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Hermetic Library discussions
Ideas of Good and Evil
The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry
I. HIS RULING IDEAS
When I was a boy in Dublin I was one of a group who rented a room in a mean street to discuss philosophy. My fellow-students got more and more interested in certain modern schools of mystical belief, and I never found anybody to share my one unshakable belief. I thought that whatever of philosophy has been made poetry is alone permanent, and that one should begin to arrange it in some regular order, rejecting nothing as the make-believe of the poets. I thought, so far as I can recollect my thoughts after so many years, that if a powerful and benevolent spirit has shaped the destiny of this world, we can better discover that destiny from the words that have gathered up the heart’s desire of the world, than from historical records, or from speculation, wherein the heart withers. Since then I have observed dreams and visions very carefully, and am now certain that the imagination has some way of lighting on the truth that the reason has not, and that its commandments, delivered when the body is still and the reason silent, are the most binding we can ever know. I have re-read Prometheus Unbound, which I had hoped my fellow-students would have studied as a sacred book, and it seems to me to have an even more certain place than I had thought, among the sacred books of the world. I remember going to a learned scholar to ask about its deep meanings, which I felt more than understood, and his telling me that it was Godwin’s Political Justice put into rhyme, and that Shelley was a crude revolutionist, and believed that the overturning of kings and priests would regenerate mankind. I quoted the lines which tell how the halcyons ceased to prey on fish, and how poisonous leaves became good for food, to show that he foresaw more than any political regeneration, but was too timid to push the argument. I still believe that one cannot help believing him, as this scholar I know believes him, a vague thinker, who mixed occasional great poetry with a phantastic rhetoric, unless one compares such passages, and above all such passages as describe the liberty he praised, till one has discovered the system of belief that lay behind them. It should seem natural to find his thought full of subtlety, for Mrs. Shelley has told how he hesitated whether he should be a metaphysician or a poet, and has spoken of his ‘huntings after the obscure’ with regret, and said of that Prometheus Unbound, which so many for three generations have thought Political Justice put into rhyme, ‘It requires a mind as subtle and penetrating as his own to understand the mystic meanings scattered throughout the poem. They elude the ordinary reader by their abstraction and delicacy of distinction, but they are far from vague. It was his design to write prose metaphysical essays on the Nature of Man, which would have served to explain much of what is obscure in his poetry; a few scattered fragments of observation and remarks alone remain. He considered these philosophical views of mind and nature to be instinct with the intensest spirit of poetry.’ From these scattered fragments and observations, and from many passages read in their light, one soon comes to understand that his liberty was so much more than the liberty of Political Justice that it was one with Intellectual Beauty, and that the regeneration he foresaw was so much more than the regeneration many political dreamers have foreseen, that it could not come in its perfection till the hours bore ‘Time to his grave in eternity.’ In A Defence of Poetry, the profoundest essay on the foundation of poetry in English, he shows that the poet and the lawgiver hold their station by the right of the same faculty, the one uttering in words and the other in the forms of society, his vision of the divine order, the Intellectual Beauty. ‘Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called in the earliest epoch of the world legislators or prophets, and a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things are to be ordained, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flowers and the fruit of latest time.’ ‘Language, colour, form, and religious and civil habits of action, are all the instruments and materials of poetry.’ Poetry is ‘the creation of actions according to the unchangeable process of human nature as existing in the mind of the creator, which is itself the image of all other minds.’ ‘Poets have been challenged to resign the civic crown to reasoners and merchants…. It is admitted that the exercise of the imagination is the most delightful, but it is alleged that that of reason is the more useful…. Whilst the mechanist abridges and the political economist combines labour, let them be sure that their speculations, for want of correspondence with those first principles which belong to the imagination, do not tend, as they have in modern England, to exasperate at once the extremes of luxury and want…. The rich have become richer, the poor have become poorer,… such are the effects which must ever flow from an unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty.’ The speaker of these things might almost be Blake, who held that the Reason not only created Ugliness, but all other evils. The books of all wisdom are hidden in the cave of the Witch of Atlas, who is one of his personifications of beauty, and when she moves over the enchanted river that is an image of all life, the priests cast aside their deceits, and the king crowns an ape to mock his own sovereignty, and the soldiers gather about the anvils to beat their swords to ploughshares, and lovers cast away their timidity, and friends are united; while the power, which in Laon and Cythna, awakens the mind of the reformer to contend, and itself contends, against the tyrannies of the world, is first seen, as the star of love or beauty. And at the end of The Ode to Naples, he cries out to ‘the spirit of beauty’ to overturn the tyrannies of the world, or to fill them with its ‘harmonizing ardours.’ He calls the spirit of beauty liberty, because despotism, and perhaps, as ‘the man of virtuous soul commands not nor obeys,’ all authority, pluck virtue from her path towards beauty, and because it leads us by that love whose service is perfect freedom. It leads all things by love, for he cries again and again that love is the perception of beauty in thought and things, and it orders all things by love, for it is love that impels the soul to its expressions in thought and in action, by making us ‘seek to awaken in all things that are, a community with what we experience within ourselves.’ ‘We are born into the world, and there is something within us which, from the instant that we live, more and more thirsts after its likeness.’ We have ‘a soul within our soul that describes a circle around its proper paradise which pain and sorrow and evil dare not overleap,’ and we labour to see this soul in many mirrors, that we may possess it the more abundantly. He would hardly seek the progress of the world by any less gentle labour, and would hardly have us resist evil itself. He bids the reformers in The Philosophical Review of Reform receive ‘the onset of the cavalry,’ if it be sent to disperse their meetings, ‘with folded arms,’ and ‘not because active resistance is not justifiable, but because temperance and courage would produce greater advantages than the most decisive victory;’ and he gives them like advice in The Masque of Anarchy, for liberty, the poem cries, ‘is love,’ and can make the rich man kiss its feet, and, like those who followed Christ, give away his goods and follow it throughout the world.
