Alastor

or

The Spirit of Solitude


Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Table of Contents

Preface.

Alastor: or, the Spirit of Solitude.

Note on Alastor, by Mrs. Shelley.

[Composed at Bishopsgate Heath, near Windsor Park, 1815 (autumn); published, as the title-piece of a slender volume containing other poems (see “Biographical List”, by Baldwin, Cradock and Joy, London, 1816 (March). Reprinted — the first edition being sold out — amongst the “Posthumous Poems”, 1824. Sources of the text are (1) the editio princeps, 1816; (2) “Posthumous Poems”, 1824; (3) “Poetical Works”, 1839, editions 1st and 2nd. For (2) and (3) Mrs. Shelley is responsible.]

Preface.

The poem entitled “Alastor” may be considered as allegorical of one of the most interesting situations of the human mind. It represents a youth of uncorrupted feelings and adventurous genius led forth by an imagination inflamed and purified through familiarity with all that is excellent and majestic, to the contemplation of the universe. He drinks deep of the fountains of knowledge, and is still insatiate. The magnificence and beauty of the external world sinks profoundly into the frame of his conceptions, and affords to their modifications at variety not to be exhausted. so long as it is possible for his desires to point towards objects thus infinite and unmeasured, he is joyous, and tranquil, and self-possessed. But the period arrives when these objects cease to suffice. His mind is at length suddenly awakened and thirsts for intercourse with an intelligence similar to itself. He images to himself the Being whom he loves. Conversant with speculations of the sublimest and most perfect natures, the vision in which he embodies his own imaginations unites all of wonderful, or wise, or beautiful, which the poet, the philosopher, or the lover could depicture. The intellectual faculties, the imagination, the functions of sense, have their respective requisitions on the sympathy of corresponding powers in other human beings. The Poet is represented as uniting these requisitions, and attaching them to a single image. He seeks in vain for a prototype of his conception. Blasted by his disappointment, he descends to an untimely grave.

The picture is not barren of instruction to actual men. The Poet’s self-centred seclusion was avenged by the furies of an irresistible passion pursuing him to speedy ruin. But that Power which strikes the luminaries of the world with sudden darkness and extinction, by awakening them to too exquisite a perception of its influences, dooms to a slow and poisonous decay those manner spirits that dare to abjure its dominion. Their destiny is more abject and inglorious as their delinquency is more contemptible and pernicious. They who, deluded by no generous error, instigated by no sacred thirst of doubtful knowledge, duped by no illustrious superstition, loving nothing on this earth, and cherishing no hopes beyond, yet keep aloof from sympathies with their kind, rejoicing neither in human joy nor mourning with human grief; these, and such as they, have their apportioned curse. They languish, because none feel with them their common nature. They are morally dead. They are neither friends, nor lovers, nor fathers, nor citizens of the world, nor benefactors of their country. Among those who attempt to exist without human sympathy, the pure and tender-hearted perish through the intensity and passion of their search after its communities, when the vacancy of their spirit suddenly makes itself felt. All else, selfish, blind, and torpid, are those unforeseeing multitudes who constitute, together with their own, the lasting misery and loneliness of the world. Those who love not their fellow-beings live unfruitful lives, and prepare for their old age a miserable grave.

‘The good die first,

And those whose hearts are dry as summer dust,

Burn to the socket!’

December 14, 1815.

1. “Preface”. For the concluding paragraph see editor’s note on “The Daemon of the World”: Part 1.

Alastor: or, the Spirit of Solitude.

Earth, Ocean, Air, beloved brotherhood!

If our great Mother has imbued my soul

With aught of natural piety to feel

Your love, and recompense the boon with mine;

5

If dewy morn, and odorous noon, and even,

With sunset and its gorgeous ministers,

And solemn midnight’s tingling silentness;

If autumn’s hollow sighs in the sere wood,

And winter robing with pure snow and crowns

10

Of starry ice the grey grass and bare boughs;

If spring’s voluptuous pantings when she breathes

Her first sweet kisses, have been dear to me;

If no bright bird, insect, or gentle beast

I consciously have injured, but still loved

15

And cherished these my kindred; then forgive

This boast, beloved brethren, and withdraw

No portion of your wonted favour now!

Mother of this unfathomable world!

Favour my solemn song, for I have loved

20

Thee ever, and thee only; I have watched

Thy shadow, and the darkness of thy steps,

And my heart ever gazes on the depth

Of thy deep mysteries. I have made my bed

In charnels and on coffins, where black death

25

Keeps record of the trophies won from thee,

Hoping to still these obstinate questionings

Of thee and thine, by forcing some lone ghost,

Thy messenger, to render up the tale

Of what we are. In lone and silent hours,

30

When night makes a weird sound of its own stillness,

Like an inspired and desperate alchymist

Staking his very life on some dark hope,

Have I mixed awful talk and asking looks

With my most innocent love, until strange tears,

35

Uniting with those breathless kisses, made

Such magic as compels the charmed night

To render up thy charge: . . . and, though ne’er yet

Thou hast unveiled thy inmost sanctuary,

Enough from incommunicable dream,

40

And twilight phantasms, and deep noon-day thought,

Has shone within me, that serenely now

And moveless, as a long-forgotten lyre

Suspended in the solitary dome

Of some mysterious and deserted fane,

45

I wait thy breath, Great Parent, that my strain

May modulate with murmurs of the air,

And motions of the forests and the sea,

And voice of living beings, and woven hymns

Of night and day, and the deep heart of man.

