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NOTE ON THE
Though Shelley's first eager desire to excite his countrymen to resist openly the oppressions existent during “the good old times” had faded with early youth, still his warmest sympathies were for the people. He was a republican, and loved a democracy. He looked on all human beings as inheriting an equal right to possess the dearest privileges of our nature, the necessaries of life, when fairly earned by labour, and intellectual instruction. His hatred of any despotism, that looked upon the people as not to be consulted or protected from want and ignorance, was intense. He was residing near Leghorn, at Willa Walsovano, writing The Cenci, when the news of the Manchester Massacre reached us ; it roused in him violent emotions of indignation and compassion. The great truth that the many, if accordant and resolute, could control the few, as was shown some years after, made him long to teach his injured countrymen how to resist. Inspired by these feelings, he wrote the Masque of Anarchy, which he sent to his friend, Leigh Hunt, to be inserted in the Examiner, of which he was then the Editor.
“I did not insert it,” Leigh Hunt writes in his valuable and interesting preface to this poem, when he printed it in 1832, “ because I thought that the public at large had not become sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kindheartedness of his spirit, that walked in this flaming robe of verse.” Days of outrage have passed
cause such an appeal to the many to be injurious. Without being aware of them, they at one time acted on his suggestions, and gained the day; but they rose when human life was respected by the minister in power; such was not the case during the administration which excited Shelley's abhorrence.
The poem was written for the people, and is therefore in a more popular tone than usual ; portions strike as abrupt and unpolished, but many stanzas are all his own. I heard him repeat, and admired those beginning,
|- My Father Time is old and grey,
away, and with them the exasperation that would
POEMS OF 1819.
before I knew to what poem they were to belong. But the most touching passage is that which describes the blessed effects of liberty; they might make a patriot of any man, whose heart was not wholly closed against his humbler fellow-creatures.
Shelley loved the people, and respected them as often more virtuous, as always more suffering, and, therefore, more deserving of sympathy, than the great. He believed that a clash between the two classes of society was inevitable, and he eagerly ranged himself on the people's side. He had an idea of publishing a series of poems adapted expressly to commemorate their circumstances and wrongs—he wrote a few, but in those days of prosecution for libel they could not be printed. They are not among the best of his productions, a writer being always shackled when he endeavours to write down to the comprehension of those who could not understand or feel a highly imaginative style ; but they show his earnestness, and with what heartfelt compassion he went home to the direct point of injury—that oppression is detestable, as being the parent of starvation, nakedness, and ignorance. Besides these outpourings of compassion and indignation, he had meant to adorn the cause he loved with loftier poetry of glory and triumph—such is the scope of the Ode to the Assertors of Liberty. He sketched also a new version of our national anthem, as addressed to Liberty. God prosper, speed, and save, God raise from England's grave Her murdered Queen' Pave with swift victory The steps of Liberty, Whom Britons own to be Immortal Queen. See, she comes throned on high, On swift Eternity: God save the Queen'
Millions on millions wait
Firm, rapid, and elate,
On her majestic state 1
She is thine own pure soul
Wilder her enemies
Be her eternal throne
Lips touched by seraphim
Shelley had suffered severely from the death of our son during this summer. His heart, attuned to every kindly affection, was full of burning love for his offspring. No words can express the anguish he felt when his elder children were torn from him. In his first resentment against the Chancellor, on the passing of the decree, he had written a curse, in which there breathes, besides haughty indignation, all the tenderness of a father's love, which could imagine and fondly dwell upon its loss and the consequences. It is as follows:–
TO THE LORD CHANCELLOR.
Thy country's curse is on thee, darkest Crest
Which rends our Mother's bosom—Priestly Pest :
Thy country's curse is on thee: Justice sold,
And heaps of fraud-accumulated gold,
And whilst that slow sure Angel, which aye stands,
Delays to execute her high commands,
O let a father's curse be on thy soul,
And both on thy grey head, a leaden cowl,
* The Star Chamber.
