Skip to main content

Full text of "Shelley's principles; has time refuted or confirmed them?"

See other formats


r c / T nr 





Retrospect and Forecast. 





Prefatory Note . . . v. — viii. 

I. Retrospect .... i — 6 

II. Three Stages of Shelley 

Criticism .... 7 — 33 

III. Shelley's Principles . . 34 — 63 

IV. Shelley's Ideals . . . 64 — 75 
V. Conclusion and Forecast . 76 — 82 


The following essay on ** Shelley's 
Principles," which has been read, under 
a different title, at one of the Shelley 
Society's meetings, was indirectly the 
outcome of a friendly challenge from 
Professor Dowden, to the effect that 
he, **as a lover of Shelley, should like 
to see someone who places him in the 
first rank of poets, other than lyrical, 
show where he is original in his body of 

Now with regard to Shelley's ** origin- 
ality" as a thinker, I have clearly 

V. B 

vi. Prefatory Note, 

indicated in what limited, though not 
unimportant sense that quality is 
claimed for him. Certainly he is to be 
ranked among our greatest poets for 
other reasons than his supreme lyrical 
genius. The excellence of his poetry, 
at first strenuously denied, is now un- 
reservedly admitted ; arguing from the 
past to the future, I assert that what 
Time has done for him as a poet, it 
will also do for him as a man, inasmuch 
as his great poetry is indissolubly 
bound up with the great message that 
inspired it. The Centenary of Shelley's 
birth seems a fit date for the publication 
of this retrospect and forecast. 

I am under no illusions as to the 
reception that awaits this estimate of 
Shelley from those who sit in the 
reputable places of criticism. It is 

Prefatory Note. vii. 

true that Mrs Grundy has now sub- 
stituted for the grim old notion of a 
diaboHcal Shelley that pleasanter pic- 
ture of an ** ineffectual angel," which 
one of her own special artists so 
felicitously designed for her ; but it is 
also a fact that she strongly resents 
being reminded that the later theory is 
every bit as nonsensical as the earlier. 
To present the Shelleyan view of Shelley, 
instead of Mrs. Grundy's view, is 
therefore to experience, in a modified 
form, those amenities of criticism of 
which Shelley himself was so notable a 
victim, and to which even the obscurest 
of his followers may not unreasonably 

For example, I was informed a few 
years ago, by the Westminster Review, 
that I was one of those writers who 

viii. Prefatory Note, 

grub amongst *' the offensive matter " of 

Shelley's life '^with gross minds and 

grunts of satisfaction," and that my 

monograph on Shelley was * 'an impudent 

endeavour to gain the notoriety of a 

social iconoclast amongst social heretics 

with immoral tendencies and depraved 

desires." There is the true old 

genuine ring about such words as these ; 

and I was greatly encouraged by the 

thought that to have elicited quite 

a number of such criticisms was in 

itself a proof of being on the right 

track as a Shelley student. 

I inscribe this essay to those who 

know, and appreciate, and reverence 

Shelley, not as poet only, but as poet 

and man in one. 

H. S. S. 


I . — Retrospect. 

F it be true, as we are often 
assured, that literary criticism 


''science," and if its 

professors cherish, as their position 
requires that they should cherish, 
a sense of historical continuity and 
editorial succession, then, I submit, 
the Shelley Centenary of this year 
should be observed by the recognised 
guardians of our literature as a season 
of self-abasement and mortification. 
On August 4, 1892, our chief critics, 
with the editor of the Quarterly Review 
at their head, should march in penitential 


2 Shelley's Principles, 

procession to Shelley's birth-place in 
Sussex, there to expiate and formally 
recant the monstrous blunders of their 
literary forefathers, and perhaps, if the 
suggestion may be ventured, to medi- 
tate also on certain not inconsider- 
able errors of their own. 

Seventy years ago, it was the almost 
unanimous opinion of the most eminent 
and respected reviewers that Shelley 
was a wretched poetaster of the most 
worthless kind*; now it is admitted 

* There were, however, a few exceptions to 
this judgment. "The disappearance of Shelley 
from the world," wrote T. L. Beddoes in 1824 
*' seems, like the tropical setting of that luminary to 
which his poetical genius can alone be compared, 
with reference to the companions of his day, to have 
been followed by instant darkness and owl-season." 
Shelley's high poetical gift was freely recognised by 
Macaulay and a small but brilliant circle of Cam- 
bridge students. Moultrie's poem *♦ The Witch of 
the North," 1824, contains passages which are direct 
imitations of Shelley's " Witch of Atlas," 

Retrospect, 3 

with equal unanimity that he is the 
greatest lyric poet whom England has 
yet seen. There is no need to labour 
this point, for the Quarterly has itself 
cried pecoavi as regards Shelley's literary 
genius Hear the oracular verdict 
of 1822 as compared with that of 

"The predominant characteristic of 
Kr. Shelley's poetry," said the earlier 
reviewer, '* is its frequent and total want 
of meaning. We fear that his notions of 
pcetry are fundamentally erroneous. . . 
Mr. Shelley's poetry is, in sober sadness, 
dr veiling prose run mad.'' ** Language 
bends and plays beneath his hand, "says 
the lineal descendant of this man after 
Gfford's heart ; *' the greatest power is 
ccmbined with the greatest ease, the 
perfection of art with the entire absence 

4 Shelley's Principles. 

of conscious display. . . Shelley shows 
himself to be the unrivalled lord and 
master of lyric song." Truly, in this 
case, Time has proved to be a signal 
avenger, since less than a century has 
witnessed the ignominious reversal 
of the most approved critical judg- 
ments ! \ 

Nor is it only the literary qualities of 
Shelley that have thus been vindicated — 
there is another and still more importafit 
appreciation even now in process, which 
the next century will in all probability 
see fulfilled. The recognition of Shelfey 
the man is beginning to follow hard bn 
that of Shelley the poet ; and thoum 
there is little doubt that those criticslof 
the present day who deprecate anything 
more than *' the very baldest and brief- 
est statement of the facts of the poef s 

Retrospect. 5 

life,"* are truly expressing the natural 
disinclination of the privileged classes 
to hear more than they are obliged to 
hear of this most persistent prophet of 
social reformation, yet it must be already 
apparent that this naive injunction of 
silence, wherein the v^^ish is obviously 
father to the thought, will produce ex- 
actly as much impression on the study 
of Shelley as did Canute's imperial 
prohibition on the flowing tide. If the 
present century has had much to say 
about Shelley, the next will have still 
more, and the critics who would mini- 
mise the growing interest in his life, 
personality, and principles, will only 
succeed in exhibiting their own com- 

*" I would confine the critic or editor of Shelley, it 
I had my way, to the very baldest and briefest state- 
ment of the facts of the poet's life." — H. D. Traill, 
Macmillan^s Magazine, July, 1887. 

6 Shelley^ s Principles. 

plete inability to understand the spirit 
and tendency of the age in which they 

II. — Three Stages of Shelley Criti- 
cism. THE Abusive, the Apolo- 
getic, THE Appreciative. 

T is very instructive to note 
the series of changes which 
public opinion has under- 
gone, or is undergoing, with regard 
to Shelley's character. During the 
poet's life and for some time after, 
his detractors had the field almost 
entirely to themselves, the voices raised 
on his behalf being those of a few 
personal friends or literary enthusiasts 
who could scarcely make themselves 

heard amid the general chorus of 

8 Shelley^s Principles. 

detestation.''' It is only by a study 
of the contemporary criticism of 
Shelley's poems that we can realise the 
intensity of the feeling aroused by his 
attacks on the established code of 
religion and ethics, which seem to have 
filled his readers with a conviction that 
he was a monster of abnormal and 
almost superhuman wickedness. 

"We feel" wrote one of these out- 
raged moralists in reference to Queen 
Mabjf '* as if one of the darkest of the 
fiends had been clothed with a human 
body to enable him to gratify his enmity 
against the human race, and as if the 
supernatural atrocity of his hate were 
only heightened by his power to do 

* Leigh Hunt, in particular, deserves grateful 
mention for his early recognition of Shelley's noble 

f Literary Gazette^ May 19, 1821. 

