Henry Salt Archive

Henry Salt (1853-1939) was the author of the Life of Henry David Thoreau, Animals Rights and A Plea for Vegetarianism which inspired Gandhi for follow a vegetarian diet.

Shelley and the Superior Person

by H. S. Salt

There are two important considerations that are often overlooked in these days of voluminous literary criticism. First, a distinguished writer is not necessarily, or by virtue of his general abilities, qualified to be a good judge, or even a tolerable judge, of the merits of other distinguished writers, since the possession of original power is far less essential to the production of trustworthy criticism than the humbler gift of sympathetic insight. To appreciate an author satisfactorily, whether the ultimate judgement be favourable or the contrary, it is necessary for the critic not merely to regard his subject from an external standpoint, but to be able to some extent to put himself in this place, to see things as he sees them, and to grasp the true purport of his literary aspirations; for which very reason, those critics who hold strong and distinctive views of their own are especially liable to misunderstood and misinterpret some particular authors which whom they happen to be out of sympathy. Secondly, when one man of genius elects thus to sit in adverse judgement on another, it should be noted that his opinion derives a great portion of its value and significance from the fact that it throws light on his own intellectual and moral qualities—he is as a mirror held up before a counter-mirror, the reflections which result being illustrative of the critic’s own position no less than of that of his adversary. It would be well if those critics who have a reputation to lose would bear in mind that every criticism contains a judgment on two writers.

A signal instance of inability on the part of an experienced critic and moralist to understand the position of a poet with whose spirit he is not in accord, and of blank unconsciousness that the misunderstanding may be in some measure due to the limitations of his own intellect, is seen in the tone of Matthew Arnold’s remarks on the genius, character, and conduct of Shelley. In studying Shelley, more than almost any other poet, it is desirable that the critic should be able to divest himself, for the time being, or all conventional prejudice. Shelley’s whole view of social ethics is so absolutely unconventional and revolutionary, being based on the simple instinct of universal benevolence, and on a firm belief in the natural and immutable goodness of the human heart, that it is obviously absurd to attempt to interpret his opinions and actions by the standard of the established system which he persistently attacked; it is quite open to a hostile critic to consider him a wrong-headed thinker, and to denounce his doctrines as pernicious and subversive of society and order: but it is not rational to dismiss them off-hand as “meaningless” and “visionary.” Such excathedrâ assertions carry little weight or conviction, but merely prove that the critic, having failed to discover certain qualities in the author whom he is studying, is less appreciative and keen-minded, in that particular point, than other critics who have discovered those qualities. In such matters affirmative judgment is far more reliable than negative. When a number of persons see the same object, its existence can hardly be questioned; the fact that other persons cannot see it tends chiefly to prove that there is a defect in their ocular acuteness.

That Matthew Arnold, admirable and judicious critic though he was in a large number of instances, should have entirely failed to comprehend the spirit which animated Shelley’s writings and conduct, is in reality no cause for surprise, since in this case the poet and the critic were representatives of two strikingly diverse types of character, and it would be difficult to find a personality more unlike Shelley than Arnold’s, or an ethical system more remote from the Shelleyan religion of nature than the “Culture” on which Arnold laid such stress. This contrast is the more piquant, because the ultimate aims of the two men were by no means dissimilar, their wide diversity of temperament appearing rather in the application of their principles than in the principles themselves. Shelley might have heartily concurred in Arnold’s admirably clear-sighted description of the condition of society: “We have an upper class materialised, a middle class vulgarised, a lower class brutalised; and this we owe to our inequality.” “The men of culture,” says Arnold, “are the true apostles of equality;” and culture, as defined by him to be “a study of perfection,” which is not merely intellectual, but includes “the noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it,” seems, in theory at any rate, to have much in common with Shelley’s benevolent unselfishness and “passion for reforming the world.” But with the definition of general principles that resemblance ceases, and the moment an approach is made to the practical question of procedure the vital difference between Shelley’s “Love” and Arnold’s “Culture” is brought into strong relief. The one relies on natural instincts, the other on authority and tradition; the one inculcates action, the other thought; the one extols humaneness, the other humanism; the one enlarges on the superiority of freedom to tyranny, the other on the horrors of anarchy as compared with the blessings of “order”; the one goes heart and soul with the cause of the people, the other is possessed by a constant fear of being “vulgarised” by contact with “Philistine” or “Populace.”