50

There was a Poet whose untimely tomb

No human hands with pious reverence reared,

But the charmed eddies of autumnal winds

Built o’er his mouldering bones a pyramid

Of mouldering leaves in the waste wilderness:—

55

A lovely youth — no mourning maiden decked

With weeping flowers, or votive cypress wreath,

The lone couch of his everlasting sleep:—

Gentle, and brave, and generous — no lorn bard

Breathed o’er his dark fate one melodious sigh:

60

He lived, he died, he sung in solitude.

Strangers have wept to hear his passionate notes,

And virgins, as unknown he passed, have pined

And wasted for fond love of his wild eyes.

The fire of those soft orbs has ceased to burn,

65

And Silence, too enamoured of that voice,

Locks its mute music in her rugged cell.

By solemn vision, and bright silver dream

His infancy was nurtured. Every sight

And sound from the vast earth and ambient air,

70

Sent to his heart its choicest impulses.

The fountains of divine philosophy

Fled not his thirsting lips, and all of great,

Or good, or lovely, which the sacred past

In truth or fable consecrates, he felt

75

And knew. When early youth had passed, he left

His cold fireside and alienated home

To seek strange truths in undiscovered lands.

Many a wide waste and tangled wilderness

Has lured his fearless steps; and he has bought

80

With his sweet voice and eyes, from savage men,

His rest and food. Nature’s most secret steps

He like her shadow has pursued, where’er

The red volcano overcanopies

Its fields of snow and pinnacles of ice

85

With burning smoke, or where bitumen lakes

On black bare pointed islets ever beat

With sluggish surge, or where the secret caves,

Rugged and dark, winding among the springs

Of fire and poison, inaccessible

90

To avarice or pride, their starry domes

Of diamond and of gold expand above

Numberless and immeasurable halls,

Frequent with crystal column, and clear shrines

Of pearl, and thrones radiant with chrysolite.

95

Nor had that scene of ampler majesty

Than gems or gold, the varying roof of heaven

And the green earth lost in his heart its claims

To love and wonder; he would linger long

In lonesome vales, making the wild his home,

100

Until the doves and squirrels would partake

From his innocuous hand his bloodless food,

Lured by the gentle meaning of his looks,

And the wild antelope, that starts whene’er

The dry leaf rustles in the brake, suspend

Her timid steps, to gaze upon a form

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More graceful than her own.

His wandering step,

Obedient to high thoughts, has visited

The awful ruins of the days of old:

Athens, and Tyre, and Balbec, and the waste

110

Where stood Jerusalem, the fallen towers

Of Babylon, the eternal pyramids,

Memphis and Thebes, and whatsoe’er of strange,

Sculptured on alabaster obelisk,

Or jasper tomb, or mutilated sphynx,

115

Dark Aethiopia in her desert hills

Conceals. Among the ruined temples there,

Stupendous columns, and wild images

Of more than man, where marble daemons watch

The Zodiac’s brazen mystery, and dead men

120

Hang their mute thoughts on the mute walls around,

He lingered, poring on memorials

Of the world’s youth: through the long burning day

Gazed on those speechless shapes; nor, when the moon

Filled the mysterious halls with floating shades

125

Suspended he that task, but ever gazed

And gazed, till meaning on his vacant mind

Flashed like strong inspiration, and he saw

The thrilling secrets of the birth of time.

Meanwhile an Arab maiden brought his food,

130

Her daily portion, from her father’s tent,

And spread her matting for his couch, and stole

From duties and repose to tend his steps,

Enamoured, yet not daring for deep awe

To speak her love:— and watched his nightly sleep,

135

Sleepless herself, to gaze upon his lips

Parted in slumber, whence the regular breath

Of innocent dreams arose; then, when red morn

Made paler the pale moon, to her cold home

Wildered, and wan, and panting, she returned.

140

The Poet, wandering on, through Arabie,

And Persia, and the wild Carmanian waste,

And o’er the aerial mountains which pour down

Indus and Oxus from their icy caves,

In joy and exultation held his way;

145

Till in the vale of Cashmire, far within

Its loneliest dell, where odorous plants entwine

Beneath the hollow rocks a natural bower,

Beside a sparkling rivulet he stretched

His languid limbs. A vision on his sleep

150

There came, a dream of hopes that never yet

Had flushed his cheek. He dreamed a veiled maid

Sate near him, talking in low solemn tones.

Her voice was like the voice of his own soul

Heard in the calm of thought; its music long,

155

Like woven sounds of streams and breezes, held

His inmost sense suspended in its web

Of many-coloured woof and shifting hues.