Three Stages of Shelley Criticism. g 

injury. So strongly has this impression 
dwelt upon our minds that we absolutely 
asked a friend, who had seen this 
individual, to describe him to us — as if a 
cloven foot, or horn, or flames from the 
mouth, must have marked the external 
appearance of so bitter an enemy to 
mankind." In the same article, Shelley 
is variously alluded to as "the fiend- 
writer," " the blaster of his race,'' and 
* ' the demoniac proscriber of his species." 
The Englishman who, meeting the poet 
in an Italian post-office, asked whether 
he was" that damned atheist, Shelley," 
and unceremoniouslyknocked him down, 
was merely translating into action the al- 
most unanimous sentimentof his fellow- 
countrymen concerning the author of 
Queen Mah, Those were the true old 
Tory days, when the insidious growth of 

10 Shelley's Principles. 

Shelleyism had not yet been developed. 
But as time went on, bringing with 
it a period of poHtical reform instead 
of govermental repression, and as the 
disinterested nobleness of Shelley's 
character was vindicated in the narra- 
tives of Hogg, Medwin, and other 
biographers, while the high value of his 
poetry was recognised — slowly and 
reluctantly at first — by the more dis- 
cerning critics, it gradually came about 
that he was viewed in a milder light by 
the succeeding generation of readers. 
A kindly though somewhat sorrowful 
tone was now adopted towards him, a 
real admiration for his poetical genius 
and personal sincerity being tempered 
by a stern censure, more in grief than 
anger, of the misguided principles on 
which his life was framed. 

Three Stages of Shelley Criticism. ii 

Thus he no longer figured as a 
deUberate scoundrel, fired with infernal 
animosity against the salvation of man- 
kind, but as a wild enthusiast, possessed 
of many noble instincts, though un- 
happily warped and perverted by the 
sophisms of Godwin and other mis- 
chievous innovators. Had religion been 
differently represented to him ; had he 
been more wisely educated by those 
who had charge of him in his youth ; 
had he studied history more carefully ; 
or conversed with Samuel Taylor 
Coleridge ; or enjoyed this, that, or the 
other advantage which his fate with- 
held, — then, it was argued, Shelley's 
career would have been a wholly 
different one, and to quote the words of 
Gilfillan, we should have seen the 
demoniac " clothed, and in his right 

12 Shelley's Principles. 

mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus." 
'* Poor, poor Shelley," exclaimed 
Frederick Robertson, when he medi- 
tated on these touching possibilities ; 
and his words give us the keynote 
of this apologetic phase of sentimental 
patronage. The age of abuse and 
vilification had now become obsolete, 
and the "poor, poor Shelley" era had 
succeeded it.* 

This, it is important to note, has been 
the prevailing conception of Shelley's 
character for the last forty years, though 
there have not been wanting signs that 
it is destined to be replaced in its turn 
by a new and more accurate interpreta- 
tion. Meantime, Mr. Cordy Jeaffreson's 

* It was delightful to find Mr. W. T. Stead 
alluding, quite as a matter of course, to ** poor 
Shelley," in a passing reference in his Christmas 
"Ghost Stories." 

Three Stages of Shelley Criticism. 13 

book, and the occasional splenetic out- 
bursts of the Saturday Review and other 
crabbed periodicals, should be regarded 
as a survival or recrudescence of the 
abusive period — a few belated bottles 
of a sour old vintage, which, in the 
changed atmosphere of a later day, go 
pop from time to time, and sprinkle some 
musty literary cellar with their pent-up 
remnant of superannuated bitterness. 
The main tendency of the age has been 
distinctly towards a more genial esti- 
mate of Shelley, a view which has been 
fully, and perhaps finally, expressed in 
the thoroughly representative work of 
Professor Dowden, whose opinion of 
Shelley's ethics may be summed up in 
the judgment he pronounces on Queen 
Mab, that '* such precipitancy may con- 
stitute a grave offence against social 


14 Shelley's Principles. 

morality, yet we may dare to love the 

Professor Dowden is the authorised 
exponent of what I have called the 
apologetic Shelleyism, which asks that 
the poet's social heresies may be for- 
given him in consideration of the beauty 
ot his poems and the devoted though 
mistaken earnestness of his life. But, 
like all transitional ideas, this view of 
Shelley, when strictly examined, will be 
found to be an untenable one, however 
gracious and welcome it maybe (and the 
spirit of Professor Dowden's work is 
especially generous and liberal) when 
contrasted with the old contumely of 
seventy years back, since it rests on the 
assumption that ennobHng poetry can 
result from an immoral and therefore 
pernicious ideal. In estimating the life- 

Three Stages of Shelley Criticism. 15 

work of such a character as Shelley's, it 
must surely be an error to set aside as 
valueless the central underlying convic- 
tions, while professing admiration for 
the poetry which resulted therefrom, 
as if the proverb ''by their fruits ye 
shall know them " did not hold good in 
literature as elsewhere. 

Now there can be no mistake what- 
ever about the attitude which Shelley 
took up, not in Queen Mab only, but in 
the whole body of his writings, towards 
the established system of society, which, 
as he avowed in one of his later letters, 
he wished to see " overthrown from the 
foundations, with all its superstructure 
of maxims and forms." The principles 
which he inculcated are utterly subver- 
sive of all that orthodoxy holds most 
sacred, whether in ethics or religion ; 

1 6 Shelley's Principles, 

if he was wrong in them, he is deserving 
of the severest possible condemnation ; 
if right, of equally unstinted praise — in 
neither event is there any sound basis for 
the apologetic theory, which, by its vague 
and vacillating attempt to reconcile the 
irreconcilable, has made an enigma out 
of a personality which is singularly 
intelligible and clear. 

And if this is true of Shelley's bio- 
graphers, much more is it true of his 
critics. Why is it that so many dis- 
tinguished and learned men, from 
Carlyle and Ruskin to Kingsley and 
Matthew Arnold, who have undertaken 
to enlighten the world concerning 
Shelley, have failed so grotesquely that 
even the efforts of the Quarterly Re- 
viewers seem successful by comparison ? 
Simply because, with every intention to 

Three Stages of Shelley Criticism. 17 

be just, they were devoid of that sym- 
pathy with the objects of Shelley's 
vision which is absolutely essential to 
a right understanding of the meaning 
of his life. Wanting this sympathy, 
they have seen only chaos and indecision 
in a career which was remarkable for 
its pertinacious directness of aim, and 
have heard only what Carlyle described 
as " inarticulate wail," in the clearest 
trumpet-call that ever poet sounded ; 
9.nd having thus created, out of the 
dust of their own minds, a mythical 
personage every whit as unreal as 
the ''Real Shelley" of Mr. Cordy 
JeafFreson, they have proceeded to 
express their virtuous astonishment 
at the perplexing and contradictory 
nature of this phantom of their own 

i8 Shelley's Principles, 

Mr Walter Bagehot,* for example, 
was so amazed at the perversities of 
Shelley's intellect, as viewed from the 
Bagehottian standpoint, that he set 
him down as actuated by mere impulse 
rather than by a reasoning faculty. 

Mr. Leslie Stephen, t again, having 
no sympathy with revolutionary ideas, 
will not allow Shelley credit for even 
average powers of thought, finding "the 
crude incoherence of his whole system 
too obvious to require exposition," and 
asserting that '' that which is really 
admirable is not the vision itself, but 
the pathetic sentiment caused by 
Shelley's faint recognition of its obstin- 
ate insubstantiality." 

Even Mr. J. A. Symonds, whose 

* " Estimates of some Englishmen," 1858. 
f *' Godwin and Shelley," Cornhill^ vol 39. 

Three Stages of Shelley Criticism, ig 

delightful monograph is valued by all 
Shelley students, has been misled by 
the same social prejudice, when he 
states that " the blending in him of a 
pure and earnest purpose with moral 
and social theories that could not but 
have proved pernicious to mankind at 
large, produced at times an almost 
grotesque mixture in his actions no less 
than in his verse." But how if these 
theories should not be proved so per- 
nicious as Mr. Symonds confidently 
assumes them to be ? And, in that case 
what becomes of the '* grotesque 
mixture " in Shelley's actions and char- 
acter ? 