He does not believe that the reformation of society can bring this beauty, this divine order, among men without the regeneration of the hearts of men. Even in Queen Mab, which was written before he had found his deepest thought, or rather perhaps before he had found words to utter it, for I do not think men change much in their deepest thought, he is less anxious to change men’s beliefs, as I think, than to cry out against that serpent more subtle than any beast of the field, ‘the cause and the effect of tyranny.’ He affirms again and again that the virtuous, those who have ‘pure desire and universal love,’ are happy in the midst of tyranny, and he foresees a day when ‘the spirit of nature,’ the spirit of beauty of his later poems, who has her ‘throne of power unappealable in every human heart,’ shall have made men so virtuous that ‘kingly glare will lose its power to dazzle and silently pass by,’ and as it seems even commerce, ‘the venal interchange of all that human art or nature yields, which wealth should purchase not,’ come as silently to an end.
He was always, indeed in chief, a witness for that ‘power unappealable.’ Maddalo, in Julian and Maddalo, says that the soul is powerless, and can only, like a ‘dreary bell hung in a heaven-illumined tower, toll our thoughts and our desires to meet round the rent heart and pray’; but Julian, who is Shelley himself, replies, as the makers of all religions have replied—
‘Where is the beauty, love and truth we seek
But in our minds? And if we were not weak,
Should we be less in deed than in desire?’
while Mont Blanc is an intricate analogy to affirm that the soul has its sources in ‘the secret strength of things,’ ‘which governs thought and to the infinite heavens is a law.’ He even thought that men might be immortal were they sinless, and his Cythna bids the sailors be without remorse, for all that live are stained as they are. It is thus, she says, that time marks men and their thoughts for the tomb. And the ‘Red Comet,’ the image of evil in Laon and Cythna, when it began its war with the star of beauty, brought not only ‘Fear, Hatred, Fraud, and Tyranny,’ but ‘Death, Decay, Earthquake, and Blight and Madness pale.’
When the Red Comet is conquered, when Jupiter is overthrown by Demogorgon, when the prophecy of Queen Mab is fulfilled, visible nature will put on perfection again. He declares, in one of the notes to Queen Mab, that ‘there is no great extravagance in presuming … that there should be a perfect identity between the moral and physical improvement of the human species,’ and thinks it ‘certain that wisdom is not compatible with disease, and that, in the present state of the climates of the earth, health in the true and comprehensive sense of the word is out of the reach of civilized man.’ In Prometheus Unbound he sees, as in the ecstasy of a saint, the ships moving among the seas of the world without fear of danger
‘by the light
Of wave-reflected flowers, and floating odours,
And music soft,’
and poison dying out of the green things, and cruelty out of all living things, and even the toads and efts becoming beautiful, and at last Time being borne ‘to his tomb in eternity.’
This beauty, this divine order, whereof all things shall become a part in a kind of resurrection of the body, is already visible to the dead and to souls in ecstasy, for ecstasy is a kind of death. The dying Lionel hears the song of the nightingale, and cries—
‘Heardst thou not sweet words among
That heaven-resounding minstrelsy?
Heardst thou not that those who die
Awake in a world of ecstasy?
How love, when limbs are interwoven,
And sleep, when the night of life is cloven,
And thought to the world’s dim boundaries clinging,
And music when one beloved is singing,
Is death? Let us drain right joyously
The cup which the sweet bird fills for me.’
And in the most famous passage in all his poetry he sings of Death as of a mistress. ‘Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, stains the white radiance of eternity.’ ‘Die, if thou wouldst be with that which thou wouldst seek;’ and he sees his own soon-coming death in a rapture of prophecy, for ‘the fire for which all thirst’ beams upon him, ‘consuming the last clouds of cold mortality.’ When he is dead he will still influence the living, for though Adonais has fled ‘to the burning fountains whence he came,’ and ‘is a portion of the eternal which must glow through time and change unquenchably the same,’ and has ‘awaked from the dream of life,’ he has not gone from ‘the young dawn,’ or the ‘caverns in the forests,’ or ‘the faint flowers and the fountains.’ He has been ‘made one with nature,’ and his voice is ‘heard in all her music,’ and his presence is felt wherever ‘that power may move which has withdrawn his being to its own,’ and he bears ‘his part’ when it is compelling mortal things to their appointed forms, and he overshadows men’s minds at their supreme moments, for
‘when lofty thought
Lifts a young heart above its mortal lair,
And love and life contend in it for what
Shall be its earthly doom, the dead live there,
And move like winds of light on dark and stormy air.’
