Shelley as a Pioneer of Humanitarianism
by Henry S. Salt
A few weeks ago, when this lecture-course was in preparation, and I was beginning to survey the lines on which the subject of Shelley’s humanitarianism might be discussed, I was in some doubt as to the need of once again referring to the old oft-refuted fallacies by which the very meaning of Shelley’s message has been obscured. Is it not possible, I pondered, now that we have touched a new century, to assume that the main features of the Shelleyan creed are understood, at least by the more thoughtful and progressive portion of the community? And, as I pondered, my eyes fell on an article in the Daily News, in which it was thus written by Mr. G. K. Chesterton:—
“Shelley was only the earthly name for a spirit that every vivacious child must meet once, and must meet alone. He is not a companion for the road of life, not a philosopher, not a prophet, not, properly speaking, even a man. . . . . A spirit so valuable and unreliable, with whom we can no more agree or disagree than we can measure a cloud with a yard measure. . . . . The whole of his work amounts to a great epic about an inspiring example of nothing in particular, that was done nowhere in particular, at no particular time.”
Now if one of the ablest critics in one of the most humane and intelligent daily papers can write thus of Shelley in the eightieth year of his death, it is evident that an exponent of Shelley’s humanitarian principles must take nothing for granted. If Shelley’s writings had no meaning at all, and if it is impossible either to agree or disagree with his convictions, I do not think he can justly claim a place among the Pioneers of Humanitarianism, for we humanitarians of the present day are commonly understood to mean something, and we have never had the least difficulty in finding people to disagree with us. I propose, therefore, to say a few words about the misunderstandings, past and present, of Shelley’s views of life.
That he should be misunderstood by his own and later generations was no more than was to be expected; for, in the first place, he was the bearer of a message to which the majority of men are predisposed not to listen, and, secondly, he delivered that message through a medium which the majority cannot comprehend if they would: that is to say, he thought as a revolutionist and wrote as a poet. True, there are now his prose works, which form a commentary and key to the poems; but these were only posthumously and gradually published, and the unreal Shelley thus got a long start of the real one. But what is more remarkable is that the later misunderstandings of Shelley are, in their way, quite as ridiculous as the earlier. His contemporary critics at any rate did not affect to be in any doubt as to the import of his attacks on all that they held sacred in ethics and religion; and in a typical review of “Queen Mab” we find him described inter alia as “one of the darkest of the fiends,” “the fiend-writer,” “the blaster of his race,” and “the demoniac proscriber of his species.”
“We feel as if one of the darkest of his friends 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 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.”
Published: The Humanitarian League, London, 1902