It is, however, in their respective treatment of the middle-class demi-god, “Bumble,” that the contrast between Shelley and his critic may be most profitably noted. Both were in theory sworn enemies of that inveterate “Jack of ideas” of which Bumble is the personification, and both came into some sort of collision with this great fetish of orthodox and respectable society. But how different their modes of warfare, and how significant the discrimination shown by Bumble in the measure of his retribution! On Shelley, who, with the enthusiasm of passionate conviction, attacked custom and prejudice with considerably more zeal than discretion, the infuriated Bumble has not yet ceased to pour the vials of his wrath; indeed, as De Quincey says, “the indignation is likely to be co-extensive and co-enduring with the writings that provoked it.” Matthew Arnold, on the other hand, must be admitted to have shown in this matter, more discretion than zeal, and Bumble was at least shrewd enough to appreciate the difference. The adoption of a style of mild banter, in the place of direct attack, had no doubt something to recommend it on the score of policy, since this gilding of the cultured pill induced the irascible patient to swallow a good deal that might have caused his gorge to rise, had it been crammed down his throat in the summary Shelleyan fashion. But though Matthew Arnold, armed with his epigrammatic apothegms concerning “Sweetness and Light,” was successful in poking some gentle fun at the object of his amusement, the ponderous stability of Bumble not only held its ground, but eventually attracted its assailant by the very force of its gravity; and the world beheld the singular spectacle of the champion of Culture consenting to make peace with his unwieldy opponent, and even receiving comfort and favour from his hand. The maternal anxiety of Mrs. Grundy, when she saw so brilliant a protégé as Arnold straying to the edge of the precipice of unconventionality, and the pathetic device by which she secured his reclamation, may be illustrated by some lines of Rogers’:—

“While on the cliff with calm delight she kneels,
And the blue vales a thousand joys recall,
See, to the last, last verge her infant steals!
O fly—yet stir not, speak not, lest it fall.
Far better taught, she lays her bosom bare,
And the fond boy springs back to nestle there.”

For the above-mentioned reasons, Matthew Arnold was perhaps, better qualified than any other distinguished man of his time (not even Charles Kingsley being excepted) for the complete misunderstanding of the character, actions, and writings of the author of “Laon and Cythna” and “Prometheus Unbound,” and accordingly, with that fatuity which is usual in such cases, he was firmly convinced that Shelley, who, as he truly remarks, was “so mere a monster unto many,” was to him as clear and intelligible as the daylight. In his preface to the select Poetry of Byron (1881) he states his reasons for the low estimate which he formed of the value of Shelley’s poetical writings. “All the personal charm of Shelley cannot hinder us from at last discovering in his poetry the incurable want, in general, of a sound subject-matter, and the incurable fault, in consequence, of insubstantiality. . . Except for a few short things and single stanzas, hise original poetry is less satisfactory than his translations, for in these the subject-matter was found for him. Nay, I doubt whether his delightful essays and letters, which deserve to be far more read than they are now, will not resist the wear and tear of time better, and finally come to stand higher than his poetry.” Well might Dr. Garnett observe(a) that “this remarkable deliverance will be weighed by those to whose lot is may fall to determine Mr. Arnold’s own place as a critic.” The point which it seems most clearly to indicate is the amazing confidence which Matthew Arnold must have felt in the infallibility of his own judgment, since, in defiance of the practical consensus of recent critics, who, however hostile they may be to Shelley’s speculative opinions, have at least recognised him as a lyric poet of transcendent power and genius—in defiance of this consensus, he calmly assures his readers that Shelley’s best and only permanent work must be sought in his prose writings, and that his translations are more “satisfactory” than his original poetry.

