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“ The Poet, it is true, is the son of his time; but pity for him if he is its pupil, or even its favourite! Let
A NEW EDITION.
PREFACE BY THE EDITOR.
This volume, has long been due to the public; it forms an important portion of all that was left by Shelley, whence those who did not know him may form a juster estimate of his virtues and his genius than has hitherto been done.
We find, in the verse of a poet, “ the record of the best and happiest moments of the best and happiest minds."* But this is not enough—we desire to know the man. We desire to learn how much of the sensibility and imagination that animates his poetry was founded on heartfelt passion, and purity, and elevation of character; whether the pathos and the fire emanated from transitory inspiration and a power of weaving words touchingly; or whether the poet acknowledged the might of his art in his inmost soul ; and whether his nerves thrilled to the touch of generous emotion. Led by such curiosity, how many volumes have been filled with the life of the Scottish plough-boy and the English peer; we welcome with delight every fact which proves that the patriotism and tenderness expressed in the songs of Burns, sprung from a noble and gentle heart; and we pore over each letter that we expect will testify that the melancholy and the unbridled passion that darkens Byron's verse, flowed from a soul devoured by a keen susceptibility to intensest love, and indignant broodings over the injuries done and suffered by man. Let the lovers of Shelley's poetry—of his aspirations for a brotherhood of love, his tender bewailings springing from a too sensitive spirit-his sympathy with woe, his adoration of beauty, as expressed in his poetry ; turn to these pages to gather proof of sincerity, and to become acquainted with the form that such gentle sympathies and lofty aspirations wore in private life.
The first piece in this volume, “A Defence of Poetry,” is the only entirely finished prose work Shelley left. In this we find the reverence with which he regarded his art. We discern his power of close reasoning, and the unity of his views of human nature. The language is imaginative but not flowery; the periods have an intonation full of majesty and grace; and the harmony of the style being united to melodious thought, a music results, that swells upon the ear, and fills the mind with delight. It is a work whence a young poet, and one suffering from wrong or neglect, may learn to regard his pursuit and himself with that respect, without which his genius will get clogged in the mire of the earth : it will elevate him into those pure regions, where there is neither pain from the stings of insects, nor pleasure in the fruition of a gross appetite for praise. He will learn to rest his dearest boast on the dignity of the art he cultivates,
* " A Defence of Poetry."
and become aware that his best claim on the applause of mankind, results from his being one more in the holy brotherhood, whose vocation it is to divest life of its material grossness and stooping tendencies, and to animate it with that power of turning all things to the beautiful and good, which is the spirit of poetry.
The fragments* that follow form an introduction to “ The Banquet” or “Symposium” of Plato—and that noble piece of writing follows; which for the first time introduces the Athenian to the English reader in a style worthy of him. No prose author in the history of mankind has exerted so much influence over the world as Plato. From him the Fathers and commentators of early Christianity derived many of their most abstruse notions and spiritual ideas. His name is familiar to our lips, and he is regarded even by the unlearned as the possessor of the highest imaginative faculty ever displayed by man—the creator of much of the purity of sentiment which in another guise was adopted by the founders of chivalry—the man who endowed Socrates with a large portion of that reputation for wisdom and virtue, which surrounds him evermore with an imperishable halo of glory.
With all this, how little is really known of Plato! The translation we have is so harsh and un-English in its style, as universally to repel. There are excellent abstracts of some of his dialogues in a periodical publication called the “Monthly Repository;" and the mere English reader must feel deeply obliged to the learned translator. But these abstracts are defective from their very form of abridgment; and, though I am averse to speak disparagingly of
pages from which I have derived so much pleasure and knowledge, they want the radiance and delicacy of language with which the ideas are invested in the original, and are dry and stiff compared with the soaring poetry, the grace, subtlety, and infinite variety of Plato. They want, also, the dramatic vivacity, and the touch of nature, that vivifies the pages of the Athenian. These are all found here. Shelley commands language splendid and melodious as Plato, and renders faithfully the elegance and the gaiety which make the Symposium as amusing as it is sublime. The whole mechanism of the drama, for such in some sort it is,—the enthusiasm of Apollodorus, the sententiousness of Eryximachus, the wit of Aristophanes, the rapt and golden eloquence of Agathon, the subtle dialectics and grandeur of aim of Socrates, the drunken outbreak of Alcibiades,-are given with grace and animation. The picture presented reminds us of that talent which, in a less degree, we may suppose to have dignified the orgies of the last neration of free-spirited wits,-Burke, Fox, Sheridan, and Curran. It has something of license, too much indeed, and perforce omitted; but of coarseness, that worst sin against our nature, it has nothing.