Knowledge and truth and virtue were her theme,

And lofty hopes of divine liberty,

160

Thoughts the most dear to him, and poesy,

Herself a poet. Soon the solemn mood

Of her pure mind kindled through all her frame

A permeating fire; wild numbers then

She raised, with voice stifled in tremulous sobs

165

Subdued by its own pathos; her fair hands

Were bare alone, sweeping from some strange harp

Strange symphony, and in their branching veins

The eloquent blood told an ineffable tale.

The beating of her heart was heard to fill

170

The pauses of her music, and her breath

Tumultuously accorded with those fits

Of intermitted song. Sudden she rose,

As if her heart impatiently endured

Its bursting burthen: at the sound he turned,

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And saw by the warm light of their own life

Her glowing limbs beneath the sinuous veil

Of woven wind, her outspread arms now bare,

Her dark locks floating in the breath of night,

Her beamy bending eyes, her parted lips

180

Outstretched, and pale, and quivering eagerly.

His strong heart sunk and sickened with excess

Of love. He reared his shuddering limbs and quelled

His gasping breath, and spread his arms to meet

Her panting bosom: . . . she drew back a while,

185

Then, yielding to the irresistible joy,

With frantic gesture and short breathless cry

Folded his frame in her dissolving arms.

Now blackness veiled his dizzy eyes, and night

Involved and swallowed up the vision; sleep,

190

Like a dark flood suspended in its course,

Rolled back its impulse on his vacant brain.

Roused by the shock he started from his trance —

The cold white light of morning, the blue moon

Low in the west, the clear and garish hills,

195

The distinct valley and the vacant woods,

Spread round him where he stood. Whither have fled

The hues of heaven that canopied his bower

Of yesternight? The sounds that soothed his sleep,

The mystery and the majesty of Earth,

200

The joy, the exultation? His wan eyes

Gaze on the empty scene as vacantly

As ocean’s moon looks on the moon in heaven.

The spirit of sweet human love has sent

A vision to the sleep of him who spurned

205

Her choicest gifts. He eagerly pursues

Beyond the realms of dream that fleeting shade;

He overleaps the bounds. Alas! Alas!

Were limbs, and breath, and being intertwined

Thus treacherously? Lost, lost, for ever lost

210

In the wide pathless desert of dim sleep,

That beautiful shape! Does the dark gate of death

Conduct to thy mysterious paradise,

O Sleep? Does the bright arch of rainbow clouds

And pendent mountains seen in the calm lake,

215

Lead only to a black and watery depth,

While death’s blue vault, with loathliest vapours hung,

Where every shade which the foul grave exhales

Hides its dead eye from the detested day,

Conducts, O Sleep, to thy delightful realms?

220

This doubt with sudden tide flowed on his heart;

The insatiate hope which it awakened, stung

His brain even like despair.

While daylight held

The sky, the Poet kept mute conference

With his still soul. At night the passion came,

225

Like the fierce fiend of a distempered dream,

And shook him from his rest, and led him forth

Into the darkness. — As an eagle, grasped

In folds of the green serpent, feels her breast

Burn with the poison, and precipitates

230

Through night and day, tempest, and calm, and cloud,

Frantic with dizzying anguish, her blind flight

O’er the wide aery wilderness: thus driven

By the bright shadow of that lovely dream,

Beneath the cold glare of the desolate night,

235

Through tangled swamps and deep precipitous dells,

Startling with careless step the moonlight snake,

He fled. Red morning dawned upon his flight,

Shedding the mockery of its vital hues

Upon his cheek of death. He wandered on

240

Till vast Aornos seen from Petra’s steep

Hung o’er the low horizon like a cloud;

Through Balk, and where the desolated tombs

Of Parthian kings scatter to every wind

Their wasting dust, wildly he wandered on,

245

Day after day a weary waste of hours,

Bearing within his life the brooding care

That ever fed on its decaying flame.

And now his limbs were lean; his scattered hair,

Sered by the autumn of strange suffering

250

Sung dirges in the wind; his listless hand

Hung like dead bone within its withered skin;

Life, and the lustre that consumed it, shone

As in a furnace burning secretly

From his dark eyes alone. The cottagers,

255

Who ministered with human charity

His human wants, beheld with wondering awe

Their fleeting visitant. The mountaineer,

Encountering on some dizzy precipice

That spectral form, deemed that the Spirit of wind

260

With lightning eyes, and eager breath, and feet

Disturbing not the drifted snow, had paused

In its career: the infant would conceal

His troubled visage in his mother’s robe

In terror at the glare of those wild eyes,

265

To remember their strange light in many a dream

Of after-times; but youthful maidens, taught

By nature, would interpret half the woe

That wasted him, would call him with false names

Brother and friend, would press his pallid hand

270

At parting, and watch, dim through tears, the path

Of his departure from their father’s door.

At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore

He paused, a wide and melancholy waste

Of putrid marshes. A strong impulse urged

275

His steps to the sea-shore. A swan was there,

Beside a sluggish stream among the reeds.

