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And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And there lay the steed, with his nostril all wide ;
And there lay the rider, distorted and pale,
And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
There have been few poets who could handle language with Byron's ease and power. His rhyming is a marvel of facility. He wrote with a pen that played as freely as the lightning, and his thought never seemed to feel the bonds of rhyme.
In his poetry, Byron warmly took up the cause of Greece, which was then making an effort to free herself from the Turks. In Childe Harold and in other poems some grand passages are addressed to struggling Greece. The year before his death he entered into the plans of the Greek leaders in a war for their country's independence, and went to live at Missolonghi, where he mustered a band of soldiers in his own pay.
Overwork and the bad climate threw him into a fever, and he was urged to leave the air of Missolonghi, which was malarious, and go elsewhere to recover. He refused, saying he would remain till Greece was either free or hopelessly subdued. He died soon after, at his post there, in the prime of life and genius. He used to say he had up to that time written only for women; in the last of his life he would write for men. Would he had been spared to do even greater things than Childe Harold !
ON PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY.
ETWEEN Byron and PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY, who were
personal friends, there is a kind of resemblance in their lives, although they were men very unlike in charac
ter. They were both of aristocratic birth, both 1792–1822
held opinions very different from most young men in their position, and they won a similar reputation in their social circle, where their characters and their poetry were looked on by the conservative portion as dangerous and immoral.
Shelley had first drawn blame on himself in college, when he was barely twenty, by a publication which was condemned as atheistic; and he was expelled, finally, from Oxford. Much that he did later, confirmed the bad character this gave him in the eyes of respectable and wellordered English society, which, like Byron, he seemed bound to set at defiance.
In character Shelley was a noble, pure man. The conduct for which he was blamed sprang from his own highest ideal of right. His mind had early formed radically different theories from those of most men of his class. Born of the aristocracy, he was an extreme democrat; in religious and social ideas he was a freethinker. Considered apart from his opinions, he was a shy, scholarly man, inclined to immerse himself in books, unselfish, full of humanity, keenly sensitive to all the abuses and distresses in the world, and eager to make the world better at any cost. Byron said of him after his death, “He was, without exception, the best and least selfish man I ever knew."
He began to write very early. When he was fifteen he had completed two novels. In college he began his poem of Queen Mab, which was condemned as an atheistic production; and after he left college his works followed each other rapidly. Although he died at thirty, he had written a
good deal of prose, and tried his hand at all forms of poetic composition, — dramas, lyrics, blank verse, narrative poems, and several poems in the Spenserian stanza, which seems to have been a favorite form with him.
In 1817 he went to Italy, from which he never returned. He had written Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude, and The Revolt of Islam, before his departure ; his other works, except a few shorter poems, belong to the five years in which he lived in Italy.
Among his dramas, Prometheus Unbound — a tragedy following the Greek models and with a Greek subject one of the first things written in Italy, during a residence at Rome. Afterwards he went to live near Lord Byron at Pisa, and here his mind and sympathies were taken hold of by the sad story of Beatrice Cenci that he wrote on it his tragedy, The Cenci. It is the most painful and powerful drama written since the days of John Webster and Philip Massinger, and it would be, if the plot were not too revolting, a strong acting play.
In Julian and Maddalo Shelley put the characters of Byron and himself into a poem. At nearly the same time that this was written, he wrote also his lament for Keats under the title of Adonais.
Shelley's poetry is imaginative in the highest degree ; his was an imagination governed by high intellect. Of all the later poets he seems to me most of all a poet for other poets. No one who has not the imaginative quality in a rare degree can fully understand and appreciate Shelley. He also had the gift of writing verse of most musical quality, which seemed to flow without effort. Macaulay says, “ His poetry seems not to have been an art, but an inspiration.”
This musical quality shows most of all in his lyrics ; he wrote a great many of these, some long, others only a verse or two. I think there is no lyric of equal length in our language which is so perfect as Shelley's Ode to a Skylark. It is exquisite in melody, — the first requirement of a lyric;
the images it contains are poetic in the highest degree ; and it is full of an aspiration that upbears the thoughts, as if borne aloft on the wings of the bird. Can anything be more musical than this?
“ Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass,
All that ever was
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest;
The blue deep thou wingest,
“All the earth and air
With thy voice is loud
From one lonely cloud
And see how, without changing, the measure takes on deeper meaning :
Waking or asleep,
Thou of death must deem
Than we mortals dream,
“ We look before and after,
And pine for what is not ;
With some pain is fraught;
The Cloud is another lyric, less subtle in thought than The Skylark, but showing the wonderful music Shelley could make by the interlinking of words.
Among his poems of a fit length to quote, I have chosen The Sensitive Plant, because it seems to me a most characteristic poem, — in its melody, in its imaginative quality, and in its very subject a poem in harmony with Shelley's own nature :
THE SENSITIVE PLANT.
A sensitive plant in a garden grew,
And the spring arose on the garden fair,
But none ever trembled and panted with bliss
The snowdrop and then the violet
Then the pied wind-flowers and the tulip tall,
And the naiad-like lily of the vale,
And the hyacinth, purple and white and blue,
And the rose, like a nymph to the bath addrest,
And the wand-like lily, which lifted up