Shelley as a Pioneer of Humanitarianism

Shelley as a Pioneer of Humanitarianism

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.”

This was the orthodox conception of the poet till about twenty years after his death; then the “abusive” phase of Shelley-criticism was gradually replaced by the “apologetic” phase, which sought to defend his character at the expense of his intellect, by representing him as an amiable visionary who knew not what he said. This expeditious way of dealing with an inconvenient man of genius has found distinguished exponents; such as Gilfillan, who fondly mused on how, if Shelley had been better educated, we might have seen the demoniac “clothed, and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus”; Frederick Robertson, who patronisingly spoke of him ass “poor, poor Shelley”; Carlyle, who could hear nothing in his poetry but “inarticulate wail”; Mr. Leslie Stephen, who declared “the crude incoherence of his whole system too obvious to require exposition”; and finally, Matthew Arnold, who summed up the whole tale of folly in his superlatively foolish epigram, in which he described Shelley as “a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” Time forbids us to do more than glance at this glance at this curious transition in Shelley’s reputation from the “fiend-writer” of 1821, gifted with an infernal “power to do injury,” to the “ineffectual angel” of a later period, with whom the Daily News critic does not find it possible either to agree or disagree. It will be made clear as we pass on to a consideration of Shelley’s principles, that the one view is just as baseless and unsubstantial as the other.

For what is the most trustworthy proof of literary power? There is no test so certain as that of time and experience. If a writer is concerned with matters which have no interest for anybody, if he is a mere dreamer and sentimentalist, crazed, incoherent and ineffectual—is it believable that, a century later, the course of events will be found to have slightly vindicated his foresight, and that all the principles for which he fought almost single-handed will have largely increased in importance? And this is precisely what has happened in the case of Shelley. Whether we look at the progress of free thought, or of socialism, or of the sex question, or of self-reform, or of the simplification of life, or of a number of movements which are usually classed as humanitarian, we find everywhere that, as Mr. Leslie Stephen himself complains—not seeing, apparently, that by this complaint he stultifies his own criticism—“the devotees of some of Shelley’s pet theories have become much noisier.” Yes: for Shelley’s “pet theories,” as Mr. Leslie Stephen contemptuously calls them, happen to be of vital importance in the evolution of society.

The starting point of Shelley’s principles is to be sought in that instinctive benevolence which he held to be inherent in human nature. “All the theories,” he says, “which have refined and exalted humanity have been based upon the elementary emotions of disinterestedness.” And again, “If a man persists to inquire why he ought to promote the happiness of mankind, he demands a mathematical or metaphysical reason for a moral action.” On the power of this benevolence, if allowed to have fair scope, he based his belief in the doctrine of perfectibility, by which must be understood not, of course, a sudden miraculous and final perfection, but the possibility of unlimited progress in years to come. As he says in “Julian and Maddalo”:—

“We might be otherwise; we might be all
We dream of—happy, high, majestical.”

It is with Shelley’s humanitarian doctrines only that we are here concerned, but I wish to refer briefly to one of the commonest fallacies about Shelley, the idea or postponement of human happiness, to the machinations of priests and kings. The Daily News critic, for example, is severe on what he calls—

“that extraordinary theory of the cunning of priests and kings, the theory that several centuries of human history had been occupied in the conduct and continuation of one prolonged hoax. The Shelleyites never realised that it is the people who make the priests, and that all kings, including Nero, are elected by universal suffrage. This pasting down of whole pages in the book of man, this outrageous expurgation of history, seriously impaired the validity of Shelley’s view.”

I am afraid it is the validity of the critic’s view that is seriously impaired in this instance; for if, instead of confining his attention to “Queen Mab,” he had studied the works as a whole, he would have been disabused of the idea that Shelley was under such an illusion. Here is a noteworthy passage, taken from the “Essay on Christianity”:—

“Government is in fact the mere badge of men’s depravity. They are so little aware of the inestimable benefits of mutual love, as to indulge, 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.”

And elsewhere Shelley deprecated the abolition of the crown and aristocracy until “the public mind through many gradations of improvement, shall have arrived at the maturity which can disregard these symbols of its childhood.” It is quite evident from such passages that though Shelley, writing as a poet, laid stress, as he was fully entitled to do, on the evils of kingship, he was well aware that it is a consequence as well as a cause.

