Percy Bysshe Shelley, Poet and Pioneer: A Biographical Study

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Poet and Pioneer: A Biographical Study

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Poet and Pioneer: A Biographical Study. By HENRY S. SALT. London : W. Reeves, 185, Fleet St., E.C., 1896. 12mo. pp xii. 192.

Shelley was fated to live before his time and he was consequently misunderstood. To his early critics, shocked as they were by his want of respect for kings and churches as by law established he was a kind of satanic being, a monster of abnormal and almost super-human wickedness. In the Literary Gazette of 1821, he is referred to as “the fiend-writer” and “the demoniac proscriber of the species” and the writer of the notice pretended that this demoniac view of Shelley had made an impression upon his mind that he asked a friend, who had seen Shelley, to describe him “as if a cloven foot, or horn, or flames from the mouth, must have marked the external appearance of so bitter an enemy of mankind.” This view of Shelley was largely held during his lifetime. It was eventually superseded by the view that Shelley was not an absolutely wicked man but merely a misguided genius. The critics combined a real admiration for his poetical genius with stern censure of the principles on which his life was framed. To this phase of Shelley criticism there is succeeding, and this is very largely the result of Mr. Salt’s influence, a newer and probably a more accurate interpretation of Shelley’s character. According to this interpretation was neither the demon of the first critics nor the “ineffectual angel” of the later ones, but he was “the poet-pioneer of the great republican and humanitarian movement which we now see to be impending,” and “he intuitively anticipated, in his own character and aspirations, many of the revolutionary ideas which are in process of development.” He was not a faultless being, and he shared some of the intellectual errors and disabilities of his time, but he was in the main, not a weak-minded visionary, but an “exceptionally shrewd and prophetic one, inasmuch as all the chief principles which were essential to his creed are found to have increased enormously in importance during the seventy years that have elapsed since his death.” It is this latter view of Shelley which Mr. Salt gives with sympathy and truth. Mr. Salt rightly regards Shelley’s vegetarianism as a matter bearing most materially on his intellectual development and moral character. Mr. Salt’s biographical study should be read by all who wish to form a correct estimate of one who was not only one of England’s greatest poets, but had a tremendous influence, direct and indirect, on the reform movements which are so characteristic of the present century.

The Vegetarian Messenger, Vol. 10 No. 7, July 1896, pp. 224-225

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