A school usher, writing his periodic report of the progress of a fourth-form boy of moderate ability, could not possibly have delivered his professional dictum with more imperturbably assurance. Not for one single moment does the thought occur to the serene mind of the critic, that in expressing his dissatisfaction with Shelley’s “original poetry”—that is to say, with “Promethus Unbound,” and “The Cenci,” and “Adonais,” and the “Ode to Liberty,” and a host of other poems, long and short, of equal literary merit—he may possibly be chronicling his own deficiencies rather than those of the poet; or that, in lamenting Shelley’s want of a sound “subject-matter.” He may be merely giving an additional proof of his own total lack of sympathy with the great revolutionary and humanitarian movement of the past century. That the “subject-matter” of Shelley’s poems should be exceedingly distasteful to many readers is, by the very nature of the case, inevitable; since he treats of such burning themes as free-thought, social revolution, the emancipation of women, the dissolution of the marriage-bond, and many other subjects which were eagerly discussed in his day, and have come more and more into notice since the time when he wrote of them. But to accuse a writer of “unsubstantiality” because one happens to dislike or to misunderstand the substance of his teaching, is scarcely characteristic of a wise critic. When Matthew Arnold describes Shelley as being “so incoherent,” the sense of humour on which he prided himself must have been temporarily dormant; else, surely he would have remembered that suggestive story of the unreasonable Scotchman, who, having borrowed Bailey’s Dictionary from a neighbour, returned it with the remark; “I have read it all through, but canna say that I understand it; it is the most confused book I ever saw in my life.”

Matthew Arnold’s contention(b) that Byron and Wordsworth are the only poets of the earlier part of the century who can furnish sufficient first-class material for a volume of selections (these being the two poets whom he himself edited in this way), is characteristic, but by no means convincing. In laying stress on Shelley’s statement of his own sense of inferiority to Lord Bryon, the critic is on very unsafe ground, for Shelley’s modesty was always conspicuously in excess of his judgment on such personal matters, and he even expressed himself “proud to acknowledge” his inferiority to Tom Moore! Moreover, it should be remembered that, while Shelley confessed that he “despaired of rivalling” Bryon, the elder poet, on his part, made the significant remark that “if people only appreciated Shelley, where would he be?” an utterance to which no allusion is vouchsafed by Matthew Arnold in the passage in question. It would, however, be extremely rash and uncritical to attribute much weight to the remarks made by one poet or the other in these amenities of social intercourse; for the best criterion of the relative value of the poetry of Bryon and Shelley lies in the fact, ignored by Arnold, that whereas Byron’s poems, starting with all the advantages of an unparalleled notoriety, have steadily declined in popular estimation, Shelley, on the other hand, has risen through every sort of depreciation and abuse, until he has taken his place among the great poets of his age in which he lived.

But Shelley, says Matthew Arnold, in a famous phrase to which he has twice given currency(c), is “a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” Beautiful, granted, but ineffectual? That seems to depend on the meaning we assign to efficiency; since it needs little reflection to show us that qualities which appeal in vain to one man, may have a very real and vital power for another. If we begin by assuming that the only effective philosophy is the “culture” of Matthew Arnold, then it certainly cannot be denied that Shelley, with his ideal doctrines of liberty and love, is a very ineffectual angel indeed. But as this assumption is not universally accepted, and is never likely to be, we are brought back to the position at which we had already arrived—that Arnold, like a great many other men, was precluded, by dissimilarity of temperament and feeling, from appreciation the poetry of Shelley. It might have been thought that when men of such different natures as Leigh Hunt, De Quincey, Frederick Robertson, Robert Browning, James Thomson, Rossetti, Swinburne, Stopford Brooke, and J. A. Symonds, had paid tribute and admiration to the force of Shelley’s genius, and when the ever-growing mass of Shelley literature had given a solid proof of the keen interest excited by his writings, a critic, however distinguished, would have experienced some heart-searchings, and shown some slight traces of diffidence, in asserting the “inefficiency” of the poet in question. Not so Matthew Arnold, who, as Professor Dowden has aptly expressed it(d), is “a dogmatist—not merely a critic who interprets the minds of other men through his sensitiveness and his sympathies; he delivers with authority the conclusions of his intellect.”

