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THE POEMS OF PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY.
It will be seen by our extracts in the former paper, from the “ Revolt of Islam,” that Shelley, although full of fervor and strength, and in some of his isolated picturings approaching sublimity itself, possessed not that sustained regularity of judgment necessary to the execution of a great poem. It is the highest perfection of genius when conception and execution are equally balanced; or, in other words, when the creative faculty can give a full development, as well as a just and harmonious proportion, to each object of its creation. In the “ Revolt of Islam,” this perfection does not exist: the machinery of that poem being irregular and without art; the hero and heroine phantasmal-purely imaginative—therefore drawing but little on human sympathies; and the scenes in which they move, although in the fullest sense of the term poetical, being so indistinctly or so extravagantly wrought up, as to afford a golden opportunity for ill-natured or cold-hearted criticism to throw a blight over the whole. As we pursue this examination, we shall find that the distinguishing feature of Shelley's mind was, in its purest abstraction, the imaginative power. In him, this power never slept, never wearied, and was always original: it is the cause both of his excellencies and his errors ; for like the magician who forgets to draw round him an enchanted circle, before invoking the beings of another world, so little does Shelley in its exercise attend to the circumscribed limitations and distinctions of judgment, that he is borne away, as it were, by the very phantoms he calls up.
This remark is applicable to the “ Cenci,” a tragedy in five acts, one of the three dramas (the other two being entitled “ Prometheus Unbound” and “Hellas”) which Shelley has left behind. A restless desire to touch on fearful and forbidden things, or in the words of a reviewer applied to Cyril Tourneur, a dramatist of the seventeenth century, “ to play with atheism and dally with incest,” seems to have impelled the young poet to take up with a subject, which his warmest admirers must admit to have been ill-chosen. It is true that, in the treatment of this terrible design, he has shown a delicacy of feeling, of which the author of " Titus Andronicus," to this day received and read by many as one of Shakspeare's own tragedies, shows an exemplary want : it is true that he has thrown over the character of Beatrice a halo of spiritual innocence, which, in spite of the crime she is driven to commit, that crime, which
Like a gbost is shrouded and folded up
excites every gentler sympathy in her behalf ; but even if the subject of the tragedy were not in itself objectionable, it contains other errors of judgment which cannot be passed over. The delineation of the horrors of an (Edipus, or a Medea, is not the model to be adopted by modern dramatists. In proportion as public taste is refined, the deformities of the ancient drama, including those of most of the English dramatists in the seventeenth century, grow more and more repulsive. Humanity shudders at the display of unnatural passions; and it would be monstrous to suppose that the “ Vittoria Corobona” of John Webster, or the “ Woman, Beware of Woman,” of Middleton, and many others we
Concluded from vol. xiii. p. 382.
might mention, would be any more tolerated on the English stage in these days, than a sanguinary combat of gladiators in the days of our less brutalized, but yet unpolished, ancestors.
The“ Cenci,” however, is by no means deficient in merit: its chief excellence lies in the characters of Beatrice, Camillo, Lucretia, and Bermardo; the three last showing more touches of human feeling than is generally to be met with in Shelley's writings. The “ Cenci” himself is a most loathsomne wretch, with not even the reluctant humanity of a Lady Macbeth to throw a light on his dark features. The other characters, viz. Giacomo, Orsino, and Savella, are faulty, ill-sustained, and unnatural; there is a cold profligacy in Orsino, which is quite hateful. Olimpio and Marzio, too, are most ordinary cut-throats.
Shelley has chosen two subjects more congenial to his exalted imagination, and much more susceptible of poetic grandeur, than the bare exposure of unnatural passions in his “ Prometheus Unbound” and “ Hellas.” It was a daring attempt for an English poet to seek to replace, in a comparatively feeble language, the finest perhaps of the dramas of Æschylus: yet of all modern hards, Shelley was most qualified for the task. There is a real resemblance in our poet's genius to that of Æschylus: both were ardent and enthusiastic; possessed of that glorious elevation of fancy which revels in the sublimest conceptions: both were perfect masters of their native language in all its varied and most vivid expressions: their faults also may be said to resemble each other; for if Eschylus, as he has been represented, be wild, irregular, and frequently fantastic, relying too much on the impulses of imagination, to the neglect of judgment—if he be rude, inartificial, and even inconsistent in his plots, the same may with truth be said of Shelley, and in no one instance more than in the drama before us.