In what sense, then, was Shelley a pioneer of modern humanitarian? Now there are, of course, humanitarians and humanitarians, but the complete humanitarian, I take it, must fulfil two conditions—he must possess both the practical and the imaginative temperament. The divorce of practicalness from imagination is often observed in humanitarians, as in other people. One has seen, for example, the practical humanitarian who is sound on every plank in our platform, and yet so deficient in the higher sympathies that he seems to bring to the humanitarian cause about as much sensibility and imagination as one might take into a grocery business. Conversely, there is the sympathetic emotional humanitarian who feels acutely all the sufferings of the universe, yet somehow is apt to range himself in the wrong camp when it comes to a practical issue—a war of conquest, perhaps, or a proposal to torture criminals. The true humanitarian will be both practical and imaginative; and it is under these two heads that I propose to draw attention to Shelley’s claim to be our pioneer.

First, the practical test. Take Shelley’s attitude on some of the great, actual, crucial questions of human conduct. What, for example, was his opinion on the ethics of war? Here is what he says in his “Philosophical View of Reform.”

“War is a kind of superstition; the parade of arms and badges corrupts the imagination of men. How far more appropriate would be the symbols of an inconsolable grief, muffled drums, and melancholy music, and arms reversed—the livery of sorrow. When men mourn at funerals, for what do they mourn, in comparison with the calamities which they hasten, with all the circumstances of festivity, to suffer and to inflict? Visit in imagination the scene of a field of battle or a city taken by assault. Collect into one group the groans and the distortions of the innumerable dying, the inconsolable grief and horror of their sorrowing friends, the hellish exultation and unnatural drunkenness of destruction of conquerors, the burning of the harvests, and the obliteration of the traces of cultivation . . . . . War waged from whatever motive extinguishes the sentiment of reason and justice in the mind.”

And he goes on to show that the greatest evil resulting from war is that it creates a sentiment in favour of brute force, and diminishes our faith in moral influences. Could any remarks be more pertinent to the position of England to-day?

Again, let us take the social question, and inquire whether Shelley had any right apprehension of the cardinal fact in the relations of capital and labour, that it is the industrious poor who support the idle rich, and that the inevitable counterpart of west-east luxury is east-end destitution.

“I put the thing,” he said, “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 of 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 nation.”

Read, also, the following lines from the dramatic fragment “Charles the First,” in which is described the passage of the court masque through London:—

“Aye, there they are—
Nobles, and sons and 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
It be the webs they catch poor rogues withal.
Here is the surfeit which to them who earn
The niggard wages of the earth, scarves 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 sin by English’s punishment.”

This drama was written in 1821. I would invite the critics who regard Shelley as a mere visionary and dreamer, to inform us where there is to be found in English poetry a passage in which the true relations of luxury and destitution are more tersely, more powerfully, and more unerringly set forth.

Turn, once more, to another great humanitarian question, that of the treatment of crime. In Shelley’s short essay "On the Penalty of Death,” the best arguments of present-day reformers are anticipated. The death penalty, he says,

“excites those emotions which it is the chief object of civilisation to extinguish for ever, and in the extinction of which alone there can be any hope of better institutions than those under which men now misgovern one another. Men feel that their revenge is gratified, and that their security is established, by the sufferings of beings in most respects resembling themselves; and their daily occupations constraining them to a precise form in all their thoughts, they come to connect inseparably the idea of their own advantage with that of the death and torture of others.”

It would be scarcely possible to express more concisely, at the present day, the essential objection to every form of penal violence, than is here done in Shelley’s essay, written nearly ninety years back.

One further example of Shelley’s practical adhesion to humanitarian principles will suffice. Perhaps no feature of his philosophy has been more often ridiculed than his vegetarianism; yet here, too, he gave proof not only of personal humaneness but of practical foresight, for food reform is now widely recognised as a necessary part of any well-considered scheme of humanising our relation towards the animals, and everyone who deals with the question of animals’ rights is compelled to take some note of it. Alone among the poets of his generation, Shelley was unwilling to sentimentalise about the beauty of kindness to animals, and at the same time “to slay the lamb that looks him in the face,” or, what is still more immoral, to devolve that unpleasant process on another person.

We see, then, from the instances already given (and more could, if necessary, be quoted), that Shelley’s humane principles were not, as some of his critics have supposed, mere phantasies and castles in the air, but were based on a firm foundation which has stood the test of time. Poet and child of the future though he was, he had also a keen eye for the problems of the present, and if his references to contemporary events be compared with those of other writers of his period, in the light of subsequent history, he will be no sufferer by the comparison. His debt to Godwin, however, should be acknowledged in this connection; what we claim for him is not that he was what is known as an “original thinker,” but that he instinctively grasped and assimilated—and, it should be added, practised in his own life—the most vital democratic conceptions, the ideas that were destined to survive and flourish and bear fruit hereafter—in many cases humanitarian fruit, as the Humanitarian League is alive to-day to testify. Even in matters of mere policy, the modern reformer (let us say the socialist, or the anti-vivisectionist or the vegetarian) may learn much of Shelley, as, for instance, in that vexed question of the acceptance or refusal of “compromise,” the adoption or rejection of what are called “lesser measures,” which is apt to divide our forces, quite unnecessarily, into two camps. “You know,” wrote Shelley to a friend, “my principles incite me to take all the good I can get, for ever aspiring to something more. I am one of those whom nothing will ever fully satisfy, but who are ready to be partially satisfied in all that is practicable.” Would that many of us to-day had the same practical wisdom!