In this connection it may be per- 
tinent to quote some highly suggestive 
lines on Shelley which deserve to be far 
more widely known. 

20 Shelley's Principles. 

Holy aad mighty Poet of the Spirit 

That broods and breathes along the Universe ! 

In the least portion of whose starry verse 

Is the great breath the sphered heavens inherit, 

No human song is eloquent as thine ; 

For, by a reasonmg instinct all divine, 

Thou feel'st the soul of things ; and thereof singing, 

With all the madness of a skylark, springing 

From earth to heaven, the intenseness of thy strain, 

Like the lark's music all around us ringing, 

Laps us in God's own heart, and we regain 

Our primal life ethereal ! Men profane 

Blaspheme thee; I have heard thee Dreamer styled — 

I've mused upon their wakefulness — and smiled. 

Thomas Wade's " Poems and Sonnets, 1835. 

The fact is, the exponents of the 
apologetic theory, while doing honour 
to Shelley's poetical genius and exalted 
enthusiasm, have altogether underrated 
the keenness of his intellectual insight 
into the vexed problems of modern 
times. Being accustomed, by the 
force of class tradition, to ignore the 
Shelleyan ideals — that is, the fountain- 

Three Stages of Shelley Criticism. 21 

head of the poet's singing — as chimerical 
fancies derived at second-hand from 
the fanatics of the French Revolution, 
they have inevitably failed to enter 
into the spirit of his song. His book 
of prophecy lies open before them, but 
must remain in great part unintelligible, 
until sympathy, the sole clue to the 
understanding of a new gospel, shall 
enable their eyes to decipher the 
cryptogram of those revolutionary 
pages, which, once mastered, will put 
an end to the idle talk about the 
incoherence of Shelley's message and 
the hallucinations of his brain. 

Without at all forgetting the great 
literary services that have been rendered 
to Shelley's writings during the past 
quarter-century, I venture to doubt 
whether he can be fully appreciated, 

22 Shelley's Principles, 

even as a poet, under the present form 
of society, unless by those (and scarcely 
even by those) who look for the changes 
which he looked for, and desire to 
hasten that bloodless revolution which 
was at once the theme and the inspira- 
tion of his poetical masterpieces. As 
the number of such reformers increases, 
and it is increasing very sensibly at the 
the present time, the apologetic view 
of Shelley, that kindly but unscientific 
product of a confused transitional 
period, will gradually pass away, and 
in its place we shall have the new, the 
appreciative estimate, which will honour 
England's greatest lyric poet, not on 
the absurd ground that he sang beauti- 
fully and pathetically on behalf of a 
thoroughly foolish and pernicious theory, 
but because, seeing clearly that the 

Three Stages of Shelley Criticism. 23 

current forms of religion and morals 
would have to be revolutionised, he 
expressed that conviction, which each 
succeeding year is proving to be a true 
conviction, in words of consummate 
tenderness and power. 

This new method of Shelley criticism 
is not merely in prospect, but has 
already commenced. It was heralded 
by James Thomson's remarkable article 
contributed to the National Reformer in 
i860, and by the memoir which Mr. W. 
M. Rossetti prefixed to his edition of 
the poems ten years later — a strong 
and sensible piece of writing which 
deserves the gratitude of all who believe 
in the ultimate recognition of Shelley's 
true greatness. I do not mean to imply 
that Mr. Rossetti necessarily subscribed 
to the bulk of Shelley's social opinions; 

24 Shelley's Principles, 

but his memoir was, as far as I know, 
the first considerable contribution to 
Shelleyan hterature in which not the 
poetry only, but the conceptions that 
determined the poetry, were treated 
with due seriousness, and without a 
word of that infelicitous extenuation 
or apology which strikes so false a note 
in so many other essays. As to the 
valuable critical work, done in late 
years by Mr. Rossetti, Mr. Forman, 
Dr. Garnett, Professor Dowden, Mr. 
Stopford Brooke and others, it may 
truly be said to have been largely 
instrumental in preparing the way for a 
better understanding of Shelley in his 
ethical as well as his literary capacity. 
So, too, of much that has been done 
by the Shelley Society ; for though I do 
not insinuate that the members of that 

Three Stages of Shelley Criticism, 25 

very reputable body are deliberate 
abettors of Shelley's revolutionary doc- 
trines, I have yet in mind the remark 
made by Mr. H. M. Stanley to one of 
the Society's officers. '' You are a 
funny people, you Shelleyites," said 
the famous explorer, with a perspicacity 
which suggests that Livingstone and 
Emin are not the only persons who 
have been found out by him, "you are 
playing, — at a safe distance yourselves, 
maybe — with fire. In spreading Shelley 
you are indirectly helping to stir up the 
great socialist question, the great ques- 
tion of the needs, and wants and wishes 
of unhappy men ; the one question which 
bids fair to swamp you all for a bit." 
Precisely so. The fuller appreciation 
of Shelley's character, will be found to 
keep pace with the progress of social 

26 Shelley's Principles, 

reform, or if you will, of social revolu- 

In saying this, I wish to guard myself 
at the outset against the charge of 
'' idolatry" which is generally brought 
against those whose opinion of a great 
writer happens to be in advance of 
the popular estimate. To assert that 
the Shelleyan creed is nobler and saner 
than the so-called morality which it 
is destined to replace does not imply a 
belief that it is itself a perfect creed, or 
that it will not ultimately be succeeded 
by something still better. But ninety- 
nine out of a hundred of the objections 
at present made against the doctrines of 
Shelley are quite beside the mark, sim- 
ply because they are the result, not of a 
clear-eyed, large-minded survey of those 
doctrines, but of narrow and prejudiced 

Three Stages of Shelley Criticism. 27 

environments. It may sound para- 
doxical, but it is a fact that a new idea 
must be appreciated before it can be 
criticised — you must know what a man 
means and feels, in other words you 
must sympathise with him, before you 
will comprehend either the merits or the 
defects of his system. 

The object of this essay is not to 
attribute to Shelley an impossible per- 
fection, but to point out that, so far 
from being the pitiable compound of im- 
pulsive benevolence and crack-brained 
fanaticism which his apologists have 
represented him to be, he was a pioneer 
of a definite intellectual and social 
movement, which, whether right or 
wrong, is steadily advancing in interest 
and importance. *' The devotees of 
some of Shelley's pet theories," com- 

28 Shelley's Principles, 

plains Mr. Leslie Stephen, apparently 
without at all perceiving the signi- 
ficance of his remark, *' have become 
much noisier than they were when the 
excellent Godwin ruled his little clique." 
True ; and the inference seems to be 
that Shelle3''s vision was a good deal 
more penetrating than that of some of 
his most intolerant and self-satisfied 

Do we claim, then, it is sometimes 
asked, that Shelley was an ''original'* 
thinker ? Certainly not — in that sense 
which implies the contribution of brand- 
new ideas to philosophy or ethics. 
Shelley's social views, as everyone 
knows, were largely drawn from 
Rousseau and the French school, from 
Tom Paine, William Godwin, and Mary 
Wollstonecraft. But while borrowing 

Three Stages of Shelley Criticism, 29 

freely, he could also freely assimilate 
and vitalize ; and it has been well said 
of him than ''he was Paine and Godwin, 
with a large heart added.'' This is an 
addition which amounts to little less 
than a new creation, for, as a stroll 
through our Universities will show, it 
is unfortunately rare to find the perfect 
balance and conjunction of intellect 
and feeling. There is an originality in 
the selection and treatment, as well as 
in the promulgation, of ideas, and this 
faculty — this " reasoning instinct all 
divine" — Shelley possessed in an emi- 
nent degree. He intuitively grasped 
and assimilated those democratic con- 
ceptions which were destined to survive 
the violence of tyrannical oppression 
and the slower but more searching 
ordeal of time ; and if his ethical creed 

30 Shelley's Principles. 

be compared with that of the other poets 
and thinkers of his age, in the Hght of 
the history of the past half-century, it is 
not Shelley who will be found deficient 
in sagacity and foresight. 

