Thoughts on Shelley and Byron

Charles Kingsley


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Thoughts on Shelley and Byron

Fraser’s Magazine, November, 1853.

The poets, who forty years ago proclaimed their intention of working a revolution in English literature, and who have succeeded in their purpose, recommended especially a more simple and truthful view of nature. The established canons of poetry were to be discarded as artificial; as to the matter, the poet was to represent mere nature as he saw her; as to form, he was to be his own law. Freedom and nature were to be his watchwords.

No theory could be more in harmony with the spirit of the age, and the impulse which had been given to it by the burning words of Jean Jacques Rousseau. The school which arose expressed fairly the unrest and unruliness of the time, its weariness of artificial restraint and unmeaning laws, its craving after a nobler and a more earnest life, its sense of a glory and mystery in the physical universe, hidden from the poets of the two preceding centuries, and now revealed by science. So far all was hopeful. But it soon became apparent, that each poet’s practical success in carrying out the theory was, paradoxically enough, in inverse proportion to his belief in it; that those who like Wordsworth, Southey, and Keats, talked most about naturalness and freedom, and most openly reprobated the school of Pope, were, after all, least natural and least free; that the balance of those excellences inclined much more to those who, like Campbell, Rogers, Crabbe, and Moore, troubled their heads with no theories, but followed the best old models which they knew; and that the rightful sovereign of the new Parnassus, Lord Byron, protested against the new movement, while he followed it; upheld to the last the models which it was the fashion to decry, confessed to the last, in poetry as in morals, “Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor,” and uttered again and again prophecies of the downfall of English poetry and English taste, which seem to be on the eve of realisation.

Now no one will, we presume, be silly enough to say that humanity has gained nothing by all the very beautiful poetry which has been poured out on it during the last thirty years in England. Nevertheless, when we see poetry dying down among us year by year, although the age is becoming year by year more marvellous and inspiring, we have a right to look for some false principle in a school which has had so little enduring vitality, which seems now to be able to perpetuate nothing of itself but its vices.

The answer so easy twenty years ago, that the new poetry was spoiled by an influx of German bad taste, will hardly hold good now, except with a very few very ignorant people. It is now known, of course, that whatsoever quarrel Lessing, Schiller, and Goethe may have had with Pope, it was not on account of his being too severe an artist, but too loose a one; not for being too classical, but not classical enough; that English poets borrowed from them nothing but their most boyish and immature types of thought, and that these were reproduced, and laughed at here, while the men themselves were writing works of a purity, and loftiness, and completeness, unknown to the world — except in the writings of Milton — for nearly two centuries. This feature, however, of the new German poetry, was exactly the one which no English poet deigned to imitate, save Byron alone; on whom, accordingly, Goethe always looked with admiration and affection. But the rest went their way unheeding; and if they have defects, those defects are their own; for when they did copy the German taste, they, for the most part, deliberately chose the evil, and refused the good; and have their reward in a fame which we believe will prove itself a very short-lived one.

We cannot deny, however, that, in spite of all faults, these men had a strength. They have exercised an influence. And they have done so by virtue of seeing a fact which more complete, and in some cases more manly poets, did not see. Strangely enough, Shelley, the man who was the greatest sinner of them all against the canons of good taste, was the man who saw that new fact, if not most clearly, still most intensely, and who proclaimed it most boldly. His influence, therefore, is outliving that of his compeers, and growing and spreading, for good and for evil; and will grow and spread for years to come, as long as the present great unrest goes on smouldering in men’s hearts, till the hollow settlement of 1815 is burst asunder anew, and men feel that they are no longer in the beginning of the end, but in the end itself, and that this long thirty years’ prologue to the reconstruction of rotten Europe is played out at last, and the drama itself begun.

Such is the way of Providence; the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor the prophecy to the wise. The Spirit bloweth where He listeth, and sends on his errands — those who deny Him, rebel against Him — profligates, madmen, and hysterical Rousseaus, hysterical Shelleys, uttering words like the east wind. He uses strange tools in His cosmogony: but He does not use them in vain. By bad men if not by good, by fools if not by wise, God’s work is done, and done right well.