But the practical is only one side, and not the more important side, of a poet’s equipment; for he will not be bounded by the nearer humanitarian horizon, but will soar into those remoter regions which are inaccessible to the unimaginative mind. And in Shelley’s case, as we all know, the power of imagination was supreme. I do not wish to repeat what has been said of his genius on this score by literary critics; it is sufficient to remember that his “Prometheus Unbound” has been described as “a dizzy summit of lyric inspiration, where not foot but Shelley’s ever trod before,” and this by the Quarterly Review, which in Shelley’s lifetime had dismissed the very same poem as “drivelling prose run mad.” What I wish to emphasise is the fact that Shelley’s imaginative faculty is quite as conspicuous in his humanitarian as in his poetical capacity; and it was by virtue of this gift of imagination that his sympathies were so intense. His famous description of himself in “Julian and Maddalo” come to mind:—

Me, who am as a nerve o’er which do creep
The else-unfelt oppressions of this earth.”

I presume it must be due to the strange idea that there is something “morbid” in such sensibility (as if a stolid indifference to other persons’ sufferings were an indication of health!), that the literary folk have, as a rule, fought rather shy of Shelley’s humanitarian sympathies, while innumerable tributes have been paid to his poetic genius. Yet even from the special point of view of the literary critic, this seems to be a mistake; for it is irrational to suppose that the fiery conviction of a lifetime could fail to leave its indelible mark on the verse. And indeed, as I have elsewhere said—

“If we seek for a terse and comprehensive title for Shelley’s poetical contribution to the literature and thought of his age, we shall call it the Poetry of Love. It is not merely that Shelley was animated and heartened by this spirit of love. His language everywhere speaks love; and it is this that gives his style that distinctive tone of passionate tenderness which his predecessors had never imagined and his followers have never been able to repeat.”

Love was, in fact, the guiding principle of Shelley’s life and faith. “If there be no love among men,” he says, “whatever institutions they may frame must be subservient to the same purpose—to the continuance of inequality. The only perfect and genuine republic is that which comprehends every living being.” Shelley himself was as one who had taken a vow in the service of humanity, and in the introductory stanzas of “Laon and Cythna” he has told the story of his early awakening and self-dedication.

“Thoughts of great deeds were mine, dear Friend, when first
The clouds which wrap this world from youth did pass.
I do remember well the hour which burst
My spirit’s sleep: a fresh May-dawn it was,
When I walked forth upon the glittering grass,
And wept, I knew not why: until there rose
From the near school-room, voices, that, alas!
Were but one echo from a world of woes—
The harsh and grating strife of tyrants and of foes.
“And then I clasped my hands and looked around,
But none was near to mock my streaming eyes,
Which poured their warm drops on the sunny ground—
So without shame, I spake:—‘I will be wise,
And just, and free, and mild, if in me lies
Such power, for I grow weary to behold
The selfish and the strong still tyrannise
Without reproach or check.’ I then controlled
My tears, my heart grew calm, and I was meek and bold.”

How faithfully this youthful vow was kept is known to every reader of Shelley’s life. “If ever,” wrote Leigh Hunt, “there was a man upon earth of a more spiritual nature than ordinary, partaking of the errors and perturbations of his species, but seeing and working through them with a seraphical purpose of good, such an one was Percy Bysshe Shelley.” And it was felt by all who knew him that the inscription cor codium placed on Shelley’s tombstone was the truest and fittest tribute that could have been conceived.

It is the regenerating power of Love that forms the main subject of Shelley’s most characteristic poems. “Queen Mab,” “Laon and Cythna,” and “Prometheus Unbound,” however great the differences that mark them in style and workmanship—ranging as they do from the juvenile to the mature, from the didactic to the imaginative, from the polemical to the ideal—are all three alike in this, that they equally celebrate the peaceful triumph of humanitarian principles. They form, in fact, one great humanitarian “trilogy,” each part of which represents a certain phase in Shelley’s career. Take, for example, the following stanza from “Laon and Cythna”:—

“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
To thrones on heaven or earth such destiny may know.”

To live as if to love and live were one.” Would it be possible to sum up more gloriously, in a single line of ten words, the essence of what we call humanitarianism?