It rose as he approached, and, with strong wings

Scaling the upward sky, bent its bright course

High over the immeasurable main.

280

His eyes pursued its flight:—‘Thou hast a home,

Beautiful bird; thou voyagest to thine home,

Where thy sweet mate will twine her downy neck

With thine, and welcome thy return with eyes

Bright in the lustre of their own fond joy.

285

And what am I that I should linger here,

With voice far sweeter than thy dying notes,

Spirit more vast than thine, frame more attuned

To beauty, wasting these surpassing powers

In the deaf air, to the blind earth, and heaven

290

That echoes not my thoughts?’ A gloomy smile

Of desperate hope wrinkled his quivering lips.

For sleep, he knew, kept most relentlessly

Its precious charge, and silent death exposed,

Faithless perhaps as sleep, a shadowy lure,

295

With doubtful smile mocking its own strange charms.

Startled by his own thoughts he looked around.

There was no fair fiend near him, not a sight

Or sound of awe but in his own deep mind.

A little shallop floating near the shore

300

Caught the impatient wandering of his gaze.

It had been long abandoned, for its sides

Gaped wide with many a rift, and its frail joints

Swayed with the undulations of the tide.

A restless impulse urged him to embark

305

And meet lone Death on the drear ocean’s waste;

For well he knew that mighty Shadow loves

The slimy caverns of the populous deep.

The day was fair and sunny; sea and sky

Drank its inspiring radiance, and the wind

310

Swept strongly from the shore, blackening the waves.

Following his eager soul, the wanderer

Leaped in the boat, he spread his cloak aloft

On the bare mast, and took his lonely seat,

And felt the boat speed o’er the tranquil sea

315

Like a torn cloud before the hurricane.

As one that in a silver vision floats

Obedient to the sweep of odorous winds

Upon resplendent clouds, so rapidly

Along the dark and ruffled waters fled

320

The straining boat. — A whirlwind swept it on,

With fierce gusts and precipitating force,

Through the white ridges of the chafed sea.

The waves arose. Higher and higher still

Their fierce necks writhed beneath the tempest’s scourge

325

Like serpents struggling in a vulture’s grasp.

Calm and rejoicing in the fearful war

Of wave ruining on wave, and blast on blast

Descending, and black flood on whirlpool driven

With dark obliterating course, he sate:

330

As if their genii were the ministers

Appointed to conduct him to the light

Of those beloved eyes, the Poet sate,

Holding the steady helm. Evening came on,

The beams of sunset hung their rainbow hues

335

High ‘mid the shifting domes of sheeted spray

That canopied his path o’er the waste deep;

Twilight, ascending slowly from the east,

Entwined in duskier wreaths her braided locks

O’er the fair front and radiant eyes of day;

340

Night followed, clad with stars. On every side

More horribly the multitudinous streams

Of ocean’s mountainous waste to mutual war

Rushed in dark tumult thundering, as to mock

The calm and spangled sky. The little boat

345

Still fled before the storm; still fled, like foam

Down the steep cataract of a wintry river;

Now pausing on the edge of the riven wave;

Now leaving far behind the bursting mass

That fell, convulsing ocean: safely fled —

350

As if that frail and wasted human form,

Had been an elemental god.

At midnight

The moon arose; and lo! the ethereal cliffs

Of Caucasus, whose icy summits shone

Among the stars like sunlight, and around

355

Whose caverned base the whirlpools and the waves

Bursting and eddying irresistibly

Rage and resound forever. — Who shall save? —

The boat fled on — the boiling torrent drove —

The crags closed round with black and jagged arms,

360

The shattered mountain overhung the sea,

And faster still, beyond all human speed,

Suspended on the sweep of the smooth wave,

The little boat was driven. A cavern there

Yawned, and amid its slant and winding depths

365

Ingulfed the rushing sea. The boat fled on

With unrelaxing speed. —‘Vision and Love!’

The Poet cried aloud, ‘I have beheld

The path of thy departure. Sleep and death

Shall not divide us long.’

The boat pursued

370

The windings of the cavern. Daylight shone

At length upon that gloomy river’s flow;

Now, where the fiercest war among the waves

Is calm, on the unfathomable stream

The boat moved slowly. Where the mountain, riven,

375

Exposed those black depths to the azure sky,

Ere yet the flood’s enormous volume fell

Even to the base of Caucasus, with sound

That shook the everlasting rocks, the mass

Filled with one whirlpool all that ample chasm:

380

Stair above stair the eddying waters rose,

Circling immeasurably fast, and laved

With alternating dash the gnarled roots

Of mighty trees, that stretched their giant arms

In darkness over it. I’ the midst was left,

385

Reflecting, yet distorting every cloud,

A pool of treacherous and tremendous calm.

Seized by the sway of the ascending stream,

With dizzy swiftness, round, and round, and round,

Ridge after ridge the straining boat arose,

390

Till on the verge of the extremest curve,

Where, through an opening of the rocky bank,

The waters overflow, and a smooth spot

Of glassy quiet mid those battling tides

Is left, the boat paused shuddering. — Shall it sink

395

Down the abyss? Shall the reverting stress

Of that resistless gulf embosom it?