But who was Prometheus? Was he, a's Horace has imagined, the boldest of the sons of Evil ? the thief who stole immortal fire from his divine associates for the worst purposes ? the heathen Satan, who, by one daring offence agaiust the purity of heaven, entailed a legacy of sorrow and disease on mankind ? or was he in truth, as Byron has addressed him, the moral regenerator of the human race?
Whose godlike crime was to be kind,
To render with his precepts less
The sum of human wretchedness,
thus following up the grander conception of Æschylus, in his “ Prométheus vinctus," who felt for the fallen hero, and, heathen as he was, hated kis insulting vanquisher. The latter picture is the true one : Satan and Prometheus are both sublimely shadowed forth, but that sublimity is distinct, peculiar, and may not be blended: for what was Jupiter but a tyrant, who gave himself up to every evil passion, and scrupled at no injury or injustice ? And it is this picture of a dark and vicious mighty being, who owes his visionary existence to heathen conception, and is sullied by every human frailty, that must ever be borne in mind.
It may be necessary to give a brief outline of the plot which formed the drama of Æschylus, and we cannot do better than by quoting his own vivid description. Speaking of the occupations of Jupiter immediately after ascending the throne of his father Satan, he says:
βροτών δε των ταλαιπωρών λόγον
του μή διαρραισθέντας εις Αιδου μολεϊν.
Which may thus be literally translated :
Man's miserable lot
A perpetual and dreadful punishment-for chained to a rock by fetters which may not be burnt, the mighty heart of Prometheus is ever gnawed by a voracious vulture, without the possibility of his finding relief in death!
It was to follow up this tale that Shelley devoted the full powers of his creative mind. Unknown to himself, but not unfelt, an allegory, which it will be our pains to illustrate, has developed itself under his pen. The first act of the - Prometheus Unbound” opens magnificently, thus:
ACT I. (SCENE—A ravine of icy rocks in the Indian Caucasus— Prometheus is discovered
bound-Panthea and lone are seated at his feet—During the scene, morning slowly
Hung mute and moveless o'er yon hush'd abyss,
What was that curse? What was that awful whisper which a prostrate prisoner could fling with all its untold terror on his shrinking oppressor ? The mountains to whom Prometheus addresses himself dare not answer—the elements shrink from its repetition-Earth herself, in the recollection of what she has lost, and of what she suffers in the martyrdom of her benevolent protector, shudders, and for awhile is silent.
But the fallen hero (and let it be remarked, that in personifying Earth Shelley imitates the example of Æschylus, in his character of Oceanus,) again addresses her :
The curse is at length repeated; but so terrible is its nature, that even the persecuted Titan relents. The following is in Shelley's best style :
We have gone thus far into the drama, to show the terrible punishment of the Titan. We shall presently see the fortitude with which he sustains it. Calm and unflinching in all his solitary tortures, with an eye still fixed on the beautiful, and a bosom, whose emotions are for ever pure and benevolent- watched and tended by two lovely spirits, the types of Constancy and Fidelity,—have we not a beautiful image of the Genius of Liberty itself, chained in adamantine links, and ever persecuted by a vulturous oppression, yet unvanquished in its enduring and patient immortality. Here then is the true allegory of Prometheus: it is a picture under ideal characters, of Freedom overborne for awhile by Tyranny, with all the elements of nature weeping and wailing for her fall.
But the measure of the Titan's sufferings is not yet full. Mercury, the messenger of Jove, approaches, conducting the Furies, who have prepared themselves with tenfold tortures : Shelley has nobly improved on Æschylus, who drew Mercury as a pampered and insulting minion.
Bend down thy soul in pray'r,
Let others flatter crime where it sits thron'd
Yet pause and plunge
I would not quit
Call up the fiends! The hour of torture has now reached the Titan: all that it is frightful to conceive, and terrible to suffer; all of external and internal terror, which preys so bitterly as well on body as on mind, are now heaped on the immortal philanthropist. It is such sufferings as these that Liberty