But though inspired by these philo- 
sophical ideas, Shelley was by nature 
and temperament essentially a poet. 
He was the poet-prophet of the great 
humanitarian revival (in his own words, 
" the most unfailing herald, companion, 
and follower of the awakening of a great 
people to work a beneficial change in 
opinion or institution, is poetry"), and 
as he sang of the future rather than of 
the present, and of a distant future 
rather than of a near one, there is oi 
necessity a vagueness in many of his 
poetical utterances, though this is for- 
tunately to a great extent corrected and 

Three Stages of Shelley Criticism. 31 

counterbalanced by the clearness of his 
prose essays. An attempt is sometimes 
made to discount the effect of his writings 
on the score of his youthfulness ; he had 
not time, it is said, to mature his own 
thoughts, much less to instruct those ot 
other people. This objection, however, 
can hardly be taken very seriously, for, 
in the first place, opinions must stand 
or fall by their intrinsic worth and not 
by the age of their advocate ; and 
secondly, as Shelley himself said to 
Trelawny, *' the mind of man, his brain, 
and nerves, are a truer index of his age 
than the calendar." 

I shall speak in this essay of Shelley^s 
views as a whole, and I may here paren- 
thetically remark that I do not propose 
to follow Mr. Buxton Forman's ex- 
ample of relegating Queen Mab to the 

32 Shelley's Principles, 

juvenilia^ as if it were unworthy of the 
serious attention of Shelley students, 
I am, of course, aware, that it is in 
many ways a crude and ill-considered 
performance, but its defects lie 
far more in the style than in the 
conception — to repeat what Shelley 
said of it in later years, " the 
matter is good, but the treatment is 
not equal." The views expressed in 
Queen Mab on religious and social 
topics are practically the same as 
those held by Shelley to the last day 
of his life, and, as Mr. Forman himself 
tells us, "the poem and its notes 
have played a considerable part in 
the growth of free-thought in England 
and America, especially among the 
working classes"; for both of which 
reasons it seems to me that Queen 

Three Stages of Shelley Criticism, 33 

Mab will always maintain an honour- 
able place in the record of its author's 

III. — Shelley's Principles. 

ET us now proceed to consider 
how far Shelley's principles 
have anticipated those of a 
later date, and with what justice he 
may be called a forerunner of the 
cause of intellectual and social freedom. 
The enormous progress made by free- 
thought during the seventy years that 
have passed since Shelley's death 
would in itself be sufficient refutation, 
if any were needed, of the assertion 
that he wrecked his judgment and 
good fame by his deliberate adoption 
of atheistic principles. He was from 

Shelley's Principles. 35 

first to last an '* atheist," in the special 
sense that he denied the existence of 
the personal deity of the theologians ; 
though it is important to note, that, as 
he himself says in the preface to Laon 
and Cythnaj the object of his attack was 
'' the erroneous and degrading idea 
which men have conceived of a Supreme 
Being, but not the Supreme Being 
itself" — it was not the presence, but the 
absence of spirituality in the established 
creed that made Shelley an unbeliever.* 

* I regard Shelley's early " atheism " and later 
*' pantheism " as simply the negative and the 
affirmative sides of the same progressive but un- 
changmg life-creed. In his earlier years, his dispo- 
sition was towards a vehement denial of a theology 
which he never ceased to detest ; in his maturer 
years, he made more frequent reference to the 
great World Spirit whom he had from the first 
believed in. He grew wiser in the exercise of his 
religious faith, but the faith was the same through- 
out; there was progression, but no essential 

36 Shelley's Principles. 

For holding and publishing these 
views, he was ostracised and insulted ; 
and now the same views are held as a 
matter of course by a vast number, 
probably a vast majority, of earnest 
and thoughtful men, the only difference 
being that the colourless title of 
** agnosticism " has been substituted 
for the more expressive word which 
Shelley with characteristic ardour, 
** took up and wore as a gauntlet." 

It is the habit of Shelley's apologetic 
admirers to minimise the fact of his 
departure from the orthodox faith, and 
even to suggest that, had he lived 
longer, he might, by some unexplained 
process of reasoning, have found him- 
self at one with Christianity, perhaps, 
according to Nathaniel Hawthorne's 
ironical suggestion, to the extent of 

Shelley^ s Principles. 37 

taking holy orders, and being " inducted 
to a small country living in the gift 
of the lord chancellor." * The new 
criticism bluntly declares that this idea 
is nonsensical ; and recognising that 
Shelley's belief, whether for good or ill, 
was in direct antagonism to established 
religion, points further to the fact that 
the verdict of time, so far as it has yet 
been delivered, is strongly in favour of 
free-thought which Shelley so strenu- 
ously asserted. 

But the religious question, it may be 
said, no longer occupies its former 
dominant position ; it is round soci- 
ology, no less than theology, that the 

*It is gravely stated, in Mr. H. B. Cotterill's 
"Introduction to the Study of Poetry," 1882, that 
Shelley " saw the beauty of true Christianity, and 
accepted the gospel of Christ as the one true 

38 Shelley's Principles. 

battle of freedom has now to be fought 
and won. It is generally recognised 
that two of the most momentous social 
problems which will press for solution 
in the coming century are the condition 
of the working classes and the emanci- 
pation of women ; and the supreme 
proof of the shrewdness of Shelley's 
instinct is that he, alone among the 
poets of his era, strongly emphasised 
these two questions, anticipating in 
his conclusions the general principles, 
if not the particular methods, of the 
policy to which modern reformers 

It is true that like Godwin, and 
indeed like all contemporary thinkers, 
with the possible exception of Robert 
Owen, he was unable to grasp the full 
significance, in its bearing on social 

Shelley's Principles. 39 

questions, of the great industrial devel- 
opment which the introduction of 
machinery has brought about ; we can- 
not expect from Shelley an accurate 
knowledge of an economic change 
which in his time could be only very 
imperfectly understood. But that he 
had a singularly clear perception of the 
cardinal fact by which the relations of 
labour and capital are characterised — 
the fact that the poor workers support 
the lazy rich, and that industry is taxed 
for the maintenance of idleness — is 
obvious from many passages in his 

Here, jfor example, is a reference 
to the land-question, which states the 
case with admirable incisiveness and 
vigour. *' English reformers exclaim 
against sinecures, but the true pension- 

40 Shelley's Principles. 

list is the rent-roll of the landed pro- 
prietors." And again, of the extortions 
of the fund-holders, those nouveaux 
riches whose heartless vulgarity Shelley 
more than once condemns: '*I put 
the thing in its simplest and most 
intelligible shape. The labourer, he 
that tills the ground and manufactures 
cloth, is the man who has to provide, 
out ot what he would bring home to his 
wife and children, for the luxuries and 
comforts of those whose claims are 
represented by an annuity of forty-four 
millions a year levied upon the English 

Nor, while thus pointing out the 
actual dependence of the so-called 
independent classes, did Shelley evade 
the consideration that he too, the scion 
of a wealthy house, was a debtor in like 

Shelley's Principles. 41 

manner ; he "shuddered to think " that 
the roof which covered him and the bed 
on which he slept were provided from 
the same source. 

We see, therefore, that Shelley was 
well aware that pauperism is no spora- 
dic, unaccountable phenomenon, but 
the necessary and logical counterpart 
of wealth, and that the footsteps of 
luxury are forever dogged by the grim 
nemesis of destitution. Never perhaps 
has this terrible truth been more power- 
fully stated than in the description of 
the court masque in Charles the First. 

'* Ay, there they are — 
Nobles, and sons ot nobles, patentees, 
Monopolists, and stewards of this poor farm, 
On whose lean sheep sit the prophetic crows. 
Here is the pomp that strips the houseless orphan, 
Here is the pride that breaks the desolate heart. 
These are the lilies glorious as Solomon, 
Who toil not, neither do they spin — unless 

42 Shelley's Principles. 

It be the webs they catch poor rogue? withal. 
Here is the surfeit which to them who earn 
The niggard wages ot the earth, scarce leaves 
The tithe that will support them till they crawl 
Back to its cold hard bosom. Here is health 
Followed by grim disease, glory by shame, 
Waste by lank famine, wealth by squalid want, 
And England's sm by England's punishment." 