Now shall it fall? — A wandering stream of wind,

Breathed from the west, has caught the expanded sail,

And, lo! with gentle motion, between banks

400

Of mossy slope, and on a placid stream,

Beneath a woven grove it sails, and, hark!

The ghastly torrent mingles its far roar,

With the breeze murmuring in the musical woods.

Where the embowering trees recede, and leave

405

A little space of green expanse, the cove

Is closed by meeting banks, whose yellow flowers

For ever gaze on their own drooping eyes,

Reflected in the crystal calm. The wave

Of the boat’s motion marred their pensive task,

410

Which naught but vagrant bird, or wanton wind,

Or falling spear-grass, or their own decay

Had e’er disturbed before. The Poet longed

To deck with their bright hues his withered hair,

But on his heart its solitude returned,

415

And he forbore. Not the strong impulse hid

In those flushed cheeks, bent eyes, and shadowy frame

Had yet performed its ministry: it hung

Upon his life, as lightning in a cloud

Gleams, hovering ere it vanish, ere the floods

Of night close over it.

420

The noonday sun

Now shone upon the forest, one vast mass

Of mingling shade, whose brown magnificence

A narrow vale embosoms. There, huge caves,

Scooped in the dark base of their aery rocks,

425

Mocking its moans, respond and roar for ever.

The meeting boughs and implicated leaves

Wove twilight o’er the Poet’s path, as led

By love, or dream, or god, or mightier Death,

He sought in Nature’s dearest haunt some bank,

430

Her cradle, and his sepulchre. More dark

And dark the shades accumulate. The oak,

Expanding its immense and knotty arms,

Embraces the light beech. The pyramids

Of the tall cedar overarching frame

435

Most solemn domes within, and far below,

Like clouds suspended in an emerald sky,

The ash and the acacia floating hang

Tremulous and pale. Like restless serpents, clothed

In rainbow and in fire, the parasites,

440

Starred with ten thousand blossoms, flow around

The grey trunks, and, as gamesome infants’ eyes,

With gentle meanings, and most innocent wiles,

Fold their beams round the hearts of those that love,

These twine their tendrils with the wedded boughs

445

Uniting their close union; the woven leaves

Make net-work of the dark blue light of day,

And the night’s noontide clearness, mutable

As shapes in the weird clouds. Soft mossy lawns

Beneath these canopies extend their swells,

450

Fragrant with perfumed herbs, and eyed with blooms

Minute yet beautiful. One darkest glen

Sends from its woods of musk-rose, twined with jasmine,

A soul-dissolving odour to invite

To some more lovely mystery. Through the dell,

455

Silence and Twilight here, twin-sisters, keep

Their noonday watch, and sail among the shades,

Like vaporous shapes half-seen; beyond, a well,

Dark, gleaming, and of most translucent wave,

Images all the woven boughs above,

460

And each depending leaf, and every speck

Of azure sky, darting between their chasms;

Nor aught else in the liquid mirror laves

Its portraiture, but some inconstant star

Between one foliaged lattice twinkling fair,

465

Or painted bird, sleeping beneath the moon,

Or gorgeous insect floating motionless,

Unconscious of the day, ere yet his wings

Have spread their glories to the gaze of noon.

Hither the Poet came. His eyes beheld

470

Their own wan light through the reflected lines

Of his thin hair, distinct in the dark depth

Of that still fountain; as the human heart,

Gazing in dreams over the gloomy grave,

Sees its own treacherous likeness there. He heard

475

The motion of the leaves, the grass that sprung

Startled and glanced and trembled even to feel

An unaccustomed presence, and the sound

Of the sweet brook that from the secret springs

Of that dark fountain rose. A Spirit seemed

480

To stand beside him — clothed in no bright robes

Of shadowy silver or enshrining light,

Borrowed from aught the visible world affords

Of grace, or majesty, or mystery; —

But, undulating woods, and silent well,

485

And leaping rivulet, and evening gloom

Now deepening the dark shades, for speech assuming,

Held commune with him, as if he and it

Were all that was — only . . . when his regard

Was raised by intense pensiveness, . . . two eyes,

490

Two starry eyes, hung in the gloom of thought,

And seemed with their serene and azure smiles

To beckon him.

Obedient to the light

That shone within his soul, he went, pursuing

The windings of the dell. — The rivulet,

495

Wanton and wild, through many a green ravine

Beneath the forest flowed. Sometimes it fell

Among the moss with hollow harmony

Dark and profound. Now on the polished stones

It danced; like childhood laughing as it went:

500

Then, through the plain in tranquil wanderings crept,

Reflecting every herb and drooping bud

That overhung its quietness. —‘O stream!

Whose source is inaccessibly profound,

Whither do thy mysterious waters tend?

