Zachary said,

    June 17, 2014 at 2:57 am

    Percy Bysshe Shelley was — is — the greatest poet writing in the English language.


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