There was, then, a strength and a truth in all these men; and it was this — that more or less clearly, they all felt that they were standing between two worlds; and the ruins of an older age; upon the threshold of a new one. To Byron’s mind, the decay and rottenness of the old was, perhaps, the most palpable; to Shelley’s, the possible glory of the new. Wordsworth declared — a little too noisily, we think, as if he had been the first to discover the truth — the dignity and divineness of the most simple human facts and relationships. Coleridge declares that the new can only assume living form by growing organically out of the old institutions. Keats gives a sad and yet a wholesome answer to them both, as, young and passionate, he goes down with Faust “to the Mothers”—

To the rich warm youth of the nations,

Childlike in virtue and faith, though childlike in passion and pleasure,

Childlike still, still near to the gods, while the sunset of Eden

Lingered in rose-red rays on the peaks of Ionian mountains.

And there, amid the old classic forms, he cries: “These things, too, are eternal —

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.

These, or things even fairer than they, must have their place in the new world, if it is to be really a home for the human race.” So he sings, as best he can, the half-educated and consumptive stable-keeper’s son, from his prison-house of London brick, and in one mighty yearn after that beauty from which he is debarred, breaks his young heart, and dies, leaving a name not “writ in water,” as he dreamed, but on all fair things, all lovers’ hearts, for evermore.

Here, then, to return, is the reason why the hearts of the present generation have been influenced so mightily by these men, rather than by those of whom Byron wrote, with perfect sincerity:

Scott, Rogers, Campbell, Moore, and Crabbe will try

’Gainst you the question with posterity.

These lines, written in 1818, were meant to apply only to Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey. Whether they be altogether just or unjust is not now the question. It must seem somewhat strange to our young poets that Shelley’s name is not among those who are to try the question of immortality against the Lake School; and yet many of his most beautiful poems had been already written. Were, then, “The Revolt of Islam” and “Alastor” not destined, it seems, in Byron’s opinion, to live as long as the “Lady of the Lake” and the “Mariners of England?” Perhaps not. At least the omission of Shelley’s name is noteworthy. But still more noteworthy are these words of his to Mr. Murray, dated January 23, 1819:

“Read Pope — most of you don’t — but do . . . and the inevitable consequence would be, that you would burn all that I have ever written, and all your other wretched Claudians of the day (except Scott and Crabbe) into the bargain.”

And here arises a new question — Is Shelley, then, among the Claudians? It is a hard saying. The present generation will receive it with shouts of laughter. Some future one, which studies and imitates Shakespeare instead of anatomising him, and which gradually awakens to the now forgotten fact, that a certain man named Edmund Spenser once wrote a poem, the like of which the earth never saw before, and perhaps may never see again, may be inclined to acquiesce in the verdict, and believe that Byron had a discrimination in this matter, as in a hundred more, far more acute than any of his compeers, and had not eaten in vain, poor fellow, of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the meanwhile, we may perceive in the poetry of the two men deep and radical differences, indicating a spiritual difference between them even more deep, which may explain the little notice which Byron takes of Shelley’s poetry, and the fact that the two men had no deep sympathy for each other, and could not in any wise “pull together” during the sojourn in Italy. Doubtless, there were plain outward faults of temper and character on both sides; neither was in a state of mind which could trust itself, or be trusted by those who loved them best. Friendship can only consist with the calm and self-restraint and self-respect of moral and intellectual health; and both were diseased, fevered, ready to take offence, ready, unwittingly, to give it. But the diseases of the two were different, as their natures were; and Shelley’s fever was not Byron’s.