The publication of Dowden’s Life of Shelley had the effect of bringing Matthew Arnold into the field with an essay of some length,(e) in which he dealt less with Shelley’s poetical qualities than with his character and conduct. It appeared that the “ineffectual angel” had been dearer to the heart of his critic than could have been supposed from the tone of his previous utterances; for Arnold now avowed a strong affection for the first collected edition of the poems, published by Mrs. Shelley in 1839. “The charm of the poems,” he says, “flowed in upon us from that edition, and the charm of the character”; whereas the later editions of Rossetti and Forman are dismissed with the remark that “the text of the poems has in some places been mended since, but Shelley is not a classic, whose various readings are to be noted with earnest attention.” He expresses a strong regret that Professor Dowden’s biography should ever have been given to the world, on the ground the new and fuller information has destroyed the ideal charm of the earlier picture—a picture which will never again have “the same pureness and beauty which it had formerly,” but at the same time he cherishes the consolatory hope that the ideal Shelley does still, in some measure “subsist.” And, as Mr. Pecksniff, when “deceived in the tenderest point, cruelly deceived in that quarter in which he had placed the most unbounded confidence,” determined, nevertheless, to discharge the duty which he owed to society by an unsparing denunciation of the offender, so does Matthew Arnold propose “to mark firmly what is ridiculous and odious in the Shelley brought to our knowledge by the new materials.” “I will not say,” cried Mr. Pecksniff, in words which precisely anticipated the tone of the article of which I speak, “what a blow this is. I do not care for that; I can endure as well as another man. But what I have to hope is that this deception may not alter my ideas of humanity, that it may not impair my freshness, or contract, if I may use the expression, my Pinions. I hope it will not; I don’t think it will.”

Animated by this lofty sense of moral responsibility and sustaining hopefulness, the critic proceeds to recapitulate, at considerable length, the well known story of Shelley’s early life, his calamitous marriage, and the final separation from Harriet, dwelling severely on those incidents and actions which seem to him to indicate a deficiency of Sweetness and Light. There are two points in particular on which Mr. Arnold bases his censure of Shelley’s conduct, and these may be cited as showing how entirely the apostle of culture shared the inability of the ordinary orthodox moralist—I will not say to appreciate, but to understand, the most characteristic and dominant qualities of Shelley’s nature. In the first place he lays great stress on the “inflammability” of the poet in his dealings with women, candidly avowing himself, after reading Professor Dowden’s volumes, to be “sickened for ever of the subject of irregular relations,” and arriving at the conclusion that “an entirely human inflammability, joined to an inhuman want of humour, and a superhuman power of self-deception, are the causes which chiefly explain Shelley’s abandonment of Harriet in the first place, and then his behaviour to her and his defence of himself afterwards.” Now if this charge of “inflammability,” which is supplemented by pointed allusions to Shelley’s romantic friendship with Cornelia Boinville, Claire Clairmont, Emilia Viviani and Jane Williams, had come from some obdurate Philistine or confirmed gossip-monger, it need scarcely have caused surprise or demanded an answer: but that such a critic as Matthew Arnold should have thus mistaken the affections of so rare and pure a spirit as Shelley’s for the vulgar libertinism of a snobbish man-about-town, is, indeed, a subject for disappointment and regret. It recalls to mind what Shelley himself remarked about the misrepresentations of his Epipsychidion: “I desired Ollier not to circulate this piece except to the δυνετοι, and even they, it seems, are inclined to approximate me to the circle of a servant-girl and her sweetheart.”