‘Of his speculations as to what will befall this inestimable spirit when we appear to die,’ Mrs. Shelley has written, ‘a mystic ideality tinged these speculations in Shelley’s mind; certain stanzas in the poem of The Sensitive Plant express, in some degree, the almost inexpressible idea, not that we die into another state, when this state is no longer, from some reason, unapparent as well as apparent, accordant with our being—but that those who rise above the ordinary nature of man, fade from before our imperfect organs; they remain in their “love, beauty, and delight,” in a world congenial to them, and we, clogged by “error, ignorance, and strife,” see them not till we are fitted by purification and improvement to their higher state.’ Not merely happy souls, but all beautiful places and movements and gestures and events, when we think they have ceased to be, have become portions of the eternal.
‘In this life
Of error, ignorance, and strife,
Where nothing is, but all things seem,
And we the shadows of the dream,
It is a modest creed, and yet
Pleasant, if one considers it,
To own that death itself must be,
Like all the rest, a mockery.
This garden sweet, that lady fair,
And all sweet shapes and odours there,
In truth have never passed away;
’Tis we, ’tis ours are changed, not they.
For love and beauty and delight
There is no death, nor change; their might
Exceeds our organs, which endure
No light, being themselves obscure.’
He seems in his speculations to have lit on that memory of nature the visionaries claim for the foundation of their knowledge; but I do not know whether he thought, as they do, that all things good and evil remain for ever, ‘thinking the thought and doing the deed,’ though not, it may be, self-conscious; or only thought that ‘love and beauty and delight’ remain for ever. The passage where Queen Mab awakes ‘all knowledge of the past,’ and the good and evil ‘events of old and wondrous times,’ was no more doubtless than a part of the machinery of the poem, but all the machineries of poetry are parts of the convictions of antiquity, and readily become again convictions in minds that dwell upon them in a spirit of intense idealism.
Intellectual Beauty has not only the happy dead to do her will, but ministering spirits who correspond to the Devas of the East, and the Elemental Spirits of mediæval Europe, and the Sidhe of ancient Ireland, and whose too constant presence, and perhaps Shelley’s ignorance of their more traditional forms, give some of his poetry an air of rootless phantasy. They change continually in his poetry, as they do in the visions of the mystics everywhere and of the common people in Ireland, and the forms of these changes display, in an especial sense, the glowing forms of his mind when freed from all impulse not out of itself or out of supersensual power. These are ‘gleams of a remoter world which visit us in sleep,’ spiritual essences whose shadows are the delights of all the senses, sounds ‘folded in cells of crystal silence,’ ‘visions swift and sweet and quaint,’ which lie waiting their moment ‘each in his thin sheath like a chrysalis,’ ‘odours’ among ‘ever-blooming eden trees’, ‘liquors’ that can give ‘happy sleep,’ or can make tears ‘all wonder and delight’; ‘The golden genii who spoke to the poets of Greece in dreams’; ‘the phantoms’ which become the forms of the arts when ‘the mind, arising bright from the embrace of beauty,’ ‘casts on them the gathered rays which are reality’; the ‘guardians’ who move in ‘the atmosphere of human thought’ as ‘the birds within the wind, or the fish within the wave,’ or man’s thought itself through all things; and who join the throng of the happy hours when Time is passing away—
‘As the flying fish leap
From the Indian deep,
And mix with the seabirds half asleep.’
It is these powers which lead Asia and Panthea, as they would lead all the affections of humanity, by words written upon leaves, by faint songs, by eddies of echoes that draw ‘all spirits on that secret way,’ by the ‘dying odours’ of flowers and by ‘the sunlight of the sphered dew,’ beyond the gates of birth and death to awake Demogorgon, eternity, that ‘the painted veil’ ‘called life’ may be ‘torn aside.’
There are also ministers of ugliness and all evil, like those that came to Prometheus—
‘As from the rose which the pale priestess kneels
To gather for her festal crown of flowers,
The aërial crimson falls, flushing her cheek,
So from our victim’s destined agony
The shade which is our form invests us round;
Else we are shapeless as our mother Night.’
Or like those whose shapes the poet sees in The Triumph of Life, coming from the procession that follows the car of life, as ‘hope’ changes to ‘desire,’ shadows ‘numerous as the dead leaves blown in autumn evening from a poplar tree’; and resembling those they come from, until, if I understand an obscure phrase aright, they are ‘wrapt’ round ‘all the busy phantoms that live there as the sun shapes the clouds.’ Some to sit ‘chattering like apes,’ and some like ‘old anatomies’ ‘hatching their bare broods under the shade of dæmons’ wings,’ laughing ‘to reassume the delegated powers’ they had given to the tyrants of the earth, and some ‘like small gnats and flies’ to throng ‘about the brow of lawyers, statesmen, priest and theorist,’ and some ‘like discoloured shapes of snow’ to fall ‘on fairest bosoms and the sunniest hair,’ to be ‘melted by the youthful glow which they extinguish,’ and many to ‘fling shadows of shadows yet unlike themselves,’ shadows that are shaped into new forms by that ‘creative ray’ in which all move like motes.