Now it is worth remarking, that it is Shelley’s form of fever, rather than Byron’s, which has been of late years the prevailing epidemic. Since Shelley’s poems have become known in England, and a timid public, after approaching in fear and trembling the fountain which was understood to be poisoned, has begun first to sip, and then, finding the magic water at all events sweet enough, to quench its thirst with unlimited draughts, Byron’s fiercer wine has lost favour. Well — at least the taste of the age is more refined, if that be matter of congratulation. And there is an excuse for preferring champagne to waterside porter, heady with grains of paradise and quassia, salt and cocculus indicus. Nevertheless, worse ingredients than œnanthic acid may lurk in the delicate draught, and the Devil’s Elixir may be made fragrant, and sweet, and transparent enough, as French moralists well know, for the most fastidious palate. The private sipping of eua-de-cologne, say the London physicians, has increased mightily of late; and so has the reading of Shelley. It is not surprising. Byron’s Corsairs and Laras have been, on the whole, impossible during the thirty years’ peace! and piracy and profligacy are at all times, and especially nowadays, expensive amusements, and often require a good private fortune — rare among poets. They have, therefore, been wisely abandoned as ideals, except among a few young persons, who used to wear turn-down collars, and are now attempting moustaches and Mazzini hats. But even among them, and among their betters — rather their more-respectables — nine-tenths of the bad influence which is laid at Byron’s door really is owing to Shelley. Among the many good-going gentlemen and ladies, Byron is generally spoken of with horror — he is “so wicked,” forsooth; while poor Shelley, “poor dear Shelley,” is “very wrong, of course,” but “so refined,” “so beautiful,” “so tender”— a fallen angel, while Byron is a satyr and a devil. We boldly deny the verdict. Neither of the two are devils; as for angels, when we have seen one, we shall be better able to give an opinion; at present, Shelley is in our eyes far less like one of those old Hebrew and Miltonic angels, fallen or unfallen, than Byron is. And as for the satyr; the less that is said for Shelley, on that point, the better. If Byron sinned more desperately and flagrantly than he, it was done under the temptations of rank, wealth, disappointed love, and under the impulses of an animal nature, to which Shelley’s passions were

As moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine.

At all events, Byron never set to work to consecrate his own sin into a religion and proclaim the worship of uncleanness as the last and highest ethical development of “pure” humanity. No — Byron may be brutal; but he never cants. If at moments he finds himself in hell, he never turns round to the world and melodiously informs them that it is heaven, if they could but see it in its true light.

The truth is, that what has put Byron out of favour with the public of late has been not his faults but his excellences. His artistic good taste, his classical polish, his sound shrewd sense, his hatred of cant, his insight into humbug above all, his shallow, pitiable habit of being always intelligible — these are the sins which condemn him in the eyes of a mesmerising, table-turning, spirit-rapping, spiritualising, Romanising generation, who read Shelley in secret, and delight in his bad taste, mysticism, extravagance, and vague and pompous sentimentalism. The age is an effeminate one, and it can well afford to pardon the lewdness of the gentle and sensitive vegetarian, while it has no mercy for that of the sturdy peer proud of his bull neck and his boxing, who kept bears and bull-dogs, drilled Greek ruffians at Missoloughi, and “had no objection to a pot of beer;” and who might, if he had reformed, have made a gallant English gentleman; while Shelley, if once his intense self-opinion had deserted him, would have probably ended in Rome as an Oratorian or a Passionist.

We would that it were only for this count that Byron has had to make way for Shelley. There is, as we said before, a deeper moral difference between the men, which makes the weaker, rather than the stronger, find favour in young men’s eyes. For Byron has the most intense and awful sense of moral law — of law external to himself. Shelley has little or none; less, perhaps, than any known writer who has ever meddled with moral questions. Byron’s cry is, I am miserable because law exists; and I have broken it, broken it so habitually, that now I cannot help breaking it. I have tried to eradicate the sense of it by speculation, by action; but I cannot —

The tree of knowledge is not the tree of life.

There is a moral law independent of us, and yet the very marrow of our life, which punishes and rewards us by no arbitrary external penalties, but by our own consciousness of being what we are:

The mind which is immortal, makes itself

Requital for its good or evil thoughts;

Is its own origin of ill, and end —

And its own place and time — its innate sense

When stript of this mortality derives

No colour from the fleeting things about,

But is absorbed in sufferance or in joy,

Born from the knowledge of its own desert.

This idea, confused, intermitted, obscured by all forms of evil — for it was not discovered, but only in the process of discovery — is the one which comes out with greater and greater strength, through all Corsairs, Laras, and Parasinas, till it reaches its completion in “Cain” and in “Manfred,” of both of which we do boldly say, that if any sceptical poetry at all be right, which we often question, they are right and not wrong; that in “Cain,” as in “Manfred,” the awful problem which, perhaps, had better not have been put at all, is nevertheless fairly put, and the solution, as far as it is seen, fairly confessed; namely, that there is an absolute and eternal law in the heart of man which sophistries of his own or of other beings may make him forget, deny, blaspheme; but which exists eternally, and will assert itself. If this be not the meaning of “Manfred,” especially of that great scene in the chamois hunter’s cottage, what is? — If this be not the meaning of “Cain,” and his awful awakening after the murder, not to any mere dread of external punishment, but to an overwhelming, instinctive, inarticulate sense of having done wrong, what is?