The true explanation of this aspect of Shelley’s character is amply supplied in the reminiscences recorded by his personal friends. He was emotional, warm-hearted, sympathetic; and in his relations with women, as with me, he entirely disregarded the conventional usages of social etiquette; but at the same time his nature was so obviously free from any taint of grossness, that words and actions which would have seemed suspicious in other men, were felt, by those who knew him, to be, in his case, perfectly simple and harmless. This is placed beyond all doubt by the testimony of Hogg, who, cynic that he was, would have been the last man to be deceived by any fallacious plea of “platonic friendship.” Why did not Matthew Arnold, in his enumeration of Shelley’s erotic misdemeanours, make mention of those nocturnal confabulations, with philosophers of the fair sex of which Hogg has recorded one or two anecdotes? Presumably because the same biographer has also recorded the explanation. “It has happened,” says Hogg, “that he (Shelley) had only one female disciple during the watches of the night, and the winged hours sped not less rapidly in interesting engrossing debate. In two or three cases I have heard there was a noise about it, but most assuredly without foundation than that such nocturnal consultations are unusual.” Precisely the same amount of foundation existed and exists for the charge of “inflammability.” We are told by Professor Dowden that some of Shelley’s letters to Claire Clairmont, “written when the sense of her desolate position was keen with him, contain utterances which, if we did not know how ardently Shelley gave himself away in friendship, might be regarded as the speech of a lover.” But this knowledge of Shelley’s ardent temperament is just what the veriest tyro in Shelley criticism ought to be fully possessed of; and the fact that Matthew Arnold, in branding Shelley as “inflammable,” omitted all mention of so important a qualification, is only a further proof of his singular incapacity for the duty which he took in hand.

The second point on which Mr. Arnold lays stress is the letter addressed by Shelley to Harriet, from Troyes, after his departure with Mary Godwin in 1814. That Shelley, under the circumstances, should have invited Harriet to join his party as a guest, is a shock to conventional propriety for which it would, I presume, be vain to expect the forgiveness of Bumble, either in this century or the next; a chorus of indignation accordingly arose from the reviewers of Professor Dowden’s book, and this outcry was swelled and supplemented by the judicial pronouncement of the high priest of ethical culture. The best description, he says, that he can give of this letter is that it is “precisely the letter which a man in the writer’s circumstances should not have written.” Casting about for a more concise epithet he selects the word “bête.” “And it is bête from what is the signal, the disastrous want and weakness of Shelley, with all his fine intellectual gifts—his utter deficiency in humour.” Here, however, it may be well to quote the offending passage of the letter itself.

“I write to show that I do not forget you; I write to urge you to come to Switzerland, where you will at last find one firm and constant friend, to whom your interests will be always dear—by whom your feelings will never wilfully be injured. From none can you expect this but me—all else are either unfeeling or selfish, or have beloved friends of their own to whom their attention and affection is confined. . . . . You shall know our adventures more detailed if I do not hear at Neufchatel that I am soon to have the pleasure of communication to you in person, and of welcoming you to some sweet retreat I will procure for you among the mountains.”

Those who regard Shelley’s separation from Harriet as a flagrant infringement of a moral law—a controversy on which there is no need here to say more than that there are two sides to it—must of course include the above letter in the scope of their condemnation. But before we pronounce the proposal to be bête and humourless, it is surely necessary to view it, as Matthew Arnold did not and could not view it, from the standpoint of the writer himself. Will certain critics never be able to understand that, rightly or wrongly, Shelley felt himself to be fully justified in the whole matter of the separation, and that he considered his marital relations towards Harriet to be absolutely and finally at an end? This being so, he nevertheless continued to take an interest in her welfare, to visit her, and advise her on the management of her affairs; and in the case in question, believing that it would be for Harriet’s advantage to make a change of residence, he was not in the slightest degree likely to be debarred from offering what he considered a kindly suggestion by the knowledge (for of course he knew it as well as his critics) that he was acting in direct contravention of the established code of conduct. Nor was there any possibility of Harriet’s feelings being injured by the proffered invitation, for she, too, was quite unconventional and unorthodox in all matters of that sort, and had acquiesced, years before, in the speedy readmission of the culprit Hogg to their household, after conduct which, according to all ordinary notions of propriety, demanded his perpetual exclusion. As to the charge of an “inhuman want of humour,” in this and other passages of Shelley’s life, one is free to admit that Shelley was rarely a humourist; but it is only necessary to point to “Peter Bell the Third,” to show that a true vein of humour undoubtedly underlay the normal seriousness of his nature; and it is possible that, but for the kindly disposition, he might have employed his humour with the some effect on other characters than Wordsworth’s, conceivably on Matthew Arnold himself, had that uncompromising moralist happened to have been his contemporary. “This is really very fine in the way of the dreadful, my rhetorical lord”—so a later writer has apostrophised Macaulay, with regard to his distorted portrait of Swift—“but if we could only have, to hang beside it, Swift’s portrait of you!”

