Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Pioneer

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Pioneer

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Pioneer. A Biographical Study. By Henry S. Salt
London: William Reeves; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1896.

MR. SALT announces in the preface that his purpose is “to interpret Shelley, not to criticise or eulogize him.” Just at the close he again disclaims “any idea of suggesting that Shelley was a faultless being.” But in the body of the book the mortal clods are forgotten. Mr. Salt seldom allows his saint and hero to lay aside the nimbus, and then only for the sake of an artistic contrast. This enthusiasm is due to other causes than mere literary and personal sympathy. Mr. Salt’s interest is not so much in the bard as is the revolutionist. Mr. J. Cordy Jeaffreson once made a book called ‘The Real Shelley,’ and Mr. Salt might better have termed his essay ‘The Socialist Shelley.’ “By the full fledged social democracy on whose threshold we now stand, he will at length be seen in his true human character as the inspired prophet of a larger and saner morality, which will bring with it the realization of the equality and freedom to which his whole life was so faithfully and ungrudgingly devoted." Mr. Salt is a particularly full-fledged social democrat, with a taste for rhetoric and a lively aversion to the married state. His contempt for those who see in marriage more than a “stereotyped and loveless institution” is unveiled. Are we mediæval or is there something droll about the following sentence? “The failure of marriage has become so notorious as to be a commonplace of modern novel-writers.’’ Mr. Salt outstrips Prof. Dowden in defending Shelley’s domestic relations. He has only one censure to offer: Shelley’s marriage with Harriet was the mistake of his career because he compromised his opinions by marrying at all. And when, after chastising Walter Bagehot, Leslie Stephen, and the “nincompoop” of Matthew Arnold, Mr. Salt proceeds to indict Addington Symonds for being “misled by the same social prejudice,” we feel that we are posting into the twentieth century at break-neck speed.

Arnold is Mr. Salt’s pet aversion, especially his phrase about “the beautiful and ineffectual angel.” In retaliation, Mr. Salt “gives it” to Matthew throughout nine special pages, concluding with a sledge-hammer blow in rhyme which is alone worth the price of the book. A score of other people, ancient and modern, come in for severe slating. What a pity that the Socialists, with their views about the perfectibility of mankind, should have to pour torrents of abuse upon the fellow-men! “Brutal Tory” and “invertebrate Liberal” must comprehend a good many humans, yet the race is so pure and lofty that it can be trusted to follow the guiding-star of free love.

Despite the second title, Mr. Salt gives us less biography than disquisition. A great deal of the author’s comment accompanies a brief account of the poet’s life. Shelley’s detractors are assailed in pretty much the same strain that Shelley himself uses in “Adonais” towards the Quarterly Reviewer: “Live thou whose infamy is not thy fame.” Mr. Salt: the most dogmatic of writers, objects to the dogmatism of those who deny Shelley the possession of great intellectual powers. He excludes discrimination. One must not criticise, but bow at the shrine. Hepworth Dixon writes similarly about Lord Bacon. The least hint of disposition to patronize Shelley is a red rag to Mr. Salt. If Shelley learned of Rousseau, Paine, and Godwin, he transmuted their ideas and is an independent pioneer of modern socialism. When one has always supposed that he was more or less a product of the French Revolution, it is hard to be told abruptly that he was a political creator. On the other hand, gibes at “our national deity, ‘Mrs. Grundy,’ ” are perfectly familiar, and Mr. Salt has no monopoly of them. We have learned to take them for just what they are worth. We desist from touching in reply upon fixed moral ideas, for fear our remarks might be termed the futile “complaint of a capitalist press.” Mr. Salt has much to say about Shelley’s humanitarianism, and here we are in accord with him, though his tone is too declamatory. But why should the Socialists assume a monopoly of human kindness? Socialism stands less for universal benevolence than for a particular scheme to extend human happiness. Because one differs from the details of the scheme, he is not necessarily opposed to its aim.

Mr. Salt starts many questions of universal moment, and manages to connect Shelley with them all. We wish we could praise his panegyric more highly, for it has the merit of true zeal. We also regret that he has forced us to assume a tone of disparagement towards one who was a paragon of poetical genius and personal unselfishness. But that is the fault of his treatment. Mr. Salt’s Shelley will never command the unqualified admiration of the world until our present moral and social ideals have emerged from Medea’s cauldron.

The Nation, July 9, 1896, p. 36