Yes; that law exists, let it never be forgotten, is the real meaning of Byron, down to that last terrible “Don Juan,” in which he sits himself down, in artificial calm, to trace the gradual rotting and degradation of a man without law, the slave of his own pleasures; a picture happily never finished, because he who painted it was taken away before he had learnt, perhaps when he was beginning to turn back from — the lower depth within the lowest deep.

Now to this whole form of consciousness, poor Shelley’s mind is altogether antipodal. His whole life through was a denial of external law, and a substitution in its place of internal sentiment. Byron’s cry is: There is a law, and therefore I am miserable. Why cannot I keep the law? Shelley’s is: There is a law, and therefore I am miserable. Why should not the law be abolished? — Away with it, for it interferes with my sentiments — Away with marriage, “custom and faith, the foulest birth of time.”— We do not wish to follow him down into the fearful sins which he defended with the small powers of reasoning — and they were peculiarly small — which he possessed. Let any one who wishes to satisfy himself of the real difference between Byron’s mind and Shelley’s, compare the writings in which each of them treats the same subject — namely, that frightful question about the relation of the sexes, which forms, evidently, Manfred’s crime; and see if the result is not simply this, that Shelley glorifies what Byron damns. “Lawless love” is Shelley’s expressed ideal of the relation of the sexes; and his justice, his benevolence, his pity, are all equally lawless. “Follow your instincts,” is his one moral rule, confounding the very lowest animal instincts with those lofty ideas of might, which it was the will of Heaven that he should retain, ay, and love, to the very last, and so reducing them all to the level of sentiments. “Follow your instincts”— But what if our instincts lead us to eat animal food? “Then you must follow the instincts of me, Percy Bysshe Shelley. I think it horrible, cruel; it offends my taste.” What if our instincts lead us to tyrannise over our fellow-men? “Then you must repress those instincts. I, Shelley, think that, too, horrible and cruel.” Whether it be vegetarianism or liberty, the rule is practically the same — sentiment which, in his case, as in the case of all sentimentalists, turns out to mean at last, not the sentiments of mankind in general, but the private sentiments of the writer. This is Shelley; a sentimentalist pure and simple; incapable of anything like inductive reasoning; unable to take cognisance of any facts but those which please his taste, or to draw any conclusion from them but such as also pleases his taste; as, for example, in that eighth stanza of the “Ode to Liberty,” which, had it been written by any other man but Shelley, possessing the same knowledge as he, one would have called a wicked and deliberate lie — but in his case, is to be simply passed over with a sigh, like a young lady’s proofs of table-turning and rapping spirits. She wished to see it so — and therefore so she saw it.

For Shelley’s nature is utterly womanish. Not merely his weak points, but his strong ones, are those of a woman. Tender and pitiful as a woman; and yet, when angry, shrieking, railing, hysterical as a woman. The physical distaste for meat and fermented liquors, coupled with the hankering after physical horrors, are especially feminine. The nature of a woman looks out of that wild, beautiful, girlish face — the nature: but not the spirit; not

The reason firm, the temperate will,

Endurance, foresight, strength and skill.

The lawlessness of the man, with the sensibility of the woman. . . . Alas for him! He, too, might have discovered what Byron did; for were not his errors avenged upon him within, more terribly even than without? His cries are like the wails of a child, inarticulate, peevish, irrational; and yet his pain fills his whole being, blackens the very face of nature to him: but he will not confess himself in the wrong. Once only, if we recollect rightly, the truth flashes across him for a moment, and the clouds of selfish sorrow:

Alas, I have nor hope nor health,

Nor peace within, nor calm around;

Nor that content surpassing wealth

The sage in meditation found,

And walked with inward glory crowned.

“Nor”— alas for the spiritual bathos, which follows that short gleam of healthy feeling, and coming to himself —

— fame nor power, nor love, nor leisure,

Others I see whom these surround,

Smiling they live and call life pleasure,

To me that cup has been dealt in another measure!