“What a set! What a world! is the exclamation that breaks from us,” write Matthew Arnold, “as we come to an end of this history of the occurrences of Shelley’s private life. I used the French word bête for a letter of Shelley’s; for the world in which we find him I can only use another French word, sale”; and he proceeds with unaffected horror and consternation to remark on the vulgarities for which Godwin, Mrs. Godwin, Hogg, Hunt, Sir Timothy Shelley, and Lord Byron were severally responsible, once more indulging in the heartfelt exclamation—“What a set!” The bitterest enemies of “Culture” could hardly have hoped to see it displayed to greater disadvantage than in this deplorable attitude of Pharisaic superiority, from which that saving humour which is claimed as one of the attributes of “sweet reasonableness” ought surely to have rescued it. “What a set! What a world!” In this characteristic exclamation we have an insight into the essential weakness of Arnold’s philosophy—that academic superciliousness and debilitating sense of respectability from which Shelley, whatever his errors may have been, is so absolutely and refreshingly free. It could never have been said of Shelley, as has been said, not without some reason, of Arnold, that(f) “When he descends into the areas of the brawling controversies of the day, he is apt to make us think of a mild and soft-speaking gentleman who should saunter about gracefully among the vehicles during the hubbub of a crush in Fleet-street or Cheapside, addressing words of sweet soothing and calm admonition to the exasperated and objurgating drivers, and only exasperating them the more.”

In concluding his criticism, Matthew Arnold, having thus “marked firmly” the objectionable features of the later Shelley, “the Shelley who disgusts,” recurs fondly to “our original Shelley,” the “delightful Shelley” of the editions of 1839, referring with admiration to the stories of his kindness, his disinterestedness, his forbearance, his tact, and the charm of his personal appearance. All this is gracious and pleasant enough; but it does not alter the fact that the two Shelleys, who are thus held up in contrast, are purely a fiction of the critic’s brain. Having only partially understood him in his earlier readings, and wholly misunderstood him as presented in Dowden’s biography, he fell into the natural error of imagining that there is a glaring incompatibility between the various aspects of the poet. It would have been difficult to frame a judgment more remote from the truth. It is in the extraordinary unity and consistency of Shelley’s character, in the continuity that marked his thoughts and actions from the day of his expulsion from Oxford to the day of his drowning at Leghorn, that we must seek the real key to his life and his poetry. Matthew Arnold has not only missed all this, but has been quite unconscious that he has missed it; and whatever value attaches to his criticism is therefore almost entirely of the subjective kind. As a piece of self-revelation, exposing with unusual and unintended frankness the limitations of his own sympathies, his remarks on Shelley are at once interesting and suggestive.

(a) Preface to Selected Letters of Shelley.
(b) Preface to Poetry of Bryon.
(c) Preface to Poetry of Bryon, 1881, article on Shelley in Nineteenth Century, Jan., 1888.
(d) Essay on Victorian Literature.
(e) Nineteenth Century, Jan. 1888.
(f) James Thomson, in The Secularist, 1876.

Published: International Review (To-day), September 1889