The question whether Shelley was, 
or was not, a "socialist," is one that 
scarcely admits of any definite conclu- 
sion, since there is no universally ac- 
cepted definition of what socialism 
means. It may be urged, on the one 
hand, that he cannot be given a title 
which did not come into use till some 
years after his death, and which is now 
often restricted — unwisely, perhaps — 
to the acceptance of a purely economic 
formula of which he knew nothing. 
Shelley, like Godwin, was a communist 
rather than socialist ; and though he by 

Shelley's Principles. 43 

no means shared Godwin's extreme 
repugnance to legislative action, he still 
laid far more stress on moral and intel- 
lectual improvement than on the inter- 
vention of the State. On the other 
hand, if the term socialism be inter- 
preted in a wider sense, it may fairly 
be made to include such a pioneer as 
Shelley, who was certainly a socialist 
in spirit, if not in the letter. 

An interesting saying of Karl Marx's — 
true of Shelley, though unjust to Byron 
— has been recorded in this connection. 
^' The real difference between Byron 
and Shelley is this: those who under- 
stand them and love them rejoice that 
Byron died at thirty-six, because if he 
had lived he would have become a 
reactionary bourgeois ; they grieve that 
Shelley died at twenty-nine, because 

44 Shelley's Principles, 

he was essentially a revolutionist, and 
he would always have been one of the 
advanced guard of socialism."* 

Shelley's views on the woman ques- 
tion are too well known to need more 
than a brief reference; it is sufficient 
for my purpose to point out that they 
are practically identical with those now 
held by advanced thinkers. There is 
plenty of evidence in Laon and Cythna 
that Shelley recognised and deplored 
the social subjection of woman, and the 
evil consequences that result therefrom 
to the other sex and to humanity in 
general. **Can man be free," he asks, 
"if woman be a slave ? " And again : 

Woman ! — She is his slave, she has become 
A thing I weep to speak — the child of scorn, 
The outcast of a desolated home. 

* " Shelley and Socialism," by Edward and 
Eleanor Marx Aveling, To- Day, April, 1888. 

Shelley's Principles, 45 

Falsehood and fear and toil, like waves, have worn 
Channels upon her cheek, which smiles adorn 
As calm decks the false ocean : well ye know 
What woman is, for none of woman born 
Can choose but drain the bitter dregs of woe, 
Which ever from the oppressed to the oppressor 

It perhaps has not been as widely 
noticed as it deserves to be, that in the 
character of Cythna, as drawn in this 
poem, Shelley has created a type. 
Cythna is the first idealisation in litera- 
ture ot the revolutionary woman — swift 
and fearless, tender and pitying ; above 
all, the free, confident, equal companion 
of intellectual and socialised man. 

The compulsion of the marriage-bond, 
which in Shelley's opinion militates 
against that free and natural relation 
of the sexes which he so strongly 
approved, is explicitly condemned in 
the well-known Notes to Queen Mab, on 

46 Shelley's Principles. 

the ground that, as the very essence of 
love is freedom of choice, society is not 
justified in imposing this restriction on 
the judgment of the individual. That 
Shelley's views remained unchanged to 
the end may be gathered from the 
kindred, but maturer, passage ofEpipsy- 
chidiouj which makes one regret that he 
did not deal more directly and fully with 
this subject in his later life, though it is 
easy to surmise the personal and private 
reasons that would then have withheld 

As it is, the Shelleyan advocacy of 
free love has been much misrepresented, 
being often absurdly identified, whether 
through ignorance or prejudice, with a 
heartless libertinism to which it is 
utterly alien. The essence of Shelley's 
belief was that, unless human passion 

Shelley's Principles. 47 

is to be debased and brutalised, the 
spiritual and higher elements of love 
must always be present ; for this reason 
he condemned the stereotyped and love- 
less institution of marriage, but he did 
not stultify his own contention by sanc- 
tioning an equally dull and loveless 

On this point it is worth while to 
note what he says in a short prose essay, 
written soon after Queen Mab — the 
review of his friend Hogg's novel, Prince 
Alexy Haimatoff. ''The author," says 
Shelley, ''appears to deem the loveless 
intercourse of brutal appetite a venial 
offence against delicacy and virtue ! 
He asserts that a transient connection 
with a cultivated female may contribute 
to form the heart without essentially 
vitiating the sensibilities. It is our 

48 Shelley's Principles. 

duty to protest against so pernicious 
and disgusting an opinion. No man 
can rise pure from the poisonous em- 
braces of a prostitute, or sinless from the 
desolated hopes of a confiding heart." 
1 purposely abstain, in'this essay, from 
touching on what has been called " the 
Harriet problem," not because I am 
at all indisposed to '' chatter about 
Shelley," but because I am here speak- 
ing less of the story of his life than of 
the principles to which his life was 
devoted. ^^' But I must, in passing, make 

* It is very instructive to note the exact period at 
which our orthodox critics conceived their present 
marked distaste for what they have styled " the 
Harriet problem" and " chatter about Shelley." 
They had no scruple whatever, during half-a-century 
of vilification, in utilising, on every possible oppor- 
tunity, a false and calumnious story as a means of 
blackening bhelley's name; but when once it began 
to appear that the facts might wear another aspect, 
and that the "chatter" would henceforth not be 

Shelley's Principles. 49 

a brief protest against the extraordinary 
plea put forward by a well-known novel- 
ist, ostensibly on behalf of the fair fame 
of Shelley, though I doubt if his worst 
enemy has ever said anything which he 
would have more strenuously resented — 
I refer to Ouida's contention * that the 
possession of genius releases a man 
from the ordinary claims of morality. 

The idea is quite foreign to the whole 
spirit of Shelley's writings. He claimed 
no special exemption from the estab- 

entirely one-sided, these precious moralists were 
smitten with a sudden naive aversion for the very 
controversy which they had themselves provoked! 
I would now suggest to them that if they are indeed 
so weary of ' ' the Harriet question '' (and no one will 
deny that Shelley has been the subject of unneces- 
sary, as well as necessary, contention), the remedy 
is in their own hands. Let them cease to calum- 
niate ; and we shall cease to explain. ''■Que messieurs 
Us assassins y commencent." 

* North American Review, Feb. i8go. 

50 Shelley's Principles, 

lished code of ethics, but directly chal- 
lenged that code as an obsolete and in 
fact immoral piece of superstition. 
He may have been right, or he may 
have been wrong in this opinion, but 
his standpoint is a quite unmistakable 
one, and therein lies the only possible 
justification of his conduct. And for 
every person who held such views at 
the beginning of the century, there are 
a hundred who hold them now. 

Shelley's socialistic sympathies have 
already been mentioned ; a word must 
now be said of his not less remarkable 
insight into those matters where, to 
quote his own expression, *' every man 
possesses the power to legislate for 
himself." His communism, like that of 
Godwin and other anarchist writers, was 
mingled with a very strong measure of 

Shelley's Principles. 51 

intellectual individualism^ ; he believed 
that self-reform must precede, or at any 
rate accompany, all legislative enact- 
ments. ''Reform yourselves" is the 
chief lesson enforced in the Address to the 
Irish People, and in the Essay on Chris- 
tianity the failure of the early Christian 
communism is attributed to the lack of 
a sufficient moral improvement. 

The modes of self-reform which 
Shelley most persistently advocated may 
be summed up in the word simplicity ; 
his healthy natural instincts towards 
pure food and fresh air, together with 
his keen sense of the serfdom which 
luxury inflicts on its drudges, made 

* I advisedly write intellectual to distinguish it 
from the other, the commercial *' individualism," 
which consists in sacrificing all true individuality of 
character in the dead level of industrial competi- 

52 Shelley's Principles, 

him look with distaste on many of 
the so-called comforts of civilization. 
** Decrease your physical wants," he 
says, 'Mearn to live, so far as nourish- 
men and shelter are concerned, like the 
beasts of the forest and the birds of the 
air ; ye will need not to complain that 
other individuals of your species are 
surrounded by the diseases of luxury 
and the vices of subserviency and 

Himself a bread-eater and water- 
drinker, with a strong tendency in all 
respects to a frugal and hardy way of 
living, he instinctively felt the rightness 
of that gospel of simplicity of which 
Rosseau had been a prophet, and saw 
what Thoreau has since demonstrated 
with greater insistence, that a com- 
plexity of artificial comforts is not a 

Shelley's Principles. 53 

necessary accompaniment of intellectual 
refinement. *' Your physical wants," 
says Shelley, '' are few, whilst those of 
your mind and heart cannot be num- 
bered or described, from their multitude 
and complication. To secure the gratifi- 
cation of the former, ye have made your- 
selves the bondslaves of each other." 