Poor Shelley! As if the peace within, and the calm around, and the content surpassing wealth, were things which were to be put in the same category with fame, and power, and love, and leisure. As if they were things which could be “dealt” to any man; instead of depending (as Byron, who, amid all his fearful sins, was a man, knew well enough) upon a man’s self, a man’s own will, and that will exerted to do a will exterior to itself, to know and to obey a law. But no, the cloud of sentiment must close over again, and

Yet now despair itself is mild

Even as the winds and waters are;

I could lie down like a tired child,

And weep away this life of care,

Which I have borne, and still must bear,

Till death like sleep might seize on me,

And I might feel in the warm air,

My cheek grow cold, and hear the sea

Breathe o’er my dying brain its last monotony!

Too beautiful to laugh at, however empty and sentimental. True: but why beautiful? Because there is a certain sincerity in it, which breeds coherence and melody, which, in short, makes it poetry. But what if such a tone of mind be consciously encouraged, even insincerely affected as the ideal state for a poet’s mind, as his followers have done?

The mischief which such a man would do is conceivable enough. He stands out, both by his excellences and his defects, as the spokesman and ideal of all the unrest and unhealth of sensitive young men for many a year after. His unfulfilled prophecies only help to increase that unrest. Who shall blame either him for uttering those prophecies, or them for longing for their fulfilment? Must we not thank the man who gives us fresh hope that this earth will not be always as it is now? His notion of what it will be may be, as Shelley’s was, vague, even in some things wrong and undesirable. Still, we must accept his hope and faith in the spirit, not in the letter. So have thousands of young men felt, who would have shrunk with disgust from some of poor Shelley’s details of the “good time coming.” And shame on him who should wish to rob them of such a hope, even if it interfered with his favourite “scheme of unfulfilled prophecy.” So men have felt Shelley’s spell a wondrous one — perhaps, they think, a life-giving regenerative one. And yet what dream at once more shallow and more impossible? Get rid of kings and priests; marriage may stay, pending discussions on the rights of women. Let the poet speak — what he is to say being, of course, a matter of utterly secondary import, provided only that he be a poet; and then the millennium will appear of itself, and the devil be exorcised with a kiss from all hearts — except, of course, these of “pale priests” and “tyrants with their sneer of cold command” (who, it seems, have not been got rid of after all), and the Cossacks and Croats whom they may choose to call to their rescue. And on the appearance of the said Cossacks and Croats, the poet’s vision stops short, and all is blank beyond. A recipe for the production of millenniums which has this one advantage, that it is small enough to be comprehended by the very smallest minds, and reproduced thereby, with a difference, in such spasmodic melodies as seem to those small minds to be imitations of Shelley’s nightingale notes.

For nightingale notes they truly are. In spite of all his faults — and there are few poetic faults in which he does not indulge, to their very highest power — in spite of his “interfluous” and “innumerous,” and the rest of his bad English — in spite of bombast, horrors, maundering, sheer stuff and nonsense of all kinds, there is a plaintive natural melody about this man, such as no other English poet has ever uttered, except Shakespeare in some few immortal songs. Who that has read Shelley does not recollect scraps worthy to stand by Ariel’s song — chaste, simple, unutterably musical? Yes, when he will be himself — Shelley the scholar and the gentleman and the singer — and leave philosophy and politics, which he does not understand, and shriekings and cursings, which are unfit for any civilised and self-respecting man, he is perfect. Like the American mocking-bird, he is harsh only when aping other men’s tunes — his true power lies in his own “native wood-notes wild.”

But it is not this faculty of his which has been imitated by his scholars; for it is not this faculty which made him their ideal, however it may have attracted them. All which sensible men deplore in him is that which poetasters have exalted in him. His morbidity and his doubt have become in their eyes his differential energy, because too often, it was all in him with which they had wit to sympathise. They found it easy to curse and complain, instead of helping to mend. So had he. They found it pleasant to confound institutions with the abuses which defaced them. So had he. They found it pleasant to give way to their spleen. So had he. They found it pleasant to believe that the poet was to regenerate the world, without having settled with what he was to regenerate it. So had he. They found it more pleasant to obey sentiment than inductive laws. So had he. They found it more pleasant to hurl about enormous words and startling figures than to examine reverently the awful depths of beauty which lie in the simplest words and the severest figures. So had he.