505

Thou imagest my life. Thy darksome stillness,

Thy dazzling waves, thy loud and hollow gulfs,

Thy searchless fountain, and invisible course

Have each their type in me; and the wide sky.

And measureless ocean may declare as soon

510

What oozy cavern or what wandering cloud

Contains thy waters, as the universe

Tell where these living thoughts reside, when stretched

Upon thy flowers my bloodless limbs shall waste

I’ the passing wind!’

Beside the grassy shore

515

Of the small stream he went; he did impress

On the green moss his tremulous step, that caught

Strong shuddering from his burning limbs. As one

Roused by some joyous madness from the couch

Of fever, he did move; yet, not like him,

520

Forgetful of the grave, where, when the flame

Of his frail exultation shall be spent,

He must descend. With rapid steps he went

Beneath the shade of trees, beside the flow

Of the wild babbling rivulet; and now

525

The forest’s solemn canopies were changed

For the uniform and lightsome evening sky.

Grey rocks did peep from the spare moss, and stemmed

The struggling brook; tall spires of windlestrae

Threw their thin shadows down the rugged slope,

530

And nought but gnarled roots of ancient pines

Branchless and blasted, clenched with grasping roots

The unwilling soil. A gradual change was here,

Yet ghastly. For, as fast years flow away,

The smooth brow gathers, and the hair grows thin

535

And white, and where irradiate dewy eyes

Had shone, gleam stony orbs:— so from his steps

Bright flowers departed, and the beautiful shade

Of the green groves, with all their odorous winds

And musical motions. Calm, he still pursued

540

The stream, that with a larger volume now

Rolled through the labyrinthine dell; and there

Fretted a path through its descending curves

With its wintry speed. On every side now rose

Rocks, which, in unimaginable forms,

545

Lifted their black and barren pinnacles

In the light of evening, and its precipice

Obscuring the ravine, disclosed above,

Mid toppling stones, black gulfs and yawning caves,

Whose windings gave ten thousand various tongues

550

To the loud stream. Lo! where the pass expands

Its stony jaws, the abrupt mountain breaks,

And seems, with its accumulated crags,

To overhang the world: for wide expand

Beneath the wan stars and descending moon

555

Islanded seas, blue mountains, mighty streams,

Dim tracts and vast, robed in the lustrous gloom

Of leaden-coloured even, and fiery hills

Mingling their flames with twilight, on the verge

Of the remote horizon. The near scene,

560

In naked and severe simplicity,

Made contrast with the universe. A pine,

Rock-rooted, stretched athwart the vacancy

Its swinging boughs, to each inconstant blast

Yielding one only response, at each pause

565

In most familiar cadence, with the howl

The thunder and the hiss of homeless streams

Mingling its solemn song, whilst the broad river

Foaming and hurrying o’er its rugged path,

Fell into that immeasurable void

570

Scattering its waters to the passing winds.

Yet the grey precipice and solemn pine

And torrent were not all; — one silent nook

Was there. Even on the edge of that vast mountain,

Upheld by knotty roots and fallen rocks,

575

It overlooked in its serenity

The dark earth, and the bending vault of stars.

It was a tranquil spot, that seemed to smile

Even in the lap of horror. Ivy clasped

The fissured stones with its entwining arms,

580

And did embower with leaves for ever green,

And berries dark, the smooth and even space

Of its inviolated floor, and here

The children of the autumnal whirlwind bore,

In wanton sport, those bright leaves, whose decay,

585

Red, yellow, or ethereally pale,

Rivals the pride of summer. ’Tis the haunt

Of every gentle wind, whose breath can teach

The wilds to love tranquillity. One step,

One human step alone, has ever broken

590

The stillness of its solitude:— one voice

Alone inspired its echoes; — even that voice

Which hither came, floating among the winds,

And led the loveliest among human forms

To make their wild haunts the depository

595

Of all the grace and beauty that endued

Its motions, render up its majesty,

Scatter its music on the unfeeling storm,

And to the damp leaves and blue cavern mould,

Nurses of rainbow flowers and branching moss,

600

Commit the colours of that varying cheek,

That snowy breast, those dark and drooping eyes.

The dim and horned moon hung low, and poured

A sea of lustre on the horizon’s verge

That overflowed its mountains. Yellow mist

605

Filled the unbounded atmosphere, and drank

Wan moonlight even to fulness; not a star

Shone, not a sound was heard; the very winds,

Danger’s grim playmates, on that precipice

Slept, clasped in his embrace. — O, storm of death!

Whose sightless speed divides this sullen night: 610

And thou, colossal Skeleton, that, still

Guiding its irresistible career

In thy devastating omnipotence,

Art king of this frail world, from the red field

615

Of slaughter, from the reeking hospital,

The patriot’s sacred couch, the snowy bed

Of innocence, the scaffold and the throne,

A mighty voice invokes thee. Ruin calls

His brother Death. A rare and regal prey

620

He hath prepared, prowling around the world;

Glutted with which thou mayst repose, and men

Go to their graves like flowers or creeping worms,

Nor ever more offer at thy dark shrine

The unheeded tribute of a broken heart.