These ministers of beauty and ugliness were certainly more than metaphors or picturesque phrases to one who believed the ‘thoughts which are called real or external objects’ differed but in regularity of recurrence from ‘hallucinations, dreams, and the ideas of madness,’ and lessened this difference by telling how he had dreamed ‘three several times, between intervals of two or more years, the same precise dream,’ and who had seen images with the mind’s eye that left his nerves shaken for days together. Shadows that were as when there
A flock of vampire bats before the glare
Of the tropic sun, bringing, ere evening,
Strange night upon some Indian vale,’
could not but have had more than a metaphorical and picturesque being to one who had spoken in terror with an image of himself, and who had fainted at the apparition of a woman with eyes in her breasts, and who had tried to burn down a wood, if we can trust Mrs. Williams’ account, because he believed a devil, who had first tried to kill him, had sought refuge there.
It seems to me, indeed, that Shelley had reawakened in himself the age of faith, though there were times when he would doubt, as even the saints have doubted, and that he was a revolutionist, because he had heard the commandment, ‘If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.’ I have re-read his Prometheus Unbound for the first time for many years, in the woods of Drim-da-rod, among the Echte hills, and sometimes I have looked towards Slieve-nan-Orr, where the country people say the last battle of the world shall be fought till the third day, when a priest shall lift a chalice, and the thousand years of peace begin. And I think this mysterious song utters a faith as simple and as ancient as the faith of those country people, in a form suited to a new age, that will understand, with Blake, that the holy spirit is ‘an intellectual fountain,’ and that the kinds and degrees of beauty are the images of its authority.
II. HIS RULING SYMBOLS
At a comparatively early time Shelley made his imprisoned Cythna become wise in all human wisdom through the contemplation of her own mind, and write out this wisdom upon the sand in ‘signs’ that were ‘clear elemental shapes whose smallest change’ made ‘a subtler language within language’ and were ‘the key of truths, which once were dimly taught in old Crotona.’ His early romances and much throughout his poetry show how strong a fascination the traditions of magic and of the magical philosophy had cast over his mind, and one can hardly suppose that he had not brooded over their doctrine of symbols or signatures, though I do not find anything to show that he gave it any deep study. One finds in his poetry, besides innumerable images that have not the definiteness of symbols, many images that are certainly symbols, and as the years went by he began to use these with a more and more deliberately symbolic purpose. I imagine that, when he wrote his earlier poems, he allowed the subconscious life to lay its hands so firmly upon the rudder of his imagination, that he was little conscious of the abstract meaning of the images that rose in what seemed the idleness of his mind. Any one who has any experience of any mystical state of the soul knows how there float up in the mind profound symbols,1 whose meaning, if indeed they do not delude one into the dream that they are meaningless, one does not perhaps understand for years. Nor I think has any one, who has known that experience with any constancy, failed to find some day in some old book or on some old monument, a strange or intricate image, that had floated up before him, and grow perhaps dizzy with the sudden conviction that our little memories are but a part of some great memory that renews the world and men’s thoughts age after age, and that our thoughts are not, as we suppose, the deep but a little foam upon the deep. Shelley understood this, as is proved by what he says of the eternity of beautiful things and of the influence of the dead, but whether he understood that the great memory is also a dwelling-house of symbols, of images that are living souls, I cannot tell. He had certainly experience of all but the most profound of the mystical states, of that union with created things which assuredly must precede the soul’s union with the uncreated spirit. He says in his fragment of an essay upon life, mistaking a unique experience for the common experience of all: ‘Let us recollect our sensations as children … we less habitually distinguished all that we saw and felt from ourselves. They seemed as it were to constitute one mass. There are some persons who in this respect are always children. Those who are subject to the state called reverie, feel as if their nature were resolved into the surrounding universe, or as if the surrounding universe were resolved into their being,’ and he must have expected to receive thoughts and images from beyond his own mind, just in so far as that mind transcended its preoccupation with particular time and place, for he believed inspiration a kind of death; and he could hardly have helped perceiving that an image that has transcended particular time and place becomes a symbol, passes beyond death, as it were, and becomes a living soul.
When Shelley went to the Continent with Godwin’s daughter in 1812 they sailed down certain great rivers in an open boat, and when he summed up in his preface to Laon and Cythna the things that helped to make him a poet, he spoke of these voyages: ‘I have sailed down mighty rivers and seen the sun rise and set and the stars come forth whilst I sailed night and day down a rapid stream among mountains.’