Last, but not least, among these 
Shelleyan principles which may claim 
to have been strengthened and not 
negatived by time, are his humanitarian 
views, which include and underlie 
the rest. The crowning word both of 
his communism and individualism 
is Love, which is again and again 
inculcated in his writings as the one 
supreme remedy for human suffering, 
the charm without which all else is 
unavailing and unprofitable. 

54 Shelley's Principles. 

To feel the peace of self-contentment's lot, 
To own all sympathies and outrage none, 
And in the inmost bowers of sense and thought, 
Until life's sunny day is quite gone down, 
To sit and smile with joy, or, not alone. 
To kiss salt tears from the worn cheek of woe ; 
To live as if to love and live were one — 
This is not faith or law, nor those who bow 
Tothrones on heaven or earth such destiny may 

^'To live as if to love and live were 
one" — that is a true summary of Shel- 
ley's ethics. In accordance with this 
spirit of unremitting gentleness, he de- 
plored the many acts of ferocious bar- 
barism which disgraced (and in great 
measure still disgrace) our boasted civil- 
ization—the savagery of modern warfare, 
the scarcely less savage competition of 
commerce, the inhumanities of our 
penal code, and the legalised murder 
known as capital punishment. He also 
followed Godwin in deprecating all 

Shelley's Principles. 55 

insurrectionary violence, and repeatedly 
inveighed against the wickedness of 
retaliation. " In recommending a great 
and important change in the spirit 
which animates the social institutions 
of mankind," thus he writes in the 
preface to Laon and Cythna, " I have 
avoided all flattery to those violent and 
mahgnant passions which are ever 
on the watch to mingle with and to 
alloy the most beneficial innovations. 
There is no quarter given to Revenge 
or Envy, or Prejudice. Love is cele- 
brated everywhere as the sole law which 
should govern the moral world." 

Now other poets have sung, before 
and after, of humanity and brotherhood ; 
but there is just this peculiarity about 
Shelley's method of handling these 
great themes. He does not, as so many 

56 Shelley's Principles. 

writers have done, sentimentally eulogise 
these virtues in the abstract, while 
shutting his eyes to the iniquities per- 
petrated on ''the lower classes," which, 
albeit sanctioned by respectability and 
custom, render real brotherhood impos- 
sible — on the contrary, he goes to the 
heart of the matter, and denounces 
those evils which are the most deadly 
sources of cruelty and oppression. The 
true rufhan was to him (I quote his own 
words) ''the respectable man — the 
smooth, smiling, polished villain, whom 
all the city honours, whose very trade 
is lies and murder ; who buys his daily 
bread with the blood and tears of men." 
In similar manner, when touching on 
our relations with "the lower animals," 
he did not, like our modern school of 
sentimentalists, prate of men's benevo- 

Shelley's Principles. 57 

lent feelings towards the objects of their 
gluttony, and preach peace under con- 
ditions where peace does not exist, but 
boldly and consistently arraigned the 
prime cause of animal suffering, the 
removal of which must precede the 
establishment of a genuine human sym- 
pathy with the lower races. Those who 
have knowledge of the recent progress 
of vegetarianism are aware that here 
too, in his condemnation of flesh-eating, 
Shelley was a precursor of a vital and 
growing reform. =^ 

Shelley's principles, as has now been 
sufficiently shown, were those of a 
thorough revolutionist, and it is by 

* And I would suggest to those who have not any 
knowledge of the food question that in writing 
Shelley down a *' sentimentalist," for his " Vindica- 
tion of Natural Diet." they may perhaps be writing 
themselves down — something else. 

58 Shelley's Principles, 

principles that a man's character is best 
understood; immediate pohtics are 
necessarily of less permanent interest, 
relating as they do to ephemeral matters 
which are sooner superseded and for- 
gotten. It is worth noting, however, 
that in his practical politics Shelley 
was very far from being swayed by that 
irreconcilable fanaticism which is often 
supposed to be an unfaihng character- 
istic of enthusiasts, for while always^ 
maintaining that ** politics are only 
sound when conducted on principles of 
morality," he was shrewd enough to see 
that half a loaf is better than no bread. 
** Nothing is more idle," he says in the 
Philosophical View of Reform^ ''than to 
reject a limited benefit because we 
cannot without great sacrifices obtain 
an unlimited one." "You know," he 

Shelley's Principles. 59 

wrote to Leigh Hunt in i8ig, *' my 
principles incite me to take all the good 
I can get in politics, for ever aspiring 
to something more. I am one of those 
whom nothing will fully satisfy, but 
who are ready to be partially satisfied 
in all that is practicable." 

That Shelley should, on some 
subjects, have been over cautious and 
moderate, may seem surprising; yet it 
is a fact that he pleaded for slowness 
and deliberation in cases where the ad- 
vanced radical opinion of to-day would 
hardly be so long-suffering. He depre- 
cated the abolition of the crown and aris- 
tocracy until " the public mind, through 
many gradations of improvement, shall 
have arrived at the maturity which can 
disregard these symbols of its child- 
hood." He objected to the ballot as 

6o Shelley's Principles, 

being too mechanical a process of voting. 
He disapproved of universal suffrage and 
of female suffrage as ''somewhat imma- 
ture," though he intimated that he was 
open to conviction on these points. 

Nevertheless, the temporary expe- 
dients which Shelley suggested were 
sufficiently drastic, when regarded from 
a purely political standpoint. ''To 
abolish the national debt; to disband the 
standing army ; to abolish tithes, due 
regard being had to vested interests ; 
to grant complete freedom to thought 
and its expression ; to render justice 
cheap, speedy, and secure — these 
measures, Shelley believed, would 
together constitute a reform which we 
might accept as sufficient for a time."* 

^ Professor Dowden's epitome of the Philosophical 
View of Reform, 

Shelley's Principles. 6i 

On national questions Shelley's sym- 
pathies were altogether with the party 
of freedom, and this not only when the 
struggle was located abroad, (most 
poets and men of letters are enthusiastic 
over insurrections which are comfort- 
ably remote), but also when it was 
nearer home, let us say in Ireland, 
which is sometimes found to be a more 
searching test of a true passion for 
freedom. Hellas, the preface and notes 
of which are scarcely less remarkable for 
political insight than the poem itself for 
lyrical splendour, is a proof of Shelley's 
ardour in the Greek cause. ** The wise 
and generous policy of England," he 
writes, *' would have consisted in 
establishing the independence of 
Greece, and in maintaining it both 
against Russia and the Turks; — but 

62 Shelley's Principles. 

when was the oppressor generous or 

The Dublin pamphlets, immature 
and almost boyish though they are 
in some respects, contain some wise 
forecasts ; and it is noticeable, as Mr. 
J. A. Symonds says, that '' Catholic 
Emancipation has since Shelley's day 
been brought about by the very measure 
he proposed and under the conditions 
he foresaw." The Union, again, was 
declared by Shelley to be a worse evil 
for Ireland than even the disqualifica- 
tion of Catholics ; '^ the latter," he said, 
*' affects few, the former affects thou- 
sands : the one disqualifies the rich from 
power, the other impoverishes the pea- 
sant and adds beggary to the city." 

Here, too, is Shelley's opinion on 
the subject of political ** criminals " ; 

Shelley's Principles. 63 

*' Though the Parliament of England 
were to pass a thousand bills to inflict 
upon those who determined to utter 
their thoughts a thousand penalties, it 
could not render that criminal which 
was in its nature innocent before the 
passing of such a bill." After nearly a 
century of compulsory union and 
coercive legislation, the wisdom of the 
view which Shelley intuitively adopted 
is being slowly and painfully recognised 
by English politicians. 