But it is when we come to the “Prometheus Unbound,” the masterpiece of Shelley’s Italian period, that we see the highest flight of his genius. There is a legend told of one of his ancestors which may be considered prophetic of the trilogy of which I am speaking.

“Sir Guyon de Shelley,” runs the story, “one of the most famous of the Paladins, carried about with him three conchs, fastened to the inside of his shield, tipt respectively with brass, with silver, and with gold. When he blew the first shell, all giants, however huge, fled before him. When he put the second to his lips, all spells were broken, all enchantments dissolved; and when he made the third conch, the golden one, vocal, the law of God was immediately exalted, and the law of the devil annulled and abrogated, wherever the potent sound reached.”

“Prometheus Unbound,” the golden shell of the legend, is the poem of liberated humanity, the supreme expression of humanitarian feeling in the nineteenth century. Witness the concluding stanzas:—

“This is the day, which down the void abysm
At the Earth-born’s spell yawns for Heaven’s despotism,
And Conquest is dragged captive through the deep:
Love, from its awful throne of patient power
In the wise heart, from the last giddy hour
Of dear endurance, from the slippery, steep,
And narrow verge of crag-like agony, springs
And folds over the world its healing wings.

“Gentlemen, Virtue, Wisdom, and Endurance,
These are the seals of that most firm assurance
Which bars the pit over Destruction’s strength;
And if, with infirm hand, Eternity,
Mother of many acts and hours, should free
The serpent that would clasp her with his length,
These are the spells by which to re-assume
An empire o’er the disentangled doom.

“To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love and bear; to hope, till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent—
This, like the glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great, and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.”

It will be noted that the “victory” which is the final word of Shelley’s great poem, is a peaceful and bloodless one; there is indeed no truth on which he more frequently and strongly insists than the wickedness of vengeance. “I have avoided,” he says, in preface to “Laon and Cythna,” “all flattery to those violent and malignant passions which are ever on the watch to mingle with and to alloy the most beneficial innovations.” The stanzas in his “Masque of Anarchy,” in which he develops his doctrine of non-resistance, are well known, and curiously anticipate certain features of Tolstoy’s teaching. The true patriot, he tells us, in the “Philosophical View of Reform,” will exhort the people peacefully to defy their oppressors, “and to wait with folded arms the event of the fire of the artillery, and receive with unshrinking bosoms the bayonets of charging battalions.”

I would say a few words, before concluding, on Shelley’s attitude towards the lower animals—a very important part of any estimate of humanitarian sympathies. There is nothing more delightful in Shelley than the utter absence of the “Superior Person” (would that the same could be said of many of his critics!), both as regards his human and non-human fellow-beings. Whenever he speaks of animals, it is with an instinctive, childlike, and perfectly natural sense of kinship and brotherhood. Thus in “Alastor,” in the invocation of Nature, we find him saying:—

“If no bright bird, insect, or gentle beast
I consciously have injured, but still loved
And cherished these my kindred.”

And the same tone runs through the famous lines in “Queen Mab”:—

“No longer now the wingéd habitants,
That in the woods their sweet lives sing away,
Flee from the form of man; but gather round,
And prune their sunny features on the hands
Which little children stretch in friendly sport
Towards these dreadless partners of their play.
His terrible prerogative, and stands
An equal amidst equals.”

And again, in his description of the Lady of the Garden, in his “Sensitive Plant”:—

“And all killing insects, and gnawing worms,
And things of obscene and unlovely forms,
She bore, in a basket of Indian woof,
Into the rough woods far aloof,

“In a basket of grasses and wild flowers full,
The freshest her gentle hands could pull
For the poor banished insects, whose intent,
Although they did ill, was innocent.”

How different is this spirit of friendship and equality from that which we too often see even in professed “lovers of animals”—that air of remote superiority and patronage which makes one feel that some good people, however much they may be moved (to their great credit) by pity and justice for animal suffering, are very far from understanding the beings whom they would protect!

It is now, I trust, sufficiently evident that Shelley’s claim to be classed as a Pioneer of Humanitarianism is a genuine one; indeed I think the question for us is not so much whether Shelley is qualified to be our predecessor, as whether we are qualified to be followers of Shelley. Certainly, of all reformers, humanitarians have most reason to be grateful to him for the example he has set them; and I would suggest that the two best methods of expressing that gratitude are, first, to study his writings as a whole, sympathetically and fully, and not in that purblind partial way which has led to such misunderstanding in the past; and, secondly, what is still more important, to try, in our own lives, to put his principles into practice. The first was the way of the Shelley Society; the second is the way of the Humanitarian League. They are the only forms of “hero-worship” which are worthy of rational men.

Henry S. Salt

Humanitarian League, 1902, pp. 15