And thus arose a spasmodic, vague, extravagant, effeminate, school of poetry, which has been too often hastily and unfairly fathered upon Byron. Doubtless Byron has helped to its formation; but only in as far as his poems possess, or rather seem to possess, elements in common with Shelley’s. For that conscious struggle against law, by which law is discovered, may easily enough be confounded with the utter repudiation of it. Both forms of mind will discuss the same questions; both will discuss them freely, with a certain plainness and daring, which may range through all grades, from the bluntness of Socrates down to reckless immodesty and profaneness. The world will hardly distinguish between the two; it did not in Socrates’ case, mistaking his reverent irreverence for Atheism, and martyred him accordingly, as it has since martyred Luther’s memory. Probably, too, if a living struggle is going on in the writer’s mind, he will not have distinguished the two elements in himself; he will be profane when he fancies himself only arguing for truth; he will be only arguing for truth, where he seems to the respectable undoubting to be profane. And in the meanwhile, whether the respectable understand him or not, the young and the inquiring, much more the distempered, who would be glad to throw off moral law, will sympathise with him often more than he sympathises with himself. Words thrown off in the heat of passion; shameful self-revealings which he has written with his very heart’s blood: ay, even fallacies which he has put into the mouths of dramatic characters for the very purpose of refuting them, or at least of calling on all who read to help him to refute them, and to deliver him from the ugly dream — all these will, by the lazy, the frivolous, the feverish, the discontented, be taken for integral parts and noble traits of the man to whom they are attracted, by finding that he, too, has the same doubts and struggles as themselves, that he has a voice and art to be their spokesman. And hence arises confusion on confusion, misconception on misconception. The man is honoured for his dishonour. Chronic disease is taken for a new type of health; and Byron is admired and imitated for that which Byron is trying to tear out of his own heart, and trample under foot as his curse and bane, something which is not Byron’s self, but Byron’s house-fiend, and tyrant, and shame. And in the meanwhile that which calls itself respectability and orthodoxy, and is — unless Augustine lied — neither of them, stands by; and instead of echoing the voice of Him who said: “Come to me ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” mumbles proudly to itself, with the Pharisees of old: “This people, which knoweth not the law, is accursed.”

We do not seek to excuse Byron any more than we do Shelley. They both sinned. They both paid bitter penalty for their sin. How far they were guilty, or which of them was the more guilty, we know not. We can judge no man. It is as poets and teachers, not as men and responsible spirits; not in their inward beings, known only to Him who made them, not even to themselves, but in their outward utterance, that we have a right to compare them. Both have done harm. Neither have, we firmly believe, harmed any human being who had not already the harm within himself. It is not by introducing evil, but by calling into consciousness and more active life evil which was already lurking in the heart, that any writer makes men worse. Thousands doubtless have read Byron and Shelley, and worse books, and have risen from them as pure as when they sat down. In evil as well as in good, the eye only sees that which it brings with it the power of seeing — say rather, the wish to see. But it is because, in spite of all our self-glorifying pæans, our taste has become worse and not better, that Shelley, the man who conceitedly despises and denies law, is taking the place of Byron, the man who only struggles against it, and who shows his honesty and his greatness most by confessing that his struggles are ineffectual; that, Titan as he may look to the world, his strength is misdirected, a mere furious weakness, which proclaims him a slave in fetters, while prurient young gentlemen are fancying him heaping hills on hills, and scaling Olympus itself. They are tired of that notion, however, now. They have begun to suspect that Byron did not scale Olympus after all. How much more pleasant a leader, then, must Shelley be, who unquestionably did scale his little Olympus — having made it himself first to fit his own stature. The man who has built the hay-rick will doubtless climb it again, if need be, as often as desired, and whistle on the top, after the fashion of the rick-building guild, triumphantly enough. For after all Shelley’s range of vision is very narrow, his subjects few, his reflections still fewer, when compared, not only with such a poet as Spenser, but with his own contemporaries; above all with Byron. He has a deep heart, but not a wide one; an intense eye, but not a catholic one. And, therefore, he never wrote a real drama; for in spite of all that has been said to the contrary, Beatrice Cenci is really none other than Percy Bysshe Shelley himself in petticoats.

But we will let them both be. Perhaps they know better now.