IV. — Shelley's Ideals. 

HAVE now mentioned certain 
of Shelley's revolutionary prin- 
ciples which seem to be already 
on the road to fulfilment, distant though 
the goal may still be ; and I have 
shown that, judged simply by the hard 
test of history and experience, such 
principles can no longer be contemptu- 
ously dismissed as visionary and 
unsubstantial. But what of those more 
prophetic yearnings and aspirations — 
those mystic ideal glimpses into the 
equal and glorified humanity of the 
future — which, to those who canunder- 

Shelley's Ideals. 65 

stand and sympathise with Shelley, are 
the very soul of his creed ? A learned 
and cultured critic has dogmatically 
asserted that Shelley's " abstract im- 
agination set up arbitary monstrosities 
of ' equality ' and * love,' which never 
will be realised among the children 
of men." * But then, by the very nature 
of the case, it is not to the learned and 
cultured classes that Shelley's gospel 
will appeal, but rather to those whose 
conditions and surroundings have not 
incapacitated them for that most vital 
learning and only true culture — a con- 
ception of the essential equality and 
brotherhood of mankind. 

The ideal anarchism of which Shelley 
IS the herald is a state of equality 
founded not on the competitive or 

* Walter Bagehot. 

66 Shelley's Principles, 

baser element of human nature, but on 
the higher and ultimately more power- 
ful element, which is love. ** If there 
be no love among men," he says, 
** whatever institutions they may frame 
must be subservient to the same pur- 
pose — to the continuance of inequality. 
The only perfect and genuine republic 
is that which comprehends every living 
being." Nor is this beatified republic 
of Shelley's prophecy to be confined 
exclusively to the human race ; it is all 
gentle and loving life, not human life 
only, that is the theme of his song : 

'* No longer now the winged inhabitants, 
That in the woods their sweet lives sing away, 
Flee from the form of man ; but gather round, 
And prune their sunny feathers on the hands 
Which little children stretch in friendly sport 
Towards these dreadless partners of their play. 
All things are void of terror ; n:an has lost 
His terrible prerogative, and stands 
An equal amidst equals." 

Shelley's Ideals. 67 

The fact that this distant vision of a 
golden age, of man "equal, unclassed, 
tribeless and nationless," takes no 
account of the intervening obstacles 
between the actual state and the ideal, 
is by no means a valid proof that the 
vision is a deceptive one. The traveller 
who discerns from afar the mountain- 
top which is the object of his pilgrimage, 
cannot correctly calculate the many 
minor ridges, which, though at the 
moment they make but little show in 
the landscape, must be laboriously and 
patiently surmounted before his ambi- 
tion can be satisfied; he knows that 
these difficulties are real, but he knows 
that the summit is real also. 

It was inevitable that Godwin and 
Shelley, living before the age of evolu- 
tionary science, should under-estimate 

68 Shelley's Principles. 

the vast scope and tenacity of heredi- 
tary forces in the moral, as well as 
in the physical world, and should be 
over-sanguine as to the power of in- 
dividual self- regeneration. But it is an 
absurd error to suppose that Shelley 
expected a sudden miraculous change 
in the nature of man — a sort of cosmic 
transformation scene, which should 
usher in the final harlequinade of 
humanity. It is true that in Laon and 
Cythna and Prometheus Unbound he 
used, as he was quite entitled to use, 
the license of a poet, by concentrating 
into brief compass a revolution which 
must have demanded a long period for 
its accomplishment, little suspecting 
that his critics would attribute to him 
the almost incredible folly of a literal 
belief in the sudden extirpation of evil ; 

Shelley's Ideals. 69 

a misconception which is the more 
astonishing because his utterances on 
this point are sufficiently numerous 
and conclusive. 

In the Preface to Laon and Cythna 
itself, he notes, as one of the errors of 
the French Revolution which should 
henceforth be avoided, an expectation 
of *'such a degree of unmingled good 
as it was impossible to realise," "Can 
he,'* says Shelley, *' who the day before 
was a trampled slave, suddenly become 
liberal-minded, forbearing, and inde- 
pendent ? . . . . But mankind appear 
to me to be emerging from their trance. 
I am aware, methinks, of a slow, gra- 
dual, silent change. In that belief I 
have composed the following poem.'* 
And again, in the Irish pamphlet ; '* we 
can expect little amendment in our own 

70 Shelley's Principles. 

time, and we must be content to lay 
the foundation of liberty and happiness 
by virtue and wisdom." And yet again, 
in the Philosophical View of Reform ; **it 
is no matter how slow, gradual, and 
cautious be the change." 

There are one or two other prevalent 
misunderstandings of the Shelleyan 
ideals which could never have existed 
if his prose works had been read with 
any sort of attention, and if critics had 
taken ordinary trouble to distinguish 
Shelley the lyric poet and myth-maker 
from Shelley the philosopher and 
essayist. It has been assumed, on the 
strength of passages in Queen Mab and 
elsewhere, that he literally believed in 
a past golden age, from which Man, 
the one outcast of Nature, had miser- 
ably fallen ; whereas in the Essay on 

Shelley's Ideals. 71 

Christianity he expressly declares that 
this notion, though ideahsed by poets, 
is ** philosophically false." 

** Later and more correct observa- 
tions," he says, '* have instructed us 
that uncivilised man is the most per- 
nicious and miserable of beings, and 
that the violence and injustice, which 
are the genuine indications of real in- 
equality, obtain in the society of these 
beings without palliation. . . . Man was 
once as a wild beast ; he has become a 
moralist, a metaphysician, a poet, and 
an astronomer." Surely, with this 
passage in evidence, it should be im- 
possible to misapprehend Shelley's 
position on this point. 

Then, again, as regards the external 
origin of evil, let us beware of a too 
literal interpretation of passages which 

72 Shelley's Principles. 

are by their very nature poetical. 
Shelley delights to personify the Mani- 
chsean doctrine of a good and an evil 
spirit, under the forms of the serpent 
and the eagle, Prometheus and Jupiter; 
but we shall do him gross injustice if 
we suppose him unaware of the subtle 
mixture of the two elements in the 
human mind — to quote his own words, 
of '*that intertexture of good and evil 
with which Nature seems to have 
clothed every form of individual ex- 

Still less is it the case, that he re- 
garded kings and priests as the origi- 
nators of human wretchedness, however 
deliberately he might charge them with 
fostering and perpetuating it. * * Govern- 
ment," he distinctly says, ** is in fact 
the mere badge of men's depravity. 

Shelley's Ideals. 73 

They are so little aware of the inestim- 
able benefits of mutual love as to in- 
dulge, without thought and almost 
without motive, in the worst excesses 
of selfishness and malice. Hence, 
without graduating human society into 
a scale of empire and subjection, its 
very existence has become impossible."* 
That Shelley had a hearty detestation 
of priestcratt and kingship, as types of 
intellectual and temporal despotism, is 
beyond doubt ; but he was not moved 
against them by any such unreasoning 
antipathy as that with which he is 
often accredited. 

The truth is, that so far from being, 
as his apologists have represented him, 
at once the advocate and the victim of 
certain benevolent but illusory ideas, 

* Essay on Christianity. 

74 Shelley's Prijtciples. 

which fall to pieces the moment they 
are brought into contact with the facts 
of science, Shelley was well in accord 
with the most advanced knowledge of 
his age. The doctrine of Perfectibility 
is an assertion not of a future sudden 
perfection, but of the unlimited pro- 
gressive tendency of mankind, and, as 
such, is distinctly a scientific doctrine. 
It has been excellently said* that " by 
instinct, intuition, whatever we have to 
call that fine faculty that feels truths 
before they are put into definite shape, 
Shelley was an evolutionist. He trans- 
lated into his own pantheistic language 
the doctrine of the eternity of matter 
and the eternity of motion, of the in- 
finite transformation of the different 

-'' " Shelley and Socialism," by Edward and 
Eleanor Marx Aveling, To-Day, April 1888. 