Shelley's own definition of Love follows; and reveals the secrets of the most impassioned, and yet the purest and softest heart that ever yearned for sympathy, and was ready to give its own, in lavish measure, in return. “ The Coliseum” is a continuation to a great degree of the same subject. Shelley had something of the idea of a story in this. The stranger was a Greek,nurtured from infancy exclusively in the literature of his progenitors, and brought up as a child of Pericles might have been ; and to heighten the resemblance, Shelley conceived the idea of a woman, whom he named Diotima, who was his instructress and guide. In speaking of his plan, this was the sort of development he sketched; but no word more was written than appears in these pages.
“ The Assassins” was composed many years before. The style is less chaste; but it is
* Small portions of these and other essays were published by Captain Medwin in a newspaper. Generally speaking, his extracts are incorrect and incomplete. I must except the Essay on Love, and Remarks on some of the Statues in the Gallery of Florence, however, as they appeared there, from the blame of these defects.
warmed by the fire of youth. I do not know what story he had in view. The Assassins were known in the eleventh century as a horde of Mahometans living among the recesses of Lebanon, ruled over by the Old Man of the Mountain ; under whose direction various murders were committed on the Crusaders, which caused the name of the people who perpetrated them to be adopted in all European languages, to designate the crime which gave them notoriety. Shelley's old favourite, the Wandering Jew, appears in the latter chapters, and, with his wild and fearful introduction into the domestic circle of a peaceful family of the Assassins, the fragment concludes. It was never touched afterwards. There is great beauty in the sketch as is stands; it breathes that spirit of domestic peace and general brotherhood founded on love, which was developed afterwards in the “Prometheus Unbound.”
The fragment of his “ Essay on the Punishment of Death” bears the value which the voice of a philosopher and a poet, reasoning in favour of humanity and refinement, must possess. It alleges all the arguments that an imaginative man, who can vividly figure the feelings of his fellow-creatures, can alone conceive;* and it brings them home to the calm reasoner with the logic of truth. In the milder season that since Shelley's time has dawned upon England, our legislators each day approximate nearer to his views of justice; this piece, fragment as it is, may suggest to some among them motives for carrying his beneficent views into practice.
How powerful-how almost appalling, in its vivid reality of representation, is the essay on “ Life!” Shelley was a disciple of the Immaterial Philosophy of Berkeley. This theory gave unity and grandeur to his ideas, while it opened a wide field for his imagination. The creation, such as it was perceived by his mind—a unit in immensity, was slight and narrow compared with the interminable forms of thought that might exist beyond, to be perceived perhaps hereafter by his own mind; or which are perceptible to other minds that fill the universe, not of space in the material sense, but of infinity in the immaterial one. Such ideas are, in some degree, developed in his poem entitled “ Heaven :" and when he makes one of the interlocutors exclaim,
“ Peace! the abyss is wreathed in scorn
he expresses his despair of being able to conceive, far less express, all of variety, majesty, and beauty, which is veiled from our imperfect senses in the unknown realm, the mystery of which his poetic vision sought in vain to penetrate.
The “Essay on a Future State” is also unhappily a fragment. Shelley observes, on one occasion,“ a man is not a being of reason only, but of imaginations and affections.” In this portion of his Essay he gives us only that view of a future state which is to be derived from reasoning and analogy. It is not to be supposed that a mind so full of vast ideas concerning the universe, endowed with such subtle discrimination with regard to the various modes in which this does or may appear to our eyes, with a lively fancy and ardent and expansive feelings, should be content with a mere logical view of that which even in religion is a mystery and a wonder. I cannot pretend to supply the deficiency, nor say what Shelley's views were
e—they were vague, certainly; yet as certainly regarded the country beyond the grave as one by no means foreign to our interests and hopes. Considering his individual mind as a unit divided from a mighty whole, to which it was united by restless sympathies and an eager desire for knowledge, he assuredly believed that hereafter, as now, he would form a portion of that
*“A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own."-A Defence of Poetry.