One very ugly superstition, nevertheless, we must mention, of which these two men have been, in England at least, the great hierophants; namely, the right of “genius” to be “eccentric.” Doubtless there are excuses for such a notion; but it is one against which every wise man must set his face like a flint; and at the risk of being called a “Philister” and a “flunky,” take part boldly with respectability and this wicked world, and declare them to be for once utterly in the right. Still there are excuses for it. A poet, especially one who wishes to be not merely a describer of pretty things, but a “Vates” and seer of new truth, must often say things which other people do not like to say, and do things which others do not like to do. And, moreover, he will be generally gifted, for the very purpose of enabling him to say and do these strange things, with a sensibility more delicate than common, often painful enough to himself. How easy for such a man to think that he has a right not to be as other men are; to despise little conventionalities, courtesies, even decencies; to offend boldly and carelessly, conscious that he has something right and valuable within himself which not only atones for such defects, but allows him to indulge in them, as badges of his own superiority! This has been the notion of artistic genius which has spread among us of late years, just in proportion as the real amount of artistic genius has diminished; till we see men, on the mere ground of being literary men, too refined to keep accounts, or pay their butchers’ bills; affecting the pettiest absurdities in dress, in manner, in food; giving themselves credit for being unable to bear a noise, keep their temper, educate their own children, associate with their fellow-men; and a thousand other paltry weaknesses, morosenesses, self-indulgences, fastidiousnesses, vulgarities — for all this is essentially vulgar, and demands, not honour and sympathy, but a chapter in Mr. Thackeray’s “Book of Snobs.” Non sic itur ad astra. Self-indulgence and exclusiveness can only be a proof of weakness. It may accompany talent, but it proves that talent to be partial and defective. The brain may be large, but the manhood, the “virtus,” is small, where such things are allowed, much more where they are gloried in. A poet such a man may be, but a world poet never. He is sectarian, a poetical Quaker, a Puritan, who, forgetting that the truth which he possesses is equally the right and inheritance of every man he meets, takes up a peculiar dress or phraseology, as symbols of his fancied difference from his human brothers. All great poets, till Shelley and Byron, as far as we can discern, have been men especially free from eccentricities; careful not merely of the chivalries and the respectabilities, but also of the courtesies and the petty conventionalities, of the age in which they lived; altogether well-bred men of the world. The answer, that they learnt the ways of courts, does not avail; for if they had had no innate good-breeding, reticence, respect for forms and customs, they would never have come near courts at all. It is not a question of rank and fashion, but of good feeling, common sense, unselfishness. Goethe, Milton, Spenser, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Ariosto, were none of them high-born men; several of them low-born; who only rose to the society of high-horn men because they were themselves innately high-bred, polished, complete, without exaggerations, affectations, deformities, weaknesses of mind and taste, whatever may have been their weaknesses on certain points of morals. The man of all men most bepraised by the present generation of poets, is perhaps Wolfgang von Goethe. Why is it, then, that of all men he is the one whom they strive to be most unlike?

And if this be good counsel for the man who merely wishes — and no blame to him — to sing about beautiful things in a beautiful way, it applies with tenfold force to the poet who desires honestly to proclaim great truths. If he has to offend the prejudices of the world in important things, that is all the more reason for his bowing to those prejudices in little things, and being content to be like his neighbours in outward matters, in order that he may make them like himself in inward ones. Shall such a man dare to hinder his own message, to drive away the very hearers to whom he believes himself to be sent, for the sake of his own nerves, laziness, antipathies, much more of his own vanity and pride? If he does so, he is unfaithful to that very genius on which he prides himself. He denies its divinity, by treating it as his own possession, to be displayed or hidden as he chooses, for his own enjoyment, his own self-glorification. Well for such a man if a day comes to him in which he will look back with shame and self-reproach, not merely on every scandal which he may have caused by breaking the moral and social laws of humanity, by neglecting to restrain his appetites, pay his bills, and keep his engagements; but also on every conceited word and look, every gaucherie and rudeness, every self-indulgent moroseness and fastidiousness, as sins against the sacred charge which has been committed to him; and determine with that Jew of old, who, to judge from his letter to Philemon, was one of the most perfect gentlemen of God’s making who ever walked this earth, to become “all things to all men, if by any means he may save some.”

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