Shelley's Ideals. 75 

forms of matter into each other, with- 
out any creation or destruction of either 
matter or motion." It is certain that 
the same testimony could not be paid, 
with equal truth, to the writings of any 
other poet of the first twenty years of 
.this century. 

V. — Conclusion and Forecast. 

E have now seen what were in 
fact Shelley's ideals, as con- 
trasted with the imaginary 
absurdities which critics have invented 
for him, to the utter distortion of his 
views and to their own exceeding be- 
wilderment ; we have seen also how 
marked has been the progress made by 
these Shelleyan opinions since the time 
when a contemporary reviewer pro- 
nounced Prometheus Unbound, the poem 
which we now begin to recognise as the 
great modern epic of humanity, to be 

the " stupid trash of a delirious 

Conclusion and Forecast. 77 

dreamer," and accounted for the 
severity of this judgment by remarking 
that it was ''for the advantage of 
steding productions to discourage 

Shelley was heart and soul a free- 
thinker ; and free-thought is now in 
the ascendant wherever men think at 
all. He was an advocate of free love ; 
and the failure of marriage has become 
a common-place of journalists and 
novel-writers. He was a pioneer of 
communism; and the vast spread of 
socialist doctrines is the every-day 
complaint of a capitalist press. He 
was a humanitarian ; and humani- 
tarianism, having survived the phase 
of ridicule and misrepresentation, is 
taking its place among the chief motive- 
powers of civilised society. 

78 Shelley's Principles. 

Of Shelley's personal character I have 
said little, and only this much shall 
now be said — that the increasing in- 
fluence which it has exercised on succes- 
sive generations of readers tells its own 
tale. If certain critics cannot under- 
stand the unspeakable charm which 
others have felt so keenly, a charm 
which for some of us has sweetened 
life and strengthened all our hopes for 
mankind, they will perhaps do wisely 
not to proclaim their own deficiencies 
by declaring Shelley to be unintelligible. 
To the sympathetic reader, Shelley's 
moral nature is as little an enigma as 
his writings ; to the unsympathetic it 
is very enigmatical indeed ; but it does 
not follow that Shelley is the party to 
be commiserated on that account — 
there is an alternative which the hos- 

Conclusion and Forecast. 79 

tile critic should introspectively ponder 
before pronouncing adverse judgment 
on the accused poet. 

I do not of course mean to suggest 
that Shelley was a faultless being (to 
mention one obvious reason to the con- 
trary, he was unfortunate enough to be 
brought up in affluence and saved the 
necessity of earning his own living), or 
that it is desirable that anybody should 
pay him unwilling homage. I merely 
point out that his character is a typical 
one — typical of certain revolutionary 
conceptions by the rightness or wrong- 
ness of which it will ultimately stand 
or fall. The present course of events 
seems to indicate the probability of the 
former conclusion. 

For all which reasons, is it not about 
time that we finally divested ourselves 

8o Shelley's Principles 

of the notion of that weak, amiable, 
unscientific Shelley, that brilliant but 
eccentric visionary, with an exalted 
enthusiasm, a genius for lyric poetry, 
and a foolish aversion to priests and 
kings ? The view each generation 
takes of a revolutionary writer is in- 
evitably formed and coloured in great 
measure by the ethical and religious 
convictions prevalent for the time 
being. By the old-fashioned, uncom- 
promising, brutal Toryism of seventy 
years back, a poet like Shelley could 
hardly have been regarded otherwise 
than as the foe of all that is respectable, 
the ''fiend-writer" to whom con- 
temporary critics ascribed a super- 
human malignity. 

To the milder-mannered, but some- 
what inconsistent and invertebrate 

Conclusion and Forecast. 8i 

Liberalism of the succeeding transi- 
tional period, he became a grotesque 
mixture of good and evil qualities ; no 
longer a demon downright, but a semi- 
celestial nondescript, " a beautiful but 
ineffectual angel, beating in the void 
his luminous wings in vain." 

By the full-fledged democracy of the 
socialised republic on whose threshold 
we now stand, he will at length be seen 
in his true human character, as the 
inspired prophet of a larger, saner 
morality, which will bring with it the 
realisation of the equality and freedom 
to which his whole life was so faithfully 
and ungrudingly devoted. 

And as for the years, or may be the 
centuries, innumerable but not illimit- 
able, that must still elapse, before the 
world shall see the fulfilment of those 


Shelley's Principles. 

remoter Shelleyan ideals, of that 
splendid vision of the ultimate regene- 
ration of mankind — does it behove us 
to be despondent ? Must we not rather 
say of them, in the v^ords of Prometheus 

"Perchance no thought can count them, yet they 

Printed by William Reeves, 185, Fleet Street, London, EC. 


A SHELLEY PRIMER, 1887, 2/6, Reeves & Turner. 

"Mr. Salt shows critical judgrr ent in the way he analyses the 
component elements of imaginati:n and intellect which went to 
form Shelley's genius." — Athcnceuvi, 

2/6, Swan Sonnenschein. 

"A thoughtful and really service.xble essay, written from the point 
ot view of intimate sympathy with the poet's doctrines and personal 
character." — Athenceum. 

" Blasphemous drivel." — Catholi: paper. 


Property, Edited by H. S. Salt, 1890, 2/6, Swan 


" Few, very few, are the people A-ho are likely to read Political 
Justice as a whole now. But anybody who has any interest in 
political things may be expected to read a book which is of the size 
and shape of an ordinary ' series ' book." — Satwday Review. 


7/6, Reeves & Turner. 

"As a critic of life we think Mr. Salt even less successful than as 
a critic of literature." — Saturday Review. 


Richard Bentley & Son. 

" Ample room was left for a capable writer who could sympathise 
and yet discriminate, who would patiently search out details, and 
give unity by deep penetration to the springs of character and 
motive. It is not too much to say that Mr. Salt has done this."— 

PAPERS, Edited by H. S. Salt, 1890, 2/6, Swan 

" In a self-respecting society the task of dealing with a book in 
which anarchism is asserted as the ideal of the future, would be 
allotted to the common hangman."— iVaftowa/ Observer. 



Further Forward, by Richard Michaelis. Paper Cover, is. 

No. 9.— AN EXPERIMENT IN MARRIAGE. By Chas. J. Bellamy. 
Price IS. 

No. 8.— IN DARKEST LONDON, A Story of the Salvation Army. 
By John Law, with Introduction by GENERAL BOOTH. 
281 pages, Twelfth Thousand, is. ; Cloth, is. 6d. 

of Modern Socialism. By Laurence Gronlund, 8vo., paper 
cover, IS. (cloth 2s.) 

No. 6.— Scotia Redtviva. HOME RULE FOR SCOTLAND. With 
Lives of Sir William Wallace, George Buchanan Fletcher ol 
Saltoun and Thomas Spence. By J. Morrison Davidson, 
Paper boards, is. 

No. 5.— PROGRESS AND POVERTY. By Henry George, is. 
Limp Cloth, is. 6d. Cabinet Edition, 2s. 6d. 

No. 4.— MISS LUDINGTON'S SISTER. By Edward Bellamy 
with portrait. Limp Cloth, is., or. Bevelled Cloth, with Steel 
Portrait, 2S. ; (Also an Edition at Sixpence.) 

No. 3.— THE OLD ORDER AND THE NEW: Savagedom, Slave- 
dom, Serfdom, Wagedom, Freedom. By J. Morrison 
Davidson. Fourth Edition. Paper is. or. Cloth, 2s. 

No. 2.— DR. HEIDENHOFF'S PROCESS. By Edward Bellamy, 
with portrait, Limp Cloth, is., or. Bevelled Cloth, with En- 
graved Portrait, 2S. (Also an Edition at Sixpence.) 

No. I.— LOOKING BACKWARD ; Or, Life in the Year 2000 a.d. 
By Edward Bellamy. With new copious Index and portrait. 
Paper, is., Limp Cloth, is. 6d., Cabinet Edition, with steel 
portrait, 2s. 6d. (Also an Edition at Sixpence.) 

Pubhshed by WILLIAM REEVES, 185, Fleet St. London.