625

When on the threshold of the green recess

The wanderer’s footsteps fell, he knew that death

Was on him. Yet a little, ere it fled,

Did he resign his high and holy soul

To images of the majestic past,

630

That paused within his passive being now,

Like winds that bear sweet music, when they breathe

Through some dim latticed chamber. He did place

His pale lean hand upon the rugged trunk

Of the old pine. Upon an ivied stone

635

Reclined his languid head, his limbs did rest,

Diffused and motionless, on the smooth brink

Of that obscurest chasm; — and thus he lay,

Surrendering to their final impulses

The hovering powers of life. Hope and despair,

640

The torturers, slept; no mortal pain or fear

Marred his repose; the influxes of sense,

And his own being unalloyed by pain,

Yet feebler and more feeble, calmly fed

The stream of thought, till he lay breathing there

645

At peace, and faintly smiling:— his last sight

Was the great moon, which o’er the western line

Of the wide world her mighty horn suspended,

With whose dun beams inwoven darkness seemed

To mingle. Now upon the jagged hills

650

It rests; and still as the divided frame

Of the vast meteor sunk, the Poet’s blood,

That ever beat in mystic sympathy

With nature’s ebb and flow, grew feebler still:

And when two lessening points of light alone

655

Gleamed through the darkness, the alternate gasp

Of his faint respiration scarce did stir

The stagnate night:— till the minutest ray

Was quenched, the pulse yet lingered in his heart.

It paused — it fluttered. But when heaven remained

660

Utterly black, the murky shades involved

An image, silent, cold, and motionless,

As their own voiceless earth and vacant air.

Even as a vapour fed with golden beams

That ministered on sunlight, ere the west

665

Eclipses it, was now that wondrous frame —

No sense, no motion, no divinity —

A fragile lute, on whose harmonious strings

The breath of heaven did wander — a bright stream

Once fed with many-voiced waves — a dream

670

Of youth, which night and time have quenched for ever,

Still, dark, and dry, and unremembered now.

Oh, for Medea’s wondrous alchemy,

Which wheresoe’er it fell made the earth gleam

With bright flowers, and the wintry boughs exhale

675

From vernal blooms fresh fragrance! O, that God,

Profuse of poisons, would concede the chalice

Which but one living man has drained, who now,

Vessel of deathless wrath, a slave that feels

No proud exemption in the blighting curse

680

He bears, over the world wanders for ever,

Lone as incarnate death! O, that the dream

Of dark magician in his visioned cave,

Raking the cinders of a crucible

For life and power, even when his feeble hand

685

Shakes in its last decay, were the true law

Of this so lovely world! But thou art fled,

Like some frail exhalation; which the dawn

Robes in its golden beams — ah! thou hast fled!

The brave, the gentle and the beautiful,

690

The child of grace and genius. Heartless things

Are done and said i’ the world, and many worms

And beasts and men live on, and mighty Earth

From sea and mountain, city and wilderness,

In vesper low or joyous orison,

695

Lifts still its solemn voice:— but thou art fled —

Thou canst no longer know or love the shapes

Of this phantasmal scene, who have to thee

Been purest ministers, who are, alas!

Now thou art not. Upon those pallid lips

700

So sweet even in their silence, on those eyes

That image sleep in death, upon that form

Yet safe from the worm’s outrage, let no tear

Be shed — not even in thought. Nor, when those hues

Are gone, and those divinest lineaments,

705

Worn by the senseless wind, shall live alone

In the frail pauses of this simple strain,

Let not high verse, mourning the memory

Of that which is no more, or painting’s woe

Or sculpture, speak in feeble imagery

710

Their own cold powers. Art and eloquence,

And all the shows o’ the world are frail and vain

To weep a loss that turns their lights to shade.

It is a woe “too deep for tears,” when all

Is reft at once, when some surpassing Spirit,

715

Whose light adorned the world around it, leaves

Those who remain behind, not sobs or groans,

The passionate tumult of a clinging hope;

But pale despair and cold tranquillity,

Nature’s vast frame, the web of human things,

720

Birth and the grave, that are not as they were.

2. Conducts, O Sleep, to thy, etc. (line 219.)

The Shelley texts, 1816, 1824, 1839, have Conduct here, which Forman and Dowden retain. The suggestion that Shelley may have written ‘death’s blue vaults’ (line 216) need not, in the face of ‘the dark gate of death’ (line 211), be seriously considered; Conduct must, therefore, be regarded as a fault in grammar. That Shelley actually wrote Conduct is not impossible, for his grammar is not seldom faulty (see, for instance, “Revolt of Islam, Dedication”, line 60); but it is most improbable that he would have committed a solecism so striking both to eye and ear. Rossetti and Woodberry print Conducts, etc. The final s is often a vanishing quantity in Shelley’s manuscripts. Or perhaps the compositor’s hand was misled by his eye, which may have dropped on the words, Conduct to thy, etc., seven lines above.