By hopes long cherished and too lately lost, By gentle feelings thou couldst never prve, By griefs which thy stern nature never crost:
I curse thee by a parent's outraged love, |
By those infantine smiles of happy light, Which were a fire within a stranger's hearth,
Quenched even when kindled, in untimely night, Hiding the promise of a lovely birth:
By those unpractised accents of young speech,
To gentlest lore, such as the wisest teach ;
By all the happy see in children's growth,
Sweetness and sadness interwoven both,
By all the days under a hireling's care
O wretched ye, if ever any were,
By the false cant, which on their innocent lips, Must hang like poison on an opening bloom,
By the dark creeds which cover with eclipse Their pathway from the cradle to the tomb:
By thy most impious Hell, and all its terrors,
Of thine impostures, which must be their errors,
By thy complicity with lust and hate,
The ready frauds which ever on thee wait,
By thy most killing sneer, and by thy smile,
And—for thou canst outweep the crocodile,
By all the hate which checks a father's love,
By those most impious hands that dared remove
Yes, the despair which bids a father groan,
The blood within those veins may be mine own,
I curse thee, though I hate thee not; 0 slave!
Of which thou art a daemon, on thy grave
At one time, while the question was still pending, the Chancellor had said some words that seemed to intimate that Shelley should not be permitted the care of any of his children, and for a moment he feared that our infant son would be torn from us. He did not hesitate to resolve, if such were menaced, to abandon country, fortune, everything, and to escape with his child; and I find some unfinished stanzas addressed to this son,
afterwards we lost at Rome, written under the idea that we might suddenly be forced to cross the sea, so to preserve him. This poem, as well as the one previously quoted, were not written to exhibit the pangs of distress to the public ; they were the spontaneous outbursts of a man who brooded over his wrongs and woes, and was impelled to shed the grace of his genius over the uncontrollable emotions of his heart:—
The billows on the beach are leaping around it, The bark is weak and frail, The sea looks black, and the clouds that bound it | Darkly strew the gale. Come with me, thou delightful child, Come with me, though the wave is wild, And the winds are loose, we must not stay, Or the slaves of law may rend thee away.
They have taken thy brother and sister dear,
Come thou, beloved as thou art,
Near thy sweet mother's anxious heart,
With fairest smiles of wonder thrown
On that which is indeed our own,
And which in distant lands will be
The dearest playmate unto thee.
Fear not the tyrants will rule for ever,
Rest, rest, shriek not, thou gentle child !
This hour will in thy memory Be a dream of days forgotten; We soon shall dwell by the azure sea Of serene and golden Italy, Or Greece, the Mother of the free. And I will teach thine infant tongue To call upon their heroes old In their own language, and will mould Thy growing spirit in the flame Of Grecian lore; that by such name lo birthright thou mayst claim.
I ought to observe that the fourth verse of this effusion is introduced in Rosalind and Helen. When afterwards this child died at Rome, he wrote, apropos of the English burying-ground in that city, “This spot is the repository of a sacred loss, of which the yearnings of a parent's heart are now prophetic ; he is rendered immortal by love, as his memory is by death. My beloved child lies buried here. I envy death the body far less than the oppressors the minds of those whom they have torn from me. The one can only kill the body, the other crushes the affections.” In this new edition I have added to the poems of this year, “Peter Bell the Third.” A critique on wordsworth's Peter Bell reachedusat Leghorn, which amused Shelley exceedingly and suggested this poem. I need scarcely observe that nothing personal to the Author of Peter Bell is intended in this poem. No man ever admired Wordsworth's poetry more ;-he read it perpetually, and taught others to appreciate its beauties. This poem is, like all others written by Shelley, ideal. He conceived the idealism of a poet—a man of lofty and creative genius, quitting the glorious calling of discovering and announcing the beautiful and good, to support and propagate ignorant prejudices and pernicious errors ; imparting to the unenlightened, not that ardour for truth and spirit of toleration which Shelley looked on as the sources of the moral improvement and happiness of mankind ; but false and injurious opinions, that evil was good, and that ignorance and force were the best allies of purity and virtue. His idea was that a man gifted even as transcendantly as the Author of Peter Bell, with the highest qualities of genius, must, if he fostered such errors, be infected with dulness. This poem was written, as a warning—not as a narration of the reality. He was unacquainted personally with Wordsworth or with Coleridge, (to whom he alludes in the fifth part of the poem,) and therefore, I repeat, his poem is purely ideal ;-it contains something of criticism on the compositions of these great poets, but nothing injurious to the men themselves. No poem contains more of Shelley's peculiar views, with regard to the errors into which many of the wisest have fallen, and of the pernicious effects of certain opinions on society. Much of it is beautifully written—and though, like the burlesque drama of Swellfoot, it must be looked on as a plaything, it has so much merit and poetry—so much of himself in it, that it cannot fail to interest greatly, and by right belongs to the world for whose instruction and benefit it was written.