A Critical History of English Poetry

By Herbert J. C. Grierson; J. C. Smith | Go to book overview

Chapter Twenty-eight
SHELLEY

NO poet suffered severer reprobation in his life and none perhaps has evoked more ardent sympathy and admiration in later years than this strange offshoot from an otherwise undistinguished aristocratic family who was born in 1792 and drowned in the Gulf of Speccia in 1822. "I am regarded by all who know or hear of me, except, I think, on the whole, five individuals, as a rare prodigy of crime and pollution" (to Peacock, April 6, 1819). However they may vary in their treatment from time to time of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, the early reviews of the century are at one in regarding Shelley as something outside the pale. The condemnation was in part the consequence of his early marriage and the tragic fate of poor Harriet Westbrook, for which indeed no excuse can be made except that of Mrs. Campbell in her Shelley and the Unromantics of youth and an hysterical vein in the young poet's constitution. But the general attitude towards Shelley was even more due to the outspoken attack on Christianity in his first poems, especially Queen Mab, which put him in the same category as the author of The Age of Reason. Even to less prejudiced critics like Lamb and Hazlitt, Shelley's poetry seemed "thin sown with profit and delight," too full of wild theories and nostrums.

A reaction set in after his death, due at once to the recognition of the sheer beauty and music of the poetry of his maturer years, and also the conviction that, despite the errors of his early life and work, that work was inspired by an unwavering idealism, that Shelley was one of the rare beings for whom the thought of the suffering of his fellow-men was intolerable. If Keats was to Tennyson potentially the first of the poets of the age just passed away, Browning's earliest poems were inspired by love of Shelley:

Sun-treader, light and life be thine for ever!
Thou art gone from us; years go by and spring
Gladdens, and the young earth is beautiful,

-383-

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