3. Of wave ruining on wave, etc. (line 327.)

For ruining the text of “Poetical Works”, 1839, both editions, has running — an overlooked misprint, surely, rather than a conjectural emendation. For an example of ruining as an intransitive (= ‘falling in ruins,’ or, simply, ‘falling in streams’) see “Paradise Lost”, 6 867–869:—

Hell heard th’ insufferable noise, Hell saw

Heav’n ruining from Heav’n, and would have fled

Affrighted, etc.

Ruining, in the sense of ‘streaming,’ ‘trailing,’ occurs in Coleridge’s “Melancholy: a Fragment” (Sibylline Leaves, 1817, page 262):—

Where ruining ivies propped the ruins steep —

“Melancholy” first appeared in “The Morning Post”, December 7, 1797, where, through an error identical with that here assumed in the text of 1839, running appears in place of ruining — the word intended, and doubtless written, by Coleridge.

4. Line 349. With Mr. Stopford Brooke, the editor substitutes here a colon for the full stop which, in editions 1816, 1824, and 1839, follows ocean. Forman and Dowden retain the full stop; Rossetti and Woodberry substitute a semicolon.

5.

And nought but gnarled roots of ancient pines

Branchless and blasted, clenched with grasping roots

The unwilling soil. (lines 530–532.)

Editions 1816, 1824, and 1839 have roots (line 530)— a palpable misprint, the probable origin of which may be seen in the line which follows. Rossetti conjectures trunks, but stumps or stems may have been Shelley’s word.

6. Lines 543–548. This somewhat involved passage is here reprinted exactly as it stands in the editio princeps, save for the comma after and, line 546, first introduced by Dowden, 1890. The construction and meaning are fully discussed by Forman (“Poetical Works” of Shelley, edition 1876, volume 1 pages 39, 40), Stopford Brooke (“Poems of Shelley”, G. T. S., 1880, page 323), Dobell (“Alastor”, etc., Facsimile Reprint, 2nd edition 1887, pages 22–27), and Woodberry (“Complete P. W. of Shelley”, 1893, volume 1 page 413).

Note on Alastor, by Mrs. Shelley.

“Alastor” is written in a very different tone from “Queen Mab”. In the latter, Shelley poured out all the cherished speculations of his youth — all the irrepressible emotions of sympathy, censure, and hope, to which the present suffering, and what he considers the proper destiny of his fellow-creatures, gave birth. “Alastor”, on the contrary, contains an individual interest only. A very few years, with their attendant events, had checked the ardour of Shelley’s hopes, though he still thought them well-grounded, and that to advance their fulfilment was the noblest task man could achieve.

This is neither the time nor place to speak of the misfortunes that chequered his life. It will be sufficient to say that, in all he did, he at the time of doing it believed himself justified to his own conscience; while the various ills of poverty and loss of friends brought home to him the sad realities of life. Physical suffering had also considerable influence in causing him to turn his eyes inward; inclining him rather to brood over the thoughts and emotions of his own soul than to glance abroad, and to make, as in “Queen Mab”, the whole universe the object and subject of his song. In the Spring of 1815, an eminent physician pronounced that he was dying rapidly of a consumption; abscesses were formed on his lungs, and he suffered acute spasms. Suddenly a complete change took place; and though through life he was a martyr to pain and debility, every symptom of pulmonary disease vanished. His nerves, which nature had formed sensitive to an unexampled degree, were rendered still more susceptible by the state of his health.

As soon as the peace of 1814 had opened the Continent, he went abroad. He visited some of the more magnificent scenes of Switzerland, and returned to England from Lucerne, by the Reuss and the Rhine. This river-navigation enchanted him. In his favourite poem of “Thalaba”, his imagination had been excited by a description of such a voyage. In the summer of 1815, after a tour along the southern coast of Devonshire and a visit to Clifton, he rented a house on Bishopgate Heath, on the borders of Windsor Forest, where he enjoyed several months of comparative health and tranquil happiness. The later summer months were warm and dry. Accompanied by a few friends, he visited the source of the Thames, making a voyage in a wherry from Windsor to Crichlade. His beautiful stanzas in the churchyard of Lechlade were written on that occasion. “Alastor” was composed on his return. He spent his days under the oak-shades of Windsor Great Park; and the magnificent woodland was a fitting study to inspire the various descriptions of forest scenery we find in the poem.

None of Shelley’s poems is more characteristic than this. The solemn spirit that reigns throughout, the worship of the majesty of nature, the broodings of a poet’s heart in solitude — the mingling of the exulting joy which the various aspects of the visible universe inspires with the sad and struggling pangs which human passion imparts — give a touching interest to the whole. The death which he had often contemplated during the last months as certain and near he here represented in such colours as had, in his lonely musings, soothed his soul to peace. The versification sustains the solemn spirit which breathes throughout: it is peculiarly melodious. The poem ought rather to be considered didactic than narrative: it was the outpouring of his own emotions, embodied in the purest form he could conceive, painted in the ideal hues which his brilliant imagination inspired, and softened by the recent anticipation of death.

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