He may have seen some cave that was the bed of a rivulet by some river side, or have followed some mountain stream to its source in a cave, for from his return to England rivers and streams and wells, flowing through caves or rising in them, came into every poem of his that was of any length, and always with the precision of symbols. Alastor passed in his boat along a river in a cave; and when for the last time he felt the presence of the spirit he loved and followed, it was when he watched his image in a silent well; and when he died it was where a river fell into ‘an abysmal chasm’; and the Witch of Atlas in her gladness, as he in his sadness, passed in her boat along a river in a cave, and it was where it bubbled out of a cave that she was born; and when Rousseau, the typical poet of The Triumph of Life, awoke to the vision that was life, it was where a rivulet bubbled out of a cave; and the poet of Epipsychidion met the evil beauty ‘by a well under blue nightshade bowers’; and Cythna bore her child imprisoned in a great cave beside ‘a fountain round and vast and in which the wave imprisoned leaped and boiled perpetually’; and her lover Laon was brought to his prison in a high column through a cave where there was ‘a putrid pool,’ and when he went to see the conquered city he dismounted beside a polluted fountain in the market-place, foreshadowing thereby that spirit who at the end of Prometheus Unbound gazes at a regenerated city from ‘within a fountain in the public square’; and when Laon and Cythna are dead they awake beside a fountain and drift into Paradise along a river; and at the end of things Prometheus and Asia are to live amid a happy world in a cave where a fountain ‘leaps with an awakening sound’; and it was by a fountain, the meeting-place of certain unhappy lovers, that Rosalind and Helen told their unhappiness to one another; and it was under a willow by a fountain that the enchantress and her lover began their unhappy love; while his lesser poems and his prose fragments use caves and rivers and wells and fountains continually as metaphors. It may be that his subconscious life seized upon some passing scene, and moulded it into an ancient symbol without help from anything but that great memory; but so good a Platonist as Shelley could hardly have thought of any cave as a symbol, without thinking of Plato’s cave that was the world; and so good a scholar may well have had Porphyry on ‘the Cave of the Nymphs’ in his mind. When I compare Porphyry’s description of the cave where the Phæacian boat left Odysseus, with Shelley’s description of the cave of the Witch of Atlas, to name but one of many, I find it hard to think otherwise. I quote Taylor’s translation, only putting Mr. Lang’s prose for Taylor’s bad verse. ‘What does Homer obscurely signify by the cave in Ithaca which he describes in the following verses? “Now at the harbour’s head is a long-leaved olive tree, and hard by is a pleasant cave and shadowy, sacred to the nymphs, that are called Naiads. And therein are mixing bowls and jars of stone, and there moreover do bees hive. And there are great looms of stone, whereon the nymphs weave raiment of purple stain, a marvel to behold; and there are waters welling ever more. Two gates there are to the cave, the one set towards the North wind, whereby men may go down, but the portals toward the South pertain rather to the gods, whereby men may not enter: it is the way of the immortals.”’ He goes on to argue that the cave was a temple before Homer wrote, and that ‘the ancients did not establish temples without fabulous symbols,’ and then begins to interpret Homer’s description in all its detail. The ancients, he says, ‘consecrated a cave to the world’ and held ‘the flowing waters’ and the ‘obscurity of the cavern’ ‘apt symbols of what the world contains,’ and he calls to witness Zoroaster’s cave with fountains; and often caves are, he says, symbols of ‘all invisible power; because as caves are obscure and dark, so the essence of all these powers is occult,’ and quotes a lost hymn to Apollo to prove that nymphs living in caves fed men ‘from intellectual fountains’; and he contends that fountains and rivers symbolize generation, and that the word nymph ‘is commonly applied to all souls descending into generation,’ and that the two gates of Homer’s cave are the gate of generation and the gate of ascent through death to the gods, the gate of cold and moisture, and the gate of heat and fire. Cold, he says, causes life in the world, and heat causes life among the gods, and the constellation of the cup is set in the heavens near the sign Cancer, because it is there that the souls descending from the Milky Way receive their draught of the intoxicating cold drink of generation. ‘The mixing bowls and jars of stone’ are consecrated to the Naiads, and are also, as it seems, symbolical of Bacchus, and are of stone because of the rocky beds of the rivers. And ‘the looms of stone’ are the symbols of the ‘souls that descend into generation.’ ‘For the formation of the flesh is on or about the bones, which in the bodies of animals resemble stones,’ and also because ‘the body is a garment’ not only about the soul, but about all essences that become visible, for ‘the heavens are called by the ancients a veil, in consequence of being as it were the vestments of the celestial gods.’ The bees hive in the mixing bowls and jars of stone, for so Porphyry understands the passage, because honey was the symbol adopted by the ancients for ‘pleasure arising from generation.’ The ancients, he says, called souls not only Naiads but bees, ‘as the efficient cause of sweetness’; but not all souls ‘proceeding into generation’ are called bees, ‘but those who will live in it justly and who after having performed such things as are acceptable to the gods will again return (to their kindred stars). For this insect loves to return to the place from whence it came and is eminently just and sober.’ I find all these details in the cave of the Witch of Atlas, the most elaborately described of Shelley’s caves, except the two gates, and these have a far-off echo in her summer journeys on her cavern river and in her winter sleep in ‘an inextinguishable well of crimson fire.’ We have for the mixing bowls, and jars of stone full of honey, those delights of the senses, ‘sounds of air’ ‘folded in cells of crystal silences,’ ‘liquors clear and sweet’ ‘in crystal vials,’ and for the bees, visions ‘each in his thin sheath like a chrysalis,’ and for ‘the looms of stone’ and ‘raiment of purple stain’ the Witch’s spinning and embroidering; and the Witch herself is a Naiad, and was born from one of the Atlantides, who lay in ‘a chamber of grey rock’ until she was changed by the sun’s embrace into a cloud.
When one turns to Shelley for an explanation of the cave and fountain one finds how close his thought was to Porphyry’s. He looked upon thought as a condition of life in generation and believed that the reality beyond was something other than thought. He wrote in his fragment ‘On Life,’ ‘That the basis of all things cannot be, as the popular philosophy alleges, mind, is sufficiently evident. Mind, as far as we have any experience of its properties, and beyond that experience how vain is argument, cannot create, it can only perceive;’ and in another passage he defines mind as existence. Water is his great symbol of existence, and he continually meditates over its mysterious source. In his prose he tells how ‘thought can with difficulty visit the intricate and winding chambers which it inhabits. It is like a river, whose rapid and perpetual stream flows outward…. The caverns of the mind are obscure and shadowy; or pervaded with a lustre, beautiful and bright indeed, but shining not beyond their portals.’ When the Witch has passed in her boat from the caverned river, that is doubtless her own destiny, she passes along the Nile ‘by Moeris and the Mareotid lakes,’ and sees all human life shadowed upon its waters in shadows that ‘never are erased but tremble ever’; and in many a dark and subterranean street under the Nile—new caverns—and along the bank of the Nile; and as she bends over the unhappy, she compares unhappiness to ‘the strife that stirs the liquid surface of man’s life’; and because she can see the reality of things she is described as journeying ‘in the calm depths’ of ‘the wide lake’ we journey over unpiloted. Alastor calls the river that he follows an image of his mind, and thinks that it will be as hard to say where his thought will be when he is dead as where its waters will be in ocean or cloud in a little while. In Mont Blanc, a poem so overladen with descriptions in parentheses that one loses sight of its logic, Shelley compares the flowing through our mind of ‘the universe of things,’ which are, he has explained elsewhere, but thoughts, to the flowing of the Arne through the ravine, and compares the unknown sources of our thoughts in some ‘remoter world’ whose ‘gleams’ ‘visit the soul in sleep,’ to Arne’s sources among the glaciers on the mountain heights. Cythna in the passage where she speaks of making signs ‘a subtle language within language’ on the sand by the ‘fountain’ of sea water in the cave where she is imprisoned, speaks of the ‘cave’ of her mind which gave its secrets to her, and of ‘one mind the type of all’ which is a ‘moveless wave’ reflecting ‘all moveless things that are’; and then passing more completely under the power of the symbol, she speaks of growing wise through contemplation of the images that rise out of the fountain at the call of her will. Again and again one finds some passing allusion to the cave of man’s mind, or to the caves of his youth, or to the cave of mysteries we enter at death, for to Shelley as to Porphyry it is more than an image of life in the world. It may mean any enclosed life, as when it is the dwelling-place of Asia and Prometheus, or when it is ‘the still cave of poetry,’ and it may have all meanings at once, or it may have as little meaning as some ancient religious symbol enwoven from the habit of centuries with the patterns of a carpet or a tapestry.
As Shelley sailed along those great rivers and saw or imagined the cave that associated itself with rivers in his mind, he saw half-ruined towers upon the hilltops, and once at any rate a tower is used to symbolize a meaning that is the contrary to the meaning symbolized by caves. Cythna’s lover is brought through the cave where there is a polluted fountain to a high tower, for being man’s far-seeing mind, when the world has cast him out he must to the ‘towers of thought’s crowned powers’; nor is it possible for Shelley to have forgotten this first imprisonment when he made men imprison Lionel in a tower for a like offence; and because I know how hard it is to forget a symbolical meaning, once one has found it, I believe Shelley had more than a romantic scene in his mind when he made Prince Athanase follow his mysterious studies in a lighted tower above the sea, and when he made the old hermit watch over Laon in his sickness in a half-ruined tower, wherein the sea, here doubtless as to Cythna, ‘the one mind,’ threw ‘spangled sands’ and ‘rarest sea shells.’ The tower, important in Maeterlinck, as in Shelley, is, like the sea, and rivers, and caves with fountains, a very ancient symbol, and would perhaps, as years went by, have grown more important in his poetry. The contrast between it and the cave in Laon and Cythna suggests a contrast between the mind looking outward upon men and things and the mind looking inward upon itself, which may or may not have been in Shelley’s mind, but certainly helps, with one knows not how many other dim meanings, to give the poem mystery and shadow. It is only by ancient symbols, by symbols that have numberless meanings beside the one or two the writer lays an emphasis upon, or the half-score he knows of, that any highly subjective art can escape from the barrenness and shallowness of a too conscious arrangement, into the abundance and depth of nature. The poet of essences and pure ideas must seek in the half-lights that glimmer from symbol to symbol as if to the ends of the earth, all that the epic and dramatic poet finds of mystery and shadow in the accidental circumstance of life.
The most important, the most precise of all Shelley’s symbols, the one he uses with the fullest knowledge of its meaning, is the Morning and Evening Star. It rises and sets for ever over the towers and rivers, and is the throne of his genius. Personified as a woman it leads Rousseau, the typical poet of The Triumph of Life, under the power of the destroying hunger of life, under the power of the sun that we shall find presently as a symbol of life, and it is the Morning Star that wars against the principle of evil in Laon and Cythna, at first as a star with a red comet, here a symbol of all evil as it is of disorder in Epipsychidion, and then as a serpent with an eagle—symbols in Blake too and in the Alchemists; and it is the Morning Star that appears as a winged youth to a woman, who typifies humanity amid its sorrows, in the first canto of Laon and Cythna; and it is evoked by the wailing women of Hellas, who call it ‘lamp of the free’ and ‘beacon of love’ and would go where it hides flying from the deepening night among those ‘kingless continents sinless as Eden,’ and ‘mountains and islands’ ‘prankt on the sapphire sea’ that are but the opposing hemispheres to the senses but, as I think, the ideal world, the world of the dead, to the imagination; and in the Ode to Liberty, Liberty is bid lead wisdom out of the inmost cave of man’s mind as the Morning Star leads the sun out of the waves. We know too that had Prince Athanase been finished it would have described the finding of Pandemus, the stars’ lower genius, and the growing weary of her, and the coming to its true genius Urania at the coming of death, as the day finds the Star at evening. There is hardly indeed a poem of any length in which one does not find it as a symbol of love, or liberty, or wisdom, or beauty, or of some other expression of that Intellectual Beauty, which was to Shelley’s mind the central power of the world; and to its faint and fleeting light he offers up all desires, that are as
‘The desire of the Moth for the star,
The desire for something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow.’
When its genius comes to Rousseau, shedding dew with one hand, and treading out the stars with her feet, for she is also the genius of the dawn, she brings him a cup full of oblivion and love. He drinks and his mind becomes like sand ‘on desert Labrador’ marked by the feet of deer and a wolf. And then the new vision, life, the cold light of day moves before him, and the first vision becomes an invisible presence. The same image was in his mind too when he wrote
‘Hesperus flies from awakening night
And pants in its beauty with speed and light,
Fast fleeting, soft and bright.’
Though I do not think that Shelley needed to go to Porphyry’s account of the cold intoxicating cup, given to the souls in the constellation of the Cup near the constellation Cancer, for so obvious a symbol as the cup, or that he could not have found the wolf and the deer and the continual flight of his Star in his own mind, his poetry becomes the richer, the more emotional, and loses something of its appearance of idle phantasy when I remember that these are ancient symbols, and still come to visionaries in their dreams. Because the wolf is but a more violent symbol of longing and desire than the hound, his wolf and deer remind me of the hound and deer that Usheen saw in the Gaelic poem chasing one another on the water before he saw the young man following the woman with the golden apple; and of a Galway tale that tells how Niam, whose name means brightness or beauty, came to Usheen as a deer; and of a vision that a friend of mine saw when gazing at a dark-blue curtain. I was with a number of Hermetists, and one of them said to another, ‘Do you see something in the curtain?’ The other gazed at the curtain for a while and saw presently a man led through a wood by a black hound, and then the hound lay dead at a place the seer knew was called, without knowing why, ‘the Meeting of the Suns,’ and the man followed a red hound, and then the red hound was pierced by a spear. A white fawn watched the man out of the wood, but he did not look at it, for a white hound came and he followed it trembling, but the seer knew that he would follow the fawn at last, and that it would lead him among the gods. The most learned of the Hermetists said, ‘I cannot tell the meaning of the hounds or where the Meeting of the Suns is, but I think the fawn is the Morning and Evening Star.’ I have little doubt that when the man saw the white fawn he was coming out of the darkness and passion of the world into some day of partial regeneration, and that it was the Morning Star and would be the Evening Star at its second coming. I have little doubt that it was but the story of Prince Athanase and what may have been the story of Rousseau in The Triumph of Life, thrown outward once again from that great memory, which is still the mother of the Muses, though men no longer believe in it.
It may have been this memory, or it may have been some impulse of his nature too subtle for his mind to follow, that made Keats, with his love of embodied things, of precision of form and colouring, of emotions made sleepy by the flesh, see Intellectual Beauty in the Moon; and Blake, who lived in that energy he called eternal delight, see it in the Sun, where his personification of poetic genius labours at a furnace. I think there was certainly some reason why these men took so deep a pleasure in lights, that Shelley thought of with weariness and trouble. The Moon is the most changeable of symbols, and not merely because it is the symbol of change. As mistress of the waters she governs the life of instinct and the generation of things, for as Porphyry says, even ‘the apparition of images’ in the ‘imagination’ is through ‘an excess of moisture’; and, as a cold and changeable fire set in the bare heavens, she governs alike chastity and the joyless idle drifting hither and thither of generated things. She may give God a body and have Gabriel to bear her messages, or she may come to men in their happy moments as she came to Endymion, or she may deny life and shoot her arrows; but because she only becomes beautiful in giving herself, and is no flying ideal, she is not loved by the children of desire.
Shelley could not help but see her with unfriendly eyes. He is believed to have described Mary Shelley at a time when she had come to seem cold in his eyes, in that passage of Epipsychidion which tells how a woman like the Moon led him to her cave and made ‘frost’ creep over the sea of his mind, and so bewitched life and death with ‘her silver voice’ that they ran from him crying, ‘Away, he is not of our crew.’ When he describes the Moon as part of some beautiful scene he can call her beautiful, but when he personifies, when his words come under the influence of that great memory or of some mysterious tide in the depth of our being, he grows unfriendly or not truly friendly or at the most pitiful. The Moon’s lips ‘are pale and waning,’ it is ‘the cold Moon,’ or ‘the frozen and inconstant Moon,’ or it is ‘forgotten’ and ‘waning,’ or it ‘wanders’ and is ‘weary,’ or it is ‘pale and grey,’ or it is ‘pale for weariness,’ and ‘wandering companionless’ and ‘ever changing,’ and finding ‘no object worth’ its ‘constancy,’ or it is like a ‘dying lady’ who ‘totters’ ‘out of her chamber led by the insane and feeble wanderings of her fading brain,’ and even when it is no more than a star, it casts an evil influence that makes the lips of lovers ‘lurid’ or pale. It only becomes a thing of delight when Time is being borne to his tomb in eternity, for then the spirit of the Earth, man’s procreant mind, fills it with his own joyousness. He describes the spirit of the Earth and of the Moon, moving above the rivulet of their lives in a passage which reads like a half-understood vision. Man has become ‘one harmonious soul of many a soul’ and ‘all things flow to all’ and ‘familiar acts are beautiful through love,’ and an ‘animation of delight’ at this change flows from spirit to spirit till the snow ‘is loosened from the Moon’s lifeless mountains.’
Some old magical writer, I forget who, says if you wish to be melancholy hold in your left hand an image of the Moon made out of silver, and if you wish to be happy hold in your right hand an image of the Sun made out of gold. The Sun is the symbol of sensitive life, and of belief and joy and pride and energy, of indeed the whole life of the will, and of that beauty which neither lures from far off, nor becomes beautiful in giving itself, but makes all glad because it is beauty. Taylor quotes Proclus as calling it ‘the Demiurgos of everything sensible.’ It was therefore natural that Blake, who was always praising energy, and all exalted overflowing of oneself, and who thought art an impassioned labour to keep men from doubt and despondency, and woman’s love an evil, when it would trammel the man’s will, should see the poetic genius not in a woman star but in the Sun, and should rejoice throughout his poetry in ‘the Sun in his strength.’ Shelley, however, except when he uses it to describe the peculiar beauty of Emilia Viviani, who was ‘like an incarnation of the Sun when light is changed to love,’ saw it with less friendly eyes. He seems to have seen it with perfect happiness only when veiled in mist, or glimmering upon water, or when faint enough to do no more than veil the brightness of his own Star; and in The Triumph of Life, the one poem in which it is part of the avowed symbolism, its power is the being and the source of all tyrannies. When the woman personifying the Morning Star has faded from before his eyes, Rousseau sees a ‘new vision’ in ‘a cold bright car’ with a rainbow hovering over her, and as she comes the shadow passes from ‘leaf and stone,’ and the souls she has enslaved seem in ‘that light like atomies to dance within a sunbeam,’ or they dance among the flowers that grow up newly ‘in the grassy verdure of the desert,’ unmindful of the misery that is to come upon them. ‘These are the great, the unforgotten,’ all who have worn ‘mitres and helms and crowns or wreaths of light,’ and yet have not known themselves. Even ‘great Plato’ is there because he knew joy and sorrow, because life that could not subdue him by gold or pain, by ‘age or sloth or slavery,’ subdued him by love. All who have ever lived are there except Christ and Socrates and ‘the sacred few’ who put away all life could give, being doubtless followers throughout their lives of the forms borne by the flying ideal, or who, ‘as soon as they had touched the world with living flame, flew back like eagles to their native noon.’
In ancient times, it seems to me that Blake, who for all his protest was glad to be alive, and ever spoke of his gladness, would have worshipped in some chapel of the Sun, and that Keats, who accepted life gladly though ‘with a delicious diligent indolence,’ would have worshipped in some chapel of the Moon, but that Shelley, who hated life because he sought ‘more in life than any understood,’ would have wandered, lost in a ceaseless reverie, in some chapel of the Star of infinite desire.
I think too that as he knelt before an altar, where a thin flame burnt in a lamp made of green agate, a single vision would have come to him again and again, a vision of a boat drifting down a broad river between high hills where there were caves and towers, and following the light of one Star; and that voices would have told him how there is for every man some one scene, some one adventure, some one picture that is the image of his secret life, for wisdom first speaks in images, and that this one image, if he would but brood over it his life long, would lead his soul, disentangled from unmeaning circumstance and the ebb and flow of the world, into that far household, where the undying gods await all whose souls have become simple as flame, whose bodies have become quiet as an agate lamp.
But he was born in a day when the old wisdom had vanished and was content merely to write verses, and often with little thought of more than verses.
1. ‘Marianne’s Dream’ was certainly copied from a real dream of somebody’s, but like images come to the mystic in his waking state.
Index | What is ‘Popular Poetry’? | Speaking to the Psaltery | Magic | The Happiest of the Poets | The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry | At Stratford-on-Avon | William Blake and the Imagination | William Blake and his Illustrations to //The